Thursday, December 31, 2020

Post:ballet to Begin Year with Two World Premieres

About two weeks ago the Berkeley Ballet Theater and its Artistic Director Robert Dekkers presented Available Light, a livestream program of four new short films involving the collaboration of original dance, music, and film. Dekkers is also Artistic Director of Post:ballet, which provided guest artists for Available Light. One week from today Post:ballet will ring in the New Year with two world premieres. The program will be presented in collaboration with the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) as the first event in BAMPFA’s 2021 Digital Season. As was the case in Available Light, the choreography will be extended with film. Program specifics are as follows:

  1. “La Folia” is choreographed by Vanessa Thiessen. The work is a duet that will be danced by Kody Jauron and Colleen Loverde. The title may be familiar, since it is the name of a Spanish harmonic progression that is now recognized as one of the earliest themes in the history of Western music. Composers have been inventing and publishing variations on this theme since the middle of the seventeenth century, but the music for this performance was composed by Danny Clay for the MUSA Baroque Ensemble, which gave the debut performance on May 31, 2014, marking an innovative approach to presenting new music with historical instruments. MUSA will provide the music for Thiessen’s choreography. Four of the performers had given the first performance of Clay’s piece: violist Addi Liu, Gretchen Claassen on gamba, cellist Laura Gaynon, and harpsichordist Derek Tam. On this new film they are joined by violinists Emily Kriner and Sarah Douglass. The film was created by Stephen Kimbrell, working with footage filmed along the Columbia River in Oregon.
  2. A totally different experience will be provided by “Eight Whiskus,” choreographed jointly by Dekkers and Emily Hansel. Once again the dance is named after a piece of music. John Cage composed the piece in 1984 as a solo for low voice, but he then reworked the score for solo violin the following year. That is the version that Dekkers and Hansel used; and the violinist will be Helen Kim, Associate Principal Second Violin with the San Francisco Symphony. The choreography is also a solo, and it will be danced by Hansel. Her performance was filmed at the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park by Reneff-Olson Productions.

Emily Hansel performing “Eight Whiskus” (from the film by Reneff-Olson Productions)

These premiere offerings will be live-streamed beginning at 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 7. BAMPFA will provide the streaming. The site for the video has not yet been finalized, but it will be uploaded to the YouTube Web site for BAMPFA. The performances will be followed by a brief, moderated Q&A with the participating artists.

Brahms++ from Schiff and Widmann on ECM

Jörg Widmann and András Schiff (photograph by Fritz Etzold for ECM Records, courtesy of Crossover Media)

This past October ECM released its latest album of performances by pianist András Schiff. Schiff shares the recording with Jörg Widmann, who serves in two capacities, both of which involve music composed by Johannes Brahms near the end of his life. As a clarinetist, Widmann joins Schiff to play the two Opus 120 clarinet sonatas. Between these two offerings, Widmann appears as the composer of “Intermezzi,” music for solo piano played by Schiff. That title reflects on the last collections of short pieces for piano, Opp. 116–119; and many of those pieces were given the title “Intermezzo.”

It is worth noting that the “program” for the album begins with the second, in the key of E-flat major, of the Opus 120 sonatas, saving the first, in the key of F minor, for the conclusion. One should not be misled by the mode labels, however. The E-flat major sonata is the more melancholy of the two. While the other sonata begins in F minor, progresses into A-flat major for the two middle movements, and concludes with a sunlit Vivace rondo in F major.

Schiff and Widmann have been playing these sonatas together for at least a decade, featuring them in a recital they performed at the 2010 Salzburg Festival. Indeed, that recital also marked the premiere performance of Widmann’s “Intermezzi,” which can be interpreted as a musical portrait of the aged Brahms, at least in the approach that Schiff took to presenting Widmann’s score. It may be worth noting that Brahms died about a month before his 64th birthday, meaning that both the clarinet sonatas and the “late” collections of solo piano music were written in his early sixties. In our own terms Brahms would probably not be regarded as “aged.” Indeed, Schiff himself was 64 years old when the selections on this album were recorded in May of 2018.

Widmann’s composition is structured as a somewhat eccentric arch in five movements. The middle movement is about twelve minutes in duration, significantly longer than any of the other four movements. Indeed, the first movement lasts only about 45 seconds, followed by a movement whose duration is a minute and a half. The final two movements are somewhat longer, four and one-quarter minutes and ten seconds short of two minutes. Those familiar with Brahms’ music will recognize an abundance of familiar motifs that fill these five movements, and Widmann is particularly imaginative in fitting those phrases into a basically atonal framework. Considering that Heinz Holliger dedicated his 1999 solo piano partita to Schiff, there should be no doubt that Schiff is as comfortable with atonality as he is with nineteenth-century harmonic progressions.

When one considers this album as a whole, one is likely to be struck by just how different are the rhetorical stances taken by the two Brahms sonatas. In that context Widmann’s composition, which reflects on nineteenth-century rhetoric while working with atonal syntax, can be taken as a “spacer” between the two sonatas. As a result, there is much to be gained from approaching the entire album as a single, albeit far-reaching, journey; and there are no end of ways to gain satisfaction from that approach.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Operatic Barbirolli: The Final Stretch

It was a little over three months ago that I first started writing about recordings of the conductor John Barbirolli. At that time I referred to the Warner Classics release of Sir John Barbirolli: The Complete Warner Recordings as a chronicle of the very nature of recording classical music for the better part of the twentieth century. All of the sessions took place in Europe, and almost all of the albums involved performances in Great Britain. (The exceptions were recorded in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris and were discussed on this site at the beginning of last week.) In addition, I augmented my account of the recordings in this collection that had been remastered from 78 RPM recordings with the Sony Masterworks six-CD release of the recordings that Barbirolli made in the United States for both Columbia and RCA Victor.

The final category, which I shall now discuss, involves the operatic albums in the Warner collection. This includes three operas performed in their entirety, Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. There is also a CD that consists primarily of Puccini duets from Manon Lescaut, La bohème, Tosca, and Butterfly, sung by soprano Leonora Lafayette and tenor Richard Lewis. There is a single CD devoted to instrumental selections from five operas by Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the master-singers of Nuremberg), Tristan und Isolde, Lohengrin, and The Flying Dutchman, as well as two CDs of instrumental selections from Italian opera and Viennese operettas.

The greatest disappointment is that the Purcell recording is not particularly “historically informed,” even with Raymond Leppard at the harpsichord providing continuo. However, this recording was made in 1965 and probably had more to do with featuring soprano Victoria de los Angeles and tenor Peter Glossop in the title roles (along with Heather Harper singing the part of Dido’s servant Belinda). Perhaps the brightest spot on the album comes with the sea shanty delivered at the beginning of the third act by tenor Robert Tear, whose reputation was just beginning its ascent.

As to the “grand” operas, I find that I very rarely come away from a staged performance of Butterfly that does not leave me squirming uneasily. My reaction to recordings is no better, as I recently discussed this past August when writing about a Decca recording by Herbert von Karajan. Ironically, the one exception I have experienced took place in the fall of 2016, when Jun Kaneko (born in Japan and now living in Nebraska) provided the designs for the most recent production of Butterfly to be performed by the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Between Kaneko’s imagery and Leslie Swackhamer’s direction, SFO managed to get beyond the warped stereotypes of David Belasco, giving the music a fighting chance of rising above the narrative.

The Otello recording is more satisfying. Ironically, however, my primary focus did not dwell on either tenor James McCracken in the title role or soprano Gwyneth Jones as Desdemona. Rather, as in the play by William Shakespeare, the narrative revolves around Iago, rather than the title character; and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s account of that role is never short of dynamite. This is most evident in the second act delivery of “Credo in un Dio crudel!” (I believe in a cruel God); and Barbirolli’s conducting of the New Philharmonic Orchestra underscores every one of Fischer-Dieskau’s subtle details.

