Wednesday, August 5, 2020

SFP Video Previews: Lawrence Brownlee

This past March President Melanie Smith released the first announcement of the 2020–21 San Francisco Performances (SFP) season, the 41st annual offering. Usually, this would be the time of year when I would be writing articles summarizing the offerings in the different series of programs available for subscription, sorted according to different genre categories. For now, however, I am keeping those previews on hold until I know more about how the schedule of events will be impacted by shelter-in-place conditions in general and the shutdown of all War Memorial performance venues in particular.

That said, SFP has created its own resource for previewing the performers scheduled for the coming season. There is now a “gallery” Web page on which SFP has collected video clips of all those performers. Indeed, when two or more individual performers are sharing a performance, each has been given his/her own video clip. My current intention is to provide “vignettes” based on these videos while waiting for further information on how the performances themselves will be presented.

The first of these vignettes will discuss tenor Lawrence Brownlee, whose recital in the Art of Song Series has been planned to be presented in conjunction with the 41st Gala. His video was uploaded to YouTube on October 7, 2013 by NPR Music as part of their Tiny Desk Concert series. Brownlee made his San Francisco recital debut on March 31, 2018 in the third of the four Vocal Series SFP concerts. His San Francisco debut was made in the fall of 2016 when San Francisco Opera presented Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

Brownlee’s recital debut presented an imaginative coupling of song cycles. The first half of the program consisted entirely of Robert Schumann’s Opus 48 Dichterliebe (a poet’s love), composed in 1840. This was followed in the second half by Cycles Of My Being, composed by Tyshawn Sorey setting texts by Terrance Hayes. Composed for Brownlee, the cycle was written to explore the experiences of living as a black man in America and was premiered in February of 2018.

The program that Brownlee had prepared for his return to San Francisco was “completely different” from his past offerings. Crooners was conceived as a full-evening homage to the legendary popular vocalists from the Fifties and Sixties. (The encore for his SFP debut was inspired by Nat King Cole.) Similarly, his Tiny Desk visit took its own unique approach to genre. The program consisted entirely of three spirituals, “There Is A Balm in Gilead,” “All Night, All Day,” and “Come By Here,” all in impressive arrangements by Damien Sneed for voice and piano, the latter played by Justina Lee.

Sneed’s arrangements consistently explored approaches to synthesizing the rhetorical approaches to singing spirituals with jazz-influenced piano accompaniment. This allowed Lee to explore polyphonic elaborations on a basic tune that opened the music into a broader scope without ever conflicting with Brownlee’s fidelity to the tunes themselves. Indeed, every now and then Lee could be heard as venturing into stride rhetoric with the same abandon that could be found in Brownlee’s vocal delivery.

There was also an intensely personal approach to “All Night, All Day,” whose text refers to the band of angels keeping watch on the singer. When this performance was recorded, Brownlee had a three-year-old son, Caleb, who had just been diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder. As a result Brownlee renamed the tune “Caleb’s Song,” bringing a new dimension of poignancy to his delivery. This was particularly evident in his scrupulous control of dynamic levels with a clear sense of where he wanted the climax to register.

Those of my generation probably detected the “family resemblance” of “Come By Here” to “Kumbaya.” This was no coincidence. The tune most likely originated in the Gullah culture of enslaved African Americans in the islands off of South Carolina and Georgia. The “Come By Here” text can be traced back to a 1926 recording by “H. Wylie,” which was subsequently transcribed by Jennifer Cutting:

public domain

These days “Kumbaya” has become its own insipid parody. (I can imagine Joan Baez lying awake at night trying to get the damned thing out of her head.) “Come By Here,” on the other hand, is a pull-out-all-the-stops joyous spiritual. The camera work suggests that Lee was reading notation, but she delivered a throughly unabashed account of that notation that perfectly complemented Brownlee’s spirited delivery.

Harrison House to Live Stream Cahill Recital

Those familiar with the life of Lou Harrison probably know that he spent the better part of his mature life with his partner, William Colvig, in Aptos, California. Much of their time together was occupied with designing and constructing instruments suitable for the music that Harrison was composing. Following Colvig’s death, Harrison, who was 84 at the time, decided to build his own dream home. He purchased land in Joshua Tree, California; and In 2002, with the help of many friends, he built a straw bale house of his own design sealed with adobe. Footage of the construction process was included in Eva Soltes’ documentary Lou Harrison: A World of Music. The heart of the structure was a vaulted great room proportionately designed for the performance of music. The Harrison House Music, Arts & Ecology Web site describes this as Harrison’s “last and finest instrument:”

from the Harrison House Music, Arts & Ecology “About” Web page

That Web site now hosts a residency and performance program for international artists and environmental activists. The program was launched in 2006, about three years after Harrison’s death. One of the current residents is pianist Sarah Cahill, and her residency will include a free recital that will be live-streamed.

