Sunday, April 5, 2020

Capriccio Releases a Zemlinsky “Sampler”

courtesy of Naxos of America

Back when I was writing for, the Viennese Capriccio label tended to serve as my “go-to” source for recorded performances of the music of Alexander von Zemlinsky. (The “von” was added to the family name by Zemlinsky’s father, having absolutely nothing to do with noble descent!) Zemlinsky began to emerge as a major figure during the last decade of the nineteenth century, and he maintained that reputation until the rise of the Nazis. He spent his last years in the New York area, first in New York City and subsequently in Larchmont; but his European reputation did not follow him to the United States. To the extent that he was known at all, it was as teacher and brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg and, through her memoirs, for his unrequited love for Alma Schindler.

However, during the final quarter of the twentieth century, interest in Zemlinsky’s music began to revive. In my personal experience, that interest was piqued through the opportunity to see the performance of his Opus 16 one-act opera “Eine florentinische Tragödie,” whose libretto was a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s unfinished play A Florentine Tragedy. (After my move to the San Francisco Bay Area, I got to attended a concert performance by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by James Conlon.)

The latest Capriccio album, released this past Friday, is organized around music that Zemlinsky composed between his move to Vienna to escape the Nazis in Germany and his departure from Vienna for the United States. The album begins with his Opus 34 sinfonietta in three movements, composed in 1934. The second movement (“Ballade”) includes a reflection on an earlier composition, the song “Sie kam zum Schloss gegangen” (she came towards the castle), the last of the six settings of poems by Maurice Maeterlinck (Opus 13). The entire collection follows Opus 23, sung by soprano Petra Lang. For both of these selections, Susanna Mälkki conducts the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. The remaining tracks are two excerpts from Zemlinsky’s final opera, his Opus 26 Der König Kandaules (King Kandaules), based on a German translation of the play Le roi Candaule by André Gide. Both are taken from the last of the three acts, the prelude and the aria “Mein Ring” (my ring), sung by baritone Siegfried Lorenz. Those excerpts, recorded in 1992, are conducted by Gerd Albrecht, who would subsequently conduct the Capriccio world premiere recording of the entire opera, released in 1997.

One of the probable reasons that Zemlinsky fell out of fashion is his preference for lush sonorities found in his instrumentation. Those qualities did not go down well with those that worshipped the austerity in the music of Anton Webern. Schoenberg, on the other hand, enjoyed Zemlinsky’s music, even if he did not always compose that way himself. From that point of view, the new Capriccio album provides excellent examples of everything that Schoenberg appreciated and everything that those worshipping at the altar of Webern shunned. In addition to Albrecht and Conlon, Zemlinsky’s champions include Mälkki, Vladimir Jurowski, and Kent Nagano. While that repertoire is probably a bit rich for a steady diet, Capriccio has provided a suitable “tasting” that should not be overlooked by those that take their listening seriously.

Splendid Prokofiev from Rana and Nagano at DSO

Pianist Beatrice Rana taking a bow with conductor Kent Nagano and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (from the Web page for the performance being discussed)

Yesterday’s electronic mail from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) announced a “watch party” to be held today beginning at noon Pacific Time. Entitled Music of Prokofiev, this event will “synthesize” a program by conjoining selections from two videos of performances in the archives. The first of these is Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 26 (third) piano concerto in C major, featuring pianist Beatrice Rana performing with conductor Kent Nagano. This will be followed by the six-movement orchestral suite that Prokofiev compiled from the score for his opera The Love for Three Oranges, conducted by Juraj Valčuha. These selections will be streamed through Facebook Live, rather than the DSO Replay Web site.

While I appreciate the “watch party” concept, the technical side of me tends to raise an eyebrow over anything that is likely to impose a load on Internet traffic. As a result, I decided to focus my attention on the piano concerto and experience it through its DSO Replay Web page. This performance took place last season on May 25, 2019; and my decision to view it was motivated by both soloist and conductor.

One of my greatest regrets is that I never took the opportunity to listen to Nagano conduct while he was based in Berkeley. Indeed, my knowledge of his work has been pretty much confined to his recording of Olivier Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise. (I have to confess that I have my own way of listening to this music that is considerably at odds with how it was presented when I saw the San Francisco Opera performance.) On the other hand, readers that have been following this site for a while know that I have not been particularly enthusiastic about Rana through either of her two solo albums or her San Francisco recital debut presented by San Francisco Performances in April of 2017. In that context it seemed fair for me to observe her work as a concerto soloist.

The “bottom line” is that I was far from disappointed. Opus 26 tends to be the most popular of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, and one reason is that an abundance of wit for both soloist and ensemble makes the music highly accessible. At the same time the technical demands on the soloist are challenging unto an extreme. There is also its “American connection,” since the world premiere performance took place on December 16, 1921 during the composer’s visit to the United States. He performed the piano part with Frederick Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and, as might be guessed, the music was subsequently championed by conductor Serge Koussevitzky.

The video account of the DSO performance is one that can be relished for both solo and ensemble work. At the piano Rana was all focus. Over the course of the many finger-busting passages that Prokofiev had written to show off his personal technique, her overall body language maintained a composure that was consistently serene. Her head was clearly “in the game;” but she knew better than to call attention to her talent by any means other than the sonorities she evoked from the keyboard.

Those sonorities, in turned, echoed back and forth across Prokofiev’s extensive palette of instrumental colors, almost all of which were brought to listener attention through skilled camera work. One consequence of that attentiveness is that the viewer saw far more of the performers than of the conductor. However, one could still appreciate the overall sense of shape that Nagano brought to the score, particularly over the course of the variations in the second movement. As a result much more could be gained by observing the results of his efforts rather than the efforts themselves.

The popularity of this concerto is such that one can rarely go through an entire concert season without encountering it at least once; but this video document of last year’s DSO evening is definitely “one for the books.”

Saturday, April 4, 2020

DSO Replay Recalls Ambiguous Sibelius

“Poster” for the DSO Replay performance being discussed

In addition to providing streaming video of entire concerts by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), the DSO Replay Web site also allows the visitor to experience performances of individual compositions. I learned about this only yesterday. When I first visited this site last month, I provided my electronic mail address; and yesterday I received my first “mass-mailing,” suggesting that I watch a performance of Jean Sibelius’ Opus 105 (seventh) symphony. Following this link, I learned that this was a recording of a performance, which took place on May 5, 2018, conducted by John Storgårds, currently Principal Guest Conductor with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Canada.

Storgårds can definitely be counted as a Sibelius specialist. He has recorded all seven of the symphonies with the BBC Philharmonic, as well as having recorded three fragments from the eighth symphony, which had not been completed at the time of the composer’s death. Opus 105, composed in 1924, is one of two symphonies that Sibelius seems to have created for the exploration of ambiguity. The other is Opus 63 (the fourth), first performed in 1911. The published key is A minor, but all four movements are fraught with tritones, the most ambiguous interval in the chromatic scale. The ambiguity of Opus 105 has less to do with harmonic progression and more to do with overall architectural shape.

Structurally, the symphony consists of a single movement (as is noted on the title page of the published score). However, its Wikipedia page “parses” that movement into ten sections. The last of these is marked “Tempo I,” suggesting a “closing of the circle;” but it is only four measures long! Sibelius himself saw the composition as a synthesis of symphony and fantasia but allowed it to be published as a symphony. The work opens in C major, but there is definitely a “pull” between C major and C minor as the structure unfolds.

