Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Satoko Fujii will Return to C4NM for a “Percussive Dance” Performance

Pianist Satoko Fujii last visited the Center for New Music (C4NM) a little over a year ago to lead a program entitled Existence: Quartet Music for Improvisers. In two weeks she will return for another round of free improvisations. This time she will be joined by Mizuki, a dancer who specializes in “body music,” incorporating the use of her body as a percussion instruments as part of her improvised choreography. The resulting synthesis of contemporary jazz with a percussive approach to dance is called “Hakidame ni Tsuru” (crane in the wasteland). On the musical side Fuji has assembled like-minded experimental improvisers such as trumpeter Kappa Maki (who performed with Fuji at C4NM last year), guitarist Yasuhiro Usui, and percussionist Takaaki Masuko. Here is a previous performance of “Hakidame ni Tsuru” with trumpeter Natsuki Tamura replacing Maki:

uploaded to YouTube by Mizuki

Larry Ochs (who curated last year’s Existence concert) will provide an opening set for the evening, improvising with Tania Chen on piano and prepared piano and Darren Johnston alternating between trumpet and prepared trumpet; this will be the first time these three musicians have performed as a group.

This concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Ticket prices will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members. Tickets are also available for advance purchase online through a Vendini event page.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 2/27/2017

Most of this week’s adventurous offerings will be taking place at the Center for New Music and have already been reported. However, avant-garde saxophonist Arrington de Dionyso is currently on a tour, which he has entitled This Saxophone Kills Fascists. He usually works with electronics; and his style tends to combine dancehall rhythms with the trance-inducing styles encountered in Javanese gamelan music. He jams with different like-minded players during different stages of the tour. Here he is at an earlier stage of the tour in Los Angeles on December 17 jamming with drummer Sam Klickner:

uploaded to YouTube by tvmtn

He is now in the Bay Area, and this week he will be giving two performances in San Francisco.

Thursday, March 2, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: His first appearance will be as the featured artist in this week’s installment of the Luggage Store Creative Music series. He will be performing with Ted Byrnes, Ken Ueno, and Matt Ingalls. The Luggage Store Gallery is at 1007 Market Street, directly across from the Golden Gate Theatre at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. As always admission will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

Sunday, March 5, 8:30 p.m., Hemlock Tavern: De Dionyso will take the middle set of a three-set evening. He will be preceded by ALTO!, which will have nothing to do with saxophones. The group is a trio led by Derek Monypeny, whose other members are Steven T. Stone and Kyle Reid Emory. They work collectively with percussion and electronics, and Monypeny also plays guitar. The group is based in Portland, and they use electronics to weave polyrhythmic textures against which they can improvise. The remaining set will be taken by Oakland-based guitarist Chuck Johnson, who also works with electronics. Each set will probably last one hour.

The Hemlock Tavern is located at 1131 Polk Street, between Post Street and Sutter Street. Admission will be $10. Only those aged 21 or older will be admitted.

West Edge Opera Showcases Recent Operatic Efforts

Yesterday afternoon at the Bayview Opera House, West Edge Opera presented the San Francisco performance of the second of two offerings in a series entitled Snapshot. Conceived and curated by Brian M. Rosen, the program sheet described the series in terms of three opportunities: “the opportunity for a composer to get his or her work on its feet, the opportunity for you [the audience] to be exposed to new work, and the opportunity for West Edge Opera to become a leading advocate for local composers and new opera in the Bay Area.” Yesterday’s program presented the efforts of four of those composers. Carla Lucero wrote her own libretto. Linda Bouchard compiled her libretto using The Book of Embraces, the English translation of Eduardo Galeano’s El libro de los abrazos, for her sources. The remaining two composers worked with librettists, Liam Wade with Vynnie Meli and Allen Shearer with his wife Claudia Stevens.

