Saturday, November 30, 2019

Opus Arte’s Second Ashton Collection: Part 2

Cover of the original release of the video of the staged version of Tales of Beatrix Potter (from the Amazon.com Web page)

Last month I discussed how I planned to write about the second volume of The Frederic Ashton Collection in three separate articles, one for each of the full-evening ballet performances by The Royal Ballet in the release. The ballet I covered on that occasion was Sylvia, based on recordings of performances that took place at the Royal Opera House on December 1 and 5, 2005. This afternoon I finally had the occasion to view another of the ballets in the volume, Tales of Beatrix Potter, this one based on recorded performances on December 23 and 27, 2007. I should also remind readers that this second volume in the series is available in both Blu-ray and DVD formats; however, in this particular case, the fact that the video was based on staged performances provides a significant point of departure.

Unlike any other ballet that Ashton created, Tales of Beatrix Potter was conceived as a film. Ashton’s intention seemed to be to bring to life not only the narratives of the tales themselves but also the visual impressions of Potter’s own illustrations, that were equally essential in her approach to storytelling. One should thus begin by crediting Christine Edzard, who not only developed the overall narrative of the entire film with her husband Richard Goodwin but also provided designs that would translate Potter’s two-dimensional artwork into three-dimensional costumes for the dancers that would realize Ashton’s choreography.

I also feel it important to note that this is a ballet in which the music is decidedly secondary to both the narrative itself and the visualization of that narrative. John Lanchbery’s score is pastiche unto an extreme. The Wikipedia page for the film cites Arthur Sullivan and Michael Balfe as sources, but they are two among many. Unless my ears deceived me, there was a least one reference to music by Léo Delibes that was familiar to the orchestra by another ballet; and my guess is that Jacques Offenbach was also lurking in the mix. There was also an abundance of what might be called “music hall standards,” more recognizable through their structural idioms than by the tunes themselves.

The film was released in 1971, and I have lost count of the number of times I have gone to see it screened. While Ashton never saw Tales of Beatrix Potter as a ballet that could be transferred to the stage, Anthony Dowell did just that in 1992, assisted by Edzard. This is the version whose performance is now part of The Frederick Ashton Collection. Most important is that Dowell did not try to make the staged performance mirror the filmed one. The episodes that relate the tales have been reordered; and, for the most part, the action has been reconceived to deal with the constraints of performance on the stage, rather than the capture-and-edit process of filmmaking.

As a result, for one who has seen the film as often as I have, the staged version is an entirely new ballet. Most of the overall narrative is intact; but the details have been retuned to suit the new context. Furthermore, the performance is by an entirely new generation of dancers, providing a fresh perspective on the narrative as it was originally realized.

For the most part I found the new approach satisfying. The hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (originally danced by Ashton himself) had less to do; but, on the other hand, there was more tension in the effort of The Fox (Gary Avis) to seduce (and, we assume, ultimately consume) Jemima Puddle-Duck (Gemma Sykes). Furthermore, the havoc wrought by the “two bad mice,” Tom Thumb (Giacomo Ciriaci) and Hunca Munca (Iohna Loots), made for a first-rate joy ride from start to finish.

The only difference that really registered with me involved the frog Jeremy Fisher (Zachary Faruque). This role was danced by Michael Coleman in the film. Just about everyone I know who saw that film found that episode a welcome relief by offering up an agile pair of legs in tights instead of limbs carrying considerably thick fur! Dowell’s version seemed to allow for more attention to dexterous leg-work, which somewhat blunted the “shock value” of the choreography for Fisher.

The bottom line is that I have no desire to prefer one version of this choreography over the other. Dowell’s reconception meant that choosing between the versions would be like comparing apples and oranges. Most important is that the spirit of Ashton’s wit is as strong in Dowell’s version as it was in the original film. Dowell just happened to channel it in a few different directions for the sake of a more compelling stage performance.

Sunset Music and Arts: January–February, 2020

from the Sunset Music and Arts home page

Once again Sunset Music and Arts has organized its season around the calendar year, rather than the usual convention of beginning in the fall and running through the end of the following summer. Last year this site previewed the Sunset offerings in terms of five different concert series, following the approach taken for San Francisco Performances. However, because tickets are sold only for individual concerts, the 2020 offerings will be approached on a month-by-month basis, similar to previews for venues such as the Center for New Music and the Red Poppy Art House. In addition to the series that divided the 2019 season, there will be a special series called The Beethoven 2020 Project, which will feature solo, chamber, vocal, and choral compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven. Since there will be only two concerts in January, this first preview article will account for the first two months of the new calendar year as follows:

Saturday, January 11, 4:30 p.m.: The season will begin with the first of the Beethoven offerings, a solo recital by pianist Eric Tran. The Beethoven selections will be the Opus 53 (“Waldstein”) sonata in C major and Franz Liszt’s transcription for solo piano of the Opus 68 (“Pastoral”) symphony in F major. Liszt will also provide the opening selection, “Au bord d’une source” (beside a spring) from the first “year” (Swiss) of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) collection. This will be complemented by the selection that will follow the intermission after the Beethoven sonata, Tran’s own composition “Water.”

Saturday, January 25, 7:30 p.m.: Jack Cimo will give a solo guitar recital. The second half of his program will be devoted entirely to the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Cimo will perform selections from his études, preludes, and choros. The first half will draw upon works by both Spanish composers, such as Francisco Tárrega and Isaac Albéniz, and those of Pan America, such as Leo Brouwer and Agustín Barrios (Mangoré).

Saturday, February 8, 7:30 p.m.: Angela Kraft Cross will present an organ recital, whose program has not yet been announced.

Saturday, February 15, 7:30 p.m.: The Beethoven 2020 Project will continue with the first of two recitals presented by the duo of violinist Patrick Galvin and pianist Jung-eun Kim. Full details of the program have not yet been announced. However, there will be a performance of Beethoven’s Opus 23 (fourth) violin sonata in A minor.

[update 1/12, 8:40 a.m.: 2/22 concert deleted; new concert announced:

Saturday, February 21, 8 p.m.: San Francisco Renaissance Voices will begin their concert season with a program entitled The World at Prayer and Play. The selections will feature William Byrd’s four-voice setting of the Mass text. Other selections will include the eight-voice setting of the “Jubilate Deo” Psalm by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Hosanna to the Son of David” by Orlando Gibbons and “Super Flumina Babylonis” by Philippe de Monte. The program will conclude with a collection of joyous English madrigals. Ticket prices have not yet been announced.]

Saturday, February 29, 7:30 p.m.: This will be the second Beethoven 2020 recital by the Galvin-Kim duo. Once again, the full program has not been announced. However, Beethoven’s Opus 30 (seventh) violin sonata in C minor will be included.

All performances will take place in the Sunset district at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices are $20 for general admission with a $15 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. Tickets may be purchased online through Eventbrite. Each of the hyperlinks on the above dates leads to the event page for single ticket purchases. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

AAM Celebrates Anniversary of Handel Oratorio

courtesy of Naxos of America

All the attention that has already begun to come to a head over the celebration of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday (which is more than a year in the future) seems to have obscured that 2019 is the 300th anniversary year of a long-neglected oratorio by George Frideric Handel. The composition is his HWV 48, known as the Brockes Passion. This is a rather unique approach to sacred music, because the account of the Passion is taken from a text by the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes, published under the title Der für die Sünde der Welt gemarterte und sterbende Jesus (the story of Jesus, suffering and dying for the sins of the world). Exactly when Handel chose to set this text is unknown; but the first documented performance took place in Hamburg in 1719, making this year the best approximation to celebrating the composition’s 300th birthday.

