Monday, October 31, 2016

San Francisco Renaissance Voices will Perform for both All Saints and All Souls

In addition to the participation of the Schola Adventus choir in the Feast celebrations for All Saints and All Souls at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, San Francisco Renaissance Voices (SFRV), Artists-in-Residence at the Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church, will also be giving performances on both of these Feast days.

Tomorrow SFRV will make its debut at the Noontime Concerts (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) free concert series. The program will feature plainchant, motets, anthems, and other music for the Feast of All Saints. Composers will be William Byrd, Juana Inés de la Cruz, Carlotta Ferrari, Hildegard of Bingen, Mark Schweizer, and Thomas Tallis. This concert will begin at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow (Tuesday), November 1. It will take place at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, located in Chinatown at 660 California Street on the northeast corner of Grant Avenue. These concerts are usually planned to last about 45 minutes. Neither tickets nor reservations are required, but donations are both accepted and encouraged with a suggested amount of $5.

The following evening SFRV will return to Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church. The Feast of All Souls will be celebrated by a service of prayer and music in the meditative Taizé style. The music will include selections from the program presented at Noontime Concerts. The service will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, November 2. Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church is located at 1329 Seventh Avenue, a short walk from the Seventh Avenue stop on the Muni N trolley line. Since this is a service, neither tickets nor reservations are required; but a collection will be taken.

Dover Quartet Debuts as New Champions of the Chamber Music Repertoire

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) continued its Chamber Series with the SFP debut of the Dover Quartet, consisting of violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. However, they appeared as a quintet in the company of composer and bassist Edgar Meyer, already familiar to many in the audience as this was his ninth appearance as an SFP artist (not counting the three times he performed in the Family Matinee Series). Regular readers know that Dover just made its recording debut on Cedille Records with the album Tribute, conceived to honor the members of the Guarneri Quartet, who had served as both teachers and coaches. The report of that album suggested that the recording failure to capture the spontaneous intimacy of “making” (rather than just playing) music, which is particularly vital to the presentation of quartets from the Classical period.

It is therefore a delight to report that last night’s performance could not have been more intimate, replete with the freshness of spontaneity that breathes life into the music of composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose K. 136 divertimento in D major was selected to introduce the group to the audience. (It should be noted, as an aside, that Dover is not the first quartet to have been undermined by a Cedille production. At least one other quartet has suffered at the hands of their technicians, who may be more interested in delivering content to earbuds connected to iTunes than in appealing to serious listeners.) Furthermore, Meyer’s presence fit into that intimate gathering like a hand into a perfectly tailored glove. Even in K. 136, where the bass does little more than double the cello part an octave lower, once could sense the sort of camaraderie that Mozart himself experienced when he brought his viola to play with Joseph Haydn (on second violin), along with Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf on first violin and Johann Baptist Wanhal on cello.

Mozart composed K. 136 as the first of a set of three divertimenti early in 1772 just after his sixteenth birthday, and it is unclear that they were written with any particular purpose in mind. They tend to be performed as ensemble pieces but hold up just as well when played one-to-a-part. Indeed, in that latter case there is much more of a sense of a conversation among equals, as opposed to a group following a leader (probably sitting in the concertmaster’s chair). It was that sense of spirited conversation that made Dover’s partnership with Meyer such a delightful introduction to the evening. It was as if, over the course of less than a quarter of an hour, one became acquainted with all five performers on stage as personalities, rather than as “executors” of a collection of score pages. By the time the quarter-hour had concluded, the attentive listener was eager to learn more about these new acquaintances.

In that respect the personal qualities of the entire group were best developed at the very end of the program, when they played Meyer’s “quintet for double bass and string quartet,” as the composer himself described it. He wrote this piece in 1995, playing the premiere with the Emerson String Quartet. The four movements are identified only by number; and the overall structure involves a journey through a diversity of episodes, rather than following traditional Classical conventions. Nevertheless, the second movement can easily be taken as a scherzo, which is followed by a more introspective slow movement, leaving the outer movements to “roll their own” approaches to structure.

From a rhetorical point of view, the attentive listener is likely to pick up very quickly on Meyer’s own take on the use of repetitive structures. This is a concept most frequently associated with Philip Glass; but Meyer’s approach tends more in the direction of the sorts of riffs one encounters in blues, jazz, and some of the more interesting rock music. However, while riffs tend to provide a spinal cord for the more popular genres, Meyer weaves elaborate textures by superposing multiple riffs, moving him closer to Steve Reich than to Glass but with his own highly individualized approaches to rhetoric. Meyer has reduced his own thoughts about the piece to six sentences of bare-bones (and somewhat self-mocking) description. These were included in last night’s program book along with his concern that too many words of description would distract from the music itself. Last night that music definitely spoke for itself in a clear and expressively nuanced voice, leaving the attentive listener far too engaged to worry about what might or might not have been written about the piece.

Meyer also shared the stage with Shaw to perform a duo in D major by Gioacchino Rossini. It was written for the London banker Sir David Salomons, who was an amateur cellist. It provided Salomons with an opportunity to play with Domenico Dragonetti, the bass virtuoso of his day. Rossini was given fifty pounds for his efforts. On the basis of what was written, Salomons may have been an amateur; but he must have been a talented one. There is no end of virtuosic writing across this duo’s three movements, much of which involves give-and-take exchanges between the two instruments, often bringing a knowing smile, if not an outright belly laugh, to the attentive listener.

The duo itself was probably written in 1824, but it is worth noting that Rossini was no stranger to the bass. Among his earliest compositions are the six sonatas in four parts, composed around 1804 and scored for two violins, cello, and bass. The sonatas offer up a generous share of lively material written for the bass; and, in many ways, the duo provided Rossini with the opportunity to revisit some of the witty passages that emerged from this youthful endeavor. From that point of view, last night’s performance by a youthful cellist with a “seasoned” bassist offered a delightful perspective of how the mature Rossini could draw upon ideas reaching back to his youth and endow them with new freshness.

Dover performed only one work on their own, solely as a string quartet. This was Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major, one of the great “standards” in the repertoire. Their account captured all of the freshness that reflected the composer’s impressions of the “wide open spaces” he encountered while visiting the United States. The music was probably familiar to many in the audience, but Dover knew how to put its own stamp of freshness on it. Much of that freshness came from the intimacy exchanges of the respective personalities of the players. This is a string quartet in which each instrument brings its own voice to the table, so to speak; and, when those voices engage with each other, the results are spirited, to say the least. Last night was a performance in which each of the Dover players found the right way to match his/her personal voice with the voice that Dvořák had composed. Thus, even for those who know this music well from both concert and recording experiences, this was a performance with its own stamp of uniqueness made possible through the self-confidence of the four performers.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Opera Parallèle Begins 2016–2017 Season with Annual Hands-on-Opera Program

Once again Opera Parallèle (OP) will begin its new season with the results of its annual Hands-on-Opera education and youth performance program. Next month will see the world premiere of the opera Xochitl and the Flowers, an opera by OP composer-in-residence Christopher Pratorius. This will be an operatic account of the children’s book of the same name by Jorge Argueta, using a libretto prepared by Roma Olvera.

The opera will be given three performances, and the production will be fully staged and costumed. That production was developed during an innovative eight-week residency with third grade students of the Alvarado Elementary School Spanish Immersion Program. These students will perform alongside a cast of professional singers that will include sopranos Sabrina Romero-Wilson and Yemonja Stanley, tenor Andres Ramirez, and baritone Bradley Kynard. Derived from real-life events from the Mission neighborhood, the narrative tells the poignant tale of a family’s determination to put down roots in a new country, while still preserving the heritage of their homeland.

All three performances of Xochitl and the Flowers will be free. They will take place at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 17, and at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday, November 19. The venue will be the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, which is located at 2868 Mission Street, between 24th Street and 25th Street. Tickets for reservations may be acquired through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. While there is no charge for the tickets, this site is being used to collect donations for continued support of the Hands-on-Opera program, However, seating will be first-come-first-served; so early arrival is advised.

Inept Staging Distracts from the Vocal Virtues of the San Francisco Girls Chorus

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC), led by Music Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe, began its 2016–2017 season with a program called Love’s Journey. Special guests included mezzo Laurie Rubin, pianist Matthew Edwards, and six string players from the Magik*Magik Orchestra, violinists Gloria Justen, Anna Washburn, and Emanuela Nikiforova, violist Evan Buttemer, cellist Erin Wang, and bassist Dave Horn. The program was not so much a journey as an examination of eight different “aspects of love” (already used as the title of a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber) involving eight different composers (but not in a one-to-one relationship).

