Monday, August 31, 2020

The Charlie Parker Centennial

Saxophonist Charlie Parker with trumpeter Miles Davis to his left at the Three Deuces in New York in August of 1947, with bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Max Roach behind them (photograph by William P. Gottlieb from the collection of his photos at the Library of Congress, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This past Saturday, August 29, 2020, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlie (“Bird”) Parker. I had expected that this occasion would draw more attention, but the only acknowledgement I managed to find was an article in The New York Times by Alan Scherstuhl entitled “Charlie Parker at 100: What to Read, Watch and Dig,” which was filed at 8 a.m. on August 26. It turned out that opportunities for watching were rather limited, since there was only one filmed account of Parker in performance. This took place on a television show hosted by pianist Dick Hyman on the occasion when Parker was presented with the 1951 Down Beat award for best alto saxophonist. He was joined by Dizzy Gillespie receiving an award for best trumpeter of all time. Hyman, Parker, and Gillespie then teamed up with Sandy Block on bass and Charlie Smith on drums for a performance of Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House.” (As Scherstuhl noted, there was another film on which the musicians mimed performance of a prerecorded track.)

Both of these brief films appear in Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, an episode in the American Masters series produced by the New York PBS affiliate WNET. This was first aired on August 17, 1989 and will remain on an American Masters Web page until April 30, 2023. The title of the episode is taken from the title of a book about Parker by Gary Giddins, who partnered with Kendrick Simmons to produce the documentary.

Sadly, this film is evidence of how much efforts to present documentaries about making jazz have improved over the last 30 years. To be fair, Giddins and Simmons were working with relatively little historical content. As a result, the overall impression was one of too many talking heads reflecting on too little music. Since I have a more-than-modest collection of CDs of Parker performances, I suspect I would be better off reading Giddens’ book, reinforcing my impressions by listening to appropriate tracks.

To be fair, music from the golden age of bebop does not hold up very well to casual listening (or viewing by Public Television audiences). Parker was a master of inventing contrafacts. This involves taking the underlying chord progression of a familiar tune and weaving an entirely different melodic line over that progression. The technique is illustrated in the Celebrating Bird film by “Ko-Ko,” which is a contrafact of “Cherokee;” and it is virtually impossible to hear any signs of “Cherokee” against Parker’s eccentric rhythms and fragmented motifs.

The fact is that developing an “ear” for Parker’s tunes and improvisations is very much in the same league as developing an “ear” for the solo piano compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen. Rather than consult a documentary or even the book that provides the source for that documentary, the curious listener would do better to spend time listening to selected tracks over and over. (For those wondering if I take my own advice, it was through this technique that I became familiar enough with “Ko-Ko” to appreciate the many ways in which Parker could improvise over it.) Such an approach to appreciation would be the best alternative to going to the clubs were Parker played and listening again and again to selections such as “Ko-Ko” and “Hot House.” After enough exposure “Bird” will fly again in the mind of such a determined listener.

Glenn Gould’s Box of Bach: Clavier-Übung++

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

Among the many artists that recorded for Columbia Records before the label was absorbed into Sony Music Entertainment, pianist Glenn Gould probably commanded one of the largest number of releases. Indeed when a box set was released of The Complete Columbia Album Collection, the contents amounted to 81 CDs, putting Gould in a “quantity league” alongside pianist Arthur Rubinstein and conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. For all of Gould’s broad repertoire, however, his specialty was always Johann Sebastian Bach. As a result, this past June Sony released The Bach Box of 30 CDs of Gould’s albums devoted to that composer.

It would be a bit unfair to begin writing about Gould without first acknowledging a key sentence on his Wikipedia page:

Gould was known for his eccentricities, from his unorthodox musical interpretations and mannerisms at the keyboard to aspects of his lifestyle and behaviour.

The extent to which his reputation for interpretations extends to Bach recalls one of those anecdotes that deserves to be true, even if it isn’t. It purports to account for an encounter that harpsichordist Wanda Landowska had with cellist Pablo Casals. When the conservation turned to Bach, the exchanges grew increasingly heated until Landowska brought matters to a close saying, “Very well, Pablo, you play Bach your way; and I’ll play it his!” I would not be surprised if “Gould’s way” provoked both Landowska and Casals!

As has been the case with past anthologies, The Bach Box is too big to be given a fair account in a single article. Sadly, finding a good way to sort the content involved contending with one of the most frustrating Sony productions that I have ever encountered. The pages of track listings are interspersed between moderately lengthy episodes discussing the content of the respective recordings; and, to add insult to injury, there is not index at the end of the book (which is hard-bound) that will direct the reader to content (both recorded and in text) about any specific composition. As a result, simply getting an overview of the entire collection is no easy matter.

Consequently, I have tried to draw upon my own Bach scholarship in planning a set of four categories. However, because these categories do not necessarily accommodate themselves to any useful chronology, I have chosen to order them according to the number of the first CD in each collection. The results are as follows:

  1. The first category is based primarily on the Clavier-Übung (keyboard exercise) publications. These include the six partitas (BWV 825–830) that constitute the first volume, the BWV 971 (“Italian”) concerto from the second, and the BWV 988 set of “Goldberg” variations from the fourth. (The third volume consisted of organ music.) To these I added the BWV 910–916 keyboard toccatas.
  2. The second category can be called the “plays well with others” (with or without an appended question mark) collection, including both keyboard concertos and instrumental sonatas.
  3. The third category covers different approaches to preludes and fugues, including The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue, the BWV 903 “Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue,” the so-called “Inventions and Sinfonias” (BWV 772–801), and additional preludes.
  4. The final category takes in the keyboard suites based on dance forms and the BWV 831 “Overture in the French style” (because Gould includes it on his recordings of the French suites); for the record, BWV 831 is the second composition included in the second Clavier-Übung volume.

For better or worse I am familiar with much of this repertoire. I have even tried to play much of it for my own edification. This is particularly true of the first two Clavier-Übung volumes. I figured that if the intentions behind that music was pedagogical, I might as well approach it that way through my own groping attempts at self-education.

In that context I would propose that, if Gould was interested in pedagogy at all, it was for the case of showcasing idiosyncratic interpretations of the marks on paper. Most frustrating were the experiences of listening to the dance movements in the partitas. I shall always remember observing a master class taught by violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock at which she informed her student, “Bach certainly knew his dances!” One would be hard-pressed to find any convincing way to dance to any of Gould’s partita movement performances.

I also came away with the impression that Gould was dead-serious in his idiosyncrasies. The only recording that offered the slightest sign that he was enjoying himself behind the keyboard was his account of BWV 971. It would not surprise me to learn that Bach, himself, took considerable delight in being able to capture the rich interplay between a soloist and his/her accompanying ensemble with only two hands on a two-manual harpsichord keyboard. So this particular selection may be the closest Gould came to “channeling” Bach’s own high spirits.

Nevertheless, at least some of those spirits can also be found in the toccata performances. If I agree with Gould about anything, it is that there are too few opportunities to appreciate the pleasures of these seven multi-movement compositions. I also have fond memories of the film The Beat That My Heart Sklpped about a hit-man that wants to be a concert pianist and is studying BWV 914 throughout most of the film’s narrative. Once again, however, I have to take issue with Sony. These toccatas are multi-movement compositions. Even if each one is allocated a single track, the track listings could still enumerate how the movements are distinguished!

As to the fact that Gould recorded BWV 988 twice, that no longer strikes me as idiosyncratic. After all, I just wrote about Lang Lang doing the same thing over a much shorter interval of time. However, if Lang Lang served up a convincing account of BWV 988 as a “journey” through the 30 variations, both Gould versions (along with the stereophonic remastering of the first version) come across as little more than “one damned thing after another” (as Arnold Toynbee put it about history).

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Fourth Annual SFIPF Concludes in High Spirits

The live stream of the final program in the fourth annual season of the San Francisco International Piano Festival (SFIPF) consisted of three previously recorded events. The result was a celebration of the diversity of the keyboard repertoire with an emphasis on high spirits. The program lasted a little less than 75 minutes, and the video is now available for viewing on YouTube.

