Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Jupiter String Quartet to Stream Concert Series

Jupiter String Quartet players (left-to-right) Daniel McDonough, Liz Freivogel, Nelson Lee, and Meg Freivogel (courtesy of Jensen Artists)

The Jupiter String Quartet is one of the more “familial” chamber ensembles. The violinists are Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel. The violist is Liz Freivogel, Meg’s older sister; and the cellist is Daniel McDonough, Meg’s husband (making him Liz’s brother-in-law). The members were appointed as artists-in-residence and faculty members at the College of Fine & Applied Arts of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne in 2012. Since that time they have performed regularly on campus at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois and directed chamber music programming.

On the four successive Fridays of next month, the quartet will present a concert series entitled Reflection and Renewal. Each program will begin with a movement from a well-known string quartet from the nineteenth century. This will serve as a basis for comparison with a more recent composition; and, on one of the programs, it will also be contrasted with an earlier eighteenth-century work. All programs will last for at most half an hour and will be available for on-demand viewing beginning at 10 a.m. (Pacific Time) on the Friday of each week. Viewing opportunities will continue through March 5. The programs planned for each of the four weeks are as follows:

February 5: The nineteenth-century offering will be the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 95 (“Serioso”) in F minor; and it will be followed by “Imprimatur” by Canadian composer Kati Agócs, currently teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music.

February 12: The program will begin with the second (theme and variations) movement from Franz Schubert’s D. 810 string quartet in D minor. This is known as the “Death and the Maiden” quartet, since the theme is taken from the D. 531 song setting the poem by Matthias Claudius of the same title. This will be followed by the final two movements of Michi Wiancko’s To Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores, “Follow the Water” and “Rise Up.”

February 19: The opening selection will be the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s final string quartet, Opus 80 in F minor. This will be coupled with the Largo cantabile e mesto movement from Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/79 quartet in D major. The program will then conclude with excerpts from Dan Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs.

February 26: Complementing the preceding program, the final offering will begin with the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s first quartet, Opus 12 in E-flat major. This will be followed by George Walker’s first string quartet, entitled “Lyric for Strings” and written in memory of his grandmother on his mother’s side. The program will then conclude with one of the three rags the William Bolcom composed for string quartet, “Incineratorag.”

The Krannert Center has created a single Web page for the entire series. Graphic tokens have been created for each of the four programs. That token will provide the event link through which the concert may be viewed when on-demand viewing begins.

APR Releases Final HMV Backhaus Recordings

courtesy of Naxos of America

In November of 2018, I wrote an article about the recordings that pianist Wilhelm Backhaus made for HMV prior to the outbreak of World War II. These were two two-CD sets entitled, respectively, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann & encore pieces, recorded between 1925 and 1937, and The complete pre-War Beethoven recordings, recorded between 1927 and 1937. (The latter includes three “encores” of music by Johann Sebastian Bach.) These albums were produced by Appian Publications & Recordings (APR), which, this past November, completed the HMV anthology with the release of The complete 1940s studio recordings. In 1950 Backhaus would begin recording for Decca, resulting in a far more extensive anthology filling 39 CDs.

The Forties recordings amount to a somewhat uneven account of a difficult period in Backhaus’ life. After the Nazis took over Germany, Backhaus met Adolf Hitler; and, not long thereafter, he became the Executive Director of the Kameradschaft der deutschen Künstler (fellowship of German artists), which basically governed Nazi oversight of artistic activities. Backhaus clearly benefitted from Nazi favors, but his career in the rest of Europe was seriously jeopardized. He would eventually move to Switzerland to distance himself from the Nazis. However, the first recording on this new release was made in Berlin in 1941, a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 537 (“Coronation”) concerto in D major with Fritz Zaun conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin, the resident orchestra of the Berlin State Opera. All of the other recordings were made in Zürich over the course of three days, March 15–17, 1948.

It would probably be unfair to associate the Mozart concerto with any Nazi sympathies. While this may not, strictly speaking, be a “historically informed” performance, Backhaus followed Mozart’s lead in providing his own cadenzas. Indeed, he had his own take on Mozart’s prankish nature when, in the final movement, his cadenza toys with the opening measures of the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 21 (first) symphony in C major, in which Beethoven displayed his own capacity for prankishness.

The 1948 sessions were divided across compositions by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. These are all solo works for piano, and Mozart is represented by his K. 331 sonata in A major. Here, again, Backhaus appreciates the prankishness of this music, particularly in the concluding “Turkish” rondo. A similar rhetorical stance can be encountered in the third (in the key of E-flat major) of Beethoven’s Opus 31 sonatas, one of the best examples of a sonata that playfully dismisses the “scowling Beethoven” cliché. Schubert is represented only by the second (again in the key of E-flat major) of the four D. 899 impromptus.

More interesting are the Bach selections, the first of which is the BWV 971 “Italian concerto” for solo keyboard in F major. Bach was particularly imaginative in being able to separate solo and ripieno ensemble passages while allowing both to inhabit the same single keyboard. Backhaus’ approach to phrasing gives the clearest possible account of the composer’s intentions. If the style is not “historically informed,” the spirit of the performance is still unquestionably valid. This is then followed by the B-flat major prelude-fugue coupling from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, given an equally valid account for performance on a twentieth-century piano.

Backhaus’ HMV legacy may be modest, but it serves up any number of delights for the attentive listener.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

New Release of Evans with DeJohnette and Gómez

Jack DeJohnette (photograph by Francois Jacquenod, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications)

Jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette spent only six months as a member of the trio led by Bill Evans, which also included Eddie Gómez in bass. The only recording to result from that brief partnership was Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which is included in the anthology of Evans’ Verve recordings. More recently, however, Resonance Records released two additional concert albums of the trio’s performances: Some Other Time: The Lost Session from The Black Forest and Another Time: The Hilversum Concert. This past November Resonance released a third album, Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s. Taken as a whole, that amounts to a generous number of tracks for a trio that lasted for six months.

The new album consists of two CDs, each of which has ten tracks. Only three of them are Evans originals: “Turn Out the Stars,” “Very Early,” and “Waltz for Debby.” All of them can be found on other albums, which is also true of the standards found on the remaining seventeen tracks. What is important, however, is that Evans never dominates over this trio. Indeed, anyone interested in jazz bass technique may find more of interest in the many solos that Gómez takes, rather than attending to Evans’ imaginative harmonic progressions and his often adventurous rhythms. DeJohnette may not have taken over as much of the time that Gómez dominated; but throughout his career, he has demonstrated a rich portfolio of what amount to “punctuation marks” in the tunes he is backing.

What makes this collection particularly interesting is that all of the tracks were drawn from DeJohnette’s personal archives; and DeJohnette co-produced the album with Zev Feldman. From a personal point of view, I think that DeJohnette was the first drummer I encountered when I first started to frequent the Village Vanguard. Unless I am mistaken, he was playing drums for Thelonious Monk on that occasion; and it did not take long for me to get drawn into the solo riffs he came up with when Monk would take a break and wander around the stage.

Another observation that may (or may not) be relevant is that DeJohnette succeeded Philly Joe Jones as Evans’ drummer. On their many Verve tracks, Evans could be more than generous in allowing Jones to go his own way. It is therefore likely that he expected the same amount of prodigious invention to come from DeJohnette, and DeJohnette definitely did not disappoint.

One last historical tidbit: Apparently, Miles Davis first become aware of DeJohnette during that trio date at Ronnie Scott’s. As a result, DeJohnette departed from Evans because Davis asked him to replace Tony Williams in his band! One of the more memorable results of that transition was that DeJohnette was the primary drummer on Bitches Brew!

San Francisco Opera Plans for February

Next month the Opera is ON service presented by San Francisco Opera (SFO) will continue with four new opera streams, one for each weekend. In addition, the second of those weekends will include the next operatic drive-in event presented at the Fort Mason Flix Drive-In. Because there are only four opportunities to attend the Fort Mason screening, while Opera is ON offerings can be viewed any time over the course of the weekend, the Fort Mason event will be described first.