Nevertheless, even the most attentive listener may have difficulty establishing just what is unfolding. For the most part the dynamic contours tend to be understated. The brass section does get its fair share of the score, usually raising the overall dynamic to a higher level. However, those variations in dynamic level do not necessarily establish any sense of a landscape of peaks of different heights of the sort that Pierre Boulez saw as fundamental to his conducting the music of Gustav Mahler.

As a result, many listeners may feel frustrated by the absence of clear climax, just as they are frustrated by all the tritones in Opus 63. The good news is that Storgårds still knows how to endow this symphony with its own distinctive sense of flow. That sense may tend to meander. However, the sympathetic listener can eventually get used to any unanticipated twists and turns; and, in the DSO Replay recording, the camera pays enough attention to Storgårds himself to allow the viewer to observe how he negotiates those twists and turns.

In other words DSO Replay has provided an account of a highly ambiguous piece of music that will facilitate the efforts of attentive listeners to negotiate those ambiguities.

Pursuance: Coltrane Legacy Deserves Better

courtesy of Lydia Liebman

At the end of last month, ropeadope released the latest album of saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin. Pursuance: The Coltranes is her third full-length release; and, as the title suggests, the content serves as homage to both John Coltrane and his wife Alice, who became his pianist with the departure of McCoy Tyner. The thirteen tracks on the album include seven of John’s originals and four composed by Alice. The remaining two are based on spirituals. “Goin’ Home” (“Going Home” on the track listing) was adapted for spiritual purposes by William Arms Fischer, who appropriated the principal theme from the second movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (“From the New World”) symphony in E minor. “Walk With Me” is probably best associated with The Williams Brothers and is featured on their gospel album Still Here.

The advance material for this album (presumably derived from liner notes by John Murph) claims that Benjamin is performing with “an astonishing cross-generational ensemble of over 40 jazz heavyweights that includes Ron Carter, Gary Bartz, Regina Carter, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Meshell Ndgecello, Steve Wilson, Marc Cary, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland, Brandee Younger and Jazzmeia Horn.” Sadly, there does not seem to be any specific account of who participates in which tracks, which strikes me as unfair to both the Coltrane legacy and those that were recruited to work with Benjamin on this project. I make this claim as one that believes adamantly that none of the tracks recorded by either of the Coltranes should be subjected to casual listening. This music might not demand quite the level of attentive listening that one might bring to Arnold Schoenberg or Anton Webern, but it comes damned near close!

My last encounter with an attempt to pay homage to the Coltrane legacy took place in July of last year. It involved a performance rather than a recording, and the featured work on the program was a complete performance of A Love Supreme. The event was a sorry disappointment as four well-intentioned performers never really “got” what the music was or the foundation of ideas upon which that music was created. It may not have been as depressing as my encounter with an attempt to revive Ascension, but it still left me somewhere between disappointed and dismayed.

While invoking Noam Chomsky in the course of writing about the Coltranes may be as inconsistent as invoking Schoenberg, Chomsky may offer the best explanation for why Pursuance is so disappointing, particularly to those that have long been steeped in the Coltrane repertoire. In Chomsky’s terminology, the tracks on this album account for the “surface structure” of Coltrane recordings as a point of departure. However, there is a “deep structure” that involves far more than notes and riffs that gets at how those that sailed under the Coltrane flag went about making music. That there is little sense of that deep structure should not be surprising, but there is also no sense at all of an alternative deep structure.

As a result listening to this new album has had little impact other than raising a strong urge to spend more time with the many Coltrane albums in my collection.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Petrenko’s First Mahler in Berlin is the Sixth

Today I decided to return to the Digital Concert Hall for a second opportunity to observe Kirill Petrenko during his first season as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. I chose to view his performance on this past January 25, which turned out to be the first time he brought an interpretation of Gustav Mahler to Berlin Philharmonic programming. His choice was a daring one: the four-movement sixth symphony in A minor.

Many view this as Mahler’s darkest composition; and some even have given it the name “Tragische” (tragic). It is best known for the “hammer blows of fate,” which are introduced in the “program” of the final movement. According to his wife Alma, this involved a narrative of three misfortunes that befall a fictitious protagonist, “the third of which fells him like a tree.” Mahler never specified how those blows would sound, but they usually involve the dull thud of a very large wooden hammer (requiring both arms to wield) falling on the surface of a resonating box. After Mahler experienced two misfortunes of his own, the death of his eldest daughter and the diagnosis of his heart condition, he removed the third hammer blow from the score, thinking that it would presage his own death.

In that same context Mahler introduced a “fate” motif early in the first movement of his symphony:

The core of this motif involves an A major triad dropping its inner pitch into the minor mode while the timpani pounds out a slightly eccentric rhythm. The timpani rhythm recurs throughout the symphony. However, in the final measures it resounds against a chord that begins in A minor and stays there as the music’s “final gasp.”

There is also an ambiguity in the symphony’s journey from first to last movement. There are two different publications with different orderings for the second and third movements. I first came to know this symphony through the recording that Georg Solti made with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on which the second movement is the intensely sardonic Scherzo followed by the Andante moderato, which serves as the calm before the storm of the final movement. This is also the order taken in the performances I have listened to with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony. Simon Rattle, on the other hand, has the Andante moderato precede the Scherzo in his recordings with both the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. Petrenko chose to go with Rattle’s ordering.

What is most important about last January’s video document of Petrenko’s conducting is that he judiciously kept all intimations of melodrama in check in favor of making sure that the abundant wealth of detail on the score pages was given a clear account. This amounts to recognizing how both themes and their constituent phrases emerge in a wide diversity of contexts. There are any number of ways in which those elements might be interpreted as Mahler experimenting with Richard Wagner’s leitmotif concept. Petrenko did not try to forge a narrative around such interpretation, preferring to let each individual listener take or leave any narrative implications on his/her own terms.

More important was just making sure that all of the constituent nuts and bolts would register with any attentive listener. My own opinion is that Petrenko succeeded impressively, particularly when one was aware of some nut or bolt that was not given visual reinforcement from the camera work. As a result, any intimation of a dramatic undercurrent was left to speak for itself. The listener could then decide whether the entire symphony amounted to some prolonged “tragic” expression or was just a fascinating interplay of thematic materials, many of which dwelled in the minor mode. In the context of my own history of listening to this symphony, I found that Petrenko’s approach made for a very satisfying experience.

Sviatoslav Richter Plays 4 Mozart Piano Concertos

courtesy of Naxos of America

Two weeks ago Urania Records released another two-CD album of recordings made by pianist Sviatoslav Richter. This took place two days before I wrote about my dissatisfaction with its previous two-CD release devoted entirely to the solo piano music of Frédéric Chopin. This is the latest instance of a recording that is releasing only as an MP3 album. Those interested in a physical copy (whose back cover provides the only information about when these recordings were made) are likely to discover that many of the usual British sources have sold out their current stock. However, the Vermont-based HBDirect claims to have copies to sell; and that is where the above hyperlink leads!

The two CDs present four of the piano concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. These are presented in order of the numbers in Ludwig van Köchel’s catalog of Mozart’s compositions, with two concertos on each CD. Those concertos are as follows:
  • K. 271 in E-flat major with Lorin Maazel conducting the Orchestre National de France
  • K. 466 in D minor with Karl Eliasberg conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra (before its name was changed to the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of the Russian Federation
  • K. 482 in E-flat major with Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra
  • K. 595 in B-flat major with Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra
As is the case with all Richter recordings, these performances were given on contemporary instruments. Those obsessed with “historically informed” approaches may want to steer clear of these offerings; but that will be their loss! There is a consistent level of clarity that pervades the performances from which these recordings were made. One can thus compare the engaging playfulness of K. 271 with the Sturm und Drang rhetoric of K. 466 and come away with equal satisfaction in both accounts.

