Wednesday, January 22, 2020

SFO Announces 2020–21 Season Repertory

Today at 1 p.m. subscription tickets went on sale for the 2020–21 season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). There are a few interesting ways in which the schedule will depart from the usual format. Most important is that 2021 will be the year in which seats in the Orchestra, Grand Tier, and Dress Circle sections of the War Memorial Opera House will be replaced. As a result, the second half of the season, usually referred to as the “summer schedule” will take place during the months of April and May.

The other major change is that opening night festivities will not include an opera performance. Instead there will be a gala concert conducted by Music Director Designate Eun Sun Kim, which will feature performances by soprano Albina Shagimuratova and tenor Pene Pati, who will subsequently perform the role of the Duke of Mantua in the season’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. The remaining festivities will, as usual include the Opera Ball, the Opera Supper, and the BRAVO! CLUB black-tie gala. This event will be included in the Full Series A and Out of Town Series 1 subscription packages. Five operas will be presented during the fall season with two additional operas taking place in the spring, making for a total of seven operas, summarized briefly as follows:

Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven: The season will begin with SFO’s contribution to Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. This will be a new production staged by Matthew Ozawa, and Kim will be the conductor. The title role (better known as Leonora) will be sung by former Adler Fellow soprano Elza van den Heever; and her Florestan will be sung by Simon O’Neill. Casting also calls for three bass-baritones, Falk Struckmann in the sinister role of Pizarro, Eric Owns as the kindly jailer Rocco, and Alfred Walker in the deus ex machina role of Fernando. (Walker will be making his debut in this role.)

Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi: This production will see the return of the staging by Mark Lamos, directed on this occasion by Jose Maria Condemi. What may be the most memorable aspect, however, is the work of Set Designer Michael Yeargan, which was inspired by the chilling surrealism of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. The title role will be sung by baritone George Gagnidze, and soprano Nina Minasyan will make her American opera debut in the role of his daughter, Gilda. As previously observed, tenor Pene Pati will sing the role of the decadent Duke of Mantua. The conductor will be Mark Elder.

Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: This will be the second installment in the SFO “trilogy” treatment of the three Mozart operas based on libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte, conceived and directed by Michael Cavanagh. As was observed last season, all three operas share a common setting, which Cavanagh calls “the Great American House of Mozart and Da Ponte.” That house suggests the architectural skills of Thomas Jefferson, whom I like to call “the Great American Polymath.” The first production, presenting Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro, took place in the early years of the newly-constituted United States of America. Così (K. 588) advances along the timeline to the mid-1930s, that period that began with efforts to get the country out of depression and ended with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the first winds of World War II. There are only six roles in the opera, all of which a rich in individual personal traits. Speranza Scappucci will make her SFO debut as conductor.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Poul Ruders: This will be the West Coast premiere of an opera the SFO co-produced with the Royal Danish Opera. Based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same title, the production will be staged by John Fulljames, Royal Danish Opera Artistic Director, who will be making his SFO debut. Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård will also be making his SFO debut. The critical title role in this narrative will be sung by mezzo Sasha Cooke, making her role debut.

La bohème by Giacomo Puccini: The next returning production will also see the return of conductor Nicola Luisotti. Shawna Lucey will direct the revival of the staging that John Caird first created in 2014 for a co-production with the Houston Grand Opera and the Canadian Opera Company. The performance will be shared by two casts.

The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini: The final revival of the season and the first of the spring operas will be Emilio Sagi’s zany production, first performed in the fall of 2013. This production will also be double-cast; but baritone Lucas Meachem will sing the role of Figaro in all performances. The conductor will be Roderick Cox, making his SFO debut.

Der Zwerg by Alexander von Zemlinsky: This will be the SFO premiere of the one-act opera that Zemlinsky completed in January of 1921, based on Oscar Wilde’s story “The Birthday of the Infanta.” Zemlinsky was one of the first to sustain a passionate affair with Alma Schindler (best known today as Alma Mahler), even though she chided him mercilessly for his ugliness. The central character in Wilde’s story is a dwarf, with whom Zemlinsky identified as he worked on his Opus 17 opera. That role will be sung by heldentenor Clay Hilley, and the infanta will be sung by soprano Heidi Stober. Staging will be by Darko Tresnjak; and the orchestra podium will see the return of Henrik Nánási, who conducted The Marriage of Figaro last season.

The spring season will conclude with a concert performance, which will also be conducted by Nánási. Sopranos Lianna Haroutounian and Iréne Theorin will give three performances in celebration of the music of Verdi and Richard Wagner. The program will also include selections by Puccini and Richard Strauss. The other concert offering will be the annual Opera in the Park program, which will feature solo performances by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. As in the past, this concert will take place at Robin Williams Meadow in Golden Gate Park on the afternoon of Sunday, October 18. Subscriptions are now on sale for a variety of different combinations of offerings, all of which may be viewed through hyperlinks to to the “subscription home page” on the SFO Web site.

Dirt and Copper to Perform in Artistic Setting

Dirt and Copper performing this past February at Tree Talk, an exhibit of the work of María Elena González (photograph by Phil Bond Photography, from the Dirt and Copper home page)

Dirt and Copper is a collective dedicated to the performance of radical new music. All of its members, Rodolfo Córdova, Tony Gennaro, John Ivers, Julie Herndon, Michelle Lee, and Matt Robidoux, are based in the Bay Area. Its current project involves collaboration with Laura Steenberge, a performer and composer based in Los Angeles. Steenberge’s background is highly eclectic, incorporating research into language, mythology, and ritual in her compositional efforts.

At the next Dirt and Copper performance, Steenberge’s recent work will be performed on a program with new works by Robidoux, Herndon, and Gennaro. The performance will also involve live visuals created by Rebecca Bollinger and Dana Hemenway; and the setting will be Hemenway’s work-in-progress installation, The Color of Horizons. The installation is currently located in Space 124 in the Project Artaud building; but its eventual destination will be Terminal 1 of San Francisco International Airport (SFO), where it is expected to appear in March.

The Dirt and Copper concert will take place at the beginning of next month, starting at 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 1. The performance is expected to last for about 90 minutes. The Project Artaud building is located in NEMIZ (the NorthEast Mission Industrial Zone) at 499 Alabama Street. There will be no charge for admission. However, all donations will be appreciated. The suggested donation amount is between $10 and $15, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

A Disappointing Album of Brahms Transcriptions

from the Web page for the album being discussed

Almost exactly a month ago MSR Classics released a new album entitled Brahms in Transcription. This is a solo piano album with Uriel Tsachor as the soloist. As the title suggests, the album consists primarily of transcriptions of compositions by Johannes Brahms. However, there are also four tracks that present Brahms as the transcriber, two of which involve his transcribing his own music.

Considering that it was conceived for relatively intimate social encounters, rather than the “mass appeal” of the concert hall, “the art of the transcription” is a challenging undertaking that demands acute sensitivity to the subtleties of both the source content and the execution of the transcribed version. Transcriptions are often encountered in recital encores; but the scare quotes in that last sentence are intended to recall that, on November 1, 1981, that phrase served as the title of a recital that Earl Wild gave in Carnegie Hall. The entire program was subsequently released as a recording, whose CD version became very difficult to get; but, thanks to a series entitled Great Pianists of the 20th Century, the recording is now more readily available.

In that context it is worth observing that, in preparing his recital, Wild did not account for any selection by Brahms as either composer or transcriber. Tsachor’s recording provides evidence that this may have been a wise decision on Wild’s part. The core of Tsachor’s album is taken from a publication by N. Simrock entitled Fünf Langsame Sätze Aus Den Sinfonien (five slow movements from the symphonies), the symphonies in question being the four composed by Johannes Brahms. The transcriptions were composed by Max Reger. There is no questioning Reger’s perceptive appreciation of both the syntax and the rhetoric of Brahms’ scores. However, that appreciation does not reveal itself through Tsachor’s performances, and it is difficult to determine whether the shortcomings are due to Reger or Tsachor.