For the record, Handel was far from the only composer to set Brockes’ text. The best known of the others is probably Georg Philipp Telemann (TWV 5:1). Furthermore, excerpts from that text can be found in the arias that Johann Sebastian Bach composed for his BWV 245 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel of John; and, as the Wikipedia author for the Brockes source observes, signs of influence can also be found in the BWV 244 Passion setting based on the Gospel of Matthew. That same Wikipedia source observed that Bach performed both the Handel and Telemann settings during his tenure in Leipzig.

Following the completion of HWV 48, Handel’s oratorio saw publication in roughly 30 different editions, all of which appeared during the composer’s lifetime. Sadly, the original manuscript has been lost for some time. In addition, thanks to Handel’s visits to England, Charles Jennens (best known for providing Handel with the libretto for his HWV 56 Messiah oratorio) prepared a partial translation of Brockes’ text into English. Thus, the popularity of the oratorio extended beyond Germany at least as far as England; and it should be no surprise that the most significant celebration of this music should come from Great Britain.

The source of that celebration is the Academy of Ancient Music (AAM) and its Director Richard Egarr. San Francisco readers probably know by now that, next season, Egarr will succeed Nicholas McGegan as Music Director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale and that he will return to the PBO podium as a guest artist this coming February. For the HWV 48 project, Egarr worked with editor Leo Duarte to prepare an authoritative scholarly edition of the score. To this end Egarr and Duarte worked with scholars and musicologists from the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and King’s College London, among other resources.

The resulting score was used for a 300th anniversary performance on Good Friday this year. That performance was recorded, and the resulting album was released in this country about two weeks ago. That release draws upon the scholarly background for the performance, providing the curious reader with over 200 pages of booklet material. The project also presented an innovative approach to funding the entire project. The individual movements of the composition are relatively short, meaning that there is a total of 105 of them. Each of those movements has its own “personal support” from a donation; and the names of all the donors (except for those preferring anonymity) are included in the track listing.

The entire score fills two CDs. A third CD has two “Appendices.” One consists of only a few alternatives as variants. The remainder of the CD provides the premiere recording of all the English texts that Jennens had prepared. Serious musical scholarship never had it so good.

Those in San Francisco who have seen Eggar conduct on previous visits to PBO are familiar with his energetic style. On this recording that energy level keeps the basic Passion narrative moving along at a fair clip. Nevertheless, haste never dulls the intensity of the narrative itself. As listening experiences go, this performance of HWV 48 is definitely up there with the best accounts of the more familiar BWV 44 and BWV 45. Thus, while it may not be appropriate to associate the Passion with the current season, this anniversary release of HWV 48 deserves serious consideration as a gift to anyone that takes listening to music seriously.

Friday, November 29, 2019

More Epic Berlioz from John Nelson in Strasbourg

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

Almost exactly two years ago the Erato division of Warner Classics released a four-CD recording of Hector Berlioz’ epic five-act opera Les Troyens (the Trojans). This involved a massive array of resources all conducted by John Nelson. The instrumental ensemble was the Orchestre philharmonique de Strasbourg joined by three different choruses. There were also, for all intents and purposes, two independent casts, one for the first two acts, which accounts for the capture of the city of Troy by the Greek army, and one for the Trojans finding refuge in Carthage and the romance that unfolds between the Trojan leader Énée (Aeneas) and the Carthaginian queen Dido. Those roles were sung, respectively, by tenor Michael Spyres and mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

One week from today Erato will release another Nelson-Berlioz project, La Damnation de Faust (the damnation of Faust). While Les Troyens was based primarily on Virgil’s Aeneid, the Faust legend has a wider diversity of sources; but the two-part play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seems to have held pride of place in Berlioz’ plans (particularly the first part). Once again Nelson is working with the full resources of his Strasbourg ensemble, along with the Coro Gulbenkian and a children’s chorus, Les Petits Chanteurs de Strasbourg. Both Spyres and DiDonato again contribute to Nelson’s resources in their respective roles as Faust and Marguerite. The role of Méphistophélès is sung by bass Nicolas Courjal, who sang the role of Dido’s advisor Narbal in Les Troyens. As expected, Amazon.com has already prepared a product page for pre-ordering this new release.

In writing about Les Troyens two years ago, I made it clear that listening to the opera in a single sitting runs the risk of fatigue associated with too much of a good thing. La Damnation de Faust is about half as long as Les Troyens, but fatigue may still be an issue that needs to be confronted. While the score has been given staged performances (I have seen performances by the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera), the libretto is not, strictly speaking, a narrative. Berlioz himself called it a “légende dramatique” (dramatic legend); but the libretto itself tends to oscillate between giving an account of that legend and reflecting on the legend itself.

As a result, many may feel disoriented by the lack of an “even flow” that will convey the listener along a well-defined path from beginning to end. On the other hand, had the account been more direct, listeners would have been deprived of much of the reflective vocal music that is given such a polished account by Spyres, Courjal, and particularly DiDonato. The fact is that there is no shortage of moments to relish, and a few of them do not even involve any vocal resources at all. Nevertheless, Berlioz does tend to go on at length. The overall listening experience may be less demanding than that of Les Troyens; but that ghost of Too Much of a Good Thing still haunts the Faust score.

Once again the packaging includes a “Bonus DVD” of video highlights from a concert performance that took place on April 25, 2019. Once again, no subtitles are provided; so the listener is advised to keep the libretto booklet close at hand. Unfortunately, the camera work frequently leaves much to be desired. While I seldom tire of watching DiDonato at work, I am easily annoyed by a technical team that always seems to direct cameras to point in the wrong place at the wrong time. Those who tend to share that annoyance may wish to ignore the DVD altogether.

2019 Winter Solstice Offerings

As Christmas Eve gets nearer, the number of serious listening opportunities starts to decline along with the duration of daylight hours. Nevertheless, there are a few events on the weekend of the winter solstice that are likely to be of interest to readers, particularly since they involve a diversity of genres. Specifics are as follows:

Saturday, December 21, 7 p.m., Adobe Books: The last music event of the year at this venue will embrace the darkness of the winter solstice with a three-set evening of “bleeding edge” offerings. The opening selection will be a quartet with Tom Weeks on saxophone, Kazuto Sato on bass, and two percussionists, Kevin Murray and William Winant. They will be followed by the KREation Ensemble, led by Kevin Robinson on woodwinds. The bassist will be Lee Hodel, and MaryClare Brzytwa will contribute both flute and electronics performances. The set will also feature spoken word performances by Tongo Eisen-Martin. Finally, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa will lead a group, whose other members have not yet been announced.

Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street. While no further specifics have been provided, it is reasonable to assume that this gig will be free. However, donations will go directly to the performing artists and are strongly encouraged. At past events Adobe has provided free refreshments to those who make a book purchase of $6 or more, and it is likely that the managers of the book store will maintain this effort to encourage reading their offerings.

