Sunday, November 17, 2019

Lee Presson’s Delightfully Warped Nostalgia

from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording

The end of last month saw the release of the latest self-produced album by Lee Presson and the Nails (LPN), entitled Last Request. Amazon.com seems to think that this is only available for download. However, CD Baby provides hyperlinks for both CD and download; so the above hyperlink points to their Web page. Nevertheless, the Amazon.com Web page is worth visiting for the customer review provided by “a former Nail,” along with other enthusiastic reviews that give an excellent account of the album’s content. (I particularly like the mashup of “blast from the past” with “zombie apocalypse.”)

Readers may recall that LPN visited Union Square Live almost exactly two months ago. This was my first contact with the group; and in writing my account, I found it hard to contain my enthusiasm. For me, this was a trip down memory lane that amalgamated memories of horror movie television shows hosted by John Zacherle with a swing band style that owed as much to Spike Jones as to Duke Ellington. Some of the numbers simply involved tweaking the surface level, such as recognizing that Carl Sigman’s lyrics for Jerry Gray’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000” (written for Glenn Miller’s band) would scan just as well with “Transylvania 6-5000.” On the other hand there are tracks that just involved taking music that is already significantly warped (as in the title music for Psycho) and warping it just a bit further by tweaking the instrumentation and the delivery.

My own fondness, however, is for the Jones connection. When I saw LPN in Union Square, the most memorable experience involved going back to “Jones scripture” for “Hotcha Cornia,” probably the most irreverent account of the Russian song “Dark Eyes” (Óči čjórnye) ever recorded. Beyond the tracks that recalled the concert I had attended, I took the most amusement from “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm” and really wish I had some information about the vocalist for that track.

To be fair, however, the visual part of an LPN performance is as significant as the auditory. The same could be said for Spike Jones. Nevertheless, there is more than enough on this album to make for an experience that will probably escalate quickly from rib-tickling to belly laughs. The album is a 25th anniversary release. However, it is clear that LPN is still going strong, and I look forward to word of when the band will give another San Francisco performance.

Center for New Music: December, 2019

As the year winds down, the monthly calendars tend to thin out in the interests of shopping and parties. Nevertheless, the Center for New Music (C4NM) has already lined up several events of note for next month. As usual, I shall use my Facebook shadow site to put out the word of any updates to the schedule.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. All tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini event page. Hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages will be attached to each of the dates in the following summary:

Saturday, December 7, 7 p.m.: This will be a release party for Bon Voyage, the second album of performances by the Mobius Trio. Regular readers probably know by now that this is the trio of guitarists Robert Nance, Mason Fish, and Matthew Holmes-Linder. This will basically be a listening party that will account for the entire album enhanced by food, drink, and great company. The charge for admission will be a $20 donation on Kickstarter, enabled through the above hyperlink.

Wednesday, December 11, 7 p.m.: This program will present the world premiere of Larry Polansky’s five songs for kate and vanessa, composed for violin and cello. It is named after the performers, violinist Kate Stenberg and cellist Vanessa Ruotolo. For two of the songs, they will be joined by pianist Amy Beal.

There will also be a premiere performance of “At First,” a solo violin composition by Henry Cowell. Since Cowell died in 1965, this may raise some eyebrows. The music consisted of a single page, presented by violinist Anahid Ajemian when she gave birth to her daughter Maro in 1953, after which Ajemian had the score page framed behind glass. A copy was made for Stenberg for research purposes; but, apparently, Ajemian never felt the music was suitable for public performance.

Polansky will also give a guitar performance of his composition “34 Chords,” subtitled (with a nod to Morton Feldman) “Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton.” The program will also include Mark Applebaum’s “Aphasia,” Terry Longshore’s “Crash,” and Salina Fisher’s “Komorebi” for violin and vibraphone with Longshore on vibraphone. The charge will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Saturday, December 14, 7 p.m.: This will be a continuation of the Inception series, which began at C4NM this past Friday evening. The series is presented by Global Art Bridges, a collaborative project uniting various musical and artistic traditions of the world, which was launched by Leo Iogansen and Sasha Burdin this past spring. The program will present works by both of these founders, as well as compositions created by other members of the ensemble. The charge will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Sunday, December 15, 7 p.m.: Guitarist Giacomo Fiore will curate a solo acoustic guitar recital by Charlie Rauh. The program will consist of lullabies inspired by the Welsh concept of hiraeth: longing for a place or a point in time that you cannot return to, and possibly never existed. The charge will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Friday, December 20, 7 p.m.: The Bay Area Composer Group will present a two-set evening. The opening set will be taken by guitarist Roberto Granados, playing new works for solo classical guitar and the premiere of a solo violin composition. He will be followed by The Unquiet Grave, the vocal duo of Randall Krieger and Elise Ebbinghaus. Ebbinghaus provides rhythm on the Irish bodhrán drum, and Krieger also plays guitar. The charge will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Prism Percussion’s Program of New Vocal Music

Last night in the third floor loft of the McRoskey Mattress Company, Prism Percussion presented an imaginative program of music for percussion and voices entitled Light and Shadow. Prism Percussion is the duo of Divesh Karamchandani and Elizabeth Hall, both of whom were pursuing Masters degrees in Percussion at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) at the same time. They founded their duo last year with a mission of presenting works by underrepresented composers.

Some of the instrumentation of Kyle Hovatter’s composition (from Prism Percussion’s Facebook site)

Three such composers were selected for last night’s program. The program began with music by Kyle Hovatter, who studied composition with Elinor Armer at SFCM and is now Director of Music at Zion Lutheran Church, where he curates the Benefit Concerts at Zion performances. His offering consisted of settings of four poems by his uncle Terry Severhill, a veteran of the Vietnam War that suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, a term for mental disorder than was only introduced after that war had ended.

The first and third of these poems were haiku, given a lyrical account in which word fragments were exchanged between Hall and Karamchandani. The other two poems consisted of free associations of words and phrases, again exchanged between the two performers. For my generation, the phrase “It’s like I’m stuck in time” carried particular relevance.

It recalled Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five, written when the United States presence in Vietnam was just beginning to grow and reflecting on the firebombing of Dresden during World War II. Vonnegut’s protagonist experiences time travel and refers to himself as “unstuck in time.” In that spirit Hovatter had a keen ear for the relationship between language and percussion sonorities to capture the sorts of traumas that Vonnegut’s protagonist experienced in fiction and many war veterans experienced in reality.

Yaz Lancaster’s “dis[armed]” was an ingenious combination of “documentary audio” about gun violence on tape conjoined with percussion instrumentation. Karamchandani played a “prepared” vibraphone involving pieces of aluminum foil taped to vibraphone bars, giving the sound an added sizzle. The music served as “commentary” on the “documented evidence,” concluding with afterthoughts from the vibraphones played by both percussionists. By way of a reflective afterthought, Hall then sang Beyoncé’s “Heaven” with vibraphone accompaniment by Karamchandani.

The final composition, “Symmetry and Sharing” by Andrea Mazzariello, required a larger ensemble for both the vocal and the percussion work. Four of the percussionists doubled as vocalists covering the four principal ranges. Hall sang soprano, Karamchandani sang tenor, and they were joined by alto Mckenzie Langefeld and bass Jack Van Geem. They were joined by Mika Nakamura and Justin Sun working from drum kits. (Van Geem had taught all of the other percussionists when they were students at SFCM.)