This would have made for a 75-minute program worthy of serious consideration had it not been for the interference of one other “special guest.” Charles Otte served as stage director for the whole affair and pretty much singlehandedly undermined any musical virtues the program had to offer. Each song was given its own spatial configuration of performers. At least one of these was advantageous, surrounding the audience with the a cappella voices for John Zorn’s phonemic étude “Colombina.” The remaining configurations ran the gamut from fussy to counterproductive. If that were not enough, Otte also decided to revive the aesthetic practices of François Delsarte, who developed a system that takes every musical gesture and correlates it with a physical one. While Delsarte’s intentions were probably serious enough, it was subsequently trivialized to a fare-thee-well, devolving into “melodramatic posing” (as the author of Delsarte’s Wikipedia page puts it). Last night’s performances may not have labored under melodramatic excess; but, for the most part, they were just plain silly and almost always lamely executed.

One can certainly appreciate why execution fell short. The SFGC singers were provided with an abundance of challenges in the selections on the program. A solid command of the notes and an ongoing balance of resources were always the items of highest priority, and it would be fair to say that all of the composers on the program were well served. Less well served were the authors of the text. Diction did not always prevail over sonority; and, when a piece is called only Seven Part-Songs (Gustav Holst), there is little to assist the listener in identifying the narrative content of the text. A text sheet was provided but only for the purpose of providing translations for the songs that were not in English. (As might be expected, Holst provided titles for his songs; but these, too, were omitted from any of the program materials.) In this respect Zorn fared best, since his text consisted only of syllabic sonorities.

In other words this was a recital that began with a few good ideas concerning how to select repertoire for a program. From that end the singers were well prepared to present that repertoire, and Sainte-Agathe could never be faulted in her conducting work. Unfortunately, one or more planners decided that the audience needed more than a solid performance enhanced with an appreciation of the texts being sung; and this resulted in a generous number of rotten apples that spoiled the entire basket. SFGC offers up some highly talented musicians, who really need to be allowed to let the music speak for itself through clear and expressive execution.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Schola Adventus will Sing at Both Feast Services this Coming Week

This week there will be two Feast celebrations at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, and Director of Music Paul Ellison has prepared the resident choir Schola Adventus to sing at both of them.

The Feast of All Saints will be celebrated on Tuesday, November 1. There will be an Evening Prayer at 6 p.m., followed by the High Mass at 6:30 p.m. Music for the Mass will be by Tomás Luis de Victoria, his O quam gloriosum setting, included in his second book of Mass settings published in 1583 and set for four voices. The choir will also sing “Give us the wings of faith,” which is probably the best-known anthem by the twentieth-century English composer Ernest Bullock. They will also sing William Harris’ “Holy is the true light.”

The next day, Wednesday, November 2, will be the celebration of the Feast of All Souls. This will again begin with an Evening Prayer at 6 p.m., followed by the High Mass at 6:30 p.m. The Mass will be the Mass for the Dead, and the musical setting will again be by Victoria. The choir will also sing the appropriate Gregorian Propers, including the “Dies Irae” hymn, which is probably the best-known plainchant.

The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center. This is an inclusive parish of the Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. Those wishing further information may call 415-431-0454.

Lacuna Arts Chorale Begins its Eleventh Season with Memorial Music by British Composers

Last night the Lacuna Arts Chorale, led by its Artistic Director Sven Edward Olbash, began its 2016–2017 season at The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Cow Hollow, where the group serves as Artists-in-Residence. The full title of the program was A Voice from Heaven: music of Howells, Stanford, Parry, and Elgar; but the theme was a memorial one, anticipating the attention to those who have died through occasions such as Halloween and the Day of the Dead. The major work on the program was a piece that Herbert Howells called Requiem, which departed from the liturgical text from the Mass for the Dead, just as Johannes Brahms had done when he composed A German Requiem.

Howells composed his Requiem in 1932 for unaccompanied double choir and soloists in each of the four vocal ranges. The “Requiem aeternam” text appears twice (in Latin) in the third and fifth movements. The other movements are sung in English, taking their texts from psalms and antiphons. This piece received little attention until 1935, when Howells reworked it as a large-scale composition, entitled Hymnus Paradisi, for chorus and orchestra after the death of his son Michael in 1935. The a cappella version was not published until 1980, a few years before Howells’ own death.

Lacuna Arts specializes in double choir work, and last night Olbash divided them accordingly. The sanctuary space in which the performance took place consisted primarily of exposed wood. This created relatively dry acoustic conditions through which one could readily appreciate the many intricate elements of Howells’ polyphonic writing, as well as the spatial interplay of the two choirs. With the exception of several of the verses from Psalm 23 set for soprano (Winnie Nieh), the use of solo voices was extremely spare, primarily serving to highlight particular phrases from the text. Nevertheless, Howells seemed to be going for a particularly transcendent rhetoric in his solo soprano lines; and Nieh definitely rose (without trying to avoid the pun) to the occasion. Olbash’s overall interpretation gave the music the sense of a highly personal meditation, a rhetorical stance that was well served by the intimacy of the acoustic setting.

The first half of the program was devoted to selections from collections of two of Howells’ predecessors, Charles Villiers Stanford and Hubert Parry. It began with the first and last of the three motets that Stanford published as his Opus 38, the SATB “Justorum animae” (the souls of the just) and the SSATBB “Beati quorum via” (blessed are the undefiled), the first from the Book of Wisdom and the second from Psalm 119. These were brief texts (two verses in the first, one in the second) sung in Latin; and the second was sung by the reduced Lacuna Arts Ensemble (two sopranos, two mezzos, two altos, two tenors, and three basses). This smaller group also sang the first four of Parry’s six Songs of Farewell with texts by Henry Vaughan (SATB), John Davies (SATB), Thomas Campion (SSATB), and John Gibson Lockhart (SSATBB). Here, again, intimacy was the prevailing rhetorical stance, particularly in the musical interpretations of the poems set by Parry, which transcended the underling text structures for a sake of a better account of the spirit of each of the verbal offerings.

The program concluded with one of Edward Elgar’s last choral compositions, “They are at rest.” This is an SATB setting of a poem by John Henry Newman. In brought a sense of quiet closure to the program, rather in the spirit of how the “In paradisum” text brings closure to the Latin Requiem Mass setting. While the lines of the poem are uneven, Elgar endowed his setting with a serene sense of calm that encouraged those of us in the audience to “go in peace.”

All of this made for a thoroughly memorable choral experience. Those who missed it deserve to know that it will be given a second performance tomorrow (Sunday, October 30), beginning at 4 p.m. The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin is located in Cow Hollow at 2325 Union Street, on the southwest corner of Steiner Street.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Next Month the SFP Virtuosi Series will Begin with Cellist Sol Gabetta

Next month will see the first recital in the 2016–2017 Virtuosi Series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). The series will begin with a debut performance by Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta, who has become one of Europe’s most sought-after soloists. Her accompanist will be the equally virtuosic Italian pianist Alessio Bax.

Gabetta will structure her recital around two sonatas, each of which represents a major accomplishment for its respective century. The nineteenth-century selection will be performed during the first half of the program and will be the first of Johannes Brahms’ two cello sonatas, his Opus 38 in E minor. The second half will present the Opus 119 sonata in C major composed by Serge Prokofiev late in his life for a young cellist whose reputation was rapidly rising, Mstislav Rostropovich. Prokofiev will also be represented by an arrangement of an Adagio movement from his score for the ballet Cinderella. This comes from his Opus 97 collection of ten excerpts from that score, written for solo piano and rearranged for cello and piano. In the first half of the program, the Brahms sonata will be preceded by the music of his mentor, Robert Schumann. The recital will begin with his Opus 73 set of three Fantasy Pieces (Fantasiestücke), originally written for clarinet and piano. However, Schumann himself indicated that the clarinet part could also be performed on viola or cello.

This recital will take place on Tuesday, November 15, beginning at 7:30 p.m. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Tickets for premium seating are $65, and tickets are also being sold for $55 and $40. 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.