As to the duets and the instrumental selections, none of the tracks rise above the level of mildly satisfying. Barbirolli is clearly not in his comfort zone when taking on the operatic repertoire. However, given the heights of so many of the other performances in this Warner collection, there are clearly no end of reasons why his recordings are just as significant today as they were when he was alive.

Media-Rich Dance from MJDC and Colleagues

Breathing at the Boundaries seems to have been conceived by choreographer Margaret Jenkins for her Margaret Jenkins Dance Company (MJDC) as a reflection on the lockdown conditions imposed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Working with visual designer Alexander V. Nichols, she created a one-hour work to present dancers both isolated and “in touch” through either physical presence or “remote contact.” The work was created to be staged with four performing dancers (Dalton Alexander, Crystaldawn Bell, Alex Carrington, and Keely Del Rosario) interacting with four dancers on film (Kristen Bell, Corey Brady, Norma Fong, and Chinchin Hsu). Four performances were planned for the weekend prior to Thanksgiving, but these had to be cancelled as COVID-19 cases continued to rise.

Jenkins then reconceived her work as a “fully cinematic event.” In other words viewers would engage with the performance through a single screen, and the premiere took place last night with that screen provided by YouTube. [updated 12/30, 10:55 a.m.: That performance, which lasts about an hour, has now be uploaded to the MJDC home page, where it will be available for viewing until January 6.]

One of the first instances of engagement between a “projected” dancer and a “physical” one (screen shot from the YouTube video being discussed)

The “dancers on film” were projected onto panels, spaced in such a way that the “physical” dancers could “navigate” among the projected ones. It is to the credit of the entire production team that this highly imaginative balance of the physical and the virtual could be fully appreciated, even when all of the content was itself projected onto a single “YouTube screen.” Indeed, the interactions, both “between” and “among,” were so rich in choreographic vocabulary that it would be impossible to appreciate the full extent of Jenkins’ creation from a single viewing.

The music for Breathing at the Boundaries was composed by Paul Dresher, working in conjunction with Joel Davel. Dresher and Davel have been performing as a duo for some time, and they were also the primary performers for Breathing at the Boundaries. However, there were also contributions (most likely virtual) from cellist Ashley Bathgate, pianist Lisa Moore, and Marja Mutru on electronic keyboard. Dresher and Davel appeared to be playing “live” with the dancers, and images of them in performance were occasionally interleaved with those of the dancers.

The other major contributor was Rinde Eckert, reciting a text, presumably of his own composition. It is through that text that one cultivates some appreciation of Jenkins’ choice of title. Nevertheless, while Eckert’s delivery was clear and accessible, the content was so rich and so much in need of reflection that it was difficult to keep up with him. For the most part those recitations were solo performances, presumably chosen to set context for the choreography. However, given how much was unfolding over the course of this one-hour performance, I confess that I shall have to return to the YouTube video before establishing any conjectures regarding the relations between words and music!

That said, I look forward to setting aside time to experience Breathing at the Boundaries a second time, probably also anticipating a third one!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Music at Kohl Mansion to Offer Virtual Concerts

Yesterday Music at Kohl Mansion (MAKM) announced that its 38th season will consist of virtual performances by five international ensembles. Each concert will feature a prerecorded video, which will be given two “live” streamings. Each event will be one hour in duration presented by an internationally-acclaimed ensemble and preceded by a background introduction prepared and delivered by MAKM musicologist Kai Christiansen. Program specifics are as follows:

  1. Sunday, January 24, 7 p.m., and Thursday, January 28, 6 p.m., Alexander String Quartet (ASQ): Following up on their Beethoven Marathon concerts for San Francisco Performances, ASQ will play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major; this will be one of the last performances in which violist Paul Yarbrough will join violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz and cellist Sandy Wilson.
  2. Sunday, February 28, 7 p.m., and Thursday, March 4, 6 p.m., Maxwell Quartet: Violinists Colin Scobie and George Smith, violist Elliott Perks, and cellist Duncan Strachan will play Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 106 quartet in G major and a selection of Scottish folk songs.
  3. Sunday, March 14, 7 p.m., and Thursday, March 18, 6 p.m., Ying Quartet: Violinists Robin Scott and Janet Ying, violist Philip Ying, and cellist David Ying will play the first of Bedřich Smetana’s two string quartets, written in the key of E minor with the subtitle “From My Life;” this will be followed by two single-movement selections, Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade” and Giacomo Puccini’s “Crisantemi” (chrysanthemums).
  4. Sunday, April 11, 7 p.m., and Thursday, April 25, 6 p.m., Danel Quartet: Clarinetist Pascal Maraguès will join violinists Marc Danel and Gilles Milet, violist Vlad Bogdanas, and cellist Yovan Markovitch in a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 581 clarinet quintet; the remainder of the program will be announced at a later date.
  5. Sunday, May 9, 7 p.m., and Thursday, May 13, 6 p.m., Horszowski Trio: Pianist Rieko Aizawa was the last pupil of Mieczysław Horszowski at the Curtis Institute of Music. She founded a trio in his memory and performs with violinist Jesse Mills and cellist Ole Akahoshi. The program will couple Jean Sibelius’ fourth trio in C major (subtitled “Lovisa”) with Franz Schubert’s D. 898 trio in B-flat major.

Admission for a connection to the video stream will be $20 for each program. There will also be a “Buy 4, Get one more” promotional rate for the full season through January 28. A Web page has been created for purchasing tickets online, and tickets may also be ordered through the MAKM Box Office at 650-762-1130. Those wishing to exercise the discount for all five concerts should note that “Buy 4, Get one more” is hyperlinked to the Web page for this option. All dates are similarly hyperlinked, along with options for selecting two or three concerts.

First Toscanini Recordings Now Downloadable

courtesy of Naxos of America

When it comes to a comprehensive digital account of the conducting career of Arturo Toscanini on recordings, the “gold standard” is, unquestionably, the 2012 release by Sony Music Entertainment of The Complete RCA Collection. This consists of 72 volumes filling 84 CDs along with a DVD of Peter Rosen’s film Toscanini: The Maestro. However, this CD release had been preceded in 2007 by a single CD on the Symposium label entitled The First Recordings: 1920–1926, which is still available for purchase through Amazon.com. About two and one-half months ago Guild Music Limited created MP3 digitizations of the sixteen tracks on this album, and Amazon.com has made them available for both streaming and download. When downloaded, the MP3 album includes an eight-page booklet featuring an extended essay by Robert Matthew-Walker providing historical context for the sixteen tracks.

For those interested in completeness, all but one of those sixteen tracks can also be found in the complete RCA collection. The one unique track is the second recording on The First Recordings of the Scherzo movement from the incidental music that Felix Mendelssohn composed for a performance of William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This selection appeared twice on the Symposium album. The first was recorded at the RCA studio in Camden, New Jersey, when Toscanini brought the La Scala Theatre Orchestra to perform and record in the United States prior to the re-opening of the opera house in 1921. The recording that is not included in the RCA collection was made early in 1926 at Carnegie Hall at the beginning of his tenure conducting the New York Philharmonic. This latter recording was made by Brunswick; and Matthew-Walker is a bit lame in comparing it with the earlier La Scala recording, writing “the performance is no mere carbon-copy in terms of interpretation, though the differences are minimal.”

I wanted to offer a generous account of the context behind the Symposium release for the benefit of those wishing to learn more about Toscanini’s career as a conductor. Calling the RCA collection the “gold standard” is no mere cliché. There was an almost awesome breadth to Toscanini’s repertoire, and any effort to cite compositions that he did not record would amount to pedantic nit-picking. On the other hand that complete anthology is not available for download from Amazon.com, which, in my own humble opinion, seems entirely reasonable. Thus, Guild Music Limited has provided a valuable download opportunity for those interest in “early Toscanini” and are willing to tolerate the shortcomings of recording technology a century ago. This is not to dismiss the digital remastering achievements of Peter Reynolds, but it is difficult to enhance signals that were not picked up by a microphone in the first place!

