Saturday, December 31, 2016

LCCE will Begin February with its 2016 Composition Contest Winner

The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) will continue its 2016–2017 season at the beginning of February. The highlight of the program will be the West Coast premiere of the winning piece from the 2016 LCCE Composition Contest. The winning composer is Melody Eötvös, born in Australia and currently based in Bloomington, Indiana, where she received her Doctor of Music degree from the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in 2004. The title of the concert is named after the composition that Eötvös submitted, “House of the Beehives,” which was inspired by a story by Italo Calvino, also of the same name. In addition, the program will include the world premiere of David Coll’s “Ghost Dances,” which will be the opening selection.

Readers may also recall that, a little over a year ago, LCCE presented a program entitled Broken Consorts, exploring the theme of music composed for unconventional combinations of instruments. That theme will be revisited during the February program with a performance of Sebastian Currier’s “Broken Consort,” a sextet scored flute, oboe, violin, cello, and two guitars. This also happens to be the scoring for “Ghost Dances;” and four of the performers will also be featured in two duo compositions. The guitarists will play Dusan Bogdanovic’s “Canticles;” and the string players will perform the sonata that Maurice Ravel composed for violin and cello.

The San Francisco performance of House of the Beehives will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 6. The venue will be the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. Tickets will be sold at the door for $35 for general admission and $18 for those under the age of 35. However, if tickets are purchased in advance from a Vendini event page, general admission will be $30 with a $15 charge for those under the age of 35.

SFCO Greets the New Year with Mozart and Two Soloists

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO), led by its Music Director Benjamin Simon, gave the San Francisco performance of the second of its four Main Stage Concerts. Traditionally, this concert has been scheduled to take place on the threshold between the old and the new year; and the tradition includes Simon leading the audience in singing two verses of “Auld Lang Syne” (printed in the program book, for those who do not know the second verse). This season this holiday event was dedicated to the memory of SFCO Founder Edgar Braun, and the program consisted entirely of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Two guest soloists were invited for the occasion, and one member of the ensemble was also featured for solo work.

That member was bassist Michel Taddei, who contributed to what was probably the least familiar and definitely the most unique selection. Taddei joined bass (and guest artist) Brad Walker in a performance of the K. 612 concert aria “Per questa bella mano” (by this fair hand), whose instrumental accompaniment requires virtuoso solo work for the double bass. With apologies to Dizzy Gillespie and John Lewis, the result was a “two bass hit.” Pushing the underlying pun, Taddei was first at the plate, preparing the way for Walker with some of the most rapid-fire bowing one is like to encounter in the double bass literature. Walker then took over with an almost crooning style, evoking the sort of romantic arias that Mozart had previously written for the character Guglielmo in his K. 588 opera Così fan tutte (thus do all women). The contrast in rhetorical stances was delightful; and the obstreperous nature of the Taddei’s virtuoso passages reminded those who know that opera that, in the course of some of Guglielmo’s romantic music, he is actually “faking it.”

Walker himself took up the mantle of wit for an “encore selection” for the evening (scare quotes because it was included in the program book), Leporello’s “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” (my dear lady, this is the catalog), from Mozart’s K. 567 opera Don Giovanni. Using a thick leather-bound book as a prop, Walker milked every sarcasm (blatant or subtle) out of the text that Lorenzo Da Ponte had written for this aria, all reinforced with meticulous control of his body language. Walker’s voice has just the right coloration for the full breath of seriocomic complexity that Mozart often demands of his bass-voice opera characters; and, however familiar “Madamina” may be to opera lovers, last night’s delivery was definitely one for the books.

At least some of Walker’s successful impression was probably due to the fact that his chemistry with the SFCO ensemble was as important as his own vocal qualities. Alas, the same cannot be said of the other soloist for the evening, pianist Robert Schwartz, who took the solo part in a performance of the K. 466 concerto in D minor. As the key choice suggests, this is a concerto that begins with stormy intensity; but the clouds have dispersed by the end of the first movement. The F major Romanza was, as Simon himself observed in his introductory remarks, practically an opera aria without words; and, in spite of the return to minor, the concluding Allegro assai is predominantly frolicsome, with a coda that has a few gestures that deliberately tickle the funny bone.

Unfortunately, intensity seemed to be the only rhetorical stance that interested Schwartz. More often than not, it tended to drown out the orchestral parts, suggesting that Schwartz was not one to recede to the background, even when that was what the score required. In spite of Simon’s introduction, there was nothing aria-like in his approach to the Romanza, while in the Allegro assai he was more occupied with virtuosity at the fastest possible tempo than with Mozart’s capacity for playfulness. Perhaps Schwartz’ overall attitude was shaped by his decision to play the cadenzas that Ludwig van Beethoven had written for the outer movements; but, as those whose appreciation of Beethoven goes beneath the myths on the surface, Beethoven knew about the light touch just as well as Mozart did.

The ensemble was much better served on its own, particularly in the symphony selection for the evening, K. 504 (“Prague”) in D major. This is music in which Mozart covers a wide range of rhetorical stances, and Simon was always perfectly attuned to each of them. It is also a score in which Mozart uses his winds and brass to summon up a wide diversity of colors, including some unique low brass tones coming from the horn that endow the Andante with a bit more darkness than one might expect from such a movement. That coloration was also abundantly evident in the opening selection, the overture to the K. 492 opera The Marriage of Figaro. Simon took this overture at the brisk pace required to introduce the “crazy day” that is about to unfold over the course of four acts; and the rhetoric suggests there will be some serious sentiment lurking behind all that madness.

Whatever 2017 brings, let us hope that we shall still always have Mozart.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Sunset Music | Arts 2017 Vocal Series

February will see the launch of the Vocal Series in the 2017 season of concerts presented by Sunset Music | Arts. There will be four recitals in this series, all taking place in the evening and beginning at 7:30 p.m., three on a Saturday and one on a Friday. Each will feature a pair of vocalists and a piano accompanist. Thus far only these performers have been announced, and program details are still forthcoming. The summary of the participants is thus as follows:

Saturday, February 4: tenor Roderick Lowe and mezzo Sally Porter Munro accompanied by Bryan Baker

Friday, February 17: baritone Jere Torkelsen and soprano Sibel Demirmen accompanied by Paul G. McCurdy

Saturday, March 11: soprano Shawnette Sulker and tenor Victor Kholdadad accompanied by Kevin Korth

Saturday, June 3: soprano Elfrieda Langemann and mezzo Katherine McKee accompanied by James Meredith

All performances will take place at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices are $20 for general admission with a $15 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. Tickets may be purchased online through Eventbrite. Subscriptions are not being sold, but each of the hyperlinks on the above dates leads to the event page for single ticket purchases. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

Outsound Presents Rings Out the Old Year with (mostly) Electronics

Since the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra is giving its annual Holiday Concert in San Francisco tonight, last night’s Luggage Store Creative Music Series gig was not quite the last musical event of the season. However, Outsound Presents can be credited with offering the last bleeding edge performance of the season, not only in San Francisco but, as far as I can tell, across the Bay Area. The program followed the usual format of two sets of free improvisation, and the emphasis was almost entirely on electronics. Furthermore, the second set brought together three familiar faces (familiar, at least, to those following Outsound productions and others that sail under allied flags).

To “ring out” 2016 Matt Davignon organized a trio, drawing upon two colleagues, Sheila Bosco and Suki O’Kane. While he had played with both of them in the past, this was the first time that all three of them played as a group. Davignon presided over a table filled with potentiometer-controlled boxes configured in a web of connecting cables. Due to my own seniority, I may have been the only member of the audience reminded of similar tables of gear that would occupy the orchestra pit during a performance by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; so, for me at least, Davignon’s contribution was a comforting trip down memory lane, just the sort of thing that the Hallmark Card crowd likes to do as a new year approaches. To Davignon’s right Bosco stood behind a Korg keyboard, which seemed to allow a generous supply of ways to control just what the standard layout of black and white keys would actually do. (One of the later Korg boxes supported tuning systems other than those of the equal-tempered chromatic scale, but I do not know if this was one of them.) Bosco seemed to be controlling at least one other sound source, as well as a mixer. That left O’Kane to take care of a more familiar array of percussion instruments, to which she added an mbira.

