Friday, January 31, 2020

Fujii Releases in November and December, 2019

My efforts to catch up on recordings from last year have now brought me to the final two releases by Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii in 2019. The November release was her latest duo album with Joe Fonda on Long Song Records, following up on the release of Mizu (water), which was the May installment in Fujii’s month-by-month Kanreki cycle of recordings marking her 60th birthday. While Fonda played bass on Mizu, on their new album, Four, he alternates between bass and flute; and on the last two tracks they are joined by Fujii’s husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. As so often seems to be the case, one cannot count on Amazon.com for timely releases of Fujii’s recordings; but Bandcamp has prepared a Web page for processing orders for both the CD and digital downloads.

The December album is also a duo performance. This is the second recording of Toh-Kichi, the name of the duo that has Fujii performing with drummer Tatsuya Yoshida. The title of the album is Baikamo, and Amazon.com has a Web page for the CD release.

The first five of the seven tracks on Four present duo improvisations that can easily be taken as intimate conversations. Since the two of them have been performing together since 2015, those conversations unfold easily and, for the most part, briefly, even when it is not particularly clear what the topic is. However, things change when Tamura joins in for the last two tracks. “Stars in Complete Darkness” is practically epic in scale, lasting for a little over 22 minutes. This is followed by “We Meet as 3,” which is a little more than half as long but is still extensive when compared with the first seven tracks. The extended duration probably has to do with each of the individual players having more to contribute to the overall exchange; and “We Meet as 3” comes across as a reflection on how much had unfolded in “Stars in Complete Darkness.”

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Baikamo is another matter. Half of the sixteen tracks are based on free improvisations, each given an enigmatic (and polysyllabic) title by Yoshida. The remaining eight tracks are composed with each performer composing four of them. Most of the tracks, both improvised and composed, are brief. Given some of the titles, one might call them tone poems conceived on the scale of a haiku; but the prevailing rhetoric is far more aggressive than one is likely to encounter in a haiku. Among the longer tracks, neither the improvisations nor the compositions last for as much as six minutes. The image on the album cover (shown above) suggests that, taken as a whole, the album is a musical reflection on the current environment crisis. (The title of the last track is “Ice Age.”) However, those reflections may emerge more in the mind of the listener than in the inventiveness of the performers.

Music for Candlemas at Church of the Advent

A Candlemas tapestry that hangs in the nave of the cathedral of Strasbourg (photograph by Tangopaso, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This Sunday Schola Adventus, the resident choir at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, will provide the music for the Procession and High Mass service for the celebration of Candlemas. Also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, this is a Christian Holy Day that commemorates the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. For the celebration of the High Mass, Director of Music Paul Ellison has arranged for Schola Adventus to sing William Byrd’s five-voice setting of the Mass text. They will also sing Byrd’s anthem “Senex puerum portabat” (the old man carried the boy), as depicted in the above image of a tapestry illustrating the Presentation of Jesus Christ. Ellison will also provide organ music for the Procession and Postlude, drawing upon compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and Johannes Brahms.

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 11 a.m. this coming Sunday, February 2. Those wishing further information may call 415-431-0454.

Alternative “Three Bs” at Davies Symphony Hall

SFS Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt (photograph by Jürgen M. Pietsch, courtesy of SFS)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall. the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gave the first of three subscription performances of what might be called an “alternative ‘Three Bs’” concert. The familiar “B composer” was Johannes Brahms, whose Opus 90 (third) symphony in F major filled the second half of the program. The first half, on the other hand, was devoted entirely to the first symphony in G minor by the “Swedish B,” Franz Berwald. The “third B” was to be found on the Davies podium with the annual return of Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt for the first of his two weeks of subscription concerts.

For this writer, it was a bit of a relief to get a break from all that Beethoven250 programming that SFS has planned. Mind you, Blomstedt will not be ignoring Beethoven entirely, since he will be conducting the Opus 36 (second) symphony in D major in next week’s subscription concert. Nevertheless, the Berwald symphony made for an alternative perspective on nineteenth-century practices; and, for most of us in the audience, it also made for a new perspective, since the symphony had not been performed in Davies since December of 1991, when it was conducted by (you guessed it) Blomstedt.

This piece was completed in 1842 and subsequently revised between 1843 and 1844. To put this into the perspective of the rest of the program, Brahms would have been around ten years old during that period of revision. Ironically, Berwald completed the first version of his symphony while he was visiting Vienna, but he was there for his expertise in orthopedics. Both the first performance of this symphony, given the name “Sinfonie sérieuse,” and its subsequent revisions took place in Stockholm.

The “seriousness” of the symphony owes much to its G minor key. However, any expectations of large bleeding hunks of dark rhetoric are immediately dispersed with the highly imaginative approach to instrumentation that dominates the opening measures. The opening “fanfare” has the usual combination of winds and strings; but it is distinctively colored by the addition of three trombones.

Over the course of the entire symphony, Berwald never short-changes those trombone parts, invoking them to shape just about every significant rhetorical gesture in the symphony. Indeed, the overall impression is that the progress of the symphony owes as much to its shifts in instrumental coloration as it is does to the more traditional practices of thematic development and harmonic progression. The result is an overall listening experience in which the thematic material is readily accessible, but it is the sonorous qualities that seize and maintain attentive listening. It therefore almost goes without saying that the engaging qualities of last night’s performance owed much to Blomstedt’s sensitivity to those sonorities and his intimate chemistry with the entire SFS ensemble in bringing those sonorities to listener attention.

For that matter sonority figured significantly in the Brahms symphony. His blends may have been somewhat more conventional than Berwald’s had been. Nevertheless, he, too, appreciated the rhetorical impact of low brass sounds, particularly when they blended with low strings. The symphony is also distinguished by its “cyclic” structure, through which the vigorous flow of the opening theme returns in the final measures of the last movement with far more introspective (if not melancholic) dispositions. There is an ambiguity in that coda leaving the listener wondering whether the rhetoric was one of a satisfying conclusion or disquieting uncertainty.

