Friday, October 23, 2020

Piano Talks: Remainder of 2020

Having caught up with the monthly Piano Talks series with Sarah Cahill’s performance at the end of last month, presented by the Ross McKee Foundation and arranged by Executive Director Nicholas Pavkovic, I can now account for the programs in this monthly series for the remainder of the year. This offering was conceived not only to provide unique perspectives on the piano repertoire but also to examine the life and work of pianists, not only as performers but also as teachers. Each event begins at 7 p.m. with a duration between 40 and 60 minutes, and will it be live-streamed through the Ross McKee YouTube channel. After the performance the video is then archived on the YouTube Piano Talks 2020 playlist. The dates and content for the remaining three months of this year are as follows:

October 27: Peter Susskind will present a lecture entitled The Russian Tradition. He will review the achievements of the great Russian piano teachers of the nineteenth century. Those achievements will be framed in terms of their impact on students of these teachers that performed through the middle of the twentieth century. The teachers and students to be discussed will include Anton Rubinstein, Nikolai Rubinstein, Josef Lhévinne, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Shura Cherkassky, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, and Sviatoslav Richter. To that list will be added two significant Poles, Artur Rubinstein and Mieczysław Horszowski. Susskind will supplement this content with both recordings and videos.

November 24: Carl Blake will prepare a “showcase” solo piano recital entitled Buried Treasures: Piano Music by Black and Non-Black Composers. The former category will be represented by composers dating as far back as the eighteenth century. These include the Chevalier de Saint Georges (known by his contemporaries as “the Black Mozart”) ), Blind Tom (an ex-slave), Nathaniel Dett (Black Canadian-American), Margaret Bonds (Harlem and Chicago Renaissance pianist and composer), Jacqueline Hairston (distinguished local African-American pianist and composer), and Richard Thompson (Black English folk rock composer and performer). Composers in the latter category influenced by Black cultural and musical traditions will include Claude Debussy, Jean Sibelius, George Gershwin, Federico Mompou, and Astor Piazzolla.

December 29: December will be the month of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Conductor Teddy Abrams will present a program entitled 250 Years of Beethoven. His talk will address issues of what it means to perform Beethoven’s music today. He will address questions such as the following: How do we experience Beethoven in the context of our modern world? How do his timeless messages resonate today? Further details will be forthcoming. 

Hyperion to Release Latest BWV 988 Recording

courtesy of PIAS

Those that have been following this site regularly may have noticed that Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of “Goldberg” variations has received a generous amount of attention since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless I am mistaken, my first encounter with the music under “shelter-in-place conditions” came from pianist Anyssa Neumann, who took a one-day-at-a-time approach to making YouTube videos of each of the variations, after which all of the recordings were compiled into a single YouTube Playlist. My own listening was also guided by two major anthologies of recordings of past pianists, Peter Serkin and Glenn Gould (both of whom released two different recordings of their performances of BWV 988). Lang Lang then did the same thing, releasing an album with recordings of both a studio performance and a recital at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked as Kapellmeister (music director) from 1723 until his death in 1750. Most recently (about a month and a half ago) I found myself listening to an arrangement of BWV 988 for solo harp prepared and performed by Parker Ramsay. Ironically, over all these months, I have yet to write about a performance of this music on an instrument that would have been played during Bach’s lifetime!

The latest release to come my way brings another pianist into the fold. Hyperion has recorded a performance of BWV 988 by Siberian-born pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, now based in London. The album is scheduled for release one week from today; and, as expected, Amazon.com now has a Web page for processing pre-orders. What makes this new release interesting is the set of circumstances behind Kolesnikov’s decision to perform this music. Having created choreography for Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos, the dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker decided that her next project would be BWV 988; and she invited Kolesnikov to work with her.

I do not know very much about De Keersmaeker; but, on the basis of her Wikipedia page, she certainly strikes me as an adventurous choreographer. However, there is no indication of whether, when she decided to embark on her BWV 988 project, she was aware of the choreography that Jerome Robbins had created, which was first performed by the New York City Ballet in May of 1971. I remember seeing that ballet shortly after its opening. Unless I am mistaken, the music was performed by an on-stage pianist. The choreography was not particularly compelling and seemed to lack the “musical awareness” that one could find in George Balanchine’s approach to Bach in his “Concerto Barocco” ballet. Indeed, I wondered if Robbins shared my own sense of fatigue as he worked his way through the last half-dozen variations. After a good night’s sleep, I found myself thinking about the film The Spirit of St. Louis and the fatigue that began to take hold of Charles Lindbergh in that seeming-eternity of time before he finally saw European soil!

Obviously, the new Kolesnikov album does not occupy the listener with how De Keersmaeker managed to fill that same amount of time with her own choreography. However, I was definitely struck by his admission that, prior to De Keersmaeker’s invitation, he had very little knowledge of the music and no experience in trying to play it. As a result, his recording is very much a document of how he found his own way; and his notes for the accompanying booklet state that, in preparing for performance, “I had no choice but to build the piece anew, to the best of my own humble knowledge and understanding.”

That decision suggests a rejection of the possibility of standing on the shoulders of giants; and, on the basis of that metaphor, I came away from this recording feeling that Kolesnikov never managed to see very far into the distance. The good news is that one can appreciate a sense of spontaneity in his approach to each of the variations. The bad news is that, in the absence of any underlying structure to unify the whole experiences, he runs the risk of giving in to the same sort of fatigue that undid Robbins.

Many readers probably know by now that my own “orientation” for any journey through BWV 988 was supplied by pianist András Schiff, who believed that the “journey” through the composition was “guided,” from beginning to end, by the bass line. In that context I would say that Kolesnikov’s attention to the bass line was a “sometime thing.” As a result, one is likely to be more satisfied with “piecemeal” listening, allowing any individual variation to speak for itself, rather than worrying about how it fits into the overall architecture. To be fair, this was probably how the insomniac Count Hermann Karl von Kaiserling listened to the music that Johann Gottlieb Goldberg played for him.

I must confess that current conditions have led to my own bouts with insomnia recently. I tend to deal with them through either my SiriusXM subscription or the Music Choice channels provided by my xfinity subscription. Perhaps on one of those occasions I shall encounter Kolesnikov’s recording and decide whether he has evoked a suitable “Goldberg experience.”

Thursday, October 22, 2020

SFO Announces November Video Streams

The month of November will see San Francisco Opera (SFO) stream performances of five of its productions through its Opera is ON service, beginning with the final weekend of this month, which couples the last day of October with the first day of November. As with the previous offerings, each will become available on Saturday at 10 a.m.; and free access will expire and the end of the following day. Each video will then be added to the archive available to subscribers and those that have donated $75 or more. Specifics for the five new offerings are as follows:

October 31: Readers may recall that, this coming Sunday evening, SFO will offer its first-ever operatic drive-in event, presented at the Fort Mason Flix Drive-In. The opera for this occasion will be Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and the projection will present a video recorded during the 2008 Spring Season. This same video will be streamed by Opera is ON during the following weekend of October 31 and November 1. The production, originally staged at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence by Graham Vick and brought to San Francisco by Marco Gandini, presented the SFO debut of soprano Natalie Dessay in the title role. Casting also included tenor Giuseppe Filianoti in the role of Lucia’s beloved Edgardo Ravenswood and baritone Gabriele Viviani as her brother Enrico Ashton, making his United States opera debut. The conductor was Jean-Yves Ossonce, making his United State debut. The running time of the opera will be approximately two and one-half hours.

November 7: This will be a video recording of the most recent SFO production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (a masked ball) in October of 2014. This will be the version set in 1792 in Stockholm, Sweden, as opposed to the less politically controversial version set in Boston in the period leading up to the American Revolution. The production marked the SFO debut of soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, a Merola Opera Program alumna, in the role of Amelia. Amelia is the wife of a jealous husband, Count Anckarström, sung by baritone Thomas Hampson. She is being pursued by Gustavo (Gustavus III, Kind of Sweden), sung by tenor Ramón Vargas. Staging was by Director Jose Maria Condemi, and the conductor was Nicola Luisotti. Running time will be approximately two and one-quarter hours.

