Monday, November 30, 2020

Pocket Opera’s Mini Series: Whitney Steele

According to my records, the Pocket Opera’s San Francisco performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 Don Giovanni on the afternoon of Sunday, March 8, was one of the last events to take place prior to the full-scale cancellation of performing arts events throughout the Bay Area. Fortunately, Pocket Opera was a relatively early adopter of streaming video technology as a means of both maintaining an audience base and keeping their artists works. The result was the 3-Song Mini Concert Series, launched on YouTube on April 13 with a performance by baritone Anders Frölich, who had sung the title role in the Don Giovanni performance.

Since that time videos have been uploaded to YouTube on roughly a monthly basis. Following the Pocket Opera approach to opera production, all selections are sung in English; and subtitles are provided. All performances are collected on the Pocket Opera home page, easily found without too much scrolling. The response has been positive, and the May upload of soprano Chelsea Hollow received second place in the recent voting for Best Vocal Recital Performance and Best Streamed Performance Created During the Pandemic in the 2019–2020 Audience Choice Awards presented by San Francisco Classical Voice.

Rabihah Davis Dunn and Whitney Steele with fingers of pianist Frank Johnson (screen shot from the YouTube video of the recital being discussed)

The most recent of these offerings is planned for availability tomorrow. The recitalist is mezzo Whitney Steele. One of her selections is a duo with soprano Rabihah Davis Dunn, who had sung the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and had uploaded her own mini concert this past July. The two of them gave a socially-distanced performance of “Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour” (beautiful night, oh night of love), the barcarolle that opens the third (Giulietta) act of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. Steele began her program with “Voi che sapete che cosa è amor” (you who know what love is), the song that Cherubino presents to the Countess Rosina Almaviva during the second act of Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro. The program then concluded with “Quando me’n vo’” (when I go along), best known as “Musetta’s waltz” from the second act of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème.

Accompanied at the piano by Frank Johnson, Steele gave a confident performance of all three selections. Her blending with Dunn could not have been more satisfying. Indeed, the only sign of weakness came from the upper-register soprano demands that Puccini composed for Musetta. While Steele’s pitch in that register was solid, there was more than a suggestion that she was punching her way to achieving it. Cherubino’s register was much more in her comfort zone, allowing her to transcend much of the awkwardness of the English-language account of the text.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

First Encounters with Memorable Music

I just finished reading Joshua Kosman’s Sunday Datebook article in today’s Chronicle. The title of his piece is “My first encounters with memorable music;” and I realized that this is a game worth playing, particularly when current encounters must contend with the slings and arrows of pandemic conditions. Kosman probably knows enough about me by now to know how our tastes differ; so I feel it appropriate to begin with the one selection with which we are in furious agreement, even if he saved it for the last item on his list. That composition is Franz Schubert’s D. 956 string quintet in C major.

Kosman’s first encounter was due to an assignment given in a music history course. My own was a happy accident. I was living in Israel in the early Seventies, teaching computer science at the Technion in Haifa. Radio service was, to say the least, disappointing, particularly where classical music was concerned. As a result my FM tuner was locked on only a single frequency, and I would flip the radio on to see if anything interesting was being broadcast.

So it was that, one afternoon, I had my first encounter with the Adagio (second) movement of D. 956 (preceded by a few concluding measures of the opening Allegro ma non troppo movement). The experience was like not being able to put down a book after having read a few sentences. Having no idea of who the composer (or, for that matter, the instrumentation) was, I remained riveted to that Adagio. My curiosity sustained me through the remaining movements, after which I finally learned the identity of the composer. The way in which that movement seemed to connote time standing still brought to mind John Donne’s poem “The Ecstasy;” and, to this day, I am as hooked on that Adagio as I was almost 50 years ago.

I was glad to see that Steve Reich was on Kosman’s list with the ECM recording of “Music for 18 Musicians.” However, my own memories reach further back to Reich’s work at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Among the creations during that period, “It’s Gonna Rain” still reverberates in memory, probably because the energy level was so intense. Similarly, while Kosman remembers the performance of Meredith Monk’s Atlas in 1992 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), my own most memorable BAM encounter was the performance of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha about a decade earlier.

I suspect that my strongest disagreement with Kosman is over Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia.” Like many that have listened to this piece, Kosman called out the collage that Berio had concocted, creating a foreground whose background was the Scherzo movement from Gustav Mahler’s second (“Resurrection”) symphony. However, by the time Columbia had released the New York Philharmonic recording of this composition, I had been involved with collage as both listener and composer for about half a decade. Every now and then a performance of this piece arises (one of which was by the San Francisco Symphony); and the music no longer registers as anything other than a tired old joke.

On the other hand, Mahler is another matter. My first serious encounter with his music came about when an uncle of my mother’s gave me an album of his fifth symphony. I was hooked on that music from the opening measures of the first-movement funeral march, the same way that I was hooked on Schubert’s Adagio. These days I find myself relishing in the diversity of interpretation of this music that I have encountered through the many times it has been recorded. I suppose this is my response to Kosman’s endorsement of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, which I certainly appreciate but not enough to merit a position on my list.

Similarly, while Kosman and I seem to agree about the merits of Benjamin Britten, that composer’s solo oboe composition consisting of “Meditations After Ovid” (Kosman’s preference) does not rise to the level of memorability. For me that place is held by the serenade that Britten composed for a string ensemble with solo parts for tenor and horn. This is not only an extraordinary ride through a diversity of genres for the individual movements but it is also a thoroughly memorable tour of British poetry. I first encountered this music because it was on the “flip side” of the Purcell variations (“Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”), which I had to study for my orchestration class. There are more engaging elements in the serenade, however, than I can possible enumerate without boring the reader!

Saturday, November 28, 2020

SFO Concludes Video Streams with Comic Relief

Those following this month’s video streams of San Francisco Opera (SFO) performances through its Opera is ON service know that the offerings have been dramatically intense. Fortunately, the planners seem to have acknowledged that any frustrations arising from the limited approaches to celebrating Thanksgiving this year should be remedied through a vigorous dose of comic relief. Thus, this weekend’s offering bids farewell to November with Gaetano Donizetti’s comedy L’elisir d’amore (the elixir of love). The production captured on video by Frank Zamacona and his team was given eight performances between October 29, 2008 and the following November 26. Given the delightful impact of this opera, it is a pity that this round of performances was the last time the War Memorial Opera House hosted this particular opera.

Ramón Vargas and Inva Mula in the first act of L’elisir d’amore (from the SFO Web page for this opera)

The production was one of the most successful exercises of revisionism that I have ever experienced. The setting of the original libretto was in the Basque region, but Director James Robinson relocated it in both space and time. His staging was set in Napa Valley; and in the final scene all the soldiers that figure in the plot are confronted with the news of the outbreak of World War I. The protagonist of the opera is Nemorino, such by tenor Ramón Vargas, who is seriously smitten with Adina, sung by soprano Inva Mula, making her SFO debut (and her only SFO appearance to date). Adina is very much an independent woman, more interested in reading than in romance, while Nemorino sells ice cream from his truck. She gets her reading matter from the town librarian Giannetta, sung by soprano and Adler Fellow Ji Young Yang. However independent Adina may be, she is found irresistible by the army sergeant Belcore, sung by baritone Giorgio Caoduro, also making his SFO debut. The only other solo role is that of the huckster Dr Dulcamara, sung by bass Alessandro Corbelli, another SFO debut.

Nemorino appeals to Dulcamara for medicine that will make Adina fall in love with him. Very much a follower of P. T. Barnum, Dulcamara knows that a sucker is born every minute and that Nemorino is clearly one of them. So it is that Nemorino gets his “elixir of love.” In spite of the fact that it is little more than wine that has aged way beyond its time, he manages to win Adina by the end of the opera through the sorts of bizarre coincidences that provide the spirit and flesh of comic opera.