What was perhaps the most interesting was that the second of the three sections of the program was devoted to the “coming generation” of concert pianists. It presented a piano duo performance by Karina Tseng and Kevin Yang, both alumni of Young Chamber Musicians, playing the final (“Tarantelle”) movement from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 17 (second) suite for two pianos. The video account was rather unique, showing the opening phrase being performed at the Crowden School in Berkeley, after which the remainder of the movement was given a socially distanced performance in cyberspace.

The video image was divided in half with one frame for each of the two pianists. These were demanding circumstances for the intricately thick textures of Rachmaninoff’s score. However, it was clear that Tseng and Yang were keenly aware of each other; and the presentation was particularly effective in informing the video of who was playing what as the movement unfolded.

The opening section was taken by Artistic Director Jeffrey LaDeur and featured the third piano sonata of George Walker, described on the YouTube Web page as “one of the foremost black composers of the 20th century.” LaDeur thus provided the perfect complement to Nicholas Phillips’ Saturday evening performance of the piano music of Florence Price, which gave particular attention to her only piano sonata. Indeed, the two composers could not have been more different in their approach to creating a sonata.

Where Price drew upon and then elaborated traditionally tonal thematic material, Walker’s three-part sonata was a study in different approaches to atonality. The opening section, “Fantoms,” explored bell-like sonorities, followed by a “Choral” section that involved repeating the same chord with dynamic control of the individual fingers that allowed each instance to display its own unique sonorities. The sonata then concluded with a cryptic Fughetta in which one could barely discern the subject through the thick textures in which it was embedded.

Walker’s sonata was flanked by more amenable nineteenth-century selections. LaDeur began with the first of Franz Schubert’s D. 935 impromptus in the key of F minor. He then concluded his set with the last of Frédéric Chopin’s four scherzos, Opus 54 in E major. These certainly made for sharp contrasts against Walker’s sonata, and LaDeur was a bit weak in his structural and rhetorical account of the Chopin selection. The Schubert performance was far more effective and served as a useful introduction to Walker’s thick textures.

The final selection was a video recording made in a church in what appears to have been the Occitan region of southern France. Bobby Mitchell performed a suite entitled Songs from Childhood, which may well have been a prankish nod to Robert Schumann’s Opus 15 Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood) collection. However, while Schumann’s themes were original, Mitchell transmogrified eight familiar tunes such as “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Readers may recall that SFIPF had already presented a video of Mitchell playing “Songs of Insurrection” by Frederic Rzewski. Rzewski has a strong political streak and has a gift for weaving thickly-textured elaborations around songs of “social significance.” Mitchell’s suite swings the pendulum to a more innocuous side, but his richly ornate accounts of tunes more suited to the nursery are as impressive as those cultivated by Rzewski. Most distinctive was probably Mitchell’s take on “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” which begins as a fughetta and then prances off to a gigue. The French text for “Frère Jacques” on the other hand seems to have inspired Mitchell to evoke Claude Debussy with sonorities deftly appropriated from the “La cathédrale engloutie” (the submerged cathedral) piano prelude.

Piano Music of Florence Price at SFIPF

Last night’s program in the fourth annual season of the San Francisco International Piano Festival (SFIPF) consisted of two independent sets. The second was a Bach recital given by Owen Zhou during the 2018 Festival; but I concentrated my attention on the first set, which was a return solo appearance by Nicholas Phillips. Like the #45miniatures Project program that Phillips presented this past Tuesday evening, last night’s live stream consisted of ten pre-recorded videos, this time post-processed with the titles of each of the offerings. The overall title of the program was Piano Music of Florence Price.

The major work on the program was Price’s only piano sonata in the key of E minor. Composed in 1932, the piece is, in many ways, a reflection on the bravura displays of technique that were so popular during the nineteenth century. The attentive listener will probably recognize that Price had a clear grasp of the high bar set by Franz Liszt. However, much of her thematic material was grounded in American rhetoric. She may not have appropriated specific tunes the way Charles Ives did so frequently; but there was a decided “American spirit” behind all of her melodic lines, even if the harmonizing and embellishments could all be tracked by to European sources. Both the overall architecture and the motivic details can be compared to Price’s approaches to composing symphonies; but the sonata was clearly written with the piano in mind (and the technique of a virtuoso pianist).

Phillips clearly understood both the theory and the practice behind the performance of this sonata. None of Price’s lush embellishments were short-changed; but Phillips consistently gave a clear account of the thematic material that provided the foundations for those embellishments. Some might have felt that the durations of those embellishments tended towards the excessive, but Phillips knew how to pace each of the three sonata movements to get beyond creating any impressions of self-indulgence.

The sonata was preceded by seven of the many short works for solo piano that Price composed. One might think of the Songs without Words compositions of Felix Mendelssohn or the Lyric Pieces of Edvard Grieg. However, Price had her own distinctive approach to providing intimate accounts of scaled-down thematic material. I have written in the past about Lara Downes’ recordings of such short compositions, but all of Phillips’ selections were new to me. The post-processed titles for these selections were not always correct; but it will be easy for the listener to recognize that the list on the YouTube Web page provided a reverse-order account of what  Phillips played. (Similarly, the title for the concluding Scherzo movement of the sonata mistakenly repeated the title for the opening movement.)

On the whole Phillips provided a perceptive and engaging account of Price’s skills in composing for solo piano, yet another opportunity to appreciate the diversity of this composer’s talents.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Rae Linda Brown’s Biography of Florence Price

courtesy of University of Illinois Press

I have now finished reading Rae Linda Brown’s biography of composer Florence Price, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price. As I observed when mentioned this book as part of an article about Price’s first and last symphonies, this book has been on sale at Amazon.com since June 22 in both hardcover and paperback editions. I also noted that Brown died before her manuscript was published and that Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. supervised the final editing for publication by the University of Illinois Press.

The book concludes with an Afterword by the author’s sister, Carlene J. Brown, which explains the thoroughness of the author’s approach to preparing this book. Those that work their way through all nineteen of Brown’s chapters will probably appreciate her sister’s remarks. The book is as much a sociological study of the development of race relations in the United States during Price’s lifetime (April 9, 1887–June 3, 1953) as it is an account of her achievements in music as performer, composer, and teacher. The problem is that many readers may lose patience with the opening chapters that provide the reader with a rich context for practices of segregation, particularly in the state of Arkansas; and they will begin to lose hope that Brown shift attention to discussing the composer’s musical experiences.

The good news is that there is extensive discussion, complete with musical examples, particularly of the large-scale compositions. Nevertheless, by the time of her death in 2017, Brown knew little about the fourth symphony in D minor and the efforts to prepare it for concert performance in 2018 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Equally extensive is Brown’s account of Price’s interest in traditional spirituals and her efforts to create arrangements for concert performances. Nevertheless, given my experience with Price’s shorter solo piano compositions, music that has been championed by pianist Lara Downes, I was surprised that, given her thoroughness in so many other topics, Brown had little to say about this more intimate side of Price’s compositions.

Having completed my reading of the book, I felt that, for all of Brown’s biographical thoroughness, she never really homed in on the rich diversity of “musical spirits” that one can encounter in the Price catalog. As I have already observed, there is a growing library of recordings through which one can get to know Price’s music through its performance. Indeed, those that have been following the current offerings by the San Francisco International Piano Festival probably know that tonight’s live-streamed offering will include pianist Nicholas Phillips showcasing Price’s compositions, not only those aforementioned miniatures but also a full account of her own virtuosic piano sonata in E minor.

Buonaiuto’s Debut Starkland Album Disappoints

courtesy of Starkland

Those that have followed this site for some time know that I have been particularly impressed by the listening experiences provided by Boulder-based Starkland. One of the most memorable of those experiences came with the album devoted entirely to Žibuoklė Martinaitytė’s uninterrupted 70-minute “In Search of Lost Beauty….” Nevertheless, it is “a truth universally acknowledged” that good things cannot go on forever; and I am afraid that I have now encountered my first Starkland disappointment.