Were I do indulge in gambling, my bet would go on identifying Tsachor as the primary source of the problem. Over the full extent of the album, it seems as if all of his priorities have to do with the marks on paper. This is not to say that he ignores issues of phrasing; but, after several listening encounters, I remain hard pressed to hypothesize any logic behind his approaches to phrasing.

Equally problematic is that his overall approach to performance never really reflects back on that aforementioned context of intimacy. Wild’s recital was powerful enough that, even in the vastness of the Carnegie Hall space, one could still appreciate the intimacy behind each of his selections. None of the twelve tracks on Tsachor’s album elicits even the slightest sense of such intimacy, making the experience of listening a rather dull and uninspiring affair.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Beethoven Piano Sonatas: Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis on the cover of the original recording of his Beethoven sonata performances (from the Web page for this recording)

This past November harmonia mundi got the jump on the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven by re-releasing sixteen CDs of performances by pianist Paul Lewis as a box set. The original releases date back from when I was just beginning to write for; and, as a result, I never really had an opportunity to encounter them. (I would later compensate by going after every recording that Lewis made of the piano music of Franz Schubert.) I thus regarded the release of this box set as a way to compensate for having missed the boat when the recordings were originally distributed.

The entire box is in three decidedly unequal sections. The first ten CDs are devoted to all of the published piano sonatas. I include the adjective “published” because the recording project chose to overlook WoO 57, the original movement of the Opus 53 (“Waldstein”) sonata in C major, now known as the “Andante favori” (favored Andante). There follow three CDs to account for the five piano concertos, the third of which consists only of the Opus 73 (“Emperor”) concerto in E-flat major, making it rather skimpy in content. (At least one other label decided to compensate by including the Opus 80 “Choral Fantasy;” but I am not going to bemoan its absence!) The final CD is devoted entirely to the Opus 120 set of 33 variations on Anton Diabelli’s waltz. I feel that the fairest way to approach this reissue is in terms of these three sections, however uneven they may be. Thus, the remainder of this article will be devoted to the sonatas.

I am sure that I am far from the only serious listener that has accumulated more than one collection of all of the sonatas. However, I also had the good fortune to listen to all of the concert programs that András Schiff prepared for his traversal of that collection. Sadly, I was only in a position to write about the last of them, devoted to Opus 109 in E major, Opus 110 in A-flat major, and Opus 111 in C minor, which also happens to be the tenth of the ten CDs in the Lewis collection. There are any number of other pianists, both present and past, that have prepared similar recitals, treating these three sonatas as an integrated set (or, what Michael Steinberg called, a “triptych”).

There is a tendency among many listeners to give precedence to what they view as the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) sonatas and the ways in which they make a daring break from the conventions of the late eighteenth century. Ironically, Sturm und Drang was primarily a literary movement that flourished during the second half of that eighteenth century. The composer that came closest to the literary origins was Joseph Haydn. Some of those ventures were decidedly impressive, but it did not take the Esterházy family long to grow impatient with Haydn’s ventures.

However, those that indulge in Beethoven’s “dramatic storms” tend to overlook the broad capacity of his sense of humor. I would argue that, while Beethoven may not have been a particularly cooperative student when taking lessons from Haydn, he came away with a perceptive account of Haydn’s technique at both ends of the scale. Thus, there is an easily-grasped sense of play in the earliest Opus 2 sonatas (all three of them), making it no surprise that Beethoven dedicated them to Haydn. As a result, while I can easily appreciate the dramatic intensity of Lewis’ interpretation of those last three sonatas, I respect him more for the cheerful lightness of touch he brings to the Opus 2 sonatas (all of which share a single CD).

That last parenthesis deserves a bit more attention. Lewis seems to have put a good deal of thought into how any single CD should be “cohabited.” When there is a set of three associated with a single opus number, as is the case with Opus 2, then they are all collected on a single CD. Sets of two are similarly grouped, but I am not always convinced by the decisions Lewis made in filling out those CDs. To some extent those who choose to listen to these performances through digital downloads may be at an advantage by having the ability to create their own playlists for what seem to be appropriate ways to group the sonatas. I wonder how may serious Beethoven listeners chose to do this when these ten CDs were first released in 2009!

Elektra Schmidt Coming to the Cadillac Lobby

Pianist Elektra Schmidt (from a groupmuse event page)

Readers may recall that Elektra Schmidt was one of the six pianists to celebrate the arrival of a new Steinway baby grand piano at Amado’s last night. At the end of this week, she will be playing the same music in the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel in the Tenderloin. In this case the piano will come from the other end of the historical spectrum. The instrument is the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, a meticulously restored 1884 Model D concert grand made by Steinway, whose original soundboard is still intact.

For those who missed it, Schmidt’s solo slot at Amado’s began with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 807 (“English”) suite in A minor. This was followed by the first of Brahms’ two Opus 79 rhapsodies in the key of B minor. She concluded with the first and last of the four ballades of Frédéric Chopin: Opus 23 in G minor and Opus 52 in F minor. Her Cadillac program will be slightly longer, beginning with Domenico Scarlatti’s K. 99 sonata in C minor, followed by all of the Amado’s selections.

Like all Concerts at the Cadillac events, this recital will begin at 12:30 p.m. and will take place on Friday, January 24. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street. All Concerts at the Cadillac events are presented without charge. The purpose of the series is to provide high-quality music to the residents of the hotel and the Tenderloin District; but all are invited to visit the venue that calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907.”

The Annual Making-Things-Worse Summit

Those taking the trouble to read the secondary headline for this site may have noticed that its original objective was “to exercise ideas before writing about them with greater discipline.” In its early days this site “rehearsed” a variety of salvos in the month of January directed at the annual World Economic Form in Davos and all those sailing under its flag. Fortunately, it did not take long for me to realize that exercising ideas about music gave me (for the most part) a more positive outlook; and the discipline seems to have emerged in how I write these articles, rather than redirecting my writing to either published articles or book projects.

Nevertheless, every January I still find the haunting of Davos to be far more chilling than the ghost of Jacob Marley. The 2017 forum even sent me back to writing about the affair, since, for many of us, the motto for the New Year was “Good riddance, 2016!” As we enter a new decade, it is clear that the last one deserves the same good-riddance message; and, sure enough, January life at Davos continues to go on with its usual oblivion to the harsh realities of the rest of the world. However, rather than letting this rant go any further, this year I shall turn this particular pulpit over to an analysis article on the Al Jazeera Web site written by Jenny Ricks:

Others may continue to be proud of their ignorance. Those who are not may gain some satisfaction in reading this article. Perhaps there will even be a few willing to follow up on its recommendations.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Bleeding Edge: 1/20/2020

Things are definitely back up to speed out on the bleeding edge. Once again, the one venue whose events have already been announced is the Center for New Music, which will offer another week of concerts on three consecutive days, this time Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Readers should also be reminded that The Living Earth Show concert for Wednesday has been rescheduled and will take place on May 8. Specifics for the remaining events this week are as follows:

Thursday, January 23, 7:30 p.m., 945 ArtSpace: 945 ArtSpace is a new joint project initiated collectively by Asian Improv aRts, Lenora Lee Dance, API Cultural Center, and the Chinatown Community Development Center. The purpose of the effort is to provide a dedicated venue for artists and cultural activists to work in the intimate setting of a community-based storefront. The inaugural concert will be a jazz duo performance by pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh.

Tickets are being sold in advance through Eventbrite for $25 and will be sold at the door for $35. 945 ArtSpace is located in Chinatown at 945 Clay Street, near the southeast corner of Clay Street. This venue has very limited seating. Those wishing to attend are advised to arrive by 7 p.m., which is when the doors will open.

Thursday, January 23, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): Following last week’s “interruption,” the LSG Creative Music Series will continue with a two-set program on improvisations. Both sets will feature guitarist Mika Pontecorvo, supplementing his performances with electronics. The first will be a solo performance of “Performative Atmospheric Architectures.” The second set will be taken by the Diaspora Foci trio, in which Pontecorvo adds percussion to his instrumental contributions. He will be joined by percussionist Mark Pino and Jaroba on winds supplemented by percussion. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15.