Cahill’s program will include the premiere performance of the original version of Harrison’s serenade, composed in 1943. Her program will begin with Harrison’s third cembalo sonata, composed in the same year. Other Harrison compositions will include his 1948 “Homage to Milhaud,” the 1977 waltz he dedicated to Evelyn Hinrichsen, and “Tandy’s Tango,” composed in 1992. Cahill will also use her program continue to explore the extensive repertoire of compositions by Mamoru Fujieda collected under the title Patterns of Plants. This is an ongoing project of collections of pieces all entitled “Pattern,” which began in 1995. Cahill will play selections from the seventh collection (1997), the twelfth (1999), the thirteenth (2003), and the nineteenth (2010). (That last collection, which Fujieda began in 2008, has the title The Olive Branch Speaks.) The program will also include four pieces by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a 96-year-old Ethiopian nun.

This recital will begin at 10 a.m. on Sunday, August 9. (The early time should facilitate reception for much of a worldwide audience.) The video stream will be enabled through the Harrison House Web site. Details have not yet been announced, but the home page for that site is currently hosting two videos. Most likely a new Vimeo frame will be created on that page for viewing the live-stream.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Two New St. Mary’s Music Notes Videos

A little under two weeks ago, this site presented its first account of a video in the St. Mary’s Music Notes series. This series was conceived by Eric Choate, Director of Music at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin. In the video he was seen accompanying soprano Ellen Leslie at the piano. The program, the ninth in the series, was only ten minutes in duration, presenting four songs by Déodat de Séverac. Since that release, two more videos have been added to the series.

The tenth video is a lecture-demonstration presented by bass Jess Perry, who sings regularly at St. Mary’s services. (He is also a member of both the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale and the San Francisco Opera Chorus and was last seen on this site for his role in organizing communal singing during shelter-in-place at the Opera Plaza condominium.) The topic was the Exsultet (rejoice) chant, which is sung during the Easter Vigil. The demonstration portion did not present the entire chant, which is particularly lengthy. Rather, Perry discussed the different overall segments, performing an example of each of them. All of those performances took place with the visual display of the square notation of the neumes of Gregorian chant on a four-line staff with the earliest form of a C clef:

The result was a thoroughly engaging introduction to music that has been part of religious services for about the last 2000 years.

The eleventh video presented another aspect of Choate’s musical contributions to St. Mary’s. The video served as the “virtual premiere” of his composition “Beloved, Let Us Love,” a four-part a cappella setting of verses from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Here, again, the performance was supplemented by the (now contemporary) notation of the score. This would probably enhance the experience of those familiar with music notation, since Choate commands a highly inventive approach to the interleaving of polyphonic voices. The tempo marking is “Calm and expressive,” which could not be a better designation of the engaging rhetoric of Choate’s inventive skills.

Monday, August 3, 2020

MetLiveArts Makes a Mess of Thomson Opera

This past February the expansive space of the Charles Engelhard Court of the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted four evening performances of the opera The Mother of Us All. This was the second and last partnership of composer Virgil Thomson providing music for a libretto by Gertrude Stein. This was not a partnership in the sense of their previous opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, because Stein died in July of 1946, only a few months after she had sent her libretto to Thomson.

The production was the result of another rich partnership, this one bringing MetLiveArts together with the Juilliard School (for the vocalists) and the New York Philharmonic (for the instrumentalists). Stein’s libretto comes close to requiring a “cast of thousands;” and, to judge by the creative and design team, an equally large mass of individuals was involved in bringing about the performance of the opera itself. Performances took place in the evening because the windows of the Engelhard Court were too vast to be effectively curtained.

Susan B. Anthony (Felicia Moore, right) with Gertrude S. (Libby Sokolowski) (screen shot from the video being discussed)

The basic narrative of Mother of Us All is straightforward. The major character is Susan B. Anthony (soprano Felicia Moore); and the libretto is a chronicle of the women’s suffrage movement that plays fast and loose with the basic historical facts. Anthony is surrounded by a cast that includes those from the distant past (such as President John Adams) and the future (the roles identified as “Gertrude S.” and “Virgil T.”). The text itself is representative of Stein’s delight in wordplay, often taking a phrase and repeating it with a stream of subtle changes in inflection.

