Saturday, December 14, 2019

Friction Quartet to Play Next Round of Premieres

According to my records, the Friction Quartet launched its Friction Commissioning Initiative roughly a year ago. The first results from that effort were given premiere performances at the end of this past March at the Center for New Music. On that occasion violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz played “Two Hearts” by Sarang Kim and “El Correcaminos” (the roadrunner) by Nick Benavides. The second round took place at Old First Presbyterian Church during this past August’s Old First Concerts series. Once again, two compositions were given premiere performances, Max Stoffregern’s “The Gila: River, Mesa, and Mountain” and Piers Hellawell’s “Family Group with Aliens.” That concert also marked the debut of Lucia Kobza as the quartet’s new violist.

The third round of premieres will take place at the end of next month. Once again two new works will be performed. Mario Godoy has composed a new full-length string quartet entitled “Attention Economy” about life in the age of perpetual digital content consumption. The other premiere will be of “Juxtapossession” by Canadian composer Nicole Lizée, scored for string quartet, vocals, ouija boards, and electronics. Readers may recall that Lizée composed “Family Sing-A-Long and Game Night” for The Living Earth Show duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson; and it was first performed in August of 2016 as part of the world premiere of Robert Dekkers full-evening theater piece Do Be. (Unless I am mistaken, Living Earth will perform this piece again this Monday in their guest appearance at the San Francisco Girls Chorus A Ceremony of Carols concert at Davies Symphony Hall.) Friction’s concert will also include a revival performance of Eric Deluca’s “Lake” for string quartet and video.

That concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 30. It will be held 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. The building is also a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. General admission will be $20 with a $10 rate for students. The VIP rate of $25 will guarantee preferred seating for viewing the ensemble and the projection screen. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the Friction Quartet Web site.

SFS’s Memorable Account of Familiar Oratorio

The Music Hall on Fishamble Street in Dublin, where Messiah was first performed (reproduced from the December 1903 issue The Musical Times, from Wikipedia, public domain)


Around this time every year, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) celebrates the Christmas season with its annual program of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah. As always, the instrumentalists are joined by the SFS Chorus prepared by Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin. The primary variation from one season to the next is found in the vocal soloists, frequently the conductor, and, more often, recently, sensitivity to the size of the instrumental ensemble. Last night Davies Symphony Hall provided the venue for the first of two scheduled performances of the music.

The vocal soloists were soprano Lauren Snouffer, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, tenor Ben Bliss, and bass Adam Lau. Of particular interest this year (at least to this writer) was that two of those soloists, Cohen and Lau, are alumni of the Merola Opera Program; and, as I had hoped, they both exhibited an undercurrent of dramatic understanding as a foundation for their delivery of the music itself. The string section was effectively limited to eight first violins (with Wyatt Underhill in the Concertmaster’s chair), six second violins, four violas, four cellos, and two basses. Bohlin himself was the conductor.

While many may still adhere to the moth-eaten tradition that a performance of Messiah should be one of prolonged solemnity; Bohlin’s leadership reflected the “new school” approach that favors the presentation of a stimulating listening experience. Working consistently with crisply defined tempos and a judicious approach to taking cuts, last night’s offering clocked in at about two hours and fifteen minutes without ever feeling rushed. Rather, it seemed as if the words (compiled from both Old Testament and New Testament by Charles Jennens) embodied a clearly-defined overall narrative, whose course could be followed easily by the attentive listener, even one with more secular attitudes.

Mind you, much of Handel’s counterpoint tends to impede the recognition of every word that is uttered. However, the composer had a command of both homophony and polyphony to give the text its due before launching into his many intricate developmental passages. On the solo side all four of the vocalists approached their work with impeccable diction. Lau stood out in particular with a delivery that reflected considerable opera experience. Nevertheless, the clarity of the solo vocal passages was consistently matched by clarity in the choral delivery (not to mention the dazzling solo trumpet work by Mark Inouye). This was a Messiah that was far more than mere seasonal tradition.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Music for Advent III at Church of the Advent

A service at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King (courtesy of Paul Ellison)

This Sunday at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, resident choir Schola Adventus will provide the music for the Solemn Evensong & Benediction for Rose Sunday (also known as Advent III, the Third Sunday in Advent). Once again the music for the service has been selected by Director of Music Paul Ellison. While the specific compositions have not yet been announced, the composers to be included will be (in alphabetical order) Felice Anerio, Johann Sebastian Bach, John Stainer, Thomas Tallis, and Thomas Tomkins.

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 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 15. Those wishing further information may call 415-431-0454.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

John Nelson Brings Berlioz to St Paul's Cathedral

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

In addition to taking on two major dramatic works of Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens (the Trojans) and La Damnation de Faust (the damnation of Faust), with his resources in Strasbourg, conductor John Nelson prepared yet another major Berlioz release to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. Appropriately enough, this was a performance of the composer’s Opus 5 setting of the Requiem text, given the title Grande Messe des Morts, performed this past March. The operative noun in that title is “Grande.” Not only was the music conceived on a grand scale; but also Erato responded in kind with a “Deluxe Edition” release that presents the same performance in two different media, CD and DVD.

I first came to know Opus 5 when I was an undergraduate; and, for my money, that was just about the right time. The performance involved Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra and, unless I am mistaken, choral resources from Temple University. I was totally blown away by the spectacle. I followed every note in a vocal score that I purchased in the lobby of the Academy of Music. (Those sales were a regular practice for choral offerings by the Philadelphia Orchestra.) That, in turn, motivated me to purchase the LP recording of Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Most of the impact of the music resided in Berlioz’ setting of the “Tuba mirum” passage from the “Dies irae” sequence. This required four brass choirs requiring collectively 38 musicians. Ormandy situated them in the four Proscenium Boxes (usually reserved for the high rollers that preferred being seen to having a good view of the performers). To give “all that brass” adequate backing, the percussion section required 16 timpani, ten pairs of cymbals, four tam-tams, and two bass drums. All this made for the ultimate sophomoric thrill in the literal sense of the adjective.

As might be expected, as I grew older, my excitement over this music quickly ebbed. Nevertheless, I have to confess that, when Charles Dutoit returned to Davies Symphony Hall in May of 2017 to conduct Opus 5 as part of the San Francisco Symphony subscription series, many of my old feelings were reawakened. Part of me was reminded of a joke I had picked up over the course of my business trips to Japan. The joke was that there are two kinds of fools in the world, the man who has never climbed Mount Fuji and the man who has climbed Mount Fuji twice. Sitting through a second concert performance of Opus 5, I did not really feel like that second kind of fool. Nevertheless, about half a century had elapsed between my two experiences; and, if I do not experience another concert performance in my lifetime, I shall not have any regrets.

On the other hand I have had to deal with recordings of Opus 5, including the one included in the Warner Classics release, Berlioz: The Complete Works. I therefore feel I can bring some authority to the assertion that, however impressive the technology may be, no recording of Opus 5 can ever capture not only the magnitude of the resources but also the breadth of spatial extent that a performance demands. From that point of view, one might think that Nelson had made a wise decision in making his audio and video recordings in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral; but it does not take the listener long to realize that neither medium is particularly satisfactory. On the audio side, rather than enhancing the experience, the reverberations in that cavernous space tend to mask out many of the details in Berlioz’ score. On the video side the production team is almost consistently at a loss when it comes to which camera should be pointing where; and the “bat’s eye view” from the prodigious distance up the dome looks just plain ridiculous.

The good news is that the old Munch recording is now available as a CD release from Sony Classical!

Les Voix Humaines to Make SFEMS Debut

Four of the members of Les Voix Humaines (photograph by Tobias Haynes, courtesy of SFEMS)

Next month the San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS) will ring in the new year by introducing the Quebec-based ensemble Les Voix Humaines. This is probably not the first ensemble to name itself after a work of literature. They may not even be the first to draw their name from Jean Cocteau. Nevertheless, they may be the first to name themselves with a bit of Gallic wit.