Mazzariello provided her own text for this composition. Like the Severhill poems, the verbal content was fragmented. However, there was more of a sense of structural repetition with the overall text organized in a rather conventional ABA form. What was particularly interesting was how the vocal lines alternated between solos and homophony, serving as foreground to a background of steady rhythmic energy provided by the percussionists.

Taken as a whole, Light and Shadow was a highly satisfying journey of discovery that fit comfortably into the “industrial” setting in which it was performed.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Red Poppy Art House: December, 2019

It is unclear how busy the Red Poppy Art House will be next month. However, three events have been posted for the first half of December on the Upcoming Events Web page; and I tend to take three as establishing a “critical mass” for posting the information. 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:

Sunday, December 1, 6 p.m.: Zhu Zhuye maman will be a departure from the usual offerings at the Poppy. It will be an interactive performance by Rayyaneh Karami that will take place in the setting of an exhibition of her sculptures. Karami conceived this project to honor her lost baby Zhubin, and all of the sculptures were created shortly after the baby’s death. As a musician Karami plays the daf, the large Persian and Arabic frame drum that is used in both popular and classical music. The drum’s repetitive rhythms will complement the sculptures on display. Video and images will be provided by Vahid Zamani.

Guests may visit the performance space any time between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. They are invited to interact with the performance either by improvising a song, playing their choice of musical instrument, or by tearing a piece from the bottom of the long dress that the artist will be wearing, writing a wish on it, and re-attaching it to the dress. There will be no charge for admission. However, reservations through the Eventbrite Web page are recommended.

Friday, December 6, 7 p.m.: Makrú is a sextet that calls its genre “rumba ska with global beats.” This amounts to a fusion of rumba flamenca, ska, reggae, cumbia, other global beats, and songs with lyrics in Spanish, English, and Turkish. The members of the group are Jenny Rodriguez (vocals, vihuela, and percussion), Raúl Vargas (vocals, and cajón), Alberto Gutierrez (vocals and guitar), Haluk Kecelioglu (vocals, guitar, oud, and violin), Vinicio Peñate (bass), and Jesse Weber (percussion). 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, December 14, 7:30 p.m.: Yuri Liberzon will give a solo guitar recital. He is currently recording an album of his own transcriptions of solo violin music by Johann Sebastian Bach. He has already recorded his transcription of the BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor, best known for its concluding Chaconne movement. His repertoire also includes transcriptions of the music of Astor Piazzolla, some of which are included on his ¡Acentuado! album. 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.

Sorrell Debuts at PBO with Delightful Mozart

Last night in Herbst Theatre, Jeannette Sorrell continued her round of debut performances as guest conductor of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) with the San Francisco stage of the schedule. She presented a program entitled Mozart’s Musings, which surveyed the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the usual overture-concerto-symphony ordering, which also happened to provide a chronological account. The overture was taken from the K. 51 opera La finta semplice (the fake innocent), which Mozart composed at the age of twelve. The concerto then advanced to 1777, during Mozart’s service in Salzburg to Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo, with the K. 314 oboe concerto in C major. The symphony then concluded the program near the end of Mozart’s life in Vienna with a performance of the familiar K. 550 symphony in G minor.

The concerto soloist was PBO oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz, playing on a period-appropriate instrument. His command of the oboe was consistently solid and reliable, adjectives that are seldom applied to instruments from the eighteenth century. On such instruments just getting the notes right involves a fortunate combination of breath control, fingering agility, and a generous portion of luck. In spite of his instrument’s reputation, Ruiz delivered a confident and solid account, which even allowed for a bit of improvisation in his cadenza work. The music itself presented Mozart at his most playful, and both Ruiz and Sorrell knew exactly how to channel Mozart’s spirit into a memorable account of a challenging concerto that deserves more listening attention than it tends to get.

Sorrell was also at the top of her game in delivering an expressive account of the K. 550 symphony. This symphony is so well known that many listeners tend to take a here-we-go-again approach whenever it appears on a concert program. However, Sorrell’s baton work suggested that she was more interested in the energy contour across the symphony’s four movements that she was in how many listeners already knew all the tunes. Thus, the few measures that precede the first theme statement already suggested that a dynamo was kicking into action; and Sorrell knew exactly how to sustain its propulsion all the way to the final cadence of the fourth movement.

The opening measures of Mozart’s K. 550 (from the 1880 Breitkopf & Härtel publication, from IMSLP, public domain)

It is also worth calling out the attentiveness of her sense of balance. Looking at the score pages, one can almost see a string quartet with a few extra instruments; and, where “thematic action” is concerned, the viola line is as significant as those for the violins and cellos, just as is the case in the string quartets that Mozart and his friend Joseph Haydn were both writing and playing. Sorrell knew how to draw attention to what was happening “under the hood” while never depriving the familiar themes of their proper place in the spotlight.

As to that K. 51 opera, the program notes by Bruce Lamott were a bit dismissive of the overall effort. He observed that Mozart had never been in Italy and this was his first venture into a three-act Italian opera. However, after calling out the shortcomings, he observed that the overture “speaks Italian fluently.” The music itself is a three-movement affair, a structure that would go out of favor by the time Mozart made his move to Vienna. Sorrell gave it a brisk and expressive account, which probably would do well to reinforce Lamott’s claim that the overture is the best part of the entire opera.

That operatic setting then continued into the one selection on the program that was not by Mozart. It was a suite of instrumental excerpts from two operas by André Grétry, Zémire et Azor and La caravane du Caire, both based on “exotic” plots. On the musical side, that exoticism was most evident in the selections from the second of these two operas. Taken as a while, the suite served as a “spacer,” separating the two distinct stages of Mozart’s life covered by the overture and the concerto. Sorrell knew how to draw expressiveness for Grétry’s score, but Mozart was still the center of attention for the evening.

Friday, November 15, 2019

ECM Releases Jarrett’s Latest Solo Concert Album

courtesy of Universal Music Group

At the beginning of this month, ECM released its latest album of a solo concert performance by pianist Keith Jarrett. The title of the album is simply Munich 2016, and it was recorded on the last night of a 2016 European tour at the Philharmonie in Gasteig. I have now listened to enough of these concert recordings to have some sense of a pattern.

Jarrett tends to present a sequence of free improvisations, each of which is called simply “Part” followed by a Roman numeral. “Part I” is almost always lengthy but is not necessarily the longest offering of the evening. However, he uses many of the shorter Parts to reflect on genres that reflect on past jazz traditions, while the longer ones take bold steps in unexpected directions and then “survey the ground” while trying to figure out how to eventually (sooner or later) tie things up with a sense of an ending. Towards the end of the evening, Jarrett is likely to extend his improvisations into familiar tunes; but those improvisations tend to be shorter than any of their predecessors.

I should note, as an aside, that I have attended a recital of only one other pianist that tends to work from a similar framework; that pianist was Cecil Taylor.

Because I have never followed Jarrett on one of his tours, I have no idea how many commonalities there are from one night’s program to the next. However, it would not surprise me if all of Jarrett’s performances get recorded. Jarrett himself then probably decides which are the full-evening accounts he would like to see “preserved” on released albums.

Nevertheless, I have to wonder if, in my hypothesized role as a “camp follower,” I would recognize any of those commonalities. Presumably, Jarrett spends a lot of his time on his own, proposing certain paths down which improvisation would be feasible and then deciding which to accept as points of departure during one of his concerts. However, I doubt if I could say anything meaningful about his decision process on the basis of what is available to me through recordings.