Watching this trio at work, I was reminded of having seen Bosco performing with her Alien Planet duo partner Colette McCaslin back in March of 2015. Writing about that gig for, I found myself indulging in my own riff over issues of causality and coordination. As I observed at the time, in much electronic gear and its configurations, any cause-and-effect logic often resides more in the circuitry itself than in the actions of the performer. Thus, in last night’s trio work, O’Kane was the only player that allowed the observing listener to connect physical movement with resulting sonorities. One could watch both Davignon and Bosco as closely as one wished, but any link between what they did and what ear perceived was mediated by an “invisible logic,” much of which involved triggers based on threshold levels. (There were exceptions, of course; and Bosco had more of them, due to the occasions when she seemed to by playing her keyboard as any other keyboardist might.)

Biomusicologists like to talk about how listeners entrain to a steady beat, usually through foot tapping. However, even in the absence of such a well-defined beat, the attentive concert-goer may be just as susceptible to entrainment based on how one or more performers are moving. The source might be a conductor; but it could just as well be the entire reed section of a jazz band (or, for that matter, the swaying of a gospel choir). Last night’s performance scrupulously eschewed any beat-based foundation. Even O’Kane’s percussion work involved adding coloration to the electronic sonorities, rather that providing any sort of rhythmic foundation. Indeed, almost all of her work involved subtle dynamic levels resulting what might be called transparent shades of color, rather than the sort of brilliant splash that might come from a cymbal crash. Of particular interest was her playing the mbira while pressing it against the surface of her bass drum, an act of delicacy that was matched only by the way in which she could blow on a drum’s snares to set them in motion. The result of the trio’s approach to performance, then, amounted to a minimum of entrainment with the listener, if not its elimination altogether.

The absence of such possibilities for entrainment then raises the question of coordination among the performers themselves. On the basis of eye contact, one had the impression that Davignon was serving as “leader;” but the scare quotes should suggest that this was definitely not a “hierarchical” group structure. Ultimately, coordination seemed to be a matter of head nods, perhaps only to suggest that it was time to move on to something else or to accept that the entire gig had come to a point of closure. Beyond that, it was unclear how much more coordination could be brought into play, particularly in light of the amount of autonomy assumed by the circuitry itself. None of this, however, detracted from the listening experience, best taken as a trip into unfamiliar territory from a vantage point safe enough to allow one just to enjoy the auditory equivalent of a wide diversity of sights.

Autonomy also figured significantly in the opening solo work by Todd Elliott, performing as Toaster. Elliott’s configuration of gear included a laptop; and there was a strong sense that most of his own approach to improvisation involved the coordination of a wide variety of sources of sampled sounds. Thus, much of what was visible in his performance tended to amount to monitoring the activities he had initiated, rather than manipulating them at some microlevel. Furthermore, his final selection, which he called a hymn created in memory of his late father, seemed to involved autonomous control. Elliott himself told the audience that he would start it up and then sit down to listen along with the rest of us. His approaches tended to reflect the sorts of ambient qualities that composers like Brian Eno had explored with so much diversity during the second half of the twentieth century. However, whatever his influences may have been, Elliott’s approaches definitely established his own personal stamp on the genre; and there was almost a sense of predictability in his work that established just the right warm-up for the more indeterminate nature of the Davignon-Bosco-O’Kane trio.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Back to Beethoven

One of the nice things about this time of year is that I do not have to worry about a queue of recordings that require listening attention sooner rather than later. The result is that I have a chance to take stock of the entire collection, which has now grown to a size that makes the task almost impossible. One result is that it may seem to some almost banal that, given such “freedom of listening” opportunities, my choices should take me back to Ludwig van Beethoven, particularly since Beethoven did not figure at all in my recent articles about memorable concerts and recordings.

It goes without saying that there was no shortage of exposure to Beethoven in this year’s listening experiences. However, I think that what may be important is not that Beethoven is a composer “for all of eternity,” as the monument-worshippers would have us believe. Rather, as the best of both seasoned and emerging performers tend to recognize (and, more importantly, to communicate to listeners), Beethoven remains a composer “for the immediate present.” This is because, like many (if not most) of the composers that are still part of our “world of listening,” regardless of distance in the past, the music itself still admits of “present-based” interpretation, rather than nostalgia for the past. It is too often forgotten that, in Beethoven’s own day, that immediate present was all that mattered; but that was clearly the case whenever Beethoven himself was involved in performance, even after his hearing began to deteriorate.

Looking back on my own listening experiences, I realize that, even as a student, when it was almost impossible to get me to pay attention to anything other than marks on paper, I had been fascinated when one of the earliest collections of all the Beethoven piano sonatas came out when the Musical Heritage Society released the recordings made by Friedrich Gulda. It did not take me long to learn that Gulda was playing as significant a role in European jazz as he was in the classical repertoire. This may be one reason why, decades later, I had no problems encountering recordings of Keith Jarrett playing both Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Preservation may be a major priority as far as marks on score pages (in both manuscript and published forms) are concerned. However, when one is talking about creating a listening experience for an audience sitting on the other side of the proscenium, preservation is far from a primary issue. If anything, it tends to get in the way of the performer thinking for himself/herself about just what sort of experience (s)he wants his/her listeners to have. Isn’t that the primary essence (if not substance) of “music appreciation?”

San Francisco Performances will Launch its Piano Series in Early February

This was the month in which San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched its Vocal Series of four recitals. The next series to get under way will be the Piano Series, which will also consist of four recitals, the first of which will take place at the beginning of February. This will be a series of familiar faces, one of whom first visited San Francisco to perform with the San Francisco Symphony and will be making his San Francisco recital debut with SFP. In addition, one of those familiar faces will be that of Jonathan Biss, whose solo recital will also be included in his own four-part series, Late Style. All of the concerts will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Herbst Theatre, located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. The specific dates and their related pianists are as follows:

Thursday, February 2: Alexander Melnikov made his SFP debut in 2011 with a marathon performance of the 24 preludes and fugues, one pair for each key, collected by Dmitri Shostakovich as his Opus 87. This time he will devote the second half of his concert to Claude Debussy’s second book of preludes, twelve pieces, each based on an evocative image, that he composed between 1912 and 1913. In the first half he will play two sets of variations, both composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Opus 22 set, based on a theme by Frédéric Chopin, will be followed by the more familiar Opus 42. Rachmaninoff identified the source of this theme as Arcangelo Corelli; but it is actually the much older Spanish “Folia” theme. Corelli himself had composed variations on this theme as the last of the twelve violin sonatas he had collected in his Opus 5.

Saturday, February 11: This is the recital that overlaps with Jonathan Biss’ Late Style series. The program will be framed by the music of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. The former will be represented by his last published piano composition the Opus 133 “Gesänge der Frühe” (songs of dawn), composed in 1853, when Schumann was already suffering from mental and emotional decline. The “Geistervariationen” (ghost variations) were composed the following year but not published until after his death by Brahms. Brahms, in turn, will be represented by his last two publications of piano music, the six short pieces of Opus 118 and the four short pieces of Opus 119, both composed in 1893. Opus 119 was his last solo piano composition, although it would be followed in 1896 by both the Opus 121Vier ernste Gesänge (four serious songs) and the eleven chorale preludes for organ (Opus 122). By way of contrast, Biss will also play one of Brahms’ earliest piano compositions, the second movement from his Opus 5 sonata in F minor.

The adjective “late” will be somewhat stressed by Biss’ decision to include music by György Kurtág, who, as of this writing, is still alive. Biss has long been a champion of the short pieces that Kurtág has collected under the title Játékok (games). Biss will play selections from the seventh volume in this series. Published in 2003, this is the most recent collection of solo piano music. (The eighth volume, published in 2010, contains music for two pianos and for four hands on one keyboard.) On the other hand the one Chopin selection, the Opus 61 “Polonaise-Fantasie” in A-flat major was completed in 1846, making it one of the last pieces he wrote before succumbing to ill health.

