Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Rostropovich the Concertante Soloist on Deutsche Grammophon

With all due respect to Deutsche Grammophon, the recorded legacy of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was solidly established in January of 2009 with the release of The Complete EMI Recordings, a box set consisting of 26 CDs and 2 DVDs. It is hard to match the repertoire covered by this collection, particularly with regard to the twentieth century, in the domains of both chamber music and concertante compositions. To be fair, however, in compiling this collection EMI was able to appropriate the archives of recordings of performances in Russia made between 1980 and 1974. These included two significant concert recordings made in the presence of the composer, Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 119 cello sonata in C major with Sviatoslav Richter at the piano and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 126 (second) cello concerto in G major with Evgeni Svetlanov conducting the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. There is also the 1964 world premiere recording of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 68 cello symphony with Britten himself conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.

Nevertheless, the release at the beginning of this year of Mstislav Rostropovich: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, a box set of 37 CDs, makes it clear that the EMI collection can definitely not be taken as the last word on Rostropovich. The breadth of repertoire may not be quite as extensive, but there are definitely selections of historical significance that cannot afford to be overlooked. In addition, this collection offers recordings of Rostropovich serving as both conductor and piano accompanist, aspects of his career that never found their way onto EMI recordings.

As in the past, this site will deal with the entire collection by dividing it into “thematic chunks.” The current article will deal with Rostropovich as a concertante soloist. This will be followed by his chamber music recordings, saving the conductor/accompanist recordings for the last (which is also how they have been arranged in the box).

If the EMI recordings were distinguished by the presence of composers as adventurous as Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, and Astor Piazzolla, one of the most adventurous of the group was notably missing. During the last months of his life, Olivier Messiaen had been composing a concerto for four musicians that he particularly admired. One of them was his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod; and another was Rostropovich. The other two were oboist Heinz Holliger and flutist Catherine Cantin. Loriod only discovered Messiaen’s work on this piece after his death. It had been planned as five movements, four of which were substantially complete. Loriod collaborated with George Benjamin to prepare a performing version of those four movements, which was given its premiere in September of 1994. Myung-Whun Chung (whose name was added to the list of dedicatees) conducted the world premiere with the Orchestre de l’Opera Bastille. The recording of that premiere performance was released by Deutsche Grammophon the following year.

To be clear, this recording should definitely not be treated as some historical oddity. Having had the good fortune to listen to Chung conduct Messiaen during a visit to the San Francisco Symphony at the beginning of 2008, I have particularly strong feelings that this is a man who knows his Messiaen. We should also remember that this was far from the first time that Messiaen set about to compose music for individuals who happened to be close to his heart. The “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time) could not be a better example. Thus, while some may criticize this “valedictory concerto” as being a bit thin in its thematic and textural material, one can definitely appreciate the composer’s awareness of the voices he wished to have express themselves through this particular score.

Equally significant is the presence of Paul Sacher in this collection. Sacher is probably best known for commissioning many of the most significant compositions of the twentieth century, but his interest in earlier music was as strong as his support of modernism. (Sacher was the conductor on my own first “complete Brandenburg” recording.) In 1977 he made a series of four concerto recordings with Rostropovich and the Collegium Musicum Zürich. These included two concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and one each by Giuseppe Tartini and Luigi Boccherini. Cadenzas for both of these latter concertos were provided by Rostropovich himself, and the Vivaldi concertos include a harpsichord continuo performed by Martin Dernugs. These performances may not have been “historically informed” in the strictest sense of that phrase; but they offer refreshing instances of highly personalized approaches to performance.

It is also worth noting that there is one Decca recording in this collection. This has Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra in a 1964 “follow-up” performance of the Opus 68 cello symphony, along with Joseph Haydn’s C major cello concerto (Hoboken VIIb/1). (In this case the cadenzas for the Haydn were composed by Britten.) Curiously enough the presence of Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic is limited to a single CD that includes Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 concerto in B minor and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 33 “Rococo” variations. However, like the few other CDs in the concertante category, there are recordings that fall in the “nice to have,” rather than the “must have,” category. Such recordings are expected in large collections, and it is more important to dwell on the outstanding virtues.

Tekla Cunningham will Give the First Free ABS Master Class at SFCM

Every season American Bach Soloists (ABS) joins forces with the Historical Performance Department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) by offering a series of three master classes for SFCM students. This year the first of these master classes will be led by ABS violinist Tekla Cunningham. She will coach four students in performing solo works composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. Two of the students will be violinists, along with one violist and one cellist.

This master class will take place at 7:30 p.m. this coming Monday, February 6. The class will be held in the Osher Salon, on the lower floor of SFCM, located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. Admission will be free, and no tickets will be required.

The remaining two master classes will also take place on Monday evenings at 7:30 p.m. in the Osher Salon. Steven Lehning will coach continuo work on March 13 with particular attention to his own instrument, the violone. The final master class will then be led by ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas on April 10. These events will also be free and will not require tickets.

Percussion++ from Both Sides of the Continent at the Center for New Music

Last night’s program at the Center for New Music (C4NM) was shared by two duos, one from either side of the American continent. The opening set was taken by the local Inner Movements duo of vibraphonist Mark Clifford and cellist Crystal Pascucci (members of a larger collective of percussionists and string players). They shared the evening with the Bent Duo, visiting from New York and making its C4NM debut. This group has a fascinating symmetry, since pianist David Friend has training as a percussionist, while percussionist Bill Solomon has training as a pianist. The most apparent consequence of this symmetry was some fascinating work taking place at both the keyboard and the interior of the piano.

All compositions in the Inner Movements set, “Transverse Process,” “Echo Chamber,” “Ground at Night,” and “#2,” were composed by Clifford. However, the performances involved improvisation, as well as playing from notation. The relation between these two approaches was not always clear, particularly since Clifford’s score pages tended to require multiple music stands to occupy the length of his vibraphone. However, it was clear that approaches to performance involved far more than the notes themselves. Pascucci commanded a fascinating diversity of techniques for getting sounds from her instrument, while Clifford was clearly attuned to very precise detail, such as the rotation speed on the dampers on his vibraphone.

While Clifford’s approach to composition may not have been particularly transparent, his results were consistently engaging. He certainly knew how to establish key motifs, which could then endow each of his pieces with a sense of introduction, development, and conclusion. He may also have had a bit of wit, since the tape track for “Ground at Night” could have been taken as a “ground bass” over which both he and Pascucci elaborated their “divisions.” At the end of the set, Solomon joined them for “#2,” adding a bit of jazzy rhythm to Clifford’s exchanges with Pascucci.

The “main attraction” from Bent Duo was a performance of the first and last (fourth) movements from Pascucci’s sonata for prepared piano and mixed percussion. Pascucci introduced this as her first venture into composition, and the fourth movement was given its premiere performance. The respective titles of the movements were “Sick Day to Take” and “Acceptance;” and Pascucci explained that the entire sonata amounted to a chronicle of her personal experience with a serious illness. The final movement had less to do with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief and served more as the willingness to engage with the world again after the illness had passed.

The movements were played in reverse order with a break to allow time to rearrange the piano preparations. Thus, the lively conclusion was played first (definitely an energetic way to seize listener attention), followed by the more looming opening movement. This made for a highly satisfying listening experience, frequently driven by the physicality of both Bent Duo performers. In addition Pascucci joined the two of them in a performance of Aaron Siegel’s “Under Such Cover.”

The other Bent Duo selections were Hannah Lash’s “C” and Ted Hearne’s “One of Us, One of Them.” Lash’s piece had that same energetic approach to working with a single pitch class that recalled the first of the eleven pieces in György Ligeti’s Musica ricercata. However, Lash clearly established her own identity through both far richer rhythms and alternative strategies for dealing with other pitch classes. Hearne, on the other hand, was particularly interested in the engagement of the two players around the single piano. There were also connotations that the engagement process was one of failed diplomacy, since the title was chosen to reflect the dangerously narrow approach to foreign policy under the administration of George W. Bush. (Hearne composed the piece in 2005, probably not imagining that its underlying message would have even stronger impact over a decade later.)

