Tuesday, June 30, 2020

George Balanchine’s “Serenade” on YouTube

This morning I realized that so many of the articles I have been writing since the launch of the “Digital Spring Season” of the New York City Ballet have made reference to George Balanchine’s “Serenade” that I really owe readers a pointer to a video document of this ballet. It would not surprise me to learn that more has been written about “Serenade” than about any other ballet in the Balanchine canon. From my own point of view, it was among the first (if not the first) of the Balanchine ballets that I saw in performance, dating all the way back to my undergraduate days, when I saw it performed by the Boston Ballet.

One likely reason for the sheer volume of writings about “Serenade” is that it was the very first ballet that Balanchine created in the United States. More importantly, as all those previous references to “Serenade” indicate, it served as a foundation upon which Balanchine would create subsequent “abstract” ballets. That modifier “abstract” refers heavily to the extent to which Balanchine would begin to create a new ballet by thoroughly studying the score of the music he planned to use and then creating a piano reduction of that score. Some might think that “abstract” also entailed a lack of narrative. While it is probably true that most of Balanchine’s musical selections were not based on narrative (like tone poems), elements of narrative emerge in the final movement of “Serenade,” even if the overall scheme is an abstract one.

The music behind “Serenade” is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 in C major, which he called “Serenade for Strings.” The composition is in four movements, opening with a conventional sonata-form structure. The next two movements are titled “Valse” and “Élégie;” and the final movement is an orchestral account of a Russian theme.

The dancer that arrives late at the conclusion of the first movement of “Serenade” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

There is a sense that Balanchine will willing to “let things happen” while working with Tchaikovsky’s score. Thus, when he was rehearsing the first movement, one of the dancers was late and basically walked in and joined the corps while they were executing Balanchine’s steps. Balanchine liked the effect and decided to keep it.

Similarly, during a rehearsal of the “Russian theme” movement, one of the dancers collapsed from exhaustion. Balanchine left her there, while all the other dancers departed. He then decided that the “Élégie” would switch places with the “Russian theme,” dealing with “what happened next” after the girl collapsed. “What happened next” turned out to provide the most narrative of the ballet’s four movements, dealing with the complexity of one male and three females. In the video that John Clifford uploaded, probably a digitization of a television program entitled Balanchine in America, the three females (Darci Kistler, Kyra Nichols, and Maria Calegari) are barely distinguishable. There may not be an explicit story behind the relationships among the four characters depicted by the choreography; but it is clear that narration is taking place, even if it is in an unfamiliar language.

Indeed, over the entire scope of the three preceding movements, there is virtually no sense of narration, probably because the individuals tend to be subordinated to the corps dancers. Furthermore, the “action” taking place in the corps emerges as an ongoing interplay between homophony and polyphony. It should surprise no one that such an interplay emerges in the music that Tchaikovsky wrote for the string ensemble. However, Balanchine seldom (if ever) mimics Tchaikovsky’s approaches to such interplay. Rather, he invents his own in ways that are consistently compatible with the flow of the music from the beginning to the conclusion of each of the four movements.

The resulting inventions are so prolific and so diverse that “Serenade” is one of those ballets in which the attentive viewer is likely to discover new caches of detail each time (s)he sees this ballet performed. Indeed, the ballet recently passed the 85th anniversary of its creation; and “old-timers” (myself included) are as likely to keep encountering fresh impressions as young dance students learning the choreography for the first time. Hopefully, that freshness will still be with audiences when the ballet approaches its centennial year.

Karajan on Decca: First Viennese School

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

Last Friday I filed my first account of the 35-CD Sony Classical release of recordings of pianist Peter Serkin entitled The Complete RCA Album Collection. That happened to be the day on which the latest anthology of recordings by conductor Herbert von Karajan on 33 CDs entitled The Complete Decca Recordings was released by Universal Music Group. As in the past I plan to take a piecemeal approach to both of these collections, writing separate articles guided primarily by eras of music history. (I also have a shorter anthology, which I shall probably add to this interleaving process; but that account will probably consist of only a single article.)

Those that have followed me for some time know that my enthusiasm for Karajan rarely rises above lukewarm. Nevertheless, his impact on the recording industry (not to mention how many performances he conducted before an audience) is too great to pretend that it does not exist. Indeed, I can even confess that there are performances that impress me more on follow-up listenings than they do with their first impressions. So, what I mean by “lukewarm” is that there are a relatively small number of Karajan recordings in my collection that I am likely to avoid for some time to come.

Still, the question remains of whether this new release has anything to offer other than “more of the same” encountered in previous anthologies. The answer is significantly affirmative, since the Decca release provide me with my first efforts to survey Karajan’s approaches to recording full-length opera performances in a repertoire that consists of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at one end and Giacomo Puccini at the other. In this context I shall begin with an account of the First Viennese School composers, including Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven along with Mozart.

The instrumental selections in this category are, to say the least, modest. Beethoven is represented only by his Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major, while both Mozart and Haydn are allotted two symphonies, both from their respective “late periods.” The Mozart symphonies are K. 550 in G minor and K. 551 (“Jupiter”) in C major; and those of Haydn are Hoboken I/103 (“Drumroll”) in E-flat major and Hoboken I/104 (“London”) in D major. The only opera in this category is Mozart’s K. 492, The Marriage of Figaro (and I have to say, as an aside, that I miss the opportunity to listen to Beethoven’s Opus 72 Fidelio in this collection, having heard Karajan’s impressive approach to this opera’s overture).

The recording sessions for K. 492 took place in April and May of 1978. This predates by a few years my own efforts to pay more attention to opera performances. My first subscription to the Metropolitan Opera began in the fall of 1981, and I greatly appreciated the following years during which I cultivated a broad knowledge based on staged performances of the opera repertoire. Nevertheless, by 1978 I had seen at least one video Figaro on PBS, and the impressions made by Hermann Prey’s account of the title role are about all I can remember form that experience.

Karajan’s Figaro on this recording is José van Dam, complemented by Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna. Their pairing is, in turn, complemented by Anna Tomowa-Sintow as the Countess Rosina Almaviva and Tom Krause as her philandering husband. The other particularly welcome name in the cast is Frederica von Stade in the role of Cherubino. (She now lives on the other side of the Bay in Alameda.)

Mozart’s score is given a complete account. (The arias for Marcellina and Basilio in the fourth act are frequently cut in performances.) Curiously, “Dove sono” precedes the sextet in which the details of Figaro’s parents are disclosed. If this was Karajan’s decision, then I applaud it, since it makes for a better flow of the overall narrative in the opera’s third act. What I miss, however, is what I often miss in opera recordings, vocal deliveries that disclose character traits underlying both the music and the words. This is particularly critical with all of the disguises behind the narrative of the fourth act. On the other hand, the respective arias for Figaro and Count Almaviva are delivered under Karajan’s direction in a context of underlying traits of the respective characters.

I also have a minor quibble with recording levels. The amplitude of all of the recitative sections is decidedly lower than the rest of the sections of the score. This may have something to do with not trying to amplify the harpsichord continuo performance by Konrad Leitner too much. It may also have to do with the fact that most listeners are not interested in the recitative sections and just want to get on with the “real music.” Given how much of the narrative is disclosed in recitative form, I feel that the decision to drop the volume for them tends to undermine the narrative itself.