Monday, December 28, 2020

Two Women Composers Rendezvous in Leipzig

courtesy of Naxos of America

About two and one-half months ago, the Swedish dB Productions label released an album of little-known historical significance. It involved the fact that, during the 1870s, there were two women composers studying in Leipzig, Ethel Smyth from the United Kingdom and Amanda Röntgen-Maier from Sweden, both of whom received lessons in composition at the Leipzig Conservatory. Leipzig was also where then Amanda Maier met the German-Dutch pianist and composer Julius Röntgen, who would become her husband in 1880.

The title of the recently-released album is Rendezvous: Leipzig, and it presents quartets by both of these composers that were probably written in Leipzig. The Smyth selection is her quartet in the key of C minor, which was completed in 1883. (Only her first quartet was given a number. Between 1882 and 1884 she was working on both the C minor quartet and another quartet in E-flat major.) Maier’s quartet, in the key of A major, was probably composed in 1877 but never completed. In 2019 the Swedish composer B. Tommy Andersson completed the first (Allegro) movement and reconstructed the Presto Finale. The album is available for download from Amazon.com. As of this writing, the physical release only seems to be available through European sources; and delivery may be subject to significant delay.

On Rendezvous: Leipzig the quartets are performed by the Maier Quartet, named in honor of the composer. Its members are musicians from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and there appears to have been a personnel change while these quartets were being recorded. Thus, the Maier performance was by Johannes Lörstad on first violin, Patrik Swedrup on second violin, violist Arne Stenlund, and cellist Klas Gagge. For the Smyth quartet Swedrup switched to first violin, and Henrik Peterson joined the group as second violin.

Both of these composers may be familiar to readers of this site. Smyth was acknowledged as the composer of the “March of the Women,” which became the anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the leading suffragist organization in Britain. In addition, her last major composition, written between 1929 and 1930, was a cantata for soprano, bass, choir, and orchestra entitled The Prison; and this site discussed a recording of this music released by Chandos at the beginning of this past August. In writing about this album, I described the cantata as “an early twentieth-century reflection on the late nineteenth-century traditions that influenced Smyth’s music education;” and the C minor quartet offers more explicit signs of those influences.

On the other hand my first encounter with Röntgen-Maier came through her 1878 sonata for violin and piano in B minor on a “flute recital” album of Paula Gudmundson, playing a transcription by Carol Wincenc. Like Röntgen-Maier’s unfinished quartet, this sonata reflects the traditions that had accumulated over the course of the nineteenth century. Sadly, the composer died in 1894, never experiencing the changing times of the early twentieth century as Smyth did.

Within all of this context, the new album by the Maier Quartet may serve to expand our scope of late nineteenth-century practices. Personally, I tend to view those practices as defining a trajectory from the early career of Ludwig van Beethoven to the tone poems of Richard Strauss. The two quartets presented on Rendezvous: Leipzig can be clearly situated along that trajectory, but it is unclear that they add much to the more familiar repertoire that has come to define it.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Thelonious Monk in Scandinavia in 1966

Once again YouTube allowed me to view another upload of a DVD in the Jazz Icons series. This time my selection was Thelonious Monk Live in ’66, and it consisted of two half-hour videos made, respectively, in Oslo, Norway, and Denmark (probably in Copenhagen) on April 15 and 17, respectively. The Oslo video captured a performance to a sold-out auditorium on the campus of the University of Oslo, while the Danish video was a studio recording.

From a personal point of view, this tour took place a couple of years before I first walked into the Village Vanguard to listen to (and observe) Monk in performance. However, I have to say that these videos made for a significant improvement over actually “being there.” The primary reason is that, in both cities, there was always a camera that afforded generous views of Monk’s hands at the piano keyboard.

Monk’s keyboard skills were, to say the least, unique. They were often aggressive; and, frequently, one got the impression that Monk was planning his next move as each key or combination of keys registered with the ear. One came away feeling that there was more spontaneity than one usually encountered, as if Monk knew what his favorite riffs were but always wanted to seek out others. The result tends to feel more like restless struggle than an intimate engagement between pianist and the other performers, Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Larry Gales on bass, and Ben Riley on drums.

The workings of Monk’s creative mind are probably best on display in his Denmark performance of Jimmy McHugh’s “Don’t Blame Me.” It is clear that the rest of the combo gave Monk all the space he needed, as if adding to the mix might break some sort of spell being incanted by the solo piano work. Nevertheless, the camera caught an amusing shot of Gales plucking an imaginary bass while Monk blazed his own trail through a tune that was over 30 years old when he played it.

Each of the performances involved only three tunes. Harry Warren’s “Lulu’s Back in Town” opened both sets. The rest of the Oslo program consisted of Monk originals, “Blue Monk” and “’Round Midnight.” In Denmark “Don’t Blame Me” followed “Lulu,” leaving “Epistrophy” as the only Monk original. That said, however, these videos present much more about Monk the performer than they do about Monk the composer. Indeed, the camera work in both settings is as attentive to the performance techniques of the rest of the combo as it is to Monk’s unique keyboard style.

Watching Monk at the Vanguard was a mixed experience. When he was not playing, he liked to stand away from his instrument, sometimes doing a little shuffle in response to solos from the rest of his group. Since this was a “first contact” experience, I was not sure what to make of it; and, of course, I never had the benefit of a “camera’s eye view” of the keyboard. Watching this video, I felt as if I was finally getting my head around why Monk’s music sounded the way it did.

Mark Kroll’s Couperin Project: Volume Nine

courtesy of Naxos of America

Mark Kroll has now entered the final stretch in his project to record the complete keyboard works of François Couperin on Centaur Records. Volume 9 was released about two months ago, leaving only one CD remaining to complete the set. Curiously, this new album includes the last two ordres in the entire Pièces de clavecin collection, the 26th in F-sharp minor and the 27th in B minor. These are the shortest in the entire set, five pieces in the 26th ordre and four in the 27th. However, what makes these particularly interesting is that they were recorded at a “live” performance at the Museu de la Música de Barcelona on November 19, 2018. These two short ordres are preceded by the 24th ordre, consisting of eight pieces in A minor-major. Thus, the remaining ordres to be released are the fifteenth and sixteenth, which will probably be accompanied on the final volume with the allemande and eight preludes included as examples in Couperin’s treatise L’Art de toucher le clavecin (the art of playing the keyboard).

Once again it is helpful to consult the Dover Publications 1988 reissue of the edition of Couperin’s keyboard works collected by Johannes Brahms and Friedrich Chrysander for publication in 1888. The Dover English translations of several of Couperin’s titles can often be helpful, particularly in the 24th ordre. The third piece in this collection is a rondo with the eyebrow-raising title “Les dars-homicides.” It turns out that this translates into “the fatal darts,” leaving much to imagination of the listener. More cheerful is the lengthy title “La Divine Babiche ou les amours badins,” which Dover translates as “the divine little dog, or playful loves.”

As I have frequently observed, Couperin wrote these pieces for playing, rather than listening. Furthermore, judging by my own experiences, I would say that he was sympathetic to well-intentioned “amateurs” that enjoyed the diversion of exercising their keyboard skills, no matter how limited those skills may be. The idea of sit-still-and-listen music probably never entered Couperin’s mind. In this context I find that I have approached Kroll’s recordings for their pedagogical value, providing “remote guidance” when I turn my attention to playing any of the pieces in this generous collection of music.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Month-by-Month Memories of 2020

Those that have been reading this site for some time know that I have my own approach to writing about the year in review. Rather than trying to juggle with the adjective “best,” I review my articles for the year and then try to single out the “most memorable concert” for each month of the year. Similarly, I try to write about recordings in terms of their memorability. In this case I do not try to take a month-by-month approach, preferring instead to offer an alternative to following the GRAMMY nominations (which I have not yet reviewed for this year, assuming that there will be some form of award ceremony).

