Sunday, July 31, 2016

Stephanie McCallum Completes her Survey of Charles-Valentin Alkan’s “Piano Songs”

In February of 2013, pianist Stephanie McCallum released the first CD in a two-volume series surveying the five books of short pieces for solo piano that Charles-Valentin Alkan called “recueils de chants” (collections of songs). Her plan was to complete the project in time for the bicentennial celebration of Alkan’s birth on November 30, 1813. Sure enough, the second CD was released just in time for the occasion, on November 19. Somewhat to my embarrassment, I missed this event; but I still feel a need to call McCallum’s effort to attention.

The summary on the back cover of both albums describes these compositions as “miniature tone-poems which marry Classical constraint to virtuoso Romantic excess.” Bearing in mind that Alkan can be taken as a paragon of “Romantic excess” with outpourings of virtuosity that are almost as demanding on the listener as they are on the performer, I have to take issue with this summary. The fact is that most of these pieces are delightfully subdued. Yes, there are occasional flourishes; but they are hardly enough to count for flamboyant display. Furthermore, while Franz Liszt used his shorter pieces for adventurous explorations, some of which even depart from a tonal center, Alkan seems more interested in charming through soft speech, a rhetorical stance that is rarely (if ever) associated with Liszt.

McCallum clearly sees the expressive power of such understatement in her interpretation of these short pieces. It is hard to avoid comparing this genre with the one than Felix Mendelssohn called “songs without words.” However, while Mendelssohn seemed to approach the song as a formal structure through which he could express himself in an entirely instrumental manner, Alkan composed his songs in a way that almost encourages the listener to hear a vocalist at the back of his/her mind. Alkan’s entire collection is far shorter than Mendelssohn’s, but he makes up for reduced size with an engaging variety of highly individual and personalized approaches to an engaging rhetoric.

Once Again, the 2016–2017 San Francisco Performances Jazz Series Will Depart From the Beaten Path

The next San Francisco Performances (SFP) concert series to get under way in the 2016–2017 season following the recently reported Virtuosi Series will be the Jazz Series. While this series accounts for a very modest portion of the entire season calendar (only three concerts) and while SFJAZZ continues to dominate the jazz scene as far as numbers of productions are concerned, the SFP offerings have always been special. They tend to steer away from the mainstream, often in fascinating ways. Consider, as a particularly representative example, the On Sacred Ground performance in October of 2012, when The Bad Plus anticipated the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the ballet “The Rite of Spring” (which took place on May 29, 1913) with their own take of the revolutionary score that Igor Stravinsky had composed for that ballet.

I raise this particular example because The Bad Plus will be returning this season. However, they will not perform until the second concert in the series. This season all three of the concerts will be held on a Saturday night in Herbst Theatre beginning at 7:30 p.m. The specifics are as follows:

November 19: Pianist Arturo O’Farrill will come to Herbst to give a rare solo performance. He is the son of Cuban composer, arranger, and conductor Chico O’Farrill, who founded the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra. Arturo is now that group’s leader; and last year he was able to honor his own Cuban roots as one of the invited witnesses for the raising of the flag over the reinstated United States Embassy in Havana. Musically, the younger O’Farrill has been influenced as much by the pioneers of hard bop as by the Afro-Cuban influences of his father. Details of his program have not yet been announced.

January 21: This will be the return performance by The Bad Plus, the trio of Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass, and David King on drums. Beyond their Stravinsky experiment, the group has managed to absorb influences from just about every other genre, including pop, blues, and folk. Again, details of the program have not yet been announced.

March 4: Pianist Billy Childs will present a full-evening program entitled Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro. The program will be a recreation of the album of the same name, which won a 2015 GRAMMY award. Nyro’s songs will be sung by vocalists Becca Stevens and Alicia Olatuja. On the instrumental side Childs will be joined by the members of Quartet San Francisco, violinists Jeremy Cohen and Matthew Szemela, violist Chad Kaltinger, and cellist Andrés Vera.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $165 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $105 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $75 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. Single tickets will go on sale on Monday, August 1. At that time hyperlinks to the event pages for purchasing single tickets will be added to the Jazz Series home page. In addition the SFP home page has hyperlinks for PDF files of the Season Brochure, the Season Calendar, and a ticket order form.

The Final 2016 Outsound New Music Summit Runs Into Problems of Excess

Each of the two sets in the final concert performance of the 2016 Outsound New Music Summit, which took place last night at the Community Music Center in the Mission, promised to offer a unique take on innovation. In both cases the promise was filled; and, in at least one of them, it was fulfilled in unexpected ways. However, both sets had the misfortune of continuing long after that innovation had been established and had run its course.

The opening set was taken from IMA, whose name is the Japanese word for “now.” This duo brings percussionist Nava Dunkelman together with Jeanie Aprille Tang, performing under the name Amma Ateria and working through real-time control of relatively low-level electronic gear consisting primarily of samplers, bare-bones oscillators, and filters. According to the “mission statement” reproduced in the program book, the duo “explores distortions of time and handling of the ever present moment [hence the group’s name] through restraint and release.”

The performance definitely involved in-the-moment encounters both of each performer with her respective instruments and of the two of them with each other. As usual, Dunkelman explored a wide diversity of sonorities with the percussion instruments at her disposal and this involved working with an equally wide range of dynamic levels. This provided Ateria with no end of fascinating opportunities for capture and electronic processing. Nevertheless, the electronics tended to be consistently far more assertive than the percussion; and at least one of Dunkelman’s rolls on a suspended cymbal with soft mallets was, for all intents and purposes, inaudible, even with a microphone placed above the cymbal itself.

The set was structured as a series of short pieces. These initially established just how unique those “ever present” moments could be as each involved its own unique logic and rhetoric of instantiation. However, after about three or four of these pieces, those moments began to lose their uniqueness. The set itself ran for over an hour, but it was definitely overstaying its welcome by the time 45 minutes had elapsed.

According to the program book, the second set would consist of “a unique version” of a light classics warhorse by one of the most prodigious breeders of such stallions, the English composer Albert Ketèlbey, “In a Persian Market.” The performers were the Big City Orchestra (BCO), led by founders Das (percussion) and Ninah Pixie, whose “wind” instruments included different varieties of accordion as well as those controlled by human breath. They were joined by percussionist Suki O’Kane, Polly Moller on flute and bass flute, and Andy Cowitt on bass guitar.

Ketèlbey thrived during a time when music was beginning to reach larger and larger numbers of listeners through both radio and recordings. This made for an age in which “serious music” became more accessible to larger audiences; but it had to contend with the corollary that those audiences consisted heavily of those who did not want their music to be too serious. Ketèlbey described “In a Persian Market” as an “Intermezzo Scene.” The “scene” was a depiction of a variety of different forms of Middle Eastern life, all part of the imagination of one who had never ventured east of “England’s green and pleasant land,” let alone east of the Italian peninsula. The cover of the sheet music admirably depicted the setting the Ketèlbey had fantasized:

“In a Persian Market” became a popular item at the sorts of light music concerts offered in this country by the Boston Pops. It also received a generous amount of air time on classical music stations such as WCRB in Boston and WQXR in New York after they had taken up a policy of not being too demanding on their listeners. Needless to say, the music now sounds pretty dated but can still provide some amusement with its own brand of hokey charm.

According to Pixie, BCO was drawn to the piece when she first encountered the sheet music. Had they just decided to arrange that sheet music for their rather unconventional instrumentation, that would have been a source of mild amusement, if not an opportunity for a few healthy belly laughs. However, they decided that they would provide their own establishing “sound effects” (one of which appeared to be an actual pile of sand in which a metallic ball was rolled) that would interleave with Ketèlbey’s phrases, all played at a tempo significantly slower than the score specified. This made for an intriguing piece of conceptual art; but, in practice, it became a rather hard slog very quickly. True to its subtitle, the piece really is a ternary form intermezzo; but, for this listener at least, patience ran out long before that middle section was anything more than a mirage on the horizon.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Jazz in the Neighborhood will Give a Community Music Concert Next Month

Jazz in the Neighborhood is a nonprofit project with fiscal sponsorship through Intersection for the Arts. As the name suggests, their concerts are a “moveable feast,” preferring venues that tend to be accessible to the general public in favor of the more “jazz-centric” sites. Thus, one of their venues is the Concert Hall of the Community Music Center (CMC), a more neighborhood-based location in the Mission than the bustling Mission Street and Valencia Street.