If the plot is ultimately predictable, Robinson’s staging keeps things moving in such a way that the high spirits never flag. However, it is the combined vocal work of both Vargas and Mula that really steal the show. Both of them understand that being expressive is not necessarily a matter of belting out the score at the top of your lungs. Both of them had a solid command of soft dynamics, presenting their respective characters as genuine flesh-and-blood individuals, rather than commedia dell’arte stereotypes. This provided conductor Bruno Campanella with the ability to set the pace of the music in such a way that the flow of the narrative is neither prolonged nor abridged. This allowed for a smooth flow interrupted only by the inevitable audience outburst of approval for Vargas’ interpretation of “Una furtiva lagrima” (a furtive tear). This is the turning point of the narrative, so having a bit of time for the audience to catch its breath is definitely in order!

Piano Break: Alison Lee

Yesterday evening’s performance in the weekly Piano Break series, presented under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation, was a solo recital by Alison Lee. According to my records, I first encountered Lee at a Sunset Music and Arts recital at the end of June in 2019, when she provided piano for the newly-formed Ensemble 1828 piano trio, whose other members were violinist Nicole Oswald and cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak. This group performed the music of Franz Schubert in a variety of different combinations; and Lee’s solo contribution was a performance of the last two impromptus (in G-flat major and A-flat major, respectively) from the D. 898 collection of four.

Last night’s program was far more diverse. Lee framed the program with two American “entertainments.” She began with Scott Joplin’s 1909 “Solace,” which he called a “Mexican Serenade,” and concluded with the “Quarantine polka,” composed by William F. Strong in 1885 in the midst of a smallpox epidemic in Iowa. Between these two light offerings, Lee provided three perspectives on virtuosity. She began with Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 19 (second) piano sonata in G-sharp minor, a two-movement composition that he called “Sonata-Fantasie,” completed in 1897. She then dropped back a century for the last of the three sonatas, in the key of D major, that Ludwig van Beethoven published as his Opus 10.

Overhead shot of Alison Lee negotiating Nikolai Kapustin’s Opus 41 (screen shot from the YouTube video of the recital being discussed)

Lee’s final virtuoso venture was the most recent work on the program, Nikolai Kapustin’s Opus 41 set of variations. I first became aware of Kapustin through recitals given by Yuja Wang, who seemed to appreciate both his sense of humor and his preference for jazzy rhetorics. Both of those features are evident in Opus 41. The variations are on the opening measures of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (where the bassoon sounds like a horn in its upper register); but the theme is deftly concealed in “all that jazz.” Those familiar with the history of piano jazz should be able to detect references to both Count Basie and Erroll Garner, but those cues pass almost as soon as they are noticed. Much more significant is the composer’s capacity for finger-busting virtuosity delivered with the sort of unabashed vigor that one tends to associate with Cecil Taylor. Lee managed all of those aspects of Kapustin’s score without ever breaking a sweat.

The result was an imaginatively-conceived program that was thoroughly engaging from beginning to end. Mind you, the deliberate frivolity of Strong’s polka was a bit disquieting under current pandemic conditions. On the other hand it also provided a pointed reminder of other situations in which the general public tended to respond to medical emergency with frivolity. Piano Break could not have picked a better time to present this selection than during Thanksgiving Weekend. The video recording of the entire recital has been uploaded to YouTube, where it is now available for viewing.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Before Eric Dolphy’s Tragic Death

This morning I decided to check out another YouTube upload of a Jazz Icons DVD. My selection was Charles Mingus Live in ’64, consisting of selections from three of the concerts that took place during the European tour that Mingus arranged in April of that year. As they appear on the DVD, the concerts are not in chronological order, for which the dates and cities are as follows:

  • April 12: Oslo, Norway
  • April 13, Stockholm, Sweden (the second of two performances given that day)
  • April 19, Liege, Belgium

The first of these, in Oslo, is excerpted, consisting of only the first four of the seven selections:

  1. So Long Eric
  2. Orange Was the Color of Her Dress, Then Blue Silk
  3. Parkeriana
  4. Take the “A” Train (Billy Strayhorn)

The Stockholm program was a curious amalgam of “So Long Eric” and “Meditations On Integration,” seamlessly melding rehearsal and performance. The Liege program consisted of only three selections:

  1. So Long Eric
  2. Peggy’s Blue Skylight
  3. Meditations on Integration

Except for “Take the ‘A’ Train,” all of the compositions were by Mingus.

Mingus put together an impressive sextet for the tour. This musicians were Dannie Richmond on drums, Jaki Bayard on piano, Johnny Coles on trumpet, Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, and Eric Dolphy playing alto saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet. Mingus, of course, played bass. On one occasion he suggested that he might move over to piano, but that never happened. Coles collapsed due to a perforated gastric ulcer during the performance in Paris on April 17 (while playing “So Long Eric,” ironically); so the April 19 concert was a quintet gig. Dolphy remained in Europe following the end of the tour. He was performing in Berlin on June 27, when he had to be hospitalized. He died after falling into a diabetic coma on June 29.

As in other Jazz Icons releases, the video quality varies with that of the crew making the video. On this particular DVD, the most satisfying work can be found in the Oslo video. As already noted, the performance in Stockholm seemed to be a bit disoriented; but there was something almost prophetic about the way in which “Meditations on Integration” wrapped up by revisiting “So Long Eric.” The performance in Liege made for particularly satisfying listening, but the camera never seemed to be looking in the right place.

There are any number of stories about the strenuous demands that Mingus would impose on his performers and the hostility with which he reinforced those demands. In that perspective I feel it is important to point out that the group interactions in all three of these video documents were consistently collegial. My only real regret is that the one performance of “Parkeriana” never got past a false start, even if it managed to account for an impressive number of Charlie Parker’s tropes in only a few minutes’ time. On a more positive side, “Meditations on Integration” unfolded as an elaborate multi-movement suite, allowing each of the performers to develop his improvisation around his own “signature theme.”

Dannie Richmond on drums keeping an eye on Charles Mingus (screen shot from the YouTube video being discussed)

As with the other videos, the YouTube site does not provide any information from the 24-page booklet that accompanies the DVD. Personally, I did not mind the loss; but I have the advantage of a rather rich collection of text sources about Mingus’ life and works. Beyond any text or music, however, I was particularly taken with the wildly frenetic energy that Richmond brought to his drum work. However, while his technique made for a very compelling appearance, the drum work itself never tried to dominate any of the other players. For the most part, Richmond’s work was moderated through eye contact with Mingus, which was seldom (if ever) interrupted.

The bottom line is that engagement among all six of the players was never less than scrupulously attentive, resulting in one of the most compelling jazz listening experiences I have encountered for some time.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Morrison Artists Series to Offer Virtual Concerts

Alexander String Quartet members violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist David Samuel, and cellist Sandy Wilson in performance (courtesy of the Morrison Chamber Music Center)

This morning the Morrison Chamber Music Center of the College of Liberal & Creative Arts at San Francisco State University announced a limited and virtual return to the Morrison Artists Series, now known as the Jane H. Galante Concert Series. There will be four performances, the first two of which will be presented by the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), consisting of violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist David Samuel, and cellist Sandy Wilson. The remaining two will be the rescheduling of a concert originally planned for this past March 15 and a performance by the early music ensemble Les Délices. All four events will be video recordings that will be uploaded for viewing on an “opening night,” date, probably at 7 p.m. The specific dates and presentations are as follows:

December 1: The first program will be devoted entirely to Johannes Brahms. It will begin with the Opus 67 (third) string quartet in B-flat major. The group will then be joined by its previous violist, Paul Yarbrough. The quintet will play a transcription of the second (in the key of A major) of Brahms’ Opus 118 collection of six short pieces for solo piano. The transcription for quintet has been prepared by Grafilo.