The Britten recordings, on the other hand, were probably made over the course of Richter’s several visits to Aldeburgh. Richter shows up on two of the Mozart selections included in the Decca collection of Benjamin Britten performing music other than his own. However, those are duo keyboard performances, the K. 521 four-hand sonata in C major and the K. 448 sonata in D major for two pianos. This Urania release provides the opportunity to enjoy the conductor-soloist relationship between Britten and Richter; and that opportunity is definitely a rewarding one.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Watch Party Scheduled for new Benavides Opera

Composer Nicolas Lell Benavides and librettist Marella Martin Koch have arranged a “watch party in cyberspace” to showcase their first collaboration of an opera. “Pepito,” described as a “comedic opera in one act,” was commissioned by the Washington National Opera through its American Opera Initiative, providing sponsorship for new repertoire. Through that initiative Benavides and Martin Koch were first introduced; and “Pepito” was the first opera to emerge from their partnership. (Those that attended this year’s Snapshot program presented by West Edge Opera had the chance to see subsequent results from Benavides and Martin Koch with the showcasing of excerpts from Gilberto.)

The title character of “Pepito” is a shelter dog; and the libretto is basically a narrative of adoption. Camila and David are visiting an animal shelter while going through a difficult period in their marriage. Camila is drawn to Pepito through his fluency in Spanish (an amusing instance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief). However, Angie, the shelter manager, is strict about screening anyone interested in adoption; and David is not as enthusiastic as Camila. Nevertheless (spoiler alert) all turns out well; and Pepito finally gets adopted.

Vocalists Alexandra Christoforakis Dixon, Samuel Weiser, Alexandra Nowakowski, and Joshua Blue (courtesy of Nicolas Lell Benavides)

“Pepito” was given its premiere by the Washington National Opera. Pepito was sung by bass Samuel Weiser. The roles of Camila and David were taken by soprano Alexandra Nowakowski and tenor Joshua Blue, and mezzo Alexandra Christoforakis Dixon sang the role of the shelter manager. Following the premiere, Benavides arranged for a recording session with those vocalists. This took place at the Alice and Elenore Schoenfeld Symphonic Hall at the University of Southern California. Filmmaker Maggie Beidelman made a video document of that recording session, working with audio engineer Zach Miley. The performance was conducted by Benavides.

Even without costumes (shown in the above photograph), this studio performance is a convincing one. Some may be concerned about the lack of titles. However, Benavides’ understanding of diction almost always prevails in such a way that one has little trouble following the overall narrative. In addition, Beidelman’s camera work is as attentive to the musicians as it is to the vocalists, allowing the viewer to appreciate the imaginative approaches to instrumentation that enhance the rhetoric of the narrative.

The watch party for Beidelman’s video document will take place this Friday, April 3 (tomorrow), at 6 p.m. (Pacific time). The stream will be launched the Benavides’ official artist page on Facebook. That will link through a Facebook event page. This will also serve to preview the release of the album based on the recording session. That digital album will be available for pre-order from a bandcamp product page.

Dizzy Gillespie at Treffpunkt Jazz in 1961

courtesy of Naxos of America

In 2011 South-Western Broadcasting (SWR) in Germany launched the SWR JAZZHAUS record label. SWR began broadcasting jazz recordings and performances in 1957. It now boasts an archive of one of the biggest unpublished collections of live jazz worldwide with more than 3000 hours of radio recordings and 500 taken from television. The SWR JAZZHAUS record label is gradually making this material available with CDs distributed in the United States by Naxos.

A little less than two weeks ago, the label released an album of performances given by the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet at the 1961 Treffpunkt Jazz Festival. The first five tracks were recorded in Stuttgart, and the remaining two were recorded in Frankfurt. The performances are almost entirely instrumental with Gillespie leading on trumpet. The other members of this particular quintet are Leo Wright on both alto saxophone and flute, Lalo Schifrin on piano, Bob Cunningham on bass, and Mel Lewis on drums.

Gillespie’s “Con Alma” was recorded in both Stuttgart and Frankfurt. The other track from Frankfurt is his “Kush.” The remaining Stuttgart tracks include Gillespie’s “Oops-Shoo-Be-Doo-Be” (the only track with vocals), his arrangement of Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started,” Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche,” and “Willow Weep for Me” by Ann Ronell. Four of the tracks are over ten minutes in duration, allowing all of the members of the quintet generous slots for improvisation, often with playful references to other jazz standards.

By 1961 Gillespie was a “seasoned veteran” of an impressive sequence of phases in which modern jazz kept coming up with new ways to be modern. Those innovations would continue after his Treffpunkt appearance, particularly with his shift from Verve to Philips and his partnership with Les Double Six de Paris. Ward Swingle was a member of that group, and its imaginative approach to singing and improvising scat would evolve into the repertoire of The Swingle Singers. Within that historical framework the Treffpunkt selections can almost be classified as “traditional.” Nevertheless, there is no shortage of innovative imagination on any of the tracks (including the shorter ones), making this new release a valuable resource for those interested in the development of Gillespie’s ever-growing capacity for invention.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Imaginative Chamber Music Programming

For this morning’s “concert in cyberspace,” I shifted my attention to a recital featuring students in the Conservatory of Music division of the Colburn School, located in downtown Los Angeles, directly across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The entire program was devoted to performances coached by visiting pianist Orli Shaham; and, even before the first notes sounded, it was clear that this would be an impressive journey. The first half of the program was devoted to two radically different approaches to modernism. The opening selection was a four-movement concertino, which Leoš Janáček composed in 1925. Scoring was imaginatively conceived piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn and bassoon; and the first two movements were actually duos for piano and, respectively, horn and E-flat clarinet. This was followed by a leap of a little less than 90 years into the future with a composition for two vibraphones and two pianos that Steve Reich entitled simply “Quartet.” The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 15 (first) piano quartet in the key of C minor.

Shaham provided the audience with a frame of reference by giving each performance a brief but informative introduction. However, what was particularly impressive was that, while all of these pieces involved a demanding piano part (two in the case of the Reich), Shaham clearly wanted the audience to know that the concert was all about the students. Even when the piano part was clearly in the foreground, she knew how to encourage the listeners to pay attention to what the students were doing. The fact that she could do this with three compositions, each radically different from the other two, was highly impressive and made the act of listening (even when mediated through cyberspace) thoroughly compelling.

Back when it was still fun to go to student recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the heart of that “fun factor” always resided in the chamber music repertoire. It was as if the entire institution had dedicated itself to the cultivation of strong personal ties that are vital to delivering engaging accounts of the compositions in that repertoire. If the program that emerged through Shaham’s coaching was representative of the overall student experience at Colburn, then this is a source of future performers that deserves considerable attention.

I have only one bone to pick with Shaham. Before beginning the final selection, she noted that those in the audience might never again encounter Reich sharing a program with both Janáček and Fauré. With all due respect, I would suggest that Shaham is unaware of the sort of programming one often encounters in the chamber music recitals performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall. If the journeys at SFCM are no longer as exciting as they were during the last decade, the chamber music repertoire one now encounters at Davies frequently involves highly imaginative juxtapositions of the individual selections, frequently leaving the audience with an energizing sense of discovery, even when an “old favorite” may be on the program.

However, in spite of any “rooting for the home team,” this chamber music from Colburn was definitely inspired in both repertoire and execution. Sadly, I did not succeed in finding any further Colburn chamber music recitals on YouTube. I can only hope that this will change through initiatives by both faculty and visitors.