The SFO performance to be screened at Fort Mason will be a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. This had originally been planned for December, but was postponed in response to the stay-at-home order imposed after a rise of COVID-19 cases. The opera was one of the offerings in SFO’s opening season, first presented at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 2, 1923. The video capture was made during the spring season in 2009. Staging was directed by Jose Maria Condemi, and the conductor was Marco Armiliato. The leading characters were performed by soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Floria Tosca, tenor Carlo Ventre as Mario Cavaradossi, and Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli as Baron Scarpia.

The video will be displayed by a 40’ X 20’ LED screen. The running time of the opera will be approximately two hours. Screenings will take place at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Friday, February 12, and Saturday, February 13. Tickets for all four of these events may be purchased through a single SFO Web page or by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330. General admission will be $49 per car with a $5 handling fee. The entrance to the Fort Mason Center for the Arts & Culture is located at 2 Marina Boulevard.

Viewing the Opera in ON programs is more flexible. The selection for each weekend 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 four February offerings are as follows:

February 6: The month will begin with the first streaming of an opera by Richard Wagner, Lohengrin. The production, which was shared with the Houston Grand Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève, was conceived by Daniel Slater, working with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins. The performances took place during the fall 2012 season. Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducted, and Ian Robertson prepared the rich choral work performed by the SFO Chorus. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich made his role debut as the title character. Lohengrin’s bride (remember, the Wedding March is probably the best-known selection from this opera), Elsa von Brabant, was sung by soprano Camilla Nylund. The “nemesis” characters of the sorceress Ortrud and her husband, Count Friedrich of Telramund, were taken by dramatic soprano Petra Lang and baritone Gerd Grochowski, respectively. Running time will be approximately three hours and 40 minutes, but Slater’s staging is very effectively well-paced.

February 13: The second offering will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 588 opera Così fan tutte (all women do it). This was the third and last of the Mozart operas that used a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte; and, while each of those operas tends to be classified as “comic,” each has its own “dark side” in addressing the nature of infidelity. The narrative involves two couples: Fiordiligi (soprano Ellie Dehn) and Guglielmo (bass Philippe Sly); and Dorabella (soprano Christel Lötzsch) and Ferrando (tenor Francesco Demuro). The cynical philosopher Don Alfonso (bass Marco Vinco) suggests that the men put their partners’ fidelity to the test by disguising themselves and then having each woo the partner of the other. He is abetted by Despina (soprano Susannah Biller), who serves as maid to the two women (who are sisters). The production was conceived by John Cox, who set the narrative in a Mediterranean beach town shortly before the onset of World War I; and the production was shared with the Opèra de Monte-Carlo. The San Francisco staging was realized by Condemi for performance in 2013. There will be no “spoilers” about how everything concludes; and “for the record,” Da Ponte’s libretto provides no explicit resolution of the plot. Once again the conductor will be Luisotti. Running time is about three hours.

February 20: While Tosca is one of Puccini’s most-performed operas, La rondine (the swallow) received much less attention. It was first performed in 1917, after which it was revised by the composer in 1920 and 1921, resulting in two completely different endings. Unfortunately, Puccini died before settling on a final version. Once again, the plot is about love, with the courtesan Magda de Civry (soprano Angela Gheorghiu) as the principal character. Concealing her identity, Magda falls in love with Ruggero Lastouc (tenor Misha Didyk), whom she meets in a café. The staging was conceived by Nicolas Joël for a production shared with the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. The SFO performance, which took place in 2007, was directed by Stephan Barlow, working with conductor Ion Marin. Running time is about two hours.

February 27: The month will conclude with Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. As had been the case for his previous “Shakespearean” opera, Otello, Verdi worked with a libretto by Arrigo Boito, who, in turn, organized his narrative around three of William Shakespeare’s plays, the two parts of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. As might be expected, the narrative is dominated by the title character, sung by bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. From a musical point of view, the conclusion of the opera provides one of the few opportunities to appreciate the composer’s skill at writing a fugue. Olivier Tambosi created the staging for the Lyric Opera of Chicago; and the SFO performances took place in the fall of 2013, conducted by Luisotti. Running time is a little over 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.

Monday, January 25, 2021

LCCE to Provide Music for Two New Animations

Having announced this past Saturday that the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) would premiere a new concerto by Mark Winges at the beginning of next month, LCCE has announced another new performance, which will take place this coming Thursday. This will be a live-stream from the Anne E. Pitzer Center as part of the Noon Concert series at the University of California at Davis. The program will premiere two new animations by Maria Fong, each intended to accompany music to be performed by LCCE cellist Leighton Fong.

The first of these was created for a performance of Craig Walsh’s “Pipeline Burst Cache,” which he composed for solo cello and tape. The second also involves a solo cello performance, Peter Tornyai’s “fiori sfiorati.” Fong will also perform a duo with violist Matilda Hofman entitled “Pas de Deux,” composed by Ross Bauer. He will conclude the program by performing the second piano trio composed by Melinda Wagner, given the title “Romanze with Faux Variations.” He will be joined by Anna Presler on violin and Allegra Chapman on piano.

This will be a 55-minute concert, beginning at 12:05 p.m. this Thursday, January 28. There will be no charge for admission. The program will be live-streamed through the UC Davis Music YouTube channel.

Emil Gilels’ Russian/Soviet Repertoire

courtesy of Naxos of America

In June of 2018, this site discussed Profil’s release of its Emil Gilels Edition, a box of thirteen CDs accounting for recordings of performances by Russian pianist Emil Gilels made between 1933 and 1963. The cover design enumerated an impressive number of composers: Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. While some may find this a rather limited scope of music history, the early recordings on the first CD include more recent composers, such as Claude Debussy and Francis Poulenc.

This past October Profil released a second box. This one is devoted entirely to composers that are either Russian or from countries that fell under the influence of the Soviet Union. The organization of the album is roughly chronological, with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky at one end and Andrey Babaev (born in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1923 and died in Moscow in 1964) at the other. These recordings were made between 1940 and 1963.

Ironically, one of the high points of this collection involves music previously released on another label. Gilels made a few trio recordings with violinist Leonid Kogan and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. These recordings were anthologized in a five-CD box set released by DOREMI, which I discussed in August of 2017. The Profil release allowed me to revisit the recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 50 trio in A minor and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) trio in E minor; and listening to both of these offerings felt like encountering old friends. Indeed, the Shostakovich performance was so compelling that I was more than a little disappointed that the only other account of this composer involved three of the prelude-fugue couplings (in the keys of C major, D major, and D minor) from that composer’s Opus 87 set of all 24 major and minor keys.

Where concertos are concerned, three of them are accounted for by two different recordings. Most interesting is Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) concerto in B-flat minor, whose second recording was made with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and is included in the anthology of his RCA recordings. This is coupled on the same CD that begins with a performance of the same concerto made with Konstantin Ivanov conducting what is now known as the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra but was called the USSR State Radio Symphony Orchestra under Soviet rule.

I suspect that there are few listeners interested in playing this CD from beginning to end to experience two different performances back-to-back. However, the Opus 44 (second) concerto in G Major gets the same treatment. This time the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, best known for having conducted Van Cliburn’s prize-winning performance of Opus 23 at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition (which earned Kondrashin his own place in the catalog of RCA recordings). The second performance was recorded with the Hungarian National Philharmonic (then the Hungarian State Orchestra) conducted by András Kóródi. The other concerto to get two recordings is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 30 (third) concerto in D minor. Both of them were again made with Kondrashin and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra.

My primary disappointment involves an unsatisfying limited account of piano sonatas. Only one of Sergei Prokofiev’s “war” sonatas, Opus 84 in B-flat major, is included. There are only two other Prokofiev sonatas included, the Opus 14 (second) in D minor and two recordings of the Opus 28 (third) in A minor. Even more disappointing is that Alexander Scriabin is represented by only two very early sonatas, Opus 6 (first) in F minor and Opus 30 (fourth) in F-sharp major. The latter comes from the time when Scriabin was still experimenting with rich chromaticism, not yet ready to pursue the potential of atonality.