The translation of the name is “the human voices;” but all of the members of the group are instrumentalists! Five of them play gamba instruments (usually of different sizes). They are Mélisande Corriveau, Margaret Little, Felix Deak, Marie-Laurence Primeau, and Susie Napper; and they are joined by lutenist Nigel North. The group specializes in the French baroque repertoire, but for their SFEMS debut they will turn to the English baroque.

The title of the program will be Lachrimæ, which is the abbreviated title of a collection of instrumental music by John Dowland, whose full title is Lachrimæ or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans, with divers other pavans, galliards and allemands, set forth for the lute, viols, or violons, in five parts, published in 1604. The title refers to the “Lachrimæ pavan,” first conceived as a lute solo and subsequently reworked as the song “Flow my tears,” published in Dowland’s Second Book of Songs in 1600.  The “teares” themselves are variations on the pavan with the following titles:
  1. Lachrimæ antiquae (old tears)
  2. Lachrimæ antiquae novæ (old tears renewed)
  3. Lachrimæ gementes (sighing tears)
  4. Lachrimæ tristes (sad tears)
  5. Lachrimæ coactae (forced tears)
  6. Lachrimæ amantis (a lover’s tears)
  7. Lachrimæ veræ (true tears)
The “divers other” compositions are as follows:
  1. Pavan “Semper Dowland semper Dolens
  2. “Sir Henry Umptons Funerall”
  3. “M John Langtons Pavan”
  4. “The King of Denmarks Galiard”
  5. “The Earle of Essex Galiard”
  6. “Sir John Souch his Galiard”
  7. “M Henry Noell his Galiard”
  8. “M Giles Hoby his Galiard”
  9. “M Nicholas Gryffith his Galiard”
  10. “M Thomas Collier his Galiard with 2 Trebles”
  11. “Captaine Piper his Galiard”
  12. “M Bucton his Galiard”
  13. “Mss Nichols Almand”
  14. “M George Whitehead his Almand”
For their SFEMS concert, Les Voix Humaines will perform all seven of the “teares” and most (but not all) of the “divers other” compositions. In addition, lutenist North will give a solo performance of Dowland’s “In Nomine Farewell” followed by “Dowland’s Adieu,” played as a duo for lute and bass viol. Thus, this is almost a comprehensive account of Dowland’s original publication. Bel canto opera lovers may also take note that the fifth of the “divers other” compositions does, indeed, refer to Robert Devereux!

The San Francisco performance of the Lachrimæ program will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 12. The venue will be the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, which is located at 261 Fell Street between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center. General admission is $50, with special rates for seniors ($45), SFEMS members ($42.50), and students ($15). Tickets may be purchased (with seat selection) online through the event page for this concert. SFEMS memberships and subscriptions for three or more concerts are available with discounts up to 25%. They may be purchased through a separate hyperlink on the event page.

Jamie Barton’s “Equal Opportunity” Program for SFP

Last night in Herbst Theatre, mezzo Jamie Barton was featured in the second of the four The Art of Song Series programs being presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP) this season, accompanied at the piano by Kathleen Kelly. As SFP President Melanie Smith observed in introducing the program, this was the final SFP offering of the calendar year. However, she also reminded the audience that many more programs would be offered in the remainder of the season beginning in January.

San Francisco has been good to Barton. She “caught her first big break” (as they like to say) on the opening night of the San Francisco Opera in September 2014. Daveda Karana, scheduled to sing the role of Adalgisa in Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, was unable to perform. Barton stepped in to replace her for the full run of the opera; and the rest, as they say, is history. That history included her SFP debut in the Young Masters Series in December of 2015. She was back in the War Memorial Opera House this past June to sing the role of the witch Ježibaba in Antonín Dvořák’s opera Rusalka; and while she was “in town,” she also provided a surprise encore for the final season concert given by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony.

As Barton explained to the audience, she had prepared her program to provide “equal opportunity” (my phrase, not hers) for women composers. Thus, in the first half of the program, Joseph Haydn’s single-movement secular cantata “Arianna a Naxos” (Hoboken XXVIb/2) was preceded by songs composed by Amy Beach, Elinor Remick Warren, and both of the Boulanger sisters, Nadia, best known for her impact in teaching composers of the twentieth century ranging from Aaron Copland at one end to Philip Glass at the other, and Nadia’s younger sister Lili, who died early at the age of 24. The second half then balanced a song cycle by Libby Larsen with songs by Maurice Ravel, Henri Duparc, and Richard Strauss.

The most engaging selection in this diverse program probably came from Larsen’s Love After 1950 cycle. Each of the five songs drew upon a different female poet: Rita Dove, Julie Kane, Kathryn Daniels, Liz Lochead, and Muriel Rukeyser (in “order of appearance”). Musically, each had its own characteristic style: blues, torch song, honky-tonk, tango, and an homage to Isadora Duncan. There was also considerable rhetorical diversity across the collection. Nevertheless, Larsen seems to have selected these particular poems for the shared infrastructure of irony; and Barton clearly knew how to shape a unique ironic platform for each of the songs. The result was thoroughly entertaining on the surface, but Barton never neglected any of the dark undercurrents.

One might almost call Love After 1950 a “response” to the “call” of Haydn’s cantata. By the time Haydn composed this piece in 1789, he had already written 92 symphonies; and his reputation had advanced from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Great Britain. However, while Haydn had been prodigiously imaginative in both his symphonies and his string quartets, “Arianna a Naxos” emerged as an artifact that was traditionally formal: two arias, each preceded by an extended recitative. One barely encounters any of the advances in dramatic vocal music that had been initiated by Haydn’s colleague, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Given Haydn’s talents, it should be no surprise that the solo vocal line for this cantata was accompanied by a generous share of virtuoso keyboard performance. Thus, this was a performance in which Barton and Kelly contributed as equals. While Kelly was playing a modern Hamburg Steinway Model D, her touch definitely evoked the phrasing and sonorities of Haydn’s time. For her part, Barton knew how to deliver the full scope of the sorrow of abandonment in the (anonymous) text. However, this brings us back to the “call-and-response hypothesis.” If the “call” comes from Ariadne’s grief, then the poets set by Larsen “respond” with a single message, “Get over it!”

The four songs that began the program made for an engaging journey of discovery. In my own listening experience Beach was the most familiar; but I had not encountered her Opus 44 Browning Songs, of which Barton’s selection, “Ah, Love But a Day,” was the second of three. The Warren, on the other hand, was entirely unfamiliar; and my knowledge of the Boulanger sisters was more by reputation, rather than by any compositions.

As a result, the beginning of Barton’s program was a matter of getting to know the text and then getting to know how the music informed that process of knowing the text. Barton could not have done better in facilitating that process. Her text delivery was consistently crystal clear, as was her awareness of the rhetorical connotations of the music. Nothing would please me more than to encounter any of these four songs in future recital programs.

At the other end of the program, Barton knew how to present the selections by Ravel, Duparc, and Strauss as if they were old friends, which they probably were to those in the audience that regularly attend vocal recitals. However, those old friends had to yield to the new century in Barton’s encore selection. She sang “In the beginning …,” the first of the two poems by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard set by Jake Heggie in Of Gods and Cats, composed in 2000. “In the beginning …” is the “cat poem” of the pair; and Barton knew exactly how to play every feline gesture to the hilt. The playful sense of wit in both words and music provided the perfect complement to the more sardonic texts that Larsen had set.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Center for New Music: January, 2020

Now that this site is looking forward with accounts of performances in the new year, it is worth noting that the Center for New Music (C4NM) has now reached my self-imposed “critical mass” level of items on its January calendar. It is highly likely that more January events will be added to the schedule; but as usual, I shall use my Facebook shadow site to put out the word about updates as the information becomes available. For those who do not yet know, 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:

Tuesday, January 7, 8 p.m.: As of this writing, the New Year will begin with a two-set evening of “bleeding edge” improvisation combos. Nomad Trio is a cross-border collaboration between Vancouver guitarist Gordon Grdina and New York musicians Matt Mitchell on piano and Jim Black on drums. Grdina appears to be the driving force behind this group, drawing upon twentieth-century classical composition, rock, free jazz, and third stream as points of departure for the trio’s performances. The other set will be taken by the local duo of Phillip Greenlief on single-reed winds and Scott Amendola on both drums and electronics. Both of these imaginative performers should be well known to any that have followed this site for a reasonable amount of time.