Whatever its shortcomings, K. 492 is the most satisfying of the First Viennese School offerings in this collection. The symphonies of both Mozart and Haydn are given “business as usual” treatment; and the Beethoven account is not much more compelling. The orchestra for all of these selections (including the opera) is the Vienna Philharmonic, which is certainly a well-disciplined ensemble. However, in terms of available recordings, there is a lot of competition for all five of the symphonies that Karajan conducts; and my personal tastes tend to go for one of the competitors for each of these pieces.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Ballet at its Most Structurally Sophisticated

Ever since my disappointment that the “Digital Spring Season” of the New York City Ballet (NYCB) accounted for George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” by performing only the “Phlegmatic” movement, I have been craving to account for this ballet in its entirety. A month and a half later I have finally found the opportunity to do so. Now my problem is one of offering a viable report without devolving into excessive enthusiasm. Thus, I would like to begin by setting context with an old joke I picked up in my student days:

An elementary school teacher decided that it was time for her pupils to try writing book reports. Each pupil was given different book. The assignment was to read the book and then write a paper that summarized the pupil’s thoughts about the book. One pupil handed in a sheet of paper on which only a single sentence was written:
This book told me more about penguins than I would ever want to know.
The joke actually has a parallel in higher mathematics. During my studies as a mathematics major at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it seems as if every bookshelf I encountered had a copy of the Princeton University Press monograph Symmetry by Hermann Weyl. I thought it might be a fun read, particularly since it had a gallery of photographs illustrating different types of symmetry. Instead, it was a deep dive into Weyl’s specialty, abstract group theory; and it turned out to be one of the most challenging volumes I ever encountered. It did not take me long to avoid feeling that Weyl was telling me more about symmetry than I would ever want to know!

My guess is that Balanchine never heard of either Weyl or group theory as a branch of mathematics. Since “The Four Temperaments” was created in 1946, he certainly did not know about Weyl’s book, which was not published until 1952. Nevertheless, one might say that, in creating “The Four Temperaments,” Balanchine took his own deep dive into the many varieties of symmetry. Furthermore, the music he commissioned from Paul Hindemith, consisting of a theme and four variations for piano and string orchestra, served up its own elaborately interwoven structures and reflections.

Indeed, the structures in Balanchine’s choreography are best appreciated by first recognizing the musical structures that Hindemith provided him. To call this simply a “Theme and Four Variations” (which appears on the title page of the score) is to ignore how much more there is to the music’s structure. The theme itself is in three sections, each with its own distinctive melodic content. The first section is played by the strings, the second taken as a piano solo, and the third bringing together the full ensemble. That tripartite structure is then reflected in each of the “temperaments” variations: melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric.

This symmetry of structure within structure is then reflected in the resources Balanchine assigns to the individual elements. Each of the three sections of the theme features duo work by a female and a male dancer. The second of the temperaments (sanguine) features a similar coupling. The other three involve solos, male for melancholic and phlegmatic and female for choleric. These solo and duo performances are then embedded into a wide variety of different approaches to establishing context with different combinations of corps dancers.

Readers may now see why I chose to begin with that penguin anecdote. I suspect that, by this time, many readers may feel that, in “The Four Temperaments,” Balanchine served up more thoughts about choreography and structure than one might ever want to know. Nevertheless, I encourage all those that have read this far to check out John Clifford’s YouTube upload of a 1964 Canadian film of NYCB performing “The Four Temperaments.” If there is any shortcoming in this film, it is the absence of cues that let the reader know which temperament the viewer is seeing at what time.

The only text Clifford provides accounts for the solo dancers for each of the three sections of the theme and each of the temperaments themselves. It would have been helpful if he had put in the time-stamp for each of those seven divisions. (If he ever reads this, perhaps he will take the trouble to update his site.) However, the contrasts that separate both the theme sections and those temperaments have been very well defined in Balanchine’s choreography. The only thing missing in Clifford’s summary is citation of the coda for the entire ballet, in which pretty much all of the choreographic motifs are brought together on the stage at the same time, providing a visual impression not unlike a view of the interconnections of the gears and springs in a pocket watch.

Beginning of the coda of “The Four Temperaments” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Nevertheless, I should conclude by making it clear that this is no mere “choreographic machine.” All the soloists that have been named by Clifford bring a compellingly rich sense of humanity to Balanchine’s choreography. There is as much sense of a “human drama” unfolding in “The Four Temperaments” as there is in the poignancy of “Serenade.” Indeed, any viewer interested enough to revisit this video from time to time may well discover that, with each viewing, (s)he is more inclined to feel both wonderment and a lump in the throat during the ballet’s extraordinary coda.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Disappointing “All Balanchine” Video

This past Monday Lincoln Center At Home released its latest YouTube video, entitled All Balanchine. Readers may have observed that there was much to keep me busy this past week, so this morning provided my first opportunity to check out this offering. The YouTube site will be active until July 14, so there is still plenty of time for readers to decide whether or not they agree with my opinions!

Unless I am mistaken all of the All Balanchine content comes from PBS programs of performances by the New York City Ballet (NYCB). The video begins with three highlights from the Balanchine 100 Centennial Celebration program, which was broadcast in 2004. These are followed by the third (and final) act of the full-length ballet Coppélia in the version that Balanchine created in partnership with his former (the second) wife Alexandra Danilova, which was broadcast on PBS in 1978.

Because watching All Balanchine turned out to be far more disappointing than I had anticipated, I feel obliged to follow the lead-with-what-you-liked rule. Since that experience came near the end of the entire program, readers may appreciate how much impact it had in reviving my interest! The performance in question was the pas de deux for the leading characters of the Coppélia scenario, Swanhilda and Franz, who are married by the village mayor at the very beginning of the act. The dancers were Patricia McBride and Helgi Tomasson, for whom the roles were originally created; and, to set the record straight, the entire third act of this production was choreographed by Balanchine himself.

When I examine his repertoire, I find it relatively easy to come away with the impression that Balanchine never particularly liked full-evening narrative ballets. (The closest he ever got to Swan Lake was his own take on the second act, which is frequently performed on its own.) Thus, it may well be that the Coppélia grand pas de deux provided the best opportunity for a virtuoso display of elegant abstractions that rises above all the trappings of narrative that surround it. McBride and Tomasson had no trouble dispensing with any of the personality traits of their respective roles. Instead, they let Balanchine be Balanchine; and the result was an oasis in a parched desert of banalities.

To be fair, however, the overall context for that pas de deux was disconcertingly sold short by the video production team. I had the good fortune to see this Coppélia in the New York State Theater in 1974, during the first season in which it was performed. Whatever the shortcomings may have been, the production, taken in its entirety, was a visual feast; and the third act amounted to a rich dessert course beyond my wildest dreams. The act itself is often known as the “Festival of the Bells;” and a rich array of bells hung over the entire stage. These proved to be a source of wit, since each bell had its own inscription, inviting the viewer to decode each of the strings of initial letters. As might be guessed, the camera work never captured this level of detail, probably because the video team decided that they were not even going to try to do justice to this humorous gesture.

This is where I lead the reader into the slough of dissatisfaction, since poor decisions behind the video capture tended to undermine whatever virtues the rest of the program had to offer. The most egregious error was in the Centennial Celebration part of the program. It involved the appearance of Wynton Marsalis as guest artist during the performance of “The Man I Love” from Balanchine’s “Gershwin ballet” “Who Cares?,” which was seen in its entirety at the beginning of this month in another Lincoln Center at Home offering. There were too many occasions when the camera preferred to dwell of Marsalis, rather than the pas de deux being danced by Alexandra Ansanelli and Nilas Martins. Mind you, this was a matter of adding insult to injury, since Marsalis took such extensive liberties with the rhythms of this particular Gershwin song that it was a wonder that these two dancers could do justice to Balanchine’s choreography as well as they did.