Next month CMC will host a Jazz in the Neighborhood presentation of the Allison Miller Trio, led by New York-based drummer Miller. Her trio features clarinetist Ben Goldberg and pianist Myra Melford. All three of these musicians have taken some highly innovative approaches to making jazz and exploring the possibilities of adventurous improvisation.

The CMC Concert Hall is located at 544 Capp Street, between 20th Street and 21st Street and between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue. The performance by the Allison Miller Trio will begin at 8 p.m. on August 13. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for students and seniors. Tickets will be sold at the door.

The String Quartets of Heitor Villa-Lobos

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano originally embarked on recording the seventeen string quartets of Heitor Villa-Lobos for Sono Luminus as a boxed set that was released in time for the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, which took place on November 17, 1959. It was reissued in November of 2015 and was made available for digital download by Naxos this past June. Villa-Lobos composed his first quartet in 1915. He was in his late twenties by then but was just beginning to venture into serious composition, having established himself as a performer. This last quartet was completed in 1957, two years before his death, although sketches for an eighteenth quartet were found after his death.

Villa-Lobos was so prolific in so many different genres of composition that it is not surprising that his string quartet output would fill six CDs. As might be expected, there is a generous supply of energetically rhythmic movements across the entire canon; and there is no shortage of tropes associated with Villa-Lobos’ “Brazilian sound.” On the other hand there is also no shortage of movements that amount to his latter-day reflections on classical traditions; and there is a quiet introspection to many of his slow movements that is as reflective of his time in Europe as it is of his “home thoughts.”

Sono Luminus did not release the quartets in their numerical order. It would seem that the highest priority was grouping them in a way that would fit comfortably on those six CDs. Since the quartets were spaced out across Villa-Lobos’ life, there is no reason to suppose that they are connected by some underlying logic. They are simply another example of how prolific Villa-Lobos could be as a composer. They are best appreciated individually, meaning that their distribution across the Sono Luminus box should not be an issue. From that point of view, listening to any one of the seventeen selections in this collection should be enough to make one wonder why none of these quartets have found a secure place in the repertoire of the current batch of string quartet ensembles making regular tours across this country and around the world.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Bebop and Latin Jazz are Coming to the Cadillac Hotel at the Beginning of Next Month

The Concerts at the Cadillac series at the Cadillac Hotel in the Tenderloin will kick off next month with a free concert by Orion’s Joy of Sextet Jazz and Latin Jazz. Orion is the leader playing drums and cowbell. The group has two saxophonists, Ruben Salcido on alto and Jim Grantham on tenor; and the rest of the rhythm section consists of Steven McQuarry on piano, Dave Casini on vibraphone, and Jim Shearer on bass. As the group’s name suggests, the repertoire is a heady blend of Latin with bebop, somewhat in the spirit of how Dizzy Gillespie worked with both bebop and Afro-Cuban influences.

This concert will begin at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, August 5, and last for about an hour. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street. Those serious about their jazz know that this site is a short walk from where the Black Hawk nightclub used to be, a venue where musicians such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Cal Tjader made some of their recordings. The performance will take place in the hotel’s lobby, which is the home of the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, a fully-restored 1884 Steinway Model D Concert Grand. The purpose of the Concerts at the Cadillac series is to provide high-quality music to the residents of the hotel and the Tenderloin District; but all are invited to visit the venue that calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907.”

Jonathan Russell Provides Engaging Music for the Latest Garrett + Moulton Premiere

Last night at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, Garrett + Moulton Productions presented the first of four performances of its latest world premiere, a uninterrupted one-hour piece entitled Speak, Angels. Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton collaborated in creating the choreography for their company of six dancers (Alison Adnet, Vivian Aragon, Carolina Czechowska, Michael Galloway, Nol Simonse, and Ryan Wang), accompanied by a “Movement Choir” of eighteen dancers (seventeen women and one man), which served somewhat in the capacity of a Greek Chorus and, according to a note provided by the choreographers, contributed much of the vocabulary of their movements.

Musical direction was provided by Jonathan Russell, who served as conductor, composer, and clarinetist. (He is half of the bass clarinet duo Sqwonk.) He compiled a pastiche consisting primarily of short movements by Marc Mellits alternating with excerpts of his own work, two excerpts from Elena Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans suite, and four short selections of Gustav Mahler, three from his Rückert-Lieder collection and the first section of the “Urlicht” movement from the second (“Resurrection”) symphony. All this was arranged for an ensemble of seven instrumental players, Russell and his Sqwonk partner Jeff Anderle alternating between clarinet and bass clarinet, Emily Packard on violin, Hannah Addario-Berry and Kelley Maulbetsch on cellos, Kate Campbell on piano, and Jordan Glenn on percussion. Several of the selections involved a vocalizing quintet of sopranos Cecilia Lam, Allison Zelles Lloyd, and Phoebe Rosquist, mezzo Stacey Helley, and contralto Karen Clark.

The “spinal cord” for Russell’s score consisted of the Mellits selections, which included five of the movements from his “Prometheus,” one of which (the fifth) was repeated towards the end of the piece. Mellits began his studies at the Eastman School of Music in 1984; and, in many ways, the pieces performed last night could easily be taken as a “second-generation” approach to follow up on Philip Glass’ pioneering efforts to make music with “repetitive structures.” Mellits has clearly found a voice to distinguish himself from Glass, and there seems to be an extra kick to Mellits’ high energy levels, making his selections an excellent accompaniment for the intense energy of many of the movements conceived by Garrett and Moulton. Russell’s own contributions, on the other hand, suited the more introspective and affectionate choreographic turns. He took a lyric approach to his vocal resources, but that lyricism occasional ran the risk of getting too syrupy.

Far more impressive was Russell’s skill in arranging Mahler’s scores for his far more limited instrumental ensemble. Fortunately, the three Rückert settings all used relatively limited orchestral resources. However, Russell clearly knew how to sort out the contributing threads of Mahler’s textures and then assign those threads to the available instruments. Clark, on the other hand, was not quite up to the vocal side of this partnership. Her pitches were frequently uncertain, as were her phrasing and her diction. Russell did an excellent job of selecting Mahler at his most intimate; but, for all the virtues of her contralto voice, Clark could never quite honor that intimacy, even when it knowingly underscored the choreography that Garrett and Moulton had created.

Overall, the choreography was satisfying, if not always stimulating. It was hard to know what to make of the title. In many ways the control of energy levels and the occasional injections of wit recalled Martha Graham’s “Acrobats of God;” but, in spite of its title, that dance was about mere mortals, even if viewed from a witty perspective. The Movement Choir work, on the other hand, seemed to reflect back on the sorts of dance-music relationships that Doris Humphrey had explored, particularly when working with music from the Baroque period. On the whole Speak, Angels could be taken as a series of studies of abstract structures that did not require dwelling on the title. Things may have gotten a bit repetitive from time to time as the hour unfolded, but there always seemed to be new flashes of expression to keep the attention from flagging.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

San Francisco Performances Virtuosi Series will Feature Some Welcome Returns and a Debut

Those who were following me on know that I had begun to write preview articles about the different concert series offered by San Francisco Performances (SFP) for the 2016–2017 season. Unfortunately, those articles are no longer accessible. For the benefit of those wanting to know what they missed (or are missing), I shall provide hyperlinks for the Heartfelt Gala event planned to honor SFP founder and outgoing President Ruth Felt, the Chamber Series, and Jonathan Biss’ Late Style project. This article will now turn attention to the Virtuosi Series, which has built up a strong reputation for providing San Francisco audiences with some of the most impressive visiting artists currently performing. As in the past, there will be four concerts in this series, all to be held in Herbst Theatre and all beginning at 7:30 p.m. Details are as follows:

Tuesday, November 15: This will be the San Francisco debut of Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta, who will be accompanied by Italian pianist Alessio Bax. The program will be structured around two complementary sonatas, one each from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The nineteenth-century selection will be the first of Johannes Brahms’ two cello sonatas, Opus 38 in E minor. The twentieth-century composition will be Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 119 sonata in C major, which he wrote for Mstislav Rostropovich after hearing him give a recital performance of Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Opus 81 sonata in A major. Prokofiev will also be represented by an arrangement of an Adagio movement from his score for the ballet Cinderella, which he originally composed as his Opus 97 set of ten excerpts from the ballet scored for solo piano. Gabetta will begin her recital with Robert Schumann’s Opus 73 set of three Fantasy Pieces (Fantasiestücke), which he originally wrote for clarinet but indicated that the clarinet part could also be performed on viola or cello.