At the end of the evening, all four performers joined forces for two vocal selections. Casey Anderson’s “possible round(s)” involved the simultaneous declamation of four different texts using Morse code rhythms with the result that sonority obscured pretty much all traces of semantics. The performers then seated themselves in the audience area for “One Word,” from Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations. This required each performer to think of a word and then allow it to emerge slowly through a gradual succession of the underlying formants and stop consonants. This was intended as a meditative process that would unfold over a very long time; but last night’s performance offered a brief “abstract” of the process, true to the spirit, if not the flesh.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 1/30/2017

This is one of those transitional weeks that crosses from one month into the next. As a result there will be two events at the Center for New Music (C4NM) that have already been announced, tonight’s percussion evening and I Sing Words on Friday. This week also mark’s the beginning of the Sunset Music | Arts 2017 Vocal Series. That leaves only three additional events, one tonight and two on Thursday, to be taken into account as follows:

Monday, January 30, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Earplay will present the first of the three concerts in its 2017 season, marking 32 years of exceptional programming. The title of the entire season is Air, Wind, Water, with one noun for each of the three programs. The featured composer of the season will be Toru Takemitsu, and there will be five world premieres over the course of the three performances. Furthermore, each program will have a Takemitsu piece associated with the title.

Thus, this first program will present Takemitsu’s final composition, a flute solo that happens to be entitled “Air.” The other end of his career will also be represented with a performance of his “Romance” for solo piano, which he composed between 1948 and 1949. The world premiere on the program will be Laurie San Martin’s “Fray,” written on an Earplay commission and composed for string trio. There will also be the West Coast premiere of Tonia Ko’s duo for violin and piano, “Plush Earth in Four Pieces.” Other works on the program will be Elena Ruehr’s “Blackberries” for clarinet, cello, and piano, and Peter Josheff’s sextet, scored for flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet, violin viola, cello, and piano.

Herbst is located on the ground floor of the Veterans Building, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The performance will be preceded by a preconcert talk at 6:45 p.m. General admission will be $25 with a $10 rate for students. Tickets will be available at the box office before the performance.

Thursday, February 2, 7 p.m., C4NM: The Del Sol Quartet will return for the second concert in the current Soundings series, now in its fourth year. (Hence, the title of the program is Soundings 4.2.) The idea behind the series is to present a musical performance in the context of the display of visual art. The music for this program will be Crossings, the collective title that Ben Johnston gave to his third and fourth string quartets (each only a single movement), to be performed consecutively but separated by a specified interval (around 90 seconds) of silence. The visual art will be a display of photographs by Elmore DeMott, created as an artistic response to her mother’s Alzheimer’s condition.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of where Golden Gave Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $20 with a $15 rate for C4NM members. Both levels of tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Vivendi event page.

Thursday, February 2, 7 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: This will be another evening of electronics in the Luggage Store Creative Music series offered weekly by Outsound Presents. The opening set will be taken by Amanda Chaudhary, who works with both analog synthesis and custom-made digital software (occasionally incorporating folk and toy instruments). She will be followed after about an hour by a duo performance by Agnes Szelag and Danista Rivero. Szelag is a cellist, and Rivero is a vocalist. However, both of them extend their performance technique with electronic technology. The Luggage Store Gallery is at 1007 Market Street, directly across from the Golden Gate Theatre at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. As always admission will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

San Francisco Symphony Musicians Gather for Early and Late Chamber Music

Yesterday afternoon about a dozen of the members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gathered in smaller groups on the stage of Davies Symphony Hall for the latest installment in the SFS Chamber Music Series. Two of the composers on the program, Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler, were represented by relatively early efforts, while the remaining composer, Robert Schumann, was represented by a late work. This made for a repertoire guaranteed to pique the curiosity of the devoted listener.

The second half of the program was occupied entirely by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 20 septet. This was scored to balance a string trio (Yun Chu on violin, Nanci Severance on viola, and Sébastien Gringras on cello) against a wind trio of clarinet (Luis Baez), horn (Bruce Roberts), and bassoon (Rob Weir), all erected over a bass line played by Scott Pingel. Beethoven composed this piece in 1799 and it was first performed at a fundraising concert (for his own benefit) on April 2, 1800. The program for the concert also included the Opus 21 (first) symphony in C major. However, it was not an all-Beethoven affair, since a symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and excerpts from Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XXI/2 oratorio The Creation were also performed.

In some ways Opus 20 can be taken as a reflection on the sorts of divertimentos that Mozart and Haydn had composed for different combinations of instruments and with different numbers of movements. Nevertheless, those divertimentos were, for the most part, composed to serve as “background music” for social occasions, rather than as centers of attention in a concert setting. For that latter purpose Beethoven clearly sought symmetry not only in his instrumentation but in the balance of his six movements. In the center are two pairs of a slow movement followed by a dance: a Tempo di Menuetto preceded by an Adagio cantabile in the first case and a set of variations on an Andante theme followed by a Scherzo in the second. These are framed by two “sonata form” movements, each with a slow introduction.

Symmetry, however, is complemented by a truly prodigious variety in the approaches that Beethoven takes to combining his instruments. A scrupulous score-follower might be able to make the case that he accounted for all combinations of instruments of all possible sizes; but what is far more important is how the sonorous textures of those combinations seem to change as seamlessly as Beethoven’s harmonic progressions. One has to believe that Beethoven wrote this piece not only for the benefit and pleasure of those who would play it but also to make the case that, in this new century that had just begun, an audience of attentive listeners was as important as a stage filled with skilled performers.

In other words, in its own modest way, Opus 20 constituted a tectonic shift in what was expected from those for whom the music was being played. One got some impression of that shift in yesterday afternoon’s performance. On the one hand the seven musicians were clearly enjoying each other’s company as the patterns of their interactions maintained an ongoing flux. This could easily be taken as “private music” for a gathering of friends whose skills were more diverse than usual. Nevertheless, the group also seemed well aware that this was music that was making the transition from private to public; so one could sense that engaging with the audience was as important as engagement within the ensemble. The results were delightfully effective, if not a bit surprising for having taken place in Davies’ oversized setting.

If Beethoven’s career was still in its early stages at the time of Opus 20, Mahler was still a student at the Vienna Conservatory when his 1876 piano quartet in A minor was composed. This single-movement piece was performed just before the intermission. SFS string players Kelly Leon-Pearce (violin), David Kim (viola), and Barbara Bogatin (cello) were joined by Marc Shapiro at the piano. This was probably intended as the first movement of a longer composition that was never completed. Indeed, this is Mahler’s only piece of instrumental chamber music; and, while it is clear that there is an intense richness in its expressiveness (possibly reflecting on Robert Schumann and Joannes Brahms), there are no hints of either the logic or the rhetoric that would emerge when Mahler began to apply himself to composing with more focused intensity.

From today’s perspective, this composition amounts to a wistful reflection on a time that is about to pass into oblivion. A similar spirit can be found in the string quartet that Arnold Schoenberg composed before his “first” quartet. Yesterday afternoon’s performers were clearly sympathetic with that spirit and had no trouble honoring it without lapsing into bathos. Indeed, if the music itself did not serve up any of the substance of Mahler’s later work, one could still appreciate the balance among these four instruments and the attentiveness of all performers in maintaining that balance.

Indeed, balance was the unavoidable weakness of the opening selection, Robert Schumann’s Opus 132 suite of four short pieces Märchenerzählungen (fairy tales), scored for clarinet, viola, and piano. This was probably written to complement the slightly earlier Opus 113 suite of another four short pieces Märchenbilder (fairy tale pictures), scored for viola and piano. These come from a time when Schumann’s health was beginning to deteriorate but had not yet begun to erode his skills as a composer.

In both cases any connection to fairy tales is more than a little enigmatic. However, Opus 132 tends to be more explicit in its connotations of dramatic effects. Still, the instruments are not there to enact different characters but simply to suggest the dramatic setting in which one of those tales could be embedded. Thus, this is a case in which effect is achieved through overall sonority, rather than any of the individual contributions. From this point of view, clarinetist David Neuman could not have been better in doing his part to achieve that overall effect. Similarly, pianist June Oh clearly understood Schumann’s keyboard rhetoric and knew just the right levels of intensity applicable to each of the four pieces in the set.

The weak link in the chain, however, was Wayne Roden’s viola work, whose piano dynamics yielded some effective sonorities but who could not bring his forte to a level that would avoid getting lost in the shuffle. The result was that, where the dramatic mattered most, the overall effect simply collapsed. One almost got the impression that the group had only worked together in a small room, which meant that they were totally unprepared for the radically different conditions afforded by the Davies stage. This is a performance that deserved the intimacy of the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In Davies things were already falling apart in the opening measures, and they were never able to recover.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Innova Releases Another Album of Performances by Volti

Volti is an a cappella choir of professional singers led by founder and Artistic Director Robert Geary. The group gives regular concerts that provide San Francisco audiences with a generous exposure to the latest efforts in choral composition. In March of 2010 Innova released its first recording of the group entitled Turn the Page: New Directions in American Choral Music. The end of last week saw the release of a new album, This Is What Happened: More new directions in American choral music.