Six vocalists contributed to yesterday’s performance, sopranos Amy Foote and Julia Hathaway, mezzo Molly Mahoney, tenors Joseph Meyers and Darron Flagg, and baritone Daniel Cilli. Instrumental accompaniment was provided by the Earplay chamber orchestra. For this occasion there were nine solo musicians: Stacey Pelinka (flute), Nick Di Scala (clarinet), Erin Irvine (bassoon), Kate Stenberg (violin), Erin Ruth Rose (viola), Leighton Fond (cello), Kristin Zoernig (bass), Keisuke Nakagoshi (piano), and Kevin Neuhoff (percussion). For Bouchard’s score Pelinka, Stenberg, and Fong supplemented the percussion section. Conducting was shared by Earplay’s Mary Chun (for Lucero and Bouchard) and Jonathan Khuner, Musical Director of West Edge Opera. (Khuner also performed in the Bouchard selection.)

The diversity across the four offerings was extensive. At one extreme Wade contributed a ten-minute opera performed in its entirety. The Atlanta Opera runs an annual 24-Hour Opera Project. Participating composers and librettists are paired off by a chance procedure, and each team is required to create a short opera in its entirety over the course of 24 hours. All the results are then performed before an audience. Wade and Meli came up with “The Stranger the Better,” an outrageous parody of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. This won the Audience Favorite Award, and performances have been scheduled in both St. Louis and Austin.

Yesterday it was easy to see why the Atlanta audience made its choice. Every cliché from Williams’ play was mercilessly tweaked, while Blanche DuBois was sung by the (bearded) tenor Myers in a thoroughly ludicrous drag. The spirit was defined immediately with Cilli’s first bellow of “Stella,” while Foote played up all of Stella’s weaknesses. What was impressive was how much of “the real thing” Meli managed to pack into her libretto; but just as impressive was Wade’s facility in turning every familiar moment on its head.

The other extreme of the pendulum swing was taken by Bouchard’s approach to Galeano. This was the third scene of a larger project entitled “The House of Words.” I once saw Galeano interviewed on Book TV. He talked about the primacy of memory in his work and about how he tries to maintain memory by collecting and telling stories. However, Bouchard’s scene was not so much a story as it was the result of a jam session among competing storytellers, telling their tales in an astonishing counterpoint.

The heart of the scene was an extended monologue by God (Meyers), who is still trying to understand how things went wrong in the Garden of Eden. Other scraps of narration were delivered in a party-like atmosphere, with the extended percussion work suggesting this was all taking place at a pre-Lenten carnival. The result was a delightful chaos in which the satirical rubbed shoulders with the serious, leaving one wondering what the eventual full scale of “The House of Words” will turn out to be.

The two selections performed before the intermission, on the other hand, were closer to what one tends to expect of opera. Lucero’s Touch has been planned as a full-length opera about Helen Keller (Mahoney) and the two major relationships in her life, the first with Anne Sullivan (Hathaway), teacher and companion, and the second with her lover Peter Fagan (Myers). The scene performed yesterday was entitled “One O’Clock;” and it focused on Sullivan’s attitude towards Fagan emerging as mixture of suspicion and jealousy. While it was clearly difficult to appreciate the full extent of this scene taken out of context, one could still appreciate Lucero’s craft in advancing the narrative flow through both the content of her words and the context established by her music.

Howards End, America is the latest Shearer-Stevens partnership. Like their previous collaboration Middlemarch in Spring, it involves taking a literary source and transplanting it to a more recent context. In this case E. M. Forster’s novel has been relocated to Boston in the Fifties, a time when the class distinction of the Boston Brahmins was finally beginning to recede (due in no small part to Congressional representation by John F. Kennedy, who was decidedly not Brahmin). More importantly, this was a time when the northern elites were not yet aware of the activities of Martin Luther King Jr. in the south; and even a city like Boston had its own way of practicing discreet segregation. Thus, in the Shearer-Stevens version Leonard Bast (Flagg) is black, making his illegitimate child with Helen Schlegel (Foote) of mixed race.