Monday, April 3: Violinist Alina Ibragimova will return to SFP, once again with pianist Cédric Tiberghien as her accompanist. The program has been arranged in such a way that both Ibragimova and Tiberghien will each give a solo performance. In the first half Tiberghien will perform Alban Berg’s Opus 1 sonata, and Ibragimova will begin the second half of the program with the fifth (in G major) of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Opus 27 set of six solo violin sonatas. The duo sonatas Ibragimova and Tiberghien have prepared for the program will be by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1017 in C minor), Brahms (Opus 100 in A major), and Schumann (Opus 121 in D minor).

Tuesday, April 11: Virtuoso trumpet master Håkan Hardenberger will also be returning to SFP with pianist Roland Pöntinen as his accompanist; program details have not yet been announced.

Thursday, April 27: The final recital will feature the return of cellist Steven Isserlis. Pianist Connie Shih will be his accompanist. The program will feature “Lieux retrouvés” (reencountered places), a tour-de-force work written for Isserlis by Thomas Adès. The sonata selections will be by Claude Debussy, Frédéric Chopin (Opus 65 in G minor), and Gabriel Fauré (Opus 117, the second of the two that Fauré wrote). The program will also present a pair of improvisations on Irish airs composed by Reynaldo Hahn.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $240 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $200 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $140 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. Single tickets will not go on sale until the beginning of next week on August 1. In addition the SFP home page has hyperlinks for PDF files of the Season Brochure, the Season Calendar, and a ticket order form.

Carlo Grante’s Scarlatti Sonata Project Advances to its Fourth Volume

I first became aware of Italian pianist Carlo Grante’s project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti early in 2014. By that time Music & Arts had released his first three volumes, each of which consisted of six CDs. While harpsichordist Scott Ross had established himself by recording all 555 of the sonatas in the numerical order established by Ralph Kirkpatrick’s catalog, Grante has taken a different approach, which is likely to involve a larger number of sonatas. There have been several attempts to catalog these sonatas, but Kirkpatrick’s is the most recent and remains the most authoritative. Therefore, it might be appropriate to walk through a few of the details behind this numerical accounting process.

Very little of Scarlatti’s music was published during his lifetime. The major exception is a book of 30 one-movement sonatas published in 1738 under the title Essercizi (exercises) per gravicembalo. “Gravicembalo” is basically a corruption of “clavicembalo,” the Italian word for the harpsichord. The distorted noun may be a reflection of the dialect in Naples, where Scarlatti was born; or it may reflect the fact that, by 1738, Bartolomeo Cristofori had made several of the predecessors of the modern piano, calling his instrument “gravicembalo col piano e forte.” While the latter may make a good case that Scarlatti intended his exercises to be played on the piano, there are no dynamic markings in the 30 Essercizi sonatas. In any event the publication was supervised by Scarlatti, and these sonatas account for the first entries in Kirkpatrick’s catalog, as well as the first two CDs in the first volume that Grante recorded.

After that sonatas were copied out for a large number of publications with no input from Scarlatti. Between 1752 and 1757 (the year of Scarlatti’s death), fifteen volumes were published in Parma accounting for 463 sonatas; and thirteen volumes were published in Venice consisting of 374 sonatas, some overlapping pieces in the Parma volumes. There were also collections of 61 sonatas published in 1742 and 41 sonatas in 1749, both in Venice. Grante’s booklet notes indicate that, once duplicates are eliminated, there are still more than the 555 sonatas in Kirkpatrick’s catalog.

As a result, he has organized the first phase of his recording project, at least to date, around the Parma volumes. His first release took in the first two Parma books on the four CDs following the two for the Essercizi. The second recording covered the third, fourth, and fifth Parma books; and the third volume of the project accounted for the sixth, seventh, and eighth. At the beginning of this month, Music & Arts released the fourth volume, which presents the ninth, tenth, and eleventh books on five CDs. Since the track listings for all of these recordings include the Kirkpatrick numbers, one quickly discovers that Kirkpatrick did not use the Parma orderings in his own catalog. However, in his booklet notes Grante makes the claim that both the Essercizi and the Parma publications present the sonatas “in a musically satisfying sequence.”

That is a claim worth considering. Like the Essercizi publication, each of the Parma books contains 30 sonatas, with the exception of the seventh book, which contains 31. That means that playing through a single book in its entirety would probably occupy enough time to fill a recital (albeit one of the shortish side, particularly if the book is played without an intermission). To some extent having this music packaged on CDs provides the curious listener with the opportunity to have that sort of recital experience. Whether or not such a listening experiment is recommended is another matter.

Most likely what “satisfies” Grande involves the key changes (or lack thereof) as one advances from one sonata to its successor. He may also have found interesting that the tenth book both begins and concludes in F minor, while the eleventh book begins in G major and concludes in C major, suggesting that the whole volume might be a prolonged dominant-to-tonic cadence. On the other hand the ninth book begins in D major and concludes in C major; and, while there is an intervening pair of sonatas in G major (the tenth and eleventh), trying to make a case for Schenkerian prolongation across the entire book would be more than a stretch. More realistic are the situations in which Ross’ booklet notes sometimes find smaller sequential clusters (rarely more than two) in his Kirkpatrick ordering.

More important is Grande’s decision to play all of his recordings on a Bosendorfer Imperial piano. His recordings appeal not because of some grand design that flows through the entirety of one of the Music & Arts releases or even through the entirety of a single Parma book. Rather, the appeal comes from how he seeks out an expressive account, based on the capabilities of a modern piano, of each sonata taken as an individual entity. From that point of view, it would be fair to say that he succeeds with his instrument as Ross had succeeded with the harpsichord. (Ross actually used several different instruments over the course of his own recording project.) Nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of either release is likely to attract a relatively limited number of listeners. Still, those wondering whether or not they want to get their feet wet in the entire swimming pool, so to speak, might wish to be reminded of an old advertising slogan that The New York Times hauled out for its Sunday edition: “You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there!”

The Outsound Summit Continues with Two Distinctively Different Approaches to Improvisation

The second concert performance of the 2016 Outsound New Music Summit took place last night at the Community Music Center in the Mission. While the first program in the concert series concentrated on two intense thoroughly composed works, last night’s offerings were improvisations following two distinctively different approaches by their respective groups. One was a straight-ahead approach to free improvisation that served as a memorial for saxophonist Marco Eneidi, who died this past May 24, while the other involved the exploration of the sound potentials of different materials, somewhat in the spirit of compositions by John Cage such as “Water Music” (1952) and “Cartridge Music” (1960), both of which involved chance and/or indeterminate operations but not improvisation.

The Eneidi memorial was based on the recording sessions of his album Hell-Bent in the Pacific, distributed by the Lithuanian NoBusiness Records. Eneidi’s alto work was joined by Vinny Golia alternating among tenor, soprano, and sopranino saxophones and B-flat and bass clarinet, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass, and Vijay Anderson on drums. Last night those three musicians jammed as a trio, using their memories of those sessions as a point of departure. The result was two relatively sustained ventures into free improvisation with Golia alternating between tenor saxophone and bass clarinet in the first and moving from B-flat clarinet to alto saxophone in the second.

There was no questioning the intensity of energy in both of these pieces, but what was just as clear was how the spontaneity was driven by each performer’s awareness of the other two. Often Mezzacappa would establish the rhythmic foundation, plucking her amplified acoustic bass with an aggressive assertiveness that allowed Anderson to explore both alternative rhythms and judiciously chosen silences in his drum work. Mezzacappa also took one major bowed solo, departing from a steady rhythm to use sul ponticello bowing to weave around the upper natural harmonics with a rhetoric that sounded almost like some arcane incantation.

Incantation was also the operative concept behind Golia’s blowing. When Mezzacappa was most solid in her rhythms, Golia could wander into the stratosphere with his. Yet he also had a strong command of the full width of dynamic range, resulting in rhetorical stances that could turn on a dime between reflective and aggressive. Add to that the necessary breath control for multiphonic blowing and any number of awesome bursts of rapid-fire fingering and the result was the sort of uninhibited free jazz that reflected back on not only Eneidi but also Eneidi’s own influences, such as Cecil Taylor.