Keeping up with Volti is no easy matter. This is not because their concerts are poorly publicized (speaking as one determined to get out the word for each one of them). The problem, instead, has to do with the density of concert programming on any given date, particularly in the period between February and June.

However, getting there is only part of the problem. Geary casts such a wide net in preparing each Volti concert that only the most dedicated members of the audience manage to avoid the risk of cognitive overload. Put another way, when so much novelty is trying to work its way into mind, the result tends to be that no individual piece succeeds very well by virtue of being crowded out by the others. Thus, when I checked my concert-going records, I realized that I had probably heard every selection on this new CD in concert and then sheepishly acknowledged that I had recalled none of them! I realize that this sounds a lot like that it’s-not-you-it’s-me cliché; but there it is.

The good news is that I already have a copy of another Innova recording of Volti, released in July of 2012 (between the first and the latest albums), entitled House of Voices: More new directions in American choral music. While I did not enthusiastically embrace it during my initial encounter, I stuck with it. I would return to it from time to time, more to remind me of the Volti aesthetic than for the sake of building up stronger perceptions of any of the individual compositions. One result has been that, whether in concert or on recording, my listening experience has acquired certain expectations associated with Volti performances. Through those expectations I have come to deal with a variety of different idiosyncratic techniques for expressing texts through music (not to mention some eyebrow-raising processes of selecting texts in the first place).

I would also suggest that the foundation of those expectations is built from the solid execution technique that Geary has cultivated in his singers. To draw, once again, upon that distinction that Igor Stravinsky emphasized, listening cannot take place unless the stimuli of hearing are experienced with a minimum of noise, if not its entire absence. On the basis of the Volti concerts I have attended, I have the greatest admiration for Geary’s ability to provide me with “noise-minimal signals;” and that ability is just as evident in the engineering that goes into the production of his Innova recordings. Anything else has to do with the how my mind acclimates to making sense of those signals, regardless of who the composers are or the texts they have chosen to set.

For the record, the composers represented on this new album are, in order of appearance, Robin Estrada, Stacy Garrop, Mark Winges, John Muehleisen, and Shawn Crouch. Of these five, the only one to have made much of a dent on either sensemaking or memory has been Winges. This is because he has been Volti’s Resident Composer at least from the time when House of Voices was released. Geary has thus given his work a generous amount of attention; and, as a result of that exposure, I have come to feel that such attention was well-deserved. On the other hand my only knowledge of Garrop comes from the 2015 release of her Mythology Symphony on Cedille Records; and any subsequent listening experiences of that piece have been about as uncomfortable as the “first contact.” Nevertheless, I have high hopes for future listening experiences of all six of the pieces on This Is What Happened, just as I shall continue to seek out opportunities to squeeze Volti recitals into my schedule.

Organist Paul Vasile will Debut at the Next San Francisco Girls Chorus Concert

Next month the San Francisco Girls Chorus, led by Music Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe and Artistic Director Lisa Bielawa, will continue its 2016–2017 season with a program entitled Out of Darkness. The title refers to the Lenten period, which was conceived as a time of inner contemplation prior to the date of the Crucifixion and the subsequent Resurrection. The concert will also see the Bay Area performance debut of virtuoso organist Paul Vasile.

As a result the program will be organized around major liturgical works for treble voices and organ. The composers (in the order of performance) will be Felix Mendelssohn (his three Opus 39 motets for female chorus and organ), Francis Poulenc (“Litanies à la vierge noire” for SSA chorus and organ), Johannes Brahms (his Opus 27 setting of Psalm 13), Edvard Grieg (“Ave, maris stella,” composed for voice and piano), and Arvo Pärt (“Peace upon you, Jerusalem,” for female chorus). In addition Vasile will play one of Herbert Howells’ “Psalm Prelude” pieces, the first from his Opus 32 series.

The San Francisco performance of this concert will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 25. The venue will be the Mission Dolores Basilica, located in the Mission at 3321 16th Street, just west of Dolores Street. General admission will be $26 with $36 for premium reserved seating and $18 for students. Student tickets will be sold only at the door, but other tickets may be purchased in advance online from a City Box Office event page.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Last Friday in February of 2017 will be Busy in Many Ways

Next month has kept me busy when it comes to keeping track of the need to make hard choices among overlapping events. It should not surprise anyone, then, that the last Friday of the month (February 24) will be another busy one. In addition, however, two of those events will mark the beginnings of concert series for the winter/spring portion of the season. Thus, it is worth just “getting down to business” by accounting for the options with some sense of chronological order.

6 p.m., Community Music Center (CMC): The next Concert with Conversation event will present Scottish-born classical guitarist David Russell (who currently resides in Spain). As is frequently the case, this event will be held in partnership with San Francisco Performances (SFP), which will be presenting Russell’s recital the following evening (Saturday, February 25) at St. Mark’s Lutheran church. This will be a return visit by Russell, during which he will probably preview some of the music he has prepared for recital and (of course) entertain questions from the audience. The venue will be the CMC Concert Hall, which is located at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street. These events are free and tend to be very popular, so early arrival is encouraged.

7:30 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM): In addition SFP will be launching its Young Masters Series shortly after Russell concludes his visit to CMC. Violinist Benjamin Beilman will be the first of the series’ rising talents to be introduced during this series of three recitals. Beilman has prepared an ambitious program that will present compositions by Maurice Ravel, Béla Bartók, Kaija Saariaho, and Johannes Brahms. His accompanist will be pianist Yekwon Sunwoo. The artists to be featured in the remaining two recitals of this series will be cellist Harriet Krijgh (March 16) and pianist Beatrice Rana (April 7).

The performance will take place in the SFCM Concert Hall, which is located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. All tickets are $40, and subscriptions are still on sale for the entire series at $105. City Box Office event pages are available for online purchase of both single tickets and subscriptions.

7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: The title of the next performance in the Main Stage Concerts series of performances by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO) and its Music Director Benjamin Simon will be Wordsmiths. The first half of the program will be devoted to setting of text, while the second half will consist of music inspired by a poem. The highlight of the first half will be the world premiere of Peter Josheff’s The Dream Mechanic, composed on an SFCO commission. This is a cycle of settings of four poems by Carol Vanderveer Hamilton that requires both a tenor (Brian Thorsett) and a narrator (Lara Nie). Nie is also a mezzo, and she will open the program with several of the arrangements of the folk songs that Joseph Canteloube composed based on folk songs he collected from the Auvergne region of France, all of which are sung in Occitan, the language of that region. The “inspiring poem” for the second half of the program will be Matthias Claudius’ “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (death and the maiden). SFCO will perform Simon’s arrangement of Franz Schubert’s D. 810 string quartet in D minor, whose second movement is a set of variations on Schubert’s D. 531 setting of this poem.

Herbst Theatre is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. As is always the case, there is no admission charge for all SFCO Main Stage Concerts. The doors will open at 6:45 p.m. for general admission on a first-come-first-served basis.

8 p.m., First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco: The title of the 2016 Winter concert to be presented by Wild Rumpus will be MUSCLE/MEMORY. This always ambitious ensemble will be taking on recent works by emerging composers devoted to matters of mind and body. The program will feature the world premiere of “The New Normal.” Composed by William Dougherty, this is one of the seven winners of the 2015 Commission Project competition that Wild Rumpus has been holding annually. The other world premiere on the program will be Carolyn Chen’s “The Mussels.” The remaining composers whose music will be performed will be Alex Temple (“Willingly”), Richard Reed Parry (“Duo for Heart and Breath”), Ted Hearne (“Furtive Movements”), and William Gardiner (“Hebbian Theory”). The church is located at 1187 Franklin Street, on the southwest corner of Geary Boulevard. All tickets will be sold at the door for $15.

8 p.m., Taube Atrium Theater: A composition by Hearne will also be the first production in the second season of SF Opera Lab, the exploratory side of programming presented by the San Francisco Opera. “The Source” is a 75-minute oratorio (performed without an intermission) about Chelsea Manning and the consequences of her revelations to WikiLeaks. Hearne based this oratorio on a libretto by Mark Doten, who created a collage text based on both Manning’s words and primary-source documents. The score is for four singers and seven musicians. The oratorio will be staged by Daniel Fish, based on a production design by Jim Findlay. Fish and Findlay also collaborated on the creation of video projections. The Music Director will be Nathan Koci.

The venue is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building. The street address is 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. General admission will be $35. There will also be another five performances taking place at 8 p.m. on February 25, March 1, March 2, and March 3, and at 2 p.m. on March 26. Tickets for all dates may be purchased through hyperlinks on the event page for this production.