Tuesday, April 25: This will be a “dynamic duo” recital of music for two pianos and four hands on one keyboard. Both pianists, Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin, will be familiar to SFP audiences. The focus of the program will be Igor Stravinsky with performances of both his concerto for two pianos and his keyboard version of the music he composed for the ballet “The Rite of Spring.” The program will also include Debussy’s suite for two pianos En blanc et noir (in black and white), composed within two years after the premiere of “The Rite of Spring.” The program will begin with a coupling of Larghetto and Allegro movements in E-flat major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which does not appear in Ludwig Ritter von Köchel’s catalog but is included in the ninth volume of the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe and is available for examination (only, since the content is not public domain in the United States) through an IMSLP Web page.

Saturday, May 6: Spanish pianist Javier Perianes made his San Francisco debut playing Manuel de Falla’s “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” with Charles Dutoit conducting the San Francisco Symphony in June of 2015. This concert will be his San Francisco recital debut. Falla will again be in his repertoire with the memorial piece he composed for Debussy, “Le tombeau de Claude Debussy.” This will introduce three short Debussy compositions, “La soirée dans Grenade” (the evening in Granada) from Estampes (prints), “La puerta del Vino” (wine gate) from the second book of preludes, and “La sérénade interrompue” (the interrupted serenade). This “Spanish-French connection” will conclude with “El Albaicín” (the name of a district in Granada) from the third book of Isaac Albéniz’ Iberia collection. The program will begin with two selections by Franz Schubert, the D. 664 sonata in A major and the D. 946 set of three short piano pieces.

While this is late in the season, subscriptions are still on sale for $275 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $210 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $150 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325. Corresponding prices for single tickets are $70, $55, and $40, except for the duo recital by Andsnes and Hamelin, for which the prices are $85, $65, and $50. The hyperlinks on the dates given above all lead to City Box Office event pages for the purchase of single tickets. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Kronos Quartet will Return to SFJAZZ Center for Third Annual “Home Town” Music Festival

Because the Kronos Quartet (violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang) enjoys an international reputation, it is not always easy to find opportunities to listen to them in their home town of San Francisco. However, for the past two years the Kronos Performing Arts Association has provided such opportunities in the form of a “long weekend” festival held at the SFJAZZ Center. The first of these festivals was an extended celebration of the 80th birthday of Terry Riley. The second, held this past February, was entitled Kronos Festival 2016: Explorer Series; and it offered a worldwide perspective of music-making of impressively prodigious breadth.

This series will continue this coming February. This time the title will be KRONOS FESTIVAL 2017: Here and Now, and it will feature the innovations of the Bay Area music community. Particular attention will be given to the Iranian-American composer Sahba Aminikia, who has been designated artist-in-residence for the festival. Aminikia holds both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), where he studied composition with Daniel J. Becker, David Garner, David Conte, and the late Conrad Susa. His music has been performed by local ensembles. His works have been composed on commission from not only Kronos but also local ensembles such as Symphony Parnassus, Mobius Trio, Delphi Trio, and The Living Earth Show, was well as the SFCM New Music Ensemble. Ten of Aminikia’s pieces will be performed over the course of the festival.

The festival will run over the course of three days with both evening and matinee concerts as well as a Family Concert held on a Saturday morning. As in previous festivals, Kronos will be joined by a diverse variety of guests for this occasion, some of whom will be familiar from past festivals. (Memorable selections from the past will also be revisited.) A summary of the six events is as follows:

Thursday, February 2, 7:30 p.m., The Sun Rises: The festival will kick off with the first of Aminikia’s pieces to be performed. “Grandma’s House” is a joyous fanfare inspired by Iranian children’s television programming during the 1980s. Students from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA) will join Kronos for the performance. The first guest artist of the evening will be Iranian vocalist (now residing in Oakland) Mahsa Vahdat. (The title of this concert comes from Vahdat’s recent album, The Sun Will Rise.) She will sing her own songs accompanied by Kronos, playing arrangements prepared by Aminikia. The other guest appearance will be by the San Francisco Girls Chorus, giving the world premiere of Aminikia’s “Music of the Spheres,” based on lullabies from three different regions of Iran. [updated 1/12, 10:45 a.m. The program will also include two composed under commission for Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire by Bay Area composers Trey Spruance and Kala Ramnath, as well as a composition involving both choreography and music by Mark Applebaum, and "Pinched," a new work by Ryan Brown.] The program will also revisit an encore selection from the 2016 festival, Jacob Garchik’s arrangement of Pete Townshend’s “Baba O’Riley,” composed as a tribute to Terry Riley.

Friday, February 3, 7:30 p.m., Carrying the Past: This program will survey the diversity of past and present influences. In the spirit of recognizing Townshend, Van Dyke Parks, best known for this work in the rock world, will join Kronos for the first performance of A Coney Island of the Mind, readings of poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti against an “underscore” played by Kronos. Parks will deliver the readings. The other world premiere on the program will be “Yessori” (sound from the past), composed for haegeum (two-stringed Korean fiddle), which will be played by composer Soo Yeon Lyuh, along with the Kronos. Also new to the Bay Area will be Kronos’ performance of Riley’s “The Sequent Risadome. The Fifty for the Future selection on the program will be Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “The Desert, My Rose,” which will be performed by the SOTA-based Dragon String Quartet. Kronos will also play Tohru Ueda’s realization of Hamza El Din’s “Escalay” (featured on the album Pieces of Africa) and Becker’s “Carrying the Past.” Finally, Aminikia has provided an arrangement of “Rain,” by Kayhan Kalhor and Mohammad Reza Shajarian.

Saturday, February 4, 11 a.m., Around the World with Kronos: This will be an hour-long family-friendly concert that will survey the wide international tastes of the Kronos repertoire.

Saturday, February 4, 2 p.m., Persian Dances: Music of Sahba Aminikia: This will be a broad survey of Aminikia’s past works composed between 2010 and this year. Each piece will feature one or more local performers. The program will include both a piano solo, “Lullaby,” played by Jeffrey LaDeur, and a piano trio, “Shabo Meh” (night and fog), played by the Delphi Trio, in which LaDeur joins violinist Liana Bérubé and cellist Michelle Kwon. The most recent work will be “The Wind Will Blow Us Away,” played by the Amaranth Quartet of violinists Emily Botel and Abigail Shiman, violist Erika Zappia, and cellist Helen Newby. The opening selection will be the earliest work on the program, “Persian Dances,” performed by the Mobius Trio of guitarists Robert Nance, Mason Fish, and Matthew Holmes-Linder. These performances will be followed by an informal conversation and Q&A with Aminikia.

Saturday, February 4, 5 p.m., Thalea String Quartet Plays Kronos’ Fifty for the Future: This will be an opportunity to listen to works commissioned by Kronos performed by a “next generation” string quartet. Those who read this site regularly already know that Thalea is the first SFCM quartet-in-residence, consisting of students Christopher Whitley (first violin), Kumiko Sakamoto (second violin), Luis Bellorin (viola), and Bridget Pasker (cello). The Fifty for the Future works that will be performed on this program will be by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, “Rǝqs” (dance), Garth Knox, the third movement (“Dimensions”) of his Satellites suite, and two of the movements from Wu Man’s Four Chinese Paintings, arranged for string quartet by Danny Clay. Thalea will also open the program with the first piece that Riley wrote for Kronos, “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector.” In addition the program will include Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte,” which Thalea played at SFCM last season.

Saturday, February 4, 7:30 p.m., The Odyssey: Those who follow the performances of new works in this city may recognize this title as being that of a 40-minute staged suite by Vân-Ánh Võ, whose full title was The Odyssey – from Vietnam to America. Created to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, Võ created an exploration of the personal and spiritual journeys of the Vietnamese boat people; and the result was given its world premiere this past January at the YBCA (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) Forum. Võ has now arranged excepts from this work for Kronos to perform at this final program of their festival. She will join Kronos, playing traditional Vietnamese instruments in these arrangements. This quintet will also perform “My Lai Lullaby,” the instrumental prelude that Jonathan Berger wrote for a monodrama about the efforts of Hugh Thompson to prevent the My Lai Massacre. The program will also include the world premiere of of Aminikia’s “Pareeshan” (abstracted), inspired by the Persian violinist Parviz Yahaghi. In addition, The Living Earth Show duo of Travis Andrews (electric guitar) and Andy Meyerson (percussion) will play Aminikia’s “Sooge Sohrab,” an interpretation of a popular Persian myth. The program will begin with the world premiere of “Knock,” a recent composition by Kronos’ founding cellist, Joan Jeanrenaud. The Fifty for the Future composer for this program will be Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq with an excerpt from her “Sivunittinni” (voices). Tagaq made this piece by first recording several of her own vocal performances, and the results were transcribed and arranged for string quartet by Garchik. The program will also include Kevin Villalta’s arrangement of “Y Soy Llanero,” a Columbian cowboy joropo (the national dance of Venezuela, whose musical style resembles the fandango) made famous by Cholo Valderrama.