The exploratory approach to improvisation was taken by Thomas Carnacki, a group with a rotating cast of participants initiated by Gregory Scharpen and named after the fictional occult detective, who was the protagonist in a set of fantasy stories by William Hope Hodgson written in early twentieth-century England. Rotation of performers also implies rotation of resources. Last night Scharpen himself was at the controls of his electronic gear, providing input both from a violin and by vocalizing into a microphone. Both Cheryl E. Leonard and Gregory Hagan spend most of their time eliciting sounds from non-musical objects. Leonard has long been interested in playing objects collected from the natural world, and last night she seemed to be working with fossilizations of sea life found in the course of beach-combing. Most of Hagan’s objects were metallic, but he also had a violin. Indeed, both Leonard and Hagan used bowing techniques to create many of the sounds they produced. The remaining performer was Sheila Bosco behind an electronic keyboard that had been programmed to trigger a variety of different natural and man-made sounds.

The overall effect was one of a vast landscape, not unlike some of those large paintings or a slow-pan cinematic capture of an extensive terrain. The overall dynamic level was, for the most part, subdued. This facilitated drawing the ear of the attentive listener to subtle details, as the eye is often inclined to do when dealing with a very large image. Only towards the end of their set of a single continuous session did the group as a whole summon up an intense crescendo from which they could then recede into a silence in which their natural sounds gave way to ambient ones.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble Announces its 2016—2017 Season

Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) has announced the program details for the five concerts it has planned for its 2016—2017 season, which will run from this October through June of next year. San Francisco performances will be divided between the Concert Hall and Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) and the Dennis Gallagher Arts Pavilion. The first three will take place on Mondays and the remaining two on Tuesdays. All performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. As in the past, each concert will be organized around a particular theme with a title to match. Details are as follows:

Monday, October 24, SFCM Concert Hall, A Close Correspondence: The theme of this concert will be letter writing. Because this is a text-based topic, San Francisco’s premiere new music chorus Volti will appear as special guest artists for the occasion. Authors will include Leoš Janáček, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Virginia Woolf, and others. In Janáček’s case those texts are implicit in an instrumental composition, his second string quartet, to which he gave the title “Intimate Letters.” Volti will present world premiere performances of two compositions for string quartet and chorus by Onur Türkmen (“but for you alone”) and Mark Winges (“Letters”), respectively. In addition Volti will give an a cappella performance of David Lang’s “A Father’s Love.”

Monday, December 5, Gallagher Pavilion, Brilliant Palette: At the end of last season, LCCE announced that both percussionist Loren Mach and soprano Nikki Einfeld would become members of the ensemble. The title of this concert thus reflects the broader ranger of sonorities afforded by the addition of these two performers. Both of them will perform George Crumb’s first book of madrigals, which he scored for soprano, vibraphone, and bass. Mach will also perform Martin Matalon’s vibraphone solo “Short Stories” and Caroline Shaw’s “Boris Kerner,” which she scored for cello and flowerpots. Einfeld will contribute to two chamber pieces, Ernest Chausson’s “Chanson Perpétuelle” (Opus 37) for soprano, string quartet, and piano and Gabriel Fauré’s “La Bonne Chanson” (Opus 61) for soprano, string quintet, and piano. There will also be a surprise new work that Einfeld and Mach will perform as a duo.

Monday, February 6, SFCM Recital Hall, House of the Beehives: This is the title of a major work on the program by Melody Eötvös, winner of the 2016 Composition Contest. It is inspired by a story by Italo Calvino of the same name, and it will be receiving its West Coast premiere. There will also be a world premiere performance of David Coll’s “Ghost Dances.” In addition the “broken consort” theme of one of last season’s programs will be continued by a sextet for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and two guitars by Sebastian Currier titled (appropriately enough) “Broken Consort.” This will be complemented by two more “integrated” duos, the sonata by Maurice Ravel for violin and cello, and Dusan Bogdanovich’s “Canticles” for two guitars.

Tuesday, March 21, SFCM Concert Hall, Brahms through the Looking Glass: This will be a call-and-response program in which Johannes Brahms’ very first piano trio, his Opus 8 in B Major (which he revised significantly later in life) will be reflected by the world premiere of a new work for piano trio by Kenneth Lim.

Tuesday, May 30, SFCM Recital Hall, Francophilia: This program will be a study in influence, pairing compositions by Ravel (Chansons madécasses), Claude Debussy (Chansons de Bilitis), André Caplet, and Henri Dutilleux, with those by Americans who lived and/or studied in Paris, Aaron Copland (selections from his songs based on poems by Emily Dickenson) and Ned Rorem. The program will also include the world premiere of a new work by Kurt Rohde setting texts by Michel Foucault, “Power is Everywhere,” scored for soprano, flute, cello, and piano. This will be the synthesis of an American composer setting the words of a French philosopher translated into English.

Subscriptions for the full season are currently available for $125 for general admission and $105 for seniors. This amounts to a savings of up to $70 if tickets are purchased individually. There is open seating for all concerts. Tickets may be purchased online through a Vendini event page. Student subscriptions are available for $50. These apply to currently enrolled high school and college students. School representatives may contact Managing Director Nick Benavides for further details. Information is also available by sending electronic mail to the Box Office. Single tickets are not yet available for advance purchase, but they will be sold at the door for $35 for general admission and $17.50 for those under the age of 35.

Brett Carson Brings a Fascinatingly Intense Song Cycle to the Outsound Summit

Last night the concert performances for the 2016 Outsound New Music Summit got under way at the Community Music Center in the Mission. This was the first in a series of five evening events, each of which offers two sets and all with an introductory Q&A, usually with the composers. Festival Director Rent Romus introduced the series observing that he wanted to move from the three-set format of past seasons by spreading a sequence of two-set programs across five nights to allow listeners to process fewer new events in a single evening. This was a wise strategy; but I must confess that my personal experience has always been that, when I get so wrapped up in the many fascinating aspects of one set, I am rarely in the best of shape to accommodate any further input!

This was the case last night with Brett Carson’s Mysterious Descent. While I was definitely intrigued by what Dan Plonsey had to say about his composition for the second set, “On His Shoulders Stands No One,” Carson had already stretched my powers of retention during the first set. Now it is “the morning after,” all the many stimuli of Mysterious Descent are swirling around in my head, and I have to face the task of putting all of that swirl into a coherent structure of mere words.

The basic “facts” behind this composition are relatively spare. It is a song cycle in twelve movements, “based on the extant texts of the Idnat Ikh-ôhintsôsh.” Carson said little about that source, other than that it was ancient and survived only in fragments. He did not even identify the language in which the fragments were written. However, the operative phrase is “based on.” The words for Mysterious Descent are spoken, sung, and chanted; and those words alternate between English (at different levels of clarity depending on the setting) and syllabic constructions that appear to have been of the composer’s own invention. The title refers to “the volatile and absurd descent into the darkness of the Self;” and in this case the operative words are “volatile” and “darkness.”

The music itself appears to have been throughly composed, although there may have been opportunities for improvisation. It was scored for a quartet and written with last night’s performers in mind. Carson himself spent most of his time behind a piano keyboard. David Katz delivered most of the text from behind a music stand, but his execution was frequently physical as well as vocal, often enhanced through changes in the lighting. The other instrumentalists were violinist Mia Bella D’Augelli and percussionist Nava Dunkelman, but all four performers were required to play at least one percussion instrument. In addition, all four of them contributed to some of the recitations of portions of the text.

Carson cited Anthony Braxton, John Cage, and Olivier Messiaen as sources for the architecture of his composition. The use of a quartet clearly recalls Messiaen’s “Quatour pour la fin du temps,” even if the instrumentation is different and the use of text is more explicit. During the Q&A he cited Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music; and, while some of the pieces seemed to emerge from an underlying pulse, the use of pulse was not as explicit or pervasive as it was in Braxton’s work. Cage, of course, was a pioneer in using percussion as melodic instruments, even when the instruments lacked pitch; and his architectural approach tended to work with mapping out divisions of time, which he would then fill with different forms of content. It is not difficult to assume that a similar strategy was in play in at least some of the movements of Mysterious Descent, if not all of them.