The most satisfying Centennial offering was the second movement of “Concerto Barocco,” a ballet that interested me so much that, on June 17, I wrote a piece about a film of this ballet that John Clifford had uploaded to YouTube. The entire ballet was set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1043 concerto for two violins in D minor, whose second movement has a Largo ma non tanto tempo. Balanchine conceived this as a pas de deux “embedded” in ensemble dancing, associating each of the two dancers with one of the violins. The duo work was elegantly executed by Maria Kowroski and James Fayette. However, it is worth observing that the elegance of their execution may well have been motivated by the equally elegant violin performances of the two Juilliard students recruited for this occasion, Gil Shaham and his wife Adele Anthony.

The remaining offering was another work that I had previously seen at the New York State Theater, “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet.” The title refers to the orchestration that Arnold Schoenberg composed for Johannes Brahms’ Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor. Balanchine was clearly fascinated with Schoenberg over the course of his career; and the original plan for Jewels apparently included a “Sapphire” movement, which would have been based on Schoenberg’s music. Where Brahms is concerned, Balanchine had created “Liebeslieder Walzer,” setting music from the composer’s Opus 52 and Opus 65 and having the dancers share the stage with the vocal quartet and two pianists. That ballet was first performed in 1960, and “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was first performed in 1966.

I have to confess that my first encounter with this ballet left me more than a little perplexed. I knew about Schoenberg’s orchestration, but I had never heard it performed. For that matter, I was entirely unfamiliar with the Brahms source, as was the case where most of his chamber music involved during the Sixties. The only movement that registered with me in the choreography was the concluding “Rondo alla zingarese” (gypsy rondo). This involved a corps of sixteen gypsies (eight women and eight men), led by soloists, Suzanne Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise in the debut performance.

Wendy Whelan and Damian Woetzel in “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Fortunately, I was able to watch the Centennial video with much richer background of both Brahms and Schoenberg. Only that final movement was performed on the video, and I came away with the impression that there was too much sameness in Balanchine’s lexicon for this particular piece. The leading parts were taken by Wendy Whelan and Damian Woetzel. They tended to bring more energy to their parts than the ensemble ever mustered. However, Farrell and d’Amboise (particularly the latter) were not shy in suggesting that Schoenberg was having more than a little fun in his innovative approach to arranging Brahms, while the Centennial video seemed to come across with more of a sense of business-as-usual.

One of the impressions that has emerged since I started writing at length about Balanchine at the beginning of the NYCB “Digital Spring Season” is that, in the “post-Balanchine” world, there is considerable variation in the interpretation of his work, even under NYCB auspices. All Balanchine emerges as a profile of just how wide that variation is. Sadly, it feels as if the liabilities are overtaking the assets, if they have not already done so.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Video Cannot Capture Boussard’s Grandeur

A week ago I wrote about my first experience with Opera is ON, the streaming video service of the San Francisco Opera that presents a video of a past production over the course of the weekend. The opera on that occasion was Richard Strauss’ “Salome;" and the video direction by Frank Zamacona made it clear that skilled camera-work could capture details that might be missed from even the best seat in the War Memorial Opera House. Sadly, this weekend’s offering was more disappointing.

Michael Fabiano as the Chevalier des Grieux and Ellie Dehn as Manon Lescaut (courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

The opera was Jules Massenet’s Manon, which was performed in November of 2017. The staging by Vincent Boussard presented abstraction, rather than realism; and it was probably more memorable than Massenet’s score, even when both vocal and instrumental performers were clearly up to snuff. However, where the video work, again by Zamacona, was concerned, Boussard’s staging tended to make use of the entire space, not only as a visual setting but also as a locus for multiple levels of activities by the characters of the narrative.

Zamacona was thus faced with the problem of having to show either too much or too little, and neither alternative made for particularly satisfying video viewing. Add to that a strong preference for low lighting in many of the scenes; and it was clear that this was a production for sitting in the Opera House, rather than sitting in front of a small screen. One could, of course, fall back on closing one’s eyes and simply enjoying the music; and the conducting by Patrick Fournillier could certainly hold up to such listening. Nevertheless, while Massenet could be a master of orchestral sonorities, he was not always up to the same standard when it came to vocal demands, whether the issue was thematic material or appropriately expressive delivery.

Sometimes, it really is the case that “you had to be there!”

O1C Concludes Month with Cornelius Boots Solos

Cornelius Boots with one of the many shakuhachis made for him (from the O1C Web page for last night’s concert)

Last night Old First Concerts (O1C) wrapped up its live-streamed series of solo recitals for the month of June. The recitalist was shakuhachi master Cornelius Boots. Readers may recall that I singled him out as one of the leading performers at SF Music Day 2019 last October. On that occasion he led his Heavy Roots Shakuhachi Ensemble, whose repertoire extends far beyond the traditional Japanese music usually associated with the instrument. Boots himself specializes in the taimu (bass) shakuhachi; but, for last night’s recital, he played several different instruments in a variety of sizes.

Many of his selections were either his own compositions or arrangements that he had prepared. Most of those arrangements, in turn, were imaginative reflections on some of the more adventurous post-bop jazz composers; and one was inspired by Jimi Hendrix. The Hendrix selection closed out the program of ten selections. This was his own unique interpretation of “Hey Joe,” whose authorship has been contested but which was copyrighted by Billy Roberts. There was little sense of acid rock in Boots’ delivery, but the sense of soulful rhetoric was unmistakable.

The jazz selections were taken from the “dynamic duo” that flourished in the Sixties, saxophonists Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, both of whom died in that decade. Dolphy had a particularly wide command of the wind family, adding flute and both B-flat and bass clarinets to his alto saxophone work. Coltrane, in turn, extended his mastery of the tenor saxophone to include also the soprano saxophone. The Coltrane selection was “Wise One,” while Dolphy was represented with “Serene.” That piece was followed by Boots’ own “Mandrake Walks,” which he dedicated in memory of Dolphy.

There was much to be gained in listening to the diversity of sonorities and styles that Boots could elicit from his collection of instruments. Unfortunately, too much of his time was occupied with spoken explanations. He clearly had much to offer by way of useful background; but, just as clearly, he was not particularly comfortable with speaking to an audience that was not physically present. At SF Music Day the music spoke for itself, requiring little by way of introduction; and I, for one, would have appreciated more time being allotted to the music itself.

The performance took place in Boots’ own studio, which he calls “The Barn.” Sadly, the technology left much to be desired. Most critically, there was a wide gap of failed synchronization between the audio signal and the video images. For the most part, the best way to appreciate Boots’ performance was to avoid looking at the screen, which provided unnecessary distraction. O1C still has a way to go in establishing a solid command of live-streaming technology; but, in times like these, they still deserve credit for trying.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Sony Classical Releases Peter Serkin Collection

Between writing about recorded music and video documents of both ballet and modern dance, I have not had trouble keeping myself busy in the absence of opportunities to attend performances due to “Shelter in Place” conditions that have now been around for more than three months. Where recordings are concerned, I maintain a queue that is ordered roughly on a first-in-first-out basis. Ironically, I found myself reflecting at the beginning of this week that the queue seemed to be getting slimmer than usual, followed by the arrival of two significant anthology releases two days ago. One of these is a 35-CD Sony Classical release of recordings of pianist Peter Serkin entitled The Complete RCA Album Collection. The second is the latest anthology of recordings by conductor Herbert von Karajan on 33 CDs entitled The Complete Decca Recordings.