All of these concerts will take place at the SFJAZZ Center, located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street. The family concert will be held in the Robert N. Miner Auditorium. Adult admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for youth under 16. Seating will be general admission. Tickets may be purchased in advance through an event page on the SFJAZZ Web site. Both Saturday afternoon concerts will be performed in the Joe Henderson Lab. Seating will again be general admission, and all tickets will be sold for $20. Separate event pages have been created for the Persian Dances program and the Thalea String Quartet recital. All three evening concerts will be held in Miner Auditorium. Ticket prices range from $20 to $65; and there are separate event pages for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 866-920-5299 or by visiting the Box Office on the ground floor of the SFJAZZ Center.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

San Francisco Performances Presents 2016 Naumburg Competition Winner

San Francisco Performances (SFP) has a tradition of devoting a special concert every season to the winner of the international competition for soloists and chamber ensembles sponsored by the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation. This program is offered free of charge to SFP subscribers and donors, with any remaining tickets sold to the general public, all at the same price. This season the concert is of particular interest because the 2016 winner is the Telegraph Quartet, based here in the Bay Area. The quartet, whose members are violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw, was formed in 2013; and the following year the group took home the Grand Prize in the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. This season Telegraph gave its first post-Naumburg San Francisco recital a little over a month ago in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church.

The program prepared for Old First will serve as a point of departure for next month’s SFP concert. Once again the program will conclude with Franz Schubert’s D. 810 quartet in D minor, known as “Death and the Maiden” for its variations on the D. 521 song of the same name. While the song had been composed in 1817, the quartet was written in 1824, when Schubert realized that the illness that he had contracted would eventually lead to his death. (“Eventually” turned out to be late in 1828; but, as this site has previously observed, as Schubert got closer to that year, not only his productivity but also his capacity for highly original innovation, just kept accelerating.)

The Schubert quartet will be paralleled by a two-movement quartet written in Vienna (like D. 810) almost a century later. The only piece that Alban Berg called a string quartet (his Opus 3) was composed in 1910 while he was still a student of Arnold Schoenberg. (His only other work for string quartet was his “Lyric Suite,” composed  between 1925 and 1926, which has a particularly elaborate architecture across its six movements that makes the piece as a whole a far cry from the conventional “suite” of isolated movements.) The pairing of Berg with Schubert is particularly effective for the ways in which Berg’s rhetoric of darkness complements Schubert’s.

Berg’s quartet will be preceded by one of the pioneering compositions by a fellow student of Schoenberg, Anton Webern. The five short pieces for string quartet were composed in 1909, after Webern had completed his studies with Schoenberg; and Webern would publish them as his Opus 5. Each of these pieces stands as an excellent example of Webern’s microscopic sense of technique, through which he could endow even the shortest instant with intensely expressive rhetoric.

This elaborate balance of music from the Vienna of the twentieth and nineteenth centuries will take place on Tuesday, January 31, beginning at 7:30 p.m. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, located on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue. All tickets for the general public are being sold for $40. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. Additional information may be obtained by calling SFP at 415-392-2545.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Kentridge’s Berg Production for the Met Suffers from Overkill (pun intended)

At the end of this past October, the Metropolitan Opera released a package of both Blu-ray and DVD recordings of the November 21, 2015 transmission of The Met: Live in HD. The opera broadcast to selected movie theaters on that date was the new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu, with both stage direction and visual design conceived by South African visual artist William Kentridge. By the time of that release, I had already experienced what I felt was a representative taste of Kentridge’s work, since in the previous March the San Francisco Opera had launched its SF Opera Lab series of programs with the West Coast production premiere of a project named in the program book “Winterreise by Franz Schubert.” At that time I suggested that this title was “a bit of a misrepresentation,” since Kentridge’s work was so overwhelmingly conceived that neither Schubert’s music nor its interpretation by German baritone Matthias Goerne could claim “foreground attention.”

It was thus no surprise to discover that both Berg’s music and the efforts of all of the contributing vocalists were similarly overwhelmed by Kentridge’s creations, which involved richly content-laden projections and highly unconventional approaches to both costumes and sets (as well as two mimed roles that had absolutely nothing to do with the libretto). Unfortunately, more often than not, all of that media overkill tended to impede the ability to follow the narrative by anyone not already familiar with either the opera or the two plays by Frank Wedekind, Erdgeist (earth spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s box), that Berg himself adapted to create the opera’s libretto. Furthermore, distraction from that narrative entailed distraction from the many ingenious techniques that Berg engaged to realize that narrative through music, not to mention the riveting performance techniques of all the participating vocalists, particularly soprano Marlis Petersen taking on the many coloratura demands of the title role. Ultimately, the result is a video product that serves up a highly imaginative treatment of just about every dimension of Wedekind’s vulgarity that could not care less about either the score or those who labored both mightily and successfully to give it the sort of account that it observed.

Thus, while conductor Lothar Koenigs pulled off an account of Berg’s score that holds its own against many of the  audio and video recordings that have already been released, the fact is that those who are as interested in that score as in its interpretation on stage will be much better served by the DVD taken from the 1980 Live from the Met telecast. This was the first commercial release of a Lulu recording conducted by James Levine, and Levine was definitely on top of every detail in the score from beginning to end. Staging was provided by John Dexter, who was more concerned with being true to Berg’s vision than with upstaging that “original intent.” Granted, many were unsatisfied with that performance, since Julia Migenes had to fill in for an ailing Teresa Stratas, who had sung in the 1979 premiere of the full three-act version of the opera when Pierre Boulez conducted it on February 24, 1979. Unfortunately, the staging for that production was by Patrice Chéreau, who was about as far from Dexter’s “original intent” aesthetic as could be imagined. (Probably even further than Kentridge.) If Migenes did not quite rise to Stratas’ heights, the overall impact of Dexter’s staging did not suffer, which is why those more interested in Berg than in Kentridge will definitely prefer the earlier Met recording.

The Bleeding Edge: 12/26/2016

It looks like I jumped the gun last week with the claim that last Thursday’s LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series concert would be “the last event organized by Outsound Presents for 2016.” Actually, Outsound Presents has the honor of closing out 2016 this week with the only bleeding edge event of the week. As was the case last week, the LSG Creative Music Series will offer an evening of two sets of free improvisations.

The first set will be taken by Toaster, whose only member is Todd Elliott. Elliott will be playing both guitar and electronic gear. His improvisations draw upon a diversity of inspirations that include both John Cage and Pink Floyd. Much of his improvising emerges from his constant experimentation with both hardware and software.

Toaster will be followed by an improvising trio of Outsound Presents regulars. Sheila Bosco will be playing keyboard-based electronics complemented by Matt Davignon processing sampled voice tracks, often in combination with drum machine beats. They will be joined by percussionist Suki O’Kane, who often distinguishes herself by her exploratory approach to working with instruments in the percussion family.

This performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Thursday, December 29. The Luggage Store Gallery is at 1007 Market Street, directly across from the Golden Gate Theatre at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. As always admission will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Zuckerberg Goes Head-to-Head with Aristotle

One of my favorite topics, outside of the domain of music, on this site has been Max Weber’s proposition that too much attention to market values and consumerism can lead to loss of meaning. My own effort to keep loss of meaning at bay has involved a concerted effort to read texts that require sustained cogitation, rather than simple “consumption” based on a “bottom line.” This is the sort of reading that sticks with you long after you put the book or article down; and experience has taught me that it often involves interaction with the physical medium (not only annotation but also leafing back and forth through the pages to recall what one thinks one has previously read). Thus, it is not reading that fares very well on a computer screen, whether we are talking about a monitor or a desk or the surface of a tablet.