In many ways the assortment in this collection reminds us of just how conservative prevailing tastes were during the middle of the twentieth century. Shostakovich knew how to think “out of the box;” but that tended to provoke Soviet authorities into confining him within a stronger box. His colleague Mieczysław Weinberg could be similarly adventurous and probably took advantage of how few people knew about his compositions. Fortunately, his Opus 56 (fourth) piano sonata in B minor is included in this Gilels collection. Mind you, conditions in the United States tended to be just as conservative, allowing repertoire to be determined by balance sheets and the prices of shares on stock exchanges!

The bottom line is that there is a generous supply of piano-playing talent that is far better than merely satisfactory in this collection. If Gilels was limited by the narrowness of public opinion, he was far from the only performing artist to be so confined. Better we should simply enjoy the expressiveness he could bring to the compositions he was allowed to perform.

ASQ Launches MAKM Virtual Season

Last night Music at Kohl Mansion (MAKM) launched its 38th season, consisting of prerecorded videos, each of which will be given two “live” streamings. The opening concert presented a single composition, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major in the version that the composer originally wrote, with the Grosse Fuge as the last of its six movements. The performers were the members of the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. This was probably the group’s final performance with Yarbrough, who is about to be replaced by David Samuel.

The program amounted to a “follow-up” to the second of the two Beethoven Marathon recitals that ASQ recorded last month for San Francisco Performances (SFP) for viewing through the Front Row: 2020 Online Concert Series video archive. For that recording ASQ played the seven-movement Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor. The Opus 130 performance was a lengthier enterprise, particularly due to the fact that the duration of the fugue is about fifteen minutes, longer than any of the five preceding movements.

ASQ has been playing the Beethoven quartets (and recording them) for well over a quarter century prior to my settling into writing about music as my “retirement gig.” They used the SFP marathon to offer representative samples from the three periods that partition the entire canon: early (Opus 18, published in 1801), middle (primarily the three “Razumovsky” quartets, composed in 1806), late (the five quartets composed between 1824 and 1826, shortly before Beethoven’s death in March of 1827). However, there is so much innovation across those last five quartets that it is understandable that a “farewell gesture” to Yarbrough would involve another quartet from the late period.

What is particularly distinctive about Opus 130, however, is how it reminds the listener that, even during the final (and often stressful) years of Beethoven’s life, his sense of humor was as sharp as ever. Each of the first four movements has its own generous share of playful surprises, almost as if each of the four instruments had its own prankish dispositions. There is probably a bit of humor, albeit more subtle, in the fifth movement, which Beethoven labels as a cavatina. Its Wikipedia page identifies the cavatina as “originally meaning a short song of simple character;” and I have always felt that the perfect model for a cavatina is “Porgi amor,” sung by the Countess at the beginning of the second act of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro.

Beethoven’s cavatina, on the other hand, is anything but short and hardly “of simple character.” It is one of the longer of the five movements that precede the fugue, and the interplay of the four instrumental lines makes for some of the composer’s most sophisticated polyphony. From a rhetorical point of view, this is the music that brings an interlude of calm following the more raucous humor of the first four movements while bracing the listener for the shock of the fugue that is about to follow, a movement that departs from any expectations of fugue even more disquieting than Beethoven’s departure from cavatina conventions.

What makes ASQ performances so engaging is that, collectively, they know how to escort the attentive listener through the wide breadth of rhetorical diversity that Beethoven brought to all of his music. The late period quartets make it clear that, through all of that breadth of diversity that permeated his work as a composer, Beethoven was as inventive as ever in his last years, if not more so. One could almost say that their MAKM recital came close to serving up the same elements of surprise that would have jolted those listening to the earliest performances of the late quartets.

That said, it is worth observing that the video work did not do ASQ any favors. Unless I am mistaken, they recorded Opus 131 for SFP with a fixed camera in Herbst Theatre. However, the frame provided a consistently informative view of the entire group. As a result, one could readily grasp the many different approaches to polyphony that emerged in Beethoven’s writing. The attentive eye could easy follow how thematic motifs could be both shared and handed-off.

The video treatment at Kohl Mansion, enabled by the Sun Valley Music Festival Crew, was, on the other hand, overly burdened with multiple-camera busy-work. Furthermore, in all probability none of the members of that crew had even a vague sense of what was in the score being performed by ASQ. As a result, the eye was almost always forced to look at one or two players, while the ear was being directed to the players that were “out of frame.” As might be imagined, the Grosse Fuge was the primary casualty, but many of Beethoven’s wittiest turns of phrase in the first five movements were similarly undermined.

Those that attend performances frequently are well aware that watching contributes as much to the experience as listening does; let us hope that basic video technique will improve over the course of the remaining concerts in the MAKM season.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Volti to Showcase One of its Own at Next Concert

Composer and low bass vocalist Joel Chapman (courtesy of Volti)

Next month Volti will present the third of the four mini-concerts it has planned for its 42nd season. Since this a cappella vocal ensemble specializes in new music, it is appropriate that each of those concerts will present a world-premiere performance. However, the next concert will be particularly special, since the composer, Joel Chapman, sings low bass in Volti performances.

Chapman is also a conductor, and those who have seen him in performance are probably aware of his physical disability. The title of the piece he has composed is “Interdependence;” and, through it, he reflects on what the last year has taught us about connection: the ways in which, after nearly a year of physical distancing, masks, and hand sanitizer, the isolation of the pandemic may have also caused us to realize how interconnected we are and may have created the beginnings of a bridge of understanding between abled and disabled people. Chapman provided his own text for “Interdependence;” and he has chosen to preview his work by offering the opening lyrics:

There are things I can do
There are things I can't do
Maybe it's true for you too

Oh, the things that I miss
If I might reminisce
(Maybe it's true for you too)

The performance will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 13. There will be no charge for admission, and the performance will be less than an hour in duration. All that is necessary is that one registers prior to 5 p.m. on that day through the Tix Web page that creates a free ticket.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Biblical Opera Beyond the Spectacle

As was announced about a month ago, this weekend’s offering in the Opera is ON service presented by San Francisco Opera (SFO) is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah. With the exception of “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” (my heart at thy sweet voice), the aria that Delilah sings in the second act to seduce Samson, this opera tends to be known more for its unabashed spectacle than for any other factor. Indeed, as I observed in previewing the production, it was the first to be presented through the Opera at the Ballpark series of simulcasts to the Mitsubishi Electronic Diamond Vision Board in Oracle Park for an audience of about 15,000 viewers; and the visuals alone would probably be sufficient to knock one out of the park.

However, as I observed in a preview article I wrote prior to seeing this production in September of 2007, there is more than ample evidence that Saint-Saëns himself prioritized the music over the spectacle. The composer deserves to be remembered for at least two technical skills, each of which carries far more weight than the “Bacchanale” theme which is definitely up there in the top five clichés in the classical music repertoire. Most important was his prodigious gift for writing highly inventive polyphonic music, a gift exercised in Samson and Delilah for both instrumental and vocal writing. In the latter category Saint-Saëns’ choral music is just as compelling for its homophony as it is for its polyphony. Another significant feature is the composer’s gift for chromatic lines that register just the right emotional impact without getting written off as too “slimy."

Douglas Schmidt’s design for the “Bacchanale” scene that concludes Samson and Delilah (photograph by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

When it comes to the SFO production, everyone involved was on the ball in equal measure. Conductor Patrick Summers clearly appreciated all of the above virtues of Saint-Saëns’ techniques, and he knew how to make sure that they would register with any attentive listener. At the same time, Douglas Schmidt provided designs (such as the one reproduced above) on a grand scale that probably would have gone down very well with Parisian audiences at the end of the nineteenth century. Sandra Bernhard realized the staging conceived by Nicolas Joël by allowing the narrative to flow at a brisk pace without ever suggesting any tedium. As to the vocal work, the title roles taken by tenor Clifton Forbis as Samson and mezzo Olga Borodina as Delilah were pure dynamite. The same can be said for Samson’s nemesis, the High Priest of Dagon, sung by baritone Juha Uusitalo. Finally, Frank Zamacona’s direction of the video capture consistently found just the right techniques for alternating between intimate views of the individual characters and the overall grandeur of the setting in which they were situated.