As usual, I do not intended to provide a “whole-cloth” encounter of either of these collections. Instead, regardless of how the CDs are ordered in their respective boxes, I set about to divide each release into what, in my previously life in the world of information technology, we tended to call “mind-sized chunks.” As in the past I was guided by the ways in which music history tends to get divided into periods, but the categories themselves differ for the two collections. Thus, while the nineteenth century accounted for a single, relatively small collection in the Serkin anthology, it had to be further divided into instrumental music and opera for Karajan (which should not surprise anyone).

from the Amazon.com Web page for the collection begin discussed

With that as my methodological background, I shall devote this article to the Serkin recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in The Complete RCA Album Collection. In the interest of “truth in advertising,” however, I should begin by observing that the last two of these CDs were released by Columbia, rather than RCA, giving them the same sort of “bonus” status that I attributed to the album of pianist Leon Fleisher included at the end of the Sony Classical box set of recordings released under support by the Fromm Foundation. Those Columbia recordings have enough historical significance that one really cannot quibble with their being included in this Serkin anthology.

The Bach recordings, in turn, can be divided into solo keyboard music and ensemble compositions. Across the entire collection one encounters Serkin playing both piano and harpsichord, but his harpsichord work is limited to playing continuo for four of the ensemble compositions. In other words all of the solo recordings were made with a piano.

While I suspect that advocates for historically-informed practices are already raising their collective eyebrows, I think it is worth examining which of the solo keyboard music compositions Serkin selected. Almost all of them were published in the last three of the four volumes that Bach entitled Clavier-Übung (keyboard exercise). In other words this was music written for pedagogical purposes, and the pedagogical intentions behind the study of piano technique today do not differ that significantly from Bach’s approaches to pedagogy in the early eighteenth century.

In order of publication, Serkin’s selections are the following:
  • The “Italian Concerto” (BWV 971 in F major) from the second volume
  • The “four duets” (BWV 802–805) from the third volume, the only one of the volumes intended for organ study
  • The BWV 988 “Goldberg Variations” from the fourth volume
The only other selection was also written for pedagogical purpose, the BWV 772–801 short pieces generally called the Inventions and Sinfonias. In other words Serkin chose to focus primarily on compositions that serve to document Bach’s approach to teaching his students (some of whom were his sons), which, as been often noted previously on this site, involve both technical proficiency and expressive interpretation.

Indeed, the extent to which Serkin was honoring Bach’s intentions can be found in the fact that he made two different recordings of BWV 988, the first in 1965, the year of his graduation from the Curtis Institute of Music (where his father Rudolf taught), and the second in 1994. My guess is that many readers will leap to recalling that Glenn Gould did the same thing, making his first recording in 1955 and the second in 1981. At the risk of ruffling too many feathers, all I can say is that I have never listened to a Gould recording that was not all about Gould, while both of Serkin’s approaches to BWV 988 show more respect for Bach-the-pedagogue. The fact is that all of these solo piano recordings have much to offer anyone interested in approaching the music of Bach on a modern keyboard instrument.

All of the ensemble recordings, on the other hand, involve the participation of both Serkins in the Marlboro Music School and Festival. The music school was launched in Marlboro, Vermont in July of 1950 by Rudolf and his father-in-law Adolf Busch. The following year both of them turned down an invitation to the Edinburgh International Festival in favor of launching their own festival, which is still going strong and will hopefully continue to do so in spite of current medical conditions.

Marlboro has become significant enough to enjoy the participation of major musicians on a global scale. Thus, on the third CD in the collection, Peter shares the spotlight with both his father and Mieczysław Horszowski (one of Peter’s teachers at Curtis) in a performance of Bach’s BWV 1064 concerto in C major, originally scored for three harpsichords, string ensemble, and continuo. All three soloists played pianos, and the conductor was Alexander Schneider.

This performance took place in July of 1964. Regular readers probably know by now that I like to speculate that this music figured in the weekly Collegium Musicum performances that took place at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig. Basically, these amounted to an eighteenth-century approach to jamming among musicians familiar enough with each other to “play with the music,” rather than just “play the music.” Sadly, there is little sense of such jamming on this RCA recording, leading me to wonder how much, if any, of that spirit came across to those in the Marlboro audience when this performance was recorded.

The other Marlboro recordings were also made in July of 1964, but these were the the Columbia releases included at the end of the collection. They account for all six of the “Brandenburg” concertos (BWV 1046–1051). The concerts themselves were probably a “major draw,” since the conductor was Pablo Casals. Peter provided harpsichord continuo for four of the concertos. He played piano for the last two movements of BWV 1049 in G major, having just flown in from the Ravinia Festival, arriving too late for the first movement, which was covered by his father Rudolf, who was also the pianist for BWV 1050 in D major.

Casals is clearly the “draw” for these recordings. However, here, again, there is little sense of “jamming among friends.” To be fair, this is often the case when a performance is more about the performers than about the music; and, for what it is worth, Casals is still at the top of my list of preferences for recordings of the solo cello suites (BWV 1007–1012). Nevertheless, I would say that there is too much in any of the Brandenburg recordings that I would call “squirm-inducing;” and my attention will probably continue to home in on Peter’s solo recordings.

World Premiere of Danny Clay’s Latest

from the Bandcamp Web page for the music being discussed

Yesterday evening saw the world premiere of the latest work by composer Danny Clay, a project that began as a partnership with The Living Earth Show (TLES), the duo of percussionist Andy Meyerson and guitarist Travis Andrews. The project began around the time of the first reports of COVID-19 but two days before the “Shelter in Place” order was officially imposed by the San Francisco Health Officer on March 13. It was based on what Meyerson called “a fundamental research question: ‘is it possible for us to use the tools of our discipline—classical art music—to make people feel better?’”

The result was a composition in eight parts entitled Music for Hard Times, which Meyerson has described as “a sonic resource for comfort and calming.” Indeed, the score itself is described as “a series of composed ‘calming exercises’ used to created every sound in the piece.” Each of those exercises is called a “strategy,” amounting to instructions that the performers must then interpret according to their own logic. Music notation appears in only some of the strategies, never in a form that can simply be “played.”

As TLES developed their own strategies in response to the “call” of Clay’s strategies, they prepared recordings of each of the eight parts. These have now been compiled in their Music for Hard Times album, which was released on Bandcamp yesterday. The album is available for both streaming and digital download, and the download includes the PDF of the score describing the eight “calming exercises.”

However, as the television hucksters like to say, “That’s not all!” Jon Fischer created an ambient film that provides a “visual context” for the TLES recordings of each of the eight parts of the score. That video was presented as part of yesterday’s world premiere performance, “projected” on the Living Music with Nadia Sirota Facebook site. The overall duration of that performance was a little over 40 minutes.

I suspect that many of my generation would have free-associated this synthesis of images and music with Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi, whose soundtrack consisted entirely of music composed by Philip Glass. The subtitle for Koyaanisqatsi was Life Out of Balance, and it is clear from the Hard Times project that the “sonic resource” had been conceived to compensate for the loss of balance in the wake of the onset of COVID-19. However, that is about as far as any attempt at comparison can go.

Reggio’s images were anything but calming, running the gamut from disturbingly suggestive to downright spooky. Glass’ repetitive structures almost served as an infernal rotating grindstone through which Reggio honed sharper and sharper connotations. The result was one of the most intense couplings of the visual and the auditory, but there was absolutely nothing calming about the viewing experience.