Meredith Monk Retrospective on Cantaloupe

Meredith Monk (photograph by John Edward Mason, courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Three of the founders of the Cantaloupe Music record label in 2001, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, were also founders of Bang on a Can in 1987. Thus, while the label now has an extensive repertoire of performers, it has also served as the “house label” for Bang on a Can. This past Friday, the label released MEMORY GAME, a retrospective of the music of Meredith Monk bringing together Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe all contributed arrangements of Monk originals. The selections on the album cover works composed by Monk between 1983 and 2006.

Unless I am mistaken, I had my first encountered with Monk in the summer of 1971 at the American Dance Festival, held at Connecticut College in New London. We all sat on the grass to listen to her give a recital of her songs, accompanying herself on a small electronic keyboard. The audio conditions were not ideal, but this was my first exposure to texts that deliberately explored the ambiguity between phonemes and the words that emerge when phonemes are juxtaposed. The music itself was minimal, working with a paucity of motifs and accompanying riffs. The delivery was dead serious, and most of us on audience side responded with respectful concentration.

However, much of Monk’s work had theatrical elements. In a major partnership with Ping Chong, she composed the music for the “science fiction opera” The Games. Unless I am mistaken, I saw at least excerpts from this work in performance when I was working in Connecticut and taking the train into Manhattan to attend performances almost every night. As I recall, the performance I saw involved the intense education of some alien (as in outer space) culture to prepare them to assimilate with the population of planet Earth. (This included teaching the aliens about dogs, and a dog sat obediently on a surgical table as its properties were described.)

Five of the tracks on MEMORY GAME are taken from The Games. However, only “Memory Game” resonated in recall, not because of what I had seen in New York but because it was included on Monk’s ECM album Do You Be. In fact all of MEMORY GAME seems to involve music that had been performed in some form of theatrical setting. Nevertheless, there is enough diversity in the tracks to engage the attentive listener even without any dramatic context. The instrumental arrangements for the Bang on a Can All-Stars offer a wider gamut of sonorities than one encounters in Monk’s performances with her own group, but that diversity does not detract from the composer’s unique approach to vocalization.

That said, it is worth noting that Monk’s music is very much an acquired taste. Due to the rich context of music I was experiencing during the last 30 years of the last century, I have almost always approached Monk’s music with a positive attitude. On the other hand I know many that are annoyed, rather than intrigued. Those without past experience of her work might do well to read the background text she has provided for the booklet that accompanies MEMORY GAME. It is likely to provide some useful “signposts” to guide the attentive ear through the journey plotted out in this new album.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Patrice Bart’s Brutal Beating of a Favorite Ballet

Yesterday afternoon I learned that the Berlin State Opera is taking somewhat unique approach to providing streaming content to those currently sheltering in place as a precaution against COVID-19. Every day a video of a past production is streamed through YouTube and is available at no charge for a period of 24 hours. Because that interval of time begins at noon on Central European Time, it means that access in the United States is a bit limited during normal waking hours. Nevertheless, I was able to check out the service early this afternoon.

The offering was a performance of the ballet The Nutcracker set to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The choreography was by Patrice Bart and almost immediately established itself as a radical departure from the narrative conceived by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The music was performed by the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The performance took place in 1999.

As might be expected, the camera spent little time in the orchestra pit. Nevertheless, the few shots of the podium suggested that Barenboim’s approach to this music was about as minimal as one could imagine. It was almost as it he decided that the orchestra had already synchronized its clock to the choreography, and the Concertmaster could take care of maintaining that synchronization. This proved to be more than a little disappointing, since Bart’s revisionist approach ran the full gamut from the muddled to the patently absurd. Any resemblance to the original narrative (or any other narrative, for that matter) was purely coincidental; and the primary objective seemed to be “the shock of the new.” Since many of Bart’s ideas did not align with the score as Tchaikovsky had composed it, there was a generous amount of reordering of the musical numbers.

The curious may wish to check out the You Tube Web page, if the 24-hour time limit has not yet expired. To be clear, I have experienced a fair number of different choreographic interpretations of this ballet. However, all of them have tended to honor the music the way Tchaikovsky wrote it, as well as the basic idea of a toy nutcracker coming to life and marrying its owner in a fairytale land replete with no end of sweet victuals. Also, to be fair, the audience response at the end of this video seemed to be enthusiastic; but I fear that this production will rub many ballet aficionados the wrong way.

No-Nonsense Jazz on Oxman’s 11th Album

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz

A little over a week ago, tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman released his eleventh album as a leader for Capri Records. The title of the album is Two Cigarettes in the Dark, which is probably a metaphorical acknowledgement that six of the ten tracks involve a partnership with another tenor saxophonist, the esteemed veteran Houston Person. Out of respect for listeners that want to know “who’s on first,” the back cover of the album specifies that Person will be coming out of the right speaker with Oxman on the left. Rhythm is provided by Jeff Jenkins on piano, Ken Walker on bass, and Paul Romaine on drums. Two of the tracks also include vocalist Annette Murrell.

The vocals are familiar standards, “Everything Happens to Me” and “Crazy He Calls Me.” Three of the tracks are Oxman originals, “Voss is Boss,” “Murphy’s Law Impacts L. E. A. P.,” and “Murrellancholy.” Most interesting, however, is that two of the tracks were composed by two other tenor giants that are no longer with us. Hank Mobley died on May 30, 1986; and he is honored with a performance of his “Bossa For Baby.” Johnny Griffin was of the same generation but lived until July 25, 2008. HIs selection on the album is “Sweet Sucker.”

The album reinforces my long-standing conviction that the only thing better than a master tenor saxophonist getting the most out of his instrument is a performance by two such masters. Oxman is about a quarter-century younger than Person. However, when one listens to the two of them jamming as a duo, it is clear that Oxman is sharply attentive to Person’s every move and knows exactly how to respond in kind.

Nevertheless, the overall package has a few disappointments. Murrell’s vocal work is not up to the same snuff as the instrumentalists. Her sense of pitch wavers more than is suitable for traditional songs, and her overall tone is too far on the rough side.

My real quibble, however, comes with the production of the album itself. As can be seen above, each of the Oxman titles clearly has a backstory. However, the liner notes, written by Charles McPherson, which occupies only a single page in the accompanying booklet, says nothing about the background and does not even mention “Murrellancholy.” I would like to believe that Oxman’s imagination behind these titles is as vivid as his improvisations, but the packaging of this recording can neither confirm nor deny that conjecture!

Monday, March 30, 2020

First Impressions of Jader Bignamini in Detroit

Conductor Jader Bignamini (courtesy of Opus 3 Artists)

As I wrote yesterday, Jader Bignamini will begin serving as Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) by launching the ensemble’s 2020–2021 season. Having had a highly positive encounter with DSO in cyberspace through their Live from Orchestra Hall archive of online performances, I decided that this would be a good time to experience one of Bignamini’s visits to the podium during the current season. There seemed to be two options at my disposal, and I decided to go with the one recorded earlier this season on October 18.

This was a straightforward overture-concerto-symphony program. The concerto soloist was Yooshin Song playing Max Bruch’s Opus 26 (first) violin concerto in G minor. The overture was the one composed by Mikhail Glinka for his Ruslan and Lyudmila opera. The symphony was Gustav Mahler’s fourth in G major, which can be classified as concertante, since the fourth movement is a setting of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn poem “Das himmlische Leben” (the heavenly life), scored for soprano voice. The soprano for this performance was the American lyric soprano Janai Brugger.