All hands clearly played significant roles in presenting Samson and Delilah as an opera that was far more than mere spectacle.

A Spoonful of Eye Candy Make the Counterpoint go Down

Originally written in September of 2007

As I prepare to see the San Francisco Opera production of Samson and Delilah next Sunday, it is hard to forget that this opera embodies what is probably the most well-worn cliché of the music literature, at least over the course of the twentieth century when it was worked to death by just about every comedian on stage or screen (including the animated ones in the latter case). This moment is all the more ridiculous, since the "official" title of this particular musical episode is "Bacchanale," in spite of the fact that Bacchus-worship was not a practice of the Philistines. (Indeed, the libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire makes it clear that this scene is celebrating Dagon, which is one of the details from the Book of Judges that is kept intact.) However, once we get beyond the hackneyed, this opera reminds us that spectacle was not an invention of Cecil B. DeMille, or even D. W. Griffith, and that "grand" was quite a meaningful adjective in the phrase "grand opera!"

We are also reminded that music was just as much a business in late nineteenth-century France (or, for this particular opera, Germany) as it was about three-quarters of a century later when Lennie Tristano was bemoaning the sorry state of jazz in the Forties of the twentieth century. However, if we get beyond the eye candy on the stage and even the "star turns" of the leading characters, this opera provides us with many opportunities to see that Camille Saint-Saëns was just as as serious about his music as Tristano was about his. We get to hear Saint-Saëns display his command of both counterpoint and choral writing with a refinement that we miss if we limit our attention to the "Bacchanale" or other his spectacles, such as the second piano concerto or the "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso." Then, if we listen "behind" the mezzo-soprano's delivery of Delilah's seduction aria ("Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix"), we hear some wonderfully delicate management of orchestral texture and chromatic lines that, in other hands, would have been written off by my own composition teachers as "slimy."

This leaves us with an impression of a Saint-Saëns who was able to achieve a dialectical synthesis of the ideals of his art form with the pragmatics of the business that provided him opportunities to compose. He could produce music that, as Roger Sessions would put it about a century later, he could listen to (and present to his students) "without blushing." If the general audience cared only about seeing a sexy Delilah, lapping up orgiastic choreography, and finishing it all off with the collapse of the Philistine temple, that was their affair. Today's audiences tend to have the same interests; and, if that benefits the budget of an opera company, we are all the better for it. The rest of us can seize the opportunity to listen to the music that probably gave Saint-Saëns, himself, the greatest satisfaction; and we, too, benefit.

William Susman’s Programmatic Anthology

from the Bandcamp Web page for the recording being discussed

This past Wednesday Belarca Records released A Quiet Madness, an anthology of compositions by William Susman. Readers will see from the hyperlink that the best site for purchasing this album in both physical and digital forms is provided by Bandcamp. The Web page itself is particularly valuable, since it includes all of the text content of the booklet that accompanies the physical release.

Susman was born in 1960, and a major source of his education came from Herbert Brun at the University of Illinois. The advance material for this album cite’s Susman as “working in a post-modern, post-minimalist language.” I have been very skeptical about any useful semantic interpretation of “post-modern;” but it is clear from this album that Susman found his own way to work with the sorts of repetitive structures that served as a bedrock during the emergence of the minimalist movement.

One may approach A Quiet Madness as a suite compiled from individual movements involving different instrumental resources, which he composed between 2006 and 2013. The “spinal cord” is defined by the first, fifth, and seventh compositions in a series of solo piano pieces composed in 2010 under the title Quiet Rhythms. Susman collected 44 of these pieces in two Books during 2010. These were followed by a third book of 22 pieces in 2012 and a fourth book (also of 22 pieces) in 2013.

On A Quiet Madness the three selected pieces are played by Francesco Di Fiore, whose approaches to composition seem to parallel Susman’s. The album begins with the only piece composed in 2013, “Aria,” performed by violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, accompanied by Susman at the piano. The pieces interleaved among the three Quiet Rhythms selections are “Seven Scenes for Four Flutes,” performed by flutist Patricia Zuber, and “Zydeco Madness,” played by accordionist Stas Venglevski.

While there is considerable diversity among all the scores being performed, there tends to be an overall impression of rhetorical sameness. For example, “Zydeco Madness” was supposedly composed as a response to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. However, there is not much to either denote or connote that tragedy, let alone the richly diverse culture of music making one encounters in New Orleans. NCIS: New Orleans may make for pretty routine television viewing, but it certainly does not short-change that aforementioned culture of music making.

Perhaps my listening experience amounted to confronting a diversity of abstractions, none of which offer many (if any) hints of what is being abstracted, reminding me of the joke about feeling hungry within an hour after having consumed a full meal.

LCCE to Premiere “Socially-Distanced” Concerto

Violinist Hrabba Atladottir (from the LCCE event page for the concert being announced)

Readers may recall that Long Distance Call, the program originally scheduled for performance by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) this coming Monday, was rescheduled for performance on May 3. By way of compensation, LCCE has added a special performance of another “long distance” work, which will take place at the beginning of next month. Local composer Mark Winges has written “Spun Light,” a “distanced concerto” for violin and a quintet consisting of flute (Stacey Pelinka doubling on alto flute), viola (Phyllis Kamrin), cello (Leighton Fong), bass (Michel Taddei), and piano (Allegra Chapman, doubling on toy piano). The violin soloist will be Hrabba Atladottir.

Social distancing was achieved by having all performers record their respective parts individually. While Atladottir is well known to Bay Area concert performances, she recorded her part in Reykjavík, capital of her native Iceland. Her recording engineer was Ólafur Elíasson, while all the other parts were recorded by Jeff Kolhede at the 25th Street Studios in Oakland. Kolhede was then responsible for mixing all of this content to create a chamber music variation of the concerto form with a decidedly different take on how musicians collaborate. The performance of this three-movement composition will then be supplemented with video created by Guðrun Olafsdottir in Reykjavík and Taylor Joshua Rankin, who was responsible for the final mix.

The world premiere of this concerto will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 8. There will be no charge for admission. The streaming site has not yet been finalized. However, once it has been created, a hyperlink will be added to the event page for this performance on the LCCE Web site.

Samantha Cho at Old First Concerts

Pianist Samantha Cho (from the Old First Concerts event page for her recital, which includes a hyperlink to the YouTube video of that recital)

Last night Old First Concerts presented the first recital of the new year, a solo performance by pianist Samantha Cho. Cho prepared an impressive repertoire, playing all six of the compositions in the two books that Claude Debussy entitled Images, followed by Edvard Grieg’s Opus 7 piano sonata in E minor. By way of a “warm-up,” Cho began her program with four short compositions by Germaine Tailleferre, “Pastorale,” “Rêverie,” “Hommage à Debussy,” and “Romance.”

It is unclear whether Debussy intended his six Images compositions to be performed beginning-to-end. Each of the pieces is of moderate duration, combining rhetorical depth with prodigiously demanding keyboard technique. Cho’s undertaking would be a major physical strain for any pianist, while the sophistication of the pieces themselves is equally demanding on the listener. Nevertheless, Cho’s graceful technique always seemed to highlight the imagery that Debussy suggests in the titles of these six pieces. So, while the overall journey was no “walk in the park,” Cho knew how to guide the attentive listener through the many intricate details of Debussy’s technique, bringing to mind the advice from the I Ching that “perseverance furthers.”

Grieg’s sonata is one of his earliest compositions. Indeed, it is probably the earliest piece he wrote that is part of standard piano repertoire. One gets the impression that he is making an obligatory nod to traditional practices that predate his sonata by at least half a century. (The sonata was first written in 1865 when Grieg was 22 years old and was subsequently revised by a more mature Grieg in 1887.) Cho brought a clarity to her interpretation through which the attentive listener could appreciate how the composer was responding to traditional influences. She found just the right rhetorical stance to bring to each of the sonatas four movements, finding more personality in that rhetoric than other pianists have cultivated in undertaking this sonata.