There will be three more productions in the second season of SF Opera Lab. These will be as follows:
  • March 11, 14, 17: Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci will perform Francis Poulenc’s one-act monodrama “La Voix humaine” (the human voice). Poulenc’s opera is based on a play of the same title by Jean Cocteau, which consists entirely of one side of a telephone conversation. Pianist Donald Sulzen will provide the musical accompaniment. All tickets are $95 for general admission.
  • April 23: The vocal octet Roomful of Teeth will make its San Francisco debut with a one-night-only performance. This event is being co-produced with SFP’s PIVOT series. As of this writing, all tickets have been sold.
  • April 27: Once again, members of the SFO Orchestra will curate and perform the next installment in the ChamberWORKS series, presenting an intimate and eclectic evening of music and song; general admission will be $25.
[added 1/30, 10:50 a.m.:
8 p.m., St. Mark's Lutheran Church: The California Bach Society, led by Artistic Director Paul Flight, will give the next concert in its current season. The title of the program will be North German Masters before JS Bach; and the master's whose works will be presented will be Franz Tunder, Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Schop, Martin Weckmann, and Georg Philipp Telemann. St. Mark's is located at 1111 O'Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Tickets are $35 with discounts for advance purchase, seniors, students, and those under the age of thirty. Tickets may be purchased online through a Web page on the California Bach Society Web site.]

Bassoonist Dana Jessen Makes her Recording Debut on the Innova Label

I first encountered bassoonist Dana Jessen as a member of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP), but I first started to pay attention to her when Splinter Reeds, a quintet of reed players that was basically an SFCMP “splinter group,” gave a recital at the Center for New Music in January of 2014. The group had two double-reed players, Jessen and Kyle Bruckmann, alternating between oboe and English horn. The single-reed members were Bill Kalinkos (clarinet), Jeff Anderle (bass clarinet), and Dave Wegehaupt (soprano and alto saxophones).

At the end of last week, Innova released Carve, Jessen’s debut solo album. The title is illustrated by the album’s cover photograph, an array of woodworking tools, all presumably involved in a bassoonist’s never-ending task of reed-making:

The album title is also the title of a series of four relatively brief improvisations, each of which has a subtitle that describes a different way of evoking sounds from the bassoon: without reed, with teeth, only reed, and postlude.

Alternating with these improvisations are debut recordings of works by four composers: Jessen’s Splinter Reeds colleague Bruckmann, Paula Matthusen, Sam Pluta, and Peter V. Swendsen. Each of these pieces involves a mix of fixed and reactive electronics that provides an environment for the bassoon to navigate and explore. The accompanying booklet provides nothing by way of notes about any of these four pieces. The titles (in the order of the composers listed above) are “Cadenza & Degradations,” “of an implacable subtraction,” “Points Against Fields, tombeau de Bernard Parmegiani,” and “Fireflies in Warsaw.”

These titles provide little support for the curious and attentive listener, but it is unclear that this matters very much. Jessen is clearly more interested in the sonorities of her instrument than in the conventions of “music theory.” The main difference between the “Carve” pieces and the four compositions seems to be that, in the former case, Jessen establishes her own “terrain” to be explored. In the works provided by others, on the other hand, it is the composer who defines that terrain, primarily through the sonorous qualities of the “equipment” (s)he engages in the composition.

One result is that the tracks are relatively brief in duration. The longest is Bruckmann’s piece, which is a little less than a quarter hour. Thus, it is not particularly demanding for a sympathetic listener to follow Jessen on her journeys with very little strain on attention span. Those who do so are likely to be impressed by many of the subtleties that her journeys encounter. In other words this is music that can make some very lasting impressions with its surface structures without requiring the listener to “dig” for “deeper values.” Those satisfied with these ground rules should find this album a delightfully engaging listening experience.

PBO Presents an Imaginatively Witty Evening with Haydn, Mozart and … Gyrowetz

The original plan for last night’s concert by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO), conducted by Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan, was to call the program Haydn & Mozart with Isabelle Faust. However, Faust had to cancel her engagement and was replaced by PBO violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock, serving as soloist in the A major (“Turkish”) violin concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 219), which had been planned for the program. Furthermore, while the original idea was to situate this concerto between two of Joseph Haydn’s symphonies, the opening selection was replaced by the third symphony (in F major) from the Opus 6 publication of six symphonies by Adalbert Gyrowetz. None of this dampened the spirit of the occasion, which turned out to be a delightful evening of discovery and wit.

Blumenstock frequently serves as PBO concertmaster. However, her skills as a soloist are well known to those who follow early music performances in the Bay Area, including some delightful sharing of the spotlight with violinist Rachel Podger when she led PBO in March of 2013. On that occasion the repertoire was the Italian Baroque; so those who know the repertoire would have expected that a Mozart concerto would be “something completely different.” Structurally, this was definitely the case, not only because of the Classical period but also because Mozart sought out any number of fascinating twists to foil the expectations of those who thought they “knew concertos.”

Blumenstock responded to all of these departures from convention as if they were the most natural things in the world. Indeed, there was a fresh spontaneity in her approach that evoked that same spirit of invention that was expected when Mozart took the keyboard for one of his own piano concertos. The result was an exciting in-the-moment account that left the attentive listener on the edge of his/her seat wondering what would come next, not only in the cadenzas but throughout the diverse phrasings of all of the solo passages. All of this was delivered with a stage presence that was positively joyous (but probably not quite as bratty as Mozart himself was often reputed to have been). For his part McGegan clearly understood the paths that Blumenstock chose to forge, and he made sure that PBO was with her every step of the way with just as much confidence and spontaneous energy.

That spirit of thwarting all of the “usual suspects” expectations was just as evident in the opening Gyrowetz selection. Throughout his richly productive career as a musician,Gyrowetz was a promoter of Haydn’s music. What is more important is that the master’s capacity for wit seems to have rubbed off on him. This was clear from the very beginning in which the first movement of his symphony is in triple metre, more in the spirit of a charming serenade than a precursor of the waltz. Rhythmic patterns again defy expectations during the Minuet movement. As is so often the case with Haydn, this formal dance is the last thing on the composer’s mind; and Gyrowetz’ mash-up of triple and duple metre was as delightful as it was confounding. McGegan was clearly delighted to have encountered this symphony, and he could not have done a better job of sharing his delight with the audience.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Haydn’s Hoboken I/91 symphony in E-flat major, as had originally been planned. The master was clearly up to his usual tricks, all of which were dispatched with McGegan’s characteristic panache. Nevertheless, so much of the unexpected had unfolded during the first half of the evening that it also felt as if Haydn was being upstaged. Thus, for all of this symphony’s many virtues, the evening ended with a bit of a feeling that, taken as a whole, the program ran the risk of being too much of too many good things.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Two Imaginative Approaches to Improvisation on the Same Night

Next month those with a taste for innovative approaches to improvisation are likely to be faced with a difficult choice. Two programs in which such improvisation figures significantly will take place at almost exactly the same time. The only approach that will be fair to readers will be to present the two options side-by-side.

The next concert to be presented by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) will involve a highly imaginative approach to rethinking a classic. That classic is “L’Histoire du soldat” (the soldier’s tale), in which Igor Stravinsky composed music for seven musicians that would supplement a narrative written by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz requiring three actors and one or several dancers. However, the SFCMP production will involve only musicians. Stravinsky’s score will be performed by Hrabba Atladottir (violin), Richard Worn (bass), Jeff Anderle (clarinet), Dana Jessen (bassoon), Brad Hogarth (trumpet), Brendan Lai-Tong (trombone), and Christopher Froh (percussion).

However, both the dramatic action and much of Ramuz’ text will be replaced by improvised interpolations. Collectively entitled “Lover’s War,” these improvisational sections will be led by trumpeter Peter Evans; but he will be only a part of an ensemble of improvisers. The other members of that ensemble will be Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Ritwik Banerji on tenor saxophone, India Cooke on violin, and three percussionists: William Winant, Steven Schick, and Nava Dunkelman. (Readers familiar with Dunkelman may recall that she gave a solo account of the percussion part from two of the scenes of Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “Les noces,” whose score specified two groups of percussion instruments, in June of 2014.)

This concert will be presented in Herbst Theatre, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 17. Once again, ticket-holders may attend an informal pre-concert discussion with the musicians led by SFCMP Artistic Director Steven Schick. This will begin at 6:45 p.m. In addition there will be two events free and open to the general public during the afternoon, which will also take place at Herbst. The first will be an open dress rehearsal beginning at 4 p.m. This will be followed by the second event at 4:30 p.m., when Evans will discuss the topic “How Music is Made,” facilitated by Schick. General admission for the concert will be $35 with a $15 rate for students. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a City Box Office event page.