November 14: This will be the first SFO performance of the original 1869 version of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, performed during the fall of 2008 The title character will be sung by bass Samuel Ramey. The staging was conceived by Stein Winge for the Grand Théâtre de Genève and staged in San Francisco by Julia Pevzner, making her Company debut. Similarly, this marked the first time that Vassily Sinaisky served as conductor for an SFO production. Running time will be approximately two and one-half hours.

November 21: Harry Silverstein’s staging of Verdi’s Rigoletto has become a major SFO favorite, particularly due to Michael Yeargan’s striking sets, which evoke the images of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. The performances in September of 2012 were double-cast. In the video that will be presented, the title role was taken by Serbian baritone Željko Lučić. The role of his daughter Gilda was sung by Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak. Filling out what may be the most famous quartet in the Italian opera repertoire will be Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as the Duke of Mantua and Adler Fellow mezzo Kendall Gladen as Maddalena. Luisotti will again be the conductor, and the duration will be approximately two hours.

November 28: After four dramatically intense productions, the month will conclude with Gaetano Donizetti’s delightful comedy L’elisir d’amore (the elixir of love). Director James Robinson transported the setting from the Basque region of the eighteenth-century to Napa Valley on the eve of World War I. The video was recorded during the fall of 2008, which was the last time this opera was performed by SFO. Albanian soprano Inva Mula made her SFO debut in the role of Adina, complemented by Vargas as the love-smitten Nemorino. Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli sang the role of Dr Dulcamara, purveyor of the elixir that is supposed to allow Nemorino to win Adina’s heart. The conductor was Bruno Campanella, and the duration will be approximately two and one-quarter hours.

Access to free streaming is enabled through the SFO home page. For those interested in viewing any of the Opera is ON productions after free access has been terminated, there is a log-in Web page for donors and subscribers. There is also a Web page for those interested in becoming donors in order to benefit from full access to all available videos.

Aucoin Writes About “Lessons” from Boulez

Before we had to deal with the constraints of pandemic conditions, my wife and I would make regular visits to the City Lights Bookstore when we were in the North Beach area. Inevitably there would be something that attracted my attention strongly enough that I ended up purchasing it. On our most recent visit (hopefully not the last), my acquisition was Music Lessons: The Collège de France Lectures, transcriptions of lectures given by Pierre Boulez between 1976 and 1995 translated into English by Jonathan Dunsby, Jonathan Goldman, and Arnold Whittal.

Like other purchases this book found its way to a pile where it has had to compete with other offerings vying for my attention. Because I have not touched the book since then, I was particularly interested in reading Matthew Aucoin’s review of it, which has just appeared in the latest (November 5) issue of The New York Review of Books. While I recognized Aucoin’s name as a composer, to the best of my knowledge, I have never had an opportunity to listen to his music; and I have been unable to find evidence of anything I have written about him. Given the clarity of his writing about the Boulez book and the acuity of his challenges to the contents of the book, I feel that I ought to learn more about his music.

I suppose my interest in Aucoin’s review derives from one of his strongest criticisms of the Boulez lectures. This has to do with the apparent conviction by Boulez that listening does not figure in the act of composition. To be fair, the index of the book has an entry for “listener/listening;” but it is just a reference to the entry for “perception,” which is broken down into a myriad of subcategories among which “listening” never appears. By now readers are probably aware that my own interests have involved arriving at a better understanding of the nature of listening as it is practiced by not only those making the music (both composers and performers) but also those on “audience side.”

If the nature of listening is not called out explicitly in Boulez’ lectures, he does seem to appreciate the significance of the concept of memory. Here is how Aucoin characterizes Boulez’ approach to writing about memory:

He defines active memory as a faculty not only of recall, but of presence and prediction: a performer must achieve a “global memory,” which consists of “recall-memory,” “monitoring-memory” (engagement with the present moment), and “prediction-memory.” Boulez compares this multidirectional memory to peripheral vision, without which we could not gain an accurate sense of an object’s position in space. The performer is like an Olympic skier, entirely alive to the present instant, yet also reliant on the momentum of past actions, and constantly scanning for obstacles ahead. Once a musician has fully absorbed a score, “a whole emerges in which memory can roam at will.” The score’s unidirectional temporal canvas becomes, in the hands of a master interpreter, a landscape within which the performer is free to rove, to discover.

What may be most interesting is that there is nothing particularly new here. Igor Stravinsky offered similar perspectives, acknowledging Henri Bergson as one of his inspiring sources. However, as Aucoin’s summary identifies, any understanding of memory must entail the nature of our awareness of the passing of time. Edmund Husserl gave a pioneering series of lectures on the subject of “time-consciousness;” and many of his insights were subsequently picked up by Martin Heidegger for his monumental Being and Time. What is more interesting, however, is that the “tripartite” nature of memory cited by Aucoin can be traced all the way back to the Confessions of Augustine. Sadly, the index to Music Lessons lacks entries for Augustine, Husserl, and Heidegger; and my guess is that, for Boulez, Bergson was just one of many names that Stravinsky dropped in his own reflections about music.

Stravinsky appears often in Aucoin’s review. I was particularly taken by his account of a “weak misreading” of Stravinsky by Boulez. Aucoin elaborates this point as follows:

In his eyes, Stravinsky was “highly original” in his earlier pieces, which did not have obvious models—or at least not models that Boulez was familiar with—but his later experiments with extant European idioms, and especially his overtly neoclassical pieces, constitute an unforgivable regression.

The kicker here is the aside about Boulez’ familiarity. By now just about anyone interested in details about Stravinsky’s approach to composition knows that Russian folk music played a significant role in those “earlier pieces.” Here, again, we discover that the index to Music Lessons has no entry beginning with the word “Russian.” Trying to overlook Stravinsky’s Russian origins is a bit like trying to overlook the French influences on Erik Satie.

For the most part Aucoin tries to restrain himself from going on an invective rant. Nevertheless, I have to say that I was taken by one particularly observation:

There is nothing more boring than the spittle-spewing invective of a demagogue railing against ill-defined, possibly illusory enemies, and unfortunately this book seethes with such denunciations.

I suppose the value in this is that it allows for generalization. We all know that those attributes were aimed at Boulez, but I suspect that each of us has other targets in mind! More important is how, for better or worse, Aucoin guided my feelings about having this book. The “bottom line” is that I am not about to discard it; but I shall do my best to be judicious in how I allocate any attention to it!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Episodes from Balanchine’s “Episodes”

This past Sunday, when I decided to write about George Balanchine’s ballet “Ivesiana,” I realized that I ran the risk of painting myself into a corner. I suggested that, in deciding to work with the music of Charles Ives, Balanchine took the first of three steps that involved departing from the conventions of tonal music, conventions that were still honored by many twentieth-century composers. Indeed, the second of those steps, “Agon,” marked Igor Stravinsky’s first venture into working with atonality. In that context the third of the steps was the most adventurous, since it involved all of the orchestral compositions by Anton Webern, music that probably perplexes many listeners today as much as it did during Webern’s lifetime in the first half of the twentieth century.

To “review” the bidding, Balanchine and Martha Graham divided their repertoire into two approximately equal portions for a two-part full-evening composition entitled Episodes. Graham selected the earliest compositions, which were also the longest, the Opus 1 passacaglia and the six pieces for full orchestra collected in Opus 6. She also presented the first of the two parts, a narrative based on the tense relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, the Queen of England, counting on Webern’s “tense” sonorities to account for that relationship and its fatal conclusion.

Of the compositions that remained for the second part of the program, Balanchine set aside the Opus 30 “Variations” to choreograph as a solo for Paul Taylor, then a featured dancer in Martha Graham’s company. That left four Webern compositions for the New York City Ballet (NYCB) dancers, the Opus 21 “Symphony,” the Opus 10 collection of five pieces, the Opus 24 “Concerto,” and Webern’s imaginative instrumentation of the six-voice fugue that was included in Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1079 collection entitled The Musical Offering. After Episodes was performed in its entirety, Graham’s portion was dropped from both her own repertoire and that of NYCB; and “Episodes” remained in repertoire as the four pieces that Balanchine had created for his own dancers.