Marfa Songs is the debut album of soprano Danielle Buonaiuto, which presents the premiere recordings of four emerging composers. The first of these, written by James Young, provides the title of the entire album. The second composer, Cecilia Livingston, is represented by two individual songs, “Kalypso” and “Penelope.” Natalie Draper’s O sea-starved, hungry sea was originally composed for a chamber ensemble and is presented on this album as the premiere of the subsequent version for piano and soprano. The album then concludes with Douglas Buchanan’s mini-cycle, Scots and Waters. The pianist for all four of these performances is John Wilson.

It would be understatement to call Buonaiuto’s voice impressive. She can jump through hoops that require a prodigious stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, it is hard to come away from these performances without thinking that those hoops are little more than virtuosity for its own sake. All four of the composers appear to be depressingly tone-deaf to the language behind the texts. All that seems to matter is a need to account for each individual phoneme with its own characteristic sonority. Buonaiuto may be the first vocalist since Cathy Berberian to endow each of those phonemes with the attention that the composer demands, and she might do well to consider revival performances of compositions by Luciano Berio that reflected his interest in the study of psycholinguistics. On the other hand I expect that I shall be cautious in approaching the work of any of the four composers contributing to this album.

O1C Hosts SFIPF All-Beethoven Program

Last night the San Francisco International Piano Festival (SFIPF) moved to Old First Presbyterian Church to present a program in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series. Due to cancellations, this was the first O1C concert to be presented in the BEET250VEN series celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven. The program consisted of three of that composer’s sonatas, only one of which was a piano solo. Last night’s live-stream through YouTube has now been captured, and a Web page has been created for subsequent viewing.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to the Opus 109 sonata in E major, the first of the three final sonatas (the other two being Opus 110 in A-flat major and Opus 111 in C minor). The pianist was Allegra Chapman. The first half offered two different duo performances. The program began with cellist Stephen Harrison joining Gwendolyn Mok for the section of the Opus 5 cello sonatas in the key of G minor. This was followed by the third of the Opus 30 violin sonatas with Sarah Yuan at the piano and Eunseo Oh on violin.

Allegra Chapman playing Beethoven’s Opus 109 at Old First Presbyterian Church (screen shot from the video of the concert being discussed)

I have become so used to Chapman’s advocacy of music from different periods of the twentieth century that I was particularly curious about her approach to Beethoven. In his last three sonatas we encounter Beethoven going boldly into adventurous experimentation with a spirit that would then follow him into his final string quartets. The first movement of Opus 109 is almost an operatic recitative, following by a Prestissimo “aria” that is practically over just around the time you thought it had begun. These movements are followed by an extended set of variations on a theme that is little more than an extended chord progression.

From a technical point of view, Chapman was at the top of her game. She knew how to shape each phrase to reflect the broader grammatical structure, rather than simply letting the notes unfold into a prolonged improvisation. This is a composition that has been beaten to death by music theorists; and, given that this is an “anniversary year,” who knows how many more papers will be written trying to deconstruct and reconstruct the damned thing. Chapman, on the other hand, convinced the attentive listener that she had a firm understanding of the sonata in its entirety and could inform that listener of not only the pieces but also how they fit together to constitute the whole. Having listened to this sonata more times than I can enumerate, I took great pleasure in finding that Chapman had brought her own unique voice to its performance.

It is important to remember that the titles for the selections performed during the first half were “Sonata for Piano and Cello” and “Sonata for Piano and Violin.” Beethoven was not shy about declaring his priorities. That said, Mok and Harrison (to honor Beethoven’s ordering) were the more successful pair when it came to give-and-take between equals. The rhetoric of that give-and-take is consistently upbeat, reminding listeners that Beethoven had a lively sense of humor, regardless of how many portraits we have seen of “scowling Beethoven.”

The performance by Yuan and Oh, on the other hand, was not quite as expressive and certainly did not reveal any signs of the composer’s sense of humor. From a video point of view, the presentation suffered from a poorly-positioned static camera. The angle of view was such that one could barely see the pianist, and it was difficult to ascertain just how the two performers communicated with each other. The result was an interpretation that “played by the notes,” so to speak, with little awareness of any rhetorical expression.

Friday, August 28, 2020

SFP Updates: Yamashita, Brownlee, Cauvin

As we approach the beginning of a new season, San Francisco Performances (SFP) has announced three updates for programs planned for the end of this calendar year. One of these is a cancellation. Guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita, scheduled to perform at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on December 5, has cancelled his touring plans. This was supposed to be a co-production with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts, which had presented Yamashita’s last visit to San Francisco on November 17, 2018.

Those holding tickets for this event have four options:

  1. Apply the value of the tickets towards a subscription or another single performance in the 2020–21 season.
  2. Make a tax-deductible donation of the value of the tickets to SFP.
  3. Apply the value of the tickets toward a gift certificate.
  4. Request a refund.

In addition, two of the recitalists that were given video previews on this site at the beginning of this month will be changing the schedules. The first of these will be tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who had been scheduled to launch the Art of Song Series in conjunction with the 41st Gala. This would have been his first return visit, having made his San Francisco recital debut on March 31, 2018 in the third of the four Vocal Series SFP concerts. The program he planned for his return was entitled Crooners, a full-evening homage to the legendary popular vocalists from the Fifties and Sixties. The new date for this program has not yet been finalized and will be announced when all arrangements are in place.

The second rescheduling will involve guitarist Thibault Cauvin, originally planned to mark the beginning of the Guitar Series, another co-production with the Omni Foundation. He had prepared an “around the world” program, originally scheduled for November 21. The new date for this performance will be May 8.

The above options are also available for those holding tickets or either or both of these concerts. However, those tickets can also be used to attend the rescheduled events. Patrons will be contacted with updated information about the alternative dates for these events.

Multiple "Goldberg” Variations from Lang Lang


Lang Lang performing at the St. Thomas Church (courtesy of Universal Music Group)

One week from today Deutsche Grammophon will release its “Deluxe Edition” album of Lang Lang performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 variations on an aria theme, best known as the “Goldberg Variations.” What makes this album “deluxe” is that it consists of four CD, the first two recorded in studio, followed by a single-take recording of the music performed in recital at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked as Kapellmeister (music director) from 1723 until his death in 1750. In that position Bach was responsible for music education, as well as performances of music at church services.

The “nickname” for BWV 988 comes from Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. His connection to this music comes primarily from Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s biography of Bach. According to Forkel, Goldberg worked in the service of Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling, a Russian diplomat posted to the electoral court of Saxony. The Count often suffered from insomnia, and Goldberg would play for him late at night. The Count was particularly pleased with the variations and presented Bach with “a golden goblet filled with 100 louis-d'or” (quote from Forkel).

Whether or not that story is true, what is more important is that BWV 988 was one of the few Bach compositions to be published in his lifetime. It appeared as the fourth and last of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (keyboard exercise) volumes, published in 1741. The English translation of the title page is as follows:

Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach, composer for the royal court of Poland and the Electoral court of Saxony, Kapellmeister and Director of Choral Music in Leipzig. Nuremberg, Balthasar Schmid, publisher.

The implication is that this was music for performers but that listeners might enjoy “refreshment of their spirits.”

That said, there is a tendency among both performers and listeners to regard BWV 988 as the musical equivalent of some significant mountain to be scaled, such as Everest or Fuji. As an amateur keyboardist, I have always felt that the music was out of my league. Nevertheless, I have lost track of the number of times I have attended performances of the piece in its entirety, the most memorable of which was when András Schiff visited San Francisco in October of 2013. He prepared a program that coupled BWV 988 with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 120 “Diabelli” variations, then taking as an encore the variations movement that concludes Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata in C minor. What I remember most, however, was the notes about BWV 988 that Schiff prepared for the program book, in which he approached the entire composition as a journey for both performer and listener.

Schiff was particularly attentive to the bass line, regarding it as the foundation (literally and figuratively) for everything else that unfolds from the keyboard work. Ever since then, I have always let the keyboardist’s approach to the bass line guide me through my listening experience. In that context I would say that Lang Lang definitely communicated a clear account of that bass line. That does not mean that he hammered it out to make sure that all listeners “got the message.” Rather, he performed in such a way that the attentive listener could sort out Bach’s rich capacity for embellishment from what was being embellished at the heart of it all.