The second event may be of greater interest to jazz lovers, but it will be an approach to improvised jazz that is deeply influenced by the contrapuntal textures of modern chamber music. The group will be led by trumpeter Ian Carey, who has had an ongoing interest in blurring the lines between improvised and composed material in order to create an atmosphere of unpredictability and surprise. Carey has supplemented his interest in jazz with a love of two twentieth-century composers, Stravinsky (again) and Paul Hindemith. He will perform with his quintet, whose other members are Kasey Knudsen on alto saxophone, Adam Shulman on piano, Fred Randolph on bass, and Hamir Atwal on drums. On this occasion the quintet will be joined by Steven Lugerner playing both bass clarinet and baritone saxophone.

This rather unique approach to jazz improvisation will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 17. The performance will take place in the Community Music Center (CMC) Concert Hall, which is located at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street. Admission will be $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. This will be the latest installment in the Jazz in the Neighborhood concert series to be hosted by CMC. Tickets may be purchased in advance through the hyperlink to this concert on the Jazz in the Neighborhood events Web page.

Pieter-Jan Belder’s “Fitzwilliam” Project Advances to its Fifth Volume

As was previously observed, Dutch harpsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder has been involved with a project for Brilliant Classics to record the 297 compositions collected in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Brilliant has been releasing the result in a series of two-CD volumes. The first of these was released in March of 2012 and consisted of 35 pieces, most relatively short, by a wide diversity of composers: John Bull, William Byrd, Giles Farnaby, Thomas Morley, Peter Philips, and Thomas Tomkins. The next three volumes were organized to focus on one or two composers. The second (December, 2012) consisted entirely of Byrd, the third (November 2014) coupled Philips with Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and the fourth (February, 2016) coupled Farnaby and Bull.

Today is the release date for the fifth volume; and, on the basis of back-of-the-envelope calculations, it would appear that only one more volume is due. Like the first volume, this one again covers a diversity of composers along with several pieces whose composers are unknown. Given the scope of this achievement, however, it is worth remembering the social context of the works that have been collected. Most likely these pieces were intended for personal music-making. If there were any listeners (other than the performer) at all, they would have been family or intimate friends. About the only other individual who might have been involved would have been a music teacher.

Presumably, the “tunes” set in many of the pieces were familiar ones. They would have been ditties that the performer had heard others performing and wished to try doing so on his/her own. The more elaborate fantasias and dance movements, on the other hand, were by familiar composers. The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book served as a resource through which the knowledgeable amateur could “try out’ works by these composers, knowing full well that his/her personal skills might not be up to snuff.

Today any curious keyboardist can acquire the entire Fitzwilliam Virginal Book in two volumes reprinted by Dover Publications. However, the contents are far less familiar to contemporary listeners than they were to those who knew about the practices of making music at the end of the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, those two volumes remain a pleasurable source for exploration by curious amateurs (present company being one of them). For such music lovers, Belder’s recording project is less interesting as a large collection of pieces to add to a playlist than it is a way to learn how someone experienced in practices of the time would play those pieces. In other words the amateur wishing to explore the collection can use Belder’s recordings to establish a baseline of familiarity against which (s)he can then try out those pieces for himself/herself.

This brings us to the one disadvantage of this collection. The ordering of the tracks bears little, if any, resemblance to how those pieces are ordered in the printed edition. Indeed, the second volume does not even use the numbering system of that printed edition, offering instead the Musica Brittanica catalog numbers. If there is going to be a sixth volume, let us hope that it will come with a larger booklet listing all the pieces by their sequence numbers in the printed edition, each associated with the reference to the volume on which that piece may be found!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Pianist Thibaudet Brings Delightfully Sparkling Ravel to Davies

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gave the first of this week’s three subscription concerts. The conductor was Lionel Bringuier, currently Chief Conductor and Music Director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, who made his SFS debut in February of 2014. His program followed the usual overture-concerto-symphony format. The concerto soloist was pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, a frequent visitor to Davies, playing Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto in G major.

Thibaudet is one of the most reliable of the SFS guest artists, and he was definitely in form this afternoon. Not only did each of his rapid-fire passages sparkle with a dazzling light; but he also understood that such passages were textural, rather than thematic. Indeed, with the exception of the almost excessively lyric solo that he took at the beginning of the second movement (which he endowed with neither too much nor too little expressiveness), one might almost think that Ravel conceived of his entire concerto almost as a mural of diverse textures, some of which blend while others clash with each other.

One of the reasons that Thibaudet was so effective in presenting this concerto is that he has a keen sense of George Gershwin’s approach to jazz, which informs his understanding of how Ravel refracted that approach. It is important to remember that Ravel’s concerto was written a little over half a decade after both “Rhapsody in Blue” and Gershwin’s more extended concerto in F major. Indeed, while it is clear that Gershwin’s concerto is in the major mode, Gershwin himself called it simply “Concerto in F;” and, almost as an explicit nod to Gershwin, Ravel called his concerto, “Concerto in G.” Note that verb “refracted,” though; Ravel was not trying to follow in Gershwin’s footsteps but to blaze a new trail with the benefit of the light that Gershwin’s music had shed. The result is one of the landmark piano concertos of the twentieth century; and Thibaudet, working as effectively as could be imagined with Bringuier, knew exactly how to establish not only the significance of this music but all the delights that come from listening to it.

Bringuier programmed this concerto to follow another equally skillful act of refraction. Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta.” Composed in 1933 (only two years after Ravel’s concerto) this “overture” selection similarly entailed a composer applying his personal stamp to source material he had discovered. In Kodály’s case that material came from his ethnomusicological field work with fellow composer and compatriot Béla Bartók. Indeed, it is almost impossible to listen to some of the rapid-fire passages for strings, particularly at the beginning of “Dances of Galánta,” and not think of how Bartók turned that same device to his own purposes in his later orchestral writing. Furthermore, the palette of instrumental sonorities is as diverse as Ravel’s; and, where Ravel had a tendency to work with one texture at a time, Kodály had a gift for overlaying separate textures to create new ones. In this respect Bringuier’s technique as a conductor could not have been better in leading the attentive listener through those textures, revealing how Kodály had synthesized them.

The symphony selection on the program took the audience back to Ludwig van Beethoven with his Opus 60 (fourth) symphony in B-flat major. Those looking for “unifying traits” would have found them in the last of the four movements, where the intense dynamics of rapid-fire string work paralleled Kodály’s approach at the very beginning. However, this is also a symphony of sharp contrasts between extremes; and Bringuier knew exactly how to register those contrasts without taking any of those extremes to excess. This was a stimulatingly fresh approach to a Beethoven symphony that deserves more attention than it seems to get, and Bringuier could not have been a better advocate.

Tickets are still available for the remaining two performance of this program, and this is definitely an event that is not to be missed.

Groupmuse Expands the Scope of Concert Experiences (again) with Massivemuse

Reader’s may recall that this month’s recital by musicians of the Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival was presented as a “Groupmuse Night Out” event. This was an innovative alternative offering, since Groupmuse was originally conceived as a site for arranging house concerts. Groupmuse Night Out was an opportunity to bring together a larger audience in a larger space (the auditorium at The Century Club of California). At the same time it was also an opportunity for strangers with a common interest in the repertoire (chamber music by Ludwig van Beethoven in this case) to get to know each other. Since I had attended this particular event, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked.

Next month Groupmuse will offer another “variation on their theme.” This one is called Massivemuse. Massivemuses are special events put together by the Groupmuse Team. The venue is again a space that is much larger than a living room, meaning that a larger number of people with a shared interest will be able to assemble. In this particular case that shared interest will be a single composition, Johannes Brahms’ Opus 115 quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet. Two of the performers had appeared at the Century Club, violinist Rachel Patrick and cellist James Jaffe. The clarinetist will be Matthew Boyles, and the remainder of the string quartet will consist of violinist Elbert Tsai and violist Jessica Chang.

The “massive” space for this occasion will be the headquarters building for Monument, which serves as a workspace, a gallery, an event space, a residence, and a place to meet others for the benefit of creative people of all stripes.

Monument’s “monumental” lobby (from their Web site)

In this case that means that the performance will take place in a space (pictured above) that will accommodate 150 people in the audience. The event, which will be hosted by Kyle Schmolze, will be conceived as an early evening affair taking place right after work and concluding by 8 p.m. for those with dinner plans.

This concert will take place on Wednesday, February 8. Doors will open at 6 p.m., and the music will begin at 6:30 p.m. Monument is located in SoMa at 140 9th Street. Those who attend are welcome to bring their own drinks, but all guests much be at least 21 years of age. Admission will be $20 with a $10 rate for supermusers. The Groupmuse event page has a hyperlink for purchasing tickets in advance; but registration with Groupmuse (also though a hyperlink) is a precondition.