I saw this version exactly once as part of the only NYCB subscription I ever purchased. I was majoring in mathematics at the time and was one of many of my ilk that was fascinated by the different approaches to permutation found in serial composition. Nevertheless, I suspect that, like everyone else (I do not think I need to quality “everyone” with “just about”), I came away most satisfied with the orchestrated Bach fugue. For that matter, my guess is that Balanchine was in the same boat with the rest of us. He understood Bach fugues well enough to set them to choreography, regardless of what instruments were playing the notes.

I had hoped that I would be able to take a deeper dive into Balanchine’s choreography for the other three movements, but this turned out to be more problematic than I anticipated. The best I was able to manage was to find three separate “Episodes” videos of the first (Opus 21), third (Opus 24), and fourth (Bach) movements. These were in color with black-and-white opening titles identifying the music and the NYCB soloists for each of the movements. The overall video quality was, at best, middling and practically intolerable for the Bach. (It would not surprise me if the Opus 10 movement was absent because it was even worse than the Bach movement.) No indication was given of where, when, or by whom these videos were made.

Of these three videos, Opus 21 probably provides the best evidence of how Balanchine approached analyzing the music before creating choreography for it. I would assume that his attempts to learn about Webern’s techniques included an awareness of the two primary ways in which a sequence of pitches could be permuted. One of them is the retrograde transform, which simply reorders the notes in reverse. The other is inversion, in which all note-to-note intervals are the same but rising and falling directions are reversed.

At this point I need to digress a bit on the issue of how transformations of marks on paper register with the ear. Inversion tends to be easy to recognize, particularly if the rhythm stays the same. (Think of how often Bach uses this device in his fugues.) Retrogression is far more difficult for mind to process. Indeed, it cannot be processed by a basic “finite-state machine” (the mathematical construct that serves as the foundation of any computer). It requires a more powerful abstract construct; and, without risking losing readers by going into too much detail, I shall say simply that the construct is called a “push-down automaton” (named after the ways plates are stacked in a cafeteria).

What all this means is that, because inversion registers with the ear far more readily than retrogression, I suspect that Balanchine was more aware of it in examining the scores of the music he was setting. Thus, towards the end of Opus 21, when he encountered an inversion he had his male soloist (Anthony Blum on this video) take his partner (Sarah Leland) firmly and flip her upside down:

from the YouTube video of the first movement of Balanchine’s “Episodes”

She then did a series of ronds de jambes in that position before getting flipped back upright and set down on the floor. This is but one instance of how Balanchine seems to have decided that any connection between Opus 21 and what anyone thinks a symphony is would be purely coincidental!

Opus 24 goes to an even further extreme. This is a “concerto” for nine solo instruments. The choreography involves only six dancers, a “leading couple” (Allegra Kent and Bart Cook on the video) and a “chorus” of four women. In this case what is most interesting is how these six dancers are deployed in a series of interconnecting configurations, which may or may not parallel the interconnections of the solo instruments. In order to capture some of the visual coherence of Balanchine’s designs, a few of the camera shots are taken above the dancers, rather than from the audience point of view. It would not surprise me to learn that Balanchine himself requested that those shots be incorporated in this video account of the geometric aspects of his choreography.

It would not surprise me to learn that, after having agreed to be part of this “Webern project,” Balanchine found himself in “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” (as Winston Churchill put it when he was trying to describe Russia under the rule of Joseph Stalin). Balanchine’s “Episodes” is likely to appeal to puzzle-solvers. It is definitely not a “sit back and watch” ballet. However, just as there are dances created by Merce Cunningham that appeal to an appreciation of abstract art, Balanchine seemed willing to work with the abstractions that figured in Webern’s music (including his Bach orchestration). The viewer willing to let those abstractions be abstract, so to speak, should have no trouble getting drawn into Balanchine’s choreography; and I suspect that such attraction would be even more powerful if there were a better video account of that choreography.

LCCE November Program Reflects on Past

Guitarist Michael Goldberg on the poster for the concert being discussed (photograph by Vivian Sachs, courtesy of LCCE)

The title of the second program to be presented in the 2020–2021 season of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) is Please Elaborate. The selections will highlight the works of two composers, Benjamin Britten and Eleanor Alberga (whose name will hopefully be familiar to those that listened to last week’s live-streamed performance by the Telegraph Quartet). Each of these composers will be represented by two pieces.

Both of the Britten selections are reflections on songs by John Dowland; and the Dowland “source texts” will precede the two Britten performances. The program will begin with Dowland’s “Come Heavy Sleep,” which Britten repurposed for his solo guitar composition “Nocturnal.” The program will conclude with Britten’s “Lachrymae,” scored for viola and piano and based on Dowland’s “If my complaints could passions move.”

The first Alberga selection is “Oh Chaconne!” She composed this piece for solo piano to serve as a prelude to a performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s  flamboyant transcription of the Chaconne movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor. Her other selection will be “No-Man’s-Land Lullaby,” scored for violin and piano. This is a reflection of the fourth song in Johannes Brahms Opus 49 collection, titled simply “Wiegenlied” (lullaby). The “Brahms version” will precede Alberga’s “response,” sung by soprano Nikki Einfeld accompanied at the piano by Eric Zivian.

This performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, November 9. Those wishing to attend the live-streamed performance will just have to click the RSVP button on the event page for this program. Note that there is also a DONATE button. A contribution of $25 will be appreciated, but those attending the concert will be free to make whatever donation is within their abilities.

Naxos American Classics Presents Herrmann

courtesy of Naxos of America

At the beginning of this month, the Naxos American Classics series released its latest recording. Each of these albums tends to focus on a single composer, and the composer presented on this new CD is Bernard Herrmann. He is probably best known as one of the leading composers of film music during the twentieth century, with particular attention to the movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock. On this new release, that side of his career is represented by “Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra,” a quarter-hour concert work that developed key themes from the music he composed for Hitchcock’s Psycho. Herrmann composed this “narrative” in 1968, about eight years after the release of the film; and the score was reconstructed by John Mauceri in 1999.

This selection is preceded by “Souvenirs de voyage,” a three-movement quintet for clarinet and string quartet composed in 1967. This is performed by clarinetist David Jones along with violinists Netanel Draiblate and Eva Cappelletti Chao, violist Philippe Chao, and cellist Benjamin Capps. This chamber music offering provides a useful context for identifying many of the themes and harmonic progressions that served Herrmann well in his work for the film industry.

However, most of the album is dominated by another genre that Herrmann served: radio drama. The first half hour of the recording is devoted to the radio play Whitman, whose content is based heavily on Leaves of Grass, the collection of Walt Whitman’s poetry. The script was developed in 1944 by Norman Corwin, who set an impressively high bar for the standards of radio drama.

In many respects, however, Herrmann’s music for this play was even more “incidental” than much of the music he provided for the movies. As a result, this selection does not provide much of an account of Herrmann’s skills in serving the needs of others. On the other hand those that enjoy Whitman’s poetry will probably appreciate the qualities that baritone William Sharp brings to reciting those texts.

Consequently Herrmann does not get a particularly fair shake from the production of his music by Naxos American Classics. Readers may recall that, in May of 2018, Sony Classical released a 61-CD box set of all of its recordings made by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. One of those CDs was a far more satisfying album of Herrmann’s film scores, including the eleven-movement suite for strings based on the music composed for Psycho.

Much as I enjoy this album, however, my personal favorite is Citizen Kane: The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann, now available as a Sony reissue. Those familiar with the Citizen Kane film by Orson Welles know that it includes a made-up opera, Salammbo, and a scene with a soprano aria. This amounts to a clever musical “in-joke;” but, on this particular album, the soprano is Kiri Te Kanawa, who had no trouble getting into the spirit of things. Of much greater interest, however, is the film Hangover Square, which is basically about a concert pianist driven to acts of homicide by exposure to too much dissonance. The film’s climax comes when the protagonist must play the premiere performance of a new piano concerto that (as might be guessed) excels in its dissonances. That concerto is included in its entirety (featuring pianist Joaquín Achúcarro as the concerto soloist).