Thus, as a listener, I tend to “take it as it comes” when approaching any of these recordings, which would be the same attitude I would bring to attending an actual concert performance. However, there is so much diversity across any given recording that I doubt that, even after listening to an album multiple times in short succession, I would be able to hypothesize anything resembling a “method” behind Jarrett’s capacities for improvisation. Put another way in terms of past history, I suspect that it is easier for me to get my head around Elliot Carter’s second string quartet while following the score as part of my listening activity than it is for me to claim “familiarity” with any of Jarrett’s improvisations.

In my book that speaks well of Jarrett’s concert recordings, and I look forward to fresh discoveries any time I return to any of them!

Composers Announced for Third Sunday Event

Announcement for this Sunday’s event (courtesy of Paul Ellison)

This coming Sunday will be the third Sunday in November. That means that Sunday afternoon will see the next Third Sunday event at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King. Resident choir Schola Adventus, led by Music Director Paul Ellison, will provide the music for the Pentecost XXIII service, which will be officiated by Father Paul Allick. Specific compositions have not yet been announced; but the composers whose music will be performed will be Edward Elgar, Herbert Howells, Charles V. Stanford, and William Smith (all of whom had been included on the program for the October event).

This event will begin at 4 p.m. this coming Sunday, November 17. No admission will be charged; but this is an event that takes place outside the scope of the regular worship offerings. Thus, all who attend are invited to support the Third Sunday series with donations. All donations are tax-deductible and will be acknowledged, with names of the donors published in every Church bulletin. The goal for the Third Sunday series is $3500, and $750 has been raised to date. While donations are welcome at the door, the Church has created a Web page with options for online donations. All donations may be designated; and the designation for these events is “Evensong Series.” In addition, checks may be made payable to “Church of the Advent” and sent by mail to Dr. Paul Ellison, Church of the Advent of Christ the King, 162 Hickory Street, San Francisco, CA 94103. The entrance to 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.

Dynamite Wagner without Staging at Davies

Visiting SFS conductor Simone Young (from the event page for this week’s concerts)

Last night Simone Young returned to the podium of Davies Symphony Hall to conduct the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in a program originally planned by Antonio Pappano, who had to withdraw due to commitments at the Royal Opera House. The second half of that program was devoted entirely to a concert performance of the first act of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second of the four operas in his epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung). That single act is an intense drama unto itself, which amounts to an “origins” narrative behind the birth of Siegfried, the hero-figure in the remaining two Ring operas.

Siegfried is the child of the incestuous relationship between Siegmund (tenor Stuart Skelton) and Sieglinde (soprano Emily Magee, making her SFS debut), both the children of Wotan. Both are children of misfortune. Sieglinde has been given in marriage to Hunding (bass Ain Anger), while Siegmund always finds himself on the losing side of any battle he enters. The first act of Walküre thus involves a warped triangle relationship, which will lead to an intense fight between Siegmund and Hunding in the second act, a fight which neither survives, leaving Sieglinde on her own with Siegfried in her womb.

Wagner himself wrote the entire libretto for the four Ring operas. The text for the first act of Walküre is rich in backstory and almost minimal in action. This is because, with the exception of a few critical moments, the libretto focuses on establishing the context for each of these three characters. That context is so meticulously planned out that the attentive listener/viewer encounters every action that transpires as an inevitability. Furthermore, it arises not only through the words of the libretto but also through Wagner’s leitmotiv (guiding motif) technique, which represents every character trait (as well as properties of critical objects) as an easily recognizable musical element.

Last night Davies provided projections of the English translations of the German texts sung by the vocalists. Through those projections the attentive listener could easily grasp the presence and significance of those leitmotivs. Thus, while Wagner tended to be a bit verbose in his texts, the actual flow of the narrative tended to depend more on the music than on the words. Young clearly appreciated this critical role assigned to the music, and she consistently maintained just the right balance among the massive instrumental resources that let the leitmotivs fulfill their respective representational missions. The vocalists, in turn, shaped their phrasing to match perfectly the phrasing of all passages on orchestra side. The result was an edge-of-your-seat encounter in which relatively little action unfolds in a context that almost boils over with its implications and forebodings.

The intermission was preceded by a half hour of more measured quietude. Richard Strauss composed his “Metamorphosen” for 23 solo string parts: ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three basses. This was one of Strauss’ “twilight” compositions, rich in the interleaving of the solo voices and relatively limited (probably intentionally) in thematic material and rhetorical flourishes. One can almost think back on the autobiographical undercurrents of Strauss’ Opus 35 “Don Quixote” tone poem and the way in which it ends with a whimper, rather than a bang (with apologies to T. S. Eliot). “Metamorphosen” does not quite whimper, but it often comes across as so introspective as to leave one wondering if the composer wanted anyone to pay attention.

Nevertheless, Young did her best to summon attention from the audience. She clearly knew the score well enough to monitor and guide balance among all of those individual voices (which often join together in different sized groups). What may be interesting is that the music never seems to converge on some moment of ultimate satisfaction, that sense of finality that would allow Mephistopheles to claim Faust’s soul. It thus seemed as if Young approached her task as one of managing ambiguities that are never resolved, an interesting take on Strauss’ motives but a perplexing one on audience side.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Chick Corea’s “Sequel” Trio Album on Concord Jazz

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

In September of 2014, Concord Jazz released a three-CD album entitled simply Trilogy. The title referred to a trio that pianist Chick Corea had formed with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade. This past October Concord released another two CDs as a “sequel” album entitled Trilogy 2. Each CD has six tracks and the entire collection has been taken from recordings of live performances made between 2010 and 2016.

This is definitely straight-ahead modern jazz at its finest. All three of the performers are virtuosos of improvisation; and, having listened to Corea’s solo gig at Davies Symphony Hall this past Sunday night, I was more than adequately prepped for a deep dive into all of that diversity. All of the tracks are generous in duration, meaning that each of the selections holds up to both solo invention and imaginative group accounts of the tune. It is almost impossible for me to try to play favorites, but I was particularly impressed with how the trio could capture the spirit of Thelonious Monk in “Crepuscule With Nellie” without ever thinking about imitating any of Monk’s characteristic turns of phrase. The spirit was there but embodied in the flesh of a later era and aesthetic.

Need I say more?

Choices for December 6–8, 2019

As readers brace themselves for the busy weekend that is about to get underway, they should be prepared for the fact that the first weekend in December will also offer a diversity of choices. As shopping for gifts begins to take precedence over going to concerts, the December schedule tends to get quieter. So the prospect for the first weekend of the month suggests an abundance of “last gasp” opportunities. This year there seems to be a fair amount of diversity among those opportunities. Specifics, listed in order of start time, are as follows: [added 11/16, 9:25 a.m.:

Friday, December 6, 7 p.m., Red Poppy Art House: Makrú will be playing its program of “rumba ska with global beats,” as described in the account of December activities at this venue.]

Friday, December 6, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: San Francisco Opera will present the final performance by the 2019 Adler Fellows, entitled The Future is Now. The vocalists will be sopranos Mary Evelyn Hangley and Natalie Image, mezzos Ashley Dixon and Simone McIntosh, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, tenors SeokJong Baek, Zhengyi Bai, Christopher Colmenero, and Christopher Oglesby, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell. Eun Sun Kim will conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra; and, when necessary, harpsichord continuo will be provided by both of the Adler Apprentice Coaches, Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad and César Cañón.

The entrance to Herbst is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices will be $65 for premium Orchestra seating, $55 for Orchestra Rear and Side Boxes, $45 for the Dress Circle, and $30 for the Balcony. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a San Francisco Opera event page.