Bruch’s concerto is a familiar warhorse, but it still demands focused attention from the very beginning. Following five measures of introduction (primarily from the winds), the soloist must sustain the lowest note on the instrument, playing an open G string. Bruch’s score gives this note forte dynamics in contrast with the piano passage played by the winds, but it is clear that the expression of that note should not sound like an enormous boot stamping in a mud puddle. Song knew how to allow this note to insinuate itself, taking its time (“ad libitum” in the score) to come up to strength, after which she could let the following mini-cadenza unfold.

Song’s management of both subtlety and strength in this single measure set the tone for both her solo work and her engagement with Bignamini throughout all three movements of the concerto. It is worth bearing in mind that Bruch was not as imaginative in the domain of thematic development when compared with the technical virtuosity that could be evoked by Johannes Brahms. However, both Bruch and Brahms enjoyed the influence of violinist Joseph Joachim, who admired the Brahms concerto for its seriousness but found the Bruch to be “the most seductive” (in Joachim’s own words).

However, those seductive qualities owe more to the expressiveness of the performer than to the marks on the score pages. We can only imagine what those qualities were when Joachim played Opus 26. Song’s performance tended to keep both bodily motion and facial expressions to a minimum. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that both she and Bignamini jointly knew how to make sure that every repetition of a theme was cast in its own unique dispositional attitude, making the entire performance one of the most expressively rich interpretation that I have encountered. By all rights, that should count as sufficiently seductive!

Bignamini’s approach to Glinka’s overture made it clear that he knew how to seize listener attention at the very beginning of a concert performance. His tempo was briskly energetic without ever coming across like a sprinter determined to win a hundred-yard dash. As was the case with the DSO recording discussed yesterday, the camera work provided a much better view of Bignamini’s technique than would be afforded by seeing only his back. Unlike Song he was not shy about communicating with the ensemble through both bodily motion and facial expressions. There was also a clear sense of joyousness in his body language, suggesting that he would establish an adventurous disposition that would permeate the entire program.

My guess is that many readers will assume that I chose this particular program because it would give me an opportunity to assess Bignamini’s talents in taking on a Mahler selection. Sadly, this was the one selection in which my reactions were mixed. Bignamini certainly exhibited clear ideas about how he wanted to approach this symphony, and during the first three movements DSO clearly grasped what he had in mind and delivered accordingly. That included the “real peak” climax (as Pierre Boulez would have put it) at the coda of the third movement, not so much a coda as a prolonged introduction to the imagery of the Wunderhorn poem that is sung in the final movement.

Unfortunately, the delivery of the poem itself did not live up to that introduction. My conjecture is that Brugger was not properly prepared for her performance, spending more time with her eyes glued to her part than in giving off any sense of the relationship between what she was singing and what everyone else (conductor and musicians alike) was doing. This was more than a little disappointing, given the richness of context that Mahler’s instrumental writing provided to reinforce the vocalist’s delivery.

In many respects the fourth is Mahler’s finest effort in compositing a “conventional” symphony, even if the fourth movement is a song setting. Bignamini’s conducting made it clear that he appreciated both Mahler’s respect for convention in the symphony and the devices he invoked to “push the envelope” into less conventional territory. From that point of view, the final movement is as much a “farewell” to past conventions as the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde is a “farewell” to life itself. The words of the Wunderhorn text (which deserved to have subtitles) thus play as much of a role in Mahler’s biography as they do in the overall catalog of his compositions. One can only hope that, in the near future, Bignamini can return to this symphony with a vocalist better attuned to the contextual significance of what she is singing.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Mena Visits the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

The first and second flutists in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (from the Web page for the current DSO concert season)

Once again I decided to follow up on Alex Ross’ Web page of video streams of concert performances maintained on his The Rest Is Noise blog. This time my curiosity took me to Live from Orchestra Hall, the archive of online performances by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). This was not my first Internet-based visit to DSO. In September of 2012 I was able to view a performance of David Del Tredici’s “Final Alice” conducted by Leonard Slatkin, writing an article that (probably due to “technical difficulties”) I seem to have been unable to archive. At that time I was familiar with both the music and the conductor and was as satisfied with the video work as I was with the performance.

Slatkin is now the ensemble’s Music Director Laureate, and DSO is awaiting the arrival of conductor Jader Bignamini to begin serving as Music Director by launching the 2020–2021 season. This morning, rather than view one of the archived performances of Bignamini, I decided to go with familiar music, a familiar soloist, and a conductor about whom I knew absolutely nothing. That conductor is Juanjo Mena, who has an extensive track record in both Europe and the United States and is currently Principal Conductor of the Cincinnati May Festival. The soloist was James Ehnes playing Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 violin concerto in E minor. That concerto was framed by two symphonies, Haydn’s Hoboken I/44 in E minor (mourning symphony) and Franz Schubert’s D. 944 (“Great”) symphony in C major.

My guess is that Ehnes has given so many concert performances of the Mendelssohn concerto that he could probably play it in his sleep. Nevertheless, the attentive interplay of soloist and conductor could not have been better. Mena clearly understood how Ehnes would phrase his thematic material in his cadenza performance, and he know how to make that phrasing consistent with the interactions between soloist and ensemble.

While Ehnes brings a down-to-earth personality to his expressive interpretation, Mena could not be more overt in his expressiveness, particularly through his face. As a result, the video document of this performance had a decided advantage over the audience in Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, who could only see the conductor’s back! Judicious camera work similarly revealed a strong dispositional bond between the conductor and every member of the ensemble. In many respects this was a video document that augmented any impressions one may have had from a physical experience of this concert.

Mena’s engagement with the ensemble was just as compelling in the performance of D. 944. In the wrong hands this can be a very unwieldy beast with prodigiously extensive expositions and even lengthier developments. Mena chose not to take the repeats of any of the long sections, and this was definitely to the benefit of those having to sit still in the concert hall chairs.

Nevertheless, neither the overall sense of expanse or the intensity of the rhetoric was short-changed. Mena conducted as if this was his number-one favorite in his personal repertoire. The members of the ensemble caught that bug and willingly reinforced it. Schubert deserves such attentive execution more often.

The Haydn symphony has its own repertoire of twists and turns. The most interesting of these is probably the minuet movement, which is structured as a canon. Any sense of mourning is confined to the minor-key rhetoric of the first movement, after which Haydn goes back to his more familiar jovial self. Mena found an appropriate way to reduce the string section that would balance well against the remaining instruments. Slatkin was fond of saying that there was no such thing as “too much Haydn;” and Mena’s reading of this particular score suggested that he was of the same opinion.

As might be guessed, Ehnes took an encore after his concerto performance. His selection was the D minor sonata, the third in Eugène Ysaÿe’s Opus 27 collection of six sonatas for solo violin. The only one of the six to be given a title (“Ballade”), it was written for George Enescu and is virtually a devil’s brew of near-impossible technical challenges. Ehnes has clearly internalized every detail in the score along with having worked out the most effective ways in which to finger them all. His command of the resulting execution was so compelling that I was not surprised to see one of the second violinists staring with rapt attention to his every physical movement.

On the technical side the Web site for this concert leaves a few things to be desired. As one may deduce from the above hyperlinks, there is no single Web site for the entire concert. Nevertheless, there is an automatic linking process that will change the Web site for the Haydn symphony to that for the Mendelssohn concerto. However, this automation of the ordering has a major flaw in that the concerto is followed by D. 944, with Ehnes’ encore at the tail end of the sequence. Anyone that has been to enough concerts knows that the encore follows the concerto, which is then followed by an intermission!