Given that Tailleferre is known for little more than being the one female composer in Les Six, her music would have benefitted from even a modest introduction. The paragraph in the program book had little to say about the selections that Cho played, and Cho devoted her own attention only to the music. The best one can say is that Cho played the music with an affable rhetoric, leaving at least this listener desirous of greater familiarity with the Tailleferre catalog.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Karen Slack Announces Merola Recital Program

Soprano Karen Slack and her accompanist Mary Pinto (from the Eventbrite Web page for the recital being announced)

Next month the Merola Opera Program will launch its Merola Virtual Recital Series of 2021. The recitalist will be soprano Karen Slack, a 2002 Merola alumna. She has prepared a program entitled Of Thee I Sing! Songs of Love and Justice. She will be accompanied at the piano by Mary Pinto, and their performance will be live-streamed from Philadelphia.

Ironically, the program will not include “Of Thee I Sing,” the song that George Gershwin composed for a musical of the same name, which was a scathing satire of political behavior (at least as it was practiced in 1931). Slack’s approach to politics is much more serious; and her program will conclude with the other half of her program’s title, Songs of Love and Justice. This is a collection of three settings of texts by Martin Luther King Jr. given the respective titles “Justice,” “Decisions,” and “Love.” Adolphus Hailstork composed this cycle in 1992 for soprano and orchestra, along with an arrangement for soprano and piano. Hailstork’s “finale” will be preceded by songs composed by Undine Smith Moore (“Love Let the Wind Cry How I Adore Thee” and “I Want To Die While You Love Me”), Harry Burleigh (“Lovely, Dark, and Lonely One”), Scott Gendel (“Kids Who Die”), Leslie Adams (“Prayer”), and Ricky Ian Gordon (“My People”). The program will begin with Clayton White’s arrangement of the spiritual “Over My Head.”

This streamed performance will begin at 4 p.m. (Pacific time) on Sunday, February 7. Tickets are $25 for individuals and $40 for households. A limited number of $80 VIP tickets are available that include a virtual reception with Karen Slack after the performance. Eventbrite has created an event page that will handle all three of these prices.

Another Bland Attempt to Cope with COVID-19

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

Today I seem to have endured my third encounter with music that has responded to COVID-19 by blunting sharp edges, rather than seeking them for stimulation. To “review the bidding,” the first of these experiences involved Scott Routenberg’s Inside album, consisting of eleven tracks of music for keyboards and software. I wrote about this at the end of this past October while declaring my preference for one of my recordings of Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 25 (first) piano quartet in G minor. Inside was followed, at the beginning of January, with Love in the Time of Cholera, duo performances by jazz pianist Peter Malinverni and classical violinist Juliet Kurtzman.

I can now add to the list Spirit Garden. This is the second album featuring saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, in which he performs with a full (and richly lush) string ensemble. He also draws upon the services of two jazz bassists, Dominique Sanders and Yasushi Nakamura, as well as drummer Joe Snyder and trumpeter Philip Dizack. The advance material claims the album title represents “a communion of human spirits, who can collaborate, be nourished, heal, and give each other hope through positivity. It’s a direct reflection of fruits in a garden and the fruit of the spirit.”

Sadly, I cannot see myself inhabiting such a garden. Perhaps that is because my auditory cortex is still buzzing with the provocative sonorities evoked by composer Ash Fure, whose music I discussed about a week ago. On the jazz side my dispositions remain more inclined to the consistently provocative subtleties of pianist Satoko Fujii and the many colleagues that have joined her on adventurous journeys. In such a listening context I find no need to seek a blissed-out experience, no matter how honorable the intentions behind that experience may be.

SFB Launches 2021 Digital Season

Last night San Francisco Ballet (SFB) launched its 2021 Digital Season by revisiting the first and only offering of last year’s season at the War Memorial Opera House. During that past performance of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the word went out from City Hall that all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center were to be cancelled to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The initial cancellation was to last through March 20, 2020; but, as we all now know all too well, that cancellation is still in effect.

A few days after that announcement SFB was able to return to the Opera House with a film crew led by Frank Zamacona. A multi-camera capture of the entire ballet was created, and the Web page for viewing the results was launched last night. That Web page will remain active through February 10.

What is probably most important is that the resulting video provides a viewing experience that goes beyond what anyone could have seen from any seat in the Opera House. Regular readers should, by now, be familiar with Zamacona’s name through the videos he created for the San Francisco Opera, many of which have been made available for viewing through the Opera is ON service. He clearly understands how to determine the right vantage point for every instance of the drama unfolding on the stage; and, when the curtain is down, he is just as skilled in tracking the instrumental performance in the orchestra pit. For Midsummer that included several opportunities to appreciate Martin West’s skills in managing the breadth of instrumental resources required to perform the music by Felix Mendelssohn.

Most of the video, however, involved accounting for the highly imaginative choreography for an extended corps de ballet along with a rich cast of characters exploring the interplay between the natural and supernatural worlds. That narrative was further enhanced by the “hyper-reality” of Martin Pakledinaz’ scenic designs, enlarging the flora of the forest to remind the viewer of how small the fairies are. As I observed last year, Balanchine developed his own plot line, rather than following William Shakespeare’s lead. This was more than a matter of allowing for all that splendid corps de ballet work. It also entailed a rich diversity of techniques through which character traits could be established without the characters ever speaking.

Titania (Sasha De Sola) and her attendants (photograph by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)

For the most part his techniques were impressively convincing. The relationship between Oberon (Esteban Hernandez) and Titania (Sasha De Sola) emerges as richer than the squabbling one encounters in Shakespeare’s text, while Puck (Cavan Conley) establishes himself as the “prime mover” of the entire narrative. (Was he serving as alter ego of Balanchine himself?)

Then, of course, there is the abundant abstract choreography in the second act, which I had previously described as moving Shakespeare into “Aurora’s Wedding” territory. In this case there are three couples getting married: Theseus-Hippolyta, Lysander-Hermia, Demetrius-Helena. [updated 1/24, 7 a.m. for a more accurate account of how Theseus and Hippolyta figure in the choreography: Theseus and Hippolyta are finally given distinctive “voices,” albeit through some lusciously elegant non-narrative choreography.] Mostly, however, the act consists of Balanchine abstractions at their finest, returning to narrative only to wrap up the entire ballet with Puck’s monologue.

Clearly, no spirits were offended in the making of this video account of one of Balanchine’s more extended creations.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Sono Luminus to Release Latest Icelandic Album

from the Sono Luminus Web page for the recording being discussed

According to my records, I have been following Sono Luminus releases of Icelandic performances since August of 2015, when Clockworking, the debut album of Nordic Affect, first appeared. First impressions found this music intriguing; but, as subsequent releases emerged, I gradually became concerned that I was getting “more of the same.” However, yesterday brought me my first opportunity to listen to music by Icelandic composers performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. The accompanying background material described Occurrence as “the third and final installment in a trilogy of albums from Sono Luminus and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

The physical release is a bit curious, since it consists of two discs. The first is the CD of the five compositions on the album, each by a different composer. This is coupled with (from the advance announcement) “Pure Audio Blu-ray with 9.1 Auro-3D, Dolby Atmos 7.1.4, and 5.1 DTS-MA versions, as well as the mShuttle application containing FLAC and MP3 audio files” (whew!). The album is scheduled for release tomorrow; but the best site for pre-ordering is the product page on the Sono Luminus Web site. Amazon has created a Web page for MP3 downloads; but, as of this writing, only one track is available. However, there is a hyperlink for pre-ordering the entire album. I am happy to report that the full download includes the accompany booklet. However, it appears that Amazon will not commit to delivering the physical version.

As was the case with Clockworking, Occurrence is an album with distinctive diversity across the five selections on the program. Mind you, there are eccentricities that some might dismiss as overly mannered. At the very beginning of the first track, a violin concerto by Daníel Bjarnason, the attentive listener almost immediately recognizes that the composer expects the soloist (Pekka Kuusisto, for whom the piece was written, on this album) to whistle, sometimes simultaneously with bowing his instrument. As one might suspect, this leads to some decidedly unconventional sonorities; but Bjarnason’s sense of overall architecture is such that these “extended sonorities” never descend into the realm of gratuitous gestures. It is probably worth noting that he also conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for all of the selections on this album. (As a result, there probably were no serious disagreements between composer and conductor!)