In contrast most of Fischer’s images tended to evoke the quietude of the natural world or the panoramic landscape. His images served as the perfect match to the quietude of the TLES interpretation of Clay’s score. Indeed, the few images of any human presence provide the only moments that a viewer might find slightly disturbing, suggesting, perhaps, that the natural world is taking care of itself without regard to impact on the human race.

The overall structure of the film paralleled the eight parts of Clay’s composition with “title cards” marking the beginning of each successive part. However, at the premiere there was no explicit suggestion of how many parts there were (unless one had visited the Bandcamp Web page). What is important is that, in the absence of any such preparatory background knowledge, none of the parts ever overstayed its welcome, either through the TLES realization of the score or through the sequences of evocative images that Fischer provided. As was the case for Koyaanisqatsi, I suspect that this will be a cinematic experience that I shall enjoy repeating many times.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Violins of Hope: The Album

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

Readers may recall that, this past February, this site reported on two performances presented as part of the Violins of Hope project. That name refers to a priceless collection of recovered and meticulously restored instruments from the Holocaust era. The restorations were realized through the efforts of Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom, both Israeli luthiers. The restored instruments have been exhibited in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Many of the instruments were played by prisoner-musicians in the ghettos and labor/death camps. Of the 86 instruments that have been restored to date, 50 were brought to the Bay Area, many of which were featured in a well-organized exhibit on the ground floor of the Veterans Building. The exhibit was often open at times when Herbst Theatre audiences were waiting to enter.

The first of the two performances that I covered was entitled Along the Trade Route and was presented without charge in the Koret Auditorium of the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. It was hosted by klezmer expert Cookie Segelstein, joined by three other violinists specializing in different cultures. I seem to recall Segelstein observing that the instruments in the collection were better in display cases than in the hands of skilled violinists; but none of the players on the program (including Segelstein herself) seemed to be wrestling with his/her respective instrument.

The second performance took place in Davies Symphony Hall as part of the series of chamber music recitals presented by members of the San Francisco Symphony. Cellist Barbara Bogatin served as host, and all of the selections were string trios. The other performers were violinist Raushan Akhmedyarova and violist Adam Smyla, and all three of the instruments had been restored under the auspices of Violins of Hope.

Both of these offerings had much to offer the attentive listener, not only Segelstein’s historically-informed approach to klezmer but also the Davies offerings of two of the composers held in the Theresienstadt transfer camp, Gideon Klein and Hans Krása. I offer this as context, because, only weeks after I had covered these events, Albany Records released a Violins of Hope album featuring violinist Niv Ashkenazi. This happened to be when the exhibit had moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where most of the performance events have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the context of the performances I had experienced, I found myself for the most part disappointed with this recording. The selections of both composers and compositions amounted to what my Yiddish-speaking ancestors would have called a mish-mosh (the “authorized spelling” according to Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish). Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun” was there, pulled out of context as it usually is when selected for an encore; and it was followed immediately by John Williams’ theme for the movie Schindler’s List. The two Holocaust victims on the album are Robert Dauber (Theresienstadt-Dachau) and Szymon Laks (Auschwitz). Paul Ben-Haim got out of Europe before being captured by the Nazis and subsequently went on to become the grand old man of contemporary music in the newly-formed State of Israel. The inclusion of Lucien Garban’s arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish” song probably serves as the ironic gesture of the album, while the arrangement of music from Sharon Farber’s “Bestemming” cello concerto (including narration by Tony Campisi) ran the gamut from insipid to tedious.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Old First Concerts: July 2020

As of this writing, the solo recitals planned for the month of June by Old First Concerts (O1C) have been going ahead; but not quite as planned. Hopes for limited admission to Old First Church and the sale of tickets had to be abandoned. However, the first three of the June concerts have been presented through live streaming; and the plan to present the last concert of the month, a shakuhachi recital by Cornelius Boots, is still “on the books.” All concerts have been streamed live through YouTube; and, for the most part, technical glitches have been kept to a minimum. As a result, these live-stream concerts will continue next month with three planned concerts:

Friday, July 17, 8 p.m.: San Francisco violinist Patrick Galvin will present the next solo recital. His program will feature the world premiere of a composition by Stefan Cwik. The remainder of the program will be devoted to solo violin sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach and Eugène Ysaÿe. Both of  these composers wrote six such solo sonatas. As of this writing, Galvin has not yet announced which among these alternatives he will perform.

Friday, July 24, 8 p.m.: The first ensemble offering following the shutdown of live performances this past March will present the L’arc Trio, making its O1C debut. The members of the trio are violinist Maria van der Sloot, cellist Christine Lee, and pianist Jung-eun Kim. They met as students in the postgraduate chamber music program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. They came together as a trio in 2018 and made their debut at the Berkeley Piano Club in January of 2019. Their program will also present a world premiere, composed on a commission by Vivian Fung. The remainder of the program will be devoted to two trios by Ludwig van Beethoven, the first, in the key of E-flat major, of the three trios in the Opus 1 collection, and the Opus 97 (“Archduke”) trio inB-flat major.

Sunday, July 26, 4 p.m.: The month will conclude with a solo piano recital by Paula Dreyer. She will devote the entire concert to a performance of the music on her album Central Star. The album has not yet been released, and funds for the release are currently being raised through a Kickstarter campaign. All of the tracks on the album grew out of Dreyer asking herself the question “How do we process change in an ever changing world?”

As far as the return to Old First Church as a concert venue is concerned, O1C Director Matthew Wolka is currently tracking plans for churches to start admitting people to their respective sanctuaries. As of this writing, July 15 is a tentative date for such a reopening. If that is the case, then this may be the first step towards performances taking place in the presence of an audience, even if the audience is a sparse one. As a result, the Web pages for the last two recitals still include hyperlinks for purchasing tickets. Whether or not audiences will be admitted to these events, it is likely that all three of these recitals will be given live streaming through YouTube, with hyperlinks to the appropriate pages given on the event pages (to which the above dates have been hyperlinked).

In the event that audience admission will be allowed for any of these events, the Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church.

The Immersive Music of Jordan Nobles

courtesy of Riparian Media

One week from today Redshift Records will release Jordan Nobles’ ninth full-length album, Chiaroscuro. This is the “house label” for the Redshift Music Society, founded in Vancouver in 2001 with Nobles serving as Artistic Director. As of this writing, Amazon.com has created a Web page for the new album; but, under current conditions, it is being distributed only through MP3 download. Nevertheless, that Web page is currently processing pre-orders. On the other hand Bandcamp has created a Web page with a “Limited Edition Compact Disc” option, as well as digital download.

In many respect this new album serves to complement the recent Capriccio release of compositions by Morton Feldman for orchestral ensemble. There are signature qualities of stillness that one encounters in the two compositions on the Feldman album, “Coptic Light” and “String Quartet and Orchestra;” and one gets the impression that Nobles has been influenced by those qualities, particularly on the title track. However, while Feldman tended to explore the interplay of individual instruments and ensemble sonorities, the instrumentation for “Chiaroscuro” goes for the transparency of a large number of individual parts. There are twenty different instrumental parts, each assigned to a single player. Many of those players, in turn, alternate among different instruments. There is also a choir and six solo vocalists, all in the soprano-alto range.

“Chiaroscuro” is coupled with “Pulses” on this album. As the title might suggest, there is a bit more energy in the instrumental parts. However, the music itself is as finely textured as “Chiaroscuro.” Nevertheless, if the textures of “Chiaroscuro” tend to invoke the “landscape” qualities of Feldman’s music, the very use of the noun “pulse” carries connotations of Terry Riley’s “In C.” However, this is no more than connotation, since Nobles’ approach to an underlying pulse does not appear to be based on a foundation of indeterminacy.