Friday, January 24, 9 p.m., Gray Area Art and Technology: I tend not to follow Gray Area very closely, primarily because most of their events have more to do with “making the club scene” than with attentive listening. However, it appears that the venue will be presenting electronic music innovator Moritz von Oswald in what is basically a concert setting (which Gray Area calls a “seated performance”). The title of the show von Oswald will present is Akklamation, which serves as an investigation into the future of rhythmic structures, timbral architecture, and an exploration of the psycho-physical effects of repetition. He will lead a trio, whose other members will be Cullen Miller and Kit Clayton.

The Gray Area Art And Technology Theater is located in the Mission at 2665 Mission Street. General admission will be $20 at the door. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Gray Area event page. Those of all ages will be admitted. Doors will open at 8 p.m.

Sunday, January 26, 4 p.m., Chez Hanny: It has been well over a year since the house concerts of jazz hosted by Frank Hanny were on my radar. This concert will mark the return of Spanish pianist and composer Marta Sánchez, currently based in New York City. She will lead a quartet whose other members are saxophonists Roman Filiu (alto) and Raffi Garabedian (tenor) with rhythm provided by Miles Wick on bass and Evan Hughes on drums. For those not yet aware of this series, here is my version of the “ground rules” harvested from the home page for the Jazz Chez Hanny Web site:

Each event has a recommended donation, currently $20. All of the money goes to the musicians, and donations can only be made in cash. The events usually consist of two sets separated by a potluck break. As a result, all who plan to attend should bring food and/or drink to share. Seating is first come, first served; and, as a result, reservations are strongly recommended. Reservations are placed through an electronic mail address. Mail messages received after noon on the day of a performance are unlikely to be seen until after the show is over, and cancellations should be given at least 24 hours advance notice. Finally, volunteer efforts for cleaning up after the show and moving furniture to accommodate both players and listeners is always appreciated.

The “house” for this house concert is located at 1300 Silver Avenue. This is best reached by public transportation by taking the Muni 44 bus going east from Glen Park Station. For those thinking of driving, parking tends to be available on Silver Avenue, Silliman Street, one block south of Silver, and Holyoke Street, which connects Silver and Silliman.

Monday, January 27, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: The end-of-month Monday Make-Out will follow the usual three-set format. The opening set will be a duo improvisation by Jonathan Kay on saxophone and Jordan Glenn on drums. In the second set pianist Ruthie Dineen will lead her Ruthie Dineen Group in modern jazz selections. Modern jazz mixed in with a bit of rock is also the genre from Dave Slusser’s Lost Plant, led by Slusser performing on both winds and keyboards. He will be joined by two guitarists, Len Paterson and Steve Clarke, and Thomas Scandura on drums.

Jason Moran’s Solo Piano Gig at SFMOMA

Jazz pianist Jason Moran (photograph by Clay Patrick McBride, from his SFMOMA event page)

Yesterday afternoon at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), jazz pianist Jason Moran gave a solo performance in the Gina and Stuart Peterson White Box to complement his contribution to the SOFT POWER exhibition. As the Web page for this exhibition states, the project “is about the ways in which artists deploy art to explore their roles as citizens and social actors.” Moran’s presentation “considers the radical potential of the dream state as a waking vision state in which information is transmitted between dimensions of reality to affect a contemporary moment.” It was motivated by his conversation with dream therapist and poet IONE and linguist jessie little doe baird included in the exhibition catalogue.

Moran performed his solo piano gig in the center of the White Box space, surrounded by “in the round” seating for the audience. All seats were occupied, along with a generous number of “standing room” attendees along the four surrounding walls of the space. Nevertheless, as the performance developed, many of the seats were vacated, leaving behind the serious listeners whose attention was more than adequately rewarded.

To be honest, however, I was unable to make the connection between Moran’s contribution to the exhibition and the music he was performing. If he was documenting his own “dream state,” he did so with highly attentive precision and an impressive breadth of both thematic and stylistic diversity. Presumably, most of what he was playing was his own improvisation, much of which may well have been spontaneous. This involved a broad survey of keyboard techniques; but, for the most part, the performance involved the development of a succession thematic elements, somewhat in the spirit of the extended uninterrupted improvisations that Keith Jarrett brings to his solo performances but very much in Moran’s own jazz voice.

The one exception to this overall plan was a brief venture into the music of Thelonious Monk. Moran began with an extended account of “’Round Midnight,” tacking a bit of “Crepuscule with Nellie” on towards the end of the take. I was particularly struck by how Moran evoked a synthesis of his own style with Monk’s. This was most evident in the “’Round Midnight” section, where Moran developed an elegant fabric in which some of Monk’s idioms were seamlessly woven together with Moran’s own inventive passages.

Personally, I found so much to occupy my conscious attention that I gave little thought to any dream state!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Black Cedar to Return to Rhoda Goldman Plaza

Black Cedar performers Isaac Pastor-Chermak, Steve Lin, and Kris Palmer (from the Black Cedar home page)

Last week Black Cedar began its 2020 Winter Concert Tour, which will continue through the end of next month. This is the rather unique trio consisting of flutist Kris Palmer (whose instrument is made of black wood), Steve Lin (playing a guitar made of cedar), and cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak (whose instrument is neither black nor cedar). The one performance in San Francisco will take place one week from today.

The program will revisit the trio sonata from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1079, The Musical Offering, scored for flute, violin, and continuo. Pastor-Chermak will provide the continuo for Palmer on flute while Lin takes the violin part. They will also perform the “Hungarian Trio,” composed by Nathan Kolosko and included on the group’s debut album (which was recorded before Pastor-Chermak replaced Nancy Kim as the trio’s cellist). The remaining work on the program is also taken from that same album, Hinrich Stahmer’s 1983 “Debussyana,” taken from his collection of eight nocturnes.

The San Francisco performance will begin at 3 p.m. next Sunday, January 26. The venue will be the Plaza Social Club at Rhoda Goldman Plaza, which is located at 2180 Post Street, which is near the northeast corner of Scott Street. Admission will be free, but all will be welcome to join the Plaza Social Club as members. Those wishing further information about the Club can call the Director at 415-449-3849.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Classical Revolution will Celebrate a New Piano

The interior of Amado’s with its previous upright piano (from the Facebook Events Web page for the concert being announced)

Usually, I do not provide advance information for Classical Revolution, since program content usually seems to unfold on the spur of the moment over the course of the programs that get presented. However, one of their venues, Amado’s in the Mission, has just acquired a Steinway baby grand piano; and the occasion will be marked by a program featuring six local pianists. Under the circumstances, it seemed reasonable to settle on a program far enough in advance to make sure that there would not be any overlap of content. Thus, the full schedule for pianists and repertoire has now been finalized as follows:
  1. 7 p.m.: Pianist Yi-Fang Wu Avocado will be joined by violinist Nigel Armstrong for a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 108 sonata in D minor. There will also be a selection of the variations in the style of modern jazz that Fazil Say composed for the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 caprices for solo violin. The remainder of the slot will be devoted to the music of George Gershwin.
  2. 8 p.m.: Pianist Andrew Jamieson will accompany flutist Anita Chandavarkar in a performance of Philippe Gaubert’s duo fantasia, followed by a selection of his own original compositions.
  3. 8:30 p.m.: Pianist Astghik Sakanyan will accompany four different instrumentalists. Violinist Heidi Kim will play Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 94a (second) violin sonata in D major, based on the Opus 94 flute sonata, also in D major. The next soloist will be guitarist David Falacko playing Leo Brouwer’s guitar concerto. He will be followed by cellist Andrew Janss playing the second of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 5 cello sonatas in the key of G minor. The final soloist will be Charith Premawardhana, playing the viola version of the first of Brahms’ two Opus 120 sonatas in the key of F minor, originally written for clarinet.
  4. 9:30 p.m.: Elektra Schmidt will present the first all-solo slot of the evening. She will begin with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 807 (“English”) suite in A minor. This will be followed by the first of Brahms’ two Opus 79 rhapsodies in the key of B minor. She will then conclude with the first and last of the four ballades of Frédéric Chopin: Opus 23 in G minor and Opus 52 in F minor.
  5. 10:30 p.m.: Allison Lovejoy’s half-hour slot will be devoted entirely to Claude Debussy coupling “L’isle joyeuse” with the solo piano version of a barcarolle originally composed as a song.
  6. 11 p.m.: This piano marathon will conclude with Paul Schrage playing Beethoven’s Opus 110 sonata in A-flat major.
This performance will take place this coming Monday, January 20, beginning at 7 p.m. Amado’s is located at 998 Valencia Street. It offers a spacious interior and a full cocktail bar. There will be no charge for admission. However, Classical Revolution would not exist without donations; and the suggested amount spans the interval from $5 to $20.