That latter disposition may have something to do with a “latent” connection to Robert Schumann in Brahms’ Opus 90. Schumann would have been dead for almost 30 years when this symphony was first performed. Yet the theme that both begins and concludes the symphony may have been a reflection on Brahms friendship with Schumann. If one listens in just the right way, one may recognize that this “cyclic” theme can be traced back to a brief bridge passage in the first movement of Schumann’s Opus 97 (“Rhenish”) symphony in E-flat major. Two of Schumann’s own symphonies, but not this one, were cyclic in nature; and Brahms would have known both of them well. Thus, one can easily imagine that Brahms’ own approach to such cyclic form might have been triggered by a mere fragment of Schumann easily overlooked by most listeners!

Blomstedt conducted his Brahms with a much larger string section than he had allocated for Berwald. This was a judicious decision. The transparency of Berwald’s sonorities owed much to keeping the string section from overwhelming the rest of the ensemble. In the Brahms symphony, on the other hand, the full complement of resources allows the winds and brass to hold their own against a much bolder assembly of string resources. Such attention to that sort of detail is yet another reason why Blomstedt’s performances with SFS are so consistently compelling and why his annual visits continue to be so welcome.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

A Tchaikovsky-Schoenberg CMSSF House Concert

An image that suggests an appropriate setting for “Verklärte Nacht” (from the Facebook Event page for this concert)

Tomorrow night the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco (CMSSF) will be giving a house concert with particularly interesting programming. The CMSSF string quartet founded by violinists Natasha Makhijani and Jory Fankuchen, violist Clio Tilton, and cellist Samsun van Loon will be joined by guest artists Joy Fellow on viola and Jean-Michel Fonteneau on cello. This group will perform Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 7 “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night) in its original scoring for string sextet.

The title comes from an intensely passionate poem by Richard Dehmel; and the five sections of Schoenberg’s composition correspond to the five sections of Dehmel’s poem (whose text in both German and English can be found on the Wikipedia page for Schoenberg’s piece). Schoenberg completed this work in 1899; but, in the interest of getting more performances, he prepared an arrangement for string orchestra in 1917, which he then revised in 1943. Nevertheless, the transparency of the original score affords the best possible opportunity to appreciate Schoenberg’s rich approach to chromaticism, which probably shows signs of the influence of Richard Wagner. As an “overture” to this major chamber music composition, CMSSF will begin its program with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 11 (first) string quartet in D major.

This concert will begin tomorrow evening, Friday, January 31, at 7:30 p.m. The venue will be a personal residence near the corner of Funston Street and Fulton Street. Ticketing is being handled by Eventbrite. General admission will be $35, and students will be admitted for $15. Tickets may be purchased through an Eventbrite event page. The address of the performance will be sent with ticket purchase confirmation.

The Schwabacher “Nocturnal” Vocal Recital

Last night the Taube Atrium Theater hosted the first of the four vocal recitals to be presented in the 37th season of the Schwabacher Recital Series. Organized around a nocturnal theme, the program featured two alumni of the 2019 Merola Opera Program, both with low-register voices. These were mezzo Alice Chung and baritone Laureano Quant, accompanied at the piano by Nicholas Roehler. Readers may recall that Chung delivered a commanding performance of Azucena in the excerpt from Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore presented this past July in the Schwabacher Summer Concert.

Last night’s program saw Chung and Quant alternating over the course of an impressively diverse repertoire, coming together for duo performances in a few of the selections. However, what made this evening particularly memorable was that Quant sang one of his own compositions, settings of two poems by the nineteenth-century Colombian poet José Asunción Silva, collected under the title “Sombras” (shades). (Quant is, himself, Columbian.) This was music that captured both the semantics and the rhetoric of Silva’s texts, and Quant’s delivery provided engaging insights into the work of a poet probably unknown to most of the audience. For her part, Chung responded to the “call” of Quant’s offering with her own approach to the music of a Columbian composer, Luis Carlos Figueroa. She sang a lullaby that he composed setting his own text, a brief but engagingly affectionate offering.

Things were somewhat shakier when it came to selections by the better-known composers. The first half of the program concluded with Hector Berlioz’ Opus 7 collection Les nuits d’été (summer nights) with Quant and Chung each taking three of the songs. Berlioz is best known for his orchestral compositions; but Opus 7 was originally written for soloist and piano accompaniment, completed in 1841. He subsequently prepared orchestral versions between 1843 and 1856, and these tend to receive more attention in concert programming. One consequence is that those familiar with the piece find themselves being reminded of the orchestrations when the accompaniment is played at the piano.

In this respect one may say that Roehler did his best to play with a deck of cards that had been stacked against him. By the same count, those listening to Berlioz are more likely to associate him with instrumental bombast than with sensitive intimacy, but no bombast is to be found in the texts of the poems by Théophile Gautier that Berlioz set. Nevertheless, there was a sense that neither Quant nor Chung knew quite how to evoke the intimacy expressed through Gautier’s texts. The result was a dutiful account by both the soloists and their accompanist that never quite made for a compelling listening experience.

The first vocal selection in the second half of the program consisted of four of the five songs that Gustav Mahler collected under the title Rückert-Lieder. In this case (with one exception) Mahler prepared both orchestral and piano versions; and the first performance of four of the songs was given in the orchestral setting with Mahler conducting. (The remaining song was only orchestrated after Mahler’s death by Max Puttmann.)

Last night the song that was omitted was “Um Mitternacht” (at midnight hour). This was a wise decision, since it is one of the finest examples of imaginatively stunning sonorities in Mahler’s approach to instrumentation. Each of the songs performed last night had its own unique approach to intimacy that was well served by the piano accompaniment. Here, again, Quant and Chung shared the set, dividing the selections equally in half, each providing his/her own perceptive approaches to not only the music but also the turns of phrase in Friedrich Rückert’s texts.

The program ended on a more provocative note with six of the songs that William Bolcom had collected under the title Cabaret Songs. These are all settings of poems by Arnold Weinstein, each of which expressive its own distinctive perspective on New York City life. Two of the poems were sung as duets, given just the right amount of minimal staging to keep the words fresh in the ears of the listener. Bolcom gave each of these songs a light touch, but both Chung and Quant knew how to tease out the sharper edges of the prevailing rhetoric.

The Mahler songs were preceded by a solo offering by Roehler. He played the opening prelude movement from Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque. This collection is best known for its “Clair de lune” movement, although Vladimir Horowitz like to perform the minuet movement as an encore selection. The prelude is the most challenging of the suite’s four movements, and it suggests that Debussy may have been seeking out his own musical approach to stream-of-consciousness. The underlying emotional dispositions turn on a dime from one phrase to the next, and the closest one ever comes to resolution is the aggressive cadence that concludes the entire movement.