Saturday, January 18, 8 p.m.: Local flutist Jessie Nucho has teamed up with composer Brett Austin Eastman to create a program entitled FEEDBACK: In Response. Each of the selections on the program will explore the theme of feedback from a variety of perspectives, both literal and conceptual. The premiere of one of Eastman’s own compositions will be highlighted. The other composers to be represented on the program will be Elainie Lillios, Eve Beglarian, Richard Reed Parry, and Anahita Abbasi.

Friday, January 24, 7:30 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a visit from the Quince Ensemble, a vocal quartet that has earned the epithet of “the Anonymous 4 of new music.” The members of the group are Liz Pearse (soprano), Kayleigh Butcher (mezzo soprano), Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano), and Carrie Henneman Shaw (soprano). They will bring their This A-Changin’ World tour to C4NM. Inspired by the poetry, songs, and activism of Woody Guthrie, the program will present a collection of works that conjures the wind, land, and stories of unplanned migration alongside songs about the American experience of loving and losing. Much of the program will be devoted to arrangements of Guthrie’s own music. However, all four members of Quince will contribute their own compositions alongside works by David Lang, Gilda Lyons, Laura Steenberge, and Warren Enstrom.

Saturday, January 25, 7:30 p.m.: For its first full San Francisco concert in the 2019/20 season, Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) will present a program entitled Blooming Flowers: Music by Women Composers. For those unfamiliar with the group, E4TT is led by soprano Nanette McGuinness, performing with pianist Dale Tsang and cellist Anne Lerner-Wright. For this program they will be joined by guest violinist Illana Blumberg. The program will feature the world premiere of Weiwei Miao’s piano trio entitled “Blooming Flowers, Full Moon.” The remainder of the program will be devoted to eight living women composers: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Victoria Bond, Chen Yi, Lori Laitman, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Jessica Rudman, Ellen Mandel, and Vivian Fung.

Thursday, January 30, 7:30 p.m.: This will be “an evening of free form sonic adventures” performed by Russian drummer Vladimir Tarasov, Rova saxophonist Jon Raskin, pianist and electronic musicians Chris Brown, and bassist Jason Hoopes.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Roger Kellaway is Back with Straight-Ahead Jazz

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

At the beginning of last month, Roger Kellaway celebrated his 80th birthday. As a professional musician and alumnus of the New England Conservatory of Music, Kellaway has had his thumb in more pies than I could possibly enumerate; and he has managed to pull any number of tasty plums from many, if not most, of them. Nevertheless, “Remembering You,” the closing theme for All in the Family may have been his best shot at mass recognition.

However, those of us more interested in serious listening, rather than mass appeal, will probably gain more from listening to Kellaway’s latest album, released by IPO Recordings. The Many Open Minds of Roger Kellaway consists of seven tracks recorded from performances at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. Kellaway is back in a straight-ahead jazz groove behind a piano keyboard, where he leads a trio whose other members are Bruce Forman on guitar and Dan Lutz on bass. As of this writing, Amazon.com is only distributing this as an MP3 album; and Google has not been particularly helpful in finding a source that is selling the album in a physical medium.

From the very first track, Kellaway seizes listener attention by going back to the basics of Thelonious Monk. Too many modern jazz artists have used Monk’s “52nd Street Theme” as “sign-off” music, meaning that too many listeners know the music through only one motif. (Grumbling about Miles Davis may now commence!) Kellaway’s trio deconstructs and reconstructs the full thematic richness of this composition, charging through the building blocks of the piece at a breakneck pace, the perfect way to get listeners on board for the diversity of selections that will follows.

The Monk track is coupled with music by one of his long-time colleagues. Sonny Rollins is represented with his tune “Doxy.” However, the overall scope of the album also reaches back to the book for Duke Ellington’s band, including one of Billy Strayhorn’s most familiar compositions, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and “Caravan,” which Ellington wrote in partnership with Juan Tizol. There are also instrumental accounts of two “songbook” selections, “Night and Day” by Cole Porter and “Have You Met Miss Jones” by Richard Rodgers. Finally, there is one selection from the Dave Brubeck book, Paul Desmond’s “Take Five.”

For my money listening gets most interesting when Kellaway and his colleagues are not afraid to exercise prolonged improvisation. “Have You Met Miss Jones” runs longer than ten minutes, while “Take the ‘A’ Train” exceeds the twelve-minute limit. However, even when durations are shorter, this album consistently explores how trio work can mine considerable inventiveness out of even the most familiar of tunes. The Many Open Minds of Roger Kellaway is definitely an album for any lister serious about the scope of jazz improvisation; and, however marketing may currently be trying to shape the very practices of listening, this is an album that deserves beginning-to-end listening attention for what it is, a document of a gig in Los Angeles that has now be preserved for posterity.

The Bleeding Edge: 12/10/2019

Once again, this dispatch is being released a day late. This time the conditions were more a matter of personal habits. I was not aware of the weekly BayImproviser Calendar mailing in my Inbox until I had completed and filed an article about the two concert series that San Francisco Performances will launch next month. The delay was not particularly problematic, since the first adventurous program of the week will take place at the Center for New Music tomorrow night, followed by an equally adventurous program on Saturday, December 14. The other event already reported is the Friday the Thirteenth concert that will be presented by The Lost Church. That leaves only two other events for the week, which involve the two concert series presented by Outsound Presents.

The first of these will be the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series, which specializes in performances of adventurous improvisations. This week’s concert will consist of two sets. The first will be the latest performance by Philip Everett in his Skullkrusher persona. This involves Everett playing his own hybrid instrument called the xlarinet. He will also play autoharp and control and transform the signals he creates through the use of analog pedals. Everett will be followed by a duo improvisation by André Custodio and Josh Martin performing under the name Conan the Barbiturate.

This concert will begin at 8:15 p.m. on Thursday, December 12. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15.

The second performance will be in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series. This is the series that prioritizes composed, rather than improvised, music. The first set will be a duo performance by Steve Heckmen on saxophones and flutes and Heikki “Mike” Koskinen playing piano, e-trumpet, and tenor recorder. They will be followed by Free Sax, a jazz trio that specializes in free improvisation (thus departing from the usual SIMM bill of fare). The name refers to the fact that percussionist Brian Rodvien provides the only rhythm for two saxophonists, Aaron Saul on alto and Andrew Ferren on tenor. This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. at The Musicians Union Hall, which is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street in SoMa. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Monday, December 9, 2019

An Imaginative Duo Album that Misses the Mark

Stick&Bow performers Juan Sebastian Delgado and Krystina Marcoux (photograph by Annie Éthier, from the News Web page on the Web site for Shira Gilbert PR)

At the beginning of last month, the Canadian label Leaf Music released a new album entitled Resonance. This was the debut album for a duo called Stick&Bow, so called because it brings Canadian marimba player Krystina Marcoux together with Argentinian cellist Juan Sebastian Delgado. As might be guessed, almost all of the selections on the album were arranged by the performers. The most notable exception was a piece composed for them by Jason Noble. His contribution was the seven-movement Folk Suite, based on sources from Newfoundland and Labrador, the two districts that constitute the easternmost province of Canada, where the composer was born. In addition, for the final track, an arrangement of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” Stick&Bow joined forces with Ben Duinker, currently based in Montreal, where he is pursuing a PhD in Music Theory at McGill University.

This is one of those projects that probably looked better in theory than it turned out in practice. San Francisco is a first-rate city for listening to quality percussion performances. I have had no end of enjoyable experiences listening to marimba performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and in following some of the graduates into recital settings. Through those experiences I have come to recognize that a good marimba player can present chamber music with just about any other instrument or group of instruments.

It was thus more than a little disconcerting that, on the opening tracks, both of which were arrangements of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, the balance between marimba and cello was consistently muddled, primarily because Marcoux never brought clear articulation to her performance technique. (To be fair, that particular performance may have sounded better in concert, meaning that the problem had more to do with audio production than with the instrument itself. Nevertheless, one would like to assume that Marcoux had some say about what constituted an acceptable recording.)