However, that is almost my only quibble. There were a few moments when the camera was pointing in the wrong place, but they are almost too insignificant to mention. I got the impression that the video crew was working with a fixed array of cameras with zoom being the only variable on any individual camera. My guess is that the cameras had to be repositioned when the seating pattern changed; but the crew seemed to work perfectly well without horizontal (or vertical) planning at their disposal during the performance. The only other shortcoming was the absence of a hyperlink to program notes. However, I assume it was taken as axiomatic that those interested in further information would probably be able to find it with Google!

A Musical Autobiography from Aruán Ortiz

Aruán Ortiz, Andrew Cyrille, and Mauricio Herrera (photograph by Holger Thoss, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

Those that have followed my writing for some time, perhaps reaching back to my tenure at, probably know that I have had a long-standing interest in the jazz offerings of the Zürich-based Intakt Records label. I was drawn to this label by the pianist Aki Takase; but, more recently, I wrote about alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s move from ECM over to Intakt. As a result, when I learned that Intakt was releasing an Afro-Cuban-inspired album, my curiosity was easily piqued, particularly when the combo included Andrew Cyrille, a drummer I had known best through his work with Cecil Taylor.

The title of the album is Inside Rhythmic Falls, and it amounts to a unified suite of compositions by Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Aruán Ortiz leading a trio with two percussionists, Cyrille on the usual drum kit and Mauricio Herrera playing Afro-Cuban rhythm instruments. Ortiz was born in 1973 and grew up in Santiago de Cuba, located in the southeastern province of Oriente. He spent the first 23 years of his life in Cuba, amalgamating what he called the “vortex of rhythm” based in Afro-Cuban music with a diversity of more “formal” sources.

Through his conservatory education he became familiar with twentieth-century modernists that had also been inspired by indigenous sources. These included Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and György Ligeti. He also came to know the work of Cuban pianists such as Manuel Saumeil and Ignacio Cervantes, both of whom had studied with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Ernesto Lecuona, who had been a protégé of Maurice Ravel.

The influences behind Inside Rhythmic Falls, however, are far more recent. Beyond Cuba Ortiz’ most influential teacher was probably Muhal Richard Abrams, the first President of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who worked with both Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Ortiz was also drawn to influences from Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, and, as might be guessed, Taylor.

Ortiz explained the title of this album in terms of wanting to make music that would evoke “a cascade of rhythms going over me, almost dragging me to fall.” That sense of cascade is very much evident across all ten tracks of the album. Over the course of those ten tracks, the attentive listener quickly realizes that any roots in Afro-Cuban tradition are just that, a foundation out of which new styles and performance technique would grow in rich proliferation. To put this in a local context, this is music that one would be more likely to encounter under the auspices of Other Minds or at the Center for New Music, rather than among the cheerleaders in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center.

The recording is packaged with a rich set of liner notes by Adam Shatz. However, the listening experience is probably best enjoyed simply by letting the movements of this suite unfold at their own pace. One quickly grasps how Herrera and Cyrille each contribute to that “cascade of rhythms,” each in his own highly personalized way. Ortiz’ piano work, on the other hand, tends to reflect the role of an observer encountering this rich panoply of rhythmic patterns. It is almost as if the piano’s harmonic progressions serve as the canvas on which that diversity of rhythms emerges as a series of brushstrokes until one encounters the completed painting in which final track is not one of Ortiz’ compositions but is, instead, the popular Cuban love song “Para ti Nengón.”

Saturday, March 28, 2020

In Cyberspace with BAE and Shostakovich

Thanks to Alex Ross’ daily maintenance of the COVID-19 live streams post on his The Rest Is Noise blog, I was able to enjoy a thoroughly riveting account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 110 (eighth) string quartet in C minor by the Boston Artists Ensemble (BAE). The Web page on which the video recording of this performance has been embedded does not provide much by way of background material about either the music or the musicians, but there is no questioning the intense expressiveness of the performance. (There is a hyperlink to a PDF file of program notes, but it is a rather modest affair for music so rich in content.) The only downside is that Ross claims the Web page will be active for only 24 hours, but he failed to mention when the clock started ticking! (As it write this, it has been about two hours since I saw his post.)

It is important to observe that the entire video was made with a single camera. Someone (not cited) found the best way to frame the entire quartet of players, after which it was just a matter of turning the camera on and off at the right times. Personally, I do not think there is a good way to improve on such a straightforward approach. When one tries to sort Shostakovich’s score into foreground and background, one quickly realizes that this is a futile task. This is very much an intimate conversation among equals in which very little of the content ever recedes into any sort of background. As at a concert performance, every listener/viewer should have the liberty of choosing where to direct his/her attention at any time; and the video that is being streamed never infringes on that liberty.

Where content is concerned, I believe that Opus 110 is the one from the entire collection of fifteen quartets that I have heard in performance most often. It was composed over the course of only three days, July 12–14, 1960. Shostakovich was in Dresden at the time, working on music for a film about the bombing of Dresden during World War II, produced jointly by Soviet and East German filmmakers. That war had taken a heavy toll on Shostakovich’s psyche, and that impact was evident from the symphonies he composed during the siege of Leningrad, where Shostakovich was living, as well as his Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor.

The film project thus confronted him with dealing with many horrifying ghosts from the past, and the Opus 110 quartet may have been written to prepare him for that confrontation. There is certainly no shortage of “autobiographical” content in his thematic material, which includes his own “signature,” the four-note DSCH motif, and many other references to past work, including the Opus 67.

The four BAE members giving the performance on this video recording are Bayla Keyes and Daniel Chong on violin, Jessica Bodner on viola, and Jonathan Miller on cello. All four of them could not have done a better job in presenting Shostakovich’s score as that intimate conversation among equals. Even those not familiar with the score itself should have no trouble following the rhetorical journey that the composer plotted for this composition. The fact that three of the five movements (first, fourth, and fifth) are in Largo tempo does not bog down the quartet’s account of an expressive journey from beginning to end. The darkness of both present circumstances in Dresden and harrowing recollections of the past almost drove Shostakovich to suicide. However, it may be that channeling his despair into this music served to reinforce his motivation to live.

It is worth noting in conclusion that there is no evidence of any audience noise on this recording. One sees members of the audience sitting attentively. However, there is no sign of any nervous shuffling or the fatigue of boredom. The BAE players knew how to hold the attention of their audience. My guess is that anyone joining that audience through cyberspace will be equally riveted to every gesture by every member of the quartet.

“Switched-On” Jazz Switches Off Listening

courtesy of Jazzzdog Promotions

The “Editorial Reviews” background material on the Web page for Sam Gendel’s Satin Doll album describes the recording as “a futuristic homage to historical jazz.” For those of my generation, this may well evoke memories of Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’ “futuristic homage” to Johann Sebastian Bach through a series of studio albums beginning with Switched-On Bach. That first album consisted of twelve tracks through which a variety of Bach genres were realized through Moog synthesizer technology. As the Wikipedia page for this album observes, the album “played a key role in bringing synthesizers to popular music, which had until then been mostly used in experimental music.”

That album was released in October of 1968. Half a century later, there is little that is still “experimental” in the use of electronic gear. To the contrary, electronics now play a significant role in “real-time” performance in any number of widely different genres. Those genres include some of the more “avant-garde” approaches to the composition and performance of jazz. Gendel’s album, on the other hand, tries to take the same “historical” perspective that gave Carlos a point of departure. That perspective reaches back to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and advances forward all the way to Charles Mingus.