It goes without saying that this year is different. For all intents and purposes the “physical concert experience” went “off the map” and just about any San Francisco venue, once Mayor London N. Breed ordered the cancellation of all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center on March 6. As a result, I have organized my review of this year in terms of my own writing activities, preparing a month-by-month account of the memorability of the articles themselves, as well as what those articles were reporting.

I suppose the good news is than, even in the shadow of COVID-19, I have managed to keep myself as busy as ever. As a result the process of making choices has not changed much from what I did a year ago. The only difference is that those choices now involve “virtual” experiences, as well as the few “physical” ones I encountered during the first three months of the year. That said, here is my month-by-month account with hyperlinks to the associated articles:

January: Alla Kovgan’s Cunningham documentary. Readers may recall that the first thing I said about this film was that calling it a documentary would sell it short. In documenting the artistic evolution of choreographer Merce Cunningham over the period from 1944 to 1972, Kovgan decided to use three-dimensional cameras to capture contemporary performances of his dances. Given how much Cunningham’s work involved the interplay of space and time, providing a more faithful account of how both dancers and those in the audience experienced space significantly enhanced the viewer’s appreciation of what the choreographer was doing. That said, I should also confess that watching this film turned out to be a much more delightful trip down memory lane than I had anticipated!

February: Garrick Ohlsson’s Brahms recital for San Francisco Performances. This was the third of what was to be a series of four recitals presenting all the solo piano compositions by Johannes Brahms. This was the program that took on the Opus 5 (third) piano sonata in F minor, a beast so unwieldy that I do not expect to encounter it in recital very often. As I had hoped, Ohlsson made the encounter thoroughly engaging and indelibly memorable.

March: Lockdown is announced at the intermission of a San Francisco Ballet performance. I was in my junior year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the northeast blackout of 1965, meaning that, for many years, I would frequently be engaged in conversations that began “Where were you when the lights went out?” That question will now change to “Where were you when shelter-in-place was imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19?” Ironically, I was in the War Memorial Opera House for the opening night performance of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my first encounter with a performance of Balanchine’s choreography in about 40 years. How could the occasion be anything other than memorable?

April: Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant” on film. It did not take me long to realize that watching films and video through the Internet would be the best way to keep up my writing. I also decided to afford myself the luxury of writing about what I felt were significant archival offerings, rather than restricting myself to “fresh” (at least relatively) content. After having written about a new album of Igor Stravinsky’s music for violin and piano prepared by Portuguese violinist Bruno Monteiro, I realized that my own interest in Stravinsky’s “Duo Concertant” had much to do with by having seen the choreography that Balanchine had created for this music. Much to my delight, I found a YouTube video of a performance by the dancers for whom the ballet was created, Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins. Balanchine’s choreography situated the musicians on stage, where they would be “visited” by the two dancers; and on this 1975 film by Hugo Niebeling, jointly produced by Unitel and the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, second German television) public television channel, those musicians are violinist is Cees Van Schaik, accompanied by Gordon Boelzner at the piano. The performance has the intimacy of “chamber music for two musicians and two dancers;” and I would say that it is one of the best ways to get to know Stravinsky’s neoclassical approach to composition.

May: “Appalachian Spring” danced by the “original cast.” Martha Graham was a (many would prefer “the”) leading pioneer in the history of modern dance in the twentieth century. While many know “Appalachian Spring” as music composed by Aaron Copland, the original score was written for Graham’s choreography on a commission by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in the Library of Congress. There are several generations of films and video of the performance of that choreography. However, it is often overlooked that, when the dance was first performed, the role of the Preacher was performed by Merce Cunningham. Having known about Cunningham’s role in this dance only through my reading, I was delighted to find the entire film available as a YouTube video. Granted, this is not for casual viewing; and the problems with image quality can be frustrating. Nevertheless, it is invaluable in documenting Cunningham’s talent before he left Graham to pursue his own way of creating and performing dance.

June: Balanchine’s “Agon” on film. Much of the history of modern ballet in the twentieth century involves the close partnership between Balanchine and Stravinsky. One of the most important works to emerge from that partnership was “Agon.” Balanchine’s choreography was inspired by pre-Classical forms, such as the French court dances from the seventeenth century. However, on the music side, this was the first music that Stravinsky wrote based on the twelve-tone technique developed by Arnold Schoenberg. As might be guessed, Stravinsky had his own way of doing things; but the result is one of the most absorbing instances of the application of atonality to pre-Classical structures. Sadly, the YouTube video leaves much to be desired; but it should still be able to satisfy the curiously attentive.

July: New Year’s Eve at Covent Garden with Die Fledermaus. Royal Opera House audiences have made a tradition of attending a performance of Die Fledermaus, the operetta composed by Johann Strauss II, on New Year’s Eve. Two videos have been made of this event. The “commercial release” documents a performance on New Year’s Eve of 1983, featuring soprano Kiri Te Kanawa as Rosalinde, baritone Hermann Prey as her husband, Gabriel von Eisenstein, and baritone Benjamin Luxon as Dr Falke. However, I first encountered this production in 1977, when these leading vocalists were younger and somewhat more refreshing. Fortunately, there is a YouTube video of this earlier performance, which looks like it was taken from a videotape recorded from a television broadcast (which, as I recall, was on a commercial channel and introduced by Tony Randall). (However, the first half of the overture is missing.) This was the performance at which Frederic Ashton’s choreography of Strauss’ Opus 410 “Frühlingsstimmen” (voices of spring) waltz as premiered by dancers Merle Park and Wayne Eagling was first presented; and the champagne for this dance is as bubbly as it is for all of the Strauss music performed.

August: Celebrating the Charlie Parker Centennial. There are probably many significant anniversary events that were overlooked due to pandemic conditions. However, the one that probably influenced me the most was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Charlie (“Bird”) Parker on August 29. I wrote my own centennial article on August 31, giving me the advantage of providing readers with several valuable hyperlinks, rather than putting all of my eggs in one basket. While this left me feeling that I had “done my part,” I still believe that the best way to honor Bird is to listen to his recordings with well-honed attention.

September: Orange Mountain Music releases Simone Dinnerstein’s A Character of Quiet album. Dinnerstein decided to release a recording of Franz Schubert’s final piano sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major, which is introduced by an “overture” consisting of three of Philip Glass’ études (numbers 16, 6, and 2). This was no mere gimmick. There are any number of ways in which both the content and the expressive performance of the Glass études serve to prepare the listener for the far vaster architecture of the Schubert sonata. Indeed, early last week, the YouTube stream of Dinnerstein’s Live from Columbia recital used the second étude to introduce the first movement of D. 960; and watching her perform (with first-rate video work) made the Glass-Schubert transition all the more logical.

October: In search of “positive thinking. This month saw the release of Inside, a Summit Records album of music by Scott Routenberg. The eleven tracks seemed to reflect the impact of quarantine on the composer’s longing for the “outside.” Sadly, that longing was expressed through a rhetoric of blandness that simply did not go down well with my own approach to surviving lockdown conditions. As a result, I coupled my account of the new album with personal impressions of Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Opus 25 (first) piano quartet in G minor. When performed properly, this music is not only spirited but also downright funny, sometimes hysterically so. Such raucousness goes much further in helping me to get through a pandemic than any instance of “soothing blandness!”