On a more general level I fear that neither of the players showed much respect for any of the sources that they arranged. I appreciate that, when Nina Simone recorded Walter Donaldson’s “Love Me or Leave Me” for her debut album, her keyboard work for the middle instrumental section was inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach; but the Stick&Bow track seems about as out of touch with Donaldson and Simone’s imaginative stylization as it is with Bach. On other tracks Delgado is best when writing music that was actually written for cello (such as the second movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 40 cello sonata in D major). However, as we now know from a recording of his own performance, Shostakovich endowed the piano part for that sonata with a rich diversity of rhetorical turns, none of which were given a particularly credible account on the marimba.

Finally, the decision to describe each piece in the accompanying booklet with text that segues between French and English may have seemed clever at the time; but for the reader with any interest in the music itself, those descriptions are just plain annoying!

SFP to Launch Two Overlapping Series in 2020

Next month San Francisco Performances (SFP) will launch the last two concert series of its 2019–2020 season. The two series, Hear Now and Then and PIVOT, will both consist of four programs; and the first three of those programs will be shared by both series. Both of these are forward-looking series that depart from the usual boundaries and explore new approaches to making music. The primary difference is that PIVOT is a weekend festival, while the last of the four Hear Now and Then concerts will not take place until April. Each of the events will begin at 7:30 p.m., except for the final PIVOT concert on Sunday, January 26, which will begin at 5 p.m. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Thursday, January 23: The combined series will begin with a duo recital by violinist Stefan Jackiw accompanied by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani. Each half of the program will pair a member of the Bach family with a twentieth-century composer that wrote music for harpsichord. The Bach selections will be Johann Sebastian’s BWV 1014 duo sonata in B minor and son Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Wq 76 duo sonata, also in the key of B minor. The sonata by “Bach the father” will be coupled with a duo sonata by Viktor Kalabis, who was married to the Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková. “Bach the son” will be coupled with a sonatina for violin and harpsichord composed by Walter Piston.

Friday, January 24: Limitless will be a trio program that will bring two SFP favorites, violinists Jennifer Koh and pianist Vijay Iyer, together which percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, who will be making his SFP debut. Koh and Iyer will play the latter’s four-movement composition “The Diamond,” which is based on “The Diamond Sutra,” written during the early years of Buddhism and included on Koh’s recent Limitless album. Koh will begin the program with another “Bach the father” performance, the BWV 1002 solo violin partita in B minor. Andrew Norman will be featured with two movements from his The Companion Guide to Rome suite, “Cecilia” and “Sabina.” These were composed for string trio, and presumably they will be rearranged for the performers at this recital. Another selection from the Limitless album will be Sorey’s “In Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrams,” honoring the memory of one of the founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. Finally, the program will include improvisations by both Iyer and Sorey.

Saturday, January 25: German vocalist Theo Bleckmann will present an evening of Berlin cabaret songs entitled Love and War, Peace and Exile. He will be accompanied at the piano by Dan Tepfer; and they will be joined by the members of the adventurous Telegraph Quartet, violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw. The selections will be drawn from works composed throughout the twentieth century.

Sunday, January 26: The PIVOT series will conclude, as it began, with a duo recital. This time the violinist will be Patricia Kopatchinskaja, and she will be performing will cellist Jay Campbell. The distant past will be represented on the program through compositions by Orlando Gibbons, Guillaume de Machaut, and polyphonic selections from the eleventh century Winchester Troper. There will be duo sonatas by two composers from the early twentieth century, Maurice Ravel and Zoltán Kodály. The program will also present more recent compositions by Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, and Jörg Widmann. This concert is also part of the Great Artists and Ensembles Series.

Wednesday, April 29: The Hear Now and Then series will conclude with a recital by tenor Mark Padmore. The program will consist entirely of music from the Baroque period. Accompaniment will bring together some of the leading performers of early music, including local cellist Tanya Tomkins.

All programs will take place in Herbst Theatre, which occupies the first two floors of the Veterans Building, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Subscriptions are available for the four Hear Now and Then concerts for $220, $180, and $160. The PIVOT subscriptions are slightly higher: $230, $185, and $160. This is because single tickets for the January 26 concert will be sold for $70, $55, and $45, while the prices for the tickets for all the other concerts will be $60, $50, and $45. The above hyperlinks lead to the event pages for each of the concerts, from which both subscriptions and single tickets may be ordered. All tickets can also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545 for individual tickets or 415-677-0325 for subscriptions.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Environment-Conscious Programming from SFCMP

This afternoon the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) presented its only in the COMMUNITY event in its 2019–20 season. Celebration of the Elements was a free event at which only two compositions were performed. Only the first of these, Vivian Fung’s “The Ice is Talking,” could be described as “elemental,” while the second, Jason Treuting’s “How to (Blank)” was an instance of spontaneous composition made by the “community” of audience members joined by two SFCMP performers.

Fung introduced her composition by talking about her regular visits to Jasper National Park every summer to view the glaciers of the Columbia Icefield. This was the trigger for her own environmental awareness when she realized that, on her recent visits, she was seeing far more rock than ice. This inspired her to create a solo percussion composition in which the only percussion “instruments” were three large blocks of ice. Percussionist Haruka Fujii could strike these blocks with slender bamboo sticks using techniques similar to the handling of drumsticks. However, she also engaged metallic objects (such as knives) to scrape the surface of the ice, evoking sounds far different from those created with a drum kit.

As might be expected, the sounds from the ice blocks were highly amplified; and the composition involved mixing those sounds with electronically-created sounds. In addition, the loudspeakers were arrayed in the four corners of the space allocated for both the performer and the audience. Thus, the performance also involved spatial control of the sound sources.

Haruka Fujii working with “non-standard” percussion in a performance with the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Mei-Ann Chen (from the photograph gallery Web page on Fujii’s Web site)

This amounted to a rather engaging approach to cultivating environmental consciousness through music. Nevertheless, I have to confess that my mind was almost entirely focused on Fujii’s performance technique. Indeed, I realized that I had not been that focused since those days when I was fortunate enough to attend several solo performances by Max Roach. It was through those experiences that I came to appreciate that one could make percussion music from any number of resources, not all of which could be classified as “musical instruments.” Fujii’s performance reawakened my best memories of Roach at work, and I was delighted to encounter both a performer and a composer with that same breadth of inventiveness that made Roach so memorable.

For “How to (Blank)” Artistic Director Eric Dudley preceded the activity by laying out the rules for audience participation. He explained that there was an overall ABA structure, whose outer sections involved “melodic” lines based on only five pitches, while the inner section consisted of loops. The loops, in turn, were based on a “score” consisting four newspaper headlines for environmental news articles. Individual loops could be structured around single words or several consecutive words. The vowels would be interpreted in terms of those five pitches, while the consonants would be realized as unpitched rhythmic sounds.

As might be guessed, the rules were never quite followed to the letter. As a result there emerged a sort of “cloud of noise” resulting from those rules being ignored. However, within that cloud more “rule-based results” would begin to take root. Thus, the whole experience was entirely good-natured and could not have been more “communal.” Nevertheless, in spite of enjoying a rarely-encountered sense of “community spirit,” I have to say that it was Fujii’s interpretation of Fung’s imaginative composition that has remained most firmly rooted in personal memory.

SFCMP to Continue Season in the “LABORATORY”

Poster design for next month’s SFCMP concert (from its Facebook event page)

Next month’s offering by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) will be its in the LABORATORY concert. This season has seen a variety of different events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of choreographer Merce Cunningham. The program, entitled Kinetic Transformations, will recognize Cunningham’s long and prolific partnership with California composer John Cage. It is well known that Cage was not only Cunningham’s life partner but also a major creative force in building the repertoire for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He also assumed many critical managerial responsibilities when that ensemble was just beginning to tour with its repertoire of dances.