Thus, while the new Naxos album is an impressive undertaking, I am afraid that there are several better ways to appreciate Herrmann’s talents as a composer.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Slotchiver’s “Americana” Debut on Zoho

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

Earlier this month Zoho (last discussed this past May for its release of two albums of guitarist Sharon Isbin) released its first CD of solo piano music performed by Jeni Slotchiver. The title of the album is American Heritage, and it surveys 125 years of music by American composers. The “early bookend” for this recording is the nineteenth-century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, represented by one of his best-known works, “The Banjo” (Opus 15), as well as the thematically innovative “Paraphrase de Concert,” the Opus 48 “Union.” The other end of the survey is occupied by Frederic Rzewski with a recording of “Down by the Riverside” from his North American Ballads collection.

Just as important, if not more so, is the overall scope of the album. Two of the composers are women, both of African descent: Margaret Bonds and Florence Price. Four of the male composers are also of African descent: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Harry Burleigh, Robert Nathaniel Dett, and William Grant Still. Only the “bookend” composers fall into the “White American male” category.

As a result, the album, taken as a whole, makes for a stimulating journey of discovery; and that journey applies as much to my own listening experiences as to those of any readers! Most of those readers hopefully cultivated some awareness of Price as a result of learning about Rae Linda Brown’s biography of her, The Heart of a Woman. On Slotchiver’s album she is represented by the three-movement suite Dances in the Canebreaks, listed as composed in 1953, which was the last year of Price’s life. Actually, the suite was composed in 1933 and was not published until twenty years later. Brown also observes that the second of the three dances, “Tropical Noon,” may have originally been entitled “Little Cabin Lullaby.” Mind you, none of this factual background should interfere with the delightful rhetoric of all three of this suite’s movements.

Where technique is concerned, Slotchiver does a far-more-than-creditable job of managing the superposition of familiar tunes in Gottschalk’s “Union.” I just hope she had fun playing it, since it is difficult to listen to that piece without at least chortling. On the other hand I was a bit concerned that, by paying too much attention to technique, Slotchiver may have smoothed over some of the sharper edges of the Rzewski selection. This was unabashedly political music that deserved more than just a “faithful keyboard account.”

Taken as a whole, however, the album is a valuable reference resource; and, for the most part, it makes an excellent case for music that deserves more attention in the “standard repertoire” than has been accorded to date.

The Bleeding Edge: 10/19/2020

Things are picking up a bit this week, even if two of the three items to report are already “on the books.” The most important of these, of course, is SF Music Day this coming Sunday, October 25, whose full schedule was announced on this site this past Saturday. In addition the Center for New Music will be hosting Chris Brown’s recital for piano and interactive software on the same day at 4 p.m. (thus overlapping part of the Music Day program).

Pamela Z performing with her gear (from the Mills Performing Arts event page)

The one new event to report will, once again, take place under the auspices of Mills College. This will be a streamed solo performance by Pamela Z presented jointly by the Mills College Music Department, the Center for Contemporary Music, and the Mills Performing Arts Center. Most likely, it will be live-streamed from the Littlefield Concert Hall on the Mills campus. Program details have not yet been announced; but it is likely that most, if not all, of the offerings will be Z’s original compositions.

The concert will begin at 8 p.m. this coming Saturday, October 24. There is no charge for this event, but registration will be required through an Eventbrite event page. Those registering can also include a donation prior to checkout. Once checkout has been completed, information about the streaming source will be provided. The Web page for the concert also includes a hyperlink to the Eventbrite site to establish admission.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Balanchine’s Choreography of Ives

The Fifties was the decade during which admirers of choreographer George Balanchine had a chance to see just how “far out” he was willing to go … whether they wanted to go with him or not! Balanchine’s education had included intense studies of music theory and the structural analysis of scores. However, the twentieth century was when the foundations of those studies were challenged by new approaches to composition that, for example, no longer saw the need for a tonal center or a perfect cadence to define that center. As a result, in the decade following the end of World War II and the emergence of a new and adventurous crop of composers, everything was “up for grabs.”

Over the course of the Fifties, Balanchine committed himself to choreographing music by twentieth-century composers at their most adventurous. Three ballets from his repertoire stand out for the ways in which they confronted those adventures. Ironically, the very first of these acknowledges music that had preceded not only World War II but also World War I. The composer of that music was Charles Ives; and the music for the four movements of the “Ivesiana” ballet was composed between 1904 and 1908.

Each of the movements bore the name of the composition being set: “Central Park in the Dark,” “The Unanswered Question,” “In the Inn,” and “In the Night.” (Originally, the ballet had six movements; but the choreography for “Halloween” and “Over the Pavements” was subsequently dropped.) “Ivesiana” was premiered on September 14, 1954. (By way of context, Ives’ second symphony, completed in 1902, was not given its first performance until February 22, 1951, when it was played by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein; so it is not out of the question that Bernstein tweaked Balanchine’s interest in Ives.)

The second ballet involved one of Balanchine’s favorite composers, Igor Stravinsky. “Agon,” which was discussed on this site this past June, was first performed on November 27, 1957. As was observed at that time, Stravinsky’s score included his first efforts to work with a twelve-tone row, thus crossing the metaphorical bridge that had separated him from Arnold Schoenberg. Balanchine had taken on Schoenberg’s music for his “Opus 34” ballet, first performed on January 19, 1954; but that work seems to be all but entirely forgotten. He was clearly much more in his element when working with Stravinsky, even if the atonal portions of the music bordered on the simplistic spelling-out of tone rows.

The last of the three ballets was actually a joint project. The complete orchestral works of Anton Webern were divided between Balanchine and Martha Graham. Each provided half of a two-part ballet entitled Episodes. As might be expected, Graham’s portion was based on a narrative, the subject being the relationship between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, the Queen of England. Balanchine’s choreography, on the other hand, was abstract and suggested that he was well aware of many of the theoretical underpinnings of Webern’s scores.

Today I discovered that John Clifford had uploaded a 1964 Canadian video of “Ivesiana” to YouTube. Given the pioneering role that this ballet plays in the Balanchine canon, I could not resist the opportunity to view it and discuss the experience. By way of disclaimer, I should note that I have not the foggiest idea of how much Balanchine knew about Ives. However, if he followed his usual approach to preparing a new ballet, writing out his own piano reduction of the orchestral score, then I have to wonder how he felt that strategy turned out for him. (By way of context, I would guess that there are still quite a few conductors that have difficulties in parsing many, if not most, of Ives’ scores.)


Arthur Mitchell and Patricia Neary dancing “In the Inn” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Of the four pieces that Balanchine set, “In the Inn” was probably the closest to his comfort zone. The music sounds enough like a pastiche of popular tunes that Balanchine could resort to many of his steps based on “hoofing.” Indeed, Patricia Neary and Arthur Mitchell looked as if they had been chosen to serve up something entertaining for the televised version of The Ed Sullivan Show.

This is not, in any way, intended as a dismissive brush-off. Balanchine knew a thing or two about hoofing; and it is clear from his choreography for the musical On Your Toes that he knew about the “cultural clash” between hoofers and ballet dancers. He would subsequently return to that clash in the “Rubies” movement of his Jewels ballet; and, in many respects, “In the Inn” provides “warm-up” material that subsequently served the creation of “Rubies.”

More challenging was the task of setting the first two movements. Both of the Ives compositions were originally given very lengthy titles: “A Contemplation of Nothing Serious or Central Park in the Dark in ‘The Good Old Summer Time’” and “A Contemplation of a Serious Matter or The Unanswered Perennial Question.” It goes without saying that contemplation is not the sort of activity that lends itself to choreography; and there is more than a suggestion that, in both of these movements, Balanchine was basically experimenting with patterns that would be suitable in getting him from beginning to end. As a result, the emergence of a popular tune evoking that “Good Old Summer Time” passes by almost unnoticed. “In the Night” is similarly ambiguous; but, because this is the final movement of the ballet, Balanchine was able to set it with a relatively pleasing approach to apotheosis.