SFCMP Presents Cage at his Most Adventurous

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) presented the in the LABORATORY concert in its 2019–20 season. The title of the program was Kinetic Transformations; and much of the performance involved physical movement, either explicitly or implicitly. Indeed, the guest artist for the concert was the dancer Antoine Hunter, founder and director of the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival; and arrangements were made to accommodate the hearing-impaired throughout the program, including innovative approaches to signing the music while it was being performed.

Hunter also provided choreography for the major work on the program, John Cage’s “Concert for Piano and Orchestra.” Note that the first word of the title is not a typographical error. Cage conceived this composition as a performance for solo piano that could take place with or without an accompanying ensemble. Cage prepared graphic score pages that were open to highly flexible interpretation for flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, tuba, 3 violins, 2 violas, cello, bass; but those resources could be deployed in any combination, including the “null combination” in which the pianist was the only performer. Furthermore, any instrumentalist could play any combination of the score pages for that part in any order.

Last night’s performance involved two flute players, one an SFCM student, two clarinetists, again one an SFCM student, two bassoons, one an SFCM student, one trumpeter, two violinists, one violist, two cellists, one an SFCM student, and one bassist. They were distributed around the Concert Hall stage to surround the pianist (Kate Campbell) in the center of it all. Hunter performed his own choreography in the spaces separating the different players. Artistic Director Eric Dudley served as conductor; but this just involved using his arms to represent the second hand of a clock, allowing all performers to observe the progress of the performance minute-by-minute.

Merce Cunningham preparing to serve as timekeeper for John Cage (photograph by Jack Mitchell, courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company)

My guess is that Cage preferred the noun “concert” to “concerto” because he did not want the audience to have preconceptions about genre. This was definitely a “concert” involving performers playing their parts before an audience; but it definitely was not an instance of concerto-like interplay between a soloist and an ensemble. To the contrary, however many players are involved, each has a solo part to play; and only the piano is required to participate. Participation, in turn, is a matter of providing instances of sound to fill an interval of 25 minutes as it elapses.

One might almost say that Cage had prepared a situation in which the act of listening involved as much commitment as the act of performing. One can appreciate the distribution of the performers across the stage, because, as one adjusts to the experience, awareness of the location of a sound becomes as important as the sound itself. Furthermore, the listener is free to attend to any particular area of the stage to appreciate the spatial extent of the sources of those sounds.

This raised a major challenge for choreographer Hunter. Even without his presence, the attentive listener quickly comes to appreciate how Cage’s “Concert” amounts to an engaging exploration of relations between space and time. Thus, in my efforts to be an attentive listener, I found Hunter’s choreography to distract from spatial awareness of all the participating musicians. On the other hand SFCMP had made it a point to encourage the hearing-impaired to attend this performance; so it would be churlish of me to suggest that my approach to this particular Cage composition was an “authoritative” one.

The remainder of the program tended to take similar approaches to the complementary sensations of hearing and seeing. In the case of Anna Clyne’s “Steelworks,” this involved the projection of a video with its own soundtrack behind the trio of performers, Tod Brody (flute and piccolo), Jeff Anderle (bass clarinet) and Haruka Fujii (percussion). In this case the visual element was not a distraction, but the relationship between the music and the movie was more than a little muddled. (There was also a technical problem with the projection, which required stopping the performance and then continuing after the video difficulties had been resolved.)

Ironically, the only other Clyne composition I know, “Night Ferry,” which was composed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was rich in images, all of which were evoked by her skilled handling of a wide diversity of instrumental resources. “Steelworks” ran the risk of the audience putting more time into making sense of the projected material and disregarding the three performers. Given the rich diversity of sonorities provided by those performers, that would have amounted to missing the point of having composed the music in the first place!

The first half of the program involved music inspired by images. Cellist Hanna Addario-Berry began the evening playing a movement from the Sonaquifer Suite, which had been composed for her on commission by Gloria Justen. The title of the movement was “Flowing-Turning Dance;” and one could easily imagine the transition from the perpetuum mobile unfolding of the music to a choreographic interpretation of that music.

Similarly, David Coll’s “Caldera” involving imagining the potential of a volcano erupting turning into the physical eruption itself. This performance again involved both Anderle and Fujii, the latter playing marimba for most of the composition. One seldom encounters music in which the energy is potential, rather than kinetic. Coll’s score was clearly a challenging one, but Anderle and Fujii gave a vigorous account of how they rose to those challenges.

The remaining work on the program was Henry Cowell’s third string quartet. Cowell called this the “Mosaic Quartet,” because it involves movable parts, somewhat like square tiles being moved around to create a mosaic image. The piece was given an informed account by the string quartet of violinists Roy Malan and Susan Freier, violist Meena Bhasin, and cellist Stephen Harrison. This was a situation in which one could only appreciate the idea after hearing several different approaches to performance. The selection made by the performers last night allowed one to appreciate Cowell’s approach to the thematic material, but the idea behind the music itself never surfaced in any convincing way that would engage attentive listening.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Concert Tonight at Adobe Books

Granted, this is a last-minute announcement; but it is one worth making. Tonight Adobe Books will continue its offerings of “bleeding edge” programs with a three-set evening. The first set will be taken by Taipei-based Sheryl Cheung, whose primary focus has been using the human body as an instrument. However, for her visit to San Francisco, she will focus on electronic processing of sounds from local plants. The second set will be a duo performance by Anne Guthrie, whose instrument is French horn, and percussionist Kevin Corcoran, both of whom are based in the Bay Area. The final set will be taken by Gabby Wen, currently living in San Francisco. She works with modular synthesizers, often controlled by computer programs. Her sound sources also include homemade electronic, field recordings, found objects, her own voice and body, the the guqin Chinese zither.

The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. tonight, January 17. Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street. While no further specifics have been provided, it is reasonable to assume that this gig will be free. However, donations will go directly to the performing artists and are strongly encouraged. At past events Adobe has provided free refreshments to those who make a book purchase of $6 or more, and it is likely that the managers of the book store will maintain this effort to encourage reading their offerings.

Beethoven250 Off to a Delightful Start with Ax

This week’s SFS soloist, pianist Emanuel Ax (from the event page for this week’s SFS concert)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) “officially launched” its Beethoven250 series of concerts celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven this coming December. The program marked the occasion with a performance of Beethoven’s Opus 19 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major. SFS was conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT); and the soloist was Emanuel Ax, a familiar face in Davies and known for his Beethoven interpretations.

In spite of the numbering, Opus 19 is probably Beethoven’s earliest published composition for piano and orchestra. Its first sketches date from 1788, when Beethoven was still a teenager; and the premiere performance took place on March 29, 1795. Due to subsequent revisions, the score was not published until 1801.

The music abounds with wit. As I have suggested in the past, Beethoven’s sense of humor may have been motivated by a determination to outdo the prodigious capacity of Joseph Haydn’s sense of humor. Nevertheless, the prevailing rhetoric of Opus 19 has more to do with personal high spirits than any sense of one-upmanship. Beethoven clearly reveled in all of the witty turns at the keyboard that he played during the premiere, but there is also that same sense of joyous interplay between soloist and ensemble that is frequently found in the piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

There was no mistaking those spirits in last night’s performance. Ax was visibly delighted by every clever turn that Beethoven took, determined to make sure that the entire audience became acquainted with each one of them. His long-time chemistry with MTT simply raised the ante on how much those of us on audience side could revel in every measure of the score. This was very much a contemporary perspective of Beethoven, but it was one that was as true to the composer’s spirit as it was to the marks on the score pages.