As to the “semantics” of the descent itself, the very idea of meaning tended to take a secondary role behind Carson’s command of mustering a wide diversity of sonorities to occupy his architectural frameworks. Much of the impact of the music came from the intensity of focus engaged by each of the performers. Carson had clearly set major challenges for all of them (including himself). As she almost always is, Dunkelman was outstanding in her command of the full range of dynamic levels required for her percussion part. D’Augelli, on the other hand, had to elicit a wide variety of sonorities from her violin, primarily through a variety of bowing techniques. However, she was at her most impressive when she had to follow one of Carson’s melodic lines at the keyboard by playing in parallel quarter-tone intervals. (On the basis of her performance over the entire composition, I am quite confident that this was not a problem with pitch. She was right on the money with all of her other pitch selections, so it is reasonable to assume that those quarter tones were specified in the score.) Finally, Katz knew how to engage techniques of physical delivery when the words were at their least clear.

Finally, it is important to note that, unlike some of the “song cycles” of the nineteenth century, Carson’s approach to the text really was cyclic. In the opening text Katz tells a story about going down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a glass of water and encountering an elephant. Sure enough, the elephant returns in the final movement of the composition. Perhaps it is the underlying metaphor for the entire composition. The concept of an “elephant in the room” is a favorite metaphor for a topic that is left unspoken, often out of fear. That may well be what Carson had in mind with respect to that “darkness of Self.” The music tried to say things that, quite possibly, most of us would prefer not to put into words, either out of fear for what those words would reveal or by dint of our own weak command of language when such matters are involved. Perhaps the mystery of Carson’s descent is resolved when we recognize that the elephant really is in the room.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Wadada Leo Smith and John Lindberg on TUM Records

At the end of last year, the Helsinki-based TUM Records released an album of duo improvisations by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and bassist John Lindberg entitled Celestial Weather. This was also the title of the major (and central) work on the recording, a five-movement suite of a totally open and spontaneous improvisation. Smith and Lindberg had engaged in such free-form exercises during live performances; but this was the first time one had been captured on recording. Each of the players also contributed a composition for performance before and after the suite. The album began with Smith’s “Malachi Favors Maghostut - A Monarch of Creative Music,” consisting of two untitled parts played without interruption. Celestial Weather was then followed by Lindberg’s two-part (separated by a brief silence) “Feathers and Earth.” All of the tracks on the album were recorded at a single session in New York on June 16, 2012.

Smith was not a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which was formed in Chicago in May of 1965; but he was one of its earliest active participants. Others included Favors (who would later add “Maghostut” to the end of his name and was a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago),  Anthony Braxton, and Jack DeJohnette. For his part Lindberg played in Braxton’s quartet in the late seventies and early eighties and can be found on the 1983 and 1984 recordings that the quartet made on the Black Saint label.

Having had a few brushes of my own with free improvisation, I have no trouble wondering whether the title of Celestial Weather was assigned before or after the improvisations were recorded. The same could be said of each of the movements: “Cyclone,” “Hurricane,” “Icy Fog,” “Typhoon,” and “Tornado.” There is little sense that any of the music being played is particularly descriptive. However, it is entirely possible that the performers first came up with those titles and then used them as points of departure for their spontaneous improvisations. Certainly, the serious listener is not encouraged to seek out “semantic descriptions” behind those improvisations. Rather, they are adventurous explorations in which each player explores new ways of approaching his respective instrument. What results amounts to an alternation among solos, simultaneous monologues, and “engaged dialogue.” Every now and then a familiar trope might emerge, but there is a strong sense that both players were intently focused on avoiding anything that the listener might take as familiar.

Indeed, that motive pretty much pervades the entire album. The result is that one does not really encounter anything that might be called a “beat” until the final section of “Feathers and Earth.” It is almost as if this still rather low-key approach to familiarity amounted to the rhetorical device that would give the entire album some sense of an ending. In all that precedes, it is not difficult for even the most well-intentioned listener to lose his/her way; and, for all we know, this is what the performers desired. All of those weather titles involve unsettling, if not downright destructive, conditions. Rather than assault the ear with bursts of energy that are easily recognized as “keys” for destructive nature, it is reasonable to assume that Smith and Lindberg committed themselves to a more subtle approach that connotes disorientation simply by undermining the listener’s sense of familiarity.

In all probability there are any number of music lovers that may be provoked, if not offended, by such a strategy. My guess is that Smith and Lindberg would respond to the objections of those music lovers by saying “No one is making you listen to this,” something that John Cage would say to his critics every now and then. Thus, those curious about listening to this album should first take the above descriptive text to heart as an effort to capture in words what the “terms” of music-making are in this album. The listener willing to accept those terms should have no trouble being engaged by these recorded performances and perhaps even pleased with the results!

The New Piano Collective will Present its Inaugural Performances Next Month at Old First Concerts

The New Piano Collective is an approach to artistic alliance bringing together alumni of the Eastman School of Music. Jeffrey LaDeur, founding member of the Delphi Trio, is both Founder and Director of the group. The pianist members have established reputations as soloists, chamber musicians, and pedagogues; and they are all familiar with a repertoire that has Jean-Philippe Rameau at one end and Frederic Rzewski at the other. However, each member has established a unique area of interest that distinguishes him as an authority in the profession.

As may be deduced from the pronoun in that last sentence, all of the founding members are male. LaDeur is already well known in the Bay Area through his solo recitals and his performances with the Delphi Trio. As a soloist he is currently involved in an ambitious project to prepare all of the solo piano music of Claude Debussy for performance in time for the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death on March 25, 2018. Two weeks ago LaDeur played the second book of preludes for a Noontime Concerts recital. The other founding members of the New Piano Collective are as follows:
  • Igor Lipinski, who has developed a unique approach to synthesizing a magic show with a classical piano recital
  • Johnandrew Slominski, who is currently an Assistant Professor of Music Theory at Eastman and matches his skill for performing music with a skill for talking about it
  • Owen Zhou, who combines performing with his work at Opus Zero Recording & Audio, which he founded and where he is Chief Executive Officer
  • Bobby Mitchell, whose keyboard skills include historical, as well as modern, instruments
  • Paul Sánchez, the only American concert pianist to earn a Master of Spanish Music degree under Alicia de Larrocha
  • Jiyang Chen, who is equally at home with the piano concertos of Johannes Brahms and George Gershwin
The New Piano Collective will give two inaugural concerts during a single weekend next month. The first recital will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, August 12, when LaDeur will be joined by Slominski, Mitchell, and Zhou. The selections will be Franz Schubert’s D. 760 “Wanderer” fantasy in C major, George Tsontakis’ “Ghost” variations, and Robert Schumann’s Opus 17 fantasy in C major. This will be followed by a recital at 4 p.m. on Sunday, August 14, when LaDeur will be joined by Sánchez, Chen, and Lipinski. The latter will demonstrate his magic skills by performing his own piece, “Piano Illusions.” In a similar vein the program will also include Federico Mompou’s “Cants magics” (magic songs). Other works for solo piano will include Franz Liszt’s second ballade, in the key of B minor, and the three pieces in Debussy’s first book entitled Images. There will also be an arrangement of the aria “Tristes apprêts” from the second act of Rameau’s opera Castor et Pollux, as well as transcriptions of works by Mompou, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Both of these recitals will be presented by the Old First Concerts series. These events all take place at the Old First Church, located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Boulevard. General admission is $20 with a $17 rate for seniors and a $5 charge for full-time students showing valid identification. Tickets purchased online in advance receive a $2 discount. The first and second concerts each have a separate event page for online ticket purchases. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street for the church.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Bleeding Edge: 7/25/2016

This is a week during which most of the events received advance coverage. The Fifteenth Annual Outsound New Music Summit began yesterday afternoon and will continue through Saturday evening, while Embodied Architectures, a four-set program presented by the Soundwave ((7)) Biennial, will take place on Friday evening at Grace Cathedral. Nevertheless, there are always alternatives. This time they are all confined to Saturday as follows:

Saturday, July 30, 8 p.m., Amado’s: Amado’s is the new occupant of the venue that used to be Viracocha. Their logo describes their offerings as “Tailor | Cobbler | Live Music | Theater.” The ground-level space was demolished and completely reworked, but the basement performance space was left intact. The Web site is still pretty spare, but the events calendar is up and running. This particular show will celebrate the release of two records. The first of these is Archipelago, featuring Melody Parker leading a large ensemble, whose members will include Elise Cumberland, Sara Heron, Sabrina Santiago, Cory Wright, Phillip Greenlief, Theo Padouvas, Greg Stephens, Vic Wong, Mark Allen-Piccolo, Tim DeCillis, Robert Lopez, Nate Brenner, Jon Hirahara, and probably others. The second is Left From Here, songs by Allen-Piccolo. The program will open with a set of songs by Meredith Axelrod.