The excerpt from the third act performed yesterday afternoon included both the episode of Helen giving birth to the child and the clubbing to death of Bast by Charles Wilcox (Cilli). This was the most dramatically intense offering of the afternoon. More importantly, it was presented with a clarity that would have registered even with those unfamiliar with the novel. (On the other hand those who did know the book may have found the use of Forster’s epigrammatic “only connect” to be a bit forced.) This excerpt definitely put this rethinking of Howards End in a favorable light, but it will be interesting to see whether the fit of the novel to the entire opera will be a good one.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

SFP and SFS will Join Forces for Two Major Recitals Next Month

Next month two major soloists will return to Davies Symphony Hall to give recitals presented jointly by San Francisco Performances (SFP) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS).

The first of these visitors will be pianist András Schiff, who last came to San Francisco in October of 2015. That was when he completed this three-concert series of the last piano sonatas composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. He then returned to Davies to take the SFS podium to lead of a program of music by Mozart (the K. 595 piano concerto in B-flat major, which he conducted from the keyboard), Haydn (the Hoboken XXII/11 Mass setting in D minor), and Schubert (featuring songs sung by the Mass soloists accompanied by Schiff at the keyboard).

Next month’s recital will consist entirely of more Schubert selections. Following up on his last cycle of recitals, the second half of the program will feature the D. 894 sonata in G major, the last sonata Schubert composed prior to his final three (all of which were composed in one frantic burst of activity in September of 1828 within months of his death). While D. 894 was composed in October of 1826, in many ways it constitutes a foretaste of Schubert’s venture into extended durations for his sonata movements. D. 894 will be complemented by Schiff beginning his program with the D. 845 sonata in A minor, a work described by publisher A. Pennauer as “Première grande Sonate.” Between these two sonatas Schiff will play the four D. 935 impromptus (which he recorded on his 2015 ECM album) and the three D. 946 pieces, the first of which just appeared on Schiff’s latest album Encores after Beethoven.

This concert will take place on Monday, March 12, beginning at 8 p.m. Ticket prices range from $35 to $99. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. In addition City Box Office has an event page through which it is selling tickets for SFP.

The second visiting recitalist will be violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who will be appearing with pianist Lambert Orkis as her accompanist. She will begin her program with “Clockwork,” which Sebastian Currier composed in 1989. The other twentieth-century composer on the program will be Ottorino Respighi with his B minor sonata. The nineteenth century will be represented by Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 28, his A minor “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso,” which he composed in 1863 for the virtuoso violinist Pablo de Sarasate. The one composition from the eighteenth century will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 526 sonata in A major.

This concert will take place on Sunday, March 26, beginning at 7 p.m. Ticket prices range from $35 to $125. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

“The Source” Uses the Taube Atrium Theatre to Impressively Stunning Advantage

Last night SF Opera Lab presented the second of six performances of Ted Hearne’s “The Source,” a 75-minute oratorio, which may well be the first major vocal composition based on texts from WikiLeaks. Indeed, the very title of the piece may refer primarily to WikiLeaks, although the libretto by Mark Doten introduces two major characters, Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning (drawing upon his/her own words from chat logs) and Julian Assange (represented primarily through questions asked of him by interviewers). However, neither Manning nor Assange is a “character” in this oratorio; and all texts are delivered by four singers, Melissa Hughes, Samia Morris, Isaiah Robinson, and Jonathan Woody. The accompanying ensemble consisted of Nathan Koci, conducting from an electronic keyboard, Jennifer Cho on violin, Natalia Vershilova on viola, Emil Miland on cello, Taylor Levine on guitar, Greg Chudzik on bass, and Ron Wiltrout on drums.

However, the score and the resources for performing that score were only part of the story. Jim Findlay conceived a design for the production that involved surrounding the audience with content. The floor of the Taube Atrium Theater at the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera was divided roughly in half. The audience sat on chairs on the floor in two groups that faced each other. However, sight was directed upward, rather than forward, since there were massive projection screens on all four sides of the Atrium space. (The musicians were behind one of those screens.)

by Stefan Cohen, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera

The screens were used for video projections created by Findlay working with Daniel Fish. The overall staging was then directed by Fish, although the only major element beyond the video was the positioning of the four vocalists on the four corners of a square at audience level. Each was seated in front of a microphone, and it was clear that Fish felt that sight of any of them was purely incidental.