Ax’ sense of humor extended to his encore selection. He played Beethoven’s WoO 59 bagatelle in A minor, best known under the title “Für Elise.” This has become a notorious example of music played by too many amateurs almost always too poorly. Ax gave the score an engagingly disarming account, reminding listeners that there is a true rhetorical gem to be found within all the dirt of hackneyed performances. Taken as a whole, last night was definitely a good one for Beethoven.

MTT made some fascinating decisions when it came to the context in which that Beethoven selection was presented. The other major work on the program was the 1929 revision of the three pieces for orchestra that Alban Berg published as his Opus 6. The initial version was composed between the summer of 1913 and the fall of 1915. Those dates are significant, because Berg’s work on his Wozzeck opera began in 1914; and, in many respects, Opus 6 serves as a “laboratory notebook” for the creation of Wozzeck.

This is probably most evident in the second piece “Reigen” (round dance), which anticipated the scene in the tavern that takes place after Wozzeck has murdered Marie. However, the opening “Preludium” provides early suggestions of the many nocturnal scenes in the opera, all of which are haunted in one way or another, including the one in which Wozzeck drowns in the pond in which he had deposited Marie’s body. The final piece is a mercilessly brutal march, anticipating the music for the Drum Major in the opera, climaxing in the beating his gives Wozzeck at the end of the opera’s second act.

MTT’s account of Opus 6 could not have been better. He seemed to have found the dark side of every motivic gesture in Berg’s score. The result was a dark account of one of Berg’s earliest exercises in cultivating sinister rhetoric. This may not have given the entire program a cheerful ending, but the conclusion was definitely a memorable one.

Appropriately enough, Richard Wagner was given the space between Beethoven and Berg with a performance of “Siegfried Idyll.” Wagner composed this piece as a birthday present for his second wife Cosima. However, the music honors not only Cosima’s birth but also that of her son, whom they named Siegfried. The piece was first performed on December 25, 1870 in the Swiss villa where they were living at the time. Wagner’s Siegfried opera would receive its premiere in 1876, and many will recognize motifs from “Siegfried Idyll” that worked their way into the opera’s score.

Given the domestic setting of its first performance, the score was written for a chamber orchestra of thirteen players: flute, oboe, two clarinets, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello and bass. For marketing reasons Wagner subsequently allowed for an expanded string section, suggesting 35 as a suitable number of players. I was fortunate enough to experience the original version performed by members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. That experience took place over 30 years ago, and its is still memorable. The downside, however, is that listening to an expanded ensemble still makes me cringe. Given Wagner’s predilection for massive resources, the intimacy of the chamber version is that refreshing spring encountered in the middle of an expansive desert. Last night’s performance may have satisfied the more conventional spirit of Wagner, but the lack of the intimacy of “Siegfried Idyll” as it was originally composed was too disappointing for words.

More disappointing, however, was the opening selection, the West Coast premiere of Julia Wolfe’s “Fountain of Youth.” This was written under extensive commissioning resources, including a consortium of symphony orchestras that included SFS. However, it was written for MTT’s New World Symphony, which gave the premiere performance this past April.

About twelve minutes in duration, the pieces is a wild romp through the expansive resources of the sonorities of a large orchestral ensemble (complete with an enthusiastic percussion section). Given that the composer was over 60 when she created this piece, one might take it as a personal reflection of earlier days when she was more energetic. There was also a clear sense of wild abandon in her approach to instrumentation, beginning with some raucous extended techniques required of the entire string section. Nevertheless, the entire experience felt a bit like the personal meditation of an individual most of us on audience side did not know very well, sort of like an in-joke that we were not expected to get. Still, the music got the program off to a rousing start; and, in the context of all the other selections, that was definitely an appropriate way to begin.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Horvath’s Philip Glass Project: Volume Six

courtesy of Naxos of America

Today my catching-up efforts have led me to the release by Grand Piano of the sixth volume of Glassworlds. This is pianist Nicolas Horvath’s project to record the solo piano works of Philip Glass, which he launched in 2015. Like many such projects, this one takes its time in progressing. This latest release, given the title America, followed the release of the fifth volume over a distance of about three years.

The album features two world premiere recordings. One is the second piece, composed in 1978, that Glass entitled “A Secret Solo.” The other is a piano arrangement of three excerpts from the opera Appomattox, which was given its world premiere by the San Francisco Opera on October 5, 2007. These are the only orchestral passages in the opera, and Horvath extracted them from the vocal score that Glass had prepared for rehearsals.

The album also includes a “significantly historic” composition, “Music in Contrary Motion,” composed in 1969 and one of the three pieces to be performed at the landmark pubic concert given by the Philip Glass Ensemble at the Guggenheim Museum on January of 1970. The opening selection is Paul Barnes’ solo piano arrangement of Glass’ second piano concerto, given the title “After Lewis and Clark.” Finally, there are two recordings of “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” the first a piano solo and the second performed with narration of Allen Ginsberg’s text by Florient Azoulay.

As has been the case on past recordings, Horvath approaches all of these compositions with solid technique. He appreciates the extent to which any Glass composition, taken its entirety, involves a structure based on a well-defined process; and the process, in turn, is “based on repetition and change” (as Glass himself wrote in his memoir Words Without Music. Within the context of those ground rules, Horvath then appreciates the need to take a rhetorical stance in the course of unfolding that process. It is through rhetorical expressiveness that the “repetitive structures” (as Glass calls them) on the printed page need not sound repetitious.

Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the subtleties of Horvath’s approach to rhetoric may not be apprehended after listening to this album for the first time. This should not be taken as a problem. One cannot appreciate how rhetoric modulates the interrelationship of repetition and change until one appreciates what is being repeated and the direction in which change is leading. Thus, while it is tempting to treat the repetitive structures as a soothing context for meditation, doing so would distract from the ways in which Horvath summons up his own distinctive approach to performance.

While he is consistently reliable in achieving this goal, the one difficulty resides in the narrated version of “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Whether this was a matter of microphone technique or Azoulay’s command of the English language, Ginsberg’s poetry was given a painfully inadequate account. Granted, there was a scratchy quality to Ginsberg’s own voice that could rise above just about any music that happened to be accompanying him; and, in comparison, Azoulay’s voice is just too polished. Nevertheless, Ginsberg’s words clearly mattered to Glass. (If they did not, he would not have prepared the version with narration.) Azoulay’s performance is just too murky to do justice to what Glass had in mind.

Post-Epiphany Music at Church of the Advent

The next Sunday service at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King to feature resident choir Schola Adventus will be the Solemn Evensong & Benediction for the second Sunday after Epiphany. The Officiant will be Father John Porter, and the music for the service has been selected by Director of Music Paul Ellison. The music for the Preces versicles and responses will be by William Smith. The composer for the “Magnificat” and “Nunc dimitis” canticles will be Herbert Sumsion. The setting of the “Tantum ergo” hymn will be by Déodat de Séverac. In addition Schola Adventus will sing Herbert Howells’ hymn “O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem,” composed in 1941. Ellison will play the processional and recessional organ music, compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and Harold Darke, respectively.

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. this coming Sunday, January 19. Those wishing further information may call 415-431-0454.

SFP Salons Return with Delightful Mompou Program

1980 photograph of Federico Mompou (photograph of the Generalitat de Catalunya, Departament de la Presidència, from Wikimedia Commons, used with permission)

Yesterday evening the Education Studio of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera saw the return of the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Salon Series. The entire series will consist of four programs curated by Edward Simon, best known in the jazz domain as an improviser, composer, arranger, and band leader but equally well-versed in classical practices. Each program will showcase a different aspect of his approaches to making music, and two of the programs will involve guest artists.

Last night, however, the series began with a one-hour solo recital entirely devoted to a single twentieth-century composer, Federico Mompou. Mompou was born in Barcelona in 1893 and was trained as a classical pianist at the Barcelona Conservatory. However, a recital performance by Gabriel Fauré inspired him to study composition. He travelled to Paris with a letter of recommendation from Enrique Granados but was too shy to meet with Fauré. As a result, his approaches to composition tended for follow his own intuition.