Saturday, December 21, 8 p.m., 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: A contrasting event will take place at almost the same time in the Old First Concerts (O1C) offering. Golden Bough is the trio of Margie Butler, Paul Espinoza, and Kathy Sierra, performing on a rich diversity of Celtic instruments. The Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from the O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. 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.

It is also worth noting that O1C will close out its December offering the following afternoon, Sunday, December 22, 4 p.m., with the annual Wintersongs program presented by Kitka and Director Shira Cion. The program will offer seasonal vocal music from a wide variety of different cultural sources. Ticketing information is the same as for Golden Bough, and the concert has its own event page for online purchase.

Saturday, December 21, 8 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Once again Voices of Music will present an annual Holiday Celebration concert featuring virtuoso concertos. The program will again feature violinist Alana Youssefian, playing the final concerto in Pietro Locatelli’s Opus 3 collection of twelve concertos entitled L'arte del violino (the art of the violin), featuring a capriccio known as the “Harmonic labyrinth.” William Skeen will be soloist in Antonio Vivaldi’s RV 407 D minor cello concerto. The program will also present the Voices of Music debut of violinist Rachell Wong. She will be joined by Skeen and violinist Carla Moore in a performance of Vivaldi’s RV 565 concerto, also in D minor, for two violins, cello, and strings. In addition, countertenor Christopher Lowrey will perform a selection of dramatic arias by George Frideric Handel.

St. Mark’s Lutheran Church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. General admission for individual concerts will be $50, and the reduced rate for seniors and members of SFEMS, EMA, or ARS will be $45. An Arts People event page has been created for online purchase of tickets.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Pine Presents Concertos Worthy of More Attention

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

At the beginning of this month, Avie Records released its latest album featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine. The album is devoted to two concertos, both of which get less attention than they deserve. These are presented in chronological order, beginning with Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 53 concerto in A minor, which always seems to lurk in the shadows behind the far more popular Opus 104 cello concerto in B minor. This is followed by the violin concerto composed by Aram Khachaturian, who, ironically, was born one year before the year of Dvořák’s death (1904). This was actually a moderately popular concerto during my student days in Cambridge, Massachusetts; but that may have been due to the strong Armenian community in neighboring Watertown.

On this album Pine performs with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Teddy Abrams. Abrams was born in Berkeley and began studying with Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco at the age of twelve. He dropped out of the public school system prior to middle school but received a Bachelor’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at the age of eighteen, after which he studied conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music. My first listening encounter came when he conducted the annual program of music by Ludwig van Beethoven for the Summer and the Symphony San Francisco Symphony series in July of 2013. He is currently Music Director and Conductor for the Britt Music & Arts Festival Orchestra.

My first recital encounter with Pine took place when she appeared as a guest in The Artist Sessions, an occasional series of “close encounters between musicians and audiences” organized by pianist Lara Downes. Prior to that, I had written on Examiner.com about her performance on the Native Informant album in the Naxos American Classics series featuring works by Arab-American Mohammed Fairouz. As a result, this recent album provided my first encounter with Pine’s concerto work.

As may be inferred from my opening paragraph, I tend to greet any opportunity to listen to either of these concertos as a welcome one. If I have a preference, it is for the Dvořák, perhaps because I am beginning to feel a bit saturated with the cello concerto! Both Pine and Abrams clearly relish the Czech influences in the composer’s rhetoric, even if the thematic material is not as “folk based” as it is in other compositions. Khachaturian’s Armenian rhetoric is more straightforward. Nevertheless, the almost incessant repetition of the opening motif may well be a prankish nod to the repetitive opening of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 10 piano concerto in D-flat major. (Prokofiev completed that concerto in 1912, while Khachaturian composed his concerto in 1940.)

Taken as a whole, this is a thoroughly enjoyable album, which is likely to enjoy future listening encounters while I wait for opportunities to listen to both of these concertos in concert performances!

Greenlief and Dimuzio Coming to Main Library


Thomas Dimuzio and Philip Greenlief (from the SFPL event page)

At the beginning of next month, the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) will host its next one-hour concert. The SFPL Art, Music & Recreation Center will present readybox a full-length duo performance by saxophonist Philip Greenlief with live sampling and digital processing by Thomas Dimuzio. A master of extended techniques, multiphonics, and circular breathing, Greenlief will provide an ongoing array of virtuoso techniques ripe for Dimuzio’s capture technology. The result will be an innovative approach to musique concrète in the spontaneity of “real-time” performance.

This event is planned to last one hour, beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 4. The performance will take place downstairs in the Koret Auditorium of the SFPL Main Library, which is located at 100 Larkin Street, on the northeast corner of Grove Street on the Civic Center Plaza. As in the past, there will be no charge for admission. Those wishing further information from SFPL are invited to call 415-557-4277.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Lackluster Oboe Repertoire on MSR Classics

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

Almost two weeks ago MSR Classics released Souvenirs, an album of music for oboe (performed by Theresa Delaplain) and piano (Tomoko Kashiwagi). Readers may recall that last month this site discussed a similar duo album bringing Sara Fraker (oboe and cor anglais) together with pianist Casey Robards. However, that album, entitled Botanica, had more of a political agenda, trying to serve as “a musical entry point into current conversations around environmental and social justice.” I am happy to report that Delaplain and Kashiwagi are more focused just on the music without dwelling on social and/or political overtones.

That said, while Delaplain certainly has a solid command over her instrument (whose difficulty earned it the epithet of “an ill wind that nobody blows good”), her choice of repertoire did not make for a particularly stimulating album. Her opening selection, Pedro Soler’s “Souvenir de Madrid,” made a solid case that, where salon entertainment was concerned, one really had to admire Gioachino Rossini for his skill in dishing out engaging tunes, even when they were not of his own composition. The two pieces by Merab Partskhladze were a bit better, perhaps because, for most listeners, they were somewhat more exotic; but they were still lacking in spirit. Edmund Rubbra’s sonata was well planned; but, for better or worse, it left me longing for the substance of Paul Hindemith.

Ultimately, most welcome was the opportunity to listen to Grażyna Bacewicz’ 1937 sonata. Bacewicz studied with Nadia Boulanger between 1932 and 1933. Boulanger clearly planted seeds that would not have taken root in Bacewicz’ Poland. At the same time, just being in Paris for those two years provided Bacewicz with perspectives of structure and rhetoric that inspired innovations that would grow in imaginative directions for the rest of her life. The oboe sonata has more than a few hints of Gallic wit, the one channel for expressiveness that allowed Delaplain to spread her wings.

On the other hand, “Commemoration: In Honor of Fallen Heroes” amounted to Robert K. Mueller throwing his hat into the post-9/11 ring. Structurally, each of the two movements seems to have been organized around a seventeenth-century German chorale tune. Whether or not that “flavor” of Protestantism served to signify the memory of 9/11, there was little in Mueller’s score to acknowledge seventeenth-century Germany or the Protestant faith.

By way of disclaimer, I should observe that, beyond any family connections, my knowledge of the oboe repertoire is due primarily to recordings of performances by Humbert Lucarelli. That repertoire was not particularly extensive, but it still had stimulating diversity. Delaplain’s album left me wondering if there were more interesting compositions in her repertoire that did not “make the cut” for this album.