Aside from occasional projections of libretto text, the images consisted entirely of faces. Any motion was minimal and probably accidental. For the most part distance was fixed with only rare use of zoom. Findlay and Fish clearly wanted these faces to be as neutral as possible; but the result of that neutrality was that they were as haunting as any of the close-up facial shots founds in the films that Godfrey Reggio created for his collaborations with Philip Glass. (One of the faces almost felt like a photograph taken by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression come back to life. That was one of the images selected for zoom treatment, which made it even more chilling.) The overall result was one of a highly intense and literally immersive experience that can probably go on record as the best exploitation of the full flexibility of Atrium resources to date.

As might be guessed, that exploitation included the audio system. The score turned out to be a highly imaginative blend of vocal writing, electronic processing of vocal performance, instrumental performance, and pre-recorded sources. The listening experience itself was guided by large loudspeakers at the four corners of the Atrium space. Sometimes these served primarily to sort out the many threads of activity that constituted Hearne’s ingeniously elaborate musical fabric; but, every now and then, they would also serve to direct attention, usually to dramatic advantage.

A libretto was provided along with the program. However, the space was, for the most part, too dark for reading. This was just as well, since attention to the libretto pages would be attention drawn away from the physical ambience of the performance (not to mention the performance itself). Doten chose his words well (perhaps with input from Hearne), because the diction of the singers was almost always clear enough that seeing the text was not necessary. (Where it wasn’t, that seems to have been intentional. Hearne was very good at using repetition as a device through which clarity would gradually emerge.)

The overall result was an oratorio that was very much for the immediate present. The partnership of composer, librettist, and designers crafted a “well wrought urn” whose structure and content tower above just about all (if not entirely all) recent approaches to the genre. Indeed, the impact of this creation on those of us who take the performing arts seriously may well be as great as the impact that WikiLeaks has had on how we think about the world in which we are embedded.

Hearne is no stranger when it comes to working with material “ripped from the headlines,” as was the case with his earlier oratorio “Katrina Ballads.” However, with “The Source” he has taken awareness of contemporary conditions to a new level. One can only wonder whether he has begun to take notes on the day-by-day events unfolding in the headlines of news reports over the last few months.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Next Month Two Guest Conductors will Return to the SFS Podium

When the plans for four separate subscription programs in March by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) prepared by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas were announced at the beginning of this month, it was also noted that there would be two weeks of visiting conductors between the first and second of those programs. Each of those weeks will involve the return of a familiar guest conductor along with the return of a familiar guest artist. Specifics are as follows:

The conductor for the first week will be Marek Janowski, last seen on the SFS podium in January of 2016, when he prepared an imaginative program of two symphonies by Ludwig van Beethoven separated by the preludes for each of the three acts of Hans Pfitzner’s opera Palestrina. Since that was an all-symphonic program, there was no guest soloist. However, when Janowski visited in May of 2013, Arabella Steinbacher was one of two visiting soloists in a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 102 “double” concerto in A minor. This time she will be the only soloist in the first SFS performances of Paul Hindemith’s violin concerto. This will be the central section of the conventional overture-concerto-symphony structure. The overture will be Beethoven’s Opus 62, which he wrote for a performance of the play Coriolan by Heinrich Joseph von Collin. The symphony will be Johannes Brahms’ Opus 98 (fourth) in E minor.