Quartetto di Cremona Returns with Another Late Beethoven Quartet

The Quartetto di Cremona (violinists Cristiano Gualco and Paolo Andreoli, violist Simone Gramaglia, and cellist Giovanni Scaglione) made its San Francisco debut this past April in a recital in Herbst Theatre arranged by San Francisco Performances. Yesterday they made a return visit, this time to the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura) to give a concert in conjunction with the recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Nothing about the program was explicitly associated with the occasion. Rather, the concert was conceived as an opportunity to remember the many musicians who had perished in the Nazi concentration camps.

The major work at Quartetto di Cremona’s debut recital was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor. Many would call this the most difficult (for both performers and listeners) of those “late period” quartets that Beethoven composed at the very end of his life. Last night, however, the quartet performed the one other quartet that rivals Opus 131 in difficulty, the Opus 132 in A minor. The usual reason given for the challenges of Opus 131 is that Beethoven conceived it as seven sections to be played without interruption; but the underlying structures of those sections are all relatively familiar, particularly the theme-and-variations that occupies the center of the entire structure. Opus 132, on the other hand, is far more ambiguous in its approach to structure; and even its basic rhythmic patterns seem to deny the listener the opportunity to settle into predictable consistency. Performers must also confront ambiguities in the pitch relationships that almost defiantly challenge each musician to figure out how to find his/her pitch on every note.

Fortunately, Quartetto di Cremona rose impressively to every challenge that Beethoven set for the performers. As a result (and with the help of a few introductory remarks by Gualco) there were senses of both coherence and direction in yesterday evening’s execution that helped to disperse Beethoven’s many patches of foggy ambiguity. This was particularly the case in the clarity the group brought to the execution of the middle (third) movement, which, as Gualco observed, is the longest single movement of chamber music that Beethoven ever wrote. (Yes, it is longer than the Opus 133 “Große Fuge.”)

Gualco’s command of English had a bit of difficulty explaining that this third movement had a title, “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode). However, if he stumbled over Beethoven’s words, the music itself serenely alternated between the sort of stillness that creates the illusion that time is standing still, alternating with sections depicting strength returning to the ailing body. Most effective was the group’s decision to play the initial statement of that stillness without vibrato. (Beethoven only marked the passage “sotto voce.”) Indeed, the rhetoric was so intense that the group chose to pause longer than usual before moving on to the following “Alla marcia.”

The first half of the program presented two works, one on either side (chronologically) of Beethoven’s Opus 132. They opened with the later work, the Capriccio that is the third of the four pieces for string quartet that Felix Mendelssohn published as his Opus 81. This served well as a “warm-up” for the evening, allowing the ensemble to introduce themselves through rhetoric that was both energetic and positive.

The Mendelssohn quartet was followed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 465 quartet in C major. This quartet has been given the nickname “Dissonance,” due to the 22 measures of the opening Adagio. The cello begins the opening movement with a clear series of Cs, but the other three instruments enter to establish intervals that have nothing to do with C major. Mozart maintains an ambiguous uncertainty of any sense of harmonic progression, only establishing the dominant in the final measure before the Allegro begins. Mozart wrote this quartet for Haydn; and most likely the two of them played it together, Mozart on viola and Haydn on second violin (the two inner voices that drive much of the Adagio’s ambiguities). (The other members of the quartet were Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf on first violin and Johann Baptist Wanhal on cello.) It is easy to imagine Haydn shooting quizzical looks at Mozart during the opening (and Mozart barely able to contain himself from snickering). Quartetto di Cremona may not have taken quite such a humorous stance, but they definitely gave a clear account of the game Mozart was playing before the “more normal” string quartet writing took over for the remainder of the composition.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

San Francisco Performances’ Plans for the 2017 Spring Salons at the Hotel Rex

As was announced on this site this past October, this season San Francisco Performances (SFP) organized its annual series of one-hour recitals on Wednesday evenings at the Hotel Rex into two separate segments. The 2016 Fall Salons series concluded last month with pianist Sarah Cahill’s Chaconnes, Revisited recital. Plans are now in place for the 2017 Spring Salons series, which will get under way next month. There will be only three concerts in this series, rather than the four in the fall series. Specifics are as follows:

February 22: The series will begin with a recital by the Thalea String Quartet. Consisting of violinists Christopher Whitley and Kumiko Sakamoto, violist Luis Bellorin, and cellist Bridget Pasker, this is the latest chamber ensemble coming out of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), where all four members are currently students. In addition SFCM selected them to be that institution’s first quartet-in-residence; and, at the beginning of next month, they were selected by the Kronos String Quartet to perform a program of works commissioned under Kronos’ Fifty for the Future project. The program they have prepared for their Salon will couple music from the late twentieth century, Joan Tower’s 1994 “Night Fields,” with Felix Mendelssohn’s last string quartet, his Opus 80 in F minor, composed after the death of his sister Fanny.

March 22: Tenor Nicholas Phan is a frequent visitor to the Bay Area, and his performances are consistently imaginative and welcome. On February 26 he will make his debut at London’s Wigmore Hall, presenting a program entitled Gods & Monsters, a “themed recital” that will survey songs by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Mendelssohn, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Hugo Wolf. These songs have been recorded on Phan’s latest album, also entitled Gods & Monsters, which was released this past Friday. His Salon program will consist of selections from this album, and his accompanist will be pianist Robert Mollicone.

May 10: The final Salon will present jazz pianist, composer, and Guggenheim Fellow Edward Simon. Simon is currently based in the Bay Area as a member of the SFJAZZ Collective. His influences include pop, folk, Brazilian jazz, and classical, all of which he can harvest for his own innovative improvisations.

Each concert takes place from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The Hotel Rex is located at 562 Sutter Street, between Powell Street and Mason Street. Tickets are $25 for each of the concerts; and a subscription for all three concerts will be $60. A City Box Office event page has been created for subscriptions. Single tickets are also being sold by City Box Office, and the hyperlinks on the above dates lead to the event pages from which those tickets may be purchased. Any additional information may be obtained by calling San Francisco Performances at 415-392-2545.

Be’eri Moalem Releases his First Album of Originals for Violin, Viola, and “Tracks”

Be’eri Moalem is a violinist, violist, and composer, who has lived in the Bay Area for the past two decades. He is an Israeli citizen born in Jerusalem. However, much of his music education took place on this continent, having studied with both Jodi Levitz and Paul Hersh at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and with Pablo Furman at San Jose State University. Towards the end of last year, he completed a project with producer DJ Daris that resulted in Exile, an album of thirteen original compositions. Most of the album came about through laying down tracks, often with the result that Moalem is playing both violin and viola at the same time. The only other tracks that are not entirely synthesized come from percussionist Ken Mowrey, currently based at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

I should probably begin with the disclaimer that I, myself, have experienced expatriate life twice; and one of those times, the first, happens to have been in Israel. My first job after completing my doctoral thesis was at the Technion in Haifa. That thesis was the product of working with an advisor who was excellent at letting me find my own way and then working with me to make sure that my results could be documented in a thesis that would hold up to defense. On the other hand he never pressed upon me the need to think of what I would be doing for gainful employment once I had my doctoral degree.

The result was that I ended up at the Technion by happy accident. In my “other life” as a composer, I was working with a choreographer who had been invited to spend a summer with the Bat-Dor Dance Company in Tel Aviv. He invited me to join him, since I had made tape music scores for him in the past; and the visit would be during the period when my thesis was being typed in its final draft. My thesis advisor suggested that I get in touch with one of his friends in Jerusalem, and that friend made arrangements for me to give seminars on my thesis results at both the Technion and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The Technion made me an offer on the spot, and it was the only job offer I had received!

By way of context, this was when Richard Nixon was President; and a lot of my friends had declared that they would leave the country if Nixon got elected. It turned out that I was one who actually did! Nevertheless, expatriate life in Israel was difficult. Being Jewish in Israel was very different from being Jewish in the United States, and the research community was far narrower than what I had experienced as a graduate student. Thus, it was not surprising that I began to feel as if I were an outsider in exile until I could find an opportunity to return to the United States.

The second time took place during the George Bush (the first one) presidency at a time when government funds for research took a dive. This time I moved to Singapore, where the government was much more proactive about supporting research into new technology frontiers. I found myself in the midst of a burgeoning multimedia laboratory, working with some very exciting colleagues. Nevertheless, it was clear that I was an outsider and would always be one; so once again I felt myself in exile, waiting for things to turn around back in the United States (which they did after about four years).

I offer this lengthy prelude to establish that I have a very personal semantic interpretation of that word “exile.” I have no idea if Moalem shares that interpretation. However, I am sure that my own experiences come into play when listening to an album entitled Exile, which is why I chose to begin by establishing a disclaimer.