From that point of view, I am not entirely convinced of the value of packaging a studio account with a concert performance. Any differences unfold quite some distance from that bass line, and I suspect that further differences will arise with subsequent performances. More important is that Lang Lang clearly knows how to account for what Bach is saying through this music, and he conveys that knowledge with a clarity that has eluded many other pianists trying to take on this composition. Thus, over the course of listening to the entire package that Deutsche Grammophon has prepared, I came away as satisfied as I had felt after I had experienced Schiff’s ambitious approach to programming.

SFIPF Revisits a Rzewski Premiere

Last night the San Francisco International Piano Festival (SFIPF) revisited a United States premiere performance presented by Bobby Mitchell at last year’s Festival. The composition was Frederic Rzewski’s seven-movement “Songs of Insurrection.” The performance took place at The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. An audio recording captured the performance, which has been uploaded to a YouTube file, whose only video is a static image of one of Rzewski’s score pages. The PDF program book for the Festival also included a hyperlink to the score that the composer uploaded to IMSLP. That hyperlink was incorrect; but there still is a “Songs of Insurrection” Web page from which the score can be downloaded.

Rzewski is probably best known for “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” a set of 36 variations on the Chilean song "¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!" by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún, which has probably assumed the status of the variations composition of the twentieth century. The nineteenth century provided two such prodigious undertakings, one by Ludwig van Beethoven, his Opus 120, on a simple waltz by Anton Diabelli and one by Johannes Brahms, his Opus 35, on the theme for the theme-and-variations caprice that concludes Niccolò Paganini’s Opus 1 set of 24 caprices for solo violin. Rzewski decidedly raised the bar set by his two predecessors.

“Songs of Insurrection” is very much another matter. The score itself never identifies any specific songs associated with revolutionary movements. Indeed, there are so many opportunities for improvisation (which the composer insists should be spontaneous, that the pianist is free to add his/her own favorite folk songs to the mix (or, for that matter, any of the pop and rock songs that emerged during protests against the Vietnam War). It might even be fair to say that each of the seven movements is an extended fantasia imposing a wide variety of technical demands on the pianist over and above what is expected through improvisation.

Just listening to Mitchell makes for engaging listening. Nevertheless, watching would probably have been even more informative. There are a variety of percussive passages that clearly involve much more of the piano than the keyboard. I also detected several movements that involved reaching over the keyboard and stroking the strings by hand. This is one of those compositions in which what the pianist is doing is as significant as what the ear perceives.

Nevertheless, because this music is so challenging, there are few opportunities to encounter it. An audio-only experience may not be optimal. However, if that is all that is available, it should be approached as at least an introduction to one of the most challenging compositions of the current century (a status that is likely to endure for many decades into the future).

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Melism Launches Skalkottas Recording Project

At the beginning of this year, the French Melism label released the first volume in a series of world premiere recordings of the music of Nikos Skalkottas. The Amazon.com Web page for this album describes Skalkottas as “the most important Greek composer of the first half of the 20th century.” I suspect that the primary reason for that “first half” qualifier is that, during the second half of the century, the reputation of Skalkottas, who died in 1949, became overshadowed by that of Mikis Theodorakis. (In spite of his impressively large catalog of compositions, Theodorakis may still be best known for the music he composed for the film Zorba the Greek, which quickly achieved “pop” status during the mid-Sixties.)

Like many, I first became aware of Skalkottas through the conductor Dmitri Mitropoulos. This came about through what was basically a happy accident. Having grown frustrated with how my Fantasia album had tampered with the score for Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” I sought out one that took the music more seriously. I found it on a Columbia recording of Mitropoulos conducting the New York Philharmonic. The album also included two popular works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: the Opus 31 “Marche Slave” preceding Mussorgsky on the first side, and the Opus 45 “Capriccio Italien” beginning the second side. The remainder of the second side was identified as “Four Greek Dances, Opus 11” by Skalkottas.

Those four tracks were entirely new to me, and they quickly became my favorite portion of the album. I knew as little about the folk sources and instruments for these selections as I knew about the background for Antonín Dvořák’s “Slavonic” dances; but I was just a secondary school kid with little interest in such details! Much later in life, I regretted the fact that I had not replaced that album with a CD version when I had to give up all my vinyls due to lack of space in the San Francisco condominium where my wife and I currently reside.

Nevertheless, Skalkottas slipped off my radar until I received word of the Melism release. This provided me with an opportunity to learn more about this composer and to listen to a wider spectrum of his compositions. Fortunately, it also allowed me to revisit the selections that Mitropoulos had recorded for Columbia. It turned out that Skalkottas had composed 36 of those dances between 1931 and 1936, distributed across three suites, each consisting of twelve dances. Sadly, the scores for these suites available through IMSLP are all incomplete; and, apparently, they were not published until 1957, long after the composer’s death.

The Melism album presents twelve of the dances taken from all three of the suites. The recording was made in San Francisco in 1957 with Gregory Millar conducting the Little Symphony Orchestra of San Francisco. The CD offers the first stereophonic release of these twelve tracks. Mitropoulos recorded his performances on January 9, 1956; but Columbia did not release the album until 1959. All four of his selections were included among the twelve that Millar had recorded, so listening to this music was very much like encountering an almost-forgotten old friend. All of those coarse qualities that made the Mitropoulos recording so exciting were just as evident in Millar’s interpretations.

To be fair however, those dance movements are far from representative of the overall Skalkottas canon. Following his graduation from the Athens Conservatoire in 1920, he relocated to Berlin, where he lived from 1921 to 1933. Much of that time was spent studying under Arnold Schoenberg; but he found his own approaches to atonality, which he balanced against tonality (such as he found when he was developing sources from Greek folk music). He was also influenced by Schoenberg’s interest in classical forms, and the Melism album begins with a suite composed in 1929. This was originally composed for violin and “little orchestra;” but the Melism recording presents the composer’s subsequent version for violin and piano. One can appreciate the ambiguous qualities of atonality without confusing this music with Schoenberg’s own works. This is also the case for “The Return of Odysseus,” an overture for “great orchestra” completed near the end of the composer’s life (which includes a chillingly frenetic fugue), along with a version for two pianos performed on the new album. Finally there are three songs presented by mezzo Angelica Cathariou with pianist Nikolaos Samaltanos. All of these selections are world premiere recordings.

Taken as a whole this recently-released album is a journey of discovery that offers a closer look at a long-ignored aspect of twentieth-century composition practices.

DSO Live-Stream not Ready for Prime Time

Early yesterday evening the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) presented a live-streamed Summer Sessions Watch Party. Violinists Laurie Goldman and Marian Tănău, violist Mike Chen, cellist Peter McCaffrey, and bassist Kevin Brown, all DSO members, performed Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 77 (second) string quintet in G major. The performance took place in the outdoor Sosnick Courtyard adjacent to Orchestra Hall. The musicians were adequately socially distanced, and the same seemed to be true of the audience.

Sadly, the event did not live up to the standards of the DSO Replay Web site, which has served as a valuable resource during shelter-in-place conditions. Most important were the technical problems. Presumably, Orchestral Hall is well supplied with the audio and video equipment necessary to create quality content for DSO Replay; but capturing an outdoor event in real time is quite another matter. Most importantly, the entire performance succumbed to a problem I have encountered in similar live-streamed content: synchronization between audio and video was entirely lost. To the extent that it is worth the trouble to watch a video of a chamber music performance in the first place, the primary feature is the ability to observe how the members of the ensemble engage with both each other and the music they are playing. When the visual signal is significantly out of whack with the audio, the virtue of having video in the first place is entirely lost.

That said, what one could see, regardless of what one was hearing, was disappointing. Most important was that there were few signs of eye contact among the players. Almost all of the time, each player was buried in her/his own score pages. Clearly, having a greater distance between the performers was a contributing factor, as were the outdoor conditions that required keeping those pages from blowing around arbitrarily. Finally, each performer was fitted with a microphone attached to her/his instrument, which clearly interfered with the normal physical practices of playing that instrument. Conditions could not have been more pessimal.