Advent Begins at Church of the Advent

Candles in an Advent wreath (photograph by Johann Jaritz, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Austria license)

This Sunday, December 1, will be the first day of Advent, the season of waiting for the celebration of the Nativity on Christmas (December 25). This Sunday’s occasion will be celebrated at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King with an Advent Liturgy. The celebration will consist of a candlelit procession with lessons and carols. In addition to carols sung by the congregation, music will be performed by resident choir Schola Adventus.

The music for the service has been selected by Director of Music Paul Ellison. The organist will be George Anton Emblom. The selections to be performed will include with music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, Benjamin Britten, John Joubert, Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jacob Handl), Olivier Messiaen, and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center. This is an inclusive parish of the Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. The service will begin at 6 p.m. on Sunday, December 1. Those wishing further information may call 415-431-0454.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Friday the Thirteenth Festivities at The Lost Church

from the Facebook Events Web page for this concert

The Lost Church will celebrate the final Friday the Thirteenth of 2019 with a program that is likely to appeal to Bleeding Edge readers. Those who have been following this site for some time may recall that Thomas Carnacki is an improvising group with a rotating cast of participants initiated by Gregory Scharpen and named after the fictional occult detective, who was the protagonist in a set of fantasy stories by William Hope Hodgson written in early twentieth-century England. For the performance at The Lost Church, Scharpen will be joined by Gregory Hagan and Cheryl Leonard. Each performer is responsible for providing his/her own set of resources for improvisation. The other set on the program will be taken by multi-instrumentalist and composer Leila Abdul-Rauf. Through real-time management of sample sounds, Abdul-Rauf captures her performances on piano and brass instruments, enhances those samples with other textures, and weaves filmic soundscapes that echo the sound of memories faded through time.

As stated above, this performance will take place on Friday, December 13. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m., and the music will begin at 8:15 p.m.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 between the sets. Tickets may be purchased in advance for $15 through the event page for this concert. On the day of the show, tickets will be sold for $20. Sales at the door are cash only.

Rebecca Angel Takes on “Santa Baby”

from the SoundCloud Web page

Hopefully, this will be my only venture into a singles release for some time. Rebecca Angel has decided to move onto Eartha Kitt’s turf with a recording of “Santa Baby.” A Google search reveals that most of the “usual suspects” are not distributing this content, which was released at the middle of this month. (Amazon.com has a Web page for Angel’s tracks; and “Santa Baby” is listed as “Not Available.”) The closest one seems to be able to get to streaming or download is on SoundCloud.

However, my generation grew up on the Kitt recording. For many of us, it was our first encounter with a down-and-dirty style at its sexiest. (One of the disc jockeys at my campus radio station consistently called her “Earthy Kitt” … with good reason!) Angel’s interpretation, on the other hand, is more a clichéd account of the notes than a latter-day effort to raise the bar on Kitt’s terms. The track is a short one, but Angel’s attempts at stylization make it feel way too long.

Monday, November 25, 2019

SFRV Announces 16th Season for 2019–2020

from the event page for the SFRV 2019–2020 season

Next month will mark the beginning of the sixteenth season (2019–2020) of San Francisco Renaissance Voices (SFRV). Don Scott Carpenter will be the ensemble’s new Music Director, and he will be joined by Assistant Music Director Liesl McPherrin. The overall title for season programming will be Renaissance Voices: Faith, Joy, Love, Play and Prose.

Regular readers probably know by now that all San Francisco performances will take place at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located in the Sunset at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices have not yet been announced, and there will be a change of venue for one of the concerts. Dates and times for all San Francisco performances are as follows:

Saturday, December 21, 4 p.m.: This will be the annual Festival of Lessons & Carols concert, a re-creation of the service that originated in 1918 at King’s College, Cambridge (in England) for the first celebration of the Christmas season following the end of World War I. These programs traditionally involve an interleaving of music from the past and the recent present. The latter will be represented by a specially commissioned work by Bay Area composer Emily Shisko. This will be a free event. However, due to its popularity, reservations are strongly recommended and may be made through an Eventbrite event page.

Friday, February 21, 8 p.m.: This program, entitled The World at Prayer and Play, will feature William Byrd’s four-voice setting of the Mass text. Other selections will include the eight-voice setting of the “Jubilate Deo” Psalm by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, “Hosanna to the Son of David” by Orlando Gibbons and “Super Flumina Babylonis” by Philippe de Monte. The program will conclude with a collection of joyous English madrigals.

Saturday, April 25, 8 p.m.: The title of the second program will be The World in Conflict: Music inspired by the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The subtitle refers to a spectacular meeting between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France. The selections for performance will draw upon compositions with military implications. This concert will be the one held in a different venue, the Lakeside Presbyterian Church, located by 201 Eucalyptus Drive, where it meets 19th Avenue.

Saturday, August 15, 8 p.m.: In a program entitled The World beyond the Renaissance, SFRV will do its part in celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. They will perform Beethoven’s Opus 85, his only oratorio, Christ on the Mount of Olives. Details about instrumental accompaniment have not yet been announced.

Orliński’s New Album of Baroque Opera Arias

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

This Friday Erato will release its second solo album of countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński. The title of the album is Facce d’amore (faces of love). Its eighteen tracks cover compositions by eleven Baroque composers. Five of those tracks are world premiere recordings. The accompanying ensemble is Il Pomo d’Oro, conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev. As may be expected, Amazon.com has created a Web page for processing pre-orders.

Countertenors seem to be in fashion these days, leading me to wonder whether those interested in early music may be laboring under too much of a good thing. Here in San Francisco we have more than ample opportunity to listen to fine countertenor performances, the most recent of which took place this past weekend. In that context I have to say that, by virtue of those opportunities, I am not particularly drawn to these new albums, even when they present music never before recorded. Indeed, if there is a lesson to be learned from listening to Facce d’amore it is that the operas of Handel tend to be the best candidates for full-length revivals with good reason. In any event I find that I take more satisfaction in listening to an aria in its dramatic context, rather than as part of an arias-only album.

Giacomo Puccini’s “Chamber Music Moment”

The opening measures of the Intermezzo preceding the third act of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (from IMSLP, public domain)

Readers may recall my disappointment with the opening night of the San Francisco Opera production of Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the War Memorial Opera House. Nevertheless, I returned to the Opera House yesterday afternoon for the fifth of this production’s six performances. My subscription seat provides an excellent view of the orchestra pit; and, having enjoyed Nicola Luisotti’s performances during his tenure as SFO Music Director, I welcomed the opportunity to see him in action again.

The vantage point turned out to be particularly beneficial for what I had previously singled out as the high-point of the performance, the Intermezzo that preceded the third act. When I wrote about that music in my previous account, I called out the “resources as intimate as a string quartet.” Viewing the orchestra pit provided the opportunity to observe those resources in action, sending me to check out the score for a better sense of just how Puccini was managing those resources. As can be seen in the above copy of the opening measures, those resources are led by an extended passage for solo cello, which is eventually joined by a solo viola and a solo violin.

Luisotti could not have been more attentive to the expressiveness of this passage. After two full acts of little more than potboiler antics, one could finally settle into music that was genuinely passionate led by a conductor that clearly appreciated every one of its building blocks. Indeed, after the Intermezzo had run its full rhetorical course, the applause from the audience made it clear that the music had penetrated the very soul of every listener. As might be expected, Luisotti took a well-deserved bow; and, for those of us who could see, he then had Principal Cello David Kadarauch take a bow of his own.