As a result, almost all of his compositions are miniatures. The most notable of his longer works is his set of variations on the seventh (in A major) of Chopin’s Opus 28 preludes, which Daniil Trifonov played in Davies Symphony Hall back in October of 2017. Most of Mompou’s collections were written over the course of his life. The best-known of these are the fourteen Cançons i danses (songs and dances), thirteen of which were written for solo piano, which were composed between 1921 and 1979. Simon played five of these from different periods in Mompou’s life, the first (1921), the second (1923), the sixth (1943), the eighth (1946), and the twelfth (1962).

Similarly, Mompou composed a set of twelve preludes between 1927 and 1968. Simon selected three of these from a much narrower interval of time than that of his Cançons i danses choices. The eighth prelude was composed in 1943; and it was followed by the ninth and tenth, both composed in 1944. Mompou’s largest collection was Música callada (silent music), consisting of four volumes composed, respectively, in 1959, 1962, 1965, and 1967. Simon played all nine of the pieces in the first of these volumes.

This made for a rather generous collection of short pieces. However, there was considerable diversity across that collection, and Simon definitely knew how to give each piece its own sense of individuality. This was definitely music for the intimacy of a salon setting (even if the Education Studio was significantly larger than the previous venue in the Hotel Rex). From a technical point of view, Simon was consistently focused on the music itself, always finding just the right rhetorical stance to capture the uniqueness in the gestural nature of each of Mompou’s works.

When I decided to try to play some of Mompou’s music on my own, one of my colleagues sneered, “Why would you want to play around with his music?” He was clearly one of those academically-minded pianists that felt that anything that lacked sonata form was not worthy of attention and that the only “legitimate” miniaturist was Anton Webern! To be fair, it is certainly true that Mompou wrote melodies that are unabashedly tonal and not subjected to sophisticated development techniques.

Nevertheless, there is a somewhat remote connection to Webern’s teacher that is worth considering. It is that text reference to “air from another planet” that is sung in the final movement of Arnold Schoenberg’s second string quartet. For all their brevity and simplicity, it is the unique air surrounding each of Mompou’s miniatures that makes listening such an absorbing experience, and Simon knew how to fill the Education Studio with that air last night.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Midsummer Mozart to Return to Noontime Concerts

Traditionally, the Midsummer Mozart Festival has used Noontime Concerts as a platform for preview recitals prior to the summer festival itself. Because this is a landmark year in music history, programming will be different. While plans for the summer have not yet been announced, the participating musicians will visit Noontime Concerts for a Midwinter Beethoven Festival program.

The performance will be given by the Midsummer Mozart Festival Chamber Players led by Festival Concertmaster Robin Hansen on violin. The other participating musicians will be violinist Ani Bukujian, violist Liz Prior, cellist Eric Gaenslen, and pianist Paul Schrage. In honor of the occasion, all selections will be by Ludwig van Beethoven. Schrage will accompany Gaenslen in a performance of the WoO 46 set of variations on the duet “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” (for men who feel love) from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. The four string players will conclude the program with a performance of the Opus 132 quartet in A minor.

Like all Noontime Concerts offerings, this performance will take place in the sanctuary of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, beginning at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 4. The cathedral is located at 660 California Street, on the northeast corner of Grant Street. There is no charge for admission, but this concert series relies heavily on donations to continue offering its weekly programs.

Harry Connick Jr.’s Cole Porter Album on Verve

courtesy of Play MPE

I have been listening to performances by Harry Connick Jr. on an occasional basis for about three decades. The sources of those occasions have primarily been radio and its streaming alternatives, primarily XM Radio and Music Choice. When I learned that the title of his latest album on Verve was True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter, my never-ending admiration for Porter got the better of me. I figured it was time to check out a full album.

Connick is literally all over the place on this album. While most of his work is vocal, he also takes a couple of solos at the piano. He also served as both arranger and orchestrator of all the tracks, as well as conductor of the Harry Connick Jr. Big Band. All this revives vivid memories of Oscar Levant’s dream sequence in the movie An American in Paris, in which he fantasizes himself as piano soloist, conductor, every member of the orchestra, and, as if that were not enough, a member of the audience shouting “Bravo!” at the conclusion of the performance.

To be fair, however, the instrumental backup is praiseworthy, evoking the best of the big band traditions; and Connick’s piano work tends to be well enough considered to draw the attention of more serious listeners. The vocal work, on the other hand, is another matter.

In the past I have enjoyed Connick’s relaxed style because he never tried to short-change either the tunes or the words. While his respect for the text (as well as an appreciation for vowel sonorities) is still, for the most part, intact, his respect for pitch is weaker than I recall from previous encounters. Porter could serve up some really daring intervallic leaps in his melody lines, and Connick does not always hit the mark when taking one of those leaps. Furthermore, when his arrangement calls for subtle modulation, his command of pitch sometimes muddles the distinction between source and destination. The fact is that Porter’s compositions demand more respect for pitch than Connick delivered, and that was a serious disappointment.

Equally problematic, but less disappointing, was the matter of choosing the words. My “bible” for Porter’s texts is The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter, edited by Robert Kimball. However, Kimball’s annotations make it clear that Porter himself would change the words for later performances of some of his songs.

The opening track, “Anything Goes,” is a perfect example. There are any number of references in the “Urtext” that could only be understood by consulting a variety of historical documents! Connick clearly does not want his album to be a research project. Therefore, he goes with versions that make sense to current listeners; and I, for one, feel that he deserves praise for making that decision.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Albany Concert Brings Monteverdi to Noontime Concerts

This afternoon the Albany Consort returned to the Noontime Concerts series hosted by Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Chinatown. In the past the Albany Consort founders, Jonathan Salzedo and his wife Marion Rubinstein, timed their visits to coincide with birthday celebrations for Johann Sebastian Bach. This time the focus was on the sacred and secular vocal music of Claudio Monteverdi.

This required adding vocalists to the Albany instrumentalists, and they were the section leaders in the choir for St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Menlo Park. Furthermore, additional instrumentation was provided by The Whole Noyse, whose members are Stephen Escher on cornetto, Richard van Hessel and Michael Cushing on sackbuts, and Herb Meyers doubling between dulcian and viola. The full complement of instrumentalists also performed compositions by Giovanni Gabrieli, Girolamo Frescobaldi, and Giovanni Picchi.

Taken as a whole, this made for a promising program. Even the secular vocal selections offered up their own unique take on symmetry. Both were taken from Monteverdi’s eighth book of madrigals, which is divided into two sections, one about war and the other about love. Each begins with the text of a “sonnet of opposition:” “Let others sing of Mars/Cupid; I sing of Love/War.” The music follows the conventional Italian coupling of an octave (eight lines) with a sestet (six lines). The octave, in turn, has two four-line sections with the same rhyme scheme: ABAB. The sestet is similarly divided into two three-line sections; but, in this case, the rhyme scheme seems to evoke Dante Alighieri’s terza rima (third rhyme) scheme: CDC DCD.

Monteverdi’s structure tends to respect the structure of these two texts. However, he embellishes that structure with a fair amount of richly embellished polyphony; and therein lies the difficulty with this afternoon’s performance. The acoustics of Old Saint Mary’s blurred that polyphony to such an extent that even the most attentive listener would have felt frustrated. Ultimately, this was a failure of judgement on Salzedo’s part. During the last Albany visit, the music of Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme drew upon elements of both homophony and polyphony; and Salzedo’s instrumental arrangement knew how to get the most out of both techniques.

To be fair, Monteverdi knew how to exercise the same balance. The Vespro della Beata Vergine (Vespers for the Blessed Virgin) of 1610 can probably manage quite well in the cavernous space of St Mark's Basilica in Venice; but madrigals were never written to be sung in that space. The two sacred selections from Selva morale e spirituale (moral and spiritual forest), “Beatus Vir” (blessed is the man) and “Confiteor tibi” (thanks to thee), fared somewhat better; but even they had to count for more blurring in the church’s acoustics than one would have desired. Ultimately, the instrumental selections fared best, not only because of amplitude but also due to attack profiles that sharply defined the onset of each note.