Finally, throughout the performance I found myself wondering about how much preparation time had been allocated. To be fair, San Francisco is very much a “chamber music town.” Under “normal conditions” there have always been abundant opportunities to listen to not only major visiting artists but also an abundant share of local talent covering the gamut from seasoned professionals to well-trained graduate students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Furthermore, chamber music is so important to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) musicians that they plan two concurrent seasons of programming; and those plans are in place at the same time that the plans for the SFS subscription concerts have been finalized. (That concurrence sometimes means that an artist performing with SFS may stick around for a few extra days to contribute to a chamber music concert.)

By contrast yesterday evening’s offering came across almost as an afterthought. Clearly, there have been few circumstances to play for audiences (physical or virtual). So one can appreciate an emergence of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “let’s put on a show” spirit. Nevertheless, when it comes to honoring the real motives behind such a show, Dvořák deserved better, as did anyone that takes listening seriously.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Florence Price Symphonies on Naxos


Portrait of Florence Price (colorized by Olga Shirnina) on the cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of Naxos of America)

For about a month I have been working my way through the new biography of Florence Price, The Heart of a Woman: The Life and Music of Florence B. Price by Rae Linda Brown. Unfortunately, Brown died before her manuscript was published as a book by the University of Illinois Press. Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. supervised the final editing of that manuscript prior to publication, and the book first appeared for sale on Amazon.com this past June 22 with Web pages for both hardcover and paperback editions.

I plan to write about this book on this site, and I have less than a dozen pages to go before completing it. However, I realize that my experiences of listening to Price’s music have been limited. My first encounter seems to have taken place in March of 2019, when I wrote about the Project W album released by Cedille Records, based on a project to explore the music of women composers planned by the Chicago Sinfonietta and its Music Director Mei-Ann Chen. During that same month, the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony, here in San Francisco, presented a performance of Price’s first symphony in E minor. (This followed up on a performance of the third symphony in C minor by the Oakland East Bay Symphony, which, unfortunately, I had not attended.) My other major source for listening has been pianist Lara Downes, who first included Price on her America Again album, released in October of 2016, and most recently released a series of four EP albums entitled Florence Price: Piano Discoveries.

Recently I realized that I could revisit Price’s first symphony through the Naxos American Classics series. The CD featured the world premiere recording of Price’s fourth symphony coupled with a performance of the first. John Jeter conducted concert performances by the Fort Smith Symphony at the ArcBest Performing Arts Center on May 13 and 14, 2018 in Fort Smith, Arkansas; and recordings of those performances were used for the Naxos album, which was released on December first of that same year.

Sadly, this recording is a testimony to the snail’s pace of the production of scholarly books. Brown died in 2017. As a result, she has little to say about the fourth symphony:

Price continued to write large-scale works during the 1940s and the 1950s: in addition to the Symphony No. 3, she composed the Symphony in D minor, which I assume to be her fourth symphony. The undated work is lost and there appear to have been no performances.

In the words of “Amazing Grace,” the symphony “once was lost but now is found.” Sadly, Brown never lived to account for this transition in her manuscript, let alone enjoy the opportunity of listening to that symphony.

Taken in its entirety, the album provides an excellent introduction to Price’s skill in writing extended multi-movement compositions for a large ensemble. It is hard to avoid recognizing the influences of Antonín Dvořák; but, of course, this is an account of music “from the new world” by someone that lived in that world. The other influence that is frequently cited is Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the English composer of mixed-race birth.

Nevertheless, Price has a much richer hand in working with her sources. On a smaller scale much of her effort went into arranging traditional spirituals. The fourth symphony begins with an example of how those efforts were escalated to a broader symphonic scale. The opening theme of the first movement takes “Wade in the Water” as a point of departure without explicitly trying to quote it or weave variations around it. Where Price takes a more explicit approach to her sources can be found in the scherzos of both the first and fourth symphonies, both of which are identified as “Juba Dance,” drawing upon a dance that originated in Charleston, South Carolina, through slaves brought to the United States from the Kingdom of Kongo.

That said, the rhetoric of both symphonies tends to be founded upon symphonic traditions from the late nineteenth century. Price was aware of what American composers were doing during the first half of the twentieth century. She even helped to promote some of them, such as John Alden Carpenter. Nevertheless, her approach to symphonic form finds its uniqueness from thematic material that relates back to African-American sources. As a result, there is a much richer sense of “Americanism” in her symphonic music than one ever encounters in even the most perceptive efforts by Dvořák.

An Anti-Republican National Convention

Last night the fourth annual season of the San Francisco International Piano Festival ventured out onto the “bleeding edge” with a program entitled #45miniatures Project: A Musical Protest. The program was the result of a “Call for Scores” initiated by pianist Nicholas Phillips and distributed through Facebook. The idea behind the invitation was that “composers were welcome to use anything related to our 45th President (tweets, speeches, etc.) as source material to create a miniature, or small collection of miniatures, for solo piano. These serve as commentary on, or reaction to, words, attitudes, policies, and general behavior that they find amusing, unacceptable, confusing, disturbing, and so on.” Last night Phillips played sixteen of the scores he had harvested in a live-streamed performance, whose video content has now been saved on a YouTube Web page. I suspect that the coincidence of this performance with last night’s Republican National Convention was entirely accidental, but there is no doubt that it was fortuitous.


One of Nicholas Phillips’ pre-recorded (and subtitled) selections (screen shot from the video being discussed)

It is hard to keep track of an hour’s worth of sixteen compositions, each distinctively unique in its own way, on the basis of a single viewing. Thus, I would like to begin by praising Phillips for producing one of the best conceived videos I have encountered since video-streaming became the most viable alternative to concert-going. Rather than a “live broadcast” of Phillips seated at a piano bouncing from one selection to the next, lounge-lizard style, Phillips pre-recorded the sixteen pieces on his program. This allowed him the flexibility to make sure he was representing each composition to the best of his abilities. Furthermore, each recording was post-processed to display the name of the composer and the title of the composition as a subtitle. Phillips still gave brief introductions for each of these videos, basically summarizing the intentions behind each composer; but those subtitles made sure that viewers were given a clear account of composer names and composition titles.

I must confess that only one of the composers was familiar to me. “Tweets of Orange Fear” was composed by Mark Mellits, but I have not yet heard enough to his music to determine whether his contribution was typical of his other work. The greater challenge for Phillips was presenting premiere performances of sixteen compositions without any “interventions of past familiarity.” For the most part, each work established its own unique identity. Nevertheless, I realized that cognitive fatigue was beginning to set in after about 45 minutes (an appropriate number, under the circumstances). However, persevering through the entire program to the final offering was not an undue strain, due to

both the style and the rhetoric across those sixteen selections. Ethan Wickman’s “Through a Glass, Darkly” was so intricately conceived that the second half consisted of the first half played in reverse, a technique best associated with the interlude music in the second act of Alban Berg’s Lulu. No one would compare the new work with Berg, but the idea of fashioning such a sophisticated structure to evoke a President who seems to free-associate his speech from one word to the next carried a distinctive irony. The only real disappointment was Brendan Kinsella’s “SAD!,” which required Phillips to deliver a text while playing; and the spoken account was barely audible.

Personally, I hope that Phillips will take the time to update the text description on his YouTube page. I, for one, would be interested in revisiting selections from the collection. The pieces are too short to be given separate videos. However, if Phillips were to provide a “table of contents” with the time-code of the beginning of each piece, he would allow those that enjoyed his project to return to it with a little more guidance through the entire hour of content.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Jazz for Brain Scientists

courtesy of Naxos of America

When I first learned about the album Yuko Mabuchi Plays Miles Davis, my curiosity was immediately piqued. Having spent almost a decade of my life at an “outpost” research laboratory in Palo Alto funded by a Japanese company, I quickly found more enthusiasm for jazz among my Japanese colleagues than I had encountered among Americans. Yarlung Records has provided an impressive platform for pianist Mabuchi and her trio, and it was hard to resist seeing what they would make of compositions that had been indelibly stamped with Davis’ unique approaches to creativity.