Those first six minutes before the curtain rises on the third act remain the high point of the entire production, and I suspect that my own opinion ranks them just as high across the full canon of Puccini’s music.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

A Century of Songs from Rebekah Victoria

courtesy of Play MPE

It took me a while to get around to listening to Rebekah Victoria’s Songs of the Decades album. One reason was that it only came to my attention through my monitoring of Play MPE at the beginning of October, even though the album was released this past June. Nevertheless, the idea of trying to map out the twentieth century in ten songs piqued my attention; and I am now ready to report on the results.

The album itself was produced jointly by Victoria and Wayne Wallace, the trombonist on the album. Wallace is also responsible for all of the arrangements. Readers may recall that I had been particularly impressed by Wallace’s own release in June, an album entitled The Rhythm of Invention with performances by the Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet. His arrangements involved a prodigious capacity for invention that I would be happy to listen to under just about any circumstances.

Those circumstances include the ten tracks on Songs of the Decades, but I have to confess that I was not particularly drawn to Victoria’s vocal qualities. While she is fearless in confronting the inventiveness of Wallace’s arrangements, that confrontation is blunted by a sense of pitch that is insecure more often than not, particularly when an adventurous chromatic line is involved. I also have to say that the appeal of jazz vocal work began a downward slide in the Sixties, a decade when any number of pop offerings were pushing more envelopes than had previously been imagined; and, by the time we got to the Seventies, the concepts of both song and song stylization were sailing on some very rough seas.

As a result my own preferences reflect back on earlier decades when jazz inventiveness arose from any number of mind-bending techniques. The best reflection on those days shows up on the second track. The foundation for that track is John Schonberger’s tune “Whispering,” which was first published in 1920 and enjoyed its initial popularity thanks to Paul Whiteman and his Ambassador Orchestra. However, in 1945 Dizzy Gillespie decided that the tune itself would benefit from some bebop tunesmithing; and the result, “Groovin’ High,” is now regarded as a bebop classic. On Songs of the Decades Wallace comes up with delightfully engaging techniques to superpose the two tunes. The result could not be a better object lesson in bebop, and the attentive listener is likely to hoot with delight over the results.

The bottom line is that this album is at its best when Wallace is at his best; if Victoria can refine her technique enough to be weaned away from her currently overly-casual approach to delivery, she might be able to collaborate with Wallace on more adventurous future projects.

NCCO Christmas to Feature Anne Sofie von Otter

Anne Sofie von Otter (courtesy of NCCO)

In celebration of the Christmas season, mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter will appear as guest artist in next month’s New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) concert. She will sing the aria “Bereite dich, Zion” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 248 Christmas Oratorio and Anastasio’s aria “Vedrò con mio diletto” from Antonio Vivaldi’s opera Giustino. She will also perform a selection of more traditional and popular songs.

Daniel Hope will lead as Concertmaster and will also perform as soloist in the “Winter” concerto from The Four Seasons, the first four of the twelve concertos in Vivaldi’s Opus 8 collection, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (the contest between harmony and invention). There will also be two “Opus 6” concerti grossi. The program will conclude with the third, in G minor, from Arcangelo Corelli’s collection, known as the “Christmas Concerto.” It will be preceded by the tenth, in D minor, from George Frideric Handel’s collection.

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 19. The venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Ticket prices will be $67.50 for premium seating, $55, and $30 for General Admission in the rear. All tickets are being sold online through a City Box Office event page. In addition, $10 tickets are available for students with valid identification, and patrons under 35 can purchase single tickets at the door for $15.

NEQ Presents Another Schubert Song Cycle

Over the course of listening to the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) of violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen, I have encountered a variety of stimulating experiences involving music arranged for string quartet. Almost a year ago, however, the ensemble bumped the stakes of arrangement up to a new level. The group devoted its entire program to Franz Schubert’s D. 911 song cycle Winterreise (winter’s journey). The vocalist was bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton, and bassist Kristin Zoernig joined the quartet. The arrangement was prepared by Harold Birston.

The results were often as informative as they were delightful. The attentive listener had a better sense of the polyphony in Schubert’s accompaniment, particularly in the arpeggiated passages. Tipton’s balance with the ensemble was always impeccably managed. The only thing missing was a sense of dialog between vocalist and pianist that often informs the rhetoric behind the song texts.

First page of the first edition publication of D. 795 (published by Sauer & Leidesdorf in 1824, from IMSLP, public domain)

Yesterday afternoon NEQ presented the other (earlier) song cycle in Schubert’s catalog, the D. 795 Die schöne Müllerin (the loverly maid of the mill). Like D. 911, D. 795 is based on a cycle of poems that Wilhelm Müller included in his collection Gedichte aus den hinterlassenen Papieren eines reisenden Waldhornisten (poems from the papers left by a traveling horn player). The poems of the cycle are set in the voice of a miller’s apprentice, initially following his labors and his satisfaction with his work. The protagonist then becomes smitten with the miller’s daughter, which motivates his work for the sake of impressing both father and daughter. He then discovers that the daughter is smitten with a huntsman, and the remaining poems follow him in a downward spiral.

I reproduced the title of Müller’s collection to make the case that the poet did not intend the reader to take this narrative too seriously. Indeed, Müller included a prologue and an epilogue, both of which amount to sly winks. Schubert did not set these to music. However, when Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded his performance of D. 795 with Gerald Moore, he included recitations of both prologue and epilogue; and even one not well-versed in German could detect those sly winks in the tone of his voice.

Yesterday afternoon Tipton seemed more included to take the poems Schubert had set at face value. (Schubert omitted five of the poems in Müller’s published version.) Nevertheless, he was sensible enough to avoid over-emoting, particularly during the final downward spiral. Rather, his priority was to let the words speak for themselves, providing rhetorical turns that those in the audience could then translate over to the English version of the text in the program book prepared by Celia Sgroi.

On the instrumental side the arrangement by Skeen displayed a keen ear for that aforementioned polyphony in the piano part. As a result, most, if not all, of Schubert’s highly refined textures were more than adequately transformed into string ensemble music. The one shortcoming is that D. 795 has more strictly strophic songs than D. 911 does. Thus, much of the accompaniment is repeated from one verse to the next. When a vocalist performs those strophic texts with a pianist, the two musicians can often engage in a sense of dialog that reflects the unfolding of the overall narrative or the way in which a strophe introduces an unexpected twist. That engagement has more to do with the spontaneity of performance than with the marks on paper; and, when five instrumentalists are involved, individual spontaneity tends to get short-changed.

Nevertheless, the overall chemistry between Tipton and the instrumentalists captured much (even if not all) of the rhetorical spirit of Müller’s texts; and simply having the opportunity to listen to a different instrumental approach to Schubert’s music allowed the listener to explore new ways of thinking about the poems themselves.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Decca Anthology of Monteux in Europe

1953 photograph of Pierre Monteux at the Metropolitan Opera with director Peter Brook (from the Cleveland Press, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

At the end of this past October, the Universal Music Group released a 24-CD box set of the complete recordings of Pierre Monteux in Europe released on the Decca label. Here in San Francisco Monteux is best known for having conducted the San Francisco Symphony from 1936 to 1952, after which much of his attention was devoted to the Metropolitan Opera in New York during the Fifties. However, Monteux began to shift his attention to Europe and the earliest of the recordings in this collection were made in 1956.