February 1: The major work on the second ASQ program will be Maurice Ravel’s 1903 quartet in F major. It will be preceded by George Walker’s first string quartet, a single-movement work composed in 1947. The Walker performance is being programmed as ASQ’s acknowledgement of the Black Lives Matter movement.

February 28: The rescheduled event will be the full-evening musical theater work Ain’t I a Woman, created for actress and a chamber music trio of cello, piano, and percussion. The actress will be Shinnerrie Jackson, and the instrumentalists have not yet been named. The text was created by Kim Hines to examine the life and times of four powerful African-American women: novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, ex-slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth, folk artist Clementine Hunter, and civil rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer. The musical score is drawn from the heartfelt spirituals and blues of the Deep South, the urban vitality of the Jazz Age, and contemporary concert music by African-American composers such as Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach and Diane Monroe.

April 25: Les Délices was founded by baroque oboist Debra Nagy in 2009. In 2018 they presented the March concert in the series organized by the San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS). On that occasion Nagy was joined by violinists Julie Andrijeski and Adriane Post, Emily Walhout on gamba, and Mark Edwards on harpsichord. The repertoire was drawn from the musical culture of Paris during the middle of the eighteenth century. Performers for next year’s concert have not yet been announced, but the program most likely will cover the same period that constituted the SFEMS program.

Most likely the hyperlinks to the respective video streams will be installed on the event pages for each of the concerts, which may be accessed through the hyperlinks on the above dates.

New Video of Vân-Ánh Võ at Bing Concert Hall

Vân-Ánh Võ playing the đàn t'rưng in the video being discussed (from a Stanford Live Web page)

Yesterday morning Stanford Live released the latest film in its digital season. Like the Kronos Quartet performance of its Testimony concert, the recording was made in the Bing Concert Hall on the Stanford University Campus. The new video features Vietnamese composer Vân-Ánh Võ, who has worked with Kronos as both composer and performer, appearing in the latter capacity as part of KRONOS FESTIVAL 2018.

Võ specializes in the sixteen-string đàn tranh, a Vietnamese plucked zither similar in nature to other Asian instruments, such as the guzheng (China), koto (Japan), and gayageum (Korea). For this performance she also played the monochord đàn bầu and the bamboo xylophone đàn t'rưng, indigenous to the Central Highlands of Vietnam. She led a trio, which I first knew as the VA’V trio but now seems to be called the Blood Moon Orchestra. Her colleagues are Gari Hegedus, alternating between the Azerbaijani tar and the Arabic oud (both related to the lute), and percussionist Jimi Nakagawa, who specializes in taiko drumming.

The program consisted primarily of Viet folk sources arranged and developed by Võ. However, her opening arrangement was “Lullaby For A Country,” composed by her countryman Phan Thanh Nho. The program also included one Turkish folk song, “Sultan’s Door,” which was arranged and developed for the Blood Moon Orchestra by Hegedus.

All this made for a highly engaging listening experience. I should offer the disclaimer that I am particularly partial to the đàn bầu because I was given an introductory lesson in playing it when I visited Hanoi in the late Nineties. Performance has as much to do with vibrato as with pitch, and Võ’s command of vibrato provided jaw-dropping evidence of how much more I had to learn about this instrument!

Less impressive was the overall production of the film itself. There were too many situations in which Director Elena Park failed to provide visual support for what the viewer was hearing. Indeed, when the sounds of Nakagawa’s percussion instruments involved soft dynamics, they seemed to elude microphone pickup almost entirely. Nevertheless, the attentive viewer will probably be able to “fill in the blanks” when it comes to associating different sonorities with each of the three performers; so it is best to attend to the assets of this account of the concert, rather than its liabilities.

The video itself has been uploaded to the Films & Screenings Web page on the Stanford Live Web site. Unfortunately, only Stanford students can view the offerings on this Web page at no charge. All others can only gain access by becoming a Stanford Live member at the level of $100 or more. That membership will provide not only complimentary access but also twelve months of benefits.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Piano Talk: Carl Blake

Carl Blake seated at the instrument he played for his Piano Talks recital (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Last night the Ross McKee Foundation presented the November installment in its monthly Piano Talks series. Carl Blake presented a solo recital entitled Jazzed Classics, a survey of composers influenced by Black cultural and musical traditions. Blake’s credentials include a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Cornell University, serving as Artistic Ambassador for the United States Department of State, and currently Director of Music of The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples here in San Francisco. He also taught piano and performance at The Music and Arts Institute when McKee served as Director. Last night’s offering was live-streamed and has now been archived as a YouTube Web page.

The scope of last night’s program was impressive. The earliest composer on the program was Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, son of his father George Bologne by an African slave. He served as a colonel in the Légion St.-Georges, fighting on the side of the Republic in the first all-back regiment in Europe. He is currently considered the first known classical composer of African ancestry. He does not appear to have composed much for solo piano; and Blake’s selection, an adagio movement in F minor, was not performed until 1977 when Natalie Hinderas played an edition prepared by Dominique-René de Lerma.

More interesting were the selections of familiar composers from the early twentieth century that revealed an interest in jazz. The more familiar of these is Claude Debussy, represented by “Minstrels,” the final piece in his first book of solo piano preludes, completed in February of 1910. This was preceded by “Granen” (the spruce), the final composition in Jean Sibelus’ Opus 75 set of five pieces given the title The Trees. While there were definitely jazzy qualities to Sibelius’ use of seventh chords, it is unclear that he was aware of emerging jazz practices as keenly as Debussy was. Similar doubts may be applied to the Cançó opening of the sixth of Federico Mompou’s Cançons i danses series. I tend to side with the Wikipedia author that attributed this music to influences from Cuba, Argentina, and Brazil, which may or may not have been racially based.

Blake seemed more in his comfort zone in approaching music by more recent Black composers based in America. These include Calvin Taylor’s arrangement of “This Little Light of Mine” from his Spirituals for Worship collection for solo piano, Jacqueline Hairston’s ode based on “Great Day,” “Jesus Walked this Lonesome Valley,” and “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” Robert Nathaniel Dett’s “As His Own Soul,” and the last of Richard Thompson’s set of six preludes for piano.

Blake was clearly comfortable with the breadth of his repertoire. His verbal introductions, on the other hand, tended to be awkward, perhaps because he was too occupied with reading a prepared text. Nevertheless, there was a diversity in his program that is seldom encountered in piano recitals. As a result, there is much to be gained from becoming better acquainted with all the the music he presented.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Albany Consort Announces Two Streamed Programs

The Albany Consort has announced the opening of its 2020–21 season with two streamed concerts. Both of them will be live-streamed in December and January, respectively, after which they will be archived as recordings for subsequent viewing. The necessary hyperlinks will be posted on the ensemble’s home page a couple of days prior to each performance. These will be free concerts, and tickets will not be required. However, attendees (and other interested parties) are encouraged to visit the group’s donation Web page.

The first offering will be a solo harpsichord recital by Jonathan Salzedo entitled brought to you by the letter f. The program will survey four composers, each from a different country, whose names all begin with an F. England will be represented by the song settings of Giles Fanaby. The Italian will be Farnaby’s contemporary, Girolamo Frescobaldi. The German will be Johann Jakob Froberger, who forbade publication of his manuscripts, meaning that only his noble patrons and friends knew what he had composed. Finally, there will be harpsichord transcriptions of gamba music composed by either Antoine Forqueray or his son Jean-Baptiste. This performance will take place at 7 p.m. on Saturday, December 19.

courtesy of Jonathan Salzedo

The title of the second concert will be The Roaring 1720s, performed by the Albany Consort’s All Star Band. The selections may well have been performed by the Collegium Musicum that met regularly at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig. Bach became the director of this group in 1729, and he will be represented by both the BWV 1041 violin concerto in A minor and the BWV 1052 harpsichord concerto in D minor. Appropriate to the season the ensemble will also play the fourth violin concerto in Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 8, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (the contest between harmony and Invention). That fourth concerto, in the key of F minor, is best known as the “Winter” concerto from The Four Seasons. The remaining composer on the program will be Georg Philipp Telemann with his descriptive suite based on episodes from Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote. This performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 28, with an “encore” on Saturday, January 30, at 7 p.m.