Having said all that, I should observe that Exile is distinguished by the amount of diversity the listener encounters across its thirteen tracks. There is often the risk of sameness in pieces that depend more on the capture and mixing talents of studio engineers than on the skill of the performer(s). Moalem seems to have been aware of that risk, and has definitely done a good job at avoiding it. Particularly appealing are many of the duo passages with Moalem playing both the violin and viola lines. Any sense of “interaction” is more in the composer’s mind, since “in the moment” experiences are minimal. Nevertheless, he successful evokes the illusion that the violinist and violist are listening to each other in a process of ongoing exchange; and each of those exchanges has its own unique stamp.

From a personal point of view, my preferences tended to run towards the klezmer selections towards the end of the album (although I found myself missing the presence of a good klezmer clarinetist). Also, I have to confess a weakness for “Warriors,” which used the chanting fans in Oracle Arena as a sort of “continuo” above which tracks of thematic material are superposed. Moalem was clearly pulling strings to make this piece work, but I happened to have just the right strings that needed to be pulled!

Exile is being released through a variety of different channels. As might be expected, Amazon.com is one of them. However, my personal recommendation is to visit the album’s Web page on bandcamp. This supports streaming, downloading, and purchase of a physical CD. More importantly, the Web page itself provides the background notes for each of the thirteen selections. Those who really want to listen to this music deserve to do so from an informed perspective.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

North Star Vocal Artists will Present a Program of Sacred Motets Next Month

Last month Sanford Dole’s Bay Choral Guild presented the first program of its 2016–2017 season. Next month Dole will conduct his North Star Vocal Artists (NSVA), an a cappella mixed choir, in its first program of the new year. The title of the program will be Ascendit: Sacred Motets in the New Millennium. That title also refers to the principal work on the program. John Muehleisen compiled a collection of sacred texts for his choral song cycle Ascendit, in which each text setting is a study in musically rising lines (hence the title). The program will also feature Arvo Pärt’s setting of the Magnificat canticle. Other composers on the program will also be Abbie Betinis, Ivo Antognini, Ola Gjeilo, Frank Ferko, and Karl Jenkins, as well as Dole himself. Finally, NSVA will be introducing the music of Mark Templeton to Bay Area audiences.

This concert will take place in San Francisco on Sunday evening at 7 p.m. on February 19. The venue will be St. Gregory of Nyssa, located at 500 De Haro Street at the foot of Potrero Hill. General admission tickets may be reserved in advance and will be available at the door. Ticket prices are $25 for adults and $10 for students. Discounts for families or groups of eight or more may be arranged by request. Tickets are not available for purchase online, however reservations for both single tickets and group discounts can be arranged through electronic mail.

APR Restores Attention to an Almost Forgotten Pianist

This Friday Appian Publications & Recordings (APR) will release a CD of all the 78 RPM recordings that pianist Erik Then-Bergh made for Electrola and Deutsche Grammophon. The disc also has room for a stereophonic Electrola recording of Max Reger’s Opus 114 piano concerto in F minor with Hans Rosbaud conducting the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra based in Baden-Baden. As usual, Amazon.com has already created the Web page for this recording, from which it is possible to pre-order the release.

The advance material describes Then-Bergh as “almost forgotten today.” That claim is warranted by what, for better or worse, has become a standard for “cultural memory.” There is not (yet) a page for him on the English-language Wikipedia site. There is, however, a page for him on the German-language site; but it is a rather modest offering of three paragraphs. On the other hand he does not appear to be mentioned at all (certainly not in the index) in what used to be taken as a standard account of middlebrow knowledge, Harold C. Schoenberg’s The Great Pianists.

What caught my attention in that advance material, however, was the phrase “this favorite of Furtwangler [sic].” For better or worse, I confess to going into an almost Pavlovian salivation reflex in response to any reference to Wilhelm Furtwängler and am a proud owner of the 107-CD box Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Legacy. However, after a little bit of research, I was able to figure out at least one reason why Furtwängler had such a high opinion of Then-Bergh: He was one of the pianists to include Furtwängler’s piano concerto (entitled “Symphonic Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in B minor”) in his repertoire! Indeed, Amazon even has a Web page for the recording that Then-Bergh made of this concerto with Rafael Kubelik conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. (The recording in that big box has Furtwängler conducting Edwin Fischer.)

Fortunately, Furtwängler’s interest was not the only feature to attract my attention. As a listener I am always interested in expanding my repertoire; and, where Max Reger is concerned, that repertoire has been almost entirely confined to his organ music. Thus Then-Bergh’s recording of Opus 114 was a “first contact” opportunity that I could not resist. The CD also includes the Opus 134 set of 23 variations and a fugue on a theme of Georg Philipp Telemann (although Variation 21 is missing), along with two of the seven short pieces that Reger collected under the title Silhouetten (silhouettes), his earlier Opus 53.

To be fair, Reger’s music is not to everyone’s liking. There is a thickness to his approach to voicing and counterpoint that fares better in the hands of an organist who knows how to make judicious assignments to the different keyboards and the stops they control. When all of those notes are crammed onto a piano keyboard, it is easy to wonder whether there might be too many of them; but we should remember that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was confronted with similar criticism. As I discovered when writing about Reger’s organ music, the mind behind the ear can gradually acclimate itself to his thick textures; and, if recordings have any virtue at all, it is their ability to allow one to repeat a listening experience several times in the interest of such acclimatization. Nevertheless, since Then-Bergh is the only pianist I have encountered (on recording or in performance) to play Reger’s piano music, I have to confess that I lack the experience to assess just how good a job he is doing.

Fortunately, this is not the case with the rest of the CD. The primary offering by Ludwig van Beethoven is the Opus 101 sonata in A major. At the other end of the pendulum swing, I have lost track of the number of recordings and performances of this sonata that I have experienced. Nevertheless, I was definitely drawn to this one, rather than feeling that it was “just another one.” Whether any of his tempo decisions involved the time constraints of the duration of a single 78 RPM side, there is an urgency to his performance that works to great positive effect in his interpretation of this sonata; and it is likely to be a recording that I shall be inclined to revisit. By way of contrast the CD also includes two of the seven Opus 33 bagatelles, making a clear case that Then-Bergh was aware of Beethoven’s capacity for wit.

On the other hand the Beethoven sonata is followed by Robert Schumann’s Opus 22 (second) sonata in G minor. This sonata abounds with full-out salvos of notes, usually delivered at maximum tempo (and then faster). Fortunately, Then-Bergh has a clear understanding of where the music itself resides within that overload of auditory stimuli. Indeed, his approach to interpreting this sonata may explain his ambitions to apply his skills to the thick textures of his Reger selections.

That vigorous energy is also present in abundance in his two “Baroque” selections, scare quotes because these are clearly nineteenth-century perceptions of George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach. In the latter case that perception is actually based on Ferruccio Busoni’s famous (or notorious, depending on personal tastes) arrangement of the chaconne that concludes the BWV 1004 solo violin partita. The Handel selection, on the other hand, is the fourth (in E minor) from a collection of eight keyboard suites published in 1720, sometimes known as “the eight great suites.” In this case Then-Bergh is following Handel’s “text,” rather than Busoni’s; and, if his touch and free play of dynamics follow the aesthetic conventions of the nineteenth century, there is a clarity in his ability to sort out the contrapuntal voices, which is right up there with the traits that I recently admired in Sviatoslav Richter’s approach to Handel.

Thus, if APR was out to make the case that Then-Bergh deserves to be better known than he currently is, particularly in the United States, than the recordings on this release offer up a generous supply of warrants.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 1/23/2017

Things are beginning to come back up to speed as we approach the end of the first month of a new year. Even the January calendar for the Center for New Music (C4NM) seems to have last-minute addition, while the Sunset Music | Arts Chamber/Ensemble Series will begin with some adventurous modernism from the last century. This will also be the first “double header” week of the new year from Outsound Presents. Here are the specifics:

Tuesday, January 24, 8:30 p.m., Elbo Room: This bar in the Mission will host a three-set evening of rock styles that venture far from the beaten path. Most familiar to regular readers will be the Grex art rock trio consisting of Karl Evangelista on guitar, Rei Scampavia on keyboards, and Robert Lopez on drums. A more psychedelic style will be offered by Cash Pony. This is a quartet of guitarists Charles Lloyd and Owen Kelley, bassist Stephen A. Wright, and drummer Gabe Katz. The remaining set will be taken by the experimental rock group VOCO, a trio of Alex Yeung on guitar, Tim Sullivan on drums, and Josh Martin on bass. The Elbo Room is located in the Mission at 647 Valencia Street. There will be a $6 cover charge.