As I have done with other collections, I plan to examine this new release in a series of articles, organized by music history, rather than Monteux’ career during the last decades of his life. Like the collection itself, I shall begin with the First Viennese School as represented by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert, along with two earlier composers (neither Viennese), Johann Sebastian Bach and Christoph Willibald Gluck.

The heart of this portion of the collection consists of all nine Beethoven symphonies in performances by both the London Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. There is also a second recording of the Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major made with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the early Sixties (before Queen Beatrix conferred the “Royal” title). Given that we are about to plunge into a one-year celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the timing of this release is appropriate. On the other hand many listeners are likely to feel swamped by the abundance of Beethoven recordings being released and the attention given to all nine of the symphonies.

It is therefore worth calling out the virtues of the Monteux recordings in this domain. He is clearly familiar with all nine of the symphonies, which should be expected of any conductor. However, his familiarity goes down to the details on the score pages and then rises above that level in seeking out just the right expressive rhetorical gestures to endow all of those details with more than enough significance to draw and maintain the attention of the serious listener.

The same can be said of the other composers in this group, all of whom are represented much more modestly. Schubert gets only the D. 759 (“Unfinished”) symphony in B minor and the D. 797 incidental music for Rosamunde. Having had to sit through what felt like an interminable account of D. 797 during a concert performance, I was much relieved to have Monteux remind me that there are many virtues in these pieces that had eluded me at my last encounter. Where Haydn is concerned, he sticks to two of the most familiar symphonies, Hoboken I/94 (“Surprise”) in G major and Hoboken I/101 (“The Clock”) in D major. Both of these are given crisp attention to phrasing that compensates for the oversized ensembles playing the music.

The Mozart selection, on the other hand, is sort of a “family vanity” piece. The K. 314 flute concerto in D major is part of an album featuring flute performances by Monteux’ son Claude. The other selections are the Bach BWV 1067 suite in B minor and the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euricide opera. Here, again, Monteux is working with larger resources than would have been intended; but clarity is again his strong suit, allowing his son to shine in optimal light.

My guess is that there will be many readers that will take a nothing-new-here reaction to these selections; but, when it comes to appreciating a composition’s capacity for expressiveness, Monteux is up there with my other favorite conductors that consistently bring fresh perspectives to their interpretations.

SFGC Features Britten Next Month at Davies

The San Francisco Girls Chorus (and friends) at a previous performance in Davies Symphony Hall (from the event page for next month’s concert)

Next month the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC), led by Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe, will make its annual return to Davies Symphony Hall. The title of this year’s holiday concert will be A Ceremony of Carols, named after Benjamin Britten’s composition for a chorus of high voices and harp. Next month’s performance, however, will be a much larger-scale “mixed version” that will bring the a cappella vocal ensemble Clerestory together with hundreds of choristers from all seven levels of the SFGC Chorus School and Premiere Ensemble. The harpist for this occasion will be Bridget Kibbey. The program will also include compositions by Thomas Adès, Ysaÿe Maria Barnwell, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Robert Johnson, as well as a selection of the usual holiday offerings. Where necessary, organ accompaniment will be provided by Robert Huw Morgan. Also, for “something completely different” the guitar-percussion duo The Living Earth Show will perform Nicole Lizee’s “Family Sing-A-Long.”

This performance will begin at 7 p.m. on Monday, December 16. Davies is located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and Grove Street. It is also convenient to north-south and east-west Muni lines, as well as the Civic Center station for both Muni and BART. Tickets range in price from $30 to $62. They may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page or by calling 415-392-4400.

Farce at its Finest From Ars Minerva

Nikola Printz as Ermelinda (photograph by Valentina Sadiul, from the Ermelinda Web page on the Ars Minerva Web site)

Last night at the ODC Theater, Ars Minerva presented the first of three performances of the opera Ermelinda, composed by Domenico Freschi with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piccioli. The opera was given its first performance at the Teatro delle Vergini in the Villa Contarini, located in Piazzola sul Brenta, a short distance from both Venice and Padua. This was the fifth opera to be staged by Ars Minerva; and, like most of its predecessors, it was receiving its first performance since the end of the seventeenth century. (Last season’s opera, Giovanni Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide, was composed in 1738.)

The production was staged by Ars Minerva Artistic Director and Founder Céline Ricci. The basic plot follows the familiar star-crossed lovers narrative. Those lovers are the title character (mezzo Nikola Printz) and Prince Ormondo (contralto Sara Couden), who has disguised himself as the commoner Clorindo. Ermelinda’s father Aristeo (countertenor Justin Montigne), takes her to his “suburban” villa outside Phoenicia (exotic, but in no other way related to historical Phoenicia) to hide her from her suitor.

Ermelinda has another suitor, of whom she is unaware. This is the nobleman Armidoro (mezzo Deborah Rosengaus), who, in his efforts to find Ermelinda, encounters “Clorindo” and invites him to his home. Clorindo does not realize that he is the object of desire of Ermelinda’s friend Rosaura (mezzo Kindra Scharich). All the characters arrive at Armidoro’s mansion, where Ermelinda discovers “Clorindo,” who feigns madness to disguise his true identity while getting closer to Ermelinda. As the libretto unfolds, all of the characters are ensnared in a web of farcical consequences before Aristeo finally gives in and allows Ermelinda to marry Ormondo.

In past Ars Minerva productions, Ricci has had a consistent knack for inventing a rich repertoire of comic turns for the most farcical of situations. That said, Ermelinda provided her with a platform to extend that repertoire into physical comedy at its richest and most diverse. Thus, what emerged last night was a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable hybrid of a “classical” narrative of frustrated love crossed with the pratfalls of a Marx Brothers movie. Printz, Couden, and Scharich consistently met the elaborate physical demands of Ricci’s staging; and the resulting narrative clicked along at an almost breakneck pace. (Couden was particularly adept in mastering facial expressions to account for the many dispositions of the Ormondo/Clorindo character.)

Once again, Ricci has rescued a forgotten opera from over 300 years in the past and revived it with a production that could not have been more stimulating for contemporary audiences.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Choices for December 13–15, 2019

The second weekend in December will not be quite as busy as the first weekend. However, most of the events will be concentrated on Saturday, with fewer options on both Friday and Sunday. Once again, specifics are listed in order of start time as follows:

Friday, December 13, 7:30 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM): The last major public event of the fall term will be a performance by the SFCM Orchestra conducted by Joseph Young. This will be the concert that presents the winning composition of the 2019 SFCM Highsmith Competition. The winner is Nicholas Denton-Protsack, who graduated this past spring, and the title of his work is “Visions of a Flaxen Sea.” The program will also present Julia Perry’s “A Short Piece for Small Orchestra” and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 13 (first) symphony in G minor, given the title “Winter Daydreams.”

The venue will be the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall. General admission will be $20 with a $15 rate for seniors and SFCM members. A hyperlink has been created for online purchase. 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.