Not too long ago I posted a “progress report” on my efforts to work my way through the “Nicomachean Ethics” of Aristotle. I am still at it, but I have just embarked on a domain that has already started my reflecting on the fact that I have begun to spend more time on Facebook since the demise of It turns out that Aristotle devotes two entire books (the eighth and ninth) of the “Nicomachean Ethics” to friendship; and in the revised Oxford translation edited by Jonathan Barnes and published by Princeton University Press (in the Bollingen Series), this comes to about 27 pages. In other words there is a lot more to friendship than creating a social network by clicking a Friend button!

To some extent I might be accused of trivializing Facebook by writing that last sentence. However, I prefer to look through the other end of the telescope: By its very nature, friendship is a highly complicated dimension of human interaction that, by its very approach to interface, has been trivialized by Facebook to a degree that the noun has been almost entirely stripped of meaning. This may seem like an extreme position to make over a rather innocuous piece of software. However, it is basically yet another instance of a precept expressed by H. L. Mencken that I cannot cite too often:
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
It is through clarity and simplicity that Facebook has managed to build up such a large user community, but size signifies only in matters of marketing rather than the complexities of social interaction that occupied so much of Aristotle’s thought. One might almost argue that a Presidential election came down to choosing between a candidate that was not afraid to confront complexity and one that had a clear and simple answer for everything without caring very much whether or not that answer would be effective if put into practice.

Nevertheless the nature of meaning has not yet been entirely lost. The good news is that there is still a body of individuals out there, however small their numbers may be, that are not afraid of big books and complex arguments that do not always result in easy resolutions. We may have to keep a low profile for the next four years; but, as long as we continue to express ourselves through media that exceed the prevailing attention span, we have a fighting chance of keeping at our business. We just have to view that low profile as a safety measure, rather than a sign of weakness.

Elizabeth Blumenstock will Perform as Soloist at Next Month’s PBO Concert

When Philharmonia Baroque announced plans for its 36th season, the title of next month’s concert by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO), conducted by Waverley Fund Music Director Nichols McGegan, was given as Haydn & Mozart with Isabelle Faust. Unfortunately, Faust had to cancel her engagement earlier this fall. The good news is that the program will still include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 219 violin concerto in A major, nicknamed “The Turkish” for the idiomatically characteristic style of the coda for the concluding Rondeau movement. Faust will be replaced by PBO violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, who has performed frequently with a soloist, not only with PBO but also with many of the other historically-informed ensembles in the Bay Area. Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/91 symphony in E-flat major will still conclude the program as originally planned. However, while the original plan had been to frame Mozart’s concerto with two Haydn symphonies, there has also been a change in the opening selection.

The program will now begin with a symphony in F major by Adalbert Gyrowetz, the third in his Opus 6 publication of six symphonies modeled on Haydn’s music. (Gyrowetz’ models were so good that an English publisher tried to pass off one of his symphonies as having been composed by Haydn.) The program will thus present Haydn’s impact on two composers during the first half and then turn to one of Haydn’s own symphonies in the second.

The San Francisco performance of this concert will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 27. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. (For those taking public transportation, this is conveniently located at bus stops for both north-south and east-west lines.) Ticket prices range from $27 to $108. City Box Office has an event page for online purchase that shows which prices apply to which sections of the house and current availability in each of those sections. (Clicking on a section brings up a details plan showing which seats are available at which prices. Those without tickets should be advised that, at the time of this writing, not many seats are still available.) Ticket holders will also be able to attend the pre-concert talk given by John Prescott, which will begin at 7:15 p.m.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The “Vanity Projects” of Yehudi Menuhin on DVD

It took over two months for me to go through the box of eleven DVDs that serve as a “video appendix” to Warner Classics’ The Menuhin Century collection. This was due, in part, to the fact that, because my highest priority is on listening, most of my time is spent either at concerts or with recordings. About halfway through the effort, I realized that, if I was going to see the light at the end of the tunnel at all, it would be best to focus only on the performances and dispense with the “documentary” content (scare quotes intended to suggest that what I did see of that content was not particularly compelling).

Overall, this is a rather unbalanced collection of performances. The basic organization is as follows:
  1. Two DVDs consisting almost entirely of short (“encore” style) performances made by Paul Gordon and Bernd Bauer filming at the Charlie Chaplin Studios in 1947
  2. One DVD of films and telecasts from Paris, about half of which involve Menuhin playing with his sister Hephzibah
  3. Four DVDs of video documents of concerts given by Menuhin in the Soviet Union in 1987 and 1989, directed by Bruno Monsaingeon
  4. One additional Monsaingeon DVD divided between Menuhin playing The Four Seasons with the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Opus 77 violin concerto of Johannes Brahms (along with two encores of Johann Sebastian Bach) with Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
The distribution across these categories suggests something that probably occurred to many as soon as they opened the box enclosing all of The Menuhin Century in its entirety: This vast effort was very much a “vanity project” by Monsaingeon based on the desire to create a hagiographic account of Menuhin’s life based on 70 years of audio and video recordings. This may go down well with those harboring enthusiastically passionate memories of Menuhin in concert, on television, or on recordings; but, as accounts of the audio portion of this collection have suggested, those primarily seeking stimulating listening experiences are likely to find themselves disappointed.

Most interesting are probably the films made at the Chaplin Studios. In a filmed conversation with Humphrey Burton, Menuhin explained that he was approached by Gordon to make a series of films that would provide a concert experience in a movie hall. In many respects these films are the venerable ancestors of the HD videos that are now being captured in concert halls and opera houses around the world, many of which are projected in real-time to audiences seated in movie theaters. Gordon’s pioneering efforts are thus interesting simply for his having achieved them, even if many of them come off as awkward or even flawed.

Much of the content overlaps with those “Virtuoso” recordings that, as Menuhin himself explained, were based on listening to recordings of Jascha Heifetz. Indeed, it is possible that Gordon approached Heifetz first and without success. (On the basis of what we know about Heifetz’ personality, his reaction would not be surprising.) What is most important is that Gordon managed to pull off the project, regardless of who his soloist was.

Regardless, also, of the quality of Gordon’s techniques as a director, these short films provide a significant perspective on Menuhin as a performer relatively early in his career. That perspective also takes in other performers whose careers would rise during the second half of the twentieth century. My own interest was particularly piqued by opportunities to see Antal Dorati in action, both accompanying Menuhin at the piano and conducting the Symphony Orchestra of Hollywood (which may or may not have been a pickup group assembled for Gordon’s project).

If, from a technical point of view, the results are somewhat crude by current standards, they are still far more satisfying than those produced by Monsaingeon. This is were that motive of hagiography rears its ugly head. Through a series of performances of both concertos and chamber music, Monsaingeon’s capture and editing techniques linger over images of Menuhin as if they were sacred icons. In the concerto recordings, when the camera is not locked on Menuhin, it is locked on members of the orchestra staring at him in rapt admiration. Shots of what the conductor is doing are minimal and are sometime muddled by ill-conceived overlay techniques. The result is that anyone familiar with the video work of Jordan Whitelaw or, more recently, Barbara Willis Sweete will find it difficult to watch any of Monsaingeon’s videos without squirming.

Those who make the entire journey through The Menuhin Century are thus likely to come away feeling that the journey had more to do with the cult of personality than with the underling arts and crafts of making music.

House of Time will Bring an “Imaginary Theatre” to SFEMS Next Month

The first concert to be offered by the San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS) in 2017 will feature House of Time, a quartet of leading performers on period instruments. These musicians are, left to right in the below photograph, Gonzalo X. Ruiz (oboe and recorder), Tatiana Daubek (violin), Beiliang Zhu (cello and gamba), and Avi Stein (harpsichord and organ).

Photograph by Tatiana Daubek

The title of the program that they will present next month is Imaginary Theater: Instrumental music by Handel, Rameau and Bach. This will combine music written for the stage with other works that have dramatic effects of their own.

The “spinal cord” of the program will be George Frideric Handel’s HWV 8 opera seria Il pastor fido (the faithful shepherd). It will begin with the overture for the opera, which, like many of Handel’s overtures, consists of multiple movements. There will also be two suites of dance music extracted from the opera. In addition, there will also be a suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “heroic pastoral,” Zaïs, consisting of the overture, followed by dances extracted from the score.