This concert will be given four performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 9, Friday, March 10, and Saturday, March 11, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 12. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Scott Foglesong that will begin one hour prior to each concert. Doors to the lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $15 to $162. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about the Brahms symphony and sound clips of previous SFS performances of both that symphony and the Beethoven overture. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

In addition, this week’s performances will be preceded by the next Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Foglesong at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the pieces rehearsed are at the conductor’s discretion. General admission is $30 with $40 for reserved seats in the Premiere Orchestra section, the Side and Rear Boxes, and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

The following week Slovakian conductor Juraj Valčuha will make his fourth visit to the SFS podium. His soloist will be another violinist and familiar face in Daviesl, Gil Shaham. The concerto will be Samuel Barber’s Opus 14, one of the compositions that Shaham has recorded as part of his 1930s Violin Concertos project. This will be preceded by another SFS premiere, the first performances of Franz Schreker’s 1916 chamber symphony, composed about ten years after Arnold Schoenberg’s first chamber symphony, his Opus 9 in E major. The symphony for the second half of the program will be Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 92 (seventh) in A major.

This concert will be given only three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 16, Friday, March 17, and Saturday, March 18. There will be an Inside Music talk given by James Keller that will begin one hour prior to each concert. Doors to the Davies lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $15 to $162. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about the Beethoven symphony and sound clips of previous SFS performances of that symphony. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Violinist Beilman Debuts with Three Styles of Modernism and Brahms

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Performances presented the first of the three programs in its Young Masters Series. The “young master” in question was 26-year-old American violinist Benjamin Beilman, making his San Francisco recital debut accompanied by South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, also making his San Francisco recital debut. The preview piece I wrote about his concert described the program Beilman prepared as “ambitious.” Having now experienced that program, I wonder if that was a bit of an understatement.

Beilman performed only four pieces, two on either side of the intermission. However, the first three surveyed an impressively diverse assortment of modernist stances, all of which were composed less than one hundred years ago. The most recent of these was Kaija Saariaho’s “Tocar,” which she composed in 2010. The most challenging, at least for the composer, was Maurice Ravel’s G major sonata, which he worked on between 1923 and 1927. The earliest of the three pieces was Béla Bartók’s second violin sonata, composed in 1922. None of these pieces get much exposure on the concert stage; and, while I have come to know all of them through recordings, this was probably my first account of all of them in performance.

“Tocar” is a Spanish verb, which may seem a bit out of the ordinary for a Finnish composer. However, while the primary meaning of the word is “to touch,” it is also the verb “to play” when applied to a musical instrument. What appealed to Saariaho was this underlying connotation that making music was a matter of physical contact.

Those who have followed Saariaho’s work know that she often attaches more significance to sonority than to more traditional formal elements, such as harmony or counterpoint. “Tocar” is very much a study in how different forms of contact elicit different sonorities from the violin. Those differences are often subtle; but, because Beilman executed all of them with confident clarity, the attentive listener had no trouble apprehending Saariaho’s logic. The piece is only about seven minutes in duration, but Beilman clearly enjoyed it as an exploratory journey. Through his delivery, that joy could easily be shared by those willing to listen.

This deliberate act of coaxing listener attention was just as evident in his approach to Ravel as it was in “Tocar.” The G major sonata was clearly a major challenge for Ravel, a challenge that had much to do with the wide acoustic differences between the percussive sounds of the piano with their “preordained” decay envelopes and the capacity of the violin to sustain its sounds. After years of struggle, what emerged amounted to a study in which incongruity is addressed through separation.

Many are likely to find the opening Allegretto movement perplexing. While its motifs are easily recognizable, they never congeal into anything that one might call a recognizable theme. Furthermore, there is very much a sense that Ravel has dispensed with any rhetoric of “exchange” that one tends to expect from chamber music. It is as if the music is some large public park in which violinist and pianist are ambling around on different paths. Most of the features of that park come to the attention of each of them, but never at the same time. It is almost as if their two parts had been written independently and then superposed.

Both Beilman and Yekwon seemed quite comfortable with this rhetoric of separation. Most impressive was how both of them took a particularly subdued approach to execution, thus capturing the self-absorption of those two wanderers in the park. They were also aware that there was only one critical climax in this movement (when the two wanderers catch sight of each other?); and the way in which the intensity of that climax rose above both what preceded and what followed was thoroughly captivating.