As a result, I would speculate that Balanchine was probably as flummoxed by Ives’ composition techniques as was just about anyone approaching his music during the first half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, I have to applaud Balanchine for being able to get his passionate audience to sit still and listen to Ives’ music. (Sadly, Ives died four months before the first performance of “Ivesiana.”) Furthermore, the fact that he could get that lightning to strike again for Webern is just as impressive. The bottom line is that I would leap at any opportunity to see performances of either (or both) “Ivesiana” and Balanchine’s portion of “Episodes;” and, if Balanchine was not quite there yet when that Canadian video was made in 1954, having a video record should benefit us all in following his path. 

PBO Cancels Remainder of Season

This past week saw “the difficult but inevitable news that Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra [PBO] & Chorale has cancelled all live performances as originally scheduled through April 2021.” This will include all remaining concerts in the subscription season, the Masses for Troubled Times concert, whose orchestra would consist of members of Juilliard415 joining the PBO musicians, and the February Gala celebrating the debut of the new Music Director Richard Egarr. For the remainder of the season, PBO will focus on cyberspace-based presentations under the rubric of the 2020/Virtual series.

Programming for this series involves several alternative themes, each taking a different approach to content and repertoire as follows:

  • Live from Amsterdam: Egarr is currently based in Amsterdam. Every month he will prepare a livestream event, which he will deliver from his post at a keyboard. Programming will also include invited guests and the occasional surprises.
  • Musical Explorations: This will be an online education series curated by Scholar-in-Residence Bruce Lamott that will be organized around insights, interviews, and lecture-demonstrations involving PBO musicians and special guests.
  • PBO SESSIONS@Home: This alternative concert series will continue with live-streams from both Amsterdam and the Bay Area.
  • JAMOnline: This will be a monthly series of events co-hosted by Egarr and Jews & Music (JAM) Scholar-in-Residence Francesco Spagnolo, which will feature insightful dialog and music from PBO musicians and special guests.
  • New Music for Old Instruments: This will be a series of conversations between Egarr and PBO Artistic Partner Tarik O’Regan discussing the efforts of living composers writing for period instruments.

2020/Virtual is a subscription series. All those that subscribed to the 2020–21 concert season will receive membership free of charge. This can be enabled through a coupon code send by electronic mail. Those unable to find their coupon should be able to subscribe through a hyperlink on the general subscription page. For all others, the price will be $50 for all events being offered through the end of this coming April. All that is necessary is to fill out the form on the membership registration Web page.

Jazz Reflections on Frankenstein

What Survives is a two-volume collection of 26 original jazz recordings that grew out of Tobin Mueller’s project to bring the narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the stage. It began as a one-act musical entitled “Frankenspell Superstar,” originally  conceived as a progressive rock opera. Most likely, the initial motivation was one of “getting even” with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which enjoyed mass popularity in spite of it trivial shallowness. By 1995 “Frankenspell Superstar” had matured into Creature a full-length Broadway show performed at the John Houseman Theatre, followed by an eighteen-month off-Broadway run at The Thirteenth Street Theatre.

The ordering of the 26 tracks of What Survives does not follow how they were presented over the course of Creature. The objective of the album seems to have less to do with providing an account of the narrative and more to do with taking the full scope of the show’s “incidental” music and endowing it with more of a “foreground” treatment. To this end, Mueller, who plays a prodigious number of different keyboard instruments, assembled a moderately large ensemble with a front line of three saxophones (Woody Mankowski on soprano, Doug Schneider and Tom Washatka on tenor) and two brass (Ken Schaphorst on flugelhorn and Bob Levy on trumpet). Rhythm was provided by percussionist Dane Richeson, Jeff Cox on bass, and Chris Mueller (nephew of the composer) on piano. Mankowski is also one of the vocalists on the album, joined by Emily Rohm and Jessica Flood as well as the multi-voice combo called The CenterStage Players. There are also guest instrumentalists, including bassist Ron Carter.

Cover of the Radio Edits version of Tobin Mueller’s What Survives (from the Amazon.com Web page)

For those interested in a full-extent account of the relationship between the music he composed and the narrative served by his compositions, Mueller has prepared a lengthy Web page, which provides a track-by-track account of all of the pieces on the album. Since the album itself has only been released for digital download from a Web page that provides only the 26 tracks, Mueller’s Web site is essential for those whose interest in music goes beyond “background stimulation.” The reader of that Web page will note that fifteen of the tracks also have a shorter “Radio Edit” version. All of those tracks have been collected on a Radio Edits album, which has been released as a CD with an Amazon.com Web page. That physical release also includes two bonus tracks from the full release.

Personally, I prefer the 26-track release. While I am not consistently impressed by the vocal selections, the instrumental work covers a wide diversity of styles. The members of the group play in different combinations over the course of the entire album. However, the musicianship is always consistently right on the money, endowing each track with its own capacity to appeal to the attentive listener. Given the relatively dire straits of jazz radio, I am not sure how much impact the Radio Edits release will have; but the “whole enchilada” will definitely appeal to those that take their jazz listening seriously.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Vocal Fireworks Above All in Early Verdi

Unless I am mistaken, this weekend’s Opera is ON streaming video is taken from one of the earliest San Francisco Opera (SFO) performances to be presented in this series. By the same count, it involved a relatively rare performance of one of Giuseppe Verdi’s earliest operas, Attila, which was first performed in Venice in 1846. In the context of more familiar operas, it was composed after Ernani (1844) and before Macbeth (1847). The video currently being streamed was directed, like all other videos in the Opera is ON series (at least to date), by Frank Zamacona. In the SFO repertoire, this production, directed by Gabriele Lavia, was only the second time the opera was presented.

Consulting my Examiner.com records, I discovered that I had attended two performances of this production, the second on the evening of June 15, 2012, and the final performance, which I saw on my Sunday matinee subscription series on July 1. It did not take me long to appreciate why this opera was seldom performed. As I wrote in my first Examiner.com article, the libretto is little more than “a rather clunky account of a revenge narrative,” clunky in part because there are at least three characters in the cast that have it in for Attila. (By all rights some good wordplay on “overkill” would be appropriate here.)

The slaying of Attila (Ferruccio Furlanetto) by Odabella (Lucrecia Garcia) near the end of Verdi’s Attila (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

From a musical point of view, it is clear that Verdi was still cultivating his talents as a composer. The score is a far cry from the sophistication that one encounters in the later works, particularly the partnerships with Arrigo Boito as librettist, Otello and Falstaff. That said, there are ample opportunities for the vocalists to cast their talents in a more than favorable light. From that point of view, there was no shortage of either vocal skill or personality in bass Ferruccio Furlanetto’s presentation of the title role. Furthermore, he could not have been better matched than by soprano Lucrecia Garcia’s Odabella, the one of those three aforementioned characters that not only delivers the fatal blow to Attila but does it with his own sword.

(As an aside, many readers are probably aware of the principle known as “Chekhov’s gun.” The basic idea is that, if the audience sees a gun, it should expect to see it fired before the play concludes, most likely with fatal consequences. The libretto for Attila, begun by Temistocle Solera and completed by Francesco Maria Piave, basically follows a corollary: If the leading character gives his sword to a determined enemy, he will be on the receiving end of that sword before the conclusion of the narrative!)

To be fair, the casting of the other two characters determined to kill Attila presented equally impressive vocal performances. Diego Torre was the obligatory tenor of the cast, playing the role of the Aquileian knight Foresto, who is determined to marry Odabella. He is complemented by the Roman general Ezio, sung by baritone Quinn Kelsey, who sees Attila as an ally in bringing down the Roman Emperor Valentinian until Attila withdraws from Rome after confronting Pope Leo I (bass Samuel Ramey, who had sung the title role at the first SFO performance of Attila in 1991).