Johann Sebastian Bach is included on the program, because, while he never wrote for the stage, there is no shortage of dramatic qualities in his music. Thus the BWV 1008 solo cello suite in D minor draws upon many of the same dance forms encountered in the suites by Handel and Rameau, while inviting the cellist to achieve expressiveness by seeking out his/her own dramatic interpretations. Similarly, the three movements of BWV 564, a toccata, an adagio, and a fugue, are so rich with their own dramatic qualities that Ferruccio Busoni was able to “out-Liszt” Franz Liszt, reworking all three movements into intensely dramatic (if also a bit hypertrophied) displays of virtuosity.

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 22. The venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. General admission is $40 with a $36 rate for seniors and $34 for SFEMS members. A single Web page has been created for online purchases of single tickets for all six concerts in the season. In addition, subscriptions are still available for a selection of three concerts during the remainder of the season. This three-concert option costs $108 with a $96 rate for SFEMS members. A separate Web page has been created for handling such subscriptions.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Michael Tilson Thomas will Begin the New Year with an All-Mahler Program

The first series of subscription concerts in 2017 by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), will offer a program consisting entirely of the music of Gustav Mahler. The major work to be performed will be Mahler’s earliest large-scale composition, the cantata in three episodes “Das klagende Lied” (song of lamentation). Mahler first composed this work, which usually lasts over an hour, between 1878 and 1880 but subjected it to major revisions over the next two decades. Mahler wrote his own libretto, and there is some question over the sources for his narrative. His title is the same as that of a fairy tale by Ludwig Bechstein; but he may also have drawn upon “The Singing Bone” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The narrative is replete with all the elements of Gothic fiction: love, jealousy, murder, and supernatural elements.

This will be the third time that MTT has conducted SFS and the SFS Chorus in a performance of this piece. The concerts given in 1996 were recorded and were included in The Mahler Project, the seventeen-CD box set produced by SFS Media. The second set of performances took place in 2001. This time, however, the presentation will be more adventurous, since James Darrah will be returning to Davies Symphony Hall to provide a semi-staged interpretation of Mahler’s narrative, working, once again, with video designer Adam Larsen. The resulting production will require more than 225 performers with dancers and actors joining the full orchestra, chorus, offstage bands, and four soloists (soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo Sasha Cooke, tenor Michael König, and baritone Brian Mulligan), as well as solos for boy soprano and boy alto.

The first half of the program will be devoted to two of the early works that provided the path, so to speak, to Mahler first symphony. The Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer) is an early song cycle, also using Mahler’s own texts. The thematic materials from the second and last (fourth) of these songs found their way into the first and third movements of the first symphony. Mahler composed the vocal line for the middle register, and at next month’s concerts the vocalist will be Cooke. The connection of the opening selection, “Blumine” (floral), is that Mahler originally intended it to be the second movement of his first symphony. It was based on incidental music that Mahler wrote for a reading of Der Trompeter von Säckingen (the trumpeter of Säckingen), a dramatic poem by Joseph Victor von Scheffel. The manuscript was only discovered in 1966; and, unless I am mistaken, the first conductor to record the first symphony with the “Blumine” movement included was Frank Brieff, leading the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (part of my now-dispersed vinyl collection).

This concert will be given only three performances, at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 13, and Saturday, January 14, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 15. Laura Stansfield Prichard will give the Inside Music talk, which will begin one hour prior to each concert. Doors open for these talks fifteen minutes before they begin. Ticket prices range from $35 to $162. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Finally, the event page also includes three embedded audio players. Two of these are podcasts about both “Das klagende Lied” and “Blumine,” hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone. The remaining link is for sound clips from “Das klagende Lied.”

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Memorable Recordings in 2016

Those who saw my report at the beginning of this month already know that the universe in which I live is almost entirely disjoint from that of the judges who determine the winners of the annual GRAMMY awards. When I looked back on the memorable recordings of 2015 on my site, I observed that my selections marked the largest departure from GRAMMY nominees since I began writing those retrospective articles. This year I seem to have gone the extra mile: None of my selections came even close to what the GRAMMY “experts” deemed to be prize-worthy. Furthermore, that observation gives me a comforting sense of satisfaction, perhaps the closest a writer about the performing arts can get to Mr. Dooley’s declaration that the newspaper “comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable.”

However, when it comes to afflicting the comfortable, I have to preface any remarks about recordings by recognizing a documentary film about a man whose approach to the recording industry could not have been more revolutionary, at least in his own time. The man was Frank Zappa; and the documentary was Eat That Question—Frank Zappa in His Own Words, made by Thorsten Schütte. (Those with cable service who have not yet had the opportunity to see this film should be made aware that STARZ will start broadcasting it early next month.)

Zappa may not have been the most outrageous musician of his time (the latter half of the twentieth century); but he may well have been the most unabashed about being outrageous. The title of the film comes from one of the tracks on his album The Grand Wazoo, which is probably as good a way to establish expectations for listening to Zappa’s music as one is likely to find. However, while just about any Zappa track gives the listener a good feel for how he could afflict the comfortable, Schütte’s film is based on footage of interviews he gave, most of which were on television, in which his manners are always impeccable and his delivery always soft-spoken. Furthermore, because the film is, for the most part, organized chronologically, there is something almost heartbreaking about the conclusion, in which Zappa, only months before his death by cancer in 1993, assembled an ensemble of percussionists that he conducted in a performance of Edgard Varèse’s “Ionisation.” Taken as a whole, the film is a valuable lens through which we may all view what is now passing for modernism in our “new century.”

The impact of that film on my own thinking may explain why none of the recordings that I listened to over this past year involved instances of that modernism. On the other hand they all involved decidedly fresh approaches to performance, suggesting that modernism is more important in the immediacy of acts of making music with instruments than in any acts of putting marks on paper or, for that matter, laying down tracks. The best example of the significance of that distinction can be found in the recording by Graindelavoix of the Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut, released on the Spanish Glossa label this past April. This music dates from the fourteenth century, a time when music notation was just beginning to admit of systematic interpretation, rather than serving merely as a memory aid. Nevertheless, there is an immediacy to the performance of that notation by the male voices of Graindelavoix led by Björn Schmelzer that suggests that spontaneous improvisation was part of the “package.” This is a performance of Machaut without the accumulated dust of six or seven centuries; and it is likely to have a significant (not to mention healthy) impact on how any of us think about the performance of “early music.”

A similar kind of spontaneity can be found in the recorded performances of the concertos of Antonio Vivaldi released by Brilliant Classics. These involve a string ensemble called L’Arte dell’Arco led by its concertmaster Federico Guglielmo, who is soloist in all concertos for violin. Brilliant has been releasing albums that have probably been extracted from the 66-CD “new, extended, improved and upgraded” box set called Vivaldi Edition. This year saw the release of three of those “piecemeal” albums, each taken from one of the twelve collections that Vivaldi published. Opus 8, given the title Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (the contest between harmony and invention), was released in February. This is likely to be the most popular of the releases, since the first four concertos are known as a group as The Four Seasons. This was followed by the release in July of the twelve concertos in Opus 9, given the title La Cetra (the lyre). This collection may be less familiar but is particularly engaging for the ways in which the performances honor the plucked-string connotations of the title. Finally, this month began with the release of Opera 11 and 12 in a single album. (Opus 10 is a collection of six flute concertos.) No matter how much you think that there is something “routine” across the many concertos that Vivaldi composed, there is a freshness to each of these albums that will quickly seduce you into appreciating how every concerto that Vivaldi wrote has its own unique qualities.

Freshness is also the order of the day in at least two of the releases that celebrate the centennial of the birth of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter in March of 1915 (better late than never). Having just discussed how that freshness can still be found in Vivaldi, it is appropriate to begin with release of a major Bach album by Richter. This is what seems to be the only recording of Richter playing all 48 preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach’s two Books of The Well-Tempered Clavier. As is the case with many of the available Richter recordings, the performances were taken from a series of four recitals (twelve preludes and fugues at each) that Richter gave in Innsbruck in July and August of 1973. Parnassus Records released the entire collection this past May and took the relatively imaginative packaging strategy of issuing everything on a single Audio DVD. Purists may grouse about the fact that these preludes and fugues are not being played on a “period” instrument. However, whether one is learning to play these pieces or learning to listen to them, what matters most is the clarity of the individual voices that contribute to Bach’s counterpoint (this is as true of the preludes as it is of the fugues); and it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to find a performance in which Richter neglects that need for clarity. This album simply cannot be ignored by anyone who takes listening to Bach seriously.