The video recordings of both concerts will subsequently be archived on the Web page of videos on the Albany Consort Web site.

Alex Winter’s Zappa Documentary

courtesy of Larsen Associates

This coming Friday will see the opening of Zappa. Directed by Alex Winter, the film is being described as the “first all-access documentary about the life and times of Frank Zappa.” Presumably, “all-access” refers to the prodigious breadth of footage of not only Zappa himself but also a wide diversity of those who worked with him and several of those that interviewed him. Running 126 minutes in duration, Winter’s film is definitely more comprehensive than Thorsten Schütte’s Eat That Question—Frank Zappa in His Own Words, which I discussed in July of 2016, back during my Examiner.com tenure. 93 minutes in duration, Schütte’s film is about half an hour shorter than Winter’s; but, writing as one that is primarily concerned with listening experiences, I do not feel that Winter had much to add to the profile of Zappa that Schütte had developed.

To be fair there are far more contributors to Zappa than had been interviewed for Eat That Question. However, my own perspective is that of one that takes listening to Zappa’s music on recordings very seriously (as well as having visually experienced his 200 Motels film). In that context I feel that Winter’s exhaustive account ends up distracting from much (but definitely not all) of the experience of listening to the music. Most important is that both directors acknowledge the significant role of the music of Edgard Varèse in Zappa’s development. Winter is more specific about the record album that seized Zappa’s attention, but one of the most significant episodes that Schütte captured involved Zappa conducting a performance of Varèse’s “Ionization” not too long prior to his death. On the other hand, very early in Zappa Winter captured footage of Zappa leading the original Mothers of Invention group in an “encore” performance of Varèse’s “Octandre.” The instrumentation was not quite right, but the brash delivery made it perfectly clear how the composer’s style had appealed to Zappa. Sadly, the film accounts for only the opening phrase; and I would be very disappointed if that was all the Mothers played!

I was pleased that Winter accounted for the only time I actually saw Zappa up on a stage. This did not involve the performance of music. Rather, David Raksin served as moderator for a discussion that brought Zappa together with Pierre Boulez. The latter had conducted performances of Zappa’s music with his Ensemble InterContemporain. This connection may have been elided because Zappa himself was not satisfied with the performances, and Winter does provide footage of Kent Nagano rehearsing the London Symphony Orchestra in a series of Zappa compositions that were released on a series of two albums. It may well be that Boulez was as unhappy about Zappa as Zappa had been about Boulez; and I found it interesting that, not only is Zappa never mentioned in the lectures collected in Boulez’ Music Lessons book but also the EnsembleInterContemporain and its base of operations, IRCAM (the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique, “Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music” in English) only appear in Jonathan Goldman’s Preface to the English translation of Boulez’ lectures.

The good news is that Winter provided much more footage of Zappa’s music being performed. I also felt it was valuable to listen to what many of the performers had to say about the effort that went into negotiating the many complexities in his scores. However, the listening is what matters most; and, for my money at least, I would have preferred much less talk replaced by much more music.

Fritz Reiner Before Chicago

cover of the collection being discussed

The Hungarian conductor Fritz Reiner is probably best known for his tenure with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the Fifties and early Sixties. (Reiner died on November 15, 1963.) However, prior to his move to the United States in 1922, he had established some significant contacts. The earliest of these took place during his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where his piano teacher was Béla Bartók. Then, as an opera conductor in both Budapest and Dresden, he had opportunities to work closely with Richard Strauss.

He came to the United States to assume the post of Principal Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. (A sidebar is in order here: I have a neighbor whose father played viola in this orchestra under Reiner. She relayed a story of how Bartók had come to Cincinnati to perform one of his piano concertos under Reiner’s baton, a delightful turn of events since the conductor’s student days!) In 1931 he left Cincinnati to teach at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where his pupils included both Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss. His next major conducting tenure took place with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra between 1938 and 1948, after which he spent several years conducting at the Metropolitan Opera before making his move to Chicago.

Reiner’s earliest recordings were made on November 22, 1938. He conducted the New York Philharmonic in two albums of three 78 discs. RCA Victor engineers made the recordings, but the albums were kept anonymous, since they were used for promotional purposes by the New York Post. As a result, Reiner’s name never appeared on a recording until 1940, when Columbia Records produced his first albums with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

This past September Sony Classical released a collection of all the recordings Reiner made for Columbia on fourteen CDs. Almost all of the tracks involve Reiner conducting the Pittsburgh. However, there is one CD with the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra. The album itself had been produced to showcase soprano Ljuba Welitsch, meaning that seven of the ten tracks were song selections in which she was accompanied only by pianist Paul Ulanowsky. However, her Met experiences with Reiner were represented by excerpts from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Strauss. Most importantly, Welitsch pretty much “owned” the role of Salome in Strauss’ Opus 54 opera; and the CD concludes with the final scene from that opera, whose dynamite qualities rise above any shortcomings in the recording technology.

There are also several tracks attributed to the “Columbia String Ensemble” and one to the “Columbia Symphony Orchestra.” These were probably “pickup” groups, recorded at the Columbia 30th Street Studio in Manhattan with musicians performing with both the Philharmonic and the Met. The “Ensemble” performances cover all six of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos and will probably make listeners with “historical preferences” cringe. On the other hand the “Symphony Orchestra” is accompanying Oscar Levant in a performance of Arthur Honegger’s concertino, a recording I had previously discussed in September of 2018 after the release of the eight-disc anthology A Rhapsody in Blue; the extraordinary life of Oscar Levant. I was delighted with the opportunity to listen to Honegger’s music then, and I was just as delighted to revisit it in this Reiner anthology.

The Pittsburgh recordings go for considerable breadth. My guess is that, between the orchestra’s management and Columbia’s commercial interests, Reiner had to make a generous number of compromises. Nevertheless, he did manage to include Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra” in the catalog, even if the only other Bartók selection consisted of two brief movements from the Hungarian Pictures suite. (The latter would later be recorded in its entirety by RCA in Chicago.) Strauss, on the other hand, gets more generous attention, which includes the Opus 60 orchestral suite compiled from incidental music for the Molière play Le bourgeois gentilhomme. The music of Johannes Brahms, on the other hand, gets far less attention but stands out with a dynamite account of the Opus 15 (first) piano concerto in D minor with soloist Rudolf Serkin. Curiously, Ludwig van Beethoven is represented only by his Opus 36 (second) symphony in D major. The earliest recordings are on the CD devoted entirely to Richard Wagner, and they left me hungering for an opportunity to listen to Reiner conduct one of that composer’s operas in its entirety.

If all this amounts to a somewhat uneven anthology, the high points are incontestably “worth the price of admission!”

Sunday, November 22, 2020

SFP to Record Beethoven Marathon for Streaming

One of the major offerings planned for the current season of San Francisco Performances (SFP) was an all-day Beethoven Marathon planned for Saturday, December 12, a few days before that composer’s 250th birthday. The schedule was to begin at 10 a.m. with a lecture about Beethoven delivered by SFP Music Historian-in-Residence Robert Greenberg. This was to be followed by afternoon and evening performances of Beethoven’s music performed by members of the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ): violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist David Samuels, and cellist Sandy Wilson.