Four months ago a video of this production was uploaded to YouTube. The video provided subtitles, which were a significant aid in following Stein’s text. On the basis of the camera angles of the staging, I suspect that those titles may not have been available to the audiences in the Engelhard Court. Even if they were, the staging itself was so cluttered with anarchic imagery that it seems unlikely that anyone at one of those performances would be able to focus on anything. The whole affair emerged as a circus conceived by producers that seemed to have felt great nostalgia for The Living Theatre. The good news is that Moore and many of the other vocalists sang with enough clarity to cut through all of that nonsensical staging. Sadly, the chorus was distributed across the entirety of the Court, meaning that much of the choral work was barely audible.

There is a tendency to dismiss the libretto as Stein’s last gasp of nonsense verse. This seems to have been the opinion of the production team, but even they could not prevent the emergence of semantic clarity that could catch the viewer unawares. This is particularly true of a monologue given to Anthony very early in the second scene of the second act:

Yes but, what is man, what are men, what are they. I do not say that they haven’t kind hearts, if I fall down in a faint, they will rush to pick me up, if my house is on fire, they will rush in to put the fire out and help me, yes they have kind hearts but they are afraid, afraid, they are afraid. They fear women, they fear each other, they fear their neighbor, they fear other countries and then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other, and when they crowd together and follow each other they are brutes, like animals who stampede, and so they have written in the name male into the United States constitution, because they are afraid of black men because they are afraid of women, because they are afraid, afraid. Men are afraid.

Moore’s delivery of that text was, without a doubt, “worth the price of admission” (which was pretty steep for those attending one of the performances).

Andrew Lloyd Webber Has a Reality Moment?

This just in from SyFyWire:

Finally, after seemingly everyone and their furry feline got catty over the oddball CGI adaptation of famed musical Cats, the man behind the original is coughing up a hairball in the film’s general direction.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, speaking to The Sunday Times (via Deadline), had some harsh words — and interesting logic — for the film flop. “The problem with the film was that Tom Hooper decided that he didn’t want anybody involved in it who was involved in the original show,” Webber said. “The whole thing was ridiculous.”

Has Webber had a major breakthrough? Might he extrapolate his reasoning to admit that the original show was just as ridiculous. Enquiring minds want to know!

The Bleeding Edge: 8/3/2020

Poster design for the program being announced (from the C4NM event page)

According to my records, I have not written a Bleeding Edge column since June 22. The fact is that the primary venue for adventurous activity has been the Center for New Music (C4NM); and, for the most part, I have received word of live-stream offerings directly from C4NM itself prior to any announcement on the BayImproviser Calendar. Today, however (probably because it is the beginning of the month), I received word through BayImproviser for what may be the only C4NM recital in August.

The recitalist will be Cornelius Boots, who was featured in a live-streamed recital for Old First Concerts at the end of the month of June. Boots plays all sizes of shakuhachi, the traditional Japanese end-blown flute; and he specializes in the taimu (bass) size of the instrument. However, his repertoire is far from traditional Japanese. Those traditional influences are complemented by Boots’ previous experiences in advanced jazz and roots sources, such as old gospel and rural blues. (Note that a pun comes into play here, since the shakuhachi is made from the root end of a bamboo stalk.)

C4NM is now selling tickets for its live-streamed events. This particular concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, August 7. All tickets must be purchased no lated that 45 minutes prior to showtime (6:45 p.m. this coming Friday). General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for students and C4NM members. As in the past, tickets can be purchased through a Vendini event page. At 7 p.m. all ticket-holders will receive electronic mail with a link to the YouTube video site, which will present the streaming of the concert. Further information can be found on the C4NM event page for this concert.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Karajan on Decca: Puccini++

As was observed this past Wednesday, coverage of The Complete Decca Recordings anthology of performances by conductor Herbert von Karajan will now conclude with an account of the three most-frequently performed operas of Giacomo Puccini, La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly. Each of these three albums features a “powerhouse” coupling of soprano and tenor. In La bohème and Butterfly, that coupling consists of Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti, respectively. The role of Floria Tosca, on the other hand, is sung by Leontyne Price with Giuseppe Di Stefano as her Mario Cavaradossi. Price also sings on what amounts to a “bonus album” in the collection, Christmas with Leontyne Price.

I should probably “come clean” by admitting that I was never a big Pavarotti fan, primarily because, when he was in his prime, I had little interest in his repertoire. That said, I have to admit that, for the most part, his excesses are kept in check in his two Puccini appearances. I suspect that Karajan played the strongest role in these results. While he is never shy when it comes to “pulling out all the stops” for the most intense episodes, he takes a disciplined approach to keeping his dynamics in check over the course of the entire opera.