Those who prefer breadth to depth will probably be more interested in the 24-CD box set Sviatoslav Richter: The Complete Warner Recordings. Because of its size, this site devoted three articles to this collection, one for solo piano music, one for concertos, and one for chamber music (including a single CD of art song). Here again, the factor that matters most across all three of these categories in the clarity that Richter brings to what he is playing, whether the music comes from the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth century. Indeed, his skill at bringing clarity to his Bach performances serves him just as well with modernists at a considerable distance from Bach. Perhaps the best example in this collection is that of Alban Berg’s 1925 Kammerkonzert (chamber concerto) recorded at a concert performed at the Théâtre de l’Athénée in Paris in December of 1977. Richter shared solo duties with violinist Oleg Kagan, and they were accompanied by an ensemble of thirteen wind instrumentalists from the Moscow Conservatory conducted by Yuri Nikolayevsky. Having had to sit through at least one rather opaque performance of this work in concert (with an excellent set of performers whose names are best left not mentioned), I could not help but drop my jaw at just how self-evident this recording made the music seem.

The other major collection that occupied my time this year actually crossed the boundary between 2015 and 2016. This was A Tribute to Rudolf Barshai, a twenty-CD box set released by ICA Classics in November of 2015. My guess is that most readers will appreciate that I was not ready to write about everything in this collection until the first quarter of this year, which means that, for all intents and purposes, it is part of my memory of the current year! Over the course of this entire collection, one is exposed to recorded documents of Barshai as a solo violist, as the founding member of the Borodin Quartet and an distinctive performer of chamber music with other partners, as a conductor of orchestras (both full ensembles and chamber orchestras), as an arranger, and as the author of a performing version of all five movements of Gustav Mahler’s tenth symphony. In other words there is as much breadth here as in the Richter box set, and it would be safe to say that there is not a dull moment across the entire repertoire covered by this collection.

The other memorable collection of this year is the seven-CD box set released by Loft Records of Colin Andrews performing the complete works of Olivier Messiaen. This is definitely an appropriate time to consider this collection, since the very first disc is devoted almost entirely to the cycle La Nativité du Seigneur (the Lord’s Nativity). Almost all of the works in this collection are sacred in one way or another and probably grew out of Messiaen’s duties as organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité (church of the Holy Trinity), a post he held for over 60 years. Messiaen’s own approach to faith involved a balance of the liturgical and the mystical, and both elements can be found in his organ music. In addition many of the pieces are given to extended duration, so the curious listener may wish to begin by taking small samples. However, as one begins to get used to Messiaen’s sonorities and his approaches to phrase structure, one will eventually ease into his extended durations as well.

Finally, there is one “historical” recording that definitely made its mark this year. This is the two-CD album released by harmonia mundi of the two piano trios by Franz Schubert, D. 898 in B-flat major and D. 929 in E-flat major, along with an additional track for the D. 897 nocturne in E-flat major. The pianist is Andreas Staier, playing a “fortepiano after Conrad Graf” (as it says in the booklet notes). The sonorities of this instrument definitely throw lights on Schubert’s music that one may find unfamiliar but (hopefully) not alien. Staier is joined by violinist Daniel Sepec and cellist Roel Dieltiens, and those unfamiliar with period instruments may be struck by the narrowness of the dynamic range. However, on this recording that quality lends a sense of intimacy that might otherwise be spoiled by louder dynamics. Thus, things only really get loud when Staier engages the “special percussion effects” of his instrument for the trio section of the third movement of D. 929, suggesting that Schubert wanted this section to have a really rustic sound. Eyebrows may be raised, but it is easy to appreciate that Staier’s approach makes perfect sense.

On the whole, then, this was a very good year for recordings; and, if the GRAMMY judges did not “get it,” then that is exclusively their problem!

The 2016–2017 SFP Jazz Series will Continue Next Month with The Bad Plus

As was announced this past summer, the second of three concerts in the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Jazz Series will see the return of The Bad Plus. This is the conventional jazz piano trio consisting of Ethan Iverson on acoustic piano, Reid Anderson on bass, and David King on drums. The group came out of Minneapolis in late Nineties but is now based in New York City. While the group may follow a long-standing organization of personnel, the repertoire is anything but conventional. Much of the music played is original; but, when they take on the music of others, their repertoire is far from that of jazz “standards.” They have performed covers of Nirvana, Black Sabbath, and ABBA; and their more recent arrangements have turned to Prince, Crowded House, and Kraftwerk. Their most ambitious reconception of someone else’s music came to their On Sacred Ground SFP concert four years ago, when they presented their own take on Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring.” Next month will mark the fourth time The Bad Plus has appeared under SFP auspices.

This concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 21. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, located on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Tickets for premium seating are $60, and tickets are also being sold for $40 and $30. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page, which provides a chart showing which sections of the hall are covered by which prices. Additional information may be obtained by calling SFP at 415-392-2545.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Memorable Concerts of 2016

The year has not yet concluded, but both print and online journalism outlets are already getting flooded with end-of-the-year best-of articles. Personally, I side with John Oliver’s opinion that the only way to greet the conclusion of this year will be with the phrase “Good riddance!” Furthermore, those who used to follow my writing on know that I have a long-standing aversion to “top ten” lists.

Instead, I prefer to reflect on what has embedded itself in memory. As a result my own list continues to be a month-by-month account of which concert was most memorable (to me, if to no-one else) for each of the twelve months. In the past I would annotate that list with hyperlinks to my accounts of these events; but, because AXS cut off access to all of my past writing for, I can only provide those hyperlinks for July and the following months.

By way of context, I have to say that, while the “real world” of John Oliver seemed to be a matter of tuning into the news every night for reports of “fresh disasters” (as a Beyond the Fringe routine put it), this was actually a very good year where the performance of music was concerned, at least here in San Francisco. As a result, just about every month involved making hard choices, just because there were so many good memories. However, now that the list has been complied, I find I can look back on it with satisfaction. Those who do not agree with my preferences are invited to share the strongest of their own memories!

January: Torben Ulrich’s visit to Meridian Music: Composers in Performance. This event was memorable for the rather unconventional reason that, over eleven months later, I am still not quite sure what to make of it. Listening to Ulrich ramble on about what the noun “meridian” meant to him before he finally got around to making music with violinists Adria Otte and Gabby Fluke-Mogul, cellists Teresa Wong and Doug Carroll, and Bryan Day with his table of invented instruments, I was reminded of the gentle tone of another “unclassifiable” composer, John Cage. Cage may have been more interested in systematic foundations that Ulrich was, but neither was afraid to wander at a significant distance from anything resembling a beaten path. Ulrich’s own performance with these five musicians involved recalling phrases from that rambling introduction with occasional percussion punctuations. That evening was a trip that I suspect I shall not soon forget.

February: The Del Sol String Quartet plays Ben Johnston’s tenth string quartet. Those who compose with microtones do so for a variety of reasons. Many wish to incorporate pitches from the overtones of the natural harmonic series. Johnston, on the other hand, wanted to chuck the chromatic scale entirely and work only with natural overtones. This poses some rather serious challenges to any composer who wishes to account for listening to his/her music, rather than just making a score to be performed. Johnston rose to those challenges in many inventive ways, some of which involved reflecting on traditional techniques while others were strikingly original. Before playing his tenth quartet at the Center for New Music, Del Sol provided an extended verbal introduction, which was highly informative because it avoided taking any glib shortcuts. It would be fair to say that, once they concluded that introduction, everyone in the audience was stoked for the prospect of listening to the music itself; and, with that kind of a context, it is no surprise that the performance is still memorable.

March: San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) percussionists play Gérard Grisey’s “Le Noir de l’Étoile.” This piece lasted about an hour, taking up all but about ten minutes of the Starscape program that SFCMP prepared to conclude their 2015–16 season. The title translates as “the black of the star;” and, while it was not performed in darkness, it was music in which spatial orientation mattered just as much as the rhythms performed by the six percussionists (William Winant, Loren Mach, Haruka Fujii, Nick Woodbury, Sean Dowgray, and Megan Shieh), who were the only performers. The six of them described an ellipse that surrounded the seated audience. It did not take long to figure out that looking to see the source of a particular sound was far less important than letting the ears identify its spatial location. If one did not waste time on looking, the ears would be able to identify how different motifs were migrating from one source to another, almost in the same way that a thematic motif may migrate from one contrapuntal voice to another.