The other concertante selection is “Flutter,” composed by Þuríður Jónsdóttir for solo flute (Mario Caroli) and orchestra with sampled sounds of grasshoppers and crickets. This piece was commissioned to mark the centenary of Olivier Messiaen, but it involves extended techniques that occupy territory beyond the range of sonorities that Messiaen could evoke. As one might guess, flutter tonguing is involved; but that technique assumes is rightful place alongside the many other devices maintained by Jónsdóttir in her toolbox.

Both of these concertante selections are roughly twenty minutes in duration. In both cases that is an interval long enough to establish a rich palette of sonorities without allowing any of them to overstay their welcome. The other three pieces on the album, “Lendh” by Veronique Vaka, “In Seventh Heaven” by Haukur Tómasson, and “Adagio” by Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, are closer to the ten-minute duration. These may be approached more at the level of études, each exploring the expressiveness of its own limited palette of sonorities. From a personal point of view, I found myself most struck by “Adagio,” almost as if the composer was seeking an approach that would follow in the footsteps of the Adagio rhetoric of Gustav Mahler. It is not so much that Jóhannsson has explicitly evoked Mahler’s spirit as it is that he found a new approach to reflect on Mahler’s rhetorical techniques, bringing just as much intensity to a much shorter overall duration.

Ross McKee Foundation Spring Season Plans

This past fall I tried to allocate a fair amount of my time for covering performances presented under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation. This involved catching up with the Piano Talks recitals arranged by Executive Director Nicholas Pavkovic, which I had not covered since March of 2019. It also led to getting to know the Piano Break series, which was arranged to support Bay Area pianists who have lost performance opportunities due to COVID-19.

Both of these series will continue during the New Year. Pre-recorded events will be live-streamed through the Ross McKee Foundation YouTube channel. Each performance will run for about a hour’s duration, after which the audience can meet the artist and ask questions in a Zoom Green Room. In addition, there will be a third series entitled Piano Launch, which will showcase recitals by Ross McKee Young Artists from both 2019 and 2020. Taken collectively, all of these offerings will be presented weekly on Friday evenings at 5 p.m. As was the case in the fall, Web pages for the Piano Break and Piano Talks series provide summaries and links to more specific information; the Piano Launch recitals are listed on the Piano Break Web page, identifying the performers as Ross McKee Young Artists. Here is a week-by-week summary of the Spring Season, which will begin in two weeks and continue through the first week in May:

February 5: Piano Break: This will be a very special tribute concert honoring Robin Sutherland, whose life ended this past December 18. Sutherland was Principal Pianist for the San Francisco Symphony for 45 years. The performers will be Christopher Basso, Britt Day, Elizabeth Dorman, Jeffrey Kahane, Jeffrey LaDeur, Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Marc Shapiro, each playing a short work with a connection to Sutherland. They will also share personal remembrances. Pavkovic will serve as host.

February 12: Piano Launch: 2020 Ross McKee Young Artist Ryan Sheng will perform works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Liszt.

February 19: Piano Break: Antonio Iturrioz will present a program of transcriptions prepared by two leading virtuoso pianists, Liszt and Leopold Godowsky.

February 26: Piano Talk: Mark Ainley is the author of the Facebook group The Piano Files with Mark Ainley. The title of his talk will be An Introduction to Historical Piano Recordings, and he will advocate the practice of listening to such recordings. In the course of making his case, he will present, as examples, recordings of Dinu Lipatti, Josef Hoffman, Ignaz Friedman, and other major pianists from the beginning of the twentieth century.

March 5: Piano Break: Robert Schwartz will present a program structured around three major nineteenth-century composers, Johannes Brahms, Liszt, and Frédéric Chopin.

March 12: Piano Launch: 2019 Ross McKee Young Artist Solomon Ge will perform works by Robert Schumann, Beethoven, Chopin, Joseph Haydn, and Sergei Prokofiev.

March 19: Piano Break: Christopher Basso will present a program organized around the music of Dmitri Shostakovich and Beethoven.

March 26: Piano Talk: Dorman will lead a conversation with her teacher Gilbert Kalish, reflecting on his 85 years as both a performer and a teacher.

April 2: Piano Break: Joe Warner will present a program entitled 100 Years of Piano. He will review the range of influences in the last century of both jazz and blues. The composers examined will be Bud Powell, Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, W. C. Handy, John Coltrane, and Stevie Wonder.

April 9: Piano Launch: 2020 Ross McKee Young Artist Zak Mustille will perform works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles-Valentin Alkan, and Pavkovic.

April 16: Piano Break: Kate Campbell will showcase compositions by Bay Area composers Leila Adu-Gilmore, Fernanda Aoki Navarro, Matthew Welch, Ryan Brown, and Stanford University graduate David Lang.

April 23: Piano Break: Ken Iisaka will undertake a virtuosic review of compositions in the key of F-sharp major (six sharps); the contributing composers will be Chopin, Nikolai Medtner, and Alexander Scriabin.

April 30: Piano Talk: Christina Dahl will take a social networking approach to music history. The title of her talk will be In the Orbit of the Schumanns. She will examine the extent to which nineteenth-century musical culture developed by virtue of acquaintances, influences, and (probably) rivalries that can be traced back to both Robert and Clara Schumann.

May 7: Piano Break: Jenny Q Chai will take a multimedia approach to performing works by Jarosław Kapuściński, György Ligeti, Milica Pavlović, and Stephen Sondheim supplemented by visualizations of data compiled by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration pertaining to both climate change and pandemics.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

SFS Announces SFSymphony+ Streaming Service

Yesterday the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen announced concert programming from February through August presented through SFSymphony+, the name of a new on-demand streaming service. As was the case with the November broadcast of Throughline: San Francisco Symphony—From Hall to Home, these offerings will not be limited to “live” performances. Rather, the programs will involve imaginative uses of video capture technique to complement the spirit of the selections being performed.

Most of the programming will involve two series:

  1. SoundBox programming will resume but with streamed video presentation
  2. The CURRENTS series, which released “Movements,” Kev Mo’s contribution to Throughline, will continue with five new programs, each exploring a different musical culture

In addition, the annual celebration of Chinese New Year will be presented in a virtual format on February 20. Finally, videos of chamber music performances featuring SFS musicians will be released for streamed viewing beginning on February 4. All of these programs will be available at 10 a.m. on the date of release.

The price for subscription to the entire season is $120. This will provide full access to all digital content at any time once the program has been released. Individual SoundBox and CURRENTS programs may be viewed for $15 per episode. Donors that have contributed $250 or more will be entitled to receive complimentary subscriptions. Finally, both the Chinese New Year program and the chamber music performances will be available free of charge.

CURRENTS is the less conventional of the two series. Because the repertoire is a significant departure from SFS programming, each program is best summarized in terms of the country being explored and the curator leading the exploration as follows:

February 18: Tabla master Zakir Hussain will present the repertoire of Indian Classical Music, joined by Indian classical violinist Kala Ramnath.

April 1: Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ will curate a survey of Native American music, which will include his own original compositions.

May 6: Zimbabwean musical culture will be examined by the Chinyakare Ensemble, which includes four percussionists and two dancers.

June 17: Mohammad Nejad with curate a survey of Persian musical culture.

July 29: Keyboardist Joshua Horowitz will curate a survey of Klezmer, most likely performing with his Veretski Pass colleagues, violinist Cookie Segelstein and Stuart Brotman on basy.

Dates and content for the SoundBox offerings will be as follows:

February 4: Salonen will curate and conduct the first program, which he has entitled Nostalgia. The program will feature three works, all of which were composed in the last decade: “Conjure” by Freya Waley-Cohen, Missy Mazzoli’s “Vespers,” composed for amplified violin with delay and soundtrack, and Caroline Shaw’s string quartet “Entr’acte.” SFS violinist Polina Sedukh will play the Mazzoli composition. Image capture will be directed by Steve Condiotti with lighting designed by Luke Kritzeck and projections provided by Yee Eun Nam.