November: Before Eric Dolphy’s death. Another countermeasure against blandness can be found in the jazz performances of Charles Mingus, particularly involving the impact of saxophonist Eric Dolphy. The Mingus Jazz Icons DVD presents selections from three of the concerts that took place during the European tour that Mingus arranged in April of 1964. Dolphy played in all of those concerts, joined by Dannie Richmond on drums, Jaki Bayard on piano, Johnny Coles on trumpet, Clifford Jordan on tenor saxophone, and, of course, Mingus on bass. The last of these concerts took place on April 19. Dolphy remained in Europe and was performing in Berlin on June 27 when he had to be hospitalized. He died after falling into a diabetic coma on June 29. The DVD has been uploaded to YouTube, and it is a valuable resource in capturing some of Dolphy’s last efforts.

December: Danny Clay’s latest new work for Volti. The 42nd season of Volti, the Bay Area’s a cappella vocal ensemble that specializes in new music, was planned as four mini-concerts, each featuring a world-premiere performance by a different composer. This month’s concert (the second) presented Danny Clay’s Singing Puzzles. The music was created for sixteen socially-distanced vocalists, reflecting Clay’s preference for guided improvisation over the constraints of score notation. The music was created for not only the vocalists but also Volti’s Artistic Director Robert Geary serving as conductor, sometimes making for a “concerto for conductor and chorus.” The performance was expertly documented as a video that is now available through YouTube.

BBC Recordings of Clyne Orchestral Works

courtesy of Morahan Arts & Media

About two month’s ago Avie Records released Mythologies, an anthology of five orchestral compositions by Anna Clyne, born in London in 1980 and now part of the current crop of Brooklyn-based composers. The album begins with the world premiere recording of “Masquerade,” which was composed in 2013. The remaining four works are “This Midnight Hour” (2015), “The Seamstress” (completed in 2015), “Night Ferry” (2012), and “<<rewind<<“ (completed in 2006). The performances are by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with four different conductors: Marin Alsop (“Masquerade”), Sakari Oramo (“The Midnight Hour” and “The Seamstress”), Andrew Litton (“Night Ferry”), and André de Ridder (“<<rewind<<“).

I have been aware of Clyne’s music since February of 2012, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), led by Music Director Riccardo Muti, performed the West Coast premiere of “Night Ferry” in Davies Symphony Hall. At that time I referred to the composition as “dark night of the soul” music and felt that, in spite of its rhetorical intensity, the piece went on longer than I would have wished. However, when CSO released its digital download recording of “Night Ferry” in August of 2014, I found that my “first contact” experience allowed for a more satisfying “second impression.” As a result, at my most recent encounter with Clyne this past April, when I streamed the DSO (Detroit Symphony Orchestra) Replay performance of her “Three Sisters” mandolin concerto with soloist Avi Avital and conductor Nicholas McGegan, I found that I could more readily accept Clyne’s work in my “comfort zone.”

On this new album the high levels of energy and intense rhetorical dispositions tend to pervade all five selections. Thus, whatever the appealing virtues of each composition may be, the album as a whole runs the risk of serving up too much of a good thing. The same can be said for the written descriptions of each piece that Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim provided for the booklet. In other words the accumulation of a decade’s worth of orchestral composition coupled with “deep-dive” descriptive accounts may ultimately result in more than mind can process in a single sitting. Thus, while there is much to be gained from listening to these pieces, listening to each one of them independently of the others may make for a more satisfying experience.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Old First Concerts: January, 2021

As of this writing, Old First Concerts (O1C) has planned four performances for the first month of the new year. However, they will all take place in the last two weekends of the month. This will be a good month for Claude Debussy, whose music will be performed on three of the four programs. All events will continue to be live-streamed through YouTube. As usual, any changes in current plans will be updated through both this Web page and the Facebook shadow site. Specifics are as follows, including a hyperlink to each event which, in turn, will provide the specific link to the YouTube streaming page:

Friday, January 22, 8 p.m.: Pianist Samantha Cho will return to O1C to present a solo recital that will feature four compositions by Germaine Tailleferre, the only female member of Les Six. Her selections will be “Hommage à Debussy,” “Pastoral,” “Romanza,” and “Rêverie.” Her “call” to Debussy will be given a “response” with that composer’s two books of Images, each of which consists of three compositions. The recital will then conclude with Edvard Grieg’s Opus 7 piano sonata in E minor.

[updated 1/14, 1:45 p.m.: The following concert has been cancelled:

Sunday, January 24, 4 p.m.: The next return visit will be by the Ives Collection, whose core members and Artistic Co-Directors are violinist Susan Freirer and cellist Stephen Harrison. For this performance they will be joined by pianist Elizabeth Schumann to present a program of two piano trios. The first half of the program will be devoted to the Opus 15 trio in G minor by Bedřich Smetana. The second half will remain in Eastern Europe with a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 65 trio in F minor.]

Friday, January 29, 8 p.m.: The Ensemble 1828 piano trio was formed in June of 2019, beginning with a seven-concert tour of Northern California cities. The members are violinist Nicole Oswald, cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak, and pianist Alison Lee. They decided to name their group after the year in which Franz Schubert died (on November 19); and their first program was oriented around music from the final year of Schubert’s life. They presented this program in San Francisco on June 28 as part of the Chamber Music series under the auspices of Sunset Music and Arts. Readers may also recall that, almost exactly a month ago, Lee performed a live-streamed solo recital as part of the weekly Piano Break series, presented under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation. The trio’s O1C debut will be an all-French program of two sonatas and one trio. Debussy will be represented by his cello sonata, which will be paired with César Franck’s A major violin sonata. The program will then conclude with Maurice Ravel’s trio in A minor.

Sunday, January 31, 4 p.m.: January will conclude, as the series began, with a solo piano recital. The recitalist will be Jason Chiu; and he will begin with his Debussy offering, “L’isle joyeuse” (the joyous isle). He will then present all four of Frédéric Chopin’s ballades, Opus 23 in G minor, Opus 38 in F major, Opus 47 in A-flat major, and Opus 52 in F minor. His program will continue with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 53 (“Waldstein”) sonata in C major. Less familiar will be the performance of Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ “Notturno,” the second in his Opus 6 collection entitled Fantasy Pieces. The program will then conclude with Maurice Ravel’s solo piano version of “La Valse.”

Thom Blum’s Album of Audio Postcards

from the Bandcamp Web page for the album being discussed

About two months ago Thom Blum released the latest album in his Collections series presented on the sfSound label. The full title of the album is Passages: audio postcards, journals, and travelogues, and each track draws upon “concrete” sounds from a different geographical venue. Those locations are Rajasthan in India, Spain, Japan (the cities of Tokyo, Hamamatsu, and Kyoto), Lake Patzucuaro in Mexico, and Morocco. The album was released on Bandcamp with program notes provided not only on its Web page but also through “info” hyperlinks for each of the individual tracks.

Blum’s genre is tape music. The composition of each track begins by collecting recordings of “concrete” sounds from a geographic venue. Blum’s notes cite Luc Ferrari’s concept of “denotational” music, explaining that “the bulk of the sounds are from, of, and about some places begin portrayed, as well as being about the composer portraying them.” The Web pages for the individual tracks then provide further information about what sounds have been captured and how they have been portrayed.

Ferrari was a founding member of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRMC), working with audio facilities provided by Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF). His colleagues included Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. These were pioneers in the practice of capturing “natural” sounds on tape and then manipulating the source content to create new compositions. Schaeffer was the leading practitioner in this effort, which became known as musique concrète.

Those familiar with Schaeffer’s work are therefore likely to recognize connections between Blum’s techniques and those that Schaeffer explored in some of his earliest works, including the Études de bruits (noise études) and “Variations sur une flûte mexicaine” (variations on a Mexican flute), created, respectively, in 1948 and 1949. However, given the limitations of available technology, Schaeffer’s compositions were brief: None of the individual tracks in those two early works is as long as five minutes. Working with more flexible digital technology, Blum has been able to extend his own studies over significantly longer durations; and the account of Morocco is almost twenty minutes long. Nevertheless, Ferrari’s prioritization of denotation prevails, for the most part, over any effort to provide a narrative frame for the duration.