The good news is that the entire performance will take place in Herbst Theatre as scheduled. The bad news is that no audience will be admitted. However, video recordings will be made of all three events. These will then be uploaded to the Front Row: 2020 Online Concert Series video archive on the SFP Web site. Availability will take place according to the following schedule:

  1. Beethoven lecture: December 17
  2. Afternoon ASQ program: December 24
  3. Evening ASQ program: December 31

There will be no charge for viewing these videos, and they will be available for the remainder of the 2020/21 season.

Program specifics are as follows:

  • Afternoon program: The string quartet selections will be Opus 95 (“Serioso”) in F minor and the second (in the key of G major) of the Opus 18 quartets. The program will begin with guest artists Yuri Cho (violin) and Paul Yarbrough (viola) playing the first (in the key of C major) of the WoO 27 duets.
  • Evening program: ASQ will play the Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor. Cho and Yarbrough will again open the program with the second (in the key of F major) of the WoO duets.

Patrons who hold tickets for the Beethoven Marathon have these options:

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

Patrons may inform SFP of their chosen option either through electronic mail (tickets@sfperformances.org) or by calling 415-677-0325 during business hours, 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Volti Presents Hege’s Ambitious Experiments

Yesterday evening, Volti, the Bay Area’s a cappella vocal ensemble that specializes in new music, launched its 42nd season, which will consist of four mini-concerts all held in cyberspace. The first program was devoted entirely to the premiere of Anne Hege’s “it sounds like all my dreams.” The piece lasted less than half an hour, but it could not have been richer in imaginative content.

The program sheet enumerated the resources for performance as follows:

  • SATB chorus, pre-recorded
  • SSATTB soloists, live-streamed
  • tape track
  • pre-recorded video
  • live zoom elements

The composition itself is in nine sections. Two of them are for the pre-recorded chorus, and two are for the soloists. These are interleaved with videos panning across the treetops in a lush setting (possibly the “forest primeval” that surrounds the Gualala Arts Center) accompanied by the tape track.

Hege provided the following note for the program sheet:

it sounds like all my dreams is an experiment. Through the creation and performance of this work, I am searching to find how life fits together in this new normal when music is made without hearing one another, when I am home every evening to listen to the crickets with my daughters, and when I am trying to fulfill my need to be musical often thwarted by distance and the limits of technology. Suddenly, what is musical to me is shifting.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my own mind that all the elements of the composition, including the tape track for the forest images, definitely make for a compelling musical experience. Indeed, like any good artist, Hege understands the limitations of her resources and exploits them to her advantage. This is most evident in the Zoom “conference” of the soloists.

The Zoom “conference” of the six live-streamed soloists (screen shot courtesy of Volti)

By now most of us are familiar with the difficulties of time-based coordination in Internet technology that resists establishing and maintaining a common pulse. Hege turns that bug into a feature (as the technology wonks like to say) by exploiting departures from that common pulse, rather than trying to avoid (or mask) them. As a result, the lack of synchronization among the soloists yields a unique sonority of its own, providing perhaps the most literal account of the sorts of shifts that Hege seems to have had in mind.

Equally important is Hege’s overall sense of pace. No individual section ever outstays its welcome. For that matter, the “forest murmurs” allow the listener to reflect on the vocal work just experienced while preparing for the section that will follow. As a result, the overall rhetoric is one of subtle movements churning beneath what appears to be a still surface. This is an act of making music that definitely deserves to be experienced more than once; and, since the overall framework is video, we should hope that the video will soon go into public circulation.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Neave Trio to Present Works They Had Premiered

Next month the Neave Trio will live-stream another performance from the Edward M. Pickman Concert Hall at the Longy School of Music of Bard College, which is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group, consisting of violinist Anna Williams, cellist Mikhail Veselov, and pianist Eri Nakamura, is currently Faculty Ensemble-in-Residence at Longy; and this will be their third program prepared for the season. Readers may recall that the first of these surveyed three centuries of music history with selections by Clara Schumann, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Jennifer Higdon. The second program revisited their Her Voice album of music by women composers with performances of trios by Amy Beach and Rebecca Clarke, along with a “reprise” of the Schumann trio.

The title of the next program will be Finding What is Lost. It will feature two works composed in 2018, both of which were premiered by Neave. The first of these is the fifth and final section of a longer composition entitled “Missing Words” composed by Eric Nathan. The work was inspired by Schottenfreude, a lexicon of newly created German words for the contemporary world, written by Ben Schott. (Note that the title of the book amounts to an example of its contents.) The entire piece is scored for fifteen players, including a violinist, a cellist, and a pianist; and Neave performed the final section for the first time at Longy in 2019. The second of the premiered works is “Another Chance” by Dale Trumbore, described by the composer as “a musical exploration of the creative (and composing) process: putting down an idea; obsessing over it; revising it; second-guessing and re-writing it.” These recent works will be coupled with Mikhail Glinka’s four-movement “Trio Pathétique” in D minor, composed in 1832 and originally scored for clarinet, bassoon, and piano.

The live-stream will take place on Saturday, December 12. It will begin at 4:30 p.m. here in California. (The performance will take place in Massachusetts, where the time will be 7:30 p.m.) There will be no charge for admission, but a donation of $10 is suggested. Information about the URL for the live-stream will be provided after advance registration through an Eventbrite event page.

Piano Break: Lisa Spector

Lisa Spector at her piano with her black Lab Gina (from her home page)

According to my records, I have not managed to schedule viewing a recital in the Piano Break series, presented under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation, since the beginning of this past October, when a video recording of a solo recital by Dale Tsang was live-streamed through YouTube. I suppose this is a good sign of how the Internet has made it possible for the concert season to continue, even in the absence of physical presence shared by performer(s) and audience. Yesterday evening I returned to YouTube to join the virtual audience for the latest Piano Break recital, a solo performance by Lisa Spector.

Readers of my preview article for the fall Piano Break concerts may recall that, due to a severe fall in 2017, Spector sustained seven fractures in her right hand, leading to a series of four surgeries. In introducing her program yesterday evening, she explained that considerable time elapsed before she could return to a piano keyboard playing only with her left hand. Most of her program was devoted to the left-hand-alone repertoire, the major offering being Johannes Brahms’ arrangement of the D minor chaconne that concludes Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 partita for solo violin.

While it is clear that Brahms clearly understood the widely diverse approaches that Bach took to embellishing the chaconne theme (in the major key, as well as the minor), one could appreciate how Brahms had harnessed his own piano technique in preparing his arrangement. As a result, the music itself is very much a “partnership” between a present-day composer and one of his counterparts from the past. (The two-hand arrangement by Ferruccio Busoni, on the other hand, is all about Busoni’s prodigious virtuosity as a pianist. To engage a theatrical metaphor, Bach’s music is rather like a scenic backdrop in front of which Busoni delivers a passionate soliloquy.) Spector clearly grasped the nature of the Bach-Brahms “partnership,” delivering a compelling account of music in which both composers had equal say.

Of the shorter left-hand compositions, one was an arrangement and the other two were composed explicitly for the left hand. Those two were collected by Alexander Scriabin as his Opus 9: a prelude and a nocturne. Both of these are multi-layered studies; and Spector clearly knew how to account for all of those layers. (It is also worth noting that jazz trumpeter Art Farmer was so taken by the theme of the prelude that he arranged it for his own combo.) The arrangement was the one that Leopold Godowsky prepared of the first of the Opus 25 piano études by Frédéric Chopin. In terms of the relationship between the arranger and the “source composer,” Godowsky is much closer in spirit to Busoni than he is to Brahms. Spector’s account of Godowsky’s version was definitely impressive; but it was hard to avoid recalling William Shakespeare’s Hamlet criticizing an actor whose performance “out-herods Herod!”

Going beyond left-hand-alone, Spector also played a nocturne written for her by Zach Gulaboff Davis, whose execution requires eight fingers. Sadly, this was an audio-only recital, whose only image on YouTube was the concert program. This meant that those listening to the performance could not observe Spector’s keyboard work for this piece and appreciate Davis’ underlying structures. In terms of what was audible, Davis should definitely be credited with presenting his own approach to a nocturne without evoking memories of familiar nocturnes from the past.