The major work on next month’s program will be Cage’s “Concert for Piano and Orchestra.” Cunningham served as conductor for the first performance of this piece and subsequently used it as the music for his choreographic creation “Antic Meet.” (Yes, that title can be taken literally. This was one of the funniest dances that Cunningham created over the course of his extensive career.) Cage’s score specified that the “orchestra” should consist of any solo or combination of flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano, three violins, two violas, cello, and bass. The pianist for next month’s performance will be Kate Campbell; and dancer Antoine Hunter will contribute to that performance.

The program will also present the West Coast premiere of David Coll’s “Caldera,” scored for prepared bass clarinet and marimba. Cellist Hannah Addario-Berry will give a solo performance of Gloria Justen’s “Sonaquifer.” Cage’s colleague Henry Cowell will be represented by a performance of his third string quartet, which Cowell entitled “Mosaic Quartet.” The program will conclude with a performance of Anna Clyne’s “Steelworks,” scored for flute doubling on piccolo, bass clarinet, percussion, and tape (with optional video).

This performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 17. It will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by the next How Music is Made program facilitated by Eric Dudley. Both Coll and Justen will discuss their works, and Hunter will provide background information about Cunningham’s innovative approaches to choreography.

The venue will be the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), which is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. SFCM is a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. General admission will be $35. Students, teachers, and arts employees will be admitted for $15. Tickets may be purchased online through an SFCMP event page.

Monteux in Europe: Twentieth-Century Repertoire

The remaining discs in the 24-CD box set of the complete recordings of Pierre Monteux in Europe released on the Decca label cover the twentieth-century repertoire. (There is also a “bonus disc” of rehearsal sessions for both Ludwig van Beethoven and Maurice Ravel, as well as “La Marseillaise;” but those tracks do not necessarily cultivate informed listening.) As a conductor Monteux was a major figure in presenting the music of his own time. This was due, in no small part, to his aforementioned connection with the Ballets Russes, including the notorious premiere performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

As has already been observed, Monteux worked closely with Stravinsky to finalize the score and parts that would be used for “The Rite of Spring.” He also conducted Stravinsky’s score for the “Petrushka” ballet. Recordings of both of these compositions are included in the Decca box, along with a performance of the 1919 suite compiled from the score for Stravinsky’s first Ballets Russes project, “The Firebird.” All three of these Stravinsky selections are performed by orchestra of the Conservatoire de Paris, known as the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire until it was dissolved in 1967, to be replaced by the Orchestre de Paris.

1922 photograph of Ida Rubinstein, who figured significantly in many of the twentieth-century compositions that Monteux conducted (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The “Ballets Russes connection” can also be found in this collection in a recording of Maurice Ravel’s score for the ballet “Daphnis et Chloé,” as well as the complete ballet score for Ravel’s “Ma mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose). This latter was an orchestrated expansion of a five-movement suite for four hands on one keyboard that Ravel had composed with the same title. Then, of course, there is “Bolero,” which was composed for the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and “La Valse,” which Ravel called a “choreographic poem for orchestra,” even though Ballets Russes director Serge Diaghilev called it a “portrait of a ballet” and felt that it could not be produced. Nevertheless, it was later set to choreography by both Rubinstein and Bronislava Nijinska; and in the Fifties it was choreographed by both George Balanchine and Frederic Ashton.

All of this overlooks my own first contact with Monteux through a vinyl recording. While studying orchestration, I followed my professor’s advice by becoming better acquainted with the three pieces that Claude Debussy collected under the title Images pour orchestre. (We spent a lot of time in the classroom with the second of these pieces, “Ibéria.”) I bought the Philips Records album of Monteux conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, which also included Debussy’s four symphonic fragments from another Rubinstein project, the five-act musical mystery play Le Martyre de saint Sébastien (the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian). I spent many hours internalizing all of the details on this album, and encountering it on CD after all those ensuing decades turned out to be a real treat.

Only one CD in this collection departs from all of this “Parisian action” in the history of twentieth-century music. That CD couples Jean Sibelius’ Opus 43 (second) symphony in D minor with Edward Elgar’s Opus 36 set of variations, which he called “Enigma.” There is no doubt that Monteux interprets both of these pieces with the same clear vision and sure hand that he brought to the many innovations of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky. Mind you, I shall continue to treasure my recording of Elgar himself conducting his Opus 36. Nevertheless, there is never a “single, correct interpretation” of any piece of music worth its salt. Monteux’ interpretations always “honor the text;” but they also establish consistently engaging points of view.

Guitarist Xuefei Yang’s Return to San Francisco

Guitarist Xuefei Yang (from her SFP event page)

Last night St. Mark’s Lutheran Church saw the return of Chinese guitarist Xuefei Yang. Yang made her recital debut with San Francisco Performances (SFP) in February of 2004; and last night saw her seventh SFP appearance, presented jointly with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts Dynamite Guitars series. The program was framed by a diversity of Spanish compositions, beginning with an exploration of French influences, while the central portion was devoted to a sampling of Chinese compositions, many arrangements of works originally played on Chinese plucked instruments.

The “French connection” was to Claude Debussy by way of the only composition for guitar written by Manuel de Falla, “Pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy” (for the tomb of Claude Debussy). The piece is a habanera that reflects on Debussy’s “La soirée dans Grenade” (evening in Granada), the second of the three solo piano compositions he collected under the title Estampes (prints). Falla subsequently arranged his piece for piano and then orchestrated it for Homenajes (homages), a suite of four memorial compositions. Yang established Debussy’s influence by beginning her program with “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (the girl with the flaxen hair), the eighth piece in the first book of Préludes composed for solo piano.

This “chain of influence” was then continued with Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Invocación y danza” (invocation and dance), composed in 1961 as a homenaje for Falla. This piece, in turn, draws upon Falla’s memorial composition for Debussy. However, the dance portion is a polo, one of the flamenco dance forms, which concludes Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas (seven Spanish folksongs) collection; and there is also an explicit evocation of a motif from Falla’s “El amor brujo” (love, the magician).

This all made for an engaging approach to musical influence, reinforced by Yang playing the Debussy and Falla selections without interruption. The clarity of her execution allowed the attentive listener to appreciate the cross-composition influences to the richest extent. This made for one of those rare occasions where both theory and practice were honored on equal terms.

The principal composers for the concluding Spanish selection were Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. Both of these musicians were pianists, and Yang performed her own arrangements of their compositions. As was the case with her Debussy performance, the arrangements honored the thematic content, never losing track of the initial rhetorical impact. Yang was a bit shy when it came to the percussive technique behind Granados’ “Zapateado,” which concludes his 6 Piezas sobre cantos populares españoles (six pieces based on popular Spanish songs); but the overall Spanish spirit was as rich as it had been in the first half of the program.

More unique to the program were the compositions and arrangements of Chinese music. Yang provided some spoken background for these selections. Sadly, however, her microphone technique was decidedly inferior to her guitar technique; and she is still not particularly comfortable with English diction. Nevertheless, even without explanatory details the attentive listener could recognize many of the influences behind the music, including efforts to evoke the sonorities of more traditional instruments. There was also an impressive account of “Shuo Chang” by the contemporary Chinese composer Chen Yi, whose music I have encountered on recordings from time to time. “Shuo Chang” was her first composition for solo guitar, and it was written for Yang. To the best of my knowledge, this was my first concert encounter with her music; and Yang’s performance left me eager for future encounters.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The San Francisco Performances 2020 Salon Series

Edward Simon, curator of the Salon Series (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

As was announced this past April, the Salon Series will return to San Francisco Performances next month. As a result of renovations, the Hotel Rex can no longer provide a venue for this unique approach that provides an intimate relationship between audience and performers. Fortunately, a new venue has been found in the same building that houses Herbst Theatre. All performances will take place in the Education Studio on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building, whose main entrance is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street.

The overall format will be somewhat different. Jazz improviser, composer, arranger, and band leader Edward Simon will serve as curator for the four programs that will be presented in this series. In addition the series will be sponsored this season by KDFC, the San Francisco non-commercial radio station that broadcasts classical music 24 hours daily. Each of the four events will include appearances by KDFC on-air hosts. Each will begin on a Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. and last for about an hour. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

January 15: The series will begin with a solo recital by Simon, which he will use to survey works by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou. Simon will perform selections from three of the collections that Mompou compiled during his lifetime. The largest of these is Música callada (silent music), consisting of four volumes composed, respectively, in 1959, 1962, 1965, and 1967. The twelve pieces in the Cançons i danses (songs and dances), each of which couples a song with a dance (somewhat in the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach coupling a prelude with a fugue), were composed between 1921 and 1979. The final collection will be the set of twelve preludes composed between 1972 and 1960.