Friday, December 13, and Saturday, December 14, 8 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: The annual performance of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and the SFS Chorus has been a long-standing SFS tradition. This season the conductor will be SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin. Soloists will include two countertenors, Ben Bliss and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, the latter making his SFS debut. The other vocal soloists will be soprano Lauren Snouffer and bass Adam Lau.

While this is not a subscription event, both concerts will be preceded by a free Inside Music talk given by Alexandra Amati one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $20 to $170, and a single event page has been created for online purchase for both performances. They may also be purchased by calling 415-864-6000 or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition the event page has embedded sound file clips from past performances of HWV 56. Flash must be enabled for both streamed content and online ticket purchases. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours prior to Sunday performances.

Friday, December 13, 8 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The title of this season’s California Bach Society concert is Christmas in the Americas. Artistic Director Paul Flight has prepared a program that draws heavily upon music from the cathedrals of Lima, Cuzco, and Mexico City. There will also be Canadian works based on old French tunes, and Christmas pieces by New England composers such as William Billings. Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by guitarist Paul Psarras, percussionist Tim DeCillis, and keyboardist Yuko Tanaka.

St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Ticket prices will be $30 for general admission, $25 for seniors, and $10 for students and those under the age of 30. Prices at the door will be $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors. All tickets are being sold online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

[added 12/3, 9:40 a.m.:

Saturday, December 14, 7:30 p.m., St. Mark's Lutheran Church: The next program to be presented by the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco (IOCSF) is entitled East by Southeast. The concert will present a selection of 20th and 21st century choral pieces by composers from the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea. Composers represented on the program include Excelsis Betil-Viña, Fidel Calalang Jr., Ryan Cayabyab, Saunder Choi, Francisco Feliciano, Gregorio Responso Labja, Slamet Sjukur, Mary Katherine Trangco, and Hyo-Won Woo. This program is likely to provide a journey of discovery for just about everyone in the audience. As always, IOCSF programs are presented without a charge for admission, but donations are always welcome.]

Saturday, December 14, and Sunday, December 22, 8 p.m., Saint Ignatius Church: Another local annual tradition is the performance of A Chanticleer Christmas. Every year Chanticleer tours with this program within a generous radius with San Francisco as its hub. Reader will note that the two concerts in San Francisco will be separated by about a week. As always, the program will be diverse and eclectic, beginning with Renaissance compositions and concluding with innovative arrangements of traditional carols. The composers to be represented in the “middle ground” between these extremes will be Trond Kverno, Franz Biebl, and Herbert Howells.

Saint Ignatius Church is located on the campus of the University of San Francisco at 650 Parker Avenue on the northeast corner of Fulton Street. Ticket prices will be $79 for Premiere seating, $67 for Preferred seating, $53 for Reserved seating in the Balcony, and $35 for general admission seating in the side sections of the sanctuary. All tickets are being sold online by City Box Office with separate event pages for December 14 and December 22.

Saturday, December 14, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Those who feel they need a break from seasonal offerings will be happy to known that Old First Concerts (O1C) has scheduled a thoroughly secular recital by Hank Dutt, violist of the Kronos Quartet, who will be accompanied at the piano by Hadley McCarroll. Dutt will present the West Coast premiere of a sonata for viola and piano by John Harbison, and the composer will be in attendance for this event. In addition Dutt will give a world premiere performance of his own adaptation of “fourth circle,” by the Polish-Dutch composer Hanna Kulenty. Other composers on the program will be Aleksandra Vrebalov, Toru Takemitsu, and Leonid Desyatnikov, as well as early works by both Philip Glass and Meredith Monk.

The Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from the O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. 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.

Saturday, December 14, 8 p.m, Monument: One Found Sound will present the second orchestral concert in its Sounds of 7 season, entitled Chroma. As might be guessed, the title refers to different sonorous colors that emerge from imaginative combinations of instruments. The program will conclude with Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments.”This was written in 1920 for one-to-a-part performance by 24 players of wind and brass instruments. (Stravinsky wrote a revision in 1947 requiring only 23 players, removing the requirement for an alto flute from the instrumentation.) Similarly imaginative approach to winds will be found in the opening selection. Francis Poulenc composed a suite of arrangements of dance tunes collected by Claude Gervaise in Le livre de danceries for wind ensemble supplemented by drum and harpsichord. The result was the seven-movement Suite française. This will be followed by “Youth,” composed late in life by Leoš Janáček and scored for a sextet of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and bass clarinet.

Monument is located in SoMA at 140 9th Street. General admission tickets are being sold for $25. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through Eventbrite. The price for tickets purchased at the door will be $30.

Sunday, December 15, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: San Francisco Choral Artists (SFCA) and its Artistic Director Magen Solomon will begin its 2019–2020 season with a program entitled from Pole to Pole: Christmas in the Three Americas. In a spirit similar to that of the California Bach Society, the program will explore music from ancient Peru, Baroque Mexico, early New England, modern-day Canada, and contemporary California. “Contemporary” means new compositions by Composer-in-Residence Alexis Alrich and Composer-Not-in-Residence Timothy Kramer.

Ticket prices will be $30 for general admission, $25 for seniors, and $12.50 for those under 30. Prices at the door will be $35 for general admission, $29 for seniors, and $15 for those under 30. All tickets are being sold online through a Web page on the SFCA Web site. Orders can also be placed for the entire three-concert season.

Sunday, December 15, 4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Season offerings will continue with a performance by the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco, led by Artistic Director Susan McMane. This will be the group’s O1C debut. Featured composers will be Hildegarde von Bingen, Jacob Handl, Arvo Pärt, and Maurice Duruflé, as well as the young American woman composer Abbie Betinis. Ticket prices will be the same as those for the Saturday evening concert, and they can be purchased through a separate event page.

Peter Hand’s Refreshing New Big Band Sound

A mosaic of Peter Hand’s resources (from the album booklet)

At the end of this past August, Savant Records released a new album by the Peter Hand Big Band entitled Hand Painted Dream, led by guitarist Hand, who also provided all the arrangements. Most of the compositions are by Hand himself, including the title track, which gives Hand the opportunity to also perform as the group’s punster. However, Hand’s own compositions are presented in a context that honors four major jazz masters of the past.

The entire album is framed by two saxophone giants, opening with Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite” and concluding with a John Coltrane medley that joins “Mr. P.C.” together with “Cousin Mary.” There is also a Tadd Dameron track, “If You Could See Me Now,” which features vocalist Camille Thurman (who also joins the saxophone section for Hand’s “Calypsiana”), and Randy Weston’s “Berkshire Blues.” The band as a whole consists of a diverse wind section (five players on multiple instruments, along with Thurman on tenor saxophone), four trumpets, three trombones, and rhythm provided by piano, bass, and drums.

However, the title track heads off in its own distinctive direction, bringing in the Secret String Quartet of violinists Jennifer Choi and Cornelius Dufallo, violist Lev Zhurbin, and cellist Yves Dharamraj. Joshua Shneider conducts, and Don Braden, from the wind section, is featured on flute. This piece recalls the risks of the bad old days of the “third stream” movement, when a piece would begin in the domain of atonal chamber music but would eventually succumb to bopping away to a more familiar beat. Hand’s composition definitely avoids that pitfall with a clear sense of how the string quartet is a vital ingredient in the overall mix.