Finally, Spector followed the Godowsky arrangement with two-hand accounts of two études played as Chopin composed them, the second of the Opus 25 set in the key of F minor and the twelfth (and last) of the Opus 10 set, known as the “Revolutionary” étude in C minor. The second of these is more familiar to most listeners. It is also a perfect example of how challenging Chopin could be without the “assistance” of further arrangement! Spector gave the étude a solid account, allowing the composer to have his own voice without sustained undue exaggeration from the performer.

Friday, November 20, 2020

One Found Sound Announces Virtual Gala

As was announced at the beginning of the fall season, One Found Sound (OFS) will close out the year with its first ever virtual gala. This will consist of selections from two multi-movement compositions and a silent auction. The musical offerings will involve creative music video productions.

The program will begin with the first of the string sinfoniettas composed by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson in 1953. This will be followed by selected variations from Edward Elgar’s Opus 36, best known as the “Enigma” variations. Perkinson was a twentieth-century African American composer as comfortable in the jazz and pop genres as he was with classical music. His sinfonietta is particularly interesting by virtue of his unique sense of rhythmic inventiveness.

Guest artist Keon Saghari (courtesy of One Found Sound)

Every OFS performer will record his/her part from home. As was the case with the last two concert productions, the music video will be created by Max Savage, Video Producer for the Noisy Savage video production house. The result will also feature Keon Saghari, who is both a contemporary dancer and a roller-skater based in Los Angeles. Viewers should also expect some special surprise videos from the OFS musicians.

Gala attendance will be handled by an Eventbrite event page. There will be no charge for registration. Once it has been processed, those attending will receive the necessary links for the media-rich performances. Registration will also allow for participation in the silent auction.

One Found Sound’s String Quartet Program

Last night One Found Sound (OFS) hosted a ‘virtual watch party,” revisiting the two nights of “live” performances presented at The Midway almost exactly a month ago. This was part of a schedule The Midway had prepared of “outdoor and distanced dining experiences with music and arts from local artists and beyond;” and, from time to time, the camera shifted from the musicians on stage to the audience members enjoying their “distanced dining experiences.” (One was also aware of the audience through their enthusiastic responses to the performances.)

Annamarie Aria, Kashi Elliott, James Jaffe, and Christina Simpson performing at The Midway (screen shot courtesy of OFS)

The entire program was performed by the string quartet of OFS members Annamarie Arai and Kashi Elliott on violins (and sharing the leading part), Christina Simpson on viola, and James Jaffe on cello. The title of the program was STRUM, which was also the title of the final work on the program, a single-movement composition by the contemporary African American composer Jessie Montgomery. Her work was complemented at the beginning of the program by the leading female African American composer of the previous century, Florence Price. She was represented by a relatively early two-movement string quartet in G major, probably composed in 1929. Between these two works the quartet played the third of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59 (“Razumovsky”) quartets, written in the key of C major.

As the title suggests, Montgomery composed “Strum” to explore the variety of different ways in which instruments of the string family can produce sounds. Strumming clearly received considerable attention; but, ultimately, the single movement was a celebration of the diversity of sonorities. Price’s quartet, on the other hand, was based on more conventional performance techniques. The structural foundation tends to honor nineteenth-century traditions; but the prevailing rhetoric, with its occasional intimations of folk sources, definitely reflects the composer’s African American identity.

In such a context the Beethoven quartet made for a somewhat curious “spacer” between the works of these two much later African American composers. Nevertheless, we are now less than a month away from the celebration of that composer’s 250th birthday; so the selection was hardly inappropriate! The three Opus 59 quartets were composed for Count Andrey Razumovsky, who commissioned Beethoven during his tenure as the Russian ambassador in Vienna. The first two quartets appropriate Russian themes, which are explicitly identified in the score; but no such identification can be found for the C major quartet. In introducing the work, Jaffe reinforced the opinion that the melancholic rhetoric of the second movement (Andante con moto quasi allegretto in A minor) might have reflected a Russian spirit; but the use of the augmented second in the theme could just as easily have been a Hungarian reference! More important is that the quartet players gave a vigorous account of the entire score, reflecting the wide breadth of emotional dispositions that Beethoven had captured, laced with more than a few instances of his prodigious capacity for wit.

As was the case with the Midway video for the last “virtual watch party,” the camera work tended to enhance the listening experience, tracking the contributions of all four players both individually and in the various combinations that they formed.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Miguel Zenón to Live-Stream with Luis Perdomo

Saxophonist Miguel Zenón and pianist Luis Perdomo (courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

According to my records it has been well over a year since I wrote about jazz saxophonist Miguel Zenón. On that occasion, Miel Records was about to release his tribute album, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera. Rivera was known as a sonero mayor; and I took the liberty of asserting that this phrase could be better translated in German than in English, the German version being Meistersinger! Since Rivera was a performer, rather than a composer, Zenón led a quartet whose performance reflected interpretations of Rivera’s vocal style. The pianist for that quartet was Luis Perdomo.

One week from tomorrow Zenón will again partner with Perdomo for another instrumental exploration of the Latin American songbook. The title of the performance will be El Arte Del Bolero; and, as the title suggests, the program will interleave a selection of boleros with one of ballads. The show will be streamed from New York, and here in San Francisco it will begin at 2 p.m. on Friday, November 27. The video will be streamed through Zenón’s Facebook page. There will be no charge for admission, but a donation of $10 is suggested.

Barbirolli at Hallé: Soloists

The final category of recordings that John Barbirolli made with the Hallé Orchestra consists of compositions involving instrumental and vocal soloists, the latter sometimes involving choral resources as well. In Sir John Barbirolli: The Complete Warner Recordings, these tend to be organized around the soloists, meaning that, on all of the CDs, the Hallé “shares space” with other orchestras. That said, I shall do my best to focus only on the Hallé performances, holding the other tracks in check until I turn to their respective ensembles.

The most prominent of the soloists is oboist Evelyn Barbirolli, the conductor’s wife, who performed and recorded professionally under her birth name, Evelyn Rothwell, and only took the Barbirolli name after she was widowed. Two CDs are devoted to her performances, and most of the tracks are made with the Hallé. What is interesting is that the latest composition is the undated Hoboken VIIg/C1 oboe concerto in C major by Joseph Haydn, which is listed as having “dubious authenticity.” Indeed, the online Haydn catalog acknowledges only the first of the three movements that appear on the CD with no mention of an editor or arranger. However, Lady Barbirolli is credited with preparing the cadenzas for the first and third movements.

The fact is that almost all of the oboe concertos on these CDs are arrangements of concertos written for another instrument. The only concertos actually written for oboe come from Tomaso Albinoni’s Opus 7 collection of concertos, the third in B-flat major and the sixth in D major. The others are arrangements, primarily by the conductor, with two by the oboist and contributions by Charles Mackerras and Arthur Benjamin. Nevertheless, those willing to forego purism will definitely be impressed by the soloist’s solid command of tone and rhetoric without worrying too much about how many hands went into the music she was playing.