March 11: Lineage is the SoundBox program that soprano Julia Bullock had been scheduled to curate in April of last year. She had prepared a program of vocal music reaching all the way back to Hildegard of Bingen and all the way into the immediate present. In addition Sara Cahill will give a solo performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 784, the A minor two-part invention. Daniel Stewart will conduct SFS musicians, as well as members of the SFS Chorus, directed by Ragnar Bohlin. Once again, image capture will be directed by Steve Condiotti with lighting designed by Kritzeck. Projections will be designed by Adam Larsen.

April 15: Salonen will curate and conduct a program exploring minimalism in music. He will present the world premiere of his “Saltat sobrius,” whose thematic material draws upon Pérotin’s four-voice twelfth-century organum (most likely composed for services at Notre-Dame de Paris) “Sederunt principes.” Pianist Elizabeth Dorman will be featured in a performance of Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel.” SFS musicians will perform Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” and Terry Riley’s “In C.” Frank Zamacona will direct working with lighting designed by Kritzeck and projections designed by Larsen.

May 27: This program will be curated by harpist and jazz vocalist Destiny Muhammad. The program will bring William Grant Still’s “Serenade” together with Matt Wong’s arrangements of a variety of different jazz styles. Those arrangements will include his treatment of Muhammad’s own composition “Hope on the Horizon.” Drummer Jeon Joyce, Jr. and bassist Ron Belcher will contribute to the jazz combo work. Daniel Stewart will conduct SFS musicians. Larsen will provide projections.

July 8: SFS Collaborative Partner composer Nico Muhly will feature choreographer and dancer Emma Lanier. The program will include the world premiere of an as-yet-untitled work by the Czech composer Lukáš Janata. Muhly will also present his arrangement of Orlando Gibbons’ six-voice anthem “See, see the Word is incarnate.”

August 12: SFS Collaborative Partner and flutist Claire Chase will curate a program that has not yet been finalized.

August 26: Salonen will curate the final SoundBox program of the season, whose program has also not yet been finalized.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Lara St. John Announces Live-Streamed Concerts

This morning violinist Lara St. John announced the schedule for The Atterbury House Sessions. She planned this series of eleven live-streamed chamber music concerts to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Atterbury House, located at 131 East 70th Street in Manhattan, considered one of the iconic architectural contributions of its time. As of this writing, little is known other than the ensembles that have been recruited and the dates on which they will perform as follows, all Saturdays:

[updated 1/20; 2:50 p.m.: specifics added for performers and repertoire

  1. January 23: Sybarite5 (Sami Merdinian and Sarah Whitney, violins; Angela Pickett, viola; Laura Metcalf, cello; Louis Levitt, bass)—Groove Machine - Marc Mellits; Slow Burn - Jessica Meyer; Allemande pour tout le monde - Kenji Bunch; Weird Fishes - Radiohead arr. Paul Kim; Kompa for Toussaint - Daniel Bernard Roumain; Movement and Location - Punch Brothers arr. Paul Kim; Milonga del Angel - Astor Piazzolla; My Desert, My Rose - Aleksandra Vrebalov
  2. February 6: violinist Tessa Lark and bassist Michael Thurber—two-part inventions by Johann Sebastian Bach interleaved with original compositions
  3. February 20: the Ulysses Quartet (Rhiannon Banerdt, Christina Bouey, violins; Colin Brookes, viola; Grace Ho, cello)—Armenian Folk Songs - Komitas; Quartet Opus 74, Number 4 "Sunrise" - Joseph Haydn; Quartet Opus 18, Number 4 - Ludwig vanBeethoven
  4. February 27: bassist Xavier Foley—Cello Suite No. 1 - Johann Sebastian Bach; original compositions by Foley for solo bass and for duo of bass and violin (St. John)
  5. March 13: PUBLIQuartet (Jannina Norpoth, Curtis Stewart, violins; Nick Revel, viola; Hamilton Berry, cello)—original compositions and pop arrangements
  6. April 3: The Westerlies (Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands, trumpet; Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch, trombone)—traditional music and compositions by Charles Ives and Duke Ellington
  7. April 17: Imani Winds (Brandon Patrick-George, flute; Toyin Spellman-Diaz, oboe; Jeff Scott, horn; Mark Dover, clarinet; Monica Ellis, bassoon)—Quintette en forme de Choros - Heitor Villa-Lobos and arrangements of musc by Maurice Ravel, Simon Shaheen, and Mongo Santamaria
  8. April 24: Baroque violinist Aisslinn Nosky and friends (Arnie Tanimoto, gamba; Robert Warner, harpsiochord)—Violin Sonata HWV 371 - George Frederic Handel; Violin Sonata Opus 2, Number 3 - Antonio Vivaldi; Fantasia for solo violin - Georg Philipp Telemann; Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord - Bach
  9. May 8: the Brentano Quartet (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins; Misha Amory, viola; Nina Lee, cello)—Quartet Opus 20, Number 5 - Haydn; Quartet Opus 80 - Felix Mendelssohn
  10. May 15: violinist Augustin Hadelich (accompanist not yet announced)—Fantasy Number 5 - Telemann; Caprice Number 9 - Niccolò Paganini; Violin Partita No. 2 - Bach; blues compositions by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson)
  11. June 5: violinist Lara St. John (program and additional performers not yet announced)]

The only other specific information is that each performance will begin at 2 p.m. (Pacific time). There will be no charge for the streaming service, which will supposedly be hosted through these sources: the CRB (Classical Radio Boston) Web site, St. John’s Facebook site, and St. John’s YouTube channel. Any further specific information regarding the performers or the program selections will be available either through this Web page or through a hyperlink attached to this Web page.

A Reissue of Two Virgil Thomson Albums

Virgil Thomson on the cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of AMT Public Relations)

This past October Everbest Music released a two-CD set of chamber music by Virgil Thomson, reissuing two albums previously produced by Northeastern Records. The title of the new version is Portraits, Self-Portraits and Songs, and the primary performer is pianist Anthony Tommasini. The original Portraits and Self-Portraits album consists of short pieces, mostly of piano music but also featuring instrumentalists Sharan Leventhal (violin), Fenwick Smith (flute), Frederic T. Cohen (oboe), Ronald Haroutunian (bassoon), and Jonathan Miller (cello). The vocal offerings were taken from Mostly About Love with Tommasini accompanying soprano Nancy Armstrong, mezzo D’Anna Fortunato, tenors Frank Kelley and Paul Kirby, baritone Sanford Sylvan, and bass David Ripley. Percussionist James Russel Smith joins Sylvan and Tommasini for settings of two song texts by William Shakespeare.

Almost all of the selections are relatively brief in duration. Thomson may be best known for the two full-length operas he composed with Gertrude Stein as his librettist, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All. However, in this collection he is a consummate and imaginative miniaturist. The longest uninterrupted offering in the entire set is “Capital Capitals,” again working with a text by Stein. In all of the remaining selections, it is clear that, whether writing for instruments or setting text, Thomson knew what he wanted to say and then knew how to keep silent after he said it.

Thomson was often notorious for his feisty personality. However, he clearly had many friends and no shortage of intimate feelings. Those feelings emerge in these engaging miniatures, making for a highly satisfying listening experience.

Malinowski Completes his WTC Project

A little over a week ago I learned that Stephen Malinowski had completed his project to create animated visualizations of all of the preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Malinowski had been at this project for considerable time. Indeed, the effort took so long that, when I received his announcement, I had forgotten that I had written an account of his approach to the first of the two books (which has its own YouTube playlist) in July of 2016! Those that have read this site for some time know that my efforts to document listening experience serve as a “laboratory notebook” for a broader inquiry into the nature (some might call it phenomenology) of listening to music. As a result, I have been interested in Malinowski’s work, which I view as his approach to addressing that same inquiry.