Gendel is a saxophonist; and on this album he leads a trio whose other members are Gabe Noel on bass and percussionist Philippe Melanson. Melanson’s gear is all electronic, and that may well include the processing of the the signals picked up by Gendel’s microphone(s). The result amounts to Carlos’ studio-based “switched-on” techniques being applied to a wide variety of jazz standards and a few Gendel originals. The significant difference, however, is that Gendel’s trio was giving a “real-time” performance by virtue of electronic technology that could only be imagined in 1968.

By all rights this could have been a fascinating album of “jamming in the electronic domain.” Unfortunately, this was not the case. There is a bland uniformity of performance style and rhetoric that cuts across all thirteen of the album’s tracks. The result never rises to the compelling diversity of both content and style that could be found in Switched-On Bach.

Mind you, anyone that takes Bach seriously, would observe that much of that diversity could be found Bach’s own music: All Carlos did was follow up on the likes of Edward Elgar and Leopold Stokowski, inventing new approaches to instrumentation. However, tunes like “Stardust,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” have similarly lent themselves to the stylistic inventiveness of both instrumentalists and vocalists. In that historical perspective, the sonorities of the Gendel trio may have a few new elements; but they lack the rich diversity already afforded by jazz history.

Friday, March 27, 2020

A Videoconferencing Orchestra Plays Mahler

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I have seen several examples of “remote education” enabled through multi-window video conferencing software. However, it never occurred to me that the technology would be powerful enough to provide individual windows for the members of a full orchestra or that they would all be able to coordinate in following a window for the conductor. However, the New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) seems to have taken to heart one of the fundamental precepts of invention: If you can imagine it and if you have the right tools, you can build it!

The result is a YouTube video that has to be seen to be believed. The project was launched when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of NYYS presenting its spring concert in Carnegie Hall. Through videoconferencing technology,  Music Director Michael Repper was able to conduct the members of NYYS in a highly abridged (about 90 seconds in duration) account of the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony in D major. As can be seen in this clip from the video:

courtesy of Jensen Artists

every player has his/her own window. The layout basically reflects how thy players would be seated during a concert performance; and the “front and center” window for the conductor is a bit larger, since all the performers are expected to direct their attention to that locus.

Now, for the sake of “getting real,” it is worth noting that this is an excerpt that can be realized with little more than a basic sense of beating time. To some extent Repper tips his hand at the very beginning by setting the pulse through clapping his hands. Nevertheless, the fact that all of the players could come together and sound like an integrated ensemble is impressive, almost as impressive as the post-editing executed by NYYS violinist Raina Tung to prepare the “final cut” display. (I was also informed by my source for this content that today is Tung’s eighteenth birthday. She definitely needs to be acknowledged for providing a “present” to the global listening community, rather than dwelling on what she might be receiving!)

Profil’s Anthology of Janigro on Cello

courtesy of Naxos of America

When I was growing up, my earliest awareness of the very idea of a chamber orchestra came from listening to Antonio Janigro and the Zagreb Soloists (called “I Solisti Zagreb” on their album jackets) on the radio. Janigro founded this group in 1953 under the auspices of Zagreb Radiotelevision and served as its conductor through 1968. I had no idea that he was a cellist until he performed as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Fritz Reiner’s recording of Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote.” I had pretty much forgotten about him until I received word that Profil would release a four-CD anthology of his performances entitled The Rare Cello Recordings.

This is one of those releases that seems to be recognizing only as a download product. The good news is that the product page includes the accompanying booklet; but that is only available if one purchases the entire collection, rather than selected tracks. Those interested in a physical copy will have to wait until a week from today, when it may be purchased through Presto Music, which is based in the United Kingdom but maintains dollar-based Web pages for American customers. The Web page for this recording supports purchase of the physical release and the download version.

The collection as a whole dwells heavily on the chamber orchestra repertoire featuring a solo cello part. Thus one encounters concertante music by Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi, Joseph Haydn, and Luigi Boccherini. However, the 1959 Reiner recording of “Don Quixote” is also included, along with a recording of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 cello concerto in B minor with Erich Kleiber conducting the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln.

More interesting are the chamber music offerings, particularly the performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 38 (first) sonata in E minor accompanied by Jörg Demus. Equally satisfying is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 97 (“Archduke”) trio, performed with Jean Fournier on violin and Paul Badura-Skoda on piano. Beethoven is also represented by two of his five sonatas, Opus 69 in A major and the first of the Opus 102 sonatas in C major. Both of these were recorded with pianist Jan Natermann. Ironically, while this collection is supposed to be focusing on Janigro the cellist, it includes a Zagreb Soloists recording of Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik (funeral music) suite, featuring viola soloist Stefano Passaggio.

Thus, taken as a whole, this is a collection of Janigro performances that is more than slightly less than modest. The recordings (at least most of them) may be rare; and they certainly present Janigro in a good light. Nevertheless, they are too sparse for serious listeners to appreciate his better qualities.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Petrenko’s Program of Mid-Century Modernism

Berlin Philharmonic Chief Conductor Kirill Petrenko (from the Digital Concert Hall Web page for this program)

This is the season in which Kirill Petrenko began his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, giving his first performance in that capacity this past August 19. While I have been familiar with his name for some time, I am not sure I have encountered any of his recordings; nor do I have any knowledge of his having performed in San Francisco (or, for that matter, anywhere else in the United States). Today I decided to draw upon the services of the Digital Concert Hall for my own “first contact” experience with this conductor.

I was particularly drawn to the approach he had taken in preparing his program, which did not include any guest soloists. The Web page for the concert described that program as consisting of “ three compositional masterworks, all of which were composed during the decade between 1940 and 1950 and explore entirely different avenues of musical modernism but are not based on Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.” The program began with Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” composed in 1945. It then advanced to 1950 with a five-movement ballet suite by German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann entitled Alagoana (Caprichos Brasileiros). The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 45 “Symphonic Dances.” Completed in 1940 and written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, it was his last major composition.

All three of these pieces have strong choreographic connotations. Admittedly, George Balanchine did not create his ballet based on this particular Stravinsky score until about a year after Stravinsky’s death. However, from a structural point of view, “Symphony in Three Movements” has less to do with the conventional forms of symphonic movements and more to do with an earlier score that Stravinsky composed for Balanchine’s one-act ballet “Jeu de cartes” (card game), which happens to be structured in three “deals.”

Stravinsky himself claimed that the symphony captured his personal impressions of World War II; and the rhythms in the first movement seem to suggest Morse code communications between headquarters and a battlefield. Far more interesting, however, is how the score as a whole can almost be taken as a musical approach to cubism. Rather than following “sonata form,” the score abounds with a diverse variety of thematic “blocks,” each of which almost seems to have its own characteristic geometry. As each movement progresses, those blocks are assembled and reassembled in different combinations. This results in a dazzling array of sonorities and rhythms in which any sense of a recapitulation seems almost coincidental. It is through the vigorous rhythms of such assembly that “Symphony in Three Movements” emerges as a “descendant” of the “Jeu de cartes” score, which is probably why Balanchine eventually turned to it for one of his more abstract ballets.

It was easy to assume that Petrenko conducted this piece with a clear sense of what those “blocks” were and the many different ways in which they assembled themselves. As a result, rather than evoking the horrors of World War II, his interpretation evolved as one of playful discovery. Indeed, there was hardly a moment when the camera was directed at him and he was not smiling. If this meant that his interpretation departed from any connotations of World War II, then one had to admit that it was still true to the marks on the score pages, deriving a richly expressive account of all of those marks.