Because this is the first program in the Virtuosi Series, subscriptions are still 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.

Rudolf Buchbinder Brings Stunning Mozart to the San Francisco Symphony

Last night pianist Rudolf Buchbinder visited Davies Symphony Hall for the first of four performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 466 concerto in D minor with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). Buchbinder has not played with SFS since 1985, although he was last in Davies in 2010, when he played Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 54 (fourth) concerto in G major with the Dresden Staatskapelle conducted by Daniel Harding. Either way, such a long absence of a pianist with such a solid command of both the technical and the expressive sides of “the Classical style” (to borrow the phrase from Charles Rosen) is regrettable.

The boldness of K. 466 makes it one of the most memorable of the many piano concertos that Mozart wrote. This is not a concerto for the “show-off kid” delightfully strutting his stuff before a wide-eyed audience. Drawing upon the key of D minor, regarded as one of the darkest keys by those who believed that every key carried its own emotional implications, K. 466 is, on just about every imaginable account, music that stuns, rather than dazzles. Yet, while Buchbinder certainly displayed an indubitable capacity to stun, he could to so through the undercurrents of an almost affable patina of elegance. Well aware of how familiar this concerto is, Buchbinder wanted to make sure that he had an attentive audience, rather than one that had come to sit through just another Mozart piano concerto.

With that agenda in mind, MTT served Buchbinder well as conductor. While, he reduced the size of the string section, he also bore in mind the presence of one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, and timpani. In the face of such resources, he made sure that there were enough strings to pack a wallop when Mozart wanted one. At the same time, he and Buchbinder clearly shared an effective sense of balance, recognizing that impact can only come from a few moments of climax. Thus, the first movement of this concerto succeeded through its capacity to establish omens to keep the listener in suspense, rather than to drown him/her in decibels.

Ultimately, an intelligent understanding of contrast determined the success of last night’s program. The outer movements established themselves not only through the darkness of D minor but also through any number of unexpected mood swings, a rhetorical device that was extended into Buchbinder’s decision to perform the cadenzas written out by Ludwig van Beethoven. By contrast, the B-flat major middle movement, which Mozart labeled “Romance,” is almost cloyingly naïve in its rhetoric, as if Mozart wanted to calm down his listeners before subjecting them to the roller coaster ride of the concluding Rondo. This was a performance that appealed to not only the serious listener but also the less-experienced wondering why so much fuss keeps being made about Mozart; and one cannot fault any of the technique through which the “good news” about Mozart was delivered.

The evening began with an oddity based on a familiar anecdote from the life of the young Mozart. This was Gregorio Allegri’s setting of Psalm 51 in Latin (number 50 in the Vulgate), “Miserere mei, Deus” (have mercy on me, Lord). Mozart heard this music sung at the Vatican when he was fourteen years old and then transcribed it all from memory. MTT introduced the piece with this oft-told tale; but a reality check is in order. Like much of Roman Rite music, this setting is based on the technique of a reciting tone, usually called a “psalm tone” when the text is one of the Psalms. This is a technique that goes back at least as far as Gregorian chant practices; but, between the education provided his father and the experiences of going to church, Mozart must have had a solid command of it by the time he was fourteen. Thus, while the music lasts for about twelve minutes, there are only a few minutes of basic material that recurs as the score proceeds through the Psalm text.

In other words this was a relatively routine part of a service at the Vatican. The only thing that made it special was that the music was not supposed to be performed anywhere else; and then a child with a keen wit “broke the code.” However, if the music itself is routine, it was given an impressive performance by the men of the SFS Chorus joined by the high-register voices of the Pacific Boychoir. The main chorus was lined up along the side aisles beside the Side Boxes, physically opposed to four solo singers (two sopranos, one alto, and one baritone) up in the Terrace. The result was a far more spatial account of Allegri’s music than may have ever been experienced at the Vatican, all conducted by Pacific Boychoir Director Kevin Fox. If the music itself was not particularly profound, the “staging” made for a thoroughly memorable listening experience.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for MTT’s approach to Johannes Brahms’s Opus 73 (second) symphony in D major following the intermission. This is Brahms at his best, a shining example of his ability to balance an intricate logic of structure with rhetorical techniques that span a diverse palette of expressive colors. Unfortunately, last night’s performance showed far too little attention to the details behind either of these components; and the overall sound was just plain ragged too much of the time. Furthermore, MTT’s tendency to bathe in the lush sonorities of his performances of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky now seems to have invaded his approaches to Brahms. Tchaikovsky is rarely well served by such techniques, and Brahms suffers even more. All listeners, not just those with a particular love for Brahms’ passionate rhetoric, deserve better.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The First 2016–17 “Sunday of Choices” will be Followed by the First “Weekend of Choices”

Having already provided a heads-up for how busy things will be on November 6, the first Sunday of next month, even more advance warning is shaping up for the following weekend. Not all of these events will overlap, but there is only so much performance that mind can take in on any single day. It is not too early to start making choices for how to spend Friday and Sunday and whether to add Saturday to the mix. Following “Bleeding Edge format,” the options will be placed in chronological order as follows:

Friday, November 11, 12:30 p.m., Cadillac Hotel: This will be the November installment in the (usually) monthly Concerts at the Cadillac series. This month’s offering will feature Tribu, a sextet that combines Latin, Afro-Carribean, and American approaches to jazz into a single show. The band is led by Steve McQuarry from the piano. (This will, of course, be the meticulously restored 1884 Steinway Model D concert grand that graces the Cadillac lobby.) The other members of the band are Ruben Salcido on saxophone and flute, percussionist Dave Casini, who includes the vibraphone among his instruments, Marcus Lopez on bass and vocals, percussionist Ramon Garcia, who specializes in congas and will also sing, and Vincent Heckard on a drum kit (which may be embellished with additional percussion) and also adding to the vocal work.

Like all Concerts at the Cadillac events, this show will last about an hour. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street.  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.”

Friday, November 11, 7 p.m., San Francisco Bay: For “something completely different” The Living Earth Show (TELS) (the duo of Travis Andrews on guitar and Andy Meyerson on percussion) will set out to sea (or at least into San Francisco Bay) with composer Luciano Chessa, who will serve as vocalist for a program entitled Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! This will be an evening-length production described as a “musical setting of perhaps the most homoerotic chapter in great American literature: the 94th chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.” Chessa composed this piece for TELS and scored it for (quoting from the advance material) “microtonal electric guitar and vibraphone, an amplified red Solo cup, electric toothbrushes, voice, megaphone feedback, and a variety of audible theatrical gestures.” Chessa further specified that the only appropriate venue for performance is at sea, so it will be presented aboard a 91-foot-long yacht provided by Commodore Cruises. (Readers know that I tend to be meticulous about limiting the scope of my coverage to the San Francisco city limits, so I have already confirmed with Andrews that most of the performance will take place in San Francisco waters!) The yacht will be converted into a concert venue and art installation by Terry Berliner and will hold 100 audience members.

7 p.m. is the precise time when the yacht will set sail. It will depart from a pier at 2394 Mariner Square Drive in Alameda. All tickets are general admission. Those attending are asked to pay what they can afford, but the sliding scale to use as a point of reference is between $60 and $90. Further information can be found on the Web page created for this program on the TELS Web site.

Friday, November 11, 8 p.m., Old First Church: This will be the first concert presented by the Farallon Quintet in their capacity as Artists-in-Residence for Old First Concerts for the current season. This ensemble consists of the string quartet of violinists Dan Flanagan and Matthew Oshida, violist Elizabeth Prior, and cellist Jonah Kim along with clarinetist Natalie Parker. The main work on the program will be Durwynne Hsieh’s sextet, for which the Farallon players will be joined by pianist Christine McLeavy Payne. That full ensemble will also play Aaron Copland’s sextet and Serge Prokofiev’s Opus 34 “Overture on Hebrew Themes.” The quintet alone will perform Carl Maria von Weber’s Opus 34 clarinet quintet in B-flat major.

The Old First Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Boulevard. General admission will be $20 with discounted rates of $17 for seniors and $5 or full-time students showing valid identification. Children aged twelve and under will still be admitted for free. In addition there is a $2 discount for tickets purchased online in advance from the event page for this concert on the Old First Concerts Web site. 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.