This sonata is often best known because Ravel attached the word “Blues” to the Moderato tempo marking of the second movement. It is unlikely that Ravel had any exposure to the “roots” version of blues; but the dates are such that he was probably aware of George Gershwin’s two best-known works for piano and orchestra, “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924) and the 1925 concerto. There is some sense of a solo wailing against accompaniment, but the accompaniment often comes from the strummed strings of the violin. (There may be a connection here to early jazz bands, whose rhythm sections often included a banjo.) Melodically, the movement again has more to do with recurring motifs than with passages that might be taken as themes.

This highly evocative (if not necessarily bluesy) movement is then capped off by the concluding Perpetuum mobile movement. This is an almost frightening wild outburst, suggesting that both players could no longer confine all the energy suppressed during the first two movements. Both Beilman and Yekwon rose to the occasion with infectiously captivating energy. This was such a delightfully convincing account that one had to wonder why this sonata is not performed in recital more often.

Similarly, the Bartók sonata deserves more attention than it seems to be getting these days. There is an almost improvisatory feel, particularly during the unfolding of the opening Molto moderato movement (the first of two). The following Allegretto is then an almost unrestrained eruption of energy with suggestions of themes that seem to recur persistently, if not regularly. Beilman’s calm demeanor through both the improvisations and the bursts of energy was particularly noteworthy. He was clearly focused on bringing out Bartók’s voice with as much clarity as he could muster, while his own behavior reflected a willingness to serve as a messenger, rather than to co-opt the message.

The “secure ground” of Beilman’s program came with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 108 sonata in D minor. This is the only one of Brahms’ three violin sonatas in four movements. From a formal point of view, the music is on much more familiar (or at least traditional) ground. Nevertheless, in the context of a program that began with the Ravel sonata, there was definitely a sense of an exploratory rhetoric. This hypothesis can be warranted by teasing out details among all the marks on the score pages, but the case could be made just as strongly by that calm demeanor that Beilman has cultivated so well. The result was familiar Brahms enjoying the benefits of strikingly new lighting.

After all of that exploration, there was something refreshing about Beilman concluding the evening with a “fun” encore. This was Fritz Kreisler’s Opus 3 “Tambourin Chinois.” Since this was composed in 1910, it occupied that part of the timeline between Brahms and the three modernists on the program. However, this music was unabashedly composed for crowd-pleasing entertainment; and both Beilman and Yekwon definitely knew how to enjoy themselves with it.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Next Month’s Concert with Conversation at CMC will Present Jazz Trumpeter Sean Jones

Regular readers probably know by now that this evening the Community Music Center (CMC) will host its next Concert with Conversation event, presenting Scottish-born classical guitarist David Russell prior to the full-evening recital he will give on Saturday for San Francisco Performances (SFP). Those unable to make it to CMC because of how busy this evening is will probably be happy to hear that they will have to wait only two weeks for the next Concert with Conversation. Next month’s event will again result from CMC’s partnership with SFP in planning this series.

Next month the “topic of conversation” will shift from the classical guitar repertoire to jazz. The visiting artist will be Sean Jones, whose is currently an SFP Jazz Artist-in-Residence. Readers may recall that, at the end of last September, Jones was one of the artists selected to perform at the Heartfelt Gala, organized to honor SFP founder Ruth Felt after her 37 years of leading the organization. On that occasion Jones led a trio with rhythm provided by Edward Simon on piano and Marcus Shelby on bass, but his current plan is to visit CMC as a soloist. He will offer examples of his own approach to jazz, which will probably be colored by personal thoughts about the rich history of jazz and where he sees himself in that flow from past to present. As is always the case with these events, he will be prepared to take questions from the audience.

This session will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 10. 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.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Next Birthday Honoree in the Fête Concert Series will be Kurt Weill

The next birthday celebrant in the 2016–17 season of the Fête Concert Series will be Kurt Weill, whose 116th birthday will be on March 2. Pianist Paul Dab will join forces with baritone