Finally, the overall musical resources were in the more-than-capable hands of conductor Nicola Luisotti, then SFO Music Director. The “bottom line” is that, if one concentrates only on the music (also disregarding the set designs of Alessandro Camera, which include lots of ruins, a seriously precipitous staircase, problematic for both Attila and Foresto, and the interior of an opera house, with an audience in the second scene of the second act, subsequently reduced to ruins in the third act), there is much to appreciate in both vocal delivery and instrumental context. Since the entire performance takes place in less than two hours, the overall experience is at least moderately accessible.

SF Music Day 2020 Announces Schedule

Almost exactly a month ago, InterMusic SF announced the ten jazz, classical, chamber, and global music ensembles whose performances would be streamed between noon and 6 p.m. on SF Music Day, Sunday, October 25 (one week from tomorrow). The schedule for those performances was announced yesterday. For the convenience of readers, I shall reproduce the descriptions of the performances in a new list ordered by start time:

  • 12 p.m.: The Telegraph Quartet will perform Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opus 34 (third) quartet in D major.
  • 12:30 p.m.: The trio of guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, pianist Marcos Silva, and percussionist Brian Rice will play a set of Brazilian jazz, including classics by Antônio Carlos Jobim.
  • 1:10 p.m.: The trio of violinist Tom Stone, pianist Elizabeth Dorman, and cellist Amos Yang will play Johannes Brahms’ Opus 8 (first) piano trio in B major.
  • 1:45 p.m.: The Mads Men ensemble, led by violinist Mads Tolling, will revisit classic tunes from Sixties television, film, and radio.
  • 2:25 p.m.: The duo of Rob Reich on accordion and Daniel Fabricant on bass will present original tunes, gypsy jazz, and standards from around the world.
  • 3 p.m.: Harpist Destiny Muhammad will lead a trio in performances of her own music and arrangements of songs by Marvin Gaye and Dorothy Ashby.
  • 3:35 p.m.: The Del Sol String Quartet will present the world premiere of “A Popular Tune,” composed on a commission from the quartet by Jung Yoon Wie, along with compositions by Kerwin Young and Andrew Rodriguez.
  • 4:05 p.m.: The AIR Trio, led by pianist Motoko Honda, will perform her improvisatory suite for prepared piano, electric guitar, and percussion, Soundscape of Our Present Minds, including the premiere of her recently completed “But Not Alone.”
  • 4:40 p.m.: Two of the members of Quartet San Francisco, violinist Jeremy Cohen and cellist Andrés Vera, will present a program of original string duos inspired by tango music and vintage jazz.
  • 5:10 p.m.: Guitarist Terrence Brewer will play a set of modern jazz classics by Wayner Shorter, Ornette Coleman, and Steve Kuhn.

As was previously observed, all of these performances will be pre-recorded. InterMusic SF has created a Web page through which all streaming will be hosted. The entire event will be free. Neither tickets nor reservations will be required to launch the streaming facility.

The Making of a “Gay Guerrilla” Performance

Last night Eric Dudley, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, hosted the latest installment in the How Music is Made series. The topic was Julius Eastman’s “Gay Guerrilla,” which was given a two-piano performance by Kate Campbell and Allegra Chapman. The performance was preceded by an introductory “discussion” by the performers. The scare quotes designate that separate video recordings were made of observations by Campbell and Chapman. The results were then scrupulously edited and interleaved to provide a “unified” account that would prepare listeners for the performance that followed. The entire program, discussion and performance, lasted about 50 minutes, and the video has now been archived for viewing on the SFCMP YouTube channel.

Readers may recall that “Gay Guerrilla” was last discussed on this site at the end of last month, after it had been performed by the Del Sol String Quartet in their Old First Concerts recital. I used the following paragraph to set the context for this piece:

“Gay Guerrilla” was composed in 1979 and shows awareness of recent achievements in adventurous repertoire. Terry Riley had composed “In C” in 1964, Philip Glass’ first opera, Einstein on the Beach, had been premiered in July of 1976, and Steve Reich had advanced from working with tape loops (with Riley as a colleague at the San Francisco Tape Music Center) to instrumental compositions. In that context “Gay Guerrilla” is a lush tapestry of repetitive structures.

A portion of the score for “Gay Guerrilla” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

During the introductory observations by Campbell and Chapman, there were several images of Eastman’s score pages. The notation allowed for considerable inventive interpretation on the part of any performers, including any decisions of what instruments should be played. The first recorded performance involved four pianos. Neither Campbell nor Chapman made any reference to this recording. On the other hand, they did observe that the performance captured on video had been preceded by only two rehearsals, suggesting that they both wanted the interpretation of Eastman’s score to be a product of spontaneous invention based more on guidelines than on specification.

In many respects their account was far more compelling than the Del Sol interpretation (which had been coached by composer Luciano Chessa). Most of the suggestions on the score pages involve repeated notes or chords, and the percussive qualities of the piano sonorities evoked more urgent intensity than could be expressed by bowed strings (many of which were pre-recorded in the Del Sol performance). Mind you, where such percussive qualities are concerned, a focused command of dynamic levels is essential. Working as a team, Campbell and Chapman made it clear that the overall progression of the score was not a journey from loud to louder.

What was particularly effective was how both performers realized their interpretation as a journey through different densities. Sometimes the densities themselves would be sorted between the two keyboards. On other occasions, each individual hand realized its own characteristic density pattern. While the video production could have been a bit better, the fixed camera angle provided a reasonably thorough view of what each individual hand was doing (thorough enough that, when a hand was not visible, the ear could account for what it was playing). Thus, while the overall journey had been marked by little more than the passage of time (about half an hour), the attentive listener could apprehend an arching sense of progression over the course of the performance.

That arch is more than a convenient metaphor. The progression of textures rises to a peak, not quite at the middle of the performance, which is distinctively marked by an account of the Lutheran hymn “A Might Fortress is Our God.” After any number of imaginative approaches to repeated chords and pitches, the listener is suddenly confronted by a familiar tune, a gesture by the composer that combines a disciplined approach to structural significance with a harsh bite of irony. (It is important to remember that, when Eastman composed “Gay Guerrilla,” very few congregations were willing to admit the presence of homosexual congregants.)

Personally, I have to confess that my preferences sided with last night’s keyboard version. To be fair, however, the keyboard is my own instrument; so it is difficult to avoid bias entirely. Still, I very much appreciated the video editing involved in compiling the pre-performance observations by both Campbell and Chapman. Thanks to those observations, I suspect that I was far better prepared to listen to this music than I was when I encountered it as the concluding selection on the Del Sol program.

Friday, October 16, 2020

SFCM Streams Telegraph Quartet Recital++

Last night the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) presented its second live-streamed performance in its Fall 2020 concert series. Like the first offering, this was a Faculty Artist Series program featuring the Telegraph Quartet, which is the SFCM quartet-in-residence. The members of this ensemble are Eric Chin and Joseph Maile sharing the first violin chair and joined by violist Pei-Ling Lin and cellist Jeremiah Shaw. Chin, Maile, and Lin are all SFCM alumni currently serving on the faculty. Maile took the first chair for the opening and closing selections, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opus 34 (third) quartet and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor, respectively. Chin led the performance of Eleanor Alberga’s second quartet.

The video was streamed through the Vimeo platform. As of this writing, it appears that the Web page for the stream now hosts the recording of the performance. Unfortunately, a bit of editing would have been in order. It appears that the performance itself does not begin until about fourteen minutes into the video.

The Beethoven selection amounted to the first celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth for the new season. (The birthday will not take place until December.) Opus 131 is a major undertaking, and it filled the second half of the program. Its overall structural plan is as highly inventive as it is uneven. The work consists of seven movements played without interruption, the shortest of which (the third) is less that a minute in duration, followed by the longest, about fifteen minutes long, consisting of a set of variations on a theme. In addition, the very opening movement is a fugue with a sinuously chromatic subject, meaning that the key of C-sharp minor is not established particularly firmly until the very last movement.