Sadly, Roehler did not seem to recognize the underlying turbulence of this music. He plugged his way dutifully from one measure to the next, making it clear that he knew how to account for all of the marks on the score pages. However, there was no sense of the underlying erratic rhetoric, meaning that the performance amounted little more than a parade of notes with little sense of order other than that of the underlying duration.

The encore was an affectionate account of Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.” Clearly, all three of the performers enjoyed presenting this song. It also made for a soothing gesture to soften all those sharp edges that had just revealed themselves in the Cabaret Songs selections.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Sonora Winds Showcase Polish Composers

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

I still seem to be trying to catch up on recent releases by MSR Classics. This past November saw the release of what seems to be the debut album of Sonora Winds. This ensemble is the quartet of Bethany Gonella (flute), Stuart Sutter (oboe), Anastasiya Nyzkodub (clarinet), and Marta Troicki (bassoon), all of whom are based in Minnesota, which is where the album was recorded.

The title of the album is From Shadow to Light: Music for Winds from Poland. The program of the album surveys six twentieth-century Polish composers, none of whom are still alive. The most familiar of these is Witold Lutosławski, represented by a trio for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. The piece was composed in 1945; and, to some extent, it recalls the the duo piano performances that Lutosławski gave in cafes with his fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik. The other familiar name among the composers on the album is (to me at least) Tadeusz Baird, represented by a prankish divertimento for wind quartet composed in 1956. The remaining four composers are Antoni Szalowski, Wawrzyniec Żuławski (Wawa), Władysław Walentynowicz, and Janina Garścia.

Taken as a whole, all the selections are upbeat in their respective rhetorical stances. This is hardly a surprise since, for the most part, chamber music for winds maintains a sunny disposition. In addition there is enough stylistic variety for one to distinguish one unfamiliar composer from another. As a result the album makes for appealing listening, but I have to wonder if any of these pieces will engage the listener strongly enough to make for a memorable experience. Perhaps having the recording is an advantage, since familiarity tends to grow with repeated listening experiences.

Lisa Mezzacappa Six to Celebrate CD Release

The Lisa Mezzacappa Six in performance (from the Facebook event page for Monday’s concert)

Usually the Monday Make-Out concerts at the Make Out Room are announced in the weekly Bleeding Edge columns. However, the beginning-of-the-month concert this coming Monday is a bit more special than usual. That is because the second of the three sets in the evening will couple as a CD release celebration.

Readers may recall that one of the major events of last year was the completion and performance of a suite based on the Cosmicomics stories by Italo Calvino, created by bassist Lisa Mezzacappa. Mezzacappa scored this music for her Lisa Mezzacappa Six combo, whose other members are Aaron Bennett on tenor saxophone, John Finkbeiner on electric guitar, Mark Clifford on vibraphone, Jordan Glenn on drums, and Tim Perkis on electronics. Those who missed any of the performances of this imaginative jazz reflection on Calvino’s distinctive approach to literature will now have a chance to enjoy Cosmicomics on CD; and the Monday Make-Out at the beginning of next week will provide a release celebration. The Lisa Mezzacappa Six will perform in the second of the three sets of the evening, probably beginning around 9:30 p.m. They will be preceded by FYI Birds and followed by the TJ Thompson Trio.

This performance will take place on Monday, February 3. The Make Out Room is located at 3225 22nd Street in the Mission, near the southwest corner of Mission Street. The Make Out Room is a bar. That means that tickets are not sold, nor is there a cover charge. Nevertheless, a metaphorical hat is passed between sets; and all donations are accepted, not to mention welcome! As always, doors open a half hour prior to the beginning of the first set, which will be at 8:30 p.m.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Americano Social Club Announces Two Gigs

Thanks to Facebook I only learned about the Americano Social Club this morning. My guess is that the name of this group was inspired by the Buena Vista Social Club, which formed in 1996 to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba. The “Americano version” casts a much wider net. A performance is likely to include, pop, jazz, folk, classical, rock, opera, Brazilian music, and/or the traditions of European cafes. At its “core,” the group, which first came together in 2010, is a trio led by Michael Zisman on mandolin, performing with guitarist Jason Vanderford and Joe Kyle Jr. on bass. They have planned two gigs over the next few days that are worth considering:

Wednesday, January 29, 6:30 p.m., Cafe de Soleil: The trio will be joined by master guitarist Howard Alden. Alden commands a broad repertoire, but he is particularly adept at channeling the stylistic riffs of Django Reinhardt. Cafe de Soleil is located at 200 Fillmore Street on the northeast corner of Waller Street. It is known for the light food and drinks that it serves. There is neither a cover charge nor a minimum. The Americanos will be playing up until around 9 p.m.

Saturday, February 1, 9:30 p.m., Club Deluxe: The Americanos are calling this an “epic Ruckus.” The trio will again be joined by a guitarist, this time Scott Foster. Vocals will be provided by Emily Zisman; and, to make things a bit more interesting, Julie Rea will be belly dancing, joined by guest belly dancer from Southern California Pixie Fordtears. Club Deluxe is located at 1511 Haight Street, just to the west of Ashbury Street. Door will open at 9 p.m., admitting only those aged 21 or older. The cover charge will be $5.

cpo Concludes Recording Pachelbel Organ Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

At the beginning of this past November, the German cpo label released the third volume in its project to record the complete organ music of Johann Pachelbel. The first release of the project took place in the summer of 2013 in the form of a five-CD box set of performances by four organists: Christian Schmitt, James David Christie, Jürgen Essl, and Michael Belotti. In October of 2016, this site reported the release of the second volume, with two CDs of performances by three of the four organists that performed for the first volume. (Schmitt was absent from this volume.) At that time it was announced that the entire project was expected to fill ten CDs. Sure enough the third volume consists of three CDs, each presenting performances by a different organist, Belotti, Schmitt, and Christie, respectively. All recordings in the collection were made from performances on historic organs in central and southern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

The report on the second volume observed that each CD was organized around an overall “topic,” based, for the most part, on the liturgical calendar. The same can be said of the third volume but with the caveat that, in all of the volumes, the categories are relatively loosely defined. Nevertheless, most of the music is associated with some kind of sacred context, primarily chorale preludes and fugues based on earlier settings of liturgical texts. Nevertheless, the third volume offers a few “secular” toccatas and fugues, along with one arietta and one chaconne (which is not the infamous “Pachelbel’s canon,” which was written for string instruments, rather than organ).