The CD recordings of Schaeffer’s complete works (including those created in partnership with Henry) have provided me with enjoyable listening experiences for several decades. Those encounters have allowed me to reflect on some of my own early efforts in tape music and to appreciate those offerings at the San Francisco Tape Music Festival concerts that I can squeeze into my schedule. In that context I find Blum’s work to be an inventive “response” to the “call” first issued in the late Forties; and I can appreciate how much of that invention has benefitted from the many advantages of digital technology.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Part 1 of the SFP Beethoven Marathon on Video

As was promised this past Monday, today was the day on which the first of the two Beethoven Marathon recitals, was uploaded for viewing at the Front Row: 2020 Online Concert Series video archive on the SFP Web site. The concert was presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP) and performed by the SFP Ensemble-in-Residence Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), whose members are violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. They played two of Ludwig van Beethoven string quartets, the second (in the key of G major) of the “early” Opus 18 quartets and the “middle” Opus 95 (“Serioso”) quartet in F minor.

These were performed in reverse chronological order and were preceded by one of Beethoven’s earliest compositions, the duet in C major catalogued as the first of the WoO 27 compositions. This was played by the duo of violinist Yuri Cho and violist David Samuel. Their performance was videotaped at the Music Theatre for the School of Music on the campus of the University of Aukland in New Zealand, while the ASQ performances were recorded in Herbst Theatre.

The six Opus 18 quartets were first published in 1801, composed on a commission for Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz. They were composed between 1798 and 1800, and their order of appearance in the publication was not chronological. Thus, the G major quartet in the publication was actually the third that Beethoven composed. What is more important is that Beethoven was well into his career by the time he received the commission, since the three Opus 1 piano trios were published in 1795, shortly after they were first performed for their dedicatee, Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky.

These works composed at the end of the eighteenth century show an abundant sense of humor. I have always speculated that Beethoven had been inspired by the abundant wit of his teacher, Joseph Haydn, and was motivated to outdo “the master” at this game. In that context wit is particularly abundant in the G major quartet, particularly in the second movement, when the Adagio cantabile theme is oafishly interrupted by an aggressive Allegro section, almost as if the Scherzo movement was jumping the gun. However, there are any number of eyebrow-raising turns of expression over the course of all four movements of this quartet; and, between the ASQ performance and the video account, the attentive listener can enjoy Beethoven’s exuberant sense of playfulness in this quartet.

Ironically, that capacity was still with Beethoven by the time he began work on Opus 95. He may have called this quartet “Serioso” to reflect listener expectations where the key of F minor is concerned. However, even when the rhetoric for this key is at its most “serious,” there is always a devil or two lurking in the details. I have, for some time, found that, even when the surface structure of the music tends to reflect one of those “scowling Beethoven” paintings, there is always a devil or two in the details just waiting to pull a prank on the attentive listener.

Yuri Cho and David Samuel playing the first of Beethoven’s WoO 27 duets in C major (screen shot from the Front Row video for this concert)

WoO 27 is another matter. Most likely it was composed in Bonn, possibly around the time that Beethoven first met Haydn, who was traveling to London in 1790. The duo was originally composed for clarinet and bassoon, probably written for the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, Maximilian Friedrich von Königsegg-Rothenfels, who had a wind ensemble that kept him entertained during his meals. The IMSLP Web page for this composition accounts for a wide variety of instrument pairings for this composition in a manuscript edited in 2010 by Klaus Smedegaard Bjerre. One of them has a viola playing the bassoon part one octave higher with the upper voice taken by violin, flute, or oboe. The composition itself consists of three short movements, which make it clear that Beethoven (at least at a young age) could be entertaining when called upon to be so.

Album of Quintets by Boccherini from Les Ombres

courtesy of PIAS

My first serious encounter with the music of Luigi Boccherini came during my student days when I was a Musical Heritage Society (MHS) subscriber. MHS released an album of quintets, which introduced me to the change in sonorities arising from adding a second cello to a string quartet. Boccherini was a great admirer of the string quartets of Joseph Haydn, but his own preferred instrument was the cello. So, while the Boccherini catalog includes almost 100 string quartets, it also includes more than 100 string quintets.

However, as they say on television, that’s not all. He also explored expanding the string quartet by adding an instrument distinct from three quartet instruments. Last month the French Mirare label released a Boccherini quintet album of performances by the Les Ombres chamber ensemble on which the additional instrument was either a flute or a guitar. This includes three of the quintets from the Opus 19 collection of six flute quintets and two of the nine guitar quintets, one of which further expands the quintet with a percussionist.

That last selection is probably the best known of the offerings on this album. It is often referred to as the “Fandango” quintet, named after the title of the last of the four movement. That title refers to a dance form that originated on the Iberian peninsula, which would traditionally be accompanied by guitars, castanets, or simple hand-clapping. Thus, the percussion instruments (castanets and tambourine) were added to the quintet to provide “local color.” This would have added an “entertainment factor” to Boccherini’s eighteenth-century listeners; and the quintet has entertained audiences ever since then. It would also explain why the performers decided to give their album the title Une nuit à Madrid (a night in Madrid).

The Les Ombres quartet musicians on this album are violinists Théotime Langlois de Swarte and Sophie de Bardonnèche, violist Marta Paramo, and cellist Hanna Salzenstein. They are joined by Romaric Martin on guitar and Sylvain Sartre on flute. The percussionist is Marie Ange Petit, playing her own rhythms, which were included in and edition of the score that Les Ombres used.

All this makes for a listening experience rather more engaging in sonorities than what one tends to encounter in strings-only chamber music. The performers themselves work from an engaging repertoire of phrasing techniques, determined to convince the attentive listener that this is more than just another album of eighteenth-century chamber music. From a personal point of view, the album allowed me a fresh encounter with an old friend that had been away from my attention for far too long.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Music@Menlo to Stream an Online Recital

Violinist Kristin Lee and pianist Orion Weiss (photograph by Carlin Ma, from the Music@Menlo event page for their recital)

Next month Music@Menlo will join the ranks of performing arts organizations to take their offerings online. Violinist Kristin Lee and pianist Orion Weiss will stream a concert entitled Mutual Admiration – Gershwin and Ravel. I have to confess that this is a hunt in which I have had a dog for some time. Very early in my tenure with Examiner.com, I wrote an article entitled “The Ravel-Gershwin connection,” in which I observed that Maurice Ravel’s 1931 piano concerto in G could be viewed as “a clear homage to Gershwin’s jazzy rhetoric,” having been composed after both “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924) and the 1925 piano concerto called “Concerto in F.” Even Ravel’s decision to call his composition “Concerto in G” may well have been a playful nod to Gershwin, whom he had first met in 1928.

Whether or not such a connection can be found in Ravel’s chamber music is another matter. The Music@Menlo recital will be framed by two Ravel compositions, the second violin sonata in G major, composed between 1923 and 1927, and “Tzigane,” which was composed in 1924. Both of these predate Ravel’s first face-to-face encounter with George Gershwin. On the other hand W. C. Handy was leading a blues band in Paris while Ravel was working on his sonata, and the fact that the second movement is entitled “Blues” suggests that some level of influence was in play. Nevertheless, Gershwin’s take on blues was decidedly different from Handy’s.

“Tzigane,” on the other hand has less to do with Gershwin and more to do with the Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Arányi and the popularity of “gypsy” exoticism, which probably had little, if anything, to do with Roma culture. Ravel reinforced that exoticism by requiring the accompanying piano to include a luthéal attachment, which evoked the sonorities of a Hungarian cimbalom. That is how the music was first performed; but, by the end of the twentieth century, the attachment was no longer being used.