That underlying sense of “auditory cubism” could also be found in the Zimmermann suite. While the title clearly suggested Brazilian connotations, none of those connotations crossed the line into the domain of denotation that can be found in most of the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos or some of the Latin American impressions of Darius Milhaud. Instead, there was again a sense of those thematic “blocks,” although in this case rhythm seemed to play a significantly different role than it had in the Stravinsky symphony. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of Petrenko’s interpretation was as joyous as it had been in his approach to Stravinsky.

Rachmaninoff’s Opus 45, on the other hand, endured a mercilessly hard rap for the better part of the second half of the twentieth century. In the context of World War II, listeners obsessed with all the new directions promised by atonality treated the piece as a battleship consigned to mothballs. The current century, fortunately, has produced several conductors willing to take the piece at face value and present its virtues to attentive audiences.

Here again there is rich instrumentation, but cubism is the last source of a metaphor one might evoke for Rachmaninoff’s management of sonorities. Instead, instrumentation is there to cast thematic material under lights of different colors. However, to draw upon another artistic metaphor, Rachmaninoff’s palette provided a diversity of those colors. Petrenko’s conducting could not have done better justice to all of that diversity; and, for a change, the camera work frequently guided the attentive eye to the sources of those different colors. Furthermore, when the camera was directed at the conductor, one could appreciate the broader scope of emotional dispositions conveyed by his physiognomy.

Taken as a whole, this was a highly satisfying “virtual concert” account leaving me curious as to how Petrenko would address other repertoire selections.

Alexis Cole Reissues her Japanese Disney Album

courtesy of MC Promotions

I have to confess that Mad magazine played a significant role in weaning me away from The Walt Disney Company and the plethora of products in just about any imaginable media sailing under that flag. No matter how enticing the world of the Mouse House might have appeared on the surface, it did not take much digging to discover that this was a Garden of Eden to which only White Anglo-Saxon Protestants would feel welcome. (Anyone else would be, at best, ignored and, at worst, turned into an object of ridicule in the name of “good fun.”) As a result, when MC Promotions sent me word that Alexis Cole’s all-Disney album, originally produced in Japan by Venus Records, was being reissued for release in the United States, my reflex was to respond with a Spock eyebrow raise.

Nevertheless, the release I received included a quote from Michael Feinstein directed at Cole that made a strong case for defense, rather than prosecution:
You managed to create a Disney CD without making me cringe once at the song selections, and your interpretations are fresh as can be. Such impeccable control and style.
This reminded me that the best musicians are the ones that can turn even the most insipid content into a compelling and engaging listening experience. In this “Beethoven 250” year, we need look no further for an example than Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 120 set of 33 variations on a little waltz theme by Anton Diabelli, which, taken on its own, remains an outstanding icon of triviality.

This is not to suggest that, as a song stylist, Cole deserves a place in the pantheon next to Beethoven; but her album, Someday My Prince Will Come, makes a solid case that how a musical idea is interpreted always trumps what that idea initially was. The above hyperlink indicates that is still marketing the original release of this album, which took place on December 21, 2010. However, Cole’s own Web site has a Web page that is now distributing that same album as both a CD and a digital download.

While Cole herself may not be rubbing shoulders with Beethoven, her pianist is Fred Hersch, who continues to be one of the jazz world’s most imaginative musicians, capable of weaving elaborate fabrics of embellishment and counterpoint from threads of the simplest of tunes. As might be expected, Hersch is part of a trio, whose other players are Steve LaSpina on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. A few of the tracks also include wind improvisations between Cole’s interpretations. Over the course of the album, Don Braden appears on tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, and flute; and there is also some ravishing harmonica work by Gregoire Maret. One might almost say that the instrumental interjections make for listening that is just as satisfying as Cole’s deliveries of the texts; but that would suggest that Cole does not belong in the foreground, which would be a grievous dismissal of how attentively these songs have been interpreted.

To be fair, as a result of my own personal break with Mouse House products, the only tracks on the album that were even faintly familiar were “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “When You Wish Upon A Star.” (The tracks on Second Star To The Right (Salute to Walt Disney) played by Sun Ra & his Intergalactic Arkestra were far more familiar; but that is decidedly a different story!) I would suggest that, taken out of the original context, these songs have any number of virtues to stand on their own two feet, so to speak. Cole and her instrumental colleagues have brought no end of those virtues to light on this album, resulting in jazz singing at its most satisfying.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Lorenzo Viotti’s Mahler in Digital Concert Hall

Elīna Garanča performing with conductor Lorenzo Viotti (from the Digital Concert Hall Web page for this program)

Having now written my account of the “social distancing” concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle for an audience situated exclusively in the Digital Concert Hall, I decided to explore the archives of that Web site. Those archives provide an opportunity to examine not only repertoire but also conductors that I have not yet encountered in the concerts that I have covered in San Francisco. Today I decided to make my acquaintance with the young (about 30 years old) conductor Lorenzo Viotti, currently Chief Conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon. According to the biographical material found on the Web page for his concert, he recently made his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra; but this seems to be his only professional appearance in the United States to date. His performance with the Berlin Philharmonic consisted entirely of a performance of Gustav Mahler’s third symphony in D minor.

This particular symphony is a rather unruly beast, even for the most passionate followers of Mahler’s music. It has six movements divided into two parts, the first part consisting only of the first movement. Two of the movements require a mezzo soloist (Elīna Garanča in this performance); and the second of those two movements has the soloist accompanied by two choirs, one adult (the women of the Berlin Radio Choir) and one of children (the boys of the State and Cathedral Choir Berlin). To say that any conductor undertaking this symphony has his/her hands full is the height of understatement.

However, it is not only the quantity that is challenging. It is hard to avoid the conjecture that Mahler used this symphony to explore a new genre of dissonance. We normally think of dissonance in terms of relations among pitch classes. Dissonant intervals confront the informed ear with ambiguities that need to be resolved by progressing to more stable consonances. However, in his third symphony Mahler seems to be experimenting with the idea that thematic material itself can be rhetorically dissonant.

If a dissonant interval of pitches entails a departure from stability, then the same can be said of how Mahler handles his themes. Throughout the first movement of the third symphony, themes seem to intrude harshly upon each other. They almost appear to spring out of nowhere with stubborn assertions of self-importance; and they never seem to establish a “comfortable fit” in the overall fabric of the movement in its entirety. While that sense of disruptive intrusion is most evident in the first movement, it continues to arise throughout the second part of the symphony. Those encountering this symphony for the first time can easily be forgiven for wondering just what was going on in the composer’s warped mind to assault the ears so violently.

For the most part Viotti rose to the challenges of bringing some sense of overall coherence and progression to those thematic dissonances. Nevertheless, his attention to detailed phrasing strategies to express how these dissonances arise and are resolved led to short-changing a coherent account of the symphony as a whole. In other words he had not yet attained a level at which he could effectively manage everything on his plate. As a result, listeners more familiar with the symphony in its entirety could be forgiven if attention began to flag by the time Viotti had advanced to the final movement, which is the second-longest in the entire symphony (the longest being the first movement).

In the domain of the Digital Concert Hall, this makes for particularly challenging issues of presentation. Not only must the video direction make no end of difficult choices regarding how what one sees will impact what one hears, but also the texture of the score is so thick that balancing the audio signals from an adequately large bank of microphones is no easier. The result is that those experiencing this particular program with memories of past concert experiences (or at least well-produced recordings) may be the only ones to come away from this program with any sense of coherence.

It is entirely possible that Viotti had a clear and logical plan for presenting this symphony to his audience. It is just as possible that an attentive member of the audience at the Berliner Philharmonie would be able to apprehend and appreciate that plan. However, when manipulated through video and audio technology, at least in making this particular video document, that plan never really maintained its coherence in the digital domain.