The author of Pachelbel’s Wikipedia page observes that Pachelbel’s compositions are “less virtuosic and less adventurous harmonically than that of Dieterich Buxtehude,” who was Pachelbel’s senior by about fifteen years. However, only six CDs are necessarily to account for all of Buxtehude’s organ compositions. Johann Sebastian Bach, on the other hand was over thirty years younger than Pachelbel. Bach’s eldest brother Johann Christoph had studied under Pachelbel. Sebastian, on the other hand, first became interested in Buxtehude when he was in his teens and would later upset his employer (the New Church in Arnstadt) by taking an extended leave to walk 280 miles to Lübeck to listen to Buxtehude play his original compositions. Buxtehude was probably a far greater inspiration than Pachelbel; and the Bach 2000 anthology allocates sixteen CDs to Bach’s organ works!

Nevertheless, it would be unfair to try to “rank order” Buxtehude or Pachelbel alongside Bach. Those with a serious interest in the organ music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries should definitely take advantage of the availability of “complete works” collections of those respective composers’ compositions for organ. It is therefore more than a little satisfying to report that cpo has now completed their project to honor Pachelbel’s achievements.

Two Trios and a Quartet for Beethoven250

Violinists Anne-Sophie Mutter and Ye-Eun Choi, violist Vladimir Babeshko, and cellist Daniel Müller-Schott (from the San Francisco Symphony event page for last night’s recital)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter gave the second of her two Great Performers Series recitals organized by the San Francisco Symphony, concluding Beethoven250 programming for the month of January. The program was devoted entirely to chamber music for strings (without piano). Two of the early string trios of Ludwig van Beethoven (both composed before 1800) framed a performance of the Opus 74 (“Harp”) quartet in E-flat major, the fourth of the five so-called “middle period” quartets, composed in 1809. For these performances Mutter was joined by Ye-Eun Choi on second violin in Opus 74, along with violist Vladimir Babeshko and cellist Daniel Müller-Schott.

Opus 74 was probably the most familiar offering on the program, since the quartets tend to receive far more attention than the string trios. It is known as the “Harp” quartet due to a pizzicato theme that gradually grows in importance during the first movement. It was the first quartet Beethoven composed following the three Opus 59 quartets commissioned by Prince Andrey Razumovsky. Like all five of the “middle period” quartets, the music is based on a foundation of diverse rhetorical dispositions, making the experience of listening to a good performance a highly absorbing one.

Sadly, Mutter and her colleagues never succeeded in conveying all of that diversity to the listener. Indeed, about the only rhetorical disposition one encountered was that of aggressive vigor. The pizzicato passages were plucked with so much energy that it seemed as if the performers wanted to be heard across the street in the War Memorial Opera House; and the bowed passages were, for the most part, even more energetic, almost bordering on the violent. The fact is that, while the technical challenges of Opus 74 are definitely up there with the Opus 59 quartets, Opus 74 is one of Beethoven’s sunniest creations, whatever grief he may have been enduring due to his physical condition. It is unclear why last night’s performers were loath to let that sun shine on the Davies audience; but their approach to execution seemed to say little more than, “Don’t bother me, I’m busy!”

Similarly, the two trios on the program, the third of the Opus 9 trios in C minor and the Opus 3 trio in E-flat major, were conceived with the sunny warmth of spring in mind (even when the key was in the minor mode). This was the work of that young Beethoven, who could not get along with his teacher Joseph Haydn but could appreciate every twist and turn of that composer’s capacity for wit. Being defiant in his youth, the problematic student was determined to best his master with an even richer sense of humor (opting for the vigor of his German youth in favor of politer Viennese refinements).

The earlier Opus 3 trio is actually more of a divertimento in six movements, with two minuets and two slow movements framed by the outer Allegro movements. The humor here is more subtle than many of the belly-laughs that emerge in the Opus 9 trios; and, from a structural point of view, Beethoven was more likely reflecting on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, rather than Haydn. However, because the Opus 9 trios are more overt in their witty tropes, the C minor quartet provided and excellent way to begin this program of chamber music for strings.

Sadly, both of the trios suffered the same heavy-handed treatment that had undermined the rhetorical qualities of the Opus 74 quartet. It was as if this program had been conceived to honor Beethoven-the-monument, rather than to throw sunny light on the composer when his spirits were at their highest. Taken as a whole, the selections on the program provided one of the best escapes from the hackneyed “scowling Beethoven” rhetoric; but Mutter and her colleagues never seemed to give much thought as to where that escape hatch was.

Monday, January 27, 2020

62nd GRAMMY Awards: One Ray of Light

As already observed, following the GRAMMY Awards constitutes “my annual reality check.” I have almost come to the conclusion that any preference of mine that gets a GRAMMY nod must be due to a mistake in the process of choosing those awards. Nevertheless, at least one preference of mine got a nod this year. The nod was not a particularly strong one, but I shall take what I can get. Here is my annual “review of the bidding,” summarizing the nominees, my preference, and the actual award:

Best Latin Jazz Album

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

As I previously observed, Latin jazz is not really one of my major specialities. Nevertheless, I have long had a positive interest in Zenón; and, for better or worse, Antidote was not brought to my attention. I certainly would not want to argue against Corea, but I did derive a fair amount of listening pleasure out of listing to Sonero, even if Antidote surpassed it in winning the GRAMMY award.

Best Instrumental Composition

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

In this case, however, I feel I have the right to grumble. If Wiiliams’ album was more popular than Begin Again, it had more to do with the Star Wars fan base than with any criteria based on composition! Indeed, while Begin Again was my personal preference, I would say that Williams’ effort was just not in the same league as any of the alternatives. It must have been quite a cash cow for the GRAMMY judges to take so much notice of it!