Friday, December 6, and Saturday, December 7, 8 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM): Michael Mohammed, Director of the Musical Theatre Workshop, will present the end-of-term production, entitled She Turns the Tide: Musical Theatre About Women, By Women. The Musical Director will be Lauren Mayer. The selections to be presented have not yet been finalized.

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. Both performances are free, but reservations are highly recommended. Reservations may be placed through hyperlinks on the separate event pages for the Friday and Saturday performances.

Friday, December 6, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Old First Concerts (O1C) will begin a month of primarily seasonal programming with a performance by Musae, a women’s vocal ensemble based in San Francisco led by Artistic Director Laney McClain Armstrong. The title of the program will be The Bleak Midwinter, inspired by Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” and subsequently set to music for The English Hymnal of 1906 by Gustav Holst. The program will feature more recent works by contemporary American composers Eric Barnum and Carson Cooman, as well as traditional carols.

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.

Friday, December 6, and Saturday, December 7, 8 p.m., Saint Ignatius Church: The San Francisco Choral Society, led by its Artistic Director Robert Geary, will conclude its historic 30th anniversary season with timely music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The best-known of the offerings will be the BWV 243 setting of the Magnificat canticle. This will be preceded by the last three of the six cantatas collected in the BWV 248 Christmas Oratorio. Those cantatas were composed for services on New Year’s Day, the first Sunday of the New Year, and the Epiphany feast day. These will be historically-informed performances including the Jubilate Orchestra playing period instruments. Vocal soloists will be sopranos Michele Kennedy and Jessica House Steward, mezzo Leandra Ramm, tenor Michael Jankosky, and baritone Nikolas Nackley.

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 $50 for Premiere seating, $40 for reserved seating at the back of the Orchestra, 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 Friday and Saturday. Tickets may also be purchased by calling City Box Office at 415-392-4400, which is open on weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m. Junior high school and high school students can receive free tickets, but only by calling City Box Office.

Friday, December 6, and Saturday, December 7, 9 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: The SoundBox concert series presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will begin its sixth season. The program will be curated jointly by three SFS musicians, violinist David Chernyavsky, Assistant Principal Viola Katie Kadarauch, and Principal Bass Scott Pingel. The conductor will be Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser. Like all of this season’s offerings, the program will be organized into three “acts.” The first act will be framed by concertante compositions by Antonio Vivaldi and György Ligeti separated by a set of klezmer music performed by Chernyavsky along with Ben Goldberg on clarinet and Rob Reich on accordion. The second act will present different approaches by composers that have chosen chance-based techniques. It will be framed by “Event: Synergy II,” composed by Earle Brown in 1967, and Frederic Rzewski’s “Les Moutons de Panurge.” Between these two pieces Kadarauch will play selections from Viola Spaces, a set of eight concert studies by Garth Knox. The final act will bring SFS musicians together for a jazz set.

SoundBox has a special entrance to Davies, located on Franklin Street at the northeast corner of Hayes Street. As of this writing, the only remaining tickets are those covered by the $400 Producer Pass. This enables early entrance 30 minutes prior to when the doors open for the general audience, two complimentary drinks at the Producer’s Bar, credits projected before the show begins, early access to the remaining two Soundbox programs, and a tax deduction of $250. Hyperlinks for purchasing Producer Passes for all three of the SoundBox programs are on a single SFS event page. Flash is required for processing online purchases. Programming for the remaining two programs has not yet been finalized. However, a brief summary is as follows:
  • Friday, February 7, and Saturday, February 8, 9 p.m.: Edwin Outwater will conduct a program curated by composer Missy Mazzoli. Mazzoli will also play synthesizer, joined by two other synthesizer performers, Mario Diaz De Leon and Lorna Dune. The other soloist will be soprano Marnie Breckenridge.
  • Friday, April 24, and Saturday, April 25, 9 p.m.: The curator will be SFS Artist-in-Residence soprano Julia Bullock. Christian Reif will conduct. This will probably be the most eclectic of the three programs with selections ranging from chants by Hildegard of Bingen at one end and the eclectic jazz inventions of Nina Simone at the other.
At the present time only Producer Passes are being sold for these two programs.

Saturday, December 7, 7:30 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The next guitar recital to be shared by the Guitar Series presented by San Francisco Performances and the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts Dynamite Guitars series will be given by Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang. Her program will include arrangements of not only the music of Chinese composers but also piano compositions by both Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. She will also complement an arrangement of Claude Debussy’s piano prelude “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (the girl with the flaxen hair) with the “Homenaje” (homage) that Manuel de Falla wrote following Debussy’s death.

St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Ticket prices will be $60 for the Orchestra level and $50 for the Balcony. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a City Box Office event page.

Saturday, December 7, 7:30 p.m., War Memorial Opera House: San Francisco Opera will conclude its Fall season with the final performance of Engelbert Humperdinck’s  Hansel and Gretel, specifics of which have already been provided.

Saturday, December 7, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, December 8, 4 p.m., Calvary Presbyterian Church: Journeys by Candlelight: Christmas Near and Far will be the annual Christmas concert presented by the San Francisco Bach Choir. Director Magen Solomon has prepared a program of music from Europe, Asia, and the Americas. The program will cover periods from the fifteenth century to the immediate present with a world premiere. Instrumental support will be provided by the Renaissance wind band The Whole Noyse and pianist Steven Bailey.

Calvary Presbyterian Church is located at 2515 Fillmore Street on the northwest corner of Jackson Street. Ticket prices will be $35 for general admission and $30 for seniors. In addition there is a $10 rate for patrons under 30 and students with valid identification. All those under nineteen will be admitted without charge through will-call or tickets printed at home. Finally, as in the past, ticket orders may include $25 that will cover the cost of free admission to a member of one of the senior community choirs from neighborhoods in San Francisco. All levels of tickets for all performances can be purchased through a single Web page.

Saturday, December 7, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: O1C will present a Holiday Guitar Concert, which will feature two guitarists, Lawrence Ferrara and Matthew Grasso. They will be joined by vocalist Tatyana Hall in performances of both traditional and contemporary holiday music. There will also be lute music by John Dowland and selections by Antonio Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel. Pricing information is the same as on Friday night, and the concert has its own event page.

Sunday, December 8, 3 p.m., The Women’s Building: Once again, the only in the COMMUNITY event presented by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) will be hosted by The Women’s Building. Celebration of the Elements will be a free event at which only two compositions will be performed. The first of these will be Vivian Fung’s “The Ice is Talking,” which she scored for solo percussion and electronics. She created the piece as a celebration of the elements, taking in the beauty of gliding through ice as taps and swishes shape into virtuosic rhythmic patterns and ending with dramatic flair, in the hope of raising awareness to the world around us. It will be followed by a “community-made” composition designed by Jason Treuting, a member of the So Percussion Quartet. The title of his piece is “How to (Blank);” and audience participation will involve filling in blanks provided by Treuting’s score.

The Women’s Building is located at 3543 18th Street in Unite #8. There is no charge for admission, but it is advisable to secure a seat by making a reservation as an RSVP. SFCMP has created an event page for this purpose.