Among the other concerto offerings, the most interesting is that of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 15 violin concerto. This work was premiered in New York on March 29, 1940 during Barbirolli’s tenure on the podium of the New York Philharmonic. The recording would only be made with the Hallé in April of 1948 with violinist Theo Olof, rather than Antonio Brosa, who played the concerto in New York. This is the only recording of Britten’s music in the entire Warner collection; but it definitely deserves the attention of the serious listener, particularly since it predates the revisions that Britten would make during the following decade. Equally interesting are the two concertos that Barbirolli recorded with cellist André Navarra, Edward Elgar’s Opus 85 in E minor and Johannes Brahms’ Opus 102 (double) concerto in A minor, performed with violinist Alfredo Campoli.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers, whose repertoire may have influences Delius’ “Appalachia” (1873 engraving from The Illustrated London News, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

On the vocal side the “jewel in the crown” is the recording of Elgar’s Opus 38 oratorio The Dream of Gerontius with tenor Richard Lewis in the title role and mezzo Janet Baker as the Angel, as well as three different choral resources. One interesting feature of this composition is that the second part is about twice as long as the first. Since the second part fits comfortably on an entire CD, the CD for the first part usually has a preceding selection serving somewhat as an overture. In the Benjamin Britten recording made with tenor Peter Pears and mezzo Yvonne Minton, the first CD opens with Gustav Holst’s Opus 37 “The Hymn of Jesus.” The Barbirolli CD, on the other hand, begins with John Ireland’s “These Things Shall Be,” featuring tenor Parry Jones singing with the Hallé Choir. Since there are few opportunities to listen to Ireland’s music, this makes for an informative coupling. The other “discovery” in this category is “Appalachia,” a seldom-performed rhapsody by Frederick Delius that involves variations on an Appalachian folk tune. (Following the time he spent in Florida, Delius moved to Danville, Virginia, where he was probably exposed to the music that inspired his rhapsody.)

Finally, there is a CD that reproduces an album from my LP collection. Barbirolli conducted Baker in an album of the music of Gustav Maher with the Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer) on one side and the Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children) on the other, along with a “bonus track” of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (O garish world, long since thou hast lost me), one of the five songs that Mahler published under the title Rückert-Lieder. Friedrich Rückert was also the author of the Kindertotenlieder texts. Both his words and Mahler’s settings were well suited to Baker’s dark tones; but, for my money at least, she never managed to capture the optimistic spirit of the second of the wayfarer songs. However, that involves quibbling over only one track on the entire album!

I should also note that the Warner collection includes a “bonus” CD of excerpts from rehearsal sessions; and I was glad to see that a section from Appalachia” was included among those excerpts.

Evangelista’s New Improv Series Now on YouTube

Last night saw the launch of Unsolitary, a quarterly series for the presentation of improvised music produced by avant-garde guitarist Karl Evangelista. “Opening night” was a video compilation of three sets of highly imaginative and inventive spontaneous improvisations. That video was live-streamed last night through YouTube and now has a Web page, which is available for viewing and listening at any time.

The program began with a set of two extended improvisations performed by David Boyce and Phillip Greenlief. While this was my first encounter with Boyce, I have experienced and enjoyed several past solo gigs by Greenlief, the most recent being a video of of Monk from the archives of performances at Bird & Beckett Books and Records. Greenlief’s set with Boyce, on the other hand, was entirely and unabashedly original, with any signs of creations by past musicians being purely coincidental.

Indeed, the set pretty much departed from any sense of familiar tunes or themes, exploring instead the diversity of sonorities that can emerge from a saxophone, many of which were the products of extended techniques. In that setting, much of the listening experience involved the interplay of those sonorities, sometimes exchanged and sometimes explored mutually. Given that the set, as a whole, lasted for slightly less than half an hour, the inventiveness of both players was nothing short of prodigious, consistently moving into new territory just as the attentive listener was beginning to grasp the current one.

Boyce and Greenlief were followed by a solo set of a koto performance by Kanoko Nishi-Smith. My last encounter with Nishi-Smith took place at the Center for New Music in September of 2017, when she was improvising in a quartet led by oboist Kyle Bruckmann. I thus expected that she would again depart from the traditional techniques for playing the koto in favor of her own inventive explorations, and I was not disappointed. Through both striking and then bowing the strings, she elicited an imaginative spectrum of sonorities, presenting each as if she were holding it under a microscope for detailed examination. Her set lasted for about twenty minutes that unveiled a consistent series of surprises for the attentive listener, climaxing in a return to the original plucked technique for which the instrument had been intended.

The Revenant trio of Rei Scampavia, Karl Evangelista, and Nava Dunkelman (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Evangelista then wrapped up the program with his own Revenant trio. This included his Grex duo partner Rei Scampavia on keyboards, working with samples created by Tom Djll. (I last wrote about Grex this past July when Bird & Beckett live-streamed their performance of the five tracks from Alice Coltrane’s album Journey in Satchidananda.) The trio involved the addition of percussionist Nava Dunkelman.

Like Nishi-Smith, Dunkelman’s approach to her instruments made for a viewing experience as engaging as that of listening. Most impressive was the extent to which she maintained continuous motion, engaging with both traditional and unconventional instruments and, more often than not, attending to the subtleties of their sounds, rather than just percussive rhythms. This resulted in an absorbing parallel with the diversity of sonorities that Scampavia summoned through her keyboard work. In the midst of that activity, one could almost approach Evangelista’s guitar work as a continuo, providing a platform for the sonorous exchanges between Scampavia and Dunkelman.

Taken as a whole, the program invited the never-a-dull-moment cliché. Indeed, the abundance of inventive techniques that pervaded the entire 80-minute video made for a highly demanding listening experience. In uploading this video to YouTube, Evangelista was kind enough to provide the time-codes for the beginnings of each of the three sets. Experiencing these sets individually may well disclose further aspects of invention that might have eluded the listener dealing with the program in its entirety.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

PBO Announces Salon Series Concert

At the end of last month, eight of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra musicians returned to the stage of Herbst Theatre to record a program entitled Bach: The Unanswered Question. The title probably refers to the fact that the program, curated by Music Director Richard Egarr, will include the unfinished “Contrapunctus XIV” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1080 The Art of Fugue. (Readers may recall that Ferruccio Busoni prepared his own rather extensive completion of this movement for his “Fantasia contrappuntistica,” whose performance by Garrick Ohlsson and Kirill Gerstein was streamed by the Shriver Hall Concert Series last week.) This four-voice fugue will most likely be performed by the string quartet of violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Carla Moore, violist Katherine Kyme, and cellist William Skeen.

This performance will be preceded by BWV 1087, an appendix in Bach’s personal copy of the printed edition of the BWV 988 set of “Goldberg” variations. This appendix consisted of fourteen canons based on the first eight notes in the bass line of the theme that begins BWV 988:

Figured bass numbers from Ralph Kirkpatrick’s edition of BWV 988, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

There is some speculation that the number of canons had to do with Bach’s “computation” based on adding the corresponding numerical values of the letters of his name: B (2) + A (1) + C (3) + H (8) = 14! These canons will be presented by the aforementioned string players, performing an arrangement prepared by Egarr.

For the final selection those string players will be joined by Kristin Zoernig on bass and Katherine Heater on harpsichord. The ensemble will perform the BWV 1070 orchestral suite in G minor. While this composition was included in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis catalog, it is almost certainly not composed by Bach. More likely the composer was Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann.

As of this writing, a “trailer” has been uploaded to YouTube. The duration is only 38 seconds, and it appears to consist of an excerpt from BWV 1070. The complete video will be available for streaming at 8 p.m. this coming Tuesday, November 24. Most likely it will be found on the YouTube PBO home page. However, this article will be updated when more specific information is available.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Veretski Pass to Visit PBO Jews & Music Series

The Veretski Pass trio of Joshua Horowitz, Cookie Segelstein, and Stuart Brotman (courtesy of Philharmonia Baroque)

Those that have been following the different options available through the 2020/Virtual series presented by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) are probably aware of the monthly series of Jews & Music (JAM) events, JAMOnline. These offerings are co-hosted by Music Director Richard Egarr and Scholar-in-Residence Francesco Spagnolo. While guest artists tend to be PBO musicians, this month’s offering will see a visit from Cookie Segelstein and Joshua Horowitz, two-thirds of the klezmer ensemble Veretski Pass (as well as being a married couple).