Such a description is likely to leave the impression that Opus 131 is an unwieldy beast that can only be tamed by the most experienced of ensembles. While Telegraph was formed less than a decade ago (in 2013), they played the music as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Ambiguities in both thematic and harmonic content gave way to the profuse diversity of interplay among different members of the group. Indeed, one even finds Beethoven reflecting back on the many witty turns of his early compositions. His sense of humor is very much still with him in Opus 131, particularly in the variations; and, while the Telegraph players tended towards deadpan demeanor (abetted to some extent by the masks they wore), it was clear they knew how to deliver Beethoven’s jokes without overplaying them.

Korngold’s Opus 34 seems to have been composed in 1945 in reaction to the end of World War II. Indeed, around the same time Korngold also composed his Opus 35 violin concerto. Championed (and recorded) by Jascha Heifetz, Korngold’s music fell out of favor when the pendulum swung in favor of atonal serial techniques. Fortunately, there has been a recent revival of interest in the concerto; and it was good to experience Telegraph according the same respect to Opus 34. It may be worth noting that, while Korngold seemed to enjoy seeding Opus 35 with several references to his film scores, Opus 34 is given a somewhat more “formal” treatment. However, even without any hints of familiarity, Telegraph gave an engaging account of the quartet’s four movements.

Alberga’s quartet has a single-movement structure. Much of its rhetoric is rhythmically energetic, so it should be no surprise that one of her major influences was Béla Bartók. Indeed, when we realize that much of Bartók’s energetic rhetoric can be traced back to Hungarian folk sources, it is possible that Alberga’s approach to that same rhetoric may well have reflected her Jamaican origins. Nevertheless, as is frequently the case with Bartók, her second quartet has a keen sense of abstract structure, leading the attentive listener through a series of episodes that unfold over the course of about fifteen minutes. This is definitely one of those “first encounter” pieces that deserves more listening opportunities.

Technically, the streaming experience was far more satisfying than the one for “opening night.” Most important was that audio quality was consistently improved, not only for the quartet performances but also for the introductory remarks provided by Maile and Chin. There was also “special intermission content.” Most informative was a “cyberspace conversation” between Chin and Alberga, which offered key insights through both the questions posed and the answers they prompted. (Some of those insights may have had greater impact had they been disclosed prior to the performance of Alberga’s quartet, rather than during the following intermission.) Less impressive was an extended profile of Telegraph, which went on far too long leaving at least this viewer itching with impatience for more music!

It is also worth noting that camera direction still needs some refinement. The good news was that there was an impressive diversity of shot angles. The bad news was that the angles alternated rather arbitrarily, sometimes at a dizzying pace; and, as a result, the camera was seldom pointed at the performer(s) most evident to the ear. When he directed videos of performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Jordan Whitelaw was known to have said “If you don’t see it, you may not hear it!” Whitelaw was so sensitive to this precept that much of his video direction was guided by his personal capacity for first-rate score reading. There are lessons to be learned from his methodology!

Thursday, October 15, 2020

SFO Brings Lucia to the Drive-In

Natalie Dessay singing the Mad Scene aria from Lucia di Lammermoor (photograph by Terence McCarthy, courtesy of SFO)

In addition to its Opera is ON service of streaming video recordings of past performances for opera lovers, San Francisco Opera (SFO) will pursue another approach by offering its first-ever operatic drive-in event. The opera to be presented will be Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and the video was recorded during the 2008 Spring Season. In this production the title role was sung by soprano Natalie Dessay. Casting also included SFO debuts of tenor Giuseppe Filianoti in the role of Lucia’s beloved Edgardo and baritone Gabriele Viviani as her brother Enrico. The production was originally staged at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence by Graham Vick, and it was brought to San Francisco by Marco Gandini. The conductor was Jean-Yves Ossonce, making his United State debut.

The video will be presented at the Fort Mason Flix Drive-In, where it will be displayed by a 40’ X 20’ LED screen. To make this a “real drive-in experience,” Off the Grid food trucks will provide snacks for viewers to take back to their respective cars. The event will take place on Sunday, October 25. 98 cars with pre-purchased tickets will be admitted beginning at 5 p.m. Vehicles will be spaced six feet apart with an eighteen-foot drive lane every two rows. Guests must remain in their cars during the opera and wear a mask when leaving to visit the food trucks or the restrooms. The running time of the opera will be approximately two and one-half hours. Tickets may be purchased through an SFO Web page or by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330. General admission will be $49 per car with a $5 handling fee. The entrance to the Fort Mason Center for the Arts & Culture is located at 2 Marina Boulevard.


More “Manufactured” Music from Harnoy

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

Tomorrow the Canadian Analekta label will release On the Rock. This will be the label’s second album featuring Canadian cellist Ofra Harnoy and her husband Mike Herriott, who serves as multi-instrumentalist, arranger, and co-producer of the album. Readers may recall that their previous album for Analekta was Back to Bach, which was discussed on this site almost exactly a year ago. For those too impatient to wait for tomorrow, Amazon.com has created its usual Web page for processing pre-orders.

Those with either long memories or web-surfing skills may recall that I was far from satisfied with Back to Bach. This had less to do with Harnoy’s talents as a cellist and pretty much entirely to do with the fact that every selection on the album was (to quote from my previous article) “a product of Herriott’s multi-track recording techniques through which both performers create ‘ensemble results.’” On the Rock is a similar “manufactured product,” this time bringing eight guest artists into the mix, five of whom are vocalists.

This time the repertoire is based on Newfoundland folk sources. (Herriott and Harnoy seem to have made St. John’s their home.) Experience has taught me that folk music has more to do with making, rather than listening. (One may go to both great lengths and similar expense when it comes to listening to someone as talented as Pete Seeger. However, I always felt he was there to teach me new tunes that I could then work with in my own way, no matter how rare and/or pricey the tickets were.) As a result, I found On the Rock as tiresome an account of folk sources as I had found Back to Bach a tiresome account of the early eighteenth century.

Caveat emptor!

“Classic” NYCB Program Bats .500

Yesterday evening I viewed the Classic NYCB YouTube video created as part of the Digital Fall Season of the New York City Ballet (NYCB). The program consisted of four selections, three choreographed by George Balanchine and one by Jerome Robbins. Only one of the selections, Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant,” was performed in its entirety. The remaining three offerings were excerpts, at least one of which was poorly served for being ripped out of context. Each selection had been recorded at a different performance at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center.

The most satisfying offering was “Duo Concertant.” Readers may recall that I wrote at some length about this ballet this past April as a follow-up to a review I had written about a recent CD recording of the music by Igor Stravinsky that Balanchine had selected (with the same title as the ballet). The performance of the ballet that I discussed was a film that had been made for German public television with NYCB dancers Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins.

The film was a very intimate affair. With its “backstage” setting, it suggested that Mazzo and Martins were working with violinist Cees Van Schaik and pianist Gordon Boelzner to prepare for a performance. The Classic NYCB video was truer to Balanchine’s original conception, which involved only these four performers on the vast stage of the New York State Theater. The result is a very limited deployment of the overall space but with an intensely profound impact.

In the first place the two dancers, Megan Fairchild and Anthony Huxley, spend much of their time as “audience” for the musicians, Arturo Delmoni, Concertmaster of the NYCB Orchestra, and pianist Elaine Chelton. Departing from the side of the piano to dance almost seems like an afterthought. However, Balanchine’s choreography is anything but, embracing an extensive repertoire of both solo and duo passages, several of which clearly reflect the polyphony in Stravinsky’s score.

The first “meeting of hands” in “Duo Concertant” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

If much of what unfolds feels like Balanchine-business-as-usual (albeit satisfyingly so), Stravinsky’s final movement (“Dithryambe”) comes as a shock. All the lights go out (requiring the musicians to play from memory). A lone spotlight captures Fairchild’s head and shoulders. Her hand reaches into a void and withdraws, after which Huxley’s hand appears, almost as if seeking Fairchild’s. When the hands confront each other, the spotlight deprives us from seeing any more of either of the dancers. Gradually, the scope of visibility expands; and we are back in the “normal” world of engagement between a pair of dancers. Ultimately, however, total darkness overcomes the stage, leaving both dancers and observers in an uncertain void.