Tuesday, January 24, 9 p.m., Bottom of the Hill: Bottom of the Hill has a reputation for being one of the noisiest venues in the city. The one time I visited the place, I found that the best way to listen to the music itself was from outside the front door. Their reputation is likely to continue with an evening of three sets, each a little less than an hour. Darren Johnston will open with a selection of songs and tunes he has called Broken Shadows. He will be followed by the return of Jack o’ the Clock, which apparently took a break to build up their decibel strength. In the final set Chris Peck will lead the group Ancient Baby.

Bottom of the Hill gets its name from being located at the foot of Potrero Hill at 1233 17th Street. Admission will be $10 at the door. However, tickets purchased in advance will be $8. Online purchase of tickets in advance is being handled by a Stubmatic.com event page.

Wednesday, January 25, 7:30 p.m., C4NM: The recent addition to this month’s calendar is a solo recital by pianist Holly Bowling. The full title of her program is An Evening with Holly Bowling: The Music of Phish & The Grateful Dead Reimagined for Solo Piano. Her arrangements are based on her own transcriptions of improvisations by both of these groups.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission tickets will be sold at the door for $20. As usual, there will be a $15 rate for C4NM members; but this rate will also apply to advance purchases made online through a Vendini event page.

Thursday, January 26, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: The first Outsound Presents offering this week will be the weekly concert in the Luggage Store Creative Music series. This will be the usual evening of two sets, each a bit less than an hour. The opening set will be taken by the Key West trio of Brian Pedersen (saxophones), Sung Kim (ozukuri) and Randylee Sutherland (drums). They will be followed by the diverse sonorities of Swimming in Bengal. Tony Passarell divides his efforts among saxophone, flute, acoustic bass, harmonium, and percussion. Percussion is also provided by Rusi Gustafson, and Jed Brewer plays gourd guitar. The Luggage Store Gallery is at 1007 Market Street, directly across from the Golden Gate Theatre at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. As always admission will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

Saturday, January 28, 7:30 p.m., Bird and Beckett Books and Records: The latest jazz offering at Bird and Beckett will be a trio led by Kasey Knudsen on alto saxophone with rhythm provided by Miles Wick on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. These gigs usually consist of two sets. Bird and Beckett Books and Records is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. Admission is free, but donations are always appreciated. The collections of both books and records are pretty impressive, so making a purchase will also be looked upon with great favor!

Saturday, January 28, 8 p.m., The Lab: This venue kicks off the new year with a performance by the Moe! Staiano Guitar Ensemble. Guitarists performing with Staiano will be Suki O'Kane, Karl Evangelista, Jay Korber, Jacob McCann, Matt Montgomery, Melne Murphy, Damon Waitkus, Robin Hiroko Walsh, Drew Wheeler, and Bill Wolter with Vicky Grossi on bass. The group will perform Away Towards the Light, a three-movement composition. There will also be an opening set by Ava Mendoza on electric guitar.

The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street, where there is both a BART station and bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Admission will be $12 with no charge for members of The Lab. Doors will open at 8 p.m.; and, since there is usually a large turnout for these events, early arrival is highly recommended, as is advance registration.

Sunday, January 29, 7:30 p.m., The Musicians Union Hall: The second offering from Outsound Presents will be the first Static Illusion Methodical Madness Series concert of the new year. The opening set will be entitled The Art of Skatch. The invented instrument duo called T.D. Skatchit will perform with oboist Kyle Bruckmann. They will be followed by the Sl(e)ight Ensemble, whose members are Jacob Lane on piano, Mia Bella D’Augelli on violin, Erika Oba on flute, and Devon Thrumston on cello. The Musicians Union Hall is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $15.

Sunday, January 29, 7:30 p.m., SFJAZZ Center: The Rova Saxophone Quartet will reprise their performance of John Coltrane’s “Ascension,” which was conceived to celebrate the 40th anniversary of this landmark composition. This piece has achieved monumental status in the history of free jazz practices. The original recording brought together eleven performers; and, on this occasion Rova will be jointed by Fred Frith on bass, Don Robinson on drums, Zeena Parkins on harp, and Trey Spruance on guitar. The second half of the evening will be a program entitled No Favorites and conceived as an homage to Butch Morris. Rova will be joined by a string quartet and a “power trio” of electric guitar, electric bass, and drums.

This program will take place in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center, which is located at 201 Franklin Street on the northwest corner of Fell Street. All tickets for this event will be $35. Ticket may be purchased in advance online from an event page on the SFJAZZ Web site.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

ECM to Release Gidon Kremer’s Second Weinberg Album

In 2014 ECM New Series released a two-CD album of performances by Kremerata Baltica and its Artistic Director Gidon Kremer that probably introduced many listeners to the music of Mieczysław Weinberg. The first disc presented three of the composer’s chamber music compositions, while the second offered a concertino (Opus 42) for violin and string orchestra and the Opus 98 (tenth) symphony, also scored for string orchestra. Weinberg was born in Warsaw in 1919 but fled to the Soviet Union after the Nazis began their invasion of Poland. He eventually came to Moscow in 1943 at the suggestion of Dmitri Shostakovich. At that time Shostakovich knew Weinberg only by his compositions, but the two subsequently became close friends.

This coming Friday ECM New Series will release a second Kremerata Baltica album, again with two CDs, that will continue Kremer’s project of recording Weinberg’s music. If the first release served as a “sampler” of Weinberg’s works, the new recording is more focused. It surveys the four chamber symphonies that Weinberg composed during the last decade of his life, between 1986 and 1992. (Weinberg died in 1996.) Indeed, the fourth chamber symphony (Opus 153) was his last completed composition. Because these four pieces fill about one and one-half CDs, the release also includes a chamber orchestra arrangement of Weinberg’s Opus 18 piano quintet, composed in 1944. This new recording also constitutes a double anniversary celebration, since Kremer will turn 70 on February 27 and Kremerata Baltica will turn twenty, since it was founded in 1997.

The inclusion of the arrangement of Opus 18 is consistent with the rest of the album, because all four of the chamber symphonies involve reworking earlier material. Thus, the first three chamber symphonies took, as points of departure, the second, third, and fifth string quartets. Note that phrase “points of departure.” Six of Shostakovich’s string quartets were rearranged as “chamber-symphonies.” Five of them were by Rudolf Barshai for his Moscow Chamber Orchestra, one with Shostakovich’s authorization. Weinberg, on the other hand, revisited thematic materials, exploring new ways to work with them; and, in the final chamber symphony, he turned to later works other than the string quartets to engage the same sort of process. Those interested in exploring Weinberg’s rethinking process may wish to consult the album of his complete string quartets recorded by Quatuor Danel. Opus 18, on the other hand, is the object of reworking, just as the Shostakovich quartets were such objects for Barshai.

It is worth noting that the chamber music of Shostakovich can also be taken as providing orientation for all five selections on this album. There are many ways in which Weinberg’s rhetorical stances parallel those of Shostakovich. However, there are also rhetorical moves that are distinctly Weinberg’s own, particularly when they involve percussion instruments. Thus the string ensemble for the second chamber symphony is augmented by a timpani part, while the final chamber symphony adds parts for both clarinet and triangle. The triangle is struck only four times in the final movement, but the rhetorical impact is overwhelming. (Shostakovich also knew how the use the triangle strategically; but, in this particular chamber symphony, Weinberg is definitely on his own turf.)

Similarly, the Opus 18 piano quintet was composed in 1944, after Weinberg’s move to Moscow; but there is a clear sense that he was aware of the piano quintet Shostakovich had written in 1940. On the other hand the arrangement on this album has much more to do with Weinberg than with Shostakovich. For one thing it was written by Kremer working with Andrei Pushkarev, the percussionist performing on the recordings of the second and fourth chamber symphonies. In addition there are solo parts for four Kremerata Baltica section leaders, violinists Džeraldas Bidva and Dainius Puodžiukas, violist Santa Vižine, and cellist Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė. As a result pianist Yulianna Avdeeva finds herself playing with both a string quartet and a chamber orchestra (as well as Pushkarev on percussion).

From a personal point of view, I must say that I took to this new release more readily than I did the first one. However, that may just have to do with the fact that I have familiarized myself with a fair amount of Weinberg’s work since 2014. On the other hand it is probably also the case that connections to Shostakovich (not to mention an even broader legacy of chamber music for piano and strings) facilitate orienting to those structural and rhetorical elements that are distinctively Weinberg’s own. Most important is that a revived interest in Weinberg still seems to be on an ascent, and this new recording does much to further boost the elevation of that repertoire.