I quickly discovered that there was more to this album than I had anticipated. It turned out to be a concert recording taken from a performance in Cammileri Hall on the campus of the University of Southern California on April 25, 2018. Cammileri Hall, in turn, is in the building of the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI); and Mabuchi’s gig turned out to be the last in a two-year series of concerts inspired by Davis in response to the hanging of his 1988/89 painting in the Cammileri lobby. (The painting is reproduced in the booklet that accompanies Mabuchi’s album.) For the record, this is one of two USC research laboratories concerned with what pioneering researcher Warren Sturgis McCulloch liked to call “embodiments of mind.” The other is the Center for Neural Engineering, directed by Michael A. Arbib. BCI is led by Antonio and Helen Damasio, the former having written several perceptive books for lay readers on the relationship between brain and mind.

With all that as context, I found it hard to silence Davis’ own gravelly voice in the back of my head saying, “Jazz ain’t brain science, man!” Indeed, between the history of cognitive psychology and the various “wet brain” specialties, there is a long history behind trying to study “the mind behind the musical ear,” a phrase which happens to be the title of an excellent book by Jeanne Bamberger that was first published by Harvard University Press in 1991. During my tenure with Examiner.com, I wrote about a book entitled Music, Language, and the Brain by Aniruddh D. Patel, a Senior Fellow at The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego; and reading that book was not a particularly satisfying experience.

By way of a sidebar, I would like to observe that, when that San Diego campus first opened, its Director, Gerald Edelman, arranged a “launch seminar,” which included, as “entertainment,” a recital by the Juilliard String Quartet. It was on that occasion that I first met Antonio Damasio; and I have to wonder whether “jazz at USC” was his response to “chamber music in San Diego!” If nothing else, the Cammileri concerts are a sign that brain scientists are still as occupied with music as they were two decades ago.

Where the music itself is concerned, the other members of Mabuchi’s trio on this new album are Del Atkins on bass and Bobby Breton on drums. They are joined by trumpeter JJ Kirkpatrick. I am afraid that Kirkpatrick was the weak link in this chain. I can appreciate that he was determined not to “channel” Davis through his own solo work; but he never seemed to find a distinctive voice of his own to add to the trio players. I was more interested in listening to Mabuchi and what she could do with not only Davis’ thematic inventiveness but also the impact of those themes on the pianist Bill Evans. Indeed, Mabuchi’s creative skills advanced beyond Davis’ legacy to take on three original tracks on the album, culminating in a concluding track entitled “Missing Miles.”

Ultimately, what I most appreciated was that Mabuchi provided me with a new context for listening to the five Davis “classics” included in her recital: “All Blues,” “Blue in Green,” “Milestones,” “So What,” and “Nardis.” For the record (so to speak), “So What” is the longest track on the album; and other Davis motifs creep in during its performance. The most recognizable of those motifs comes from “Four;” and it is introduced at the end of Kirkpatrick’s opening solo. A healthier share of that kind of free-association inventiveness would have been appreciated.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Clarinetist Eban Joins ASQ for Familiar Quintets

The members of the Alexander String Quartet: Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, Paul Yarbrough, and Sandy Wilson (photograph by Rory Earnshaw, from the ASQ Web site)

At the end of this past June, Foghorn Classics released its latest album of the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), consisting of violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. Readers that keep up with ASQ news probably know by now that Yarbrough has retired, and the violist is now David Samuel. However, this new recording is based on a a recital that ASQ gave at the end of September, 2013. The recital was the first free concert in the 58th season of the Morrison Artists Series at San Francisco State University.

The recital featured clarinetist Eli Eban as guest artist in performances of the best-known quintets for clarinet and string quartet, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 581 in A major and Johannes Brahms’ Opus 115 in B minor. Those selections also served as the program for the new album (with the same clarinetist). Those familiar with these quintets will appreciate that this is an album of contrasts. K. 581 makes it clear that Mozart did not have to be sitting behind a piano keyboard to play the role of the show-off kid (even if Mozart had advanced to his thirties by the time he wrote the quintet). Mozart clearly appreciated the widely different sonorities associated with the clarinet’s different measures. By exploiting those differences, the clarinet, itself, emerged as a show-off kid in the face of the four string players.

Opus 115, on the other hand, was a product of Brahms’ melancholia. He had decided to give up composing. However, he was so impressed by the talent of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld that his creative juices began to flow again. Opus 115 was composed in 1891, following close on the heels of the Opus 114 trio for clarinet, cello, and piano in A minor. These would then be followed in 1894 by the Opus 120 set of two sonatas for clarinet and piano in F minor and E-flat major, respectively.

Both ASQ and Eban provide technically skilled accounts of both of these quintets on this new recording. However, while they consistently do justice to all of the marks on paper, one would be hard pressed to recognize the undercurrent of emotional dispositions behind either of these two performances. Given that there are numerous recordings of both quintets involving a wide variety of interpretative performances, I found myself disappointed that all of the technical polish had not been applied to more expressive foundations. So many ASQ performances have so much to say about the music being performed that it was hard to avoid coming away with the feeling that both Mozart and Brahms deserved better.

The Bleeding Edge: 8/24/2020

Readers probably noticed the absence of a Bleeding Edge column last week. Some weeks are quieter than others. This week is slightly busier, but some of the activity involves revisiting archival material. Events that have already been reported are those taking place throughout this week as part of the San Francisco International Piano Festival (SFIPF).

The most adventurous of these will be Nicholas Phillips Presents #45 Miniatures Project: A Musical Protest. Phillips initiated a “Call for Scores” through Facebook. As described on the Festival events Web page, Phillips invited composers “to use anything related to our 45th President (tweets, speeches, etc.) as source material to create a miniature, or small collection of miniatures, for solo piano. These serve as commentary on, or reaction to, words, attitudes, policies, and general behavior that they find amusing, unacceptable, confusing, disturbing, and so on.” Phillips will present his results in a live-streamed performance that will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, August 25. A YouTube Web page has already been created as the streaming site. Hopefully, the program of the works that Phillips will perform will be embedded on that Web page (but Phillips may simply announce each composition before playing it).

There are also two other programs that will be “synthesized” from archival YouTube sources. The first of these is a solo “recital” by Eunmi Ko entitled Night Music. The program consists of two video sources that were uploaded to YouTube on different occasions. The first half of the program was uploaded this past June 15; and it features “Nocturne after Stella by Starlight,” recently composed for Ko by John Liberatore. This portion of the program will begin with David Liptak’s “Star Light” and will conclude with “carambola” from Tyler Kline’s Orchard collection of miniatures, which was given its first performance by Ko on October 24, 2018. The program will also include Frédéric Chopin’s very first nocturne composition, the first of the three Opus 9 pieces, written in the key of B-flat minor. The second half of the program, uploaded on October 7, 2019, will be devoted entirely to Liptak’s nine-movement Constellations suite, each movement named for a constellation in the night sky that is not part of the zodiac. Both of these videos may be viewed at any time convenient to the viewer; but the “recital” has been “scheduled” for tonight, August 24, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Deal with it as you wish.

The other “synthesized” concert will revisit the program that Bobby Mitchell performed for the third annual SFIPF season. This took place almost exactly a year ago when Mitchell played at The Freight and Salvage in Berkeley on August 16, 2019. He played a single composition slightly longer than an hour in duration, the Songs of Insurrection collection by Frederic Rzewski. The video recording of this performance was uploaded to YouTube this past January 6 and can be viewed at any time. This “recital” has been “scheduled” for this coming Thursday, August 27, again at 7:30 p.m.

The one event that is not part of SFIPF will be the next live-stream from Bird & Beckett Books and Records. This will be a jazz duo gig, bringing keyboardist Scott R. Looney together with drummer André Custodio. This performance will be live-streamed through YouTube, and the Web page for the streaming site has already been created. The program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 28, and will last for about 90 minutes. There will be no charge for admission, but donations will be appreciated. Bird & Beckett has created a Web page through which online donations may be made.