Saturday, November 12, 8 p.m., Herbst Theatre: As of this writing, the only option for Saturday will be the San Francisco performance of the second concert in the 2016–17 season of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO). Australian-Taiwanese violinist Ray Chen will make his debut as guest Concertmaster in a program entitled simply Ray Chen Leads. Chen will supplement his concertmaster duties by also performing as soloist in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 216 violin concerto in G major. There will also be a performance of Edward Elgar’s Opus 47 “Introduction and Allegro,” scored for both string quartet and string ensemble. The string quartet for this work is often composed of the four section leaders. The first half of the program will be devoted to Mozart’s K. 138 divertimento in F major and Benjamin Britten’s Opus 10 set of variations on a theme by his teacher, Frank Bridge. Herbst Theatre is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices will be $29, $49, and $61.

As is usually the case, there will be an Open Rehearsal held in the Kanbar Performing Arts Center at 44 Page Street, a short walk from the Muni Van Ness station. This will take place at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, November 9. All tickets are $15. City Box Office has set up a Web page for all other NCCO ticket purchases. These include the concert, the open rehearsal, and advance purchase of packages for the three-day Anniversary Festival that will be held between May 16 and May 20.

Sunday, November 13, 2 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: This will be the first concert in the 2016–17 season of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO), It will also be the first performance led by the new Wattis Foundation Music Director Christian Reif. The program will feature violinist Jason Moon, 2016 winner of the SFSYO Concerto Competition. He will be soloist in Jean Sibelius’ Opus 47 concerto in D minor. The program will follow the usual overture-concerto-symphony format. The “overture” will actually be the final movement of a three-movement orchestral suite than Hans Werner Henze extracted from his opera The Bassarids (a version of Euripides’ The Bacchae based on a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman), entitled “Maenads’ Dance.” The symphony will be Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 54 (sixth) in B minor.

Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of Grove Street. The Box Office and main entrance are the south side of Grove Street, halfway between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Tickets for this concert are $15 for general admission and $55 for reserved seating. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from the event page for this concert on the San Francisco Symphony Web site. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office or by calling 415-864-6000.

SFSYO will give three more concerts as part of their 2016–17 season. Current plans can now be summarized. The hyperlink for the date and time for each of these is to the corresponding event page as follows:
  1. Sunday, December 11, 11 a.m.: This will be the annual Christmas performance of Serge Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” This year the narrator will be Linda Ronstadt. The program will also include holiday favorites and an audience sing-along. Ticket prices range from $15 to $69.
  2. Sunday, March 5, 2 p.m.: This program will present two symphonies, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 551 (“Jupiter”) in C major and Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 88 in G major, usually numbered as his eighth. The “overture” will be Samuel Barber’s Opus 17, the second piece he called an “essay” for orchestra. Tickets will be $15 for general admission and $55 for reserved seating.
  3. Sunday May 14, 2 p.m.: This will also be a program of two symphonies. It will conclude with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 98 (fourth) in E minor. The intermission will be preceded by the three-movement symphony that Paul Hindemith composed based on themes from his Mathis der Maler opera. The overture will be the second of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Leonore” overtures, Opus 72. Tickets will be $15 for general admission and $55 for reserved seating.
Sunday, November 13, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: This will be the first program in the 2016–17 Concert Season presented by the San Francisco Early Music Society. It will feature Musica Pacifica, a local early music ensemble founded in 1990. The title of the program will be Chiesa and Camera: Virtuoso Vocal and Instrumental Chamber Music From Italy, 1650–1700. The performers will be Judith Linsenberg on recorders, violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, cellist William Skeen, Charles Sherman on harpsichord and organ, John Lenti on theorbo, and countertenor Ryland Angel.

St. Mark’s is 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 purchased of single tickets for all six concerts in the season.

Because this is the first concert of the season, subscriptions are also still on sale. All San Francisco performances take place on Sunday afternoons at 4 p.m. The remaining dates an programs are as follows:
  • December 11: The Archetti string ensemble will present a Baroque Christmas program with the assistance of soprano Clara Rottsolk and trumpeter Kathryn Adduci.
  • January 22: Imaginary Theatre will be a program of instrumental gems from operas by Jean-Philippe Rameau and George Frideric Handel.
  • February 19: The vocal ARTEK ensemble will present a program based on Claudio Monteverdi’s seventh book of madrigals.
  • March 19: SFEMS will celebrate the tenth anniversary of Voices of Music by hosting their performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” setting on a program that will also include motets by Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonio Vivaldi; vocal soloists will be soprano Stefanie True and mezzo Meg Bragle.
  • April 9: Hallifax & Jeffrey is the performing name of the duo of Peter Hallifax and Julie Jeffrey, both playing gamba. They have prepared a program entitled Big, Beautiful and French: Music for Several Viols and Continuo. They will be joined by Marie Dalby Zuts and Josh Lee on gamba with Lenti returning to play theorbo.
There are a variety of options for subscriptions, all of which are summarized on a single Web page.

Sunday, November 13, 4 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: The first concert of the SFEMS season will take place at the same time as the next Noe Valley Chamber Music offering. The Friction Quartet of violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz will be joined by pianist Jenny Q Chai to present the San Francisco premiere of Andy Akiho’s piano quintet. They will also perform Robert Schumann’s Opus 44 piano quintet in E-flat major during the second half of the concert. The program will begin with another composition by Akiho “In/Exchange,” which he scored for steel pan and string quartet. Akiho will join Friction to take the steel pan part.

The Noe Valley Ministry is located at 1021 Sanchez Street, just south of 23rd Street. Tickets are $30 if paid at the door. However, if paid in advance, the charge is $25 for general admission and seniors and $15 for students. Children aged twelve and under are admitted at no charge. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel Leads Off the 2016 Fall San Francisco Performances Salons

Yesterday evening at the Hotel Rex, San Francisco Performances presented the first of its four Salon programs for the fall season. The featured artist was cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, best known to many (most?) in the audience as the founding cellist of the Cypress String Quartet, which disbanded after twenty years of concertizing this past June. Her accompanist was pianist Robert Koenig, who is now her faculty colleague at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she teaches two days out of the week while remaining a resident of San Francisco. She presented a program that sampled two major cello sonatas in two markedly different styles, both introduced and followed by shorter and lighter compositions.

The first sonata was the second of the two Opus 5 sonatas for piano and cello that Ludwig van Beethoven composed during a visit to Berlin in 1796. By way of context, 1796 was the year in which Ataria published the three Opus 2 piano sonatas that Beethoven had dedicated to his former teacher Joseph Haydn. He was just beginning to establish his reputation and was learning a thing or two about promotion. While in Berlin he was introduced to the King of Prussia Frederick William II, whose love of music was closely tied to his own mastery of the cello. The King’s court was frequented by the Duport brothers, both of whom were cellists. Jean-Pierre was one of the King’s teachers; and both he and his brother Jean-Louis played frequently at court. For those who read about the Dover Quartet recording yesterday, this is the same king that paid little attention to the three string quartets sent to him by a cash-desperate Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart near the end of this life.

Beethoven’s encounter with the King’s court was more successful, and it led to his honoring the monarch with original compositions. He had both of his Opus 5 sonatas performed for the King, taking the piano part and playing with one of the Duport brothers. (There is no conclusive evidence as to which Duport played with Beethoven. The Wikipedia page for these sonatas currently favors Jean-Louis.) This provided the composer with ample opportunity to show off his keyboard virtuosity while also providing a platform for the King’s favorite instrument played by one of his favored performers.

In many ways the Opus 5 sonatas owe as much of a debt to Haydn as the Opus 2 piano sonatas do. By 1796 both Mozart (now deceased) and Haydn (still going) had shared an interest in providing an opening Allegro movement of a symphony with an Adagio introduction, perhaps as a reflection back on either the “French overture” structure or the four-movement sonata da chiesa structure of the Baroque period. By the time Haydn wrote his final (“London”) symphony (Hoboken I/104) in 1795, the Adagio had extended to sixteen measures that took on several critical mood shifts. Still in his twenties, Beethoven continued to maintain a strong streak of showing that he could better Haydn at some of the master’s best games; and, as a result, the Adagio sostenuto e espressivo introduction to the G minor sonata performed last night ran to 43 measures with as much thematic diversity as could be found in a “real” Adagio movement and a few false endings thrown in to build up a bit of suspense. Some might even choose to call this a movement unto itself, but it is clear from the way it ends that it was intended as an introduction to the Allegro molto più tosto presto that follows. (For the record, the first movement of the second Opus 5 sonata is the longest movement found in any of Beethoven’s five cello sonatas.)