If “Duo Concertante” concludes with such spare minimality, the final selection of the program, the fourth movement from “Symphony in C” (setting the only symphony composed by Georges Bizet) was the polar opposite. Sadly, the distance of those poles can only be really appreciated by those familiar with the entire ballet. Each of the first three movements of this ballet has its own corps de ballet, each reflecting the characteristic rhetoric of those movements. The final movement then serves as an energetic finale in which all three of those corps gradually go about filling the stage with eye-popping results. Sadly, the choreographic technique through which those separate corps come together to join forces can only really be appreciated after each of the individual corps has established its own character through Bizet’s corresponding symphony movement. In spite of that shortcoming, there is still so much to see in so many dancers occupying the stage at the same time, the polar opposite of the vast empty spaces of “Duo Concertante.”

The remainder of the program was much more disappointing. The program began with the first movement of “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet,” Balanchine’s choreographic interpretation of Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestral realization of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 25 (first) piano quartet in G minor. Balanchine was fascinated with Schoenberg throughout his career, but it is unclear that he could ever get his head into Schoenberg’s game (although he certainly made some well-intentioned attempts). In the Balanchine canon, Brahms is best known for providing the music for “Liebeslieder Walzer,” which choreographed the two collections of songs that Brahms composed under that title, Opus 52 and Opus 65.

Schoenberg’s project was slightly ironic. Brahms did not complete his first symphony (Opus 68 in C minor) until 1876, while Opus 25 was completed in 1861. However, Schoenberg was not interested in turning Opus 25 into Brahms’ “zeroth” symphony. Rather, he had his own ideas about instrumentation that ventured far beyond Brahms’ repertoire or instrumental sonorities. However, Schoenberg’s treatment is too elaborate with too many subtle twists to survive in the confines of an orchestra pit, meaning that one cannot really appreciate the imaginative qualities of his work in a ballet setting. Furthermore, it almost seems as if Balanchine, who could read orchestral scores as well as any of his conductors could, ever really grasped what Schoenberg had done (or, for that matter, what Brahms had done to inspire Schoenberg’s project).

What emerged gave the impression of Balanchine caught in a collision between theory and practice. As a result there was a disconcerting sense of the routine in his choreography of the first movement. Indeed, it is unclear that Balanchine “got his head in the game” before the wild gypsy rhetoric of the final movement. The good news is that the gypsy spirit was so compelling that one could walk away from “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” with a lilt in one’s gait. Sadly, that spirit never managed to take root during the first movement of this ballet, which does almost no justice to the many skills Balanchine could muster.

The remaining work of the program consisted of the final two movements from Jerome Robbins’ mammoth Chopin anthology, “Dances at a Gathering.” The selections by Frédéric Chopin for these last two movements were the Opus 20 (first) scherzo in B minor and the first of the Opus 15 nocturnes in F major. The entire ballet consists of eighteen movements. As one watches Opus 20, it is difficult to avoid speculating that Robbins was running out of steam, saving what inventiveness he had left for the apotheosis of the concluding nocturne. Sadly, the video document offered little beyond a sense of going through the motions; and, for all of this ballet’s popularity, my own feeling is that it should be allowed to lapse from memory.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Barbirolli at Hallé: First Viennese School

Having completed my coverage of the 78 RPM recordings of performances conducted by John Barbirolli in both Great Britain and the United States, I can now move on to the “higher fidelity” recordings found on the remaining 82 CDs in Sir John Barbirolli: The Complete Warner Recordings. As I observed when I first began this project, dividing this collection into a manageable set of categories is more challenging than it was when I discussed the Decca recordings of Herbert von Karajan. Fortunately, there is a “top level” classification that will probably be the most viable, particularly because it is the one that RCA used in organizing their anthology of the recordings of Arturo Toscanini.

The Free Trade Hall in Manchester, home of the Hallé Orchestra during Barbirolli’s tenure (photograph by Bernt Rostad, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

That organization is based on the ensembles being conducted. Barbirolli’s major affiliation was with the Hallé Orchestra, based in Manchester. When Hamilton Harty announced in 1932 that he would spend some time conducting overseas, four guest conductors were invited to lead the ensemble during his absence. Barbirolli was one of them, the other three being Edward Elgar, Thomas Beecham, and Pierre Monteux. As a result the Hallé Orchestra figured significantly in the 78 RPM albums that Barbirolli recorded; and he was invited to return to the ensemble after he left the United States.

To call Barbirolli’s subsequent tenure with the Hallé productive would be the height of understatement. It did not take me long to realize that this category was in dire need of division into subcategories. On the grounds that I have to start somewhere, I shall follow the lead of the Decca project by beginning with the CDs devoted primarily to the First Viennese School composers, but restricting my attention to orchestral music. After that, however, I have to depart from the chronological approach. Given Barbirolli’s contribution to the recorded repertoire, I feel that the “Viennese” category should be followed by an “English” one, again for orchestral music, covering the recordings that Barbirolli made of British compositions, regardless of when they were written. Where “everything else” is concerned, the bulk of the recordings involve nineteenth-century compositions. However, I shall provide yet another subdivision, first grouping the music of Antonín Dvořák together with that of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, after which the remaining nineteenth-century composers will be allotted a single subcategory. Then, there will be a separate category for Jean Sibelius, whose repertoire crosses from the nineteenth century into the twentieth. Finally, the concertante and vocal Hallé recordings will fill out Barbirolli’s recordings with the ensemble.

The remaining instrumental offerings will involve three groupings of ensembles:

  1. The Philharmonia Orchestra and the New Philharmonia Orchestra
  2. The London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra
  3. The “continental” ensembles: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Orchestre de Paris

The final recording will then cover the opera albums. It goes without saying that this project is likely to take some time; and, as they like to say in advertising, the organization will be subject to change without notice! That said, let me now turn my attention to the six First Viennese School CDs in the collection.

As in the Karajan collection, the primary offerings are the symphonies. I was impressed that Joseph Haydn should get the most attention with a single symphony on three of the CDs in this group. In “order of appearance” these are Hoboken I/ 83 (“The Hen”) in G major, Hoboken I/96 (“Miracle”) in D major, and Hoboken I/88 in G major. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven both only get two symphonies.

However, the first Mozart symphony, K. 201 in A major, is an impressive one, particularly with the opening in medias res measures that leave the listener wondering if (s)he missed something. Barbirolli’s approach elicited just the right combination of effects, a clear sense of beginning but an equally clear sense that the beginning had interrupted “something else in progress.” The other Mozart symphony, K. 551 (“Jupiter”) in C major, is far more familiar and known for the complex counterpoint in the final movement, given a distinctively clear account through Barbirolli’s leadership. There is a similar contrast in the two Beethoven selections, the early Opus 21 (first) in C major and the later Opus 83 (eighth) in F major. In the full canon of Beethoven symphonies, these two have the most explicit reflections of a sense of humor, and Barbirolli definitely wanted to make sure that listeners “got the joke.”

More important is that this is a First Viennese School account that includes Franz Schubert. Ironically, he is represented by two performances of the same symphony, D. 944 (“Great”) in C major. I suspect that Barbirolli decided that his first monaural long-playing recording did not provide an adequate acoustic account of how Schubert had deployed the full resources of a symphony orchestra. I am inclined to agree. However much I have internalized this music, I felt that more of the subtle details of instrumentation could be apprehended in the stereophonic recording.

This category also includes two “honorable mention” appearances. The CD with the Hoboken I/96 symphony has an overture by Carl Maria von Weber, composed for his opera Die Freischütz. Weber had little to do with musical life in Vienna; but Mozart’s wife Constanze was Weber’s cousin (and made it a point to remind others of this fact, particularly after her husband’s death). There are also two brief selections by Felix Mendelssohn, who, like Weber, was German and never advanced very far into nineteenth-century practices.

Finally, I should offer a note of clarification to those that have already bought this collection and have been listening to the CDs. Two of them cross category boundaries: One concludes with Jean Sibelius’ Opus 105 (seventh) symphony in C major; and the other concludes with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 90 (third) symphony in F major. Both of these break sharply with the rest of their respective albums, and they will be discussed for their presence in their appropriate categories!