Amado’s is located at 998 Valencia Street, on the northwest corner of 21st Street. Tickets will be $17 if purchased at the door but only $15 if bought in advance. Advance purchase may be made online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Only cash will be accepted at the door. Doors will open at 7 p.m.

Saturday, July 30, 8 p.m., Turquoise Yantra Grotto: Phil Dadson is visiting from New Zealand. In 1969 he was a founding member of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra; and he formed his own group, From Scratch, in 1974. He will be performing with “Friends” on this occasion. He will share the program with instrument inventor Dan Gottwald, who will be playing with the Analegous Ensemble.

This will be the latest installment in the house concert series at the Turquoise Yantra Grotto. The venue is located  at 32 Turquoise Way. Admission is between $10 and $15.

Saturday, July 30, 8 p.m., Center for New Music (C4NM): The Opus Project is the product of the Ritual Art Troupe working in conjunction with Mark Alburger, Music Director of the SF Composers Chamber Orchestra. The basic idea is to prepare multimedia events that focus on the works of both classical and recent composers, all of which share the same opus number. The objective is to cast as wide a net as possible, which means that most of the performances involve excerpts. The opus number for this particular concert is 43. The performers will include sopranos Jill Wagoner and Anne Hepburn Smith, pianists Hussein Al-Naswari and Feona Lee Jones, the Opus Project Wind Quintet, and the Opus Project Orchestra, some of whom may be seen in this photograph:

Members of the Opus Project Orchestra, courtesy of the Center for New Music

The composers for this program will include Johann Sebastian Bach, Edward Elgar, Gabriel Pierné, Carl Nielsen, Jean Sibelius, Ferruccio Busoni, Ede Poldini, Albert Roussel, Vítězslav Novák, Florent Schmitt, Louis Vierne, Paul Juon, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Max Reger, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, Dmitri Shostakovich, Samuel Barber, Alan Hovhaness, Benjamin Britten, George Crumb, Stardust, and Alburger himself. There will also be a new work by Michael Stubblefield.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM. Tickets will be available only at the door.

2016 Outsound New Music Summit: the Community Improvisation Workshop with Brandon Evans

Yesterday afternoon the 2016 Outsound New Music Summit began in the Capp Street Concert Hall with a Community Improvisation Workshop led by composer Brandon Evans, who performs primarily on various different members of the saxophone family. He has developed a music notation system called “Ellipsis and Elliptical Axis Systems,” which uses the five-line staff and at least some of the conventional note shapes as a point of reference. However, the system also introduces numbers to indicate how many times a passage should be repeated, along with a variety of less conventional shapes. Over the course of this afternoon’s workshop, Evans referred to his notation as playful; and he explained that the unfamiliar shapes had been invented to optimize the number of choices available for spontaneous decision-making.

The workshop was structured around a single “piece,” for which each each performer was given his/her own page of notation. The group, which, including Evans, consisted of five saxophonists and two percussionists (one with a drum kit and the other with bongo drums); and, for the first round of improvisation, they were instructed to play from their allotted pages with minimal explanation of what the notation “meant.” (“Minimal” meant that Evans would answer questions but not volunteer a general explanation.)

From my own vantage point as a listener, I chose not to try to get a close look at any of the score pages. What emerged out of my own ear-mind processing was a sense of how each wind player was contributing a relatively independent voice within a context of “punctuations” (rather than “rhythm”) provided by the percussion. However, as the playing progressed, the possibility emerged that individual players were making their choices of interpreting the notation based not only on the decisions available but also on the context for those decisions provided by listening. One result was that, at a certain point, the percussion began to allow the emergence of a rhythmic pattern, possibly picking up on some of the rhythmic gestures originated by the winds. The result was that the piece came to a conclusion with a relatively strong sense of beat around which the wind players organized their last round of decisions.

Evans then asked each musician to play from a different page of the notation and take a second pass at presenting those pages as a group. This time there was less of an inclination to fall into familiar patterns. However, there was also a sense that each player was more aware of listening to the others (possibly at least one of those “others” playing from the sheet that the listening player had used on the last iteration). In other words during the second go-round each player could now approach his/her contributions with some sense of expectation associated with listening to the others. One result was that the percussion became more fragmented and less inclined to fall into any sort of predictable pattern. This made for a somewhat paradoxical result that more familiarity with the notation led to less predicability in the listening experience.

Only after those two iterations did Evans then start to share his own thoughts about how he had intended his notation to be interpreted. At this point, as a non-participating listener, I felt rather the way I tend to feel when I am allowed to sit as audience during a master class. Fortunately, I had ability to leave my seat and look over shoulders to inspect the notation itself. Having given a more formal account of both the structure and the intentions of the notation, Evans then divided the group into four saxophones playing from one page and the remaining three players (one saxophone and the two percussionists) playing from another.

In this case I decided to stand behind the saxophone quartet and look at the page they were sharing. I must confess that this was not an easy matter. This was not a unison performance, since each player progressed through the page at his/her own rate. (Evans had also experimented with unison interpretations.) Because the four instruments blended so well together, it could be difficult to pick out how a particular player was interpreting the score page. Only a few of the notation features made for relatively easy recognition; but, even then, the features were embedded in a richer texture.

Ultimately, however, listening was not about the relationship between notation and hearing. For that matter it was not necessarily a matter of mind figuring out how to “parse” a fabric of sounds making their impressions on the eardrums. Rather, listening was about how the relationship between acts of interpretation based on all those numerous choices for spontaneous decision-making resulted in a social structure that embodied both individual and group personalities emerging from how those decisions were made. This is, of course, a far cry from the more traditional practices of responding to motifs, themes, harmonic progressions, or any of the other structural concepts that are associated with making music in any of the familiar genres of classical, jazz, blues, folk, or whatever.

John Cage used to like to talk about what he had learned from the study of Zen. He quoted a parable stating that, before the study of Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. During the study of Zen, the distinction gets confused. After the study of Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. What is the difference? There is no differences, except that the feet are a little bit off the ground! This afternoon provided a valuable introduction to the confusion of men with mountains, and this listener was impressed enough to want to continue following that path of study.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016–17 will be a “Season of Heroes” for Philharmonia Baroque

Subscription tickets are now on sale for the 36th season of Philharmonia Baroque. The overall title for the six concerts in the series is Season of Heroes; and the heroes that will be acknowledged over the course of these concerts will be Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Some may wonder why the only French composer in that list is Rameau, but he will be represented by a fully-staged performance of his opera Le temple de la Gloire, whose libretto was written by Voltaire, another undisputed French hero, even if not for his achievements as a composer. The season will also include a program entitled Operatic Heroes, which will offer more Handel along with five other composers.

The season will feature two guest conductors, Rachel Podger, who will lead in her capacity as concertmaster and also perform as violin soloist, and Jonathan Cohen.  Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan will conduct all other concerts. Other guest performers will include pianist Robert Levin, violinist Isabelle Faust, and countertenor Iestyn Davis. who will present the “operatic” heroes.

All programs will be given in San Francisco except for Le temple de la Gloire, all of whose presentations will take place at Zellerbach Hall on the University of California campus at Berkeley. These will feature a special appearance by the New York Baroque Dance Company, whose co-founder, Catherine Turocy, will serve as both stage director and choreographer. There will be three performances over the course of a single weekend at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 28, and Saturday, April 29, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 30. Single tickets will be handled by Cal Performances and will go on sale next month. However, the opera is also included in the Philharmonia Baroque subscription package.