Original 1904 poster showing the tragic conclusion of Madama Butterfly (by Adolfo Hohenstein, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Karajan may well be at his best throughout the second act of La bohème in the Latin Quarter, over the course of which everything seems to be happening at once. He knows just the right way to couple the rich polyphony of Puccini’s score with the polyphony of activity in the libretto, with a particularly high point when Musetta (Elizabeth Harwood) sings “Quando me’n vo’” (when I go along, better known as “Musetta’s waltz”). On the other hand I must confess that I find Butterfly more squirm-inducing every time I encounter it, particularly in this time of avoiding derogatory cultural stereotypes. I have nothing but loathing for B.F. Pinkerton; and, while Freni does her best to present Cio-Cio-san as more than a mere stereotype, I spent most of my time with this recording wishing that she were singing another opera.

Balancing levels of intensity is particularly challenging in Tosca, which roars its way through the opening measures and offers few episodes of quietude. In that context I have to say that Karajan delivers one of the best-managed accounts of managing the roller coaster dynamics of this opera. Both Price and Di Stefano are consistently attentive to Karajan’s management of both tempo and dynamic levels. Even Giuseppe Taddei’s account of Baron Scarpia is delivered with an intensity that gets beyond the “bad guy” clichés.

Speaking of clichés, the entire month of December makes me wish that I were a groundhog. I just want to dig into a deep hole to get away from the wanton excess of “holiday spirit” music, coming back to the surface after Epiphany when all the ceremonies have “officially” concluded. That said, I felt that I should at least try to give a fair listening to Christmas with Leontyne Price; and I found myself pleasantly surprised. Both Price and Karajan seemed to agree that these are relatively simple tunes that fare best when given subdued accounts. Those accounts owe much to the restrained rhetoric of arrangements prepared by Friedrich Meyer, and I found that I could even take comfort in how such restraint prevails over the usual hackneyed approaches that are impossible to avoid as part of the “holiday spirit.”

Saturday, August 1, 2020

New Gabriela Lena Frank String Quartet Album

courtesy of Bright Shiny Things

This coming Friday, Bright Shiny Things will release Her Own Wings, an album of two string quartets by Gabriela Lena Frank. These pieces were performed when Frank was composer-in-residence at the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival in Oregon. The album is the latest example of a recording whose presence has not yet been recognized by Amazon.com. [added 8/1, 10:25 a.m.: I keep forgetting that Amazon indexing almost always indexes only the content on the album cover. There is a Web page for this recording!] Fortunately, the Festival has its own Web site on Bandcamp, which includes a Web page for Her Own Wings. Since this is a streaming and download site, the approach to pre-ordering is slightly different. Oner of the tracks is available for preview by streaming. Any purchase prior to Friday will result in the opportunity to download that track, and the remaining tracks will be available after the release is “official.”

Frank is no stranger to the Bay Area. One of the two quartets on the new album is the string quartet version of the suite Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, which the Del Sol String Quartet recorded for their Zia album, released by Sono Luminus in February of 2013. The piece is also in the repertoire of the Amaranth Quartet, which performed it in 2016 as part of its Music of Cultural Coexistence concert series. On this new album the Willamette performers are violinists Megumi Stohs Lewis and Sasha Callahan, violist Bradley Ottesen, and cellist Leo Eguchi.

Leyendas (legends) is preceded by the world premiere recording of Milagros (miracles). Callahan takes first chair with Greg Ewer on second violin. They are joined by Ottesen and Eguchi. Like Leyendas the more recent composition is also a suite of relatively short movements that reflect on the geography and culture of Peru, where Frank’s mother was born. Neither of these suites can be described as programmatic. Rather, they can be taken as personal reflections of the composer’s own sense of her Latinx heritage.

I have listened to enough of Frank’s music to appreciate (and enjoy) the role played by of rhythmic patterns in her rhetorical expressiveness. If the music amounts to self-examination of her cultural background, then it is through rhythm that she tends to make her points most effectively. The performances on this new album clearly appreciate the significance of rhythm, frequently colored by unconventional sonorities that never come across as gimmicky.

Ironically, my most recent encounter with her music came not long before the COVID lockdown, when her songs were included as part of the New Moon Duo recital presented by Old First Concerts at the end of February. Unless I am mistaken, this means that I have been able to listen to more of Frank’s music than I have experienced in many past seasons. This new album reminds me that her music deserves more frequent encounters through both performances and recordings.