Beethoven was clearly trying to impress the King with music whose attention to dramatic qualities was as strong as its commitment to virtuosity. Yesterday evening’s performance could not have scored better on both counts. This proved to establish the full power of the chemistry between Kloetzel and Koenig, both of whom had a generous amount of weight to carry (and this movement was the only part of the two-movement sonata that they performed). Curiously, they chose to couple this ambitious undertaking with an equally ambitious result of another composer writing in his late twenties but from an entirely different era. The composer was Sergei Rachmaninoff; and his Opus 19 G minor cello sonata (the same key as the second Opus 5 Beethoven sonata) was composed in 1901, the same year in which he wrote what is probably his best-known piece, his Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor.

While Kloetzel and Koenig presented the opening of the Beethoven sonata, they played the final two movements (Andante and Allegro molto) of the Rachmaninoff. The Andante is particularly engaging with his rich texture of polyrhythmic superpositions and a melodic line for the cello that weaves its way within the dense counterpoint on the piano. By way of contrast the final movement settles into a more conventional structure in which both cello and piano have ample opportunity to soar through a diversity of highly melodic themes. As was recently observed on this site, Rachmaninoff made it a point to treat cello and piano as equal partners in this sonata. Those who know this sonata could appreciate just how effective this combination was in last night’s performance. Hopefully, those just getting to know the piece came away with a craving to listen to the other two movements.

The opening selection came from Gaspar Cassadó’s Collection de six morceaux classiques (collection of six classical pieces), which Universal Edition published in 1925. Cassadó attributed each of these pieces to a “classical” composer; and Kloetzel selected the “Toccata” attributed to Girolamo Frescobaldi. The other composers in the collection were Franz Schubert, Luigi Boccherini, François Couperin, Gottlieb Muffat, and Martin Berteau, the last known for his études for solo cello. Cassadó added a piano accompaniment for one of those études, but the only other composer whose actually music is included in this collection is Muffat. Thus, the toccata movement is entirely original Cassadó; but, questions of authenticity aside, the music provided a first-rate way to light a fire to stimulate listening to the sonata movements that would follow.

The concluding selection was one of three rhapsodies that Alberto Ginastera composed to evoke the pampas of Argentina. Each was given the name “Pampeana;” and the second was scored for cello and piano. In the manner of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies, the music spans a variety of different moods, each of which captures a different aspect of these wide-open plains. However, Ginastera is best known for his intricate rhythmic patterns; and these made for an impressive display in the final section. During the following Q&A both Kloetzel and Koenig gave their own thoughts about the intense concentration required to negotiate that complexity; but the music certainly made for the perfect razzle-dazzle conclusion to an impressively diverse program.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

November will Begin with the First “Sunday of Choices” in the 2016–17 Season

Those who used to follow my articles on know that, at a certain point, the season starts to get so busy that specific days, particularly those on the weekend, require making hard choices. I can remember when such “density” of events usually did not arise until late winter or early spring; but I recall writing at least one “hard choices” article about a year ago. This season the first Sunday in November is the one that will require choices. As reported yesterday, this will be the date of the first revival performance of the 2014 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly by the San Francisco Opera. However, given that this will be the first of ten opportunities, there are three other alternatives worth considering, all of which happen to begin at 3 p.m. The options are as follows:
  1. Old First Concerts will celebrate its 46th year with a special benefit event. This is being called a Piano Party & Champagne Reception. Both the acoustics of Old First Church and the Old First Concerts series have served pianists well and offered them a fine Steinway instrument. The Piano Party will thus feature eight well-known Bay Area musicians who have played this instrument for Old First Concerts. The performers will include Sarah Cahill, Luciano Chessa, William Wellborn, Daniel Glover, Peter Grunberg, Heidi Hau, Mack McCray and  Robert Schwartz. Chessa will play his own solo piano arrangement of the “Siciliana” movement from his partita. The program will also include selected preludes by Claude Debussy, excerpts from George Lewis’ Endless Shout, and some of Mikhail Pletnev’s transcriptions of music from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet The Nutcracker, as well as selected pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, Adolf Schulz-Evler, and others. This concert will begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, November 6. The Old First Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Boulevard. General admission will be $35 (including seniors) with a $10 charge for full-time students showing valid identification. Children aged twelve and under will still be admitted for free. Tickets may be purchased online from the event page for this concert on the Old First Concerts Web site. 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.
  2. At the same time Symphony Parnassus will be giving the first concert of its 2016–17 season. The featured soloist will be mezzo Silvie Jensen, who will perform in two compositions by Gustav Mahler. In the first half of the program she will sing the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer) a cycle of four songs that Mahler composer for his own texts. The second half of the program will be devoted to Mahler’s fourth symphony with Jensen taking the vocal part in the last of the four movements. The program will begin with the rollicking overture that Leonard Bernstein composed for the musical Candide. This 3 p.m. concert on Sunday, November 6 will take place at Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Tickets are $25 with a $20 rate for seniors aged 65 and older and a $10 rate for those under the age of 26. Tickets may be purchased from a City Box Office event page. In addition, because this is the first concert of the season, subscriptions are also on sale for $75. These may be purchased from a separate Web page, which has hyperlinks providing information about the remaining concerts in the season.
  3. Finally, the Morrison Chamber Music Center will be presenting the second concert in this season’s annual Morrison Artists Series. This will be a visit from Washington, DC of four members of the Inscape ensemble, a quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. They will perform the composition best associated with this instrumentation, Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour le fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time). They will also play a more recent work requiring the same instruments, Paul Moravec’s “Tempest Fantasy,” which won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Music. This concert will begin at 3 p.m. in the Creative Arts Building at San Francisco State University a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. Tickets are free but advance registration is highly desirable. An event page has been created showing which seats in the McKenna Theatre are currently available. As usual, there will be a pre-concert talk at 2 p.m.; and the Inscape musicians will give a Master Class at noon in Knuth Recital Hall, also in the Creative Arts Building and open to the general public at no charge.

Dover Quartet Makes Recording Debut with Mozart and a Guest Artist

About two weeks ago Cedille Records released the debut album of the Dover Quartet. The members of this ensemble, which was formed by students at the Curtis Institute of Music in 2008, are violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. The title of the album is Tribute; and the tribute is to the members of the Guarneri Quartet, who had served as both teachers and coaches when the Dover Quartet was first forming and building an initial repertoire.

The tribute begins with the content of the album, which consists entirely of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This is the 50th anniversary year of the recording debut of the Guarneri Quartet on RCA Red Seal; and that debut also consisted of an all-Mozart album. In addition, the “Guarneri connection” is further enhanced with the appearance of Guarneri violist Michael Tree on the final selection, the K. 406 quintet in C minor. The preceding two selections are Mozart’s final two string quartets, K. 589 in B-flat major and K. 590 in F major. These are two of the three quartets that an impoverished Mozart wrote for King Frederick William II of Prussia in the hope of receiving some form of stipend or appointment. Sadly, the King gave little through to the gift after it was presented to him.

As tributes go, this album is definitely a good one. The Dover players have clearly learned much from their teachers, and it is difficult to fault the elegantly polished sonorities they bring to their three Mozart selections. They also display a keen sensitivity to any marks on the score pages beyond the notes themselves, concerned with such matters as dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. The group is now faculty quartet in residence at the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University; and, both individually and collectively, it is clear that they are poised to serve as the next generation of teachers and coaches.

Nevertheless, there is a historical aspect of this repertoire that never quite came through on this recording. It involves the extent to which a string quartet was a social gathering of four performers, rather than a group created to play in front of an audience. When we think about the quartets composed by Mozart and his colleague Joseph Haydn, we need to remember that they themselves played together in a quartet (Mozart on viola and Haydn on second violin), along with Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf on first violin and Johann Baptist Wanhal on cello. When we take in Haydn’s many quartets and, particularly, the six quartets the Mozart dedicated to Haydn, it is easy to imagine this group seated in some sort of living room, exchanging not only gestural cues but a fair number of knowing smiles in recognition of a particularly clever turn of phrase.