Sunday, December 8, 4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: The final O1C performance of the weekend will present the Ragazzi Boys Chorus in a program entitled Celebrations of the Season: Stories of Our Immigrant Heritage. The diversity of offerings planned for this program will be, to say the least, prodigious. Both the tender lilt of the Irish “Gartan Mother’s Lullaby” and the gently rhythmic Mexican villancico “Xicochi, Xicochi” are meant to coax a baby to sleep, while the call-and-response of African gospel piece “Hlohonolofatsa” and the Kituba dialect carol “Noel” will enliven the performance with added percussion. The “Gloucestershire Wassail” and “Noel Nouvelet” bring the seasonal traditions of England and France. More familiar selections will include “Ding Dong, Merrily on High,” and “O Christmas Tree,” both accompanied by brass, and the bright Hanukkah tune “S’vivon.” From Chinese composer Xixan Qu, “Pastoral” paints a beautiful homeland scene in its lyrics, as Ola Gjello’s haunting “Northern Lights” uses text from the Song of Solomon to describe the “terrible, powerful beauty” seen from the attic window in his native Norway. Finally, there will be a double-choir arrangement of “O Magnum Mysterium” by Giovanni Gabrieli will will include a brass choir, filling the space with the mystery of the Holy Child, born among the animals. Pricing information is the same as on Friday night, and the concert has its own event page.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

SFCM Opera to Offer “Arts Management” One-Acts

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the staged opera production given by SFCM Opera for the Fall term will be an imaginative coupling of one-act offerings. Separated by over 130 years, the two operas make it clear that the difficulties of managing a performance and its performers were not that different in the eighteenth century than they were in the twentieth, particularly when the manager had to deal with one or more prima donnas. Indeed, the first of the two offerings, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 486 comic singspiel “Der Schauspieldirektor” (the impresario), takes its title from such a manager, who has his hands full with two sopranos with egos as big as their voices.

The second production will present the Prologue to Richard Strauss’ Opus 60 opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. That title is also the title of a full-length opera to be performed as after-dinner entertainment. While the host is not explicitly named, he is Monsieur Jourdain, the title character of Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, which can be loosely translated as “the would-be [“wannabe” in current argot] nobleman.”

The confrontation between Ariadne (Anne Schwanewilms) and Zerbinetta (Hayoung Lee) in a 2012 production presented by the Hamburg State Opera (photograph by Monika Rittershaus, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

A young composer has been commissioned to write an opera seria about the abandoned princess Ariadne and her encounter with Bacchus. However, Jourdain has also hired a commedia dell’arte troupe, led by a sexy comedienne named Zerbinetta, to keep the guests entertained. In the interest of avoiding a performance that would last too late into the night, he decides that both tragedy and comedy will be presented simultaneously on the same stage. Strauss’ Prologue provides the narrative behind the emergence of this ludicrous state of affairs with another clash of inflated egos.

Both of these operatic offerings will be staged by Heather Mathews, and Curt Pajer will conduct. The production will be given two performances in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, both at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 21, and Friday, November 22. 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 advance reservations are highly recommended. Separate Web pages have been created for making reservations for the Thursday and Friday performances.

Michael Byron’s Vibraphone “Single” on Cold Blue

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

At the end of last month I wrote about, “Splectra,” my first encounter with a CD release in the “singles” series on the Cold Blue Music label. I made note of the metaphor invoked by founder Jim Fox, calling the release a “one-course musical meal.” That release was coupled with another singles album presenting Michael Byron’s “Bridges of Pearl and Dust,” scored for four vibraphones.

All four vibraphone parts are performed by Ben Phelps, meaning that the recording itself is a product of studio overdubbing techniques. (A similar approach was taken in the Cold Blue recording of Matt Sargent’s Separation Songs.) Because the structure of “Bridges of Pearl and Dust” involves an elaborate fabric of polyrhythms, I suspect that one would be hard pressed to tell the difference between this studio product and a “live” performance by four vibraphone players. The music is all “about” the interplay of the pitches associated with rhythmic motifs and the counterpoint that emerges through that interplay.

The intricacy of the resulting fabric calls for highly focused attentive listening. Byron seems to have found a “sweet spot” in an overall duration of roughly fifteen minutes. Had the performance been longer, even the most focused consciousness would probably begin to run the risk of “tuning out” due to the onset of fatigue. Where my own listening is concerned, Byron successfully dodged that bullet. Still, it is worth noting that the result of the studio work tends to undermine any efforts to grasp the underlying part-whole relationships. However, if Byron allowed Phelps to make this recording the way he did, my guess is that Byron expects the listener to attend only to the whole, leaving the parts solely as the responsibility of the performer(s).

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Two Weeks of SFS Ives Performances Recorded

from the Amazon.com Web page

This past Friday SFS Media released its latest recording of performances by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), that took place before subscription audiences in Davies Symphony Hall. The recording itself was organized around performances of the last two of the four numbered symphonies composed by Charles Ives. Recordings of the third symphony took place during performances on November 10–12, 2017; and those of the fourth symphony were recorded the following week on November 16–18.

It would be fair to say that there is an autobiographical substrate in just about every composition that Ives wrote. More often than not, that substrate consists of references to familiar music. Those references are so abundant that Clayton W. Henderson tried to catalog them all, publishing his results under the title The Charles Ives Tunebook. Trying to listen to any Ives composition without regard for the substrate is a bit like trying to follow a baseball game without a scorecard, but trying to account for the contents of the substrate is no easier. I purchased my copy of The Charles Ives Tunebook when it was published in 1990, and it was a 292-page book. When I consulted Amazon.com, I was not surprised to learn that a second edition came out on July 2, 2008 with a page count that had gone up to 424. Henderson died on January 7, 2018; but I would not be surprised if there is some student or colleague that is looking for Ives citations that even the second edition of Tunebook may have missed.

It should be no surprise that the program notes for the two symphonies on the new SFS Media album do not try to account for the entire substrate of each symphony. However, at their respective concerts, MTT preceded the performance of each symphony by having the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) sing some of the hymns that Ives had appropriated, five for the third symphony and six for the fourth. Mind you, the entire substrate consisted of more than hymns; and the attentive listener is as likely to encounter “Turkey in the Straw” as “There is a fountain filled with blood.”

Beyond the question of sources, there are also challenging issues of structure. Ives has probably come closer than any other composer to an approach that parallels stream of consciousness narrative in text. As a result, the thematic materials, whether appropriated or original, bounce off of each other as if they were sharing a table filled with billiard balls. Ives himself often wrote descriptive narratives to accompany his music; but the music itself simply takes the narrative as a context, rather than trying to follow all the twists in the plot line.

Of the two symphonies, the third is the more accessible. The symphony has an overall title, The Camp Meeting; and each movement has its own subtitle, “Old Folks Gatherin’,” “Children’s Day,” and “Communion,” respectively. Mind you, Ives assumed that every listener would know as much about camp meetings as he did. Those lacking that knowledge are likely to feel short-changed by the program notes written by James M. Keller; but grasping even a suggestion of the symphony’s subject matter is likely to allow the attentive listener to make some reasonable guesses about the narrative behind the music.

The fourth symphony, however, is quite another matter. Of the four symphonies it is the one that is unquestionably in the same league as the second (“Concord”) piano sonata. Indeed, on the basis of the biographical chronology, there were at least a few years during which Ives was working on both of these pieces at the same time; and some interesting parallels emerge. Both have four movements (no surprise there). Both have second movements that run rampant across a wide field of sources for appropriation. Both have first movements that begin with firmly assertive conviction and last movements that dissolve into quietude.

However, while the sonata can be given a convincing performance by a pianist with just the right combination of persistence and adventure, the symphony goes right to the threshold of what a single mortal conductor can do; and many would argue that it crosses that threshold. Thus, when Leopold Stokowski made the symphony’s first recording for Columbia, he required two assistance conductors, David Katz and José Serebrier. In Davies MTT did it with only one, his Assistant Conductor Christian Reif. (According to Charles Ives and His Music by Henry and Sidney Cowell, Eugene Goossens internalized the second movement of the fourth symphony accurately enough to conduct it on his own.)