February 5: Simon will be joined by violinist Hrabba Atladottir and cellist Eric Gaenslen. The program will present a performance of Astor Piazzolla’s suite Estaciones Porteñas (known in English as “the four seasons of Buenos Aires”). Piazzolla composed these four pieces separately for his own nuevo tango ensembles. Only much later did they begin to be performed as a group. José Bragato prepared the arrangement of this music for piano trio that will be performed.

February 26: Simon will present his own program of solo piano jazz.

April 15: Simon will be joined by flutist Marcos Granados. The duo will play Simon’s Venezuelan Suite. The rest of the program will be devoted to Sound American music including compositions by the Venezuelan singer Simón Díaz.

Subscriptions for all four programs are now on sale for $140. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. Single tickets will also be sold by City Box Office for $40. They may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to each of the above dates. All tickets can also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

Concert by SFO 2019 Adler Fellows Disappoints

Since the tenure of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) Adler Fellowships, founded in 1977 to support performance-oriented residencies for the most advanced young artists, is based on the calendar year, December always sees the presentation of an annual “warp-up” performance by the Adler Fellows of that year. These are “sampler” programs, designed to provide a platform for the strengths of each of the Fellows and drawing upon the full scope of repertoire from the pre-Classical period to the present. Adler Fellowships are assigned not only to vocalists but also to keyboardists, who serve as apprentice coaches and frequently provide continuo support for music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and earlier composers.

The vocalists for this year’s “graduation ceremony,” held last night in Herbst Theatre, were 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. Both of this year’s apprentice coaches, Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad and César Cañón, provided harpsichord continuo when the score required it. The instrumental music was provided by members of the SFO Orchestra; and last night marked the first appearance of Eun Sun Kim serving as conductor after the announcement of her appointment as SFO Music Director this past Thursday. With the exception of the opening overture, the one that Leonard Bernstein composed for Candide, all performances were staged by Roy Rallo, albeit in the limited space between the area occupied by the Orchestra and the edge of the Herbst stage.

The program itself was a diverse assortment of seventeen arias and duets, nine before the intermission and the remaining eight afterwards. In such abundance it is no surprise that considerable variation in repertoire engendered equally considerable variation in performance quality. Indeed, while there was no shortage of virtuoso turns during the first half of the program, any sense of compelling engagement between the performers and the score only began to emerge after the intermission. To some extent this was an overall shallowness in the repertoire itself, meaning that only a few selections from the entire program ever maintained a secure hold on memory.

Zhengyi Bai and Simone McIntosh (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francosco Opera)

Memory was strongest when it came to the only selection by Gioachino Rossini. In the comic opera genre Rossini is particularly notable for his power to amuse. That power was epitomized in Rallo’s staging of a scene from Le comte Ory in which the title character (Bai), disguised as a hermit, encounters his page Isolier (McIntosh), who does not recognize him. The “action” involves two men infatuated with the same woman; and both Bai and McIntosh knew how to present the full comic depth of Rallo’s vision.

Christopher Oglesby and Ashley Dixon (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francosco Opera)

On the instrumental side Kim had the opportunity to work with instrumentation at its richest during the “first encounter” duet between Cinderella (Dixon) and Prince Charming (Oglesby) in Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon. My personal appreciation of Massenet’s music owes much to a master class that conductor Michel Singher gave for the Opera Academy of California many years ago. Pulling out a full orchestral score, he showed the vocalists being coached the many subtle undercurrents of instrumental activity that make Massenet’s work so engaging (at least when it is properly performed). Kim’s sensitivity to those rich details provided just the right context to capture the dramatic intensity of first the encounter itself and then its interruption at the stroke of midnight.

Sadly, these were two glowing highlights (which happened to be performed back-to-back) in a landscape that consisted of a drab background punctuated by turns of virtuosity in the foreground. All of that virtuosity was clearly well prepared. However, most of those turns emerged as display for its own sake, rather than in the service of the dramatic setting and the music establishing that setting. Indeed, the very nature of any drama was, to a great extent, obscured between the absence of titles in English and summary texts that could not be followed in the darkened audience area.

The program book for the evening included a gallery of Adler Fellows performing in SFO productions. In reviewing those photographs, any number of satisfying experiences of the work of those Fellows came to mind. I just wish that more of those experiences had managed to resonate over the course of last night’s “farewell concert.”

Friday, December 6, 2019

Old First Concerts: January, 2020

Old First Concerts (O1C) seems to be the second organization “out of the gate” when it comes to announcing monthly plans for the new year. (For those who may have forgotten, Sunset Music and Arts was the first; but, because they were presenting only two concerts in January, the schedule for that month was merged with the one for February.) O1C has planned for only four concerts next month; and, as is always the case, any additions or modifications will be handled by posts to the shadow page for this site on Facebook.

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

Sunday, January 12, 4 p.m.: The first concert in the new year will present the Ramey Piano Trio. This ensemble brings pianist Samantha Cho together with two members of the San Francisco Symphony, violinist Florin Parvulescu and cellist David Goldblatt. The program title could be Les Six Meets the First Viennese School, but the performers seem to have shied away from that approach to introduction. Les Six consisted of six French composers active at the beginning of the twentieth century, who were named as a group by the music critic Henri Collet. However, in writing about the group, one of its members, Darius Milhaud, claims that Collet named him and his five colleagues “simply because we knew each other and we were pals and appeared on the same musical programmes, no matter if our temperaments and personalities weren't at all the same!”

The Ramey program has decided to focus on the only female composer in the group, Germaine Tailleferre. She composed two piano trios. The first was written relatively early in her career in 1917 and consisted of a single movement with the tempo marking “Calme et sans lenteur” (calm and without slowness). Tailleferre began the other trio in 1916. However, it was interrupted by World War I; and Tailleferre did not complete it until 1978, a few years before her death. This will be the trio that Ramey will perform. It will be framed by Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XV/27 trio in C major and Franz Schubert’s D. 898 piano trio in B-flat major, both representing the First Viennese School at its most inventive.

Friday, January 24, 8 p.m.: The Chordless duo of soprano Sara LeMesh and pianist Allegra Chapman was a high point of my sampling of performances at the Veterans Building on SF Music Day this past October. On that occasion their program presented vocal compositions by Grażyna Bacewicz, Andrzej Panufnik, Tadeusz Baird, and Igor Stravinsky, the last represented by the original version of his “Pastorale.” Their O1C debut will revisit Baird, Panufnik, and Stravinsky; but it will also present the world premiere of a new song cycle (not yet given a title) by Benjamin Pesetsky. There will also be selections from Aaron Copland’s collection of settings of twelve poems by Emily Dickinson and Olivier Messiaen’s cycle Poéms pour Mi. The other two composers on the program could not be more different, Barbara Strozzi from the seventeenth century and Charles Ives from the twentieth. There will also be a special guest appearance by soprano Kate McKinney.

Sunday, January 26, 4 p.m.: The Ives Collective, co-directed by violinist Susan Freier and cellist Stephen Harrison, will return to O1C. They will be joined by violinist Jay Zhong, violists Melissa Matson and Jessica Chang, and pianist Elizabeth Schumann. This will be O1C’s first offering of music by Ludwig van Beethoven in that composer’s 250th anniversary year, and the program will be devoted entirely to two Beethoven compositions. The five string players will begin with a performance of his Opus 29 quintet in C major. Schumann will then play the Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major, accompanied by the five string players.