All performances in San Francisco will take place at Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Specifics are as follows:

Friday, October 21, 8 p.m.
All Beethoven with Robert Levin

Concerto for Fortepiano No. 3
Symphony No. 6 "Pastoral"

Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Robert Levin, fortepiano

Friday, November 4, 8 p.m.
Vivaldi & Bach with Rachel Podger

VERACINI Overture No. 6 in G minor
VIVALDI Violin Concerto in D major "L'inquietudine"
BACH Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin
TARTINI Concerto for Violin in A major
VIVALDI Chamber Concerto in G minor
BACH Orchestra Suite No. 1

Rachel Podger, violin and leader

Thursday, December 1, 7 p.m.
Handel's Joshua


Friday, January 27, 8 p.m.
Haydn & Mozart with Isabelle Faust

HAYDN Symphony No. 63 "La Roxelane"
MOZART Violin Concerto No. 5 "Turkish"
HAYDN Symphony No. 91

Nicholas McGegan, conductor
Isabelle Faust

Friday, March 3, 8 p.m.
Operatic Heroes with Jonathan Cohen and Ietsyn Davies

HANDEL Arias from "Saul" and "Theodora"
HASSE Works from "Didone Abbandonata"
ZELENKA Suite in A minor
ARNE "Vengeance, O come inspire me!" from "Alfred"
CPE BACH Sinfonia in D minor
GLUCK Arias and dances from "Telemanco" and "Orfeo ed Euridice"

Jonathan Cohen, conductor
Iestyn Davis, countertenor

Subscriptions to the full season will cover all six concerts (including the Rameau opera) for the price of five. However, the season will also be split into two equal halves, each of which will be covered by a separate “Trio” subscription package. Full details and hyperlinks for placing orders can be found on the Subscription Packages Web page on the Philharmonia Baroque Web site. Single tickets will go on sale on August 15, at which time the Single Tickets Web page will be activated to process orders. Further information may be obtained by calling Patron Services at 415-295-1900, which is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Makoto Ozone Finds the Rhapsody in “Rhapsody in Blue”

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Summer with the Symphony series presented its Gershwin and Bernstein program with Edwin Outwater conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Gershwin was represented by his two best-known symphonic compositions, “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris.” The soloist for the former was the Japanese jazz pianist Makoto Ozone.

The noun “rhapsody” can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Greek verb ῥαψῳδεῖν (rhapsōidein). The literal meaning is “to sew together;” and, in contextual usage, what are being sewn together are songs. The Ancient Greek rhapsodist exercised this technique in the performance of epic poetry; and, while he does not use the term explicitly, the technique can also be found in Aristotle’s “Rhetoric” as an analogy for the proper introduction to a speech. Today the word is associated primarily with a genre that was very popular in the nineteenth-century, frequently as a platform for the display of a virtuosic soloist.

Thus, when Paul Whiteman recruited George Gershwin to contribute to his campaign to bring jazz into the concert hall, it was not surprising that the composer would turn to the rhapsody genre and to the piano as a virtuoso platform. (According to the note in the program book by James M. Keller, Gershwin did not know he had been recruited until he read about it in the New-York Tribune on January 3, 1924.) Scored for piano and jazz band, the work consisted primarily of extended piano solos elaborating at great length on a few song tunes (going back to the Greek origins of the “rhapsody” noun), most of which are introduced first by the ensemble. Gershwin entitled the work “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The music has now become so familiar that it has withstood no end of performance versions. It has also been done to death by any number of appropriations, primarily for advertising, the worst of all being the thoroughly execrable cut-and-paste job for a series of commercials produced for United Airlines in order to stamp an “American brand” on their international travel service. In the midst of all of that attention (both legitimate and otherwise), the jazz origins of the music have pretty much gotten lost. Mind you, while there is no questioning the sincerity that Whiteman brought to his efforts to promote jazz, as a performer, he never really “got it.” Indeed, his failure to grasp the nature of jazz can be found in the nickname he was given, “The Man Who Made a Lady of Jazz.” The real jazz-makers had no trouble appreciating the almost painfully warped connotations of that phrase.

Among today’s jazz-makers, Ozone has firmly established himself as one deserving serious attention; and those who follow him know that he is not afraid to take serious risks in his ventures. One of those ventures has been an effort to put the jazz back into “Rhapsody in Blue,” so to speak. As he put it in a pre-performance chat with Outwater, the notes are all there; but he uses a generous share of them to serve as points of departure for improvisation. The performance thus takes a major leap from the traditional one-movement concerto into a framework allowing the soloist to indulge in a generous amount of serious jamming. For Ozone that meant spontaneous in-the-moment improvisation (which, most likely, is pretty much what a cadenza meant when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was playing one of his own piano concertos).

The result last night was nothing short of jaw-dropping. Indeed, it was not only the entire audience that was riveted by Ozone’s spontaneous creativity motivated by Gershwin’s melodies. It was difficult not to find a member of the SFS ensemble who was just as absorbed. (Quite a few heads were nodding to Ozone’s rhythms.) Indeed, attention to Ozone’s work was so absorbing that one of the ensemble entrances tripped over a minor fumble (but needed only one or two measures to recover fully). If Whiteman’s plan had been to bring the spirit of jazz to concert audiences, Ozone raised the stakes by delivering both sprit and flesh in what may yet be recognized as one of the most memorable performances to be given in this town this year.

By way of a warmup, Ozone first did some jamming by leading a trio with drummer Jeff Marrs and SFS Principal Bass Scott Pingel. This involved a continuation of the Corrupted Classics series that SFS Executive Director Brent Assink had initiated for last year’s Summer with the Symphony concerts. The idea was to take favorite selections from the classical repertoire and “corrupt” them with jazzier approaches to performance. Erik Jekabson was recruited to provide arrangements for those approaches. One of the pieces he arranged last summer was “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in their Shells” from Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This time Jekabson took on the “Tuileries” movement from the same source, providing “interruptions” for passages from Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano suite.

The result may not have been as uninhibitedly wild as Ozone’s take on Gershwin, but it was no less absorbing. (One could again see more that a few SFS ensemble heads nodding in rhythm when Ozone’s trio took over the performance.) The overall framework actually followed the same sort of give-and-take rhetoric that formed the structure of “Rhapsody in Blue.” However, what was being “given” now came straight out of the scores in the SFS Music Library; and the trio then “took” what they received and delivered a generous share of highly imaginative jamming.

There was also an unexpected bit of innovation in the performance of “An American in Paris” in the second half of the program. It turned out that the proper pitch of the taxi horns in that piece had come into question; and one of the questioners happened to be SFS Percussion player James Lee (“Trey”) Wyatt III. The problem had grown out of a percussion part that put the four taxi horns on a five-line staff. However, a recording made under Gershwin’s direction suggested that he had intended four actual French taxi horns, whose sounds showed little respect for the chromatic scale. Such horns were used last night; and, as a result, even “An American in Paris” brought its own approach to novelty to the evening.

As a result the only real weakness in the program came with the overture Leonard Bernstein wrote for his musical Candide. Outwater found just the right degree of spritely rhetoric through which this music could race through its précis of the episodes that would unfold during the show itself. However, the result amounted to a neat little package tied up with a pretty bow. This would have been perfectly suitable in any number of settings, but last night turned out to be primarily about gutsy adventures, many of them spontaneous, into unfamiliar territory. The Bernstein selection was just too tame for that sort of occasion.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

San Francisco Opera Will Open 94th Season with Giordano’s Best-Known Opera

On Friday, September 9, San Francisco Opera (SFO) will launch its 2016–17 season with a gala performance of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. The opera is named after the French poet, who was executed at the guillotine during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. However, librettist Luigi Illica was less interested in history than in weaving a narrative that would evoke intense passions from both the aristocrats and the revolutionaries in his dramatis personae. The staging will be the latest epic undertaking by David McVicar, following his recent productions on a similar scale for Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens. This new staging is being shared with the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti will be the conductor.

All three of the characters in the love triangle that Illica conceived at the heart of his libretto will be performed by vocalists making their respective SFO debuts. Chénier will be sung by South Korean tenor Younghoon Lee. Georgian baritone George Gagnidze will sing the role of Carlo Gérard, first seen as a servant at the palace of the Countess of Coigny, who then rises to become a leader of the revolution and a powerful figure in the Reign of Terror. (Gérard is loosely based on the historical figure Jean-Lambert Tallien.) Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi will sing the role of Maddalena di Coigny, the Countess’ daughter, whose flirtation with Chénier grows into love while she has to contend with the lusts of Gérard following the downfall of the French monarchy.