When the fourth symphony was played at Davies, it filled the first half of the program, preceded by the SFS Chorus introducing six of the hymn tunes. This second half consisted entirely of Pinchas Zukerman playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 61 violin concert in D major. As the old joke goes, if Ives had been alive, he probably would have turned over in his grave. Writing about the occasion the next morning, I concluded with the following punch line:
Perhaps the only really satisfying thing one can do after having performed the Ives fourth is to play it again after the intermission.
Less frivolously, it is very hard not to be perplexed by the fourth, particularly if one is encountering it for the first time. However, regardless of past listener experience, the best way to get a hold of what is going on among all those notes and polyrhythms is to listen to the whole thing a second time while memories of the first are still fresh. Fortunately, listeners will be able to pursue that strategy with this new SFS Media release.

Symphony Parnassus to Open 30th Season

Cellist Alexander Hersh (courtesy of Symphony Parnassus)

In the Better-Late-Than-Never Department I just received word that the 30th anniversary season of Symphony Parnassus will get under way this coming Sunday afternoon. Continuing to organize programs around emerging talents, the program will feature the 26-year-old cellist Alexander Hersh, who is connected to San Francisco through his grandfather, Paul Hersh, who teaches both viola and piano at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Cellist Hersh will perform Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo,” which the composer described as a “Hebraic rhapsody.” The name is the Hebrew form of “Solomon;” and the music was inspired by the pessimism of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.

“Schelomo” will be the “concerto” offering in the conventional overture-concerto-symphony concert program. The overture will be taken from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 113, the incidental music he composed for a performance of the play The Ruins of Athens by August von Kotzebue. The symphony will be Carl Nielsen’s Opus 29 (fourth), which the composer named “The Inextinguishable.” This symphony was composed in 1916 during World War I; and it includes a “battle” between two sets of timpani. Symphony Parnassus will be conducted by Music Director Stephen Paulson.

The performance of this program will begin at 2 p.m. this Sunday, November 17, in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Ticket prices will be $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors, and $10 for students and those under the age of 26 (with proof of identification). Online purchases are being handled by a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Jack Van Geem’s Tangos on Marimba at SFCM

Percussionist Jack Van Geem (from the SFCM event page for last night’s concert)

Last night in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Faculty Artist Series presented a marimba recital by Jack Van Geem entitled Tango Jazz. Van Geem led a trio, whose other members were Robert Wright on bass and fellow percussionist Raymond Froelich, playing primarily on cajón but with a couple of numbers on marimba. Strictly speaking, the program alternated between tango and choro selections; and most of the former reflected the nuevo tango innovations of Argentinian Astor Piazzolla. The program also included an original composition by Wright and a jazzy take on the final (Temp di Borea) movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1002 solo violin partita.

Clocking in at about two hours (including intermission), Van Geem presented a generous serving of considerable diversity. Even if almost half of the selections were by Piazzolla, there was enough diversity in those selections to reflect a wide spectrum of moods and technical challenges for any instrument. The only other composer to be represented by more than one piece was the Brazilian Ernesto Nazareth, who was known to refer to his choro compositions as “Brazilian tangos.” For such music Froelich definitely chose the right instrument in the cajón, always maintaining a solid rhythmic foundation while exploring the full breadth of sonorities coming out of what looks like little more than a wooden box.

Although most of the program made for an adventurous journey of discovery, Van Geem knew how to organize the new around some of the more popular selections from the repertoire. He began with “La cumparsita” (the little parade”), which is basically a march-like tango by Uruguayan Gerardo Matos Rodríguez. The Bach “interlude” was followed by Consuelo Velázquez’ bolero “Bésame Mucho” (kiss me a lot); and the second half of the program offered a lively take on the Brazilian choro by Zequinha de Abreu, “Tico-Tico no fubá” (sparrow in the cornmeal).

From a technical point of view, all of the selections were well served by Van Geem’s marimba work. There was always a clear sense of where the tune was and how it fit into the rhythm backup. (Wright had several opportunities to pick up the thematic material, working with both bow and pizzicato technique.) Each tune went through its own litany of improvised embellishments; and, as Van Geem observed, the “Double” for the Bach selection probably reflected early stirrings of such improvisations. The result was an engaging jazzy framework in which the attentive listener could explore the rich diversity in American music south of that border that the current political atmosphere has rendered so contentious.

Monday, November 11, 2019

An Album of Widor’s Complete Organ Works

courtesy of Naxos of America

While I have been waiting for Signum Classics to finish its project with pianist Malcolm Martineau to record the complete songs of Gabriel Fauré, the British label has released another “complete works” album. This is an eight-CD collection of organist Joseph Nolan playing all of the compositions of Charles-Marie Widor with a few “extras” on the final disc added for good measure. The collection, in its entirety offers about seven hours and 40 minutes of music.

Widor is one of those composers who is known almost entirely for a single movement from a longer composition. That composition is his Opus 42 (fifth) symphony in F minor; and the movement is the concluding Toccata. Ironically, all of my own listening experiences have been through recordings; but it has only been in the last few years that I have made it a point to build up my knowledge of organ music by attending more recitals.

Opus 42 is one of the ten symphonies that Widor composed for organ. The first eight are numbered, and they were followed by the Opus 70 “Symphonie Gothique” and the Opus 73 “Symphonie Romane.” Those eight symphonies account for six of the CDs in the Signum release. The seventh CD consists of the last two Widor compositions to be assigned opus numbers, Suite Latine (Opus 86) and the Opus 87 set of three “new” (Nouvelles) pieces. The final CD presents the six-movement suite Bach’s Memento, each of whose movements is a solo arrangement of familiar music by Johann Sebastian Bach. The CD also includes an organ transcription of incidental music that Widor composed for a production of Auguste Dorchain's four-act verse comedy Conte d'avril (April tale) and Marcel Dupré’s organ transcription of “Marche Americane,” one of twelve solo piano pieces collected in Widor’s Opus 31.

Readers may recall that, last month in Davies Symphony Hall, Paul Jacobs performed Louis Vierne’s Opus 59 (sixth) symphony in B minor on the San Francisco Symphony Ruffatti Concert Organ. Jacobs preceded his performance by discussing why this piece was called a symphony, rather than a sonata, the explanation being that the performance required deploying the diverse sonorities of the different ranks of pipes in what amounted to “orchestral” thinking. Curiously, Jacobs never mentioned that Vierne was Widor’s pupil, which suggests that Vierne appreciated his teacher’s symphonies and decided to follow up on them with his own efforts.

Certainly there is no shortage of “orchestral” thinking in these new recordings of Nolan’s performances. Nevertheless, as a result of my recent Vierne encounter, I feel it is worth mentioning that recording an organ performance based on such thinking is not the same as recording an orchestra. Most importantly, the pipes tend to be deployed in such a way that the range of amplitudes can be wider than those encountered in orchestra recordings. Thus, the soft passages can be so delicately subtle that one needs to turn up the volume, only to get blown away when the full power of many ranks of different pipes are all deployed. As a result, I have come to believe that physical presence is even more important where a full-bodied pipe organ is concerned than it is when one listens to a full orchestra bellowing out music from the late nineteenth century.

On the other hand my many years of experience have led to conjecturing that it is more difficult to come across regular opportunities to listen to the full breadth of the pipe organ in the United States than it is in European countries such as the Netherlands. That conjecture is based on experiences on the East Coast as well as the West. The only real exception I encountered came when I was growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia and always knew when I could listen to the Wanamaker Organ (now “hosted” by Macy’s). As a result, I would rather “ride the volume control” in the interest of learning more about repertoire than grumble about the paucity of performances that I can attend!