Nevertheless, it was clear that every contributing performer was solidly committed to giving a clear account of his/her part; and it would be delightful to listen to the entire program a second time in a more acoustically conducive space.

Hyperion Concludes Saint-Saëns Recording Project

courtesy of PIAS

As I observed yesterday morning, my process of catching up on accumulated content has now shifted from physical recordings to downloads. One of the more critical aspects of that work involves catching up on ongoing series of releases. One of these was the project of the Utah Symphony led by Music Director Thierry Fischer to record all of the symphonies of Camille Saint-Saëns. The producer for this project was Hyperion Records, and the first release appeared almost exactly a year ago. That recording accounted for the most familiar of the symphonies, Opus 78 (the third) in C minor, best known as the “Organ” symphony, which was presented along with shorter selections of music for dramatic settings.

The second album was released at the beginning of this past May, coupling Opus 55 (the second) in A minor with an early symphony in F major that never received an opus number but carried the subtitle “Urbs Roma” (the city of Rome). The cycle then concluded at the end of this past November with a third album completing the full complement of five symphonies. It begins with the Opus 2 (first) symphony, completed in 1853, and concludes with another early symphony in A major without an opus number, probably composed in 1850. These two symphonies account for about an hour’s worth of music, which is a bit skimpy for a compact disc; so they are separated by one of Saint-Saëns’ most familiar compositions, The Carnival of the Animals.

My guess is that most readers are unfamiliar with the symphonies on this album. For that matter, I suspect that most concert-goers do not know how many symphonies Saint-Saëns composed. If asked, they might remember that the “Organ” is the third and assume (correctly) that it is the last symphony he wrote. However, they probably would not know about any of the earlier symphonies (including with unnumbered ones).

I am of two minds where this matter of Saint-Saëns’ legacy is concerned. One is to side with the crowd and declare that none of the other four symphonies are particularly memorable. On the other hand I am willing to confess that I felt the same way about the piano concertos (five of them, all with opus numbers). The fact is that I only began to appreciate those concertos after having experienced them in performance, rather than on recording; and I look forward to encountering a conductor here in San Francisco willing to acknowledge that Saint-Saëns composed symphonies other than Opus 78!

One interesting aspect of the two symphonies of this third album is that, in both of them, the slow movement is the longest. This leads me to wonder if one of the composer’s “sweet spots” was the rhetoric of meditative reflection. These movements unfold over the course of their extended breadth without feeling as if they were going on for too long. Perhaps this is the “hook” required for beginning to accept those four symphonies prior to Opus 78 on their own terms.

The 20/20 Salon: February, 2020

The 20/20 Salon recital series, presented by pianist Peter Grunberg in his house, will continue in February with a round of four recitals. All concerts will be held on Monday evenings, and each program will serve as a parallel to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription program that will take place later in the week. In addition every program will feature music by Ludwig van Beethoven to mark the 250th year of his birth. Drinks and canapés (prepared by Grunberg’s husband Wyatt Nelson) will be offered after the performance, providing an opportunity for further discussion. Each event will start at 6:30 p.m. with the music beginning at 7 p.m. Specifics for the four programs to be presented next month are as follows:

February 3, The Good Old B’s: The title refers to the fact that the program will be shared equally by Beethoven and Johannes Brahms, the two composers represented in the SFS program prepared by guest conductor Herbert Blomstedt. Each composer will be represented by a set of piano variations followed by a cello sonata. The cellist for the recital will be Oliver Herbert. The first half of the program will be devoted to Beethoven, beginning with the WoO 82 set of variations on an almost aphoristic theme in C minor, followed by the Opus 69 sonata in A major. The Brahms portion will begin with the eleven variations on an original theme in D major, the first of the two sets of variations published as his Opus 21. Herbert will then return to play the first of Brahms’ two cello sonatas, Opus 38 in E minor.

February 10, Memorials and Celebrations: The Beethoven selection for this concert will be the third movement of the Opus 26 piano sonata in A-flat major, which is a funeral march. The program will begin with a similarly funereal composition for solo piano, “La plainte, au loin, du faune…” (the distant lamentation of a faun), composed by Paul Dukas in 1920. This will be followed by the seventh of the eight improvisations on Hungarian peasant songs, Béla Bartók’s Opus 20, which was also composed in 1920. The remaining “memorial” selection will be an excerpt from Arthur Lourié’s piano reduction of Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments,” yet another piece written in 1920 and dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy, who died in 1918. The remainder of the program will shift to the celebratory tone. Soprano Esther Rayo will join Grunberg in a selection of songs and tangos by Argentinian composers including Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla. The program will conclude with a piano arrangement of “Hail! California,” composed by Camille Saint-Saëns for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

February 17, Hadleigh Sings Henry: This cryptic title refers to a performance of Benjamin Britten’s arrangements of songs by Henry Purcell. The vocalist will be baritone Hadleigh Adams, who will also sing Debussy’s setting of three poems by Stéphane Mallarmé. The Beethoven selection will be the Opus 126 set of six bagatelles composed in 1825. The program will begin with Steven Stucky’s 2002 Album Leaves collection and conclude with Jacques Charlot’s solo piano transcription of Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l'Oye (Mother Goose), a suite of five short pieces originally composed for piano duet in 1910.

February 24, Finnish, Danish &… Turkish: This will be a solo recital. The Beethoven selections will account for two different nationalities, beginning with the Opus 76 set of six variations on the “Turkish March” that was part of the incidental music that Beethoven had prepared for August von Kotzebue’s play The Ruins of Athens. The other Beethoven composition will be the Opus 129 rondo best known as the “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” However, the original title of the piece was “Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio” (Hungarian rondo, almost a caprice). Finland will be represented by two of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s compositions, “Second Meeting” and “Dichotomie.” The Danish offering will be Carl Nielsen’s Opus 40 chaconne.

The Grünberg-Nelson residence is located in the Forest Hill Extension at 16 Edgehill Way. All tickets are being sold for $45. There is a single Eventbrite event page, which enables the purchase of tickets for any combination of the January performances. Note, however, that the February 3 concert does not appear on the list brought up by clicking the “Tickets” button. This is an “invitation only” event. Those interested in attending should notify Grunberg through the electronic mail address for the concert series.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Uneven Recording from Chicago Gargoyle Brass

from the Web page for the album being discussed

As of this morning, I have managed to catch up on my backlog of physical recordings. (The downloads are another matter. They are still pretty imposing, but I tend to be able to work through them at a steadier pace.) This morning provided me the opportunity to listen to Nights Bright Days, the second MSR Classics release of the Chicago Gargoyle Brass and Organ Ensemble. This group was founded as a brass chamber ensemble in 1992 by its Artistic Director, H. Rodney Holmes, whose members were faculty and students at the University of Chicago. (The name came from the number of gargoyles one could encounter in the campus architecture.) By 2006 the ensemble had professionalized and established a residency in the western suburbs at a major church with a full-time professional organist. Its first MSR Classics album was released in August of 2015. Nights Bright Days was released this past April, followed by an album of music of the Reformation, which was released in November.

The album title is taken from the last line of William Shakespeare’s 43rd sonnet, whose final couplet is:
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
That sonnet was one of four to be set to music by Peter Meechan in a composition entitled Love Songs. He wrote the piece to serve as a memorial for Holmes’ wife Charlene. The work was scored for brass quintet, organ, narrator, and choir. The two trumpeters double on flugelhorn, performing with horn, trombone, and tuba. The organist is Mark Sudeith, the narrator is Kevin Gudahl, and the choir combines the resources of the Oriana Singers and the City Voices of Chicago, both led by William Chin.

Setting the sonnets of Shakespeare is no easy matter. As can be seen from that above couplet, just figuring out how to read the text aloud without twisting the tongue is a challenge unto itself. One can appreciate Meechan’s decision to allocate some of that text to a narrator, rather than to any vocalists. One can also appreciate his acknowledgement that his approach to interpreting the texts was “of course in no way definitive.” However, even in giving the composer the benefit of the doubt, there were too many instances on the recording of inadequately polished sonorities matched by uncertain intonation and dynamics (shared by both instrumentalists and the choir). There are also noticeable problems of balance, and it is hard to tell whether they are due to the space in which the recordings were made or the skills of the recording team.