April: San Francisco Performances (SFP) hosts an “Assad family” concert. Brazilian-born brothers Sérgio and Odair Assad have performed frequently as a duo for SFP. This was their seventh appearance in that capacity; but this time they were joined by Sérgio’s daughter Clarice, who contributed as vocalist, pianist, and composer. The result was a broader scope of repertoire than had been encountered in the past. This was not just a matter of adding a few of Clarice’s works to the repertoire. She also took a solo set at the piano, in which her scat singing was punctuated with “body music” percussion. In contrast to the Grisey performance, this was a case in which looking definitely enhanced listening, sometimes in some rather surprising ways.

May: Mason Bates’ “Mass Transmission” gets a second performance. Experience has taught me that the power of a new composition is not established on the basis of listening to it for the first time. Rather, the question is whether any organization will choose to perform it a second time; and, if you are lucky enough to be there, that “second impression” often bears more weight than the first, since memory alters the “playing field” on which perception takes place. “Mass Transmission” was one of the works commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) for the season-long celebration of its centennial; and it was given its debut as part of the American Mavericks portion of that season. Curiously enough, SFS was not involved in the performance, because Bates had scored it for full chorus, pipe organ, and electronica. Thus, while the piece has not been included on any subsequent subscription concert, it was the high point of a program given by the SFS Chorus, led by Director Ragnar Bohlin, on their own. The major work on that program was Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 48 setting of the Requiem text with instrumental accompaniment provided only by organ (played by Jonathan Dimmock); but the Bates “revival” was the “distinguishing feature.” I was delighted at how many of my memories were reinforced by this occasion and can only hope that this piece will benefit from further attention on a broader scale.

June: A “dynamic duo” of San Francisco Opera (SFO) productions. This was the one of two “double headers” of the year, since it involved two separate SFO productions; but they were so different that it would be unfair (not to mention ridiculous) to make a case that one was better than the other. One might argue in favor of Oliver Tambosi’s staging of Leoš Janáček’s three-act opera Jenůfa, because this was a new production, while Emilio Sagi’s staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo was a revival of a production first seen in 1998. However, both of these operas were produced for maximum visceral impact on the audience, not only by virtue of the well-informed efforts of the stage directors but also due to the optimally-charged conducting by Jiří Bělohlávek (Janáček) and SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti (Verdi).

July: Pamela Z celebrates her 60th birthday with a concert. I tend to be skeptical about “anniversary” events. There is too much of a risk that the whole affair will get bogged down in sentimental reflections on the past to the detriment of the immediacy of performing in the present. Pamela Z could not have come up with a better counterexample. Entitled Z Program 60, the work she composed for the evening was a 60-minute collage consisting of 60 movements, each exactly one minute in duration. Furthermore, the image of a ticking clock was projected on a screen, always displaying the number of the current movement, running from “0” to “59.” Within that context, nothing ever felt as if it was going on for too long; and there was a delightful breadth of diversity across the full scope of those 60 movements.

August: Lamplighters transplants Gilbert and Sullivan in Renaissance Milan. There is a fair amount of history of efforts to “transplant” or “reconceive” the better known operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. This year Lamplighters Music Theatre decided to transform The Mikado; or the Town of Titipu into The New Mikado: Una Commedia Musicale! This was an exercise in “transplanting,” repotting the flower of the narrative into the soil of Renaissance Milan, so to speak. Surprisingly few modifications to both the script and the lyrics were required. The music, on the other hand, did not need to be modified at all. Even when he was trying to evoke Oriental sonorities, Sullivan’s score came out sounding even more Italianate than Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. On the other hand the few instances of Japanese text managed quite well when transformed into Latin. The bottom line is that Lamplighters figured out how to be both successfully outrageous and true to G&S roots at the same time.

September: Paul Dresher revives Schick Machine. Schick Machine is the product of a grand design fortunate enough not to get bogged down in the complexity of either its creation or its production. Both monodrama and recital, it was created for percussion virtuoso Steven Schick under commission from Stanford Lively Arts and Meyer Sound Labs; and it was first performed in Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the Stanford University campus on March 7, 2009. The creative team involved Schick collaborating with composer and artistic director Paul Dresher, writer and stage director Rinde Eckert, instrument inventor Daniel Schmidt, mechanical sound artist Matt Heckert, and lighting and visual designer Tom Ontiveros. This year’s revival took place at Z Space, which allowed for a much more creative use of space than was afforded by Dinkelspiel. In addition, because much of the instrumentation involved modified or invented percussion, members of the audience could descend from the bleacher seating for a “guided tour” of the instruments following the performance. The narrative itself involves getting inside the head of a character whose own sense of identity is highly tenuous but who can “find himself” through playing the many instruments at his disposal. This was rich in imaginative conceptions that were never burdened down by pretense; and the result was a one-hour performance that was thoroughly engaging from beginning to end.

October: Philharmonia Baroque begins season with Beethoven. For as long as I can remember, Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan has always devoted one concert of the Philharmonia Baroque season to music of the nineteenth century. For the 2016–17 season, that happened to be the very first concert, whose title was All Beethoven. Robert Levin was the guest soloist playing the Opus 37 (third) piano concerto in C minor on a fortepiano made by G. Hendrich Guggenberger dating from around 1820, and McGegan led the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in a performance of the Opus 68 (“Pastoral”) symphony in F major. Levin spontaneously improvised the cadenzas in his concerto performance; and, while those familiar with his recording with John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique probably recognized some of Levin’s tropes, one could still definitely revel in the immediacy of the situation. In the symphony, on the other hand, many of the “special effects” (such as the thunderstorm) had far greater impact than one tends to encounter in the more uniformly polished “contemporary” performances. This was an opportunity to appreciate just how good Beethoven looked in a light more conducive to his own historical period.

November: Simon Rattle visits Davies Symphony Hall. This was the other “double header” of the year, since it would be unfair to rank-order the two concerts given by the Berlin Philharmonic led by Artistic Director Simon Rattle. The first used Pierre Boulez’ relatively brief “Éclat” to serve as an “overture” for Gustav Mahler’s 1905 seventh symphony in E minor. (The program was performed without an intermission.) This was followed by a program of music “on either side of Mahler.” The first half presented compositions called only “pieces” by their respective composers. Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 16 set of five orchestral pieces was followed by Anton Webern’s Opus 6 set of six orchestral pieces, with Alban Berg’s Opus 6 set of three orchestral pieces wrapping up the sequence. Before beginning their performance, Rattle requested that the audience refrain from applauding until all fourteen pieces had been presented. Given the dates, this was a bit of an artificial sequencing; but the impact was remarkably intense. The second half then turned back the clock to Johannes Brahms’ Opus 73 (second) symphony in D major. Thus, over the course of two concerts Rattle unfolded a repertoire that fit comfortably into a 100-year span, albeit one that crossed from the nineteenth to the twentieth century; and it would be unfair to treat that conjunction of the programs as anything other than an integrated “package.”

December: Sarah Cahill plays Danny Clay. This recital, which concluded the 2016 Fall Salons series presented by SFP at the Hotel Rex, also concluded a story that begin at the beginning of this year. Cahill had prepared a program of chaconnes from both the Baroque period and the twentieth century for a Noe Valley Chamber Music recital she gave in January. She then performed about half of that program in May for a Salon at the Rex. Her December program for the Rex was entitled Chaconnes, Revisited, which involved accounting for other pieces she had played in January. Among them was a commissioned work by Danny Clay entitled “Still Cycles,” which was inspired by a chaconne in G major by George Frideric Handel. This month Cahill played the Handel and the Clay back-to-back, allowing Handel to provide just the right context for listening to a highly original modernist undertaking involving approaches to repetition that distinguished the work from any of its so-called “minimalist” predecessors. This ingenious synthesis of retrospection and prospection emerged as the perfect antidote for setting aside all those absurdities that made the “practical side” of this year so unpleasant.