As a result, the attentive listener will probably detect qualities in both of Nobles’ compositions that reflect on the wide spectrum of inventive approaches to making music that emerged during the second half of the twentieth century. That said, if the listener is attentive enough, (s)he will never confuse Nobles’ compositional techniques with any of those sources. My only concern is that the “information content” of his scores is too high to be given a fair account through any recorded media. According to his Wikipedia page, Nobles’ takes an immersive approach to the performance of his music, having the performers surround the audience is large spaces that facilitate reverberation. At best this new album can allow the curious listener to appreciate the nuts and bolts of the syntax, semantics, and rhetoric behind the score pages; but one can only do justice to listening through the physical presence of the performers.

Pamela Z’s Gray Sound Session

Pamela Z with her gear for her Gray Sound Sessions set (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Last night Pamela Z was one of two solo artists to participate in the seventh edition of Gray Sound Sessions. This is a weekly music-and-sound YouTube streaming series hosted by the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry in Chicago. Z’s set was entitled Other Rooms (and other works). As usual, her performance involved her vocal work, electronic gear, including sampling technology, and gesture-controlled MIDI instruments.

While Z’s voice is usually the only one encountered during one of her performances, “Other Rooms” was structured around the voice of the playwright Paul David Young. Z had interviewed Young while she was working on Memory Trace, a full-evening solo performance composition. (Readers that recall my Examiner.com articles may remember that Memory Trace was performed in August of 2015 and was recognized as that’s month’s entry in my “memorable concerts of 2015” article.) In “Other Rooms” Z extracted samples from that interview as a primary source for transformations engaged by her other gear.

The piece was woven into an overall fabric of other Z compositions. My only regret was that Gray Sound did not provide any information about what was being performed, neither before, during, nor after the performance itself. I would guess that roughly half of the set was familiar from past Z concerts. However, there was also the impression that the set in its entirety had its own sense of unity. As always seems to be the case, the performance was an engaging experience in which listening to the sounds Z evokes tended to blend informatively with the act of watching her at work.

Z’s set was preceded by Nomi Epstein’s Object Relations. Epstein described this piece as “multilayered with audio/video investigations into my experience,” that experience being her quarantine conditions since this past March. The audio was her “Solo for Piano part II: Dyads.” This is an open-form composition. The soundtrack consisted of the performance of this piece by Reinier van Houdt, taken from the album Nomi Epstein: sounds, with an overlay of Epstein herself performing a variation of the piece.

All this might have made for an absorbing listening experience. However, it had to contend with video content, much of which involved Epstein in her apartment under quarantine trying to figure out what to do with herself. The account of that content was frequently confusing, often crude in technique, and, for the most part, distracting from the music. These video images were coupled with split-screen shots of two pianists (perhaps the same individual) at two different pianos playing “Dyads” (or, perhaps, just appearing to play “Dyads”).

As a result, that aforementioned “experience” turned out to be, more often than not, running along the gamut from frustratingly annoying to hopelessly self-indulgent. Furthermore, the piece went on for more than its half-hour allotment. After I had more than enough, I shifted to setting up for viewing Z’s offering. If this is Gray Sound’s seventh offering, then I would have hoped that they would have cultivated enough experience to both supervise and present a somewhat more polished account. Still, even in the context of frustration with Epstein’s set, I found it a pleasure not only to listen to Z’s performance but also to watch her engagement with her gear.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

SFS To Stream Live MTT Tribute

Collage of guest artists (courtesy of SFS)

Before the cancellation of all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center, June 28 had been scheduled to mark the final concert to be conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) in his tenure at Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Instead, SFS has been maintaining the MTT25 playlist on its YouTube Web site for a 25-day celebration of MTT’s 25-year tenure. This will conclude on June 28 with MTT25: An Online Tribute Event for Michael Tilson Thomas.

This will be an hour-long program hosted by two famed vocalists, Audra McDonald and Susan Graham. The event will feature many musical contributions and tributes by an array of distinguished guest artists, notable figures in and outside of music, world premiere performances, and special contributions by SFS musicians and the SFS Chorus. Guests will include Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming, Julia Bullock, Measha Brueggergosman, Bonnie Raitt, and Lars Ulrich.

The event itself will begin at 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 28. It will be found at that time on the MTT25 playlist. This live video stream will be offered free of charge.

Mahler’s Seventh is Vänskä’s Sixth Release

courtesy of Naxos of America

This month began with the sixth installment of BIS Records’ project to record the music of Gustav Mahler performed by the Minnesota Orchestra under the baton of Music Director Osmo Vänskä. The new album is devoted entirely to Mahler’s seventh symphony. By way of disclaimer, I should begin by observing that this has become a personal favorite in the full canon of the Mahler catalog. One reason may be that it was the second Mahler LP album to be added to my collection. (The first coupled the fifth symphony with the opening Adagio movement from the tenth. Both of these were two-LP albums.) Thus, while many have criticized the symphony for its unwieldy overall structure, it did not take me long to get used to that structure through a generous amount of repeated listening.

I should also note another reason that is based in personal circumstances: I think I have lost count of the number of San Francisco Symphony concerts I have attended at which Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducted this symphony. Even with the advent of digital technology, there is really just too much in Mahler’s score for this symphony to be effectively captured for recording purposes. Listening to recordings may have informed me about overall shape and structure, but every MTT performance uncovered any number of details I had not previously noticed.

That observation needs to be considered as a disclaimer in my approach to this new recording. When the mind behind the ear knows what events to expect, those events will inevitably register, even if they are obscured by other concurrent events. In other words my overall knowledge of the Mahler seventh is such that I usually come away satisfied by any recording of the piece, even the “historical” ones made under adverse technical conditions.

That said, I have to observe that this new album serves up one of the most lyrical interpretations of the opening tenor horn solo (played by R. Douglas Wright) that I have encountered. There is an other-worldly quality to those sonorities, since they really cannot be attributed to any other instrument. Because that solo is the opening gesture, it establishes the dark mood for the entire symphony that resonated with the album jacket of my first recording, which included the subtitle “Song of the Night.” Mahler never knew about this subtitle; and, according to the Wikipedia page for this symphony, he probably would not have approved of it.

Nevertheless, when one considers the overall structure, the subtitle is not as jarring as one might expect. That structure is best considered from an inside-out perspective. The symphony is in five movements. The middle movement is the Scherzo; and it is also the shortest (to a considerable degree) of the entire symphony. It is flanked on either side by movements that Mahler called “Nachtmusik” (night music), the first of which is usually about twice as long as the Scherzo. The “bookends” for the symphony are an opening sonata-form movement and a Rondo conclusion; and these are the two longest movements in the symphony. There is no overall key for the symphony, providing, instead, what Mahler called “progressive tonality.”

There are some, such as those drawn to the theoretical studies of Heinrich Schenker, that get nervous when a multi-movement composition is not “unified” by a single tonality. My own feeling is that, particularly where a lengthy work is involved, I like there to be some architectural foundation; but I see no need to restrict that foundation to harmonic progressions. When I listen to the Mahler seventh, the structural plan I outlined in the preceding paragraph is good enough for me; and I can let those harmonic progressions peregrinate where they may.