In other words these are quartets in which a thorough knowledge of how it was documented in the past must yield at least some priority to how it is being made in the immediate present. Recordings seldom capture just how exciting the social dynamics of “making” can be; and, for that matter, those dynamics can also get lost in a large performing space in a situation that only exists thanks to an audience of “paying customers.” Often the closest one can get to the social dimension of the Classical period will be in a conservatory setting where the presence of an audience is, at best, incidental.

Thus, the Dover debut recording is somewhat at a disadvantage for presenting familiar repertoire in a setting in which that social dimension cannot be effectively communicated. Because I know this group will be performing in San Francisco this coming Sunday, I also know that there is far more to their repertoire than Mozart quartets. Perhaps their debut recording should have been less concerned with tribute and more with compositions better suited to the constraints imposed by recording technology.

Bicoastal Blowback

Elizabeth Drew's latest dispatch for NYR Daily on the current election follies is entitled "Down Goes Trump." She leads with the assertion that, as far as Donald Trump was concerned, the whole electoral process was "another tool for promoting himself," taking his own reality TV show to the next level, so to speak. If that is the case, then it may well be that "real reality" is thwarting his objective. This morning the ABC7 News Web site has a story about Trump's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame having been vandalized. A photograph is included, and the job seems to have been thorough. (The article also mentioned an artist who had built a little wall around Trump's star; but brute force seems to have trumped, so to speak, subtlety!) Even better in my book, however, is the following sentence from Drew's article:
His opulent new five-star hotel in Washington that he’s showed off in campaign events has rooms going begging even at heavily discounted rates, and tenants in two of his residences on New York’s Upper West Side have signed petitions asking that his name be removed from their buildings.
A star on Hollywood Boulevard is little more than symbolism. Blowback on the East Coast seems to be much more a matter of substance!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Lara Downes Previews her Latest Solo Album at Noontime Concerts

This Friday Sono Luminus will release pianist Lara Downes’ latest solo album. As is usually the case, is currently accepting pre-orders for those who can’t wait. The title of the album is America Again, which was taken from the poem “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1938 by Langston Hughes. While it is all too easy to associate the phrase with the current election-year climate (particularly since Hughes was never one to mince words on matters of politics and race), it is worth noting that America has long been a dominant theme in the recordings Downes has made. Thus, there is her American Ballads album, which dates back to 2001, and her far more recent A Billie Holiday Songbook, released in March of 2015. For that matter, almost all of the composers represented on her 2011 album 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg are American; and many of the exiles in her Exiles’ Cafe album found their exile in the United States. In other words Downes has built up a recital repertoire through which she has become a champion of American composers, both those born here and those who made this country their second home. The title of her new album basically reassures us that she is still at it.

None of this is intended to dismiss the Hughes connection to this album. Over the course of twenty compositions, Downes’ album offers a perspective of the American dream that, like Hughes poetry, acknowledges its elusive qualities. As a result, most (but not all) of the composers included constitute departures from the mainstream at such a distance that most of us need to be reminded just who they were. Thus, the album includes Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s arrangement of “Deep River,” from a more extensive volume he compiled of solo piano arrangements of African American spirituals. Closer to the present is “Sueno Recurrente,” composed in 2002 by Angélica Negrón, born in Puerto Rico and now living in Brooklyn. Other female composers on the album include Amy Beach (“From Blackbird Hills”) and Florence Price (“Fantasie Negre”).

This is not to suggest that all of the tracks are likely to be unfamiliar to most listeners. Scott Joplin is there with his “Gladiolus Rag;” and the final track is Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.” However, there are also some arrangements that definitely deserve special attention. “I Loves You Porgy” from George Gershwin’s only opera Porgy and Bess, is included but in an arrangement by Nina Simone. Similarly, Downes chose to play Art Tatum’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” I have to confess that, as a listener, I cannot get enough of Tatum; but I feel the same way about Lou Harrison. So the inclusion of his set of three New York Waltzes was a personal delight.

This afternoon at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, Downes was the Noontime Concerts (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) recitalist. She used the occasion to preview two of the tracks from America Again. The first of these was the “Deep River,” preceded by the explanation that Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer (without emphasizing the Creole side of his ancestry). Thus, his interest in African American spirituals could be compared with Béla Bartók seeking out folk music from Romania and other eastern European lands to add to the sources he had gathered from Hungary. Coleridge-Taylor’s style, however, is closer to Franz Liszt than to Bartók; and Downes’ account of his rich approach to embellishment and invention was highly absorbing.

By way of contrast, she then turned to the first track on her album, Morton Gould’s “American Caprice.” There was no mistaking the sassy “American” qualities of this music from a man who, in his day, was more frequently associated with music for programs broadcast on both radio and television. However, his roots go back to Tin Pan Alley and a versatility that enabled him to do just about anything to pick up wages during the Great Depression.

Downes then turned to Gould’s “elder,” George Gershwin. (As a conductor Gould became a great champion of Gershwin’s “serious” music.) She played the arrangement for solo piano that Gershwin himself made of his score for “Rhapsody in Blue.” This has a few departures from the original version, none of which mar the thoroughly American spirit of this music, which seems to be able to survive anything, even being mangled by United Airlines. This is also music that Downes recorded; and her “singles” release is still available for download from She then remained with Gershwin for her encore, performing that Simone arrangement of “I Loves You Porgy.”

Finally, it is worth noting that Coleridge-Taylor’s somewhat Lisztian approach to “Deep River” was given an unabashedly nineteenth-century “overture.” Downes began her recital with four of the short pieces that Robert Schumann collected in his Opus 12 Fantasiestücke (fantasy pieces). These were given accounts that were appropriately expressive, thus setting the context for Coleridge-Taylor’s own rhetorical stance, while also “phasing in” the audience with a more familiar bill of fare.

Next Month Jun Kaneko’s Imaginative Japanese Designs for Puccini will Return to SFO

Next month San Francisco Opera (SFO) will alternate its performances of a new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida with one of the most impressively designed stagings of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly to have come to the War Memorial Auditorium. The designs were provided by Jun Kaneko, who first established his reputation here with a highly imaginative approach to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. His Butterfly designs were first seen in June of 2014 through a co-production with Opera Omaha. Once again the stage director will be Leslie Swackhamer. Yves Abel will conduct all but the last performance, which will be led by Resident Conductor Jordi Bernàcer. The SFO Chorus will be directed by Ian Robertson.

The title role will be sung by Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian, who made her SFO debut in 2014 in the title role of another Puccini opera, Tosca. On that occasion she succeeded admirably in bringing human substance to a role that often seems to be little more than a cardboard player in a melodramatic potboiler. When this particular Butterfly was first performed, Swackhamer succeeded impressively in transcending the melodramatic; so there will be much to expect from what Haroutounian brings to her role. The role of B. F. Pinkerton will be taken by the Italian tenor Vincenzo Costanzo, who will be making a much-anticipated American debut. The role of Sharpless, the United States consul stationed in Nagasaki, will be sung by American baritone Anthony Clark Evans; and Adler Fellow and mezzo Zanda Švēde will take the role of Butterfly’s maid Suzuki.

Madama Butterfly will be given ten performances, all sung in Italian with English supertitles. These will take place at 2 p.m. on November 6 and and December 4 and at 7:30 p.m. on November 9, 12, 15, 18, 22, 26, and 29 and December 1. As always, the venue will be the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Single tickets are priced from $26 to $397 (subject to change). 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.

Words and Music Never Quite Come Together in the Joint Volti/LCCE Concert

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Volti and the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) joined forces for a collective launch of their respective 2016–2017 seasons. The program consisted of four compositions, each by a different composer but based on the text of one or more letters. The opening and closing selections were world premieres, both written on joint commissions by Volti and LCCE. The intermission was preceded by a string quartet composed 88 years ago by Leoš Janáček and followed by an a cappella choral work written about seven years ago by David Lang.

The string quartet also provided the only instrumental resources for the two commissioned works. The players were Artistic Director Anna Presler on first violin, Phyllis Kamrin on second violin, Artistic Advisor Kurt Rohde on viola, and Leighton Fong on cello. The Volti vocal resources involved sixteen singers under the leadership of Artistic Director Robert Geary, four each in the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass ranges.