The flip side of that coin, however, is that none of the tracks really try to provoke. Rather, this is a clear and engaging account of how big band resources can still take innovative approaches to both new compositions and “jazz classics” of the last century. Hand knows how to deploy his resources in ways that endow each of the tracks with its own unique voice, including his guitar improvisation for his own “Once Upon a Time,” whose retrospection includes a reference to Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight” (and probably several sources I have yet to identify). That present-meets-past approach to invention makes this album, as a whole, an engaging listening experience.

Ben Goldberg at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

From the CJM event page for last night’s performance (courtesy of Ben Goldberg)

Last night the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) presented the latest (and penultimate) monthly installment in the Experiments in Sonic Potential concert series developed in partnership with the Center for New Music. Clarinetist Ben Goldberg gave a solo performance in the gallery for the exhibition of Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped, the first major survey of Rosen’s ceramic sculptures. This was a spacious setting with a high ceiling that afforded generous possibilities for reverberation.

Goldberg improvised for about 45 minutes without interruption. It would be fair to say that most, if not all, of his performance was structured around engaging in dialog with the space itself. This is not a particularly novel approach. There are many that espouse the hypothesis that, some time around the eleventh century, the reverberations of such spaces in cathedrals provided the initial trigger for a transition from monodic plainchant to the earliest forms of polyphony.

One could detect some of that hypothesized history last night. Goldberg would let loose a single sustained tone with forte dynamics and then unfold softer tones to “accompany” the echoes of that first tone. Indeed, most of the “experiments in sonic potential” behind Goldberg’s improvisations involved different ways to establish the sense of polyphony that could emerge from solo clarinet performance.

Another technique involved an approach to clarinet scoring that dates all the way back to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. One of the most interesting properties of the clarinet is that different registers have different sonorous qualities. In other words a low G has a sound that differs significantly from the one an octave higher, not only because of the pitch but also due to changes in the frequency spectrum that the ear can easily recognize. Go up another G and there is another change in the spectrum. After that the performer heads into the stratosphere where some of the harmonics themselves begin to warp.

That last stage leads to ventures into multiphonics. When a spectrum consists of tones that are integer multiples of the fundamental, all those tones tend to merge into a single sound. However, there are approaches to vibrating a clarinet reed that “deconstruct” the spectrum, meaning that the listener can hear what amounts of a “chord” of different pitches. Multiphonic technique is highly challenging and often involves compromises between getting what you want and wanting what you get. Goldberg used the technique sparingly last night, but always with striking rhetorical impact.

As to the duration, Goldberg proceeded through different phases of his “experiments” with a keen sense of when a particular pursuit had gone on long enough. Those familiar with the solo piano performances of Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett probably accept that 45 uninterrupted minutes is no big deal. The pace of the evening was launched with simple explorations of reverberation and, after an elaborate and absorbing journey, the music returned to its “origins” with a welcome simplicity of resolution. Who needed to worry about what time it was?

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Monday Make-Out: December, 2019

Readers probably deserve a heads-up about the fact that there will be only one Monday Make-Out concert next month at the Make Out Room. This is the way things currently stand on the Calendar Web page for the Make Out Room. They are likely to stay that way, because that Web site already shows plans for the return to two Monday Make-Out concerts in January. The period between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve is apparently a bit too dicey, although it is worth noting that Christmas Day itself will be devoted to the eighth annual It’s a Jewish Christmas, San Francisco!, featuring such festive practices as a strip dreidel game.

The beginning-of-the-month Monday Make-Out promises to be one of the more adventurous three-set programs. That is because the first set will bring poetry into the domain of jazz improvisation. LOAN is the duo of poet Chris Peck and guitarist Tongo Eisen-Martin, and they perform the way any other improvising jazz duo performs. They will be followed by the Grex art rock duo of Karl Evangelista on guitar and Rei Scampavia on keyboards. Both of them are also vocalists and work with electronics. The evening will conclude with the Nathan Clevenger Group let by Clevenger on guitar. This is a modern jazz ensemble whose front line consists of Kasey Knudsen on alto saxophone, Cory Wright alternating among tenor saxophone, clarinet, and flute, and Rachel Condry on both clarinet and bass clarinet. For rhythm Clevenger is joined by Lisa Mezzacappa on bass, Tim DeCillis on vibraphone, and two drummers, Jon Arkin and Jason Levis.

This performance will take place on Monday, December 2. 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! As always, doors open a half hour prior to the beginning of the first set, which will be at 8:30 p.m.

Mendoza’s Tribute to Philadelphia Jazz Icons

A text search on the full list of nominees for the 2020 GRAMMY Awards revealed that Vince Mendoza is associated with three albums, one of which has nominations in two different categories. This should come as no surprise to anyone that knows that Mendoza already has six of these awards on his mantlepiece (physical or virtual). One of his achievements this year that was overlooked is a tribute album that could not be more of a labor of love.

Terell Stafford and Dick Oatts performing with the Temple University Studio Orchestra (courtesy of DL Media)

Constant Renaissance is a three-movement composition written on a commission from Temple University in Philadelphia. Its performance by the Temple University Studio Orchestra, led by Mendoza, was recorded and released by BCM&D Records this past August. (This is the university’s own label, named for its Boyer College of Music and Dance.) Featured soloists were trumpeter Terell Stafford and alto saxophonist Dick Oatts. This is another example of negligence by Amazon.com, which apparently believes that this recording exists only in digital form. Fortunately, CD Baby has created a single product page for both physical and digital purchase; and, as an added bonus, that Web page includes all of the album notes, including an extended essay by Mendoza.

The album title refers to the fact that Philadelphia was the birthplace of three jazz figures that now have iconic status, each for his/her own distinct reasons. Each of the three movements of Constant Renaissance serves as an homage to one of those figures. In the order of those movements, they are Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane. The movement titles are “Bebop Elation,” “Solace and Inspiration,” and “Love, A Beautiful Force.”

To be fair, Mendoza does not try to appropriate any of the “source material” of these jazz icons. As might be guessed, Oatts has an extended solo in the Coltrane movement; and it suggests Coltrane’s ability to extend his improvisations over significant duration. However, Oatts does not go on at that length, allowing the music to be more about the relationship between soloist and ensemble. Similarly, there is no vocal performance in the Holiday movement; but, more critically, there never seems to be much of an attempt to evoke the idiosyncrasies of her intonation, which is what made her performances so arresting. Gillespie is represented by a few “signature” fragments from Stafford; but Stafford is not focused on “channeling” Gillespie any more than Oatts was trying to “channel” Coltrane.

It goes without saying that Gillespie, Holiday, and Coltrane account for a significant share of the recordings in my personal collection. I return to them frequently and always seem to discover something new with each visit. Thus, while I appreciate Mendoza’s “labor of love,” I did not find any of his evocations particularly convincing.

Mind you, I was fifteen years old when Mendoza was born. Only a few years later I would be working at a campus radio station, where the arrival of an Impulse! Records Coltrane album was always treated as a significant event. (Coltrane also performed at our campus.) While I was too busy with Philadelphia Orchestra Children’s Concerts to appreciate the impact of Gillespie and Holiday, initial exposure to the Impulse! recordings enabled me to “look backwards” and appreciate the broad scope of jazz creativity that extended over about half a century. Mendoza never quite caught the spirit of that scope in Constant Renaissance, but perhaps his generation will warm to his composition more that I did.