Friday, January 31, 8 p.m.: Pianist Anyssa Neumann will present a recital of preludes and transcriptions. The program will explore the wide scope of approaches to counterpoint that can be found in music as early as the Baroque period (the BWV 933–938 keyboard preludes by Johann Sebastian Bach) to the present day. Indeed, the contributions by contemporary composers serve as “responses” to “calls” from the past. Thus, Ian Dicke’s “Postlude” is a “response” to Frédéric Chopin’s A minor prelude, the second in his Opus 28 collection. On the other hand Ferruccio Busoni’s transcriptions of Bach’s chorale preludes will be followed by Christopher Cerrone’s “Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” a chorale-like composition scored for piano and live electronics (and named after a subway station in Brooklyn).

Philharmonia Baroque Gets the Jump on Hanukkah

Traditionally, December is the month in which concert programming takes the Christmas holiday into account; and George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 Messiah tends to head the list of “season-appropriate” selections. However, as Bruce Lamott, PBO’s Scholar-in-Residence and Chorale Director, observed in his pre-concert talk last night, Old Testament sources figure significantly (if not prodigiously) in the libretto texts for Handel’s oratorios. Even HWV 56 is based primarily on the writings of the Books of the Prophets concerned with the coming of the Messiah.

Lamott’s remarks last night took place in Herbst Theatre to introduce the first performance of this month’s concert by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale. The program was devoted entirely to a performance of Handel’s HWV 63 oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. The King James Version of the Bible included two books of Maccabees. These were not parts of either the Old Testament or the New Testament but, instead, were relegated to a section labelled “Books called Apocrypha,” using a term for either unknown authorship or doubtful origin. 2 Maccabees provides the story of the miracle of oil for the temple lamp that serves as the basis for the celebration of Hanukkah (which will begin this year on the evening of December 22). On the other hand the libretto for HWV 63, prepared by Thomas Morell, is based on 1 Maccabees, an account of a “resistance movement” against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid King of Syria. The objective was for the Jews to reclaim that land that had been promised them in the Book of Exodus and to restore the Holy Temple, which had been desecrated by the Seleucid invaders.

As a result, HWV 63 is not about the miracle behind Hanukkah but, instead, establishes the context for that miracle. The Maccabees are the sons of Mattathias Maccabaeus, who incited rebellion again Antiochus but did not live to see the Jews prevail. The oratorio is named after his son Judas (sung by tenor Nicholas Phan), who took over the leadership of the rebellion. Morell’s text also provides music for Judas’ brother Simon (baritone William Berger), reinforcing an overall narrative in which passionate patriotism prevails.

However, what makes the libretto particularly interesting is that there are only two other significant characters. These are “anonymous” individuals described only as “Israelitish Woman” (soprano Robin Johannsen) and “Israelitish Man” (mezzo Sara Couden). One might say that they amount to a “Greek chorus,” providing the perspective of those Jewish individuals for whom the Maccabees pursued their rebellion. This is yet another gesture of patriotism, which may well have been appropriate because, as Lamott observed, it was quickly associated with the failure of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 to take over the English throne. That patriotic spirit remains in the present with the tradition of singing the HWV 63 chorus “See, the conqu’ring hero comes!” as part of the “Last Night of the Proms” celebrations every summer in the Royal Albert Hall.

Last night’s performance was long but vigorous. In was interesting to observe that instrumentation for the first of the oratorio’s three parts consisted almost entirely of strings. It was only when the text started turning to vigorous actions that trumpets, drums, and winds began to make their presence known. That approach to instrumentation underscored the general sense of how the narrative behind the libretto progressed.

From that patriotic perspective, however, the most interesting selections were those sung by Johannsen and particularly Couden. This emphasis on those influenced in preference to the influencers made for a novel approach to relating heroic accounts. Couden’s solo aria performances were particularly compelling, very much in keeping with the keen dramatic sensibilities she brought to her performance of Prince Ormondo in the Ars Minerva production of Domenico Freschi’s opera Ermelinda last month.

PBO’s “reward” for audience appreciation (photograph by Liz West, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Furthermore, the “show” did not end with the final round of applause. As they left Herbst, members of the audience were given foil-wrapped chocolate coins. These are the “Hanukkah gelt” (Hanukkah money) candies that traditionally are given to Jewish children as part of the Hanukkah celebration. I suppose this was PBO’s “seasonal” way of thanking the audience for its presence last night in a manner consistent with the holiday spirit behind the oratorio.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Eun Sun Kim Appointed SFO Music Director

Conductor Eun Sun Kim conducting the June 28 performance of Rusalka (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

This afternoon at the War Memorial Opera House, Matthew Shilvock, General Director of the San Francisco Opera (SFO), announced the appointment of conductor Eun Sun Kim as Caroline H. Hume Music Director. Readers may recall that Kim made her SFO debut this past June when she conducted David McVicar’s staging of Antonín Dvořák’s best known opera, his Opus 114 Rusalka. This was the first time she had conducted a Czech opera, and her performance was nothing short of pure dynamite. There was no shortage of imaginative sonorities in Dvořák’s score. Kim not only knew how to coax the full palette of those sonorities from the orchestra pit but also how to blend them with all the rich solo and choral work coming from the stage.

Kim will give her first performance following Shilvock’s announcement tomorrow night in Herbst Theater. Readers may recall that tomorrow night will present the final performance by the 2019 Adler Fellows in a program that will offer a rich selection from the operatic repertoire. She is currently dividing her time between Vienna and Houston, where she is currently Principal Guest Conductor of the Houston Grand Opera. Her tenure with SFO will begin on August 1, 2021. Following tomorrow night, her next appearance will be during the opening weekend of the 2020–21 season, when she will conduct a new production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Over the course of her early career, Kim has established herself as an expressive opera conductor in both Europe and North America. As we know from this past summer, she is not afraid to expand her repertoire in adventurous ways. We should all look forward to her future performances as she makes San Francisco her new home.

Disappointments with the 62nd GRAMMY Nominations

logo for the 2020 GRAMMY awards

Once again the nominations for the 2020 GRAMMY Awards constitute “my annual reality check.” As always, my frustration arises from never giving up on choosing to focus on listener experiences, rather than commercial success. Indeed, the month of December has barely begun; and I already feel that I have hit my limit with the season’s hucksterism, which now seems to have taken over the domain of local news to supplement the purchase of on-air advertising time. That said, here is my annual list of GRAMMY categories that overlapped my own listening experiences one way or another:

35. Best Latin Jazz Album

    ANTIDOTE
    Chick Corea & The Spanish Heart Band
     
    SORTE!: MUSIC BY JOHN FINBURY
    Thalma de Freitas With Vitor Gonçalves, John Patitucci, Chico Pinheiro, Rogerio Boccato & Duduka Da Fonseca
     
    UNA NOCHE CON RUBÉN BLADES
    Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis Featuring Rubén Blades
     
    CARIB
    David Sánchez
     
    Miguel Zenón

Latin jazz is far from my “front suit” where my listening experiences are concerned. Nevertheless, I became interested in Zenón during his tenure with the SFJAZZ Collective; and that interest has endured. This was a first-rate example of useful music history embedded in a collection of truly engaging performances.

62. Best Instrumental Composition

    Fred Hersch, composer (Fred Hersch & The WDR Big Band Conducted By Vince Mendoza)
     
    CRUCIBLE FOR CRISIS
    Brian Lynch, composer (Brian Lynch Big Band)
     
    LOVE, A BEAUTIFUL FORCE
    Vince Mendoza, composer (Vince Mendoza, Terell Stafford, Dick Oatts & Temple University Studio Orchestra)
     
    STAR WARS: GALAXY'S EDGE SYMPHONIC SUITE
    John Williams, composer (John Williams)
     
    WALKIN' FUNNY
    Christian McBride, composer (Christian McBride)

This was the first year I even knew that there was a Composing/Arranging category. As can be seen, the choices may be described as “genre independent.” Since my own personal choices can be described the same way, it was a minor jolt to discover that I was familiar with only one of the albums on this list. However, it gave me another opportunity to sing Hersch’s praises in a slightly different context.