One final note: Those who are really serious about listening to organs are just as serious about detailed accounts of the different ranks of pipes offered by different organs. All of Nolan’s recordings were made in France involving organs in three different churches. The church visited most frequently is La Madeleine in Paris, where Widor began his career as assistant to Camille Saint-Saëns. All three of the organs were built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, and the accompanying booklet provides all the specifics regarding the ranks of pipes and the stops that control them.

The Bleeding Edge: 11/11/2019

This week’s poster from the Peacock Lounge reflecting a warped view of natural selection (from the concert’s BayImproviser event page)

This is a relatively quiet week, which will involve three of the “usual suspects.” Two of them have already been taken into account, the Center for New Music with performances on November 14 and 16, and Outsound Presents, which will be offering performances in both the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series on November 14 and the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series on November 17. The other “usual suspect” is the Peacock Lounge, which seems to have resumed its monthly series of experimental performances. The other “usual” factor here is the program consisting of four sets featuring groups whose names tend to be as interesting as what they present (if not more so). This month’s performers are The Human De-Selection and Realization Nature Group, Shatter Pattern, Gustavo Pastre, and Foot SOS.

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight (sometimes known as Haight-Fillmore) at 552 Haight Street, between Fillmore Street and Steiner Street. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. to enable the first set to begin at 8 p.m. sharp. Admission for all ages will be $5, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

Chick Corea in Davies Symphony Hall

Chick Corea at his Yamaha piano (from the event page on the SFS Web site)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Great Performers Series presented a solo recital by Chick Corea. It would be easy (and not that inaccurate) to call Corea a jazz pianist. However, in 1995 he made his SFS debut, playing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 466 piano concerto in D minor with Bobby McFerrin conducting. Corea’s repertoire extends over a variety of jazz genres, but it is clearly not limited to those genres.

Indeed, the breadth of that repertoire was captured in the title for last night’s program, From Mozart to Monk. This turned out to be a bit inaccurate; and, for my part, I would have preferred that he had appropriated the title of the second volume of memoirs by the great actress Ruth Gordon, Myself Among Others. The second half of the program was all Corea (the “myself” section), divided between compositions and improvisations. The first half covered the “others,” presented in the musical equivalent of wine pairings, each of which coupled a classical composer with a jazz selection.

Now 78 years old, Corea still commands a solid piano technique. Like any jazz pianist, he has his knapsack of tropes; and, over the course of a full-evening performance, the attentive listener will come to recognize what many of those tropes are. As a result, while there was considerable diversity in both halves of last night’s program, it was not difficult to ascertain how Corea put his personal stamp on everything he played.

On the other hand, last night he took approaches to improvisation that offered some potential of moving beyond those tropes. Two of those improvisations amounted to portraits. He placed a chair beside the piano and invited members of the audience to sit while he improvised his impressions of the sitter. The first of these was a woman (“Carol”) and the second a man (“Adrian,” who happened to be sitting across the aisle from me). This recalled Virgil Thomson’s interest in composing portraits, short pieces that would capture the spirit of friends and colleagues, realized, over the years, through a diversity of approaches to instrumentation.

Corea’s approach turned out to be an interesting one. It did, indeed, provide a means for him to get beyond his business-as-usual tropes. By focusing on the visual, mind could direct the hands into less familiar regions. Mind you, the resulting portraits were not necessarily “representational;” but the same could be said of Thomson’s compositions. The exercise also may have reflected aspects of Corea’s work practices that might not have been evident from his less spontaneous work.

The portraits were then followed by two brief duo improvisations involving volunteers from the audience. Again, one of these was male and the other female, although this time Corea did not ask their first names. Both of them had, at the very least, a solid foundation in keyboard technique; but they also rose to the occasion with give-and-take exchanges of motifs that would then merge into four-hand playing as each pianist knew what to expect of the other.

Corea’s original composition included excerpts from his Children’s Songs collection and “The Yellow Nimbus.” He saved “Spain” for his encore. He explained that he had been drawn to the music through Gil Evans’ arrangements for Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain album (I liked his mentioning Evans before Davis), particularly the setting of the second (Adagio) movement of Joaquín Rodrigo’s guitar concerto, “Concierto de Aranjuez.” He confessed that he only got to know the Rodrigo original after becoming very familiar with the Evans arrangement, but last night he told the audience that he would pay more attention to Rodrigo!

That conclusion reflected back on the composers he had explored during the first half. Those aforementioned “couplings” were more reflections of personal taste than explorations of similarities or differences across the classical and jazz domains. The first of the three paired Mozart with George Gershwin, beginning with the second movement of the K. 332 piano sonata in F major and sliding into “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Corea did not focus on playing Mozart “by the book;” but, then, it is hard to imagine that, after Mozart had committed K. 332 to writing, he would not have continued to tweak the music in imaginative ways while playing it. Suffice it to say that the two composers on his “pairing” met on playfully imaginative ground.

The second pairing was a bit more adventurous. The classical composer was Alexander Scriabin, represented by the fourth (E minor) prelude from the Opus 11 collection of 24 covering all major and minor keys. He was paired with Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie.” This was more of a “free association” coupling, using both compositions as points of departure. (It did not take long to recognize that the Evans selection was not being played with a waltz rhythm!) Those who thought that Scriabin may have been a bit too arcane for this exercise would do well to recall that the C-sharp minor prelude from the Opus 9 collection of pieces for the left hand was given a thoroughly engaging interpretation by the Art Farmer Quintet on their You Make Me Smile album.

The final pairing coupled Domenico Scarlatti’s K. 9 sonata in D minor with “Desafinado” by Antônio Carlos Jobim. This might seem a bit unlikely. However, while Scarlatti was born in Italy, much of his professional life (probably including his work on his 555 keyboard sonatas) was spent in Portugal and Spain. Corea made a somewhat cryptic observation that he could not believe that Scarlatti had written his sonatas for harpsichord, but he was probably just being playful. (I have no idea what Jobim’s preferences were in pianos.)

As the reader is probably aware by now, Corea’s concert turned out to be a long evening. Also, the sprit of Thelonious Monk never arrived. Nevertheless, the program was thoroughly engaging; and I doubt that anyone was checking the clock as Corea’s imaginative performances unfolded.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

A Hanukkah Oratorio for Next Month from PBO

Nicholas Phan on the banner for the December PBO concert (from the event page for this concert)

The oratorio most closely associated with next month’s holiday season is George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 Messiah. This is one of the more ecumenical instances of sacred music, since most of the libretto is drawn from the Books of the Prophets in the Old Testament, while setting of texts from the New Testament are comparatively sparse. Nevertheless, the actual holiday associated with this oratorio is Christmas, while the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah has received almost no musical attention.

Nevertheless, Handel’s catalog of oratorios was a prolific one. Thus, when it comes to the celebration of Hanukkah, one might appropriate a bit of Apple-speak and note, “There’s an oratorio for that!” The oratorio is the HWV 63 Judas Maccabaeus; and, while it does not explicitly dwell on the miracle for which Hanukkah is celebrated, it certainly fills in much of the context. Next month’s offering by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale will be devoted entirely to a performance of HWV 63.