The title of the concert was A Close Correspondence, which was certainly rich in multiple meanings. Likewise, the texts themselves were rich in meaning, often by virtue of some highly imaginative blends of denotation and connotation. Perhaps “meaning” is too neutral a descriptive noun in this case, since every text selection deployed its own unique approach to the expression of intense passion with love and death being the primary topics.

Sadly, the composer best equipped at such expression turned out to be the only one no longer living and the only one who did not work with words explicitly. Janáček assigned the title “Intimate Letters” to his second string quartet, which was completed about two months before his death in August of 1928. HIs first string quartet had been composed in 1923 and amounted to a “narration” of Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, an intensely passionate account of a love triangle. “Intimate Letters,” on the other hand, is “about” an equally passionate correspondence that Janáček began shortly after “informally” divorcing his wife Zdenka. His correspondent was Kamila Stösslová, married and 38 years his junior.

It is important to note that pretty much all of the passion in this correspondence was on Janáček’s side. Stösslová was not unhappy in her marriage, but she did not try to reject Janáček. Thus, to a great extent, the “correspondence” was more monologue than dialogue; and Janáček seems to have written the quartet as an alternative channel for that monologue. In other words the quartet is not so much “about” the letters themselves as it is about the state of mind in which Janáček wrote his letters to Stösslová.

The LCCE players did an impressive job of evoking that state of mind. Clearly, they had a lot of help from the composer; and those fortunate enough to have seen the current San Francisco Opera production of Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Affair would be able to notice that his techniques for superposing repetitive structures work just as well on a string quartet as they do on a full orchestra. There was a fearlessness in last night’s performance that both admirably captured the composer’s tenuous grip on the reality behind his amorous aspirations and approached the execution of his score pages with intense concentration.

Unfortunately, when words themselves became part of the performance, the result turned out to be rather bloodless. The problem may have been that none of the contemporary composers on the program managed to establish an affinity for the texts they had selected that reflected the same level of understanding that Janáček had brought to his own personal state of mind. Curiously, the least bloodless of these efforts turned out to be the most abstract.

This was David Lang’s “a father’s love,” one of the movements from his battle hymns collection of songs about war. The text is a long and highly poignant letter by an officer in the Union army written to his wife only a week before the first Battle of Bull Run, where he and many of his fellow soldiers would be killed. In that text one can experience the writer, Sullivan Ballou, trying to keep a “stiff upper lip,” writing about death with almost dispassionate objectivity, but never letting go of the emotional intensity of the sense of loss he knows will come over the rest of his family.

Lang’s abstraction involved deconstructing the text into short phrases and then ordering all of those phrases alphabetically to serve as his libretto. The text is basically chanted, albeit in harmony, first by the ensemble. Then individual solo voices break off to chant the text at difference speeds. Finally, they are joined by a vocal quartet, proceeding through the text at yet another speed. The result is an amorphous cloud of words through which mind struggles to find meaning. One might almost take the composition as a metaphor for another notorious metaphor, “the fog of war.” Before leading Volti in the performance of “a father’s love,” Geary read the source text in its entirety. This probably set a suitable context; but, while Ballou’s writing style now sounds more than a little dated, Lang seems to have found a way to return to an emotional core that is as strong now as it was in 1861.

Sadly, neither of the commissioned composers managed to rise to a similar level of understanding of the texts being used. Onur Türkmen’s “but you alone” set a stanza by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe incorporated in one of the poet’s amorous letters. Unfortunately, it was hard to tell whether the English translation Türkmen was using did justice to the German source. (Few of them do, and the same could be said of the rather flat reading of that English given by Volti Board President Richard J. Collier prior to the performance.) However, the issue of translation quality was probably moot, since Türkmen seemed to have reduced his task to a setting of syllables from which any evidence of semantics at the level of either words or phrases was a result of pure coincidence. Similarly, while Türkmen was apparently working with a tuning system based on just intonation, the sense of pitch from both voices and instruments turned out to be too muddled for that decision to have much significance.

The other composer was Mark Winges, whose “Letters” concluded the program. Each of the three movements involved words of different correspondents. The first was a setting of Latin excerpts from Peter Abelard and Héloïse. This was followed by English translations of passages from the letters of Janáček and Stösslová, and the third movement concluded with fragments of passages by Virginia Woolf.

Winges made some opening remarks about the overall fast-slow-fast structure of his piece. Sadly, his attempt to give each movement its own “vocal character” never really hit the mark. Furthermore, as had been the case in “but you alone,” the composer’s relationship to the text rarely seemed to rise about the level of the syllable. Thus, while one could read the text sheets and “see” the intensity of emotion behind the words set by their respective authors, none of that expression seemed to emerge from last night’s performance.

Last night’s program may have been conceived as a “grand experiment;” but, if all experiments worked out according to plan, then they would not really be experiments!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Nicolas Horvath’s Philip Glass Project Advances to its Fifth Volume

A little over a week ago, Grand Piano released the fifth volume of Glassworlds, the project of pianist Nicolas Horvath to record the solo piano works of Philip Glass. The title of the album is Enlightenment. It features the longest uninterrupted track (a little over 40 minutes) that Horvath has recorded to date. This is “600 Lines,” one of the first two pieces composed for the Philip Glass Ensemble in 1968 and originally scored for winds and synthesizer. This album is the premiere recording of the composition performed as a piano solo.

As I have previously written, my own first contact with Glass took place at a performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in the spring of 1970. There were three pieces on the program, each about twenty minutes in duration; and I have tried to reconstruct what they were. On the basis of sources I have consulted, my current conjecture is that they were “Music in Similar Motion,” “Music with Changing Parts,” and “Music in Fifths.” This was my first exposure to Glass’ “music with repetitive structures” technique. It did not take me long to “get it;” and, back in those days when there was a serious threat that making music might get taken over by abstract mathematicians (I was writing a doctoral dissertation in applied mathematics at the time), Glass’ music was a welcome breath of fresh air.

I wonder if I would have reacted to Glass quite as positively had my very first experience been of the uninterrupted 40 minutes of “600 Lines.” I suspect that the mathematician in me would have been fascinated with its almost obsessive approach to working with a bare minimum of motivic material that is then subjected to extensive permutation and combination. The question, however, is whether I would have succumbed to enough-is-enough exasperation before the piece had concluded; and that question would be coupled with just when that sense of “enough” overtook my listening capacity.

I find it interesting that there is no mention about the signification of the title “600 Lines” on the Philip Glass Web site, either in Glass’ own notes for the Compositions section or in those by Ivan Moody for the Alter Ego recording Web page. In contrast to the rethinking of counterpoint and harmony that I had encountered at the Guggenheim, “600 Lines” is obsessively monodic, consisting entirely of what at least can be notated as a single line. I use that hedge phrase because there is a plethora examples of how Johann Sebastian Bach could write something that way that still embodied elaborate structures of both counterpoint and harmony. Whether it is possible to find 600 separate “lines” in “600 Lines” may be a challenge for analysis; but I am not sure that the results would have much impact on the listening experience.

This takes us back to the enough-is-enough issue. I think that age has granted me a gift of greater patience when dealing with extended durations. Those who have been following me for some time know of the satisfaction I can get from listening to the symphonies of Anton Bruckner; and, while there is no mistaking Glass for Bruckner, it may be that the stance of the listener does not have to vary as much as one might suspect. Both of these composers are best enjoyed by the listener willing to let go of any “conventional” expectations and just let things happen. If one simply accepts a rhetoric in which repetitions are frequent but are consistently transformed into new repetitions, one can actually settle rather comfortably into the act of listening to “600 Lines” without succumbing to the enough-is-enough syndrome. Some Zen monk might call this a state of “enlightenment,” which might explain Horvath’s choice of title for the album; but, personally, I see no reason to let verbal semantics interfere with this particular approach to music-making.

The other major work on the album is “Mad Rush,” whose duration is about half that of “600 Lines.” Grand Piano’s advance material for this piece describes the structure as “something like a hidden sonata form.” This strikes me as being more appropriate for a graduate student in a desperate search for a thesis topic than for setting a context for the curious and sympathetic listener. “Mad Rush” may have had its origins in the classical concept of preceding an opening allegro movement with an adagio introduction; but, on the full twenty-minute scale of “Mad Rush,” structure comes down to the tension of oscillation between two senses of pace. (The noun “tempo” sounds a bit too dispassionate for music whose rhetoric comes off as far more personal.)