73. Best Engineered Album, Classical

    AEQUA - ANNA THORVALDSDÓTTIR
    Daniel Shores, engineer; Daniel Shores, mastering engineer (International Contemporary Ensemble)
     
    BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9
    Mark Donahue, engineer; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
     
    RACHMANINOFF - HERMITAGE PIANO TRIO
    Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers; Keith O. Johnson, mastering engineer (Hermitage Piano Trio)
     
    RILEY: SUN RINGS
    Leslie Ann Jones, engineer; John Kilgore, Judith Sherman & David Harrington, engineers/mixers; Robert C. Ludwig, mastering engineer (Kronos Quartet)
     
    Bob Hanlon & Lawrence Rock, engineers; Ian Good & Lawrence Rock, mastering engineers (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People's Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

As can be seen from the description, this is an award presented to technicians, rather than performers. While I was not particularly swayed by Wolfe’s latest venture into “social significance,” it was hard to fault her on her everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to summoning resources. It would therefore be churlish not to give the engineers a nod for a truly impressive account of audio capture, particularly since all source content was captured during concert performances.

74. Producer Of The Year, Classical

    BLANTON ALSPAUGH

• Artifacts - The Music Of Michael McGlynn (Charles Bruffy & Kansas City Chorale)
• Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique; Fantaisie Sur La Tempête De Shakespeare (Andrew Davis & Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
Copland: Billy The Kid; Grohg (Leonard Slatkin & Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
• Duruflé: Complete Choral Works (Robert Simpson & Houston Chamber Choir)
• Glass: Symphony No. 5 (Julian Wachner, The Choir Of Trinity Wall Street, Trinity Youth Chorus, Downtown Voices & Novus NY)
• Sander: The Divine Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom (Peter Jermihov & PaTRAM Institute Singers)
• Smith, K.: Canticle (Craig Hella Johnson & Cincinnati Vocal Arts Ensemble)
• Visions Take Flight (Mei-Ann Chen & ROCO)

    JAMES GINSBURG

Project W - Works By Diverse Women Composers (Mei-Ann Chen & Chicago Sinfonietta)
Silenced Voices (Black Oak Ensemble)
• 20th Century Harpsichord Concertos (Jory Vinikour, Scott Speck & Chicago Philharmonic)
• Twentieth Century Oboe Sonatas (Alex Klein & Phillip Bush)
• Winged Creatures & Other Works For Flute, Clarinet, And Orchestra (Anthony McGill, Demarre McGill, Allen Tinkham & Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra)

    MARINA A. LEDIN, VICTOR LEDIN

Bates: Children Of Adam; Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem (Steven Smith, Erin R. Freeman, Richmond Symphony & Chorus)
• The Orchestral Organ (Jan Kraybill)
The Poetry Of Places (Nadia Shpachenko)
• Rachmaninoff - Hermitage Piano Trio (Hermitage Piano Trio)

    MORTEN LINDBERG

• Himmelborgen (Elisabeth Holte, Kåre Nordstoga & Uranienborg Vokalensemble)
• Kleiberg: Do You Believe In Heather? (Various Artists)
• Ljos (Fauna Vokalkvintett)
• LUX (Anita Brevik, Trondheimsolistene & Nidarosdomens Jentekor)
• Trachea (Tone Bianca Sparre Dahl & Schola Cantorum)
• Veneliti (Håkon Daniel Nystedt & Oslo Kammerkor)

    DIRK SOBOTKA

• Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

This is a tricky category. After all, whether we like it or not, every recording that is released is a product. The extent to which that product offers a listening experience is probably secondary were the producer is concerned. Indeed, production is probably more about creating a salable product than about anything else. From that point of view, both Ginsburg and the Ledins came up with products that “push the right buttons.” On the other hand Alspaugh has been working with Slatkin to create a fresh new library of the repertoire of the music of Aaron Copland. The GRAMMY judges may not pay attention to that mission, but it has the highest priority in my own book!

75. Best Orchestral Performance

    BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 9
    Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
     
    Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)
     
    NORMAN: SUSTAIN
    Gustavo Dudamel, conductor (Los Angeles Philharmonic)
     
    TRANSATLANTIC
    Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
     
    WEINBERG: SYMPHONIES NOS. 2 & 21
    Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor (City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & Kremerata Baltica)

There are several good candidates on this list, but I was particularly impressed with the programming that Slatkin brought to this album.

76. Best Opera Recording

    BENJAMIN: LESSONS IN LOVE & VIOLENCE
    George Benjamin, conductor; Stéphane Degout, Barbara Hannigan, Peter Hoare & Gyula Orendt; James Whitbourn, producer (Orchestra Of The Royal Opera House)
     
    Marc Albrecht, conductor; Christopher Maltman & Eva-Maria Westbroek; François Roussillon, producer (Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra; Chorus Of Dutch National Opera)
     
    CHARPENTIER: LES ARTS FLORISSANTS; LES PLAISIRS DE VERSAILLES
    Paul O'Dette & Stephen Stubbs, conductors; Jesse Blumberg, Teresa Wakim & Virginia Warnken; Renate Wolter-Seevers, producer (Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble; Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble)
     
    PICKER: FANTASTIC MR. FOX
    Gil Rose, conductor; John Brancy, Andrew Craig Brown, Gabriel Preisser, Krista River & Edwin Vega; Gil Rose, producer (Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Boston Children's Chorus)
     
    WAGNER: LOHENGRIN
    Christian Thielemann, conductor; Piotr Beczała, Anja Harteros, Tomasz Konieczny, Waltraud Meier & Georg Zeppenfeld; Eckhard Glauche, producer (Festspielorchester Bayreuth; Festspielchor Bayreuth)

This is a case where my impressions are decidedly negative. I have been fortunate enough to see several productions of Wozzeck. This is probably a case in which I have had more concert experiences than those of listening to recordings. I therefore feel as if I have a strong enough platform to assert that the video release of Krzysztof Warlikowski served up the worst staging of Wozzeck I have ever encountered. Among other issues, it left me wondering bitterly whether or not it provided grounds for accusing that stage director of child abuse.

79. Best Classical Instrumental Solo

    Yuja Wang
     
    Yolanda Kondonassis; Ward Stare, conductor (The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
     
    Nicola Benedetti; Cristian Măcelaru, conductor (Philadelphia Orchestra)
     
    THE ORCHESTRAL ORGAN
    Jan Kraybill
     
    TORKE: SKY, CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN
    Tessa Lark; David Alan Miller, conductor (Albany Symphony)

I have come to praise the performance talents of Yuja Wang, rather than bury the compositions of Jennifer Higdon and Wynton Marsalis!

81. Best Classical Compendium

    AMERICAN ORIGINALS 1918
    John Morris Russell, conductor; Elaine Martone, producer
     
    LESHNOFF: SYMPHONY NO. 4 'HEICHALOS'; GUITAR CONCERTO; STARBURST
    Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer
     
    MELTZER: SONGS AND STRUCTURES
    Paul Appleby & Natalia Katyukova; Silas Brown & Harold Meltzer, producers
     
    Nadia Shpachenko; Marina A. Ledin & Victor Ledin, producers
     
    SAARIAHO: TRUE FIRE; TRANS; CIEL D'HIVER
    Hannu Lintu, conductor; Laura Heikinheimo, producer

I have any number of regrets about this category, the strongest having been missing out on Lintu conducting the music a Kaija Saariaho.

82. Best Contemporary Classical Composition

    BERMEL: MIGRATION SERIES FOR JAZZ ENSEMBLE & ORCHESTRA
    Derek Bermel, composer (Derek Bermel, Ted Nash, David Alan Miller, Juilliard Jazz Orchestra & Albany Symphony Orchestra)
     
    Jennifer Higdon, composer (Yolanda Kondonassis, Ward Stare & The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra)
     
    Wynton Marsalis, composer (Nicola Benedetti, Cristian Măcelaru & Philadelphia Orchestra)
     
    NORMAN: SUSTAIN
    Andrew Norman, composer (Gustavo Dudamel & Los Angeles Philharmonic)
     
    SHAW: ORANGE
    Caroline Shaw, composer (Attacca Quartet)
     
    Julia Wolfe, composer (Jaap Van Zweden, Francisco J. Núñez, Donald Nally, The Crossing, Young People's Chorus Of NY City & New York Philharmonic)

Why does so much “contemporary” music sound like it was composed in the twentieth century?