Ninth California Andriasov Festival at O1C

Iosif and Arshak Andriasov (from the Old First Concerts event page for yesterday’s performance)

For as long as I have been following Victor Romasevich’s work as a violinist, I have been aware of his advocacy of the music of Iosif Andriasov and his son Arshak. Romasevich had studied both violin and viola with Iosif; and, when he took over the leadership of the Jupiter Chamber Players in 2002, he worked with his new colleagues to advance that advocacy. My primary encounters with Jupiter and the music of the two Andriasovs has been through Old First Concerts (O1C) programming. Yesterday afternoon O1C hosted the Jupiter’s latest program, named as the ninth California Andriasov Festival. Romasevich was joined by Michael Jones on second violin, Stephen Levintow on viola, and Paul Rhodes on cello. The program was live-streamed from Old First Presbyterian Church and is now available as a YouTube video.

The program provided Romasevich with the opportunity to display a new talent. He took to the piano keyboard to provide accompaniment for three of Iosif’s duo compositions. In “order of appearance,” these were for viola, violin, and cello. The first of these, the Opus 30 “Meditation,” was originally composed for a cappella choir and subsequently arranged for viola and piano. The Opus 4 “Musical Sketch” was originally composed for flute and piano, and Iosif subsequently transcribed the flute part for violin. The Opus 24 “Musical Sketch” began as concertante music for oboe and chamber orchestra; and, in this case, the version for cello and piano was arranged by Arshak. Arshak was also represented on the program by his Opus 7 piece for string quartet; and Jupiter played Iosif’s Opus 1 quartet and his Opus 32, entitled “The Spring.”

The program also featured quartet music by Alexander Glazunov composed in memory of Mitrofan Petrovich Belyayev. Belyayev was the son of a rich timber merchant and an avid amateur musician. He channeled his share of the family wealth into establishing a music publishing house in 1885, which provided a platform for 35 Russian composers, one of whom was Glazunov. After his death (in either December of 1903 or January of 1904 depending on the calendar being used), Glazunov composed his Opus 105 elegy for string quartet as a memorial gesture. He also contributed the final movement of a string quartet whose previous movements were by three other Belyayev composers: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Anatoly Lyadov, and Alexander Borodin. Each of the four movements used the “pitch spelling” B-la-F as a motif.

The program began with Dmitri Shostakovich’s earliest published work for string quartet. His Opus 36 consisted of two short arrangements of previously-composed music. The “Elegy” is taken from an aria sung by the protagonist of Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The “Polka” involves one of the composer’s best-known short pieces, originally composed for the satirical ballet The Golden Age.

All of this made for an impressively diverse repertoire. All of the performances were satisfying, and Romasevich also provided some context by reading brief passages from Iosif’s diary. Remarkably, the entire program fit into the duration of about one hour. It may be worth noting that the players followed the usual conventions for quartet seating, since eye contact was a critical factor in their performance. This may have put a bit of a strain on proper social distancing, but all four of the players wore masks.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

A New Perspective on Django Reinhardt

Guitarist Rez Abbasi (photograph by John Rogers, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

This Friday Whirlwind Recordings will release the latest album of guitarist Rez Abbasi. To call Abbasi a “jazz guitarist” would be to sell him short. While he has made a name for himself in the New York acoustic jazz scene, his approaches to making music are wide, with the Qawwali and Indian Classical traditions of South Asia on the one hand and the heady fusion sounds of the Seventies on the other. The title of the new album is Django-shift; and, as one might expect, Abbasi has turned his attention to another jazz guitarist, the iconic Django Reinhardt. As expected, Amazon.com has created a Web page to process pre-orders of this new album.

The tracks on this album resulted from a project that began in 2019, when The Freight and Salvage, based in Berkeley, commissioned Abbasi to develop and present a Reinhardt project. Those familiar with Reinhardt know that the lion’s share of his repertoire, particularly when he performed with the Quintette du Hot Club de France in Paris, were the tunes of others.  When his name is listed as a composer, it usually in partnership with his Quintette colleague, the violinist Stephane Grappelli. However, Abbasi was able to listen to the full catalog of Reinhardt originals, seven of which were selected for recording on Django-shift, along with two familiar standards, Iosif Ivanovici’s “Waves of the Danube” (better known as “The Anniversary Song,” the title given by Al Jolson when he added words to the tune) and Kurt Weill’s “September Song.” Abbasi recorded these nine tracks with a trio that included Michael Sarin on drums and keyboardist Neil Alexander playing organ, electronics, and synthesizers.

Those that spend a lot of time listening to Quintette tracks are likely to find any of Abbasi’s references to Reinhardt to be purely coincidental. Where Reinhardt was “hot,” Abbasi plays it cool, with the “temperature” modulated primarily by Sarin’s drumming. Also Abbasi’s eclecticism leads him quite some distance from the Parisian club scene of the Thirties. The listener is more likely to encounter “prime number rhythms,” rather than a good old fashioned back-beat. Also, in preparing background material for the press, Abbasi confessed that, while he was preparing his material for The Freight, he was deeply immersed in Robin D. G. Kelley’s comprehensive biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.

As a result, Django-shift is far from a retrospective examination of Reinhardt’s style and repertoire. Rather, it thrusts seven of the originals from that repertoire joyously into the immediate present. If I want to listen to “traditional Reinhardt,” I have plenty of tracks to satisfy my cravings. Abbasi was commissioned to contribute to the Django Festival that the Freight was planning to host, and he decided that a 21st-century gig should distinguish itself from nostalgia for the Thirties. For my part, I am more than satisfied with the way in which Abbasi chose to put a personal stamp on retrospective inspiration.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Solo Piano Recital from St. Mary’s Music Associate

Earlier this week The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin posted the twelfth video in its St. Mary’s Music Notes series, curated by Eric Choate, the church’s Director of Music. The half-hour program was a solo piano performance by Music Associate Maria Perkins, which took place at her home. The program consisted of five selections, all with French titles, based on the general theme of gardens.

The French composers represented on the program were Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Lili Boulanger. There was also a selection by Choate that carried a French title and seems to have been inspired by a trip to France that he took with his new wife, Ellen Leslie. Entitled “Dans un Jardin de Tournesols (in a sunflower garden) the music was presented to her as a first anniversary gift. One can appreciate Choate’s awareness of French influences in creating this composition, but one can also appreciate the techniques through which those influences were transformed into his own original voice. Perkins’ execution left me (and, hopefully, others) looking forward to revisiting this music at some time in the near future.

Marla Perkins explaining “Pagodes” before beginning her performance (screen shot from the video being discussed)

The composer receiving the most attention was Debussy. Perkins played two of the three compositions in his Estampes (prints) collection, “Pagodes” (pagodas) and “Jardins sous la pluie” (gardens in the rain). Sadly, while Perkins discussed the second of these in vivid and informative detail, she never got around to naming the title (or, for that matter, the composer). Nevertheless, these pieces are likely to have been familiar to many listeners. More important is that both movements are products of highly elaborate textures of polyphonic voices, and Perkins allowed those textures to present themselves through meticulous and expressive keyboard work.

The Ravel selection was “Jeux d’eau” (fountains); and the video included images of several fountains, most likely from different European venues. Those images reinforced the descriptive denotational qualities of the music itself, thus guiding the attentive listener through Ravel’s own distinctive approaches to expression. Ravel was clearly aware of Debussy’s talents in denotation through music, but “Jeux d’eau” illustrates the extent which which Ravel developed his own unique qualities.

The least familiar work on the program was Boulanger’s “D’un Jardin Clair.” Perkins translated this as “in a clear garden;” but more appropriate would be that the music served as a connotation of such a garden. Once again, Perkins’ performance was reinforced by garden photographs. As was the case with the other selections on the program, texture was the primary connotative element of the performance. However, because few listeners have encountered Boulanger’s music, the elements of connotation were probably not as easily grasped is they were in the selections by Debussy and Ravel.