Best Engineered Album, Classical

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

In this case the award wend to Sun Rings. Readers probably know by now that I am not that big on Julia Wolfe; but this is an award for the technicians, rather than the performers or the composers of the music being performed. My attention had more to do with the production of a recording based on a concert performance (which involved considerable variety in resources) than with my preferences for Terry Riley as a composer!

Producer Of The Year, Classical

    BLANTON ALSPAUGH

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

    JAMES GINSBURG

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

    MARINA A. LEDIN, VICTOR LEDIN

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

    MORTEN LINDBERG

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

    DIRK SOBOTKA

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

This was my one point of agreement with the judges’ decision to present this award to Alspaugh. Nevertheless, my support may be too slim to matter very much. My primary reason has been the great interest I have taken in Slatkin’s efforts to provide a new generation of recordings of performances of the symphonic music of Aaron Copland. His recordings combine valuable historical insights with compellingly expressive interpretations of the scores. Whether or not any of those virtues involved Alspaugh’s production efforts does not matter very much to me!

Best Orchestral Performance

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

This takes us back into the realm of disappointments. The award went to “Sustain;” and I was not particularly happy. To be fair, much of my opinion about Norman goes back to the end of October in 2016, when Gustavo Dudamel brought the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Davies Symphony Hall; and his program included Norman’s “Play.” This was one of the few occasions when I devoted a fair amount of my report on this concert to my discontent with that composition. Copland domain may have been the last century, but Slatkin definitely knew of to keep the music of that century alive and well in the current one; and I have not seen any evidence to Dudamel has a comparable talent in that regard.

Best Opera Recording

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

This is a problematic situation. As a subscriber to the San Francisco Opera, I have built up considerable interest in Albrecht’s conducting. I was therefore more than a little curious to see what he would do with Wozzeck. From a musical point of view, I was not disappointed. Unfortunately, mine was a video experience of the Blu-ray recording of the performance, which had been staged by Krzysztof Warlikowski. The bottom line was that the staging was so bad that it undermined Albrecht’s talents in just about any conceivable way. As a result, I really cannot complain about the GRAMMY judges preferring Tobias Picker.

Best Classical Instrumental Solo

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

I may be wrong, but it is hard to shake the suspicion this award had more to do with legitimizing Winton Marsalis in the classical domain than with Benedetti’s talents as a violinist. The fact is that the only candidate that I have not heard in performance or on recording is Kraybill. When all is said and done, my heart still belongs to Wang!

Best Classical Compendium

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

I may be wrong; but, given the wording above, it looks as if this award has more to do with the producer than with any of the performers. I seldom give much attention to the role of the producer, prioritizing the connections between performers and composers instead. That said, I have to say that my reaction to The Poetry of Places came down pretty heavily on the negative side; and, in the context of my above comments, “Frank’s Home” reminded me of all the reasons why I had reacted so negatively to Norman’s “Play.” Since that was the first track on the album that won the GRAMMY, I have to wonder whether Norman has an inside track on GRAMMY proceedings!

Best Contemporary Classical Composition

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

In the context of that last paragraph, I took some comfort that, in this category, the GRAMMY judges preferred Higdon over Norman. Nevertheless, since I have been exposed to all five of these composers in one way or another, the fact is that the only one to have made a deep impression on memory is Wolfe; and that was for much earlier work that was far more compelling than the composition that was “in the running” this year. The question I raised in December when all of the nominees were announced remains the same: “Why does so much ‘contemporary’ music sound like it was composed in the twentieth century?”

The Bleeding Edge: 1/27/2020

Most of this week’s events have already been taken into account. That includes the end-of-month Monday Make-Out tonight, which was announced a week ago, three consecutive concerts at the Center for New Music on the last two nights of January and the first night of February, and the Dirt and Copper performance, which will also take place on the first night of February. That leaves only two other events, both taking place at familiar venues. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, January 30, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s two-set program of improvisations in the LSG Creative Music Series will focus on electronics. The first set will be taken by Mit Darm, a collaborative duo that brings Suki O’Kane’s work with electronic gear together with  Edward Schocker’s skills in getting innovative sonorities out of glass and the Japanese free reed shō. The second set will present electronic improvisations based on another duo performance, this one bringing drummer John Hanes together with Steve Adams on reeds. 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 31, 9 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: Every February Chicago percussionist Kahil El’Zabar celebrates Black History Month with a tour of his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. His approach to jazz is deeply rooted in four centuries of African-American experience and rooted more deeply still in the cultures and histories of a range of African cultures from which hundreds of thousands of people were abducted, brought in chains, and held in slavery. For three of the last four years, Bird & Beckett has been the first stop on this group’s tour. This year El’Zabar will be joined by Corey Wilkes on trumpet and Alex Harding on baritone saxophone. There will be a sliding scale cover charge between $20 and $40 for this event. Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART.

PIVOT Concludes with Dazzling Violin-Cello Music

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell (from the San Francisco Performances event page for last night’s concert)

Last night in Herbst Theatre the San Francisco Performances PIVOT series concluded, as it began, with a duo of string instruments. Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and cellist Jay Campbell prepared a program that, like the first program of the series, explored the contrasts between past and present. This time, however, the “present” was about as immediate as one could expect, with the second performance of a new composition by Hungarian composer Márton Illés. (The first performance had taken place the preceding evening in Santa Barbara.)

The composition was the third in Illés’ Én-kör series of short pieces scored for two or three instruments. The first was written for two trumpets and horn, and the second was a duo for saxophone and harp. This latest piece thus involved Illés’ first venture into bowed strings for his project. From an information-theoretic point of view, the composition ranked a high entropy score, meaning simply that Illés was throwing at the attentive listener far more than could be conceived as order over the course of a single brief listening experience. It was the sort of piece that would have benefitted from having a second playing immediately after the first, but it was clear that both Kopatchinskaja and Campbell deserved a rest from the intensity they had brought to their performance.

Taken as a whole, the program was a well-balanced mixture of the familiar with the unfamiliar. Thus, the Illés premiere was preceded by Maurice Ravel’s duo sonata. Composing this piece seems to have been a challenge for Ravel. While it consists of four relatively short movements, he worked on the piece between 1920 and 1922 and was uncertain about the results. The piece is usually given a sober reading that plays up the textures of the violin and cello lines weaving among each other.