All the other selections on the album are arrangements by Craig Garner. None of them are particularly convincing, but it is difficult to discern whether the problems arise with the arranger or the performers. The composers whose music is being arranged make for an impressive list: Henry Purcell (excerpts from the ode Come Ye Songs of Art), Gustav Holst (a Cornish folk song that found its way into his second suite for military band), and Benjamin Britten (the instrumental episodes from his Peter Grimes opera). The weakest of the selections comes from Britten, whose meticulous sense of sonorous detail just does not hold up between the shortcomings of the arrangement and those of the performance.

The Bleeding Edge: 1/13/2020

The pace is picking up at the Center for New Music, which will be offering three distinct and distinctive concerts over the three days of the weekend. That leaves only three other events (one of which is not a concert), all of which will also be taking place over the weekend. Specifics are as follows:

Saturday, January 18, 4 p.m., San Francisco Public Library: In place of his usual LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series concert on Thursday evening, Rent Romus will lead a trio for this special free performance. Working with composer Heikki Koskinen, Romus has created Manala, an original suite of music that weaves the elements of jazz together with neo-traditional Finnish music, and free improvisation. The suite is based on Finnish literary sources, including The Kalevala, a nineteenth-century work of epic poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot, and shamanic traditions of Finno-Ugric folklore. Romus will play alto saxophone, flutes of different sizes, and percussion; and Koskinen will contribute on tenor recorder and e-trumpet. The trio will be completed by David Samas on percussion and vocals. This free concert will take place at the Library’s Richmond Branch, located at 351 9th Avenue.

Saturday, January 18, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: The jazz club! series on Saturday nights will present a Jazz in the Neighborhood Guaranteed Fair Wage Fund date. Playing a six-string electric bass, Michael Wilcox will lead a trio whose other members are Sheldon Brown on saxophone and Bryan Bowman on drums. Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins led a similar trio early in his career, and Wilcox’ trio is continuing that tradition. There will be a $20 cover charge for this event. Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART.

Sunday, January 19, 2 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: The second Bird & Beckett event of the weekend is not a concert. Instead, it is a “requiem” memorializing street peddler, artist, and poet Steve Dalachinsky, a legendary figure of the New York loft world who died of a brain hemorrhage this past September 15. His death took place shortly after he had attended an afternoon performance by the Sun Ra Arkestra. The event will be two hours of remembrances that will combine reading texts and performing music. Participants will include Jessica Loos, Tate Swindell, Clark Coolidge, Neeli Cherkovski, Bernard Meisler, John Held, Jokie Wilson, Victoria Brill, Marina Lazzara, Walter Earl, and Donald Robinson.

An All-Dowland Program from Les Voix Humaines

Yesterday afternoon at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, the San Francisco Early Music Society presented the San Francisco debut of the Quebec-based ensemble Les Voix Humaines. Five of the six members of this group play gamba instruments of different sizes. They are Mélisande Corriveau, Margaret Little, Felix Deak, Marie-Laurence Primeau, and Susie Napper; and they were joined by lutenist Nigel North.

The program, entitled Lachrimæ, consisted entirely of music by John Dowland. The title referred to a 1604 publication entitled 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. The seven “passionate pavans” provided the “spinal cord” of the program, interleaved with several of the “divers other” pavanes and galliards. In addition North played three lute solos, as well as “Dowland’s Adieu,” a duo for lute and bass viol.

The “teares” themselves served as seven variations on the theme of a Dowland song “Flow my tears,” which had been published in 1600. Several of the “teares” themselves were introduced with readings of individual verses from this song, but there does not appear to be any sign of intended correlation between the verses of the song and the seven instrumental settings of its theme. Indeed, while each of those seven settings has its own title describing a different aspect of weeping, the variations from one setting to the next tend to be sufficiently subtle to require a keen ear and a sense of performance practices to be able to tell them apart.

Some of that difficulty has to do with the nature of the pavan itself. The music is slow and stately. The overall structure is A-A’-B-B’-C-C’, which is also the structure of Dowland’s galliards. The performance was rich with embellishment techniques, making it a bit difficult to discern which embellishments had been published and which were part of the ensemble’s performance practices. From a personal point of view, I would say that I was better aware of the rhetorical diversity of Dowland’s compositions following the intermission break, as if the first half of the program had served to adjust my listening practices to an unfamiliar setting.

However, if informed listening required more effort than usual, one definitely could not fault the performance technique of Les Voix Humaines. There was a consistent clarity in their delivery of the individual selections, and one could appreciate the extent to which each player was consistently aware of the others. Nevertheless, the program, taken as a whole, never quite managed to overcome the problem of subjecting listeners to too much of a good thing.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Chandos Releases its Third Antheil Album

courtesy of Naxos of America

Readers that have been following this site for a few years probably know by now that the British Chandos label is in the midst of a major project to record the orchestral music of George Antheil. The orchestra for this project is the BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgårds. Coverage of this project began in May of 2017 following the release of an album of two of Antheil’s symphonies, the fourth (“1942”) and the fifth (“Joyous”), along with the world premiere recording of “Over the Plains,” a rather loopy concert overture with ample references to familiar tunes. Exactly a year ago today, I wrote my account of the second volume, which was organized around two more symphonies, the third (“American”) and sixth (“after Delacroix”), along with three shorter offerings.

The third album was released this past November, but it took a while for it to work its way to the head of my queue. This recording presents only one symphony, the first, which was given the subtitle “Zingareska” (gypsy-like). That subtitle is more than a little perplexing, particularly since the last of the four movements has a title of its own, which is “Ragtime.” Furthermore, the booklet notes by Mervyn Cooke observe that this movement, along with the second, seems more in the spirit of circus music, rather than that of either the jazzmen of the time (the symphony was composed between 1920 and 1922) or gypsies. Nevertheless, those familiar with Antheil’s approaches to making music will probably not be surprised by such idiosyncrasies.

The other major work on the album is the suite that Antheil extracted from the score he composed for the ballet “Capital of the World.” The ballet is based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway about Paco, working as a waiter’s apprentice with aspirations of becoming a matador. He experiments with his moves by having a colleague charge him with a wooden chair, taking the upper two legs to be the horns of a bull. A cynical customer observes that the exercise would be more realistic if a pair of knives were strapped to those legs. Paco accepts the challenge, is stabbed, and dies. Hemingway’s friend A. E. Hotchner turned this story into a ballet scenario, which was then choreographed by Eugene Loring for Lucia Chase’s Ballet Theatre. It was also televised on Omnibus when I was a kid, and that was my only contact with the ballet. Sadly, neither Cooke’s booklet notes nor the track listings give much of a clue of the relationship between the music in the suite and the action of the choreography.

Once again, these lengthier offerings are complemented by shorter ones. “McKonkey’s Ferry” is named after the site on the Delaware River where General George Washington led his forces across the river, where they would attack the Hessian mercenaries garrisoned in Trenton. Antheil had a knack for vigorous rhetoric consistent with patriotic spirits, and “McKonkey’s Ferry” never lets that rhetoric descend into jingoism. “The Golden Bird” was originally composed for solo piano in 1921. It amounted to a tone poem based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Nightingale,” one of the earliest stories of a competition between real life and a mechanical simulacrum. Antheil orchestrated his score not long after completing the piano version. “Nocturne in Skyrockets” also amounts to a tone poem, based this time on images of fireworks rather than on a narrative.

Once again, Storgårds brings an informed hand to leading the BBC musicians. There is a consistently clean sense of balance across the diverse instrumental resources that Antheil’s scores require. This composer never achieved particularly adequate recognition for his orchestral music during his lifetime. (He was better known as the man who titled his autobiography The Bad Boy of Music.) Storgårds deserves credit for getting beyond provocative reputation and making a case that Antheil’s music deserves attentive listening.