I would not be surprised if Vänskä shares that opinion. For all his attention to the many details that populate each movement, the appreciative listener is likely to apprehend the significance of that inside-out architecture. One may thus say that Vänskä leads such a listener into the “core” of that Scherzo and out again to the triumphant rhetoric of the Finale. That is really all that one should expect of the overall listening experience, and Vänskä never falls short in delivering such an experience.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Steve Martin Jams with Philadelphia Orchestra

Steve Martin (second row from top, second column from right) jamming with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra (courtesy of ID)

This past March I ran an article about how the members of the New York Youth Symphony used videoconferencing technology to perform an excerpt from the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony in D major while socially distanced. The YouTube video that resulted was followed by similar treatments of the Alexander String Quartet playing Joseph Haydn in April and Antonín Dvořák in May. These were all performances equally satisfying for the music and the video management.

Nevertheless, in all of these cases, the array of windows in the display was static. We now have a YouTube video involving the somewhat surprising combination of Steve Martin performing with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Martin leads from his five-string banjo picking out the tune he composed for a song called “Office Supplies.” As the tune progresses, he is joined by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, all playing from home and all equipped with earbuds for coordination.

However, the display emerges to be as lively as the tune itself. The content of the mosaic of windows keeps changing to keep up with the many different participating instrumentalists. Just around the time that the viewer begins to “get” how this video was made, the layout starts changing, often with the windows themselves dancing around the screen in different formations. (Meanwhile, when he was not playing his instrument, the trombonist was dancing a hoedown with his young daughter.) I do not think I am exaggerating in saying that this may be the richest video content I have encountered since video management software has emerged.

By the way, Martin introduces the performance, mentioning that he will explain the title at the end; the joke is too good to spoil!

The Bleeding Edge: 6/22/2021

Conditions being what they are, this struck me as a good week to summarize some of the more adventurous performances that will be available by streaming through the Internet. This seems to be the first installation of this column since Mayor London N. Breed ordered that all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center were cancelled as of March 7. Under those restrictions I was still able to see the revival of Danny Clay’s one-hour chamber opera “Echoes” on the evening of that date at the ODC Theater; but, following that event, my writing began to shift to announcements of further cancellations, releases of new recordings, and streamed Internet content.

This week there will be enough streamed events of local interest to justify waking this column from its slumber. As might be expected, specifics about the locations of the performance venues will be absent. They will be replaced by hyperlinks to the streaming sources. For real-time streams the time of the performance will also be provided. Specifics are as follows:

Tuesday, June 23, 6 p.m.: The Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry in Chicago is hosting Gray Sound Sessions, a weekly music-and-sound streaming series. The seventh edition in this series will host one of San Francisco’s most valued and inventive composers. Pamela Z will share a one-hour session with Chicago-based composer and performer Nomi Epstein. Each of them will give a half-hour solo performance, Epstein leading off at 6 p.m., followed by Z at 6:30 p.m. The performance will be live-streamed by YouTube, and the Web page for viewing the stream has already been created.

Friday, June 26, 8 p.m.: Gray Area Art and Technology is taking a stand with the current protests against systemic racism and police brutality. To this end they will be streaming a pair of live performances by electronic musicians Xyla and Somni. The event itself will be free, but Gray Area has created a Web page for donations. 100% of the funds collected through this site will be donated to the The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP). Gray Area has also created its own Web page through which the two performances will be streamed.

Saturday, June 27, 11 a.m.: Franck Martin is hosting a weekly show every Saturday at 11 a.m. His programs are organized around modular synthesizer performances and discussion with the performers. This week’s performer will be Amanda Chaudhary. The program will be live-streamed by YouTube, and the Web page for viewing the stream has already been created. Since Martin is doing all of this on his own nickel, he, too, has created a Web page (on Bandcamp) for support through donations.

Saturday, June 27, noon: Another Chicago-based organization, Experimental Sound Studio (ESS), will present the second installment of its two-part concert series Vox Effusis. These events are being curated by Lou Mallozzi as part of the ESS Quarantine Concert Series. The program will consist of four half-hour sets. The opening set will present the duo of Audrey Chen and Phil Minton. They will be followed at 12:30 p.m. by Alessandro Bosetti. The 1 p.m. set will be taken by C. Spencer Yeh, and Pamela Z will close out the program with her set at 1:30 p.m. ESS has created its own Web page for viewing the entire program. While there will be no charge, a donation of at least $5 will be appreciated, since all donated funds will be passed on to the performing artists. The Web page for the program also includes a hyperlink for making donations.

Natalie Raney’s Adventurous Cello Recital

Yesterday afternoon Old First Concerts presented the third of the four solo concerts planned for this month through live streaming. The recitalist was cellist Natalie Raney, originally scheduled for this past Friday evening. However, late last week it was announced that the event would be rescheduled in order to respect Juneteenth.

Raney was at her most adventurous in her decision to perform Kaija Saariaho’s Sept papillons (seven butterflies), which was composed in 2000. Those that have followed this site probably know by now that Saariaho is an alumna of IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, or Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music in English). Her research involved the synthesis of sounds with both analog and digital equipment, but those studies led to her exploring how similar synthesis could be realized by judiciously combining the sonorities of conventional orchestral instruments.

In that context Sept papillons can be taken as a study in a rich diversity of sonorities all emerging from a solo cello. Almost all of those sonorities arise through exploration of different tremolo effects, presumably intended to evoke the flapping of butterfly wings. However, that is probably the only instance of denotation that emerges across the seven miniatures that Saariaho composed. More significant is the wide diversity of different physical techniques, whose only commonality involves inducing vibrations in the four cello strings. The brevity of each of the movements allows the listener to assume his/her own exploratory stance around the underlying fundamental questions: What am I hearing, and why am I hearing it that way?

My first encounter with this piece was a performance given by Jean-Michel Fonteneau (with whom Raney studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music). In that context it is only fair to observe that even the best audio delivery systems are probably not equipped to accommodate the bandwidth of the sonorities evoked while playing this composition. The bandwidth for yesterday’s streaming technology clearly fell far short of doing justice to the “signal.” Even so, one could still appreciate what Saariaho sought to achieve; and Raney’s execution could not have been a better “guided tour” in the exploration of the composer’s results. I now feel well-prepared to experience her performing this piece in a “physical” recital setting.

The Saariaho offering was followed by far more familiar music by Johann Sebastian Bach, the BWV 1007 (first) solo cello suite in G major. The opening Prelude is probably one of Bach’s most familiar themes, but Raney presented it with her own individual spirit of exploration. The remaining five movements follow a sequence of dance forms found in almost all of the compositions that Bach called suites.

Readers should know by now that I tend to approach performances of such movements in terms of whether any spirit of the dance itself is present. Raney’s execution was not always in agreement with my own aesthetic. However, I found her approach to the Courante convincing; and she caught the spirit of the Gigue well enough to provide a satisfying sense of closure to the entire suite. My own quibbles tended to be with the Allemande; but, to be fair, I am still not quite sure what would count for an appropriate set of dance steps to go with most of the Allemande movements I have encountered at concerts.

Saariaho’s suite was preceded by the first movement of Dorothy Chang’s suite “Bloom.” Raney had conceived her program to evoke the spirit of springtime. Chang’s suite seems to have been organized around the same objective. Unfortunately, the few technical difficulties that emerged took place during the performance of this music. As a result I can only say that I would be most interested it listening to it under better conditions.

Raney also prepared an encore, which she performed with guitarist David Gonzales. This was an arrangement of Pablo Casals’ “Song of the Birds.” Thus, the spirit of spring that was introduced through Chang’s music was brought to closure through Casals. Furthermore, Casals’ use of tremolo to evoke the sound of a bird-call could not have been a better retrospective reflection of the tremolo beating of Saariaho’s butterfly wings!