The Gershwin portion of the program has less to do with Ravel and more to do with the violinist Jascha Heifetz. During his career as a recitalist and recording artist for RCA Victor, Heifetz was prolific when it came to augmenting his repertoire with arrangements of music not originally composed for violin and piano. Unfortunately, the anthology of Victor recordings does not give the dates of the arrangements. However, at a studio session that took place on November 28, 1945, Heifetz and his accompanist, Emanuel Bay, recorded Heifetz arrangements of six songs from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed on September 30, 1935. Arrangements of Gershwin’s three piano preludes were also recorded at that same session.

It would be fair to say that both of these Gershwin selections had less to do with Ravel and more to do with Gershwin’s Tin Pan Alley experiences. The opera setting may not have been the best fit; but the Heifetz arrangements successfully find the right “sweet spot” between pop rhetoric and the more polished sonorities of the violin. Lee will channel Heifetz’ spirit by performing five of the Porgy and Bess songs: “My Man’s Gone Now,” “A Woman is a Sometime Thing,” “Bess, You Is My Woman,” “Summertime,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

The live stream of Mutual Admiration will begin at 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 17. The price of admission is $25, and tickets may be purchased through the Music@Menlo event page for this program. After the purchase has been approved, ticket buyers will be notified by electronic mail at least 48 hours prior to the concert. That electronic mail will include the hyperlink to the streamed performance and instructions on how to watch. The video will then be archived and available for on-demand viewing beginning one week later on January 24.

Old and New Perspectives of Henry Purcell

Last night the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale concluded its 2020/VIRTUAL Salon Series with a program performed by six PBO instrumentalists entitled PURCELL: Something Old, Something New. Henry Purcell was at most 36 years old when he died (uncertainty due to lack of an official record of his birth); so the program title does not refer to the sorts of “early” and “late” periods we associate with Ludwig van Beethoven. Rather, in his remarks serving as host, PBO Music Director Richard Egarr explained that the program presented Purcell reflecting back on older forms while also cultivating newer ones.

Thus, the program began retrospection of about 100 years when the fantasia began to proliferate. Because the form was structured around free improvisation, it usually involved a solo part, either for keyboard or for a plucked instrument, such as a lute. Purcell’s fantasias captured the spirit of spontaneity but were written out for multiple parts. The Z. 742 fantasia in G major was performed by violinist Katherine Kyme, violists Maria Caswell and Aaron Westman, and William Skeen on gamba, capturing the spirit of past improvisational practices with a written through-composed score.

On the other hand the trio sonata was just beginning to emerge as a genre during Purcell’s lifetime. Kyme and Skeen were joined by violinist Noah Strick and harpsichordist Katherine Heater in a performance of the Z. 799 trio sonata in A major. This presented the “new” side of Purcell as an “early adopter” of a multi-instrument genre. In contrast, however, the Z. 807 sonata in G minor, which was published after Purcell’s death by his wife, consists only of a single chaconne movement, thus finding Purcell late in life reflecting once again on an older genre. The program then concluded with the “newer” Purcell’s venture into theater music. Kyme, Strick, Westman, Skeen, and Heater performed a suite of eight instrumental movements from the Z. 629 “semi-opera” The Fairy-Queen.

Katherine Kyme, William Strick, Katherine Heater, Aaron Westman, and Noah Strick playing instrumental selections from The Fairy-Queen (screen shot from the YouTube video of PURCELL: Something Old, Something New).

The entire program, including Egarr’s commentary, ran somewhat less than 40 minutes. As usual, the live video stream has now been stored as a YouTube file for subsequent viewing. This is definitely a trip worth taking. While Purcell tends to be better remembered for his vocal music, there is more than an ample supply of polyphonic inventiveness in the performances on this video. All six of the musicians were impressively expressive, thus endowing the give-and-take rhetoric of Purcell’s scores with engagingly personal accounts of the composer’s marks on paper.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

SFO Announces January Video Streams

After wrapping up the calendar year by streaming a performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème (whose first two acts take place on Christmas eve), the Opera is ON service presented by San Francisco Opera (SFO) will offer three new opera streams next month. As with the previous offerings, each will become available on Saturday at 10 a.m.; and free access will expire at 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:

January 16: The first offering of the new year will be Charles Gounod’s 1867 opera Roméo et Juliette, which was first presented by SFO during its inaugural season in 1923. The appeal of William Shakespeare’s play among Parisians probably dates back at least as far as 1827, which is when Harriet Smithson played the role of Juliet in her own production of the play presented in Paris. Her appreciative audience included Hector Berlioz, who would compose a “dramatic symphony” based on the play (and would also marry Smithson).

While Berlioz used Shakespeare only as a point of departure for his composition, Gounod worked with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré which, at least in my opinion, did more than adequate justice to both the letter and the spirit of Shakespeare’s text. One could appreciate that respect for Shakespeare in the SFO 2019 production of this opera staged by Jean-Louis Grinda as his SFO debut. Grinda had the advantage of working with two Adler alumni that could not have been better suited to the plot.

Soprano Nadine Sierra made a return to the War Memorial Opera House and excelled at disclosing the many subtleties of Juliet’s character that Grinda had conceived. The same can also be said of how Grinda worked with tenor Pene Pati to develop the role of Romeo. While Grinda saw to the needs of Shakespeare, French-Canadian conductor Yves Abel provided an equally engaging account of the music. The running time of this production is approximately two and one-half hours.

An example of the visual spectacle of Samson and Delilah (photograph by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

January 23: The second offering of the month is also French and is about ten years younger than Roméo et Juliette. Ironically, however, Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah was first performed in Weimar (in 1877 and sung in a German translation), rather than in Paris, which would not see a production until 1890. This opera has a long history of prioritizing spectacle over narrative. In the SFO production, which took place in 2007, there was no shortage of spectacle in the designs of Douglas Schmidt for the staging conceived by Nicolas Joël, realized for SFO by Sandra Bernhard. The title roles were taken by tenor Clifton Forbis as Samson and mezzo Olga Borodina as Delilah. The grand scale of the music was expertly conducted by Patrick Summers. This production also marked the beginning of the Opera at the Ballpark series of simulcasts to the Mitsubishi Electronic Diamond Vision Board in Oracle Park to an audience of about 15,000 viewers. The running time of this production is approximately two hours.

January 30: The month will then conclude with the 2014 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata (the fallen woman). Laurie Feldman staged a revival that was originally conceived by John Copley. The title role of the courtesan Violetta Valéry was sung by soprano Nicole Cabell, who had recently won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Tenor Stephen Costello sang the role of her lover, Alfredo Germont; and baritone Vladimir Stoyanova performed as Alfredo’s father Giorgio. The conductor was Nicola Luisotti. This production was also simulcast in the Opera at the Ballpark series, but with a different cast. The running time is approximately two 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.

New Century Brings New New-Age Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

Those that have been following this site for some time probably associate the Profil label, distributed by Edition Günter Hänssler, with archival anthologies. (Most of my recent listening has focused on the series of collections of recordings of the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter.) However, last month Profil released a new “original” album entitled Secret Places. The recording consists of thirteen relatively short works, each by a different composer, all written for a violin duo and performed by The Twiolins. The performers themselves are the siblings Marie-Louise and Christoph Dingler.

The pair’s Web site describes them as “the pioneers of the new wave of ‘progressive classical music.’” They summarize that genre in the following sentence:

Ear pleasing harmonies, broad melodic lines and eccentric pulsating rhythms are the trademarks of their music, merging classical, avant-garde, minimalist music and pop-art-pop into a new sonic sound universe.

In 2009 they founded a composition competition to build up their repertoire, which has attracted more than 500 participants from 55 countries. Twelve of the thirteen tracks on Secret Places were written for the 2015 competition.