Last night’s reading, on the other hand, was anything but sober. The give-and-take between the violin and cello parts was attacked vigorously by both players with bowing techniques that bordered on the frighteningly violent. Yet the violence (if you can call it that) was more of a cartoonish nature; and, as the music progressed, the listener was drawn into the Looney Tunes world of Bugs Bunny consistently outwitting Elmer Fudd, except that each instrument got to alternate in taking the roles of Bugs and Elmer. As a result, the attentive listener could definitely appreciate the intricacy of all the technique behind Ravel’s score; but it was the off-the-wall rhetoric of the approach that Kopatchinskaja and Campbell took to their execution that made the experience both absorbing and hysterically funny in equal measure.

Much of the program involved contrasts between the distant past and more recent compositions. Thus, two of the pieces from the 24 duos that Jörg Widmann composed for violin and cello were framed between transcriptions of early two-part counterpoint documented in the eleventh-century Winchester Troper and a fantasia by Orlando Gibbons. (When was the last time that two different Widmann compositions were played in Herbst and Davies Symphony Hall, respectively, within days of each other?) Widmann’s capacity for wit may well have inspired the approach that Kopatchinskaja and Campbell brought to their Ravel performance (which immediately followed the Gibbons selection); and, as a result, there was very much a sense of contrast between the wild abandon of the recent past with the far more sobering rhetoric of the early compositions.

In the second half of the program, a transcription of a chanson by Guillaume de Machaut was framed by very early compositions by Iannis Xenakis and György Ligeti. Both of these pieces were short and drew upon folk sources, Greek and Hungarian, respectively. Thus, both of them tended to undermine the usual expectations that one brings to listening to either of these adventurous composers. However, Ligeti’s Hungarian “folk spirit” provided a retrospective reflection when the program concluded with Zoltán Kodály’s Opus 7 duo for violin and cello. Consequently, the entire program emerged as an intricate journey in which both past and present and contrasting emotional dispositions were elegantly interleaved.

The encore selection was taken from the keyboard music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Kopatchinskaja was not more specific; and, as many know, “Bach-the-son” composed a lot of keyboard music. The entire selection was played at a barely audible pizzicato, almost as if the performers decided to poke fun at the very convention of playing encores. (For that matter, there seemed to be no need to identify which of the many Gibbons fantasias was the one played during the first half of the program. Perhaps Kopatchinskaja and Campbell were being just as prankish about the very nature of a recital as they were in their approaches to performance.)

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Blue Heron’s Project to Record Ockeghem Songs

courtesy of Naxos of America

At the beginning of this past November, the Blue Heron vocal ensemble, based in the Boston area and directed by Scott Metcalfe, released the first volume in its project to record the complete songs (chansons) of Johannes Ockeghem. That entire collection is relatively modest, suggesting that only two CDs will be required to cover the canon; and, according to the accompanying booklet, the project will be completed with the release of a second CD in 2022.

The author of Ockeghem’s Wikipedia page describes him as “the most famous composer of the Franco-Flemish School in the last half of the 15th century.” That author situates him in the middle of a “holy trinity” of composers of early Renaissance counterpoint, preceded by Guillaume Dufay and followed by Josquin des Prez. As is the case with all three of these composers, the compositions of sacred music occupied far more time than that allocated for secular chansons. I was therefore somewhat surprised to discover that this was my first recording devoted entirely to Ockeghem’s music; and, unless I am mistaken, my only recording with any Ockeghem on it is the Brilliant Classics Requiem anthology.

While the Blue Heron terminology refers to the selections on this album as “songs,” my personal scholarship inclines me to prefer the noun “chanson.” This is not so much because the texts being set are in French as it is that, among early music scholars, the noun “chanson” tends to be used to refer to songs in the French language that are usually polyphonic and secular. “Song,” on the other hand, is more likely to connote a single voice, possibly with instrumental accompaniment.

Thus, the “progress” of music history across that “trinity” of Dufay, Ockeghem, and Josquin may best be traced in the advance of more and more elaborate approaches to the composition of polyphony. From that point of view, having recordings that cover the entire canon of Ockeghem’s chansons plays a valuable role in orienting the listener to a particular Renaissance style, just as listening to a complete collection of one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s pedagogical collections (such as The Well-Tempered Clavier) orients the listener to keyboard practices during the early eighteenth century.

During the late Sixties and early Seventies, much of my collecting of vinyl records drew me to music of both the Medieval and Renaissance periods (due, in no small part, to the Musical Heritage Society). Repeated listening oriented me to the ways in which different practices defined different periods in music history. In addition, however, the more familiar I was with a particular track, the more I began to appreciate the relationship between music and verbal rhetoric in secular vocal compositions.

This would be my long-winded answer to a question that I suspect has occurred to at least some readers: “Why should I devote much time listening to music that I may never hear in performance?” The shorter answer is that appreciative listening has less to do with any specific piece of music and more with how our approaches to listening adjust to compositions from different historic periods. From that point of view, Ockeghem is representative of a specific period in the Renaissance era that appeals to its own set of “listening strategies.” In that contextual perspective, Blue Heron has provided a valuable resource for cultivating those strategies.

The Art of Skatch: Look and Listen

An example of Skatchart (from the BayImproviser event page for the gallery opening)

Next month the Sherman Street Studios will present The Art of Skatch. This will be a gallery show celebrating the tenth anniversary of Skatch, the term that encompasses the invented instruments of Tom Nunn. Those instruments include Skatchboxes and Skatchwheels, but the gallery exhibit will focus on Skatchart. As Nunn put it:
A Skatchart is a kind of “painting,” using objects instead of paint to create visual images and, as such, can be hung on a wall or played on a specially designed table that holds the instrument at an angle, like the Skatchplate. Each Skatchart visually reflects, in some way, its title.
At 8 p.m. on the evening of the gallery show opening, Nunn will pull the Skatchart off the walls to give a performance. The performers will be the T.D. Skatchit duo of Nunn and David Michalak; and, on this occasion, they will be joined by saxophonist Bruce Ackley and dancer Christina Braun. The opening will include refreshments, and the show will run through the month of February. The exhibition will also include screenings of a new documentary film, Skatch Dance.

The Sherman Street Studios are located in SoMa at 16 Sherman Street, between Folsom Street and Harrison Street. Sherman Street itself is halfway between Sixth Street and Seventh Street. The gallery opening will begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday, February 8. There will be no charge for admission.