The Well-Tempered Clavier has played a major role in my listening experiences for some time, not only through a variety of different recordings I have of the complete collection but also through performances of the entire cycle. Then, of course, there have been additional recordings and performances of selected excerpts, making this collection one of the fundamental “bread-and-butter sources” for any serious keyboardist. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Bach ever considered this as “music for listening.”

As I have observed frequently, much of the music that Bach composed was created for pedagogical purposes. This is explicitly evident in the four published books entitled Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice), as well as the lengthy text introduction that precedes his Inventions and Sinfonias (BWV 772–801) collection. Similarly, the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier has a title page asserting that the music was composed “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.”

Malinowski’s project suggests a way in which those pedagogical purposes may be pursed towards listening, rather than execution. In other words, while I have been filling my laboratory notebook with words (hopefully coherent ones), he has used animated images to compile his laboratory notebook for The Well-Tempered Clavier. In the case of the first book, he even tips his hand in hypothesis exploration. The C minor prelude (BWV 847) is given two visualizations. One represents the notes as circles of different sizes with connecting lines, while the other partitions the entire screen into regions of a Voronoi diagram, each of which is highlighted as its corresponding note sounds.

I have to say, personally, that my own approaches to “reading” Malinowski’s videos tend to prefer the “point-like” approach to that of partitioned areas. The former tends to offer better affordances when it comes to perceiving how notes conjoin into lines, while the highlighting technique then identifies the simultaneities that emerge as a result of the counterpoint of multiple lines. I would go so far to say that the interplay of sequence and simultaneity is one of the key pedagogical features of all of the compositions on both of Bach’s books for this collection. In other words mastering that interplay is a primary objective in “keyboard practice;” but it is also a skill that needs to be honed for attentive listening.

This then brings us to the issue of whether this music should be experienced as a collection or if the individual selections were intended for individual performance. Yesterday I decided to view collectively the first twelve preludes and fugues from the first book. At the very least, I was definitely aware of a “learning curve” when it came to sorting out the “syntax” and “semantics” of Malinowski’s visualizations. Indeed, while it may be valid to question whether there is a semantic level in Bach’s music, Malinowski’s approach to interpretation is decidedly semantic. From this I would be willing to conclude that his videos are just as pedagogical as Bach’s compositions; and learning is more likely to emerge from a sequence of these visual experiences, rather than by viewing any single visualization in isolation.

Mind you, all I can do with any musical experience, auditory or visual, amounts to hypothesizing-in-progress. Very rarely does one arrive any even a hint of hard-and-fast conclusions. Indeed, it is the malleability of listening, even when one listens to a recording multiple times, that makes experiencing music so vivid. Thus, there is a richness of content, even in Malinowski’s visuals, that similarly brings freshness to every viewing, even when one is familiar with both the music and the techniques behind those visuals.

Monday, January 18, 2021

SFP Updates in February

Last week San Francisco Performances (SFP) announced the cancellation of all February performances in compliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines and the continued restrictions on public gatherings. As of this writing, none of these events have been rescheduled. The cancellation of the Great Artists Series recital by pianist Beatrice Rana and violinists Renaud Capuçon was previously reported about a month ago. The other cancellations are as follows:

  • Thursday, February 4: The Great Artists Series solo recital by violinist Midori
  • Sunday, February 7: The Piano Series recital by David Greilsammer
  • Saturday, February 20: The Art of Song recital by mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager accompanied by pianist Julius Drake
  • Saturday, February 27: The previously rescheduled Guitar Series recital by David Russell

Once again, the options for those holding tickets for these cancelled events are as follows:

  • Apply the value of the tickets towards another single performance in the current season.
  • Make a tax-deductible donation of the value of the tickets to SFP.
  • Apply the value of the tickets toward a gift certificate.
  • Request a refund.

The Next Virtual Performances by Dinnerstein

Simone Dinnerstein performing at her piano in Brooklyn (courtesy of the artist)

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has announced two upcoming virtual performances taking place, respectively, at the end of this month and the middle of next month. Both of these offerings consist of videos that were professionally recorded in her home in Brooklyn; but both of the host institutions are situated at a significant distance from New York City. The first is in Durham, North Carolina, where the concert will be hosted by Duke Performances on the campus of Duke University. The second will be in Seattle, Washington as part of the Meany On Screen series of performances hosted by the Meany Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Washington.

The Duke program will be structured in two parts, the first of which consists of reflections on chorales by Johann Sebastian Bach. Dinnerstein will begin with Ferruccio Busoni’s solo piano arrangement of the BWV 639 chorale prelude from the Orgelbüchlein (little organ book), “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ). This will be followed by three transcriptions composed by Richard Danielpour, the “Agnus Dei” aria from the BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor and two movements from the BWV 244 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel of Matthew, “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” (“if I shall ever be separated,”a chorale setting of the Passion hymn “O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden”) and the concluding chorus “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” (we sit down in tears), noted for what may be Bach’s most heart-rending use of dissonance.

The second part will consist of four selections performed without interruption as a suite. That suite will be framed by two compositions by François Couperin, “Les baricades mistérieuses” (the mysterious barricades) and “Le tic-toc-choc, ou Les maillotins.” They will be separated by Robert Schumann’s Opus 18 “Arabeske” and Philip Glass’ “Mad Rush.”

The Washington program will be Dinnerstein’s latest recital based on her album A Character of Quiet. She will begin with two of the Philip Glass études at the beginning of the CD, the sixteenth and the second. These will then be followed by her performance of Franz Schubert’s D. 960 sonata in B-flat major.

The Duke performance will take place at 5 p.m. (Pacific time) on Saturday, January 30. General admission will be $10, and tickets will be on sale through the event page for this concert up until the time of the performance. The video will be available for viewing for 72 hours.

There will be no charge for the Washington performance, and no pre-registration will be required. Streaming will begin at noon on Friday, February 12 and continue through the end of the day on Friday, February 19. The hyperlink to the video stream will be available through the event page for the concert.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

SFO Video Stream Gounod’s Shakespeare Opera

 Pene Pati as Roméo and Nadine Sierra as Juliette in Jean-Louis Grinda’s staging of the balcony scene (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

This weekend marks the first of the three opera streams in the Opera is ON service presented by San Francisco Opera (SFO). The opera is Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette; and the video was directed by Frank Zamacona, based on performances that took place at the War Memorial Opera House in September of 2019. The production was staged by Jean-Louis Grinda, making his SFO debut and working with French-Canadian conductor Yves Abel. Gounod used a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, which, for the most part, honored William Shakespeare’s narrative, occasionally translating some of the better-known quotes from the script into French.

What is probably most important is that the title roles were taken by vocalists that were well-suited to capturing the youthfulness of the characters they were embodying. Both of them were Adler alumni: tenor Pene Pati as Roméo and soprano Nadine Sierra as Juliette. From a technical point of view, Gounod allocated most of his fireworks to Juliette, the best known of these being her first-act aria “Je veux vivre” (I wish to live). Sierra nailed every measure of this aria, capturing all of Juliette’s high-register energy and abundant embellishments. However, she also embodied the many changes in character that unfold as the narrative progresses; and Gounod gave her character abundant opportunities to vocalize over those changes.

Roméo’s character, on the other hand, is more straightforward. While he does not initially know Juliet’s ancestry, once he finds out he is immediately aware of where his fate is leading him. As a result, Pati’s singing consistently revealed undercurrents of the consequences of Roméo’s actions.

This was definitely a production in which video close-ups disclosed more about character than one often encounters in opera stagings. While all of the secondary characters also benefitted from Grinda’s insights, Zamacona’s camera work always kept the focus on how the title characters were responding to the cards that the Fates had dealt to them. He also took a somewhat experimental approach to crowd scenes, including a few shots from above that best served the mass sword fight that culminates in Tybalt’s death. For all those virtues, however, there are still periods that tend to go on longer than the narrative requires them to do, perhaps suggesting Gounod’s awareness that his audiences would rather revel in watching his vocalists (particularly Juliette) than follow the more straightforward path of Shakespeare’s narrative!