As might be expected, the oratorio is set in a time when the Jews are oppressed by an invading source. The invaders were the Seleucid Empire, which was determined to eliminate all Jewish religious practices. The patriarch of the Maccabee clan was Mattathias, a priest that had killed a fellow Jew that was about to offer a pagan sacrifice. This marked the beginning of a revolt led by Mattathias with the assistance of his sons Simon and Judas. Under Judas’ leadership, the Seleucid invaders were conquered; and the Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple there. This included relighting the temple lamp over the ark holding the sacred texts, using a sparse amount of oil expected to burn for only a day, which turned out to sustain for eight days.

The “Hanukkah miracle” does not figure in the libretto that Thomas Morell wrote for Handel. Rather, the narrative begins with the death of Mattathias and then follows the advances and retreats of the rebellion led by Judas. By the end of the third part of the oratorio, victory has been achieved and is celebrated with the best-known music from the score, the chorus “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!”

The leading vocal solos are divided between Simon (baritone William Berger) and Judas himself (tenor Nicholas Phan). The only other named role is that of Eupolemus, the Jewish ambassador to Rome, whose part will be sung by bass-baritone Sepp Hammer. Vocal solos will also be performed by soprano Robin Johannsen and mezzos Sara Couden and Jacque Wilson. Bruce Lamott will prepare the Philharmonia Chorale, and Nicholas McGegan will conduct.

The San Francisco performance of this concert will take place on Thursday, December 5, beginning at 7 p.m. (Note that, due to the length of the oratorio, the performance will begin one hour earlier than usual.) 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.

Ezra Sims Discusses his Approach to Microtonality

January 30, 2015 saw the death of composer Ezra Sims only a few weeks after his 87th birthday. Sims’ Wikipedia page describes him as “one of the pioneers in the field of microtonal composition.” His earliest venues into this domain involved dividing the semitone into either two or three equal parts.

When I first met him I was working on EUTERPE, a parallel-processing programming language for representing and performing music with up to six voices in counterpoint based on ideas proposed to me by my thesis advisor Marvin Minsky. When I invited Sims to use this system, he asked about whether I could accommodate his divisions of the semitone. With an appreciation for the lowest common denominator, I told him that I could divide the semitone into six steps, making for an equal-tempered octave with 72 distinct pitches. That division of the octave became the basis for Sims’ subsequent work.

This past week Frog Peak Music, the publisher of Sims’ music, released an anthology of papers Sims had written discussing his approaches to microtonality. The collection was edited by Johanne Heraty under the title How Long Should a Man’s Legs Be? I should observe by way of a disclaimer that both EUTERPE and I show up among the papers that Heraty collected for this publication, so I cannot approach this book with the objectivity that I bring to other books that I discuss.

This is not the first time that I have discussed Sims’ subdivision of the octave on this site. The last time was in July of 2017, when my head was full of thoughts about just intonation and the impact of integer ratios on both composing and listening. Sims’ approach could be described as “just intonation on steroids.” Rather than confine himself to the intervals defined in the harmonic series by the third and fifth overtones (perfect fifth and major third, respectively), Sims wished to explore the more remote overtones. Dividing the semitone into six micro-intervals (and inventing accidentals to represent those subdivisions introduced pitches that more closely approximated a larger number of those overtones.

Where Sims was concerned that involved experimenting with the use of the seventh and eleventh overtones. Those experiments were not matters of mathematical abstraction. Sims had become acquainted with vocal styles that “pull away” from equal-tempered intervals. He conjectured that they were “pulling” in the direction of natural overtones, so to speak; and his efforts as a composer allowed him to explore that conjecture. As a result, most of this book involves discussing both the conjectures and where they led him, often with extended analyses of passages from his own scores.

I have to say that I was a bit amused to read that the thirteenth harmonic was the first interval he felt he wanted to avoid. It is, indeed, a somewhat disturbing sound. However, it is familiar at least to those who know Benjamin Britten’s Opus 31 serenade, where that natural harmonic is inserted into the opening horn solo. Nevertheless, I would probably agree with Sims that, while the thirteenth harmonic is good for “shock value,” it may not have a place in efforts to explore harmony and counterpoint among the upper harmonics! (On the other hand, back in the distant past, the tritone was declared to be the Devil’s Interval!)

The only disadvantage of this book is that it is text-only. Fortunately, recordings are available of several of the compositions that are discussed over the course of Sims’ essays. I have to confess that it took a while for my ears to adjust to Sims’ approaches to microtonality, particularly where melody is concerned. The ear may accommodate chords based on natural harmonics; but melodic lines always run the risk of devolving into what one of my teachers liked to call “slimy chromaticism.” Sims tried to avoid that kind of chromaticism by developing his own diatonic scale with limited chromatics inserted between the diatonic pitches. (An analysis of that scale worked its way into one of the chapters in my doctoral thesis.)

Given that I received my doctorate in September of 1971, this collection awakened many fond memories. However, that last sentence should make it clear that my ears have been exposed to Sims’ compositional techniques for roughly half a century. I doubt that many readers can enjoy such extensive experience. Thus, I would personally recommend acquiring some familiarity with recorded performances of Sims’ music before turning to what he chose to write about that music. Such a reader will be better equipped with points of reference when Sims goes into the details of what he did and why he did it.

Bach Takes a Beating from New Century

Last night in Herbst Theatre the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) presented the second San Francisco concert of its 2019–2020 season. An all-string ensemble was led from the piano keyboard by Simone Dinnerstein, marking the beginning of her tenure as artist-in-residence. The program consisted of four concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach and a solo performance of one of Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangements of a Bach organ composition.

The program was organized around three of Bach’s solo keyboard concertos: BWV 1053 in E major, BWV 1056 in F minor, and BWV 1052 in D minor. The fourth concerto was the BWV 1050 “Brandenburg” concerto with solo parts for piano, violin (Robin Mayforth), and flute (Christina Jennings). The Busoni arrangement was a 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. This made for a promising program, but none of last night’s performances lived up that promise.

It was somewhat ironic that Dinnerstein’s debut visit to NCCO should overlap the return visit of Ton Koopman to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony. Davies Symphony Hall as a massive (some would say cavernous) space. However, one of Koopman’s Bach selections, the BWV 1041 violin concerto in A minor, with SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik as soloist, may well have found its origins in the intimate setting of Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig, which hosted weekly concerts by a Collegium Musicum to which Bach belonged and which he sometimes directed. That was most likely the original setting in which Bach himself took the keyboard solos in the three keyboard concertos that Dinnerstein had programmed.

The underlying irony is that the performance in Herbst never rose to the level of intimacy and spontaneity that Koopman evoked in spite of size of the Davies space. Much of that intimacy could be attributed to Koopman working with reduced resources that captured the spirit of Zimmermann’s. Within the transparency of those reduced resources, Barantschik could bring dynamic spontaneity to his solo concerto work, much of which, as I have previously observed, served as a very early instance of the jam session (at least in spirit, if not in flesh).

That spirit totally eluded NCCO last night. Even though the number of string players was significantly reduced, there were still too many of them. As a result, the delicate interplay among the ensemble voices, which made Koopman’s direction of BWV 1041 so exciting, was reduced to little more than an inchoate mush under Dinnerstein’s leadership. At the same time her own keyboard work seemed more focused on fidelity to every last mark on the paper (or tablet, as the case may be), thus lacking any sense of a “groove” that would enable jamming between soloist and ensemble. That lack of spontaneity in spirit also spilled over to the solo contributions of Mayforth and Jennings in BWV 1050. For that matter, Dinnerstein’s solo selection showed little sign of the impact of Bach’s rhetorical approach to the chorale for BWV 639, a sense of expressive substrate that was of primary importance in Busoni’s own performances.

NCCO may have its virtues, but its approach to Bach is not among them.