Those that have followed this site for some time probably already know my favorite Segelstein quote: “This is not your grandmother’s klezmer. It is her grandmother’s klezmer.” The fact is that this is music that can probably be traced back as early as the sixteenth century. For that matter the origins of klezmer and songs with Yiddish texts probably took place a century earlier. (Then, of course, there were the Sephardic sources from medieval Spain, including songs with texts in both Hebrew and Ladino. In the early twentieth century, Alberto Hemsi was composing music based on those sources around the same time that Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály were drawing upon Hungarian sources in their compositions.)

This JAMOnline program exploring the intersection of early Western music with klezmer repertoires will take place tomorrow, Thursday, November 18, beginning at 11 a.m. There will be no charge, but registration will be required through a Zoom Web page. Registration includes providing an electronic mail address, which will be used to send instructions for how to connect to the presentation.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Christina Braun and Tom Nunn at C4NM

Last night Tom Nunn returned to the Center for New Music (C4NM) with three of his invented instruments. This was his latest program of accompanying Christina Braun performing her own solo choreography, entitled What are the Chances. Braun has been heavily influenced by Butoh techniques, most evident through her consummate skill in summoning up grotesque facial expressions, many of which can been found in the depiction of demons and tyrants in traditional Asian art forms, particularly those from Japan. However, those threatening demeanors were coupled with a highly imaginative sense of body geometry, often summoning up shapes of intricate balance that might collapse like a house of cards if executed by any other dancer.

Nunn brought three of his instruments to accompany the six dances that Braun created. Most of his work involves exploring rhythms through the manipulation of objects with different physical properties. In the past those objects were laid out in a pattern that would facilitate performing particular rhythms within or on top of a rectangular area resulting in what Nunn calls a skatchbox. For last night’s performance he brought three instruments, each with its own novel approach to design.

The Giant Skatchwheel exchanges a 33”-diameter circular sheet of cardboard for the rectangular surface of a skatchbox. As in the skatchbox, everyday physical objects of different material types and textures are mounted on the sheet and then stroked by comb-like objects. The sheet may be placed on a turntable and played while it is motion, or the performer may strike the objects with one hand while moving the wheel with the other. Each of these techniques was used, respectively, for two of Braun’s dances, “Roulette” and “A Roundabout Way.” The Skatchplate involves similar objects. However, the instrument is static; so performing it is very much in the same spirit of playing a skatchbox.

The major departure from the “skatch” genre is the Crustacean. This consists of a circular stainless steel plate, roughly the same size as the Giant Skatchwheel. A variety of bronze objects of different shapes rise from this surface and are stroked with small violin bows. This makes for a variety of subtle reverberating metallic sonorities, which usually requires amplification.

Christina Braun explores her sense of balance accompanied by Tom Nunn playing his Crustacean (screen shot from the video of the performance being discussed)

The otherworldliness of these instruments perfectly complemented Braun’s unconventional approaches to human movement. Indeed, one frequently got the impression that Braun had planned out most, if not all, of her choreography, while Nunn’s performance may have involved improvised responses to what he saw her doing. Mind you, there is a good chance that considerable rehearsal went into preparing this performance; but there was still an invigorating sense of spontaneity in Nunn’s techniques for engaging with his instruments.

The entire performance lasted about 40 minutes and is now available for viewing on a YouTube upload.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Barbirolli at Hallé: Sibelius

The one composer that deserves individual treatment in the recordings that John Barbirolli made with the Hallé Orchestra collected in Sir John Barbirolli: The Complete Warner Recordings is Jean Sibelius. Indeed, when he returned to HMV in 1962 after spending a little more than half a decade with Pye Records (which distributed in the United States through Vanguard Records), the composers that benefitted the most were Edward Elgar and Sibelius. Furthermore, where the latter was concerned, Barbirolli recorded the entire cycle of seven symphonies in 1967 and 1968. While more recent cycles have been recorded by major Nordic conductors, such as Herbert Blomstedt (who recorded them with the San Francisco Symphony) and Osmo Vänskä (whose recordings were included in the BIS Sibelius Edition), Barbirolli’s approaches to Sibelius could not be more perceptive and stand as some of the earliest beneficiaries of well-engineered stereophonic sound.

From a stylistic point of view, the symphonies cover considerable ground. The first three, Opus 39 in E minor, Opus 43 in D major, and Opus 52 in C major, present strong ties to the late nineteenth century; but it is the nineteenth century of Gustav Mahler, rather than Richard Strauss. (Sibelius was about five years younger than Mahler. The two of them met in 1907 when Mahler was in Helsinki, and they apparently had much to discuss about the nature of symphonic form.) The following year Sibelius’ health was deteriorating, and he had to travel to Berlin to have a tumor removed from his throat. In the All Music Guide to Classical Music, Chris Woodstra opined that this brush with death led to the composition of Sibelius’ Opus 63 (fourth) symphony in A minor.

1913 photograph of Jean Sibelius, taken no long after the completion of his fourth symphony (photograph by Daniel Nyblin, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

I have Michael Tilson Thomas to thank for my getting to know Opus 63. Unless I am mistaken, it is the only Sibelius symphony I heard him conduct during his tenure with the San Francisco Symphony. He was so excited by the thematic and harmonic ambiguities of the music than his pre-performance comments made for the most compelling introduction I ever heard him present. Much later I realized that I should not have been surprised by his passion for this symphony. There is a video document from WGBH on which he is conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance of it that took place on March 10, 1970, one of his earliest appointments.

Each of the remaining three symphonies has its own way of jolting the attentive listener, even if the impact is not as strong as that of Opus 63. Opus 82 in E-flat major is probably best known for the ways in which the conclusion of the final movement disorients the attentive listener with the suspense of sustained silences. The key of Opus 104 is specified as the Dorian mode (rather than D minor); and the ambiguities of some of its progressions might be attributed to the composer’s interest in the music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Finally, Opus 107 in C major, the last published symphony, is structured as a single movement, which is so disorienting that Sibelius originally called it a “symphonic fantasy.” There are two recordings of this symphony in the Warner collection, both of which have track listings that “parse” the continuous flow into some semblance of a four-movement structure. (The Vänskä release consists of a single track.)

The other selections that Barbirolli recorded are relatively modest. There is, of course, the inevitable appearance of “Finlandia,” two recordings of the “Valse triste,” originally composed as incidental music for Arvid Järnefelt’s play Kuolema (death), and “The Swan of Tuonela” from the Opus 22 Lemminkäinen Suite. My own personal favorite, however, is the Opus 11 Karelia suite, which may have been based on Finnish folk styles but sounds to me for all the world like the soundtrack for a Spaghetti Western!

Chanticleer Announces Virtual Christmas Concert

Chanticleer’s current “group portrait” (photograph by Lisa Kohler, courtesy of Chanticleer)

Readers have probably observed by now that any plans by Chanticleer for a 2020/21 season are currently on hold. Nevertheless, the annual holiday concert, A Chanticleer Christmas, will still take place. Under pandemic conditions, however, it will take place in cyberspace.

Working with Chanticleer, film director Frazer Bradshaw has created a concert video entitled A Chanticleer Christmas: From Darkness to Light. The film will extend vocal performances by including the traditional candle-lit procession and footage of the dawn of a perfect Christmas morning. The program itself will include holiday favorites, such as Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” setting and “Oh, Jerusalem in the Morning,” composed by Music Director Emeritus Joseph H. Jennings. The program will also feature seasonal selections from the early music repertoire, featuring composers such as Antoine Brumel and Josquin des Prez.

The film will be available for streaming beginning at noon on Tuesday, December 15. It will be remain for the rest of the month until noon on January 1. Tickets will be necessary to gain access to the video Web page. The price of a single individual ticket is $25. However, if two or more persons live in the same residence, they may take advantage of a Household ticket, sold for $42. A Web page has been created for ticket sales on the Chanticleer Web site.