Andrea Chénier was the second opera to be performed during the first SFO season arranged by founder Gaetano Merola. (The first was Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.) The first performance took place on September 27, 1923 with the famous tenor Beniamino Gigli in the title role. It thus has an appropriate historical pedigree for the launching of a new season. It will be given six performances taking place at 8 p.m. on September 9, 7:30 p.m. on September 14, 17, 22, and 30, and 2 p.m. on September 25. All performances will be sung in Italian with English supertitles.

Performances will take place at the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Single tickets are priced from $31 to $397. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFO Web site that provides hyperlinks for each performance. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office in the outer lobby of the Opera House. Standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance. They are sold for $10, cash only.

Andrea Chénier will also be the first opera of the new season to be given an Insight Panel. This provides members of both the cast and the creative team to share their thoughts on preparing this production. Time is left at the end of the discussion for a Q&A with the audience. The entire event is one hour, and it will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, August 29. The venue will be Herbst Theatre at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Admission is free for SFO members, subscribers, and students with valid identification. The charge for all others is $5. Pre-registration (including for those who do not have to pay) can be arranged through an Eventbrite event page. In addition, Company Dramaturg Clifford Cranna will give a 90-minute Opera Preview lecture. This will take place at noon on Tuesday, August 30, in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library and will be free for all. The Library is located at 100 Larkin Street, opposite the southeast corner of the Civic Center Plaza.

Finally, there are two special events that will be held in conjunction with the opening night of the SFO season. Opera Ball 2016 supplements the opera performance with an elegant cocktail reception, a sumptuous dinner, dancing, and celebration into the night. Further details can be found through a special event page on the SFO Web site. In addition, BRAVO! is a club for opera-lovers between the ages of 21 and 40. They have their own BRAVO! CLUB Opening Night Gala. This has its own event page on the SFO Web site, which includes a hyperlink for becoming a member of the club.

Cellist Charles Curtis Brings a Broad Scope of Repertoire to Old First Concerts

Last night in Old First Church, cellist Charles Curtis made his debut as a solo recitalist in the Old First Concerts series. As is often the case when a cellist performs without an accompanist, Johann Sebastian Bach provided the core for Curtis’ program; but Bach also served as a “gravitational center,” around whom composers from both a more distant past and a more distant future “orbited.” Curtis chose to represent both past and future by a pair of composers seldom encountered in recital programming. The past reached all the way back to the fourteenth century of Guillaume de Machaut and the sixteenth century of Silvestro Ganassi dal Fontego, while the future encompassed the “immediate present” with the first performance of Tashi Wada’s “Valence,” as well as a major twentieth-century composition by Luigi Dallapiccola.

The Bach selection was the BWV 1008 solo cello suite in D minor. Notwithstanding the opinions of Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel, by the time Bach was a working musician D minor had assumed the relation of a “dark” key. However, since it is likely that Bach wrote his six solo cello suites for pedagogical purposes, it is likely that his only objective was to familiarize the pupil with the intervallic relations that characterize the key. Another pedagogical objective was to cultivate the pupil’s awareness of counterpoint even in a single melodic line. Curtis was particularly adept to sorting out the voices contributing to Bach’s contrapuntal fabric, often endowing different voices with different rhetorical stances. This was most evident in the concluding Gigue movement, in which the relationship among the voices seemed to have an almost mocking argumentative quality.

The earlier compositions were not written for cello. Indeed, the six Machaut selections were secular songs for which any instrumental presence was optional. Since these songs tended to consist of many verses, however, it was often the case that a melodic instrument might pick up the tune after one of those verses to give the singer a chance to catch his breath. Often, the instrumental contributions would involve a bit of improvisation; and, for one of last night’s selections, Curtis even added a second voice. Similarly, the Ganassi selections were four ricercars from one of the earliest instructional manuals for playing the viol, Regola Rubertina, which came complete with a cover illustration showing how to hold the instrument:

from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The ricercar was an early form of fantasia, often involving imitative counterpoint and going on for considerable duration in what may well have been an improvisatory style. Ganassi’s ricercars, on the other hand, seemed to be brief introductions into the different intervalic colorations associated with different major and minor keys.

As might be expected, the Wada premiere was “something completely different.” Nevertheless, it shared with music of earlier times an interest in the harmonic series; but Wada’s focus was almost entirely on upper harmonics that would have been beyond the imagination of the oldest masters, let alone the scope of the twelve chromatic pitches. As both a theorist and a performer, Wada has had a long-standing interest in alternative tuning systems; and in “Valence” he basically dispenses with any traditional idea of a gamut, choosing instead to explore stepwise motion through upper harmonics so tightly packed that the ear might mistake his music for glissando playing.

Under Curtis’ execution, however, the listener could readily identify all those pitches as distinct tones. This involved not only some highly precise finger work but also an acute sense of how bowing close to the bridge (sul ponticello) can mask out the fundamental and the more familiar lower harmonics. The result was that, were one not watching Curtis at work, one might almost confuse the sounds with those of analog oscillators or real-time software synthesis. The result was a thoroughly engaging exercise in listening, not differing significantly from the spirit of Bach’s suites, which could be just as pedagogical in familiarizing a third-party listener with different styles of performance as they could be for the student of the instrument itself.

Wada’s “Valence” was coupled with a solo cello Adagio movement. This was the concluding movement of a three-movement suite that Dallapiccola composed in 1945. (The preceding movements were a chaconne and an intermezzo.) Dallapiccola was an Italian composer, who took great interest in the twelve-tone grammatical framework that had been pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg. However, he had a particular rhetorical gift for eliciting lyric qualities from that grammatical foundation. This relatively short movement offered a perfect example of how expressive Dallapiccola could be; and Curtis has done well in championing this piece for “audience consumption.” Indeed, Curtis seems to be an eager advocate for just about any approach to making music. One seldom encounters such breadth of scope in a single recital, leaving one to hope that other performers will be inspired by the scope of Curtis’ ambition.

Friday, July 22, 2016

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival Announces Schedule for its Seventeenth Season

Earlier this week the schedule was announced for the seventeenth annual season of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF). Once again the festival will run for four days, featuring three evening concerts at the Brava Theater Center and a special opening event utilizing the immersive Meyer Sound Constellation system of the Kanbar Forum of the Exploratorium. While last year’s festival reflected a revived interest in analog synthesis, this year’s programs will feature a wide range of diversity in the use of electronic media, some of which involve the use of electronics with instruments and/or voice.

All concerts at the Brava Theater Center will begin at 8 p.m. and will consist of three sets.  Performers for each of the three dates have been planned as follows:

Friday, September 9: Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje, Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa), Irene Moon

Saturday, September 10: Arcane Device (David Lee Myers), Thea Farhadian, Alessandro Bosetti

Sunday, September 11: clipping (the trio of rapper Daveed Diggs and electronic musicians William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes), Tujurikkuja (Joshua Kit Clayton and Chris Dixon), Madalyn Merkey

The first SFEMF event is presented as one of the Thursday Nights offerings at the Exploratorium. It will begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 8; but admission begins at 6 p.m., allowing time for visitors to check out some of the museum’s exhibits. As was the case last year, the SFEMF concert will present site-specific works based on the Meyer Sound Constellation system built for the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum, located at the entrance to the museum. For the opening selection, Gen Ken Montgomery will perform one of Conrad Schnitzler’s Cassette CONcerts, based on the live mixing of octophonic cassette tapes. He will be followed by IMA, the electro-percussion duo of electroacoustic composer Amma Ateria (Jeanie Aprille Tang) and virtuoso percussionist and improviser Nava Dunkelman.

The Brava Theater Center is located at 2781 24th Street at the corner of York Street. Single tickets for each of the three concerts are on a sliding scale between $16 and $25 with a $12 student rate. All single tickets will be available for purchase online from Brown Paper Tickets; but the event page(s) have not yet been created. When they are ready to process orders, a hyperlink will be set up on the SFEMF home page.

Tickets for Thursday Nights events at the Exploratorium, located at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero (across from the intersection with Green Street), are $15 for general admission and $10 for members. Exploratorium Lab Members are admitted free of charge. Admission is only for those age 18 or over. Tickets may be purchased in advance from a special Web page for Thursday Nights admission on the Exploratorium Web site, which has a calendar for selecting the specific date.