This is music most likely to resonate with anyone living in a major metropolis. The title refers to the inevitable chaotic hustle and bustle that a pedestrian is likely to encounter on just about any street, and Glass captures that with repetitive arpeggios that almost depict that street scene as Brownian motion. (Think of how many of the visual images captured by Godfrey Reggio in Koyaanisqatsi, accompanied by Glass’ music, can be taken, when seen from the distance that Reggio establishes, as Brownian motion.) In that “metropolitan” setting, the alternating adagio sections may be taken as the quiet seclusion of solitude.

All of this unfolds as yet another instance of Glass working with repetitive structures. However, Horvath plays this music with considerable attention to the dynamic level of every note, even within the thickest textures of superimposed arpeggios. Thus, it does not take long for the attentive listener to realize that, while the structures of the marks on the score page may be repetitive, the performance itself has a rhetorical shape of its own that enhances the surface structure of repetition with the deep structure of something more like a journey. This may be what the writers of the advance material had in mind for “a hidden sonata form;” but I have my doubts!

Not too long ago I was fortunate enough to listening to Glass himself play “Mad Rush” at a special Gala concert honoring the retirement of Ruth Felt, founder and President Emeritus of San Francisco Performances. Glass has observed that he has written piano music to keep his hands in shape as he gets older. However, his performance of “Mad Rush” was more than a “therapeutically” elaborate five-finger exercise; and it did not take long for me to settle into thinking about this music as a journey. Horvath’s recording seems to be thinking along the same lines; and, for all of my preferences for listening to music in a concert setting, the version of “Mad Rush” on this album comes very close to being just as satisfying as my recent “live” experience.

“Mad Rush” and “600 Lines” are separated by the second of the five “Metamorphosis” pieces that Glass composed for solo piano in 1988. Horvath had already recorded this as part of piano versions of the complete set (all of which began as instrumental compositions) in the third volume of his project. I am not sure that there is a need for two separate performances of this piece (and, given the times on the track listenings, they appear to be distinct performances); but the idea of a “spacer” between the two long works on the album is definitely appreciated. Somewhat more amusing is the “coda” for the album, which is Glass’ own arrangement of Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence,” whose primary objective seems to be to assure the listener that Glass can be as comfortable with schmaltzy rhetoric as any other composer! One might almost call the arrangement a “remembrance of things Lisztian” (even if the point of reference would probably be late Liszt)!

The Bleeding Edge: 10/24/2016

Most of this week’s action will be taking place, as previously reported, at the Center for New Music (C4NM), culminating in special performances for Halloween weekend. There are only two items to add to the C4NM agenda. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, October 27, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: This week’s installment of the Luggage Store Creative (LSC) Music Series will consist of two sets of small-group improvisations. The first set will be taken by saxophonists Ari Brown and Tom Weeks. They will be followed by the EGW Trio of Karl Evangelista on guitar, Jordan Glenn on drums, and Francis Wong on saxophone. 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 with all LSC concerts, admission will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

Friday, October 28, 8 p.m., Turquoise Yantra Grotto (TYG): The next house concert at the Turquoise Yantra Grotto will combine piano solos in ensemble improvisations with a strong bias towards live electronic music. The performers will be the Tender Buttons trio, whose pianist in Tania Chen. For the electronic improvisations Chen will be joined by Gino Robair and Tom Djll. The title of the program will be Deconstructed/Reconstructed, reflecting back on “classic electronic musics in a swarm of devices and languages” and rethinking these sources for in-the-moment improvisation. TYG is located at 32 Turquoise Way. Admission is between $10 and $15.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Thoughts on the Impressive Conducting of Janáček for the San Francisco Opera

This was the afternoon when I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for a second experience of the current revival production of Leoš Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos in Czech, the language of the libretto) by the San Francisco Opera. Only two performances remain, which is a bit of a pity, since this is one of those productions that fires on all cylinders in every sense of that metaphor. This afternoon was my opportunity to divide my attention between the stage and the orchestra pit, since I could not hope for a better view of the conductor and a generous proportion of the instrumental ensemble.

As has already been observed, the production is serving as the SFO debut for Russian Mikhail Tatarnikov. Janáček’s instrumental writing is frequently perplexing, particularly when it involves some kind of narrative element. On more modest scales this is evident even at the level of his chamber music, in which he dwells on not only complex amorous relationships but also the wistful recollection of his own youth (“youth” being the English translation of the title of his wind sextet). On a larger instrumental scale there is his symphonic distillation of Nikolai Gogol’s novella about Taras Bulba into a three-movement composition he called a “rhapsody.” However, the operas constitute a category that rises above the abstraction of narrative in strictly instrumental language; and Janáček’s thoughts about dramatic text were as deep as his thoughts about music. Consequently, as is the case with The Makropulos Affair, he frequently wrote his own librettos.

As has previously been observed, much of the dramatic tension of The Makropulos Affair arises from the deft balancing of the extraordinary with the mundane. However, when one begins to consider what is going on in the orchestra pit, one recognizes another balancing act that is equally impressive. This is the way in which the setting of the text is approached with what amounts to a prose-like delivery in the foreground, while the orchestra is occupied with a prodigious amount of activity all in the interest of establishing a background. Put another way, the orchestra is less concerned with accompanying the vocalists and more with serving as an adjunct to the scenery in establishing the overall setting. This would explain why Janáček should make such extensive use of repetitive structures as a rhetorical device. In acknowledging this compositional technique, the conductor Jiří Bělohlávek suggested that one could find elements of Philip Glass in a Janáček score; but, with due respect to such a capable Janáček interpreter, I would suggest that Steve Reich might be a more appropriate point of reference.

Janáček not only deploys repetitive structures; but also, in his instrumental parts for The Makropulos Affair, the attentive listener is likely to detect a variety of different repetitive structures all churning away simultaneously. Some may share a common pulse but establish different rhythms through varying stress patterns, while others may draw on entirely different pulse frequencies. A conductor who is not aware of the patterns beneath what, on the surface, appears to be what William James liked to call a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” runs the risk of passing that confusion on to the listener. Tatarnikov, on the other hand, knew how to manage the balance of the different sources of those repetitive structures, allowing first one and then another to rise above the underlying texture in which those sources are merely superposed. In other words Tatarnikov took it the duty of the conductor to guide the listener through the many patterns that Janáček has deployed. It was evident in the orchestral introduction that he knew how to do this, and he managed to keep it up for the entire score of the opera while undertaking a similar balancing act with all the vocalists at the same time. Instead of enthusiastic applause (which he definitely received this afternoon), he deserves an Olympic gold medal for a biathlon event!

Erik Satie’s Encounter with Aristotle

I recently decided that I needed a better acquaintance with the “Nicomachean Ethics” of Aristotle, when, through a footnote, I discovered that it was the source of one of my favorite quotes (first encountered, along with attribution to Aristotle, by reading Pogo):
For one swallow does not make a summer
This morning I found another fascinating connection, although it would not surprise me if the connection were an accidental one. It has to do with an observation that usually seems to be attributed to Erik Satie, which is the music is what happens at concerts. Unless I am mistaken, I first learned about this from John Cage int he summer of 1968; and it has stuck with me ever since then. (It even showed up on this site back in April of 2012.)

The “Aristotle connection” has to do with his thoughts about how doing is necessary for learning. One of his examples is that one becomes a lyre-player by playing the lyre. In a more general sense this means that one becomes a music-maker by making music; and, to move into Satie’s domain, another version would be that one becomes a concert performer by giving performances in concert settings. This is a favorite topic of mine, because it offers yet another perspective on the need to establish a verb-based foundation (as opposed to a noun-based one that is grounded only in objects and attributes, just like entries in a database) whenever we try to talk about music in a productive way. It is not just that both making and listening to music are inextricably anchored to the fundamental flow of time; it is also that our very knowledge of music (a word I try to use with great delicacy) cannot be abstracted away from that same temporal flow through noun-based “representations” of “concepts,” “notations,” or “documents.”

This is a stance that I encountered many years ago in a book that I still value highly by Donald A. Schön, whose full title is The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. In his coy way, Satie was basically saying that, if you want to know what music is, pay attention to how a music-maker (be (s)he performer, composers, or even improviser) is “thinking in action.” If you can think that way, then you, too, can give concerts and be recognized as a music-maker!