Theo Bleckmann Blunts Brecht’s Sharp Edges

Theo Bleckmann (photograph by Lynn Harty, courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances presented the third of the four concerts in its PIVOT series. The title of the program was Berlin—Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile. This was the title of vocalist Theo Bleckmann’s 2008 album, devoted primarily to cabaret songs. Last night Bleckmann was accompanied at the piano by Dan Tepfer, along with the members of the Telegraph Quartet. For last night’s performance Joseph Maile took the first violin chair with Eric Chin on second, Pei-Ling Lin on viola, and Jeremiah Shaw on cello. The instrumental arrangements were by Fumio Yasuda, and almost all of the selections were based on the poems of Bertolt Brecht. Most of the settings were by Hanns Eisler, and a few of the more familiar selections were from Kurt Weill.

I am afraid I have to take issue with the program note, which stated that Bleckmann “breathes new life into classic German songs.” The Weill selections were familiar enough to count for a vernacular interpretation of “classic;” but I am not sure I have previously listened to a concert performance of any composition by Eisler in this country. This is unfortunate. Brecht wrote his poems with a heavy, and frequently merciless, hand; and his collaborations with Weill, powerful as they are, do not really count as representative of his full corpus. The many songs that Eisler wrote to set Brecht’s words account for a far broader and more representative account of the author.

Sadly, Bleckmann’s interpretations tended to smooth over the many rough edges one encounters in Eisler’s settings and the source texts themselves. This results in a kinder and gentler account of material conceived to be about as far from kind and gentle as one can get. Furthermore, between his vocal qualities and his microphone work, Bleckmann seldom endowed the words he was singing with sufficient clarity; and his casual approach to pitch seemed to be fundamental to his rhetorical stance.

In other words Bleckmann took a stylistic stance that did little justice to the repertoire he had prepared. This is one of those cases in which the obvious pun cuts right to the bone: Just about anything Brecht wrote must be delivered with qualities that are primarily curt and vile. Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, whose sense of pitch was basically oriented around Sprechgesang, was an expert in realizing those qualities. To a great extent Joel Grey captured the spirit of those qualities in his performances of Cabaret on both stage and screen. However, it is worth recalling that Lenya was part of the original Broadway cast of Cabaret, and it is easy to imagine that Grey learned a thing or two from her.

Beyond the vocalizing there was, fortunately, much to be enjoyed in the instrumentation. Tepfer provided Bleckmann with solid accompaniment and even seemed to venture into an imaginative improvisation or two. Similarly, the quartet arrangement came across with a better sense of the cabaret spirit than Bleckmann ever evoked. I found it interesting that the more memorable solos were allocated to the viola and the cello. Both Lin and Shaw provided just the right darkness to set context for Brecht’s poetry.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Earplay Begins 35th Season Next Month

Earplayers Mary Chun (conductor), Thalia Moore (cello), Ellen Ruth Rose (viola), Brenda Tom (piano), Tod Brody (flutes), Peter Josheff (clarinets), and Terrie Baune (violin) (courtesy of Earplay)

Once again February will see the launch of the Earplay season. This will be the 35th season of an ensemble of lyrical and ferocious musicians that are committed to performing bold new chamber music. The title of the new season will be Light and Matter, which happens also to be the title of a piano trio that Kaija Saariaho composed in 2014. Saariaho will be the focus composer of the season, whose programming will include six world premieres, two United States premieres, and five Earplay commissions. My guess is that many readers of this site are already aware of Saariaho’s “Light and Matter,” since it was performed when the Curium piano trio made its debut in the Old First Concerts series in June of 2018.

As usual, the season will consist of three programs, all of which will take place on Monday evenings. All performances will begin at 7:30 p.m., each preceded by a preconcert talk at 6:45 p.m. All three concerts will be held in the Veterans Building, the first in Herbst Theatre and the remaining two in the Taube Atrium Theater. Program specifics are as follows:

February 10, Sky Dances: The Saariaho selection will be the West Coast premiere of “Terrestre,” which she scored for flute, harp, percussion, violin, and cello. The program will also feature “Late Shadow” by Gilad Cohen, the winner of Earplay’s 2019 Donald Aird Prize for composition. There will also be world premieres of two works composed on Earplay commissions, “the art of disappearing” by Bruce Christian Bennett, scored for viola and harp, and Addie Camsuzou’s “Twilit,” scored for clarinet, violin, and viola. The program will conclude with another piece written on an Earplay commission, “Fray” by Laurie San Martin.

March 30, Earthly Luminosities: This will be the program at which “Light and Matter” will be performed. (This may be the first time I shall have encountered music I have already heard at an Earplay concert!) The work composed on an Earplay commission will be a duo for flute and viola that has not yet been given a title. There will also be United States premieres of the seventh set in the series by Brian R. Banks entitled A Bonsai Garden and Haris Kittos’ “Dyades,” scored for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello. The program will conclude with a memorial performance of George Walker’s “Perimeters” for clarinet and piano.

May 4, Life Circles: This will be my second opportunity to listen fo a Saariaho composition I have previously encountered, “Je sens un deuxième cœur” (I feel a second heart). Like “Light and Matter,” this is music that I came to know through an Old First Concerts recital given by the Ensemble Illume trio this past June. (June seems to be the month in which Saariaho’s music gets performed at Old First!) There will be two world premiere performances of works composed on Earplay commissions, neither of which has yet been given a title. The composers are likely to be familiar to many readers, Hyo-shin Na and Jen Wang. The program will begin with the world premiere performance of “Songs of Majnūn Leyla” by Richard Aldag.

The Veterans Building is located at the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. The entrance to Herbst Theatre is on the ground floor, and the Taube Atrium Theater is on the fourth floor in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera. General admission will be $25 with a $10 rate for students. There will also be a premium rate of $35 for preferred front-and-center seating. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through Brown Paper Tickets. Each of the above dates has a hyperlink to the necessary event page.