Hamelin Takes on Excesses of Opera Music

courtesy of PIAS

This coming Friday Hyperion Records will release the latest album of solo piano performances by Marc-André Hamelin. Hamelin is known for his adventurous approaches to repertoire, and the title of his new album is Liszt & Thalberg: Opera transcriptions & fantasies. Having risen to the many challenges posed by twentieth-century composers, Hamelin is now taking on the virtuoso excesses of the nineteenth. As usual, Amazon.com has a Web page for pre-orders of this new release.

The “main attraction” of the album may be described as the most notorious example of music composed by a committee. “Hexameron” was commissioned by Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso, who persuaded Franz Liszt to prepare a theme-and-variations composition in which each of six variations was written by a different composer. (The title was a reference to the six days of creation from the Book of Genesis.) The theme was “Suoni la tromba” (sound the trumpet), also known as the “March of the Puritans,” from Vincenzo Bellini’s popular opera I puritani (the Puritans). Liszt provided the basic framework: a flamboyant introduction, a vigorous statement of the theme, a “Molto vivace quasi prestissimo” finale, the second variation, and some interstitial material after five additional variations had been composed. The composers of the other five variations were, in “order of appearance,” Sigismond Thalberg, Johann Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny, and Frédéric Chopin.

The last time I wrote about this music (for Examiner.com) I speculated that “Princess Belgiojoso envisaged some form of tag-team approach that would allow each composer to perform the music he had written.” This was supposed to take place at a benefit concert for the poor on March 31, 1937; but the score had not been completed in time for that event. It is unclear whether the music was ever performed during Liszt’s lifetime; but he published “Hexameron,” listing all of the contributing composers on the title page. He subsequently arranged the work for piano and orchestra.

As if “Hexameron” were not excessive enough in either its solo or orchestral versions, there is manuscript evidence that Liszt really wanted a performance for six pianos and orchestra. As a result, a full score for these resources was prepared by Robert Linn. By way of disclaimer, I should note that, prior to listening to Hamelin’s solo performance of this composition, I had only experienced Linn’s version, which, ironically, I had encountered twice.

The first was a radio broadcast of the score’s first performance in October of 1971. Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he was Assistant Conductor, and the participating pianists were Raymond Lewenthal (in the “role” of Liszt), followed by Gilbert Kalish, Marilyn Neeley, John Atkins, Ilana Vered, and Antonio Barbosa. Then, during his tenure with the San Francisco Symphony, MTT decided that the celebration of his 70th birthday should include a “return visit” to “Hexameron.” The concert took place on January 15, 2015 at Davies Symphony Hall. Teddy Abrams conducted to allow MTT to assume that “role” of Liszt. The other participating pianists, again in order of appearance, were Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Jeremy Denk, Yuja Wang, Hamelin, and Emanuel Ax.

I have been told that the Japanese have a famous joke that has been around for centuries. The joke goes that there are two kinds of fools in the world. The first is the fool that has never climbed Mount Fuji. The second is the fool that has climbed Fuji twice. I suppose the only thing that separates me from that second kind of fool is that my second encounter with “Hexameron” took place in the concert hall, rather than mediated by a radio broadcast. Whether the joke applies to MTT is left as an exercise for the reader!

(Another joke is that Leonard Bernstein was known for conducting both Messiah and The Creation in an autobiographical style. MTT benefitted from Bernstein’s mentorship. Draw your own conclusions!)

In the context of the Japanese joke, Hamelin might be left “off the hook” for playing only one of the variations in 2015. However, my guess is that the appearance of his “Hexameron” recording probably aligned with his adding the work to his recital repertoire. On the other hand, given that I listened to this recording several times before beginning my writing, I probably am now up to my neck as a “second-category fool!”

On the other hand bel canto opera was a “mother lode” of entertainment during the nineteenth century, owing as much to ruthless promoters as to flamboyant vocalists. In the twentieth century things were not that different where performers like Mick Jagger were involved. Listening to piano arrangements of the bel canto repertoire was the next best thing to being in the opera house. Indeed, for many, it was probably better, since the listener was spared from having to sit through the far less interesting parts of the opera.

Liszt certainly knew how to mine that mother lode. On Hamelin’s new album one can listen to him “in action” for both Ernani and Norma, as well as I puritani. Furthermore, because “Hexameron” had not been completed in time for Princess Belgiojoso’s salon, she offered, instead, a piano “duel” between Liszt and Thalberg. Thus, in addition to his contribution to “Hexameron,” Thalberg is represented on Hamelin’s album by reflections on Don Pasquale and Mosè in Egitto (the original Italian version of Rossini’s Moses opera).

As a result, Hamelin’s recording is not simply an indulgence in the excesses of music-making during the nineteenth century. Rather, it provides a generous sampling of what served to entertain the audiences of that century, not only through the patronage of royalty but also through the rising practices of turning the bourgeoisie into an income stream. There should therefore be no surprise in acknowledging that both composers and pianists picked up on following the lead of Louis-Désiré Véron, the “prime mover” that turned the Paris Opera into a profit-making business. Both Liszt and Thalberg knew how to keep their croissants buttered, and Hamelin has provided generous insights into their respective strategies.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Another Disappointing Stepanova Project

Born in Belarus and now living in the United States, pianist Liza Stepanova made her recording debut in January of 2018 with the release of her solo album Tones & Colors. In writing about that offering, I described it as a “concept project,” whose “concept” involved an exploration of “the intersection of art and music” (that quotation taken from the Web page she created for this album). After reading everything she had written about her project, I found listening to her tracks more than a little disappointing and had no qualms in writing about my disappointment.

courtesy of Naxos of America

One week from today Navona Records will release Stepanova’s second album, entitled E Pluribus Unum. As usual, Amazon.com has created a Web page for processing pre-orders, which also includes a useful summary description of the album. It will not take long for those taking the trouble to read that description to recognize that this is another concept project. Here are the key sentences from that Amazon.com Web page:

Born out of the political climate of 2017, E PLURIBUS UNUM is an artistic response to the immigration policies implemented by the American government around that time. Stepanova devised a program featuring American composers with immigrant backgrounds, and by doing so she offers a small glimpse of the immense contributions they make to American musical life. The colorful mosaic of E PLURIBUS UNUM does just that, in music that reflects the composers roots and is an embodiment of the motto E Pluribus Unum Out of many, one.

The album comes with extensive program notes. Stepanova presents the works of nine composers (see the above image of the album cover), eight of whom provided one-paragraph accounts of the ideas behind their respective efforts. (The one exception is the composer Lera Auerbach, whose paragraph is written by Stepanova herself.) I found myself reflecting on my favorite couplet from the libretto by Eric Crozier for Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring:

Country virgins, if there be such,
Think too little and see too much.

This is a case of composers saying too much in the paragraphs they provided for music that gives the impression of having little more than superficial thought behind it.

The opening Auerbach track emerges as the best exception to that rule. “An Old Photograph from the Grandparents’ Childhood” is a movement from her cycle Scenes from Childhood, which is less than 90 seconds in duration. Yet her sensitivity to sonority transforms simple melodic material into an intensely personal reflection. If that reflection resonated with Stepanova’s own thoughts, then more power to both of them.

Similar impact is not encountered on this album until the final track (a little over six minutes in duration) by Gabriela Lena Frank, the first of the pieces entitled “Karnavalito.” In her paragraph for the program notes, Frank acknowledges “stylistic nods to the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, a music hero of mine.” Frank’s ability to harness Bartók’s techniques and apply them to the spirit (if not the flesh) of Peruvian sources is engagingly impressive, leaving me curious about any other “Karnavalito” compositions.

Another quote comes to mind that may summarize my overall impressions of Stepanova’s project-based approaches. Back when I was in high school, the CBS television network gave the green light to a ballet-for-television project. The title of the ballet was “The Flood.” George Balanchine created the choreography, and the music was composed by Igor Stravinsky. Robert Craft compiled an English-language libretto that interleaved the Book of Genesis with texts from the English mystery plays associated with both York and Chester. (The score also included a choral setting of the “Te Deum” hymn.) Before the performance (which was broadcast on “live” television), Stravinsky addressed the audience in halting English, concluding with the sentence:

I do not want to tell you more, I only want to play you more.

For all of Stepanova’s impressive keyboard technique, her new album serves up too much telling and not enough playing.