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Spalding and Hersch Release Benefit EP

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch preparing for a performance (photograph by Christopher Drukker, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

In October of 2018, jazz vocalist Esperanza Spalding give a series of concerts at the Village Vanguard accompanied only by Fred Hersch at the piano. An album based on those performances has not yet been “officially” released. However, five of the songs that Spalding performed have been collected on an EP, which is being distributed exclusively for download through Bandcamp. All proceeds from sales through the end of this month will benefit the Jazz Foundation of America in its current efforts to assist members of the jazz community impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The “official” price is $17, but the Web page is set up to allow additional donations encouraged on a pay-what-you-wish basis.

The album is a “rough mix,” meaning that the recordings made on site have not been subjected to editing. Each of the songs allows both Spalding and Hersch to explore improvisations that are as adventurous as they are generous. Of greatest interest is “Dream of Monk,” which the two of them have been performing ever since they have been giving duo gigs. It would be unfair to call Hersch’s score a pastiche of music composed by Thelonious Monk, due to the elegant ways in which motifs from different Monk compositions keep bumping into each other. The result is thus more like one of those paraphrases by Franz Liszt than a “Monk medley.” Hersch then added a vocal line setting his own words, which constitute their own reflections on Monk’s legacy. The clarity of Spalding’s delivery allows the informed listener to drink in every subtle evocation of that legacy.

The most traditional of the tracks is “But Not For Me,” a collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin. This is a far cry from the rather straightforward approach this tune took in serving the narrative of the musical Girl Crazy; and the liberties that Spalding takes with Ira’s words are, to say the least, over the top. in Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk” Spalding indulges in a speculative spoken introduction that wanders into territory that throws Bobby Troup’s lyrics into a whole new light, while Hersch provides just the right deadpan riffs to make sure that Spalding will eventually get back to the tune. Payback then ensues as Hersch lets loose on his own adventurous improvisations on Jule Styne’s tune for “Some Other Time” (not to be confused with the tune that Leonard Bernstein wrote for On the Town). Finally, Egberto Gismonti’s “Loro” provides Spalding with the last burst of adventurous improvisation in her scat singing.

Personally, I did not find anything “rough” in the production of this release. Each of the tracks has its own way of conveying the immediacy of the performance. As far as I am concerned, no further polishing is necessary!

SFP Announces Streamed Audio Series

This week San Francisco Performances (SFP) will launch a free series of four performances recorded specifically for audio streaming. The overall title is Sanctuary Series, and it will involve a diversity of genres presented by performers familiar to SFP audiences. These will be offered through the Front Row Web page, a platform for streaming primarily audio recordings taken from memorable concerts from the past but with a few video documents. The Sanctuary Series concerts will be added to this site on Thursdays, beginning this week. The summary of the performances to be released is as follows:

Alexander String Quartet members David Samuel, Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, and Sandy Wilson (courtesy of SFP)

June 25: The Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), consisting of violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist David Samuel, and cellist Sandy Wilson, will present a program devoted entirely to Brahms, prepared in conjunction with a project to record that composer’s complete string quartets. They will play the two Opus 51 quartets, the first in C minor and the second in A minor. Grafilo has prepared an “encore” for this program with his transcription of the second of the Opus 118 short pieces for piano that Brahms composed late in his life in 1893. The recording was made on June 12 at St Stephen’s Church in Belvedere, since the quartet had already booked the space.

July 2: The Living Earth Show, the duo of percussionist Andy Meyerson and guitarist Travis Andrews, will perform a new work by Danny Clay, Music for Hard Times. The music has also been recorded on an album of the same title, which will be released on June 25. It is the product of the frustrations and opportunities arising from shelter-in-place conditions, and Clay has been up-front in saying that he created this music with the goal of making people feel better. SFP will co-present this program with Living Music with Nadia Sirota, which is streamed on Facebook Live. Following the performance Timo Andres will moderate a talk with the artists.

July 9: Like Clay, tenor Nicholas Phan has prepared a recital program to reflect on prevailing conditions. The title of his program is Time – Meditation for this Moment. The content covers a broad scope of music history with “Time Stands Still” by John Dowland in the distant past and a selection of songs by Jake Heggie in the immediate present. Heggie will accompany Phan at the piano for the entire recital. This performance will be recorded on June 25 at St Stephen’s.

July 16: Readers may recall that SFP launched the return of its Salon Series this past January 15. The series was curated by pianist Edward Simon, and he began with a solo recital entirely devoted to the music of Federico Mompou. Simon will be recording the entire content of that program at St Stephen’s, and that recording will serve as the final Sanctuary Series offering.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

SFO’s 2009 “Salome” Still Packs a Wallop

I am writing this after my first experience with viewing a video offering by Opera is ON, the streaming service offered by San Francisco Opera (SFO), which was first launched on May 9. Every Saturday at 10 a.m., SFO presents a video of a past production that may be viewed without charge until the end of the following day. The offering for this weekend is Richard Strauss’ one-act opera “Salome,” whose production was shared with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and the Opéra de Montréal.

I was just beginning to build up my writing chops when I saw the opening performance of this production on October 18, 2009. At that time my “beat” with Examiner.com was Classical Music Performance; and there was another Examiner for opera. I took advantage of that “division of labor” by using this site to reflect almost entirely on the character of Herod, rather than accounting for the full scope of the opera.

The fact is that there is far more that can be accounted for in a good presentation of this opera than can be packed into a single article. One can begin with Strauss basing his libretto on a faithful adaptation of the one-act play written by Oscar Wilde, translated into German by Hedwig Lachmann. Then one can do a deep dive into just about every character, particularly when one is experiencing the efforts of a stage director (Seán Curran for this particular production) doing the same. In this case that perspective is particularly applicable to the Page of Herodias (a contralto role sung by Elizabeth DeShong), who tries to dampen the passions of Narraboth (tenor Garrett Sorenson) for Salome (soprano Nadja Michael) at the very beginning of the opera. The Page does not sing very much after that opening duet, but it seemed as if Curran never neglected her and the strain of her bearing witness to everything else that unfolds in the scenario. On the instrumental side there was Music Director Nicola Luisotti, giving just as much attention to the rhetorical intensity of the soft passages as one would expect him to deliver in the loud ones.

Indeed, from a narratological point of view, Strauss’ opera is probably filled with more critical plot-based details than one is likely to find in Wilde’s script. That last paragraph only begins to scratch the surface of the full landscape of those details. As a result the management of the orchestra is as critical as the challenges that a conductor will encounter in performing a symphony by Gustav Mahler, which demands a clear understanding and expression of just where the “highest peak” of the score’s many climaxes actually occurs.

Nevertheless, in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the impressively high quality of the video direction by Frank Zamacona. If Curran never overlooked the significance of the Page throughout the opera, Zamacona had the wisdom to allow us to see this character, even as a figure in the background. He also deployed an impressive variety of camera angles (including one from above), always in the interest of finding a point of perspective consistent with both the narrative and the music. Finally, I have to say I was delighted that, when the curtain descended and the applause began, Zamacona took that time to have a camera observe Luisotti thanking individual members of the orchestra.

Nicola Luisotti thanking the SFO Orchestra at the conclusion of “Salome” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

I suppose the primary “take-away” from this attempt to document my impressions of the morning is that this particular video account presents the viewer with far more than could be experienced from even the best seat in the War Memorial Opera House.