I have been unable to find the ages of these two siblings. However, I would say that it is a fair guess that both of them were born after the new-age music movement had experienced its rise (beginning in the mid-Sixties) and decline that preceded the new century. The new-age genre had emerged with influences from minimalism, electronic music, and, to some extent, progressive rock. Many associated the music with meditation involved with freeing the mind of the stresses of the modern world, but the more cynical saw that activity as little more than mindlessness without purpose. In the early years of the movement, I was interested in how it was more accessible than the minimalist techniques explored by composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass or the process-based synthesis approach taken by Brian Eno. However, it did not take long for me to recognize that the genre had succumbed to mind-numbing sameness and little more.

Well, as Peter Allen sang in the movie All That Jazz, “Everything Old is New Again.” Sadly, there is little in the newness of Secret Places that does not remind me of new-age at its most vapid. Yes, there are times when I am inclined to a meditative approach to clearing the mind. However, when such an occasion arises, I much prefer spending time with a recording of Balinese gamelan than listening to David Hykes’ Windhorse Riders (even though the latter enjoyed the imprimatur of New Albion Records). Nevertheless, I suppose that the younger generations have to figure out where the minimalist path leads without any assistance from their elders.

Monday, December 21, 2020

ASQ Previews Beethoven Marathon Videos

Readers may recall that, a little over a week ago, the San Francisco Performances (SFP) all-day Beethoven Marathon took place in Herbst Theatre. Unfortunately, no audience was admitted; but video recordings were made of all three events, the introductory lecture about Beethoven delivered by SFP Historian-in-Residence Robert Greenberg and two performances by members the SFP Ensemble-in-Residence Alexander String Quartet, whose members are violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist David Samuels, and cellist Sandy Wilson. Greenberg’s lecture is now available for viewing at the Front Row: 2020 Online Concert Series video archive on the SFP Web site; and the concerts will be uploaded on the next two Thursdays, December 24 and December 31, respectively.

For now, however, the Front Row site has two videos of selected movements from Beethoven’s string quartets. The first video begins at the beginning, with the first two movements of the first of the Opus 18 quartets in the key of F major. The second video then covers the “middle” and “late” period quartets, each with a single movement. The “middle” selection is the opening movement of the second of the Opus 59 (“Razumovsky”) quartets in the key of E minor; and the “late” offering is the final movement of the final quartet, Opus 135 in F major. All three of these excerpts are prefaced with remarks by violist Paul Yarbrough, who was the ASQ violist when the videos were made.

Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, Paul Yarbrough, and Sandy Wilson playing Beethoven at St Stephen’s Church (from the Front Row “middle period” video)

The Opus 18 video was recorded during a performance this past summer at Baruch College in New York City. The two performances for the second video were recorded at St Stephen’s Church in Belvedere, the same space that ASQ used to make video recordings of their performances of the three string quartets by Johannes Brahms. St Stephen’s has much livelier acoustics than the Baruch auditorium. One could therefore appreciate the wider range of dynamics that Beethoven deployed as he became more and more experienced. On the other hand the Baruch space was suitable for the intimacy of chamber music composed before the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Given how much can be said about any single string quartet that Beethoven composed, Yarbrough definitely knew how to keep to the basics and resist the many temptations to digress. My only serious criticism came with his evoking a well-known quotation about Beethoven:

He was a Titan wrestling with the Gods.

Yarbrough claims this was expressed during Beethoven’s lifetime, but it was actually written by Richard Wagner! More important is that Yarbrough identified a few of the salient points that divide the early, middle, and late periods stylistically, which is all any eager music-lover needs to know before listening to (and viewing) these performances.

Jenkins-Dresher-Eckert Project Rescheduled

Joel Davel and Paul Dresher performing on their instruments (courtesy of the Paul Dresher Ensemble)

Readers may recall that the premiere performances of Breathing at the Boundaries, originally scheduled for exactly a month ago, were postponed in mid-November when COVID-19 cases were on the rise. This was a full-evening work created by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company with text and narrative structure provided by Rinde Eckert and Michael Palmer. The music for this piece was composed by Paul Dresher with Joel Davel and will be performed by the Dresher|Davel Invented Instrument Duo, joined by vocalist Eckert, who will be playing accordion. The duration of the work will be about 55 minutes.

The premiere has now been rescheduled as a live-stream for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, December 29. Those wishing to attend should visit the RSVP Web page to provide name and electronic mail address. Through that address the attendee will be provided with all the information needed to view the live performance in an electronic mail message. The Web page also includes a hyperlinked electronic mail address for those with any further questions.

Barbirolli on the Continent

Sir John Barbirolli: The Complete Warner Recordings includes five CDs of recordings made on the European continent. In chronological order these sessions account for the following repertoire:

  1. January, 1964: Gustav Mahler’s ninth symphony in D minor performed by the Berlin Philharmonic in recording sessions at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in the Dahlem section of Berlin
  2. December, 1967: the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms, along with the “Academic Festival” and “Tragic” overtures and the Opus 56a orchestral version of the set of variations on a theme attributed to Joseph Haydn performed by the Vienna Philharmonic in recording sessions in the Großer Saal (great hall) of the Musikverein in Vienna
  3. December, 1968: Claude Debussy’s set of three orchestral nocturnes and the three “symphonic sketches” collected under the title “La mer” (the sea) performed by the Orchestre de Paris in recording sessions at the Salle Wagram in Paris

Other than the recordings that Barbirolli made with the New York Philharmonic between 1936 and 1942, these are the recording sessions that took place away from British soil that have been most circulated. A more thorough account can be found on the Discography tab on the Barbirolli Web page compiled by the AllMusic Web site.

My personal opinion is that the “jewel in the crown” of these sessions can definitely be found in Vienna. Accounting for the conductors that have presented their interpretations of Brahms in the Musikverein almost defies enumeration, and I suspect that any number of readers might be skeptical about what this British conductor of Italian and French parentage could possibly have added to the mix to deserve attention. Indeed, the Hallé sessions are decidedly scant in the Brahms compositions that were recorded.

Nevertheless, Brahms has suffered under too many conductors that approach his music with a business-as-usual attitude. So it is most important to recognize that Barbirolli is not one of those conductors. Even in the Opus 80 “Academic Festival” overture, he appreciates the many subtleties in Brahms’ score, never overplaying them but always making sure that they register with the attentive listener. For several decades Sergiu Celibidache has been the Brahms conductor most likely to get me to sit up and take notice. Now I realize that Barbirolli can summon my listening skills just as effectively.

The same may be said of his approach to Mahler in Berlin. I first took notice of Barbirolli’s expressive interpretations of Mahler when Sir John Barbirolli: The Great EMI Recordings was released to mark the 40th anniversary of the conductor’s death. (That collection included many Barbirolli recordings that I previously had on vinyl.) The EMI anthology included Mahler’s fifth symphony, which I had experienced many times under many different conductors; but my attention was locked in on Barbirolli’s reading from beginning to end. Lightning struck again, with just as much impact, when his recording of the sixth symphony was included in EMI’s Complete Works Mahler collection to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The Berlin recording of the ninth predates the sessions for both the fifth and the sixth, but the impact is just as great.

Barbirolli’s Debussy recordings are much more spare. The fact is that the combined duration of the two works he recorded in Paris is shorter than that of the Mahler ninth. Another fact is that neither of these pieces shows up in Barbirolli’s New York recordings. However, that earlier collection includes “Ibéria,” the second of the three Images pour orchestre compositions and the rhapsody for clarinet and orchestra, as well as the orchestral arrangement of the final “Ballet” movement from the four-hand Petite Suite. However, even if the Paris selections are the most familiar warhorses, Barbirolli is as sensitively attentive with his musicians as he had previous been with the Viennese and the Berliners.