Chordless Brings a Full Recital to Old First Concerts

Allegra Chapman at an “alternative keyboard” with Sara LeMesh (from the Old First Concerts event page)

Readers may recall that my highest priority during SF Music Day this past October was to listen to the performance by the Chordless duo of soprano Sara LeMesh and pianist Allegra Chapman. Last night at Old First Presbyterian Church the latest Old First Concerts program provided me with my first opportunity to hear the duo give a full-evening recital, and the occasion was definitely a rewarding one. With one minor exception I was able to revisit all of the selections I had experienced in October, embedded this time in an overall repertoire of even wider scope.

The program was presented without intermission but in three distinct sections separated by short pauses. The opening section consisted entirely of music previously performed on SF Music Day. It began with the original version of Igor Stravinsky’s “Pastorale,” scored as a vocalise. LeMesh’s command of the diversity of phonemes resulted in rhetorical colors the likes of which were never equaled in any of Stravinsky’s instrumental revisions of this composition. Her vocalise skills then extended into two of the movements from the five vocalises that Andrzej Panufnik collected under the title “Hommage à Chopin.” My guess is that Panufnik’s evocation of Frédéric Chopin was deliberately prankish, and some of that prankishness could be found in LeMesh’s phrasing and bodily comportment.

There followed settings of Polish texts by two Polish composers. The first of these was Tadeusz Baird with the “Song of cherries” from his 1953 Lyric Suite, originally composed for soprano and orchestra, setting poems by Julian Tuwim. LeMesh then presented two witty songs by Grażyna Bacewicz, which she composed relatively late in her career. She provided the words for the first of these, “Boli mnie głowa” (I have a headache); and the second, “Sroczka” (little magpie), was a setting of a traditional Polish verse. Without the slightest knowledge of the Polish language, I still felt that I could appreciate the lighter qualities of these pieces; and LeMesh showed no signs of struggling with any of the phonemes and lexemes.

The second section shifted into the English language through two highly contrasting composers. The primary selection was three of Aaron Copland’s settings of twelve poems of Emily Dickinson, “There came a wind like a bugle,” “Heart we will forget him,” and “Going to heaven!” Copland’s entire collection remains a “gold standard” for the setting of texts in the English language; and both the semantics and the rhetoric of Dickinson’s poems are so overwhelming that they practically defy being sung. Nevertheless, Copland never showed any signs of being overwhelmed and instead made his setting of American poetry a tough act to follow. LeMesh gave a memorable account, convincing the attentive listener that she was as aware of what Dickinson was trying to say as she was of how Copland accounted for how she said it.

Henry Purcell made for a fascinating “overture” to Copland’s settings. Many of his efforts went into setting the texts of his contemporary seventeenth-century English poets. I always welcome opportunities to listen to Purcell in performance because they arise so seldom. Nevertheless, I do not always respond well to some of the poems he set; and, among the authors of those texts, John Dryden tends to be the one that sends me climbing up the wall. When the text for “Music for a while” ventures into:
Till the snakes drop [this word is repeated more times than I can enumerate] from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.
I find it very difficult to suppress a fit of the giggles. Fortunately, LeMesh delivered an account sufficiently sensitive to Purcell’s music language that I could put the text on a back burner!

On the other hand, the “overture” to Purcell, in the form of two soprano duets by Barbara Strozzi, was not to be missed. LeMesh was joined by Kate McKinney to prove to music lovers that there is no such thing as too much of Strozzi’s music. She was given a delightful account by Voices of Music this past October; and I have to say that three months has been the shortest interval of separation between Strozzi performances that I have experienced. There was also particular pleasure in being refreshed by Strozzi’s duo vocal passages after such a diversity of solo vocal selections in the Polish language.

The final set began with the world premiere of “Earliest Memory” by Benjamin Pesetsky, known best in the Bay Area as a member of both the Guerrilla Composers Guild and the Phonochrome Collective. The music was so fresh that the accompanying text sheet for the recital did not include the words, making this “first contact” experience a bit of a struggle. Far more compelling was LeMesh’s account of Henry Cowell’s “Spring Comes Singing,” for which the composer clearly knew how to make the words understandable. The program then concluded with four of George Crumb’s settings of poems by Walt Whitman in his Apparition collection. This was a case in which the text sheet was handy, although watching Chapman’s solid command of all the extended techniques on the inside of her piano was often more engaging than Crumb’s approach to the texts.

The encore selection was a Polish pop song making it clear that LeMesh could establish a strong sense of rhetoric even when the listeners had no idea what the words were saying.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Beethoven’s Opus 120: Paul Lewis

Cover of the box set being discussed (courtesy of PIAS)

The last of the fourteen CDs in the harmonia mundi box set of performances of the piano music of Ludwig van Beethoven by Paul Lewis consists of only a single composition, the Opus 120 collection of 33 variations on a waltz theme given to the composer by the music publish Anton Diabelli. This is also the latest composition in the collection, composed in 1823, the year after Beethoven completed his last piano sonata, Opus 111 in C minor. In many respects listening to this music comes close to being almost as difficult as playing it. Nevertheless, I have to say that my most memorable concert experience of this piece came in October of 2013, when András Schiff presented a program that coupled it with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme.

In that context I have to say that I can count on Schiff to hold my attention for just about any solo piano recital he decides to prepare! Listening to Opus 120 on a recording, however, is another matter. I have done this a few times in the past, one of which involved my following the piano part while listening. Even with that score acting a bit like a crutch, I still find myself contending with fatigue when I am not sitting there in a concert hall watching the pianist as well as listening to him/her.

That said, I have to note that I do have a favorite in my collection of recordings, which seems to have come closest to holding my attention effectively from beginning to end. This is another harmonia mundi release which has Andreas Staier playing a fortepiano modeled after a design by Conrad Graf. To be fair, however, Staier’s ability to hold the listener’s attention arises only in part from his approach to interpreting Beethoven. That is because the Graf design was one of those that also allowed for interjections of percussion-based “special effects.” In other words Staier maintained attention more through his ability to surprise the listener when attention might be beginning to flag than through his attentive reading of Beethoven’s score!

Performing on a modern instrument, Lewis was not in a position to haul out any “special effects.” His is a straightforward reading; and, in that context, he gives as satisfying an account of Beethoven’s marks on paper as one might expect. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the feeling that Opus 120 is some kind of Mount Everest that any pianist worth his salt is expected to climb. More often than not, those ascents feel more like endurance tests; and I suspect that this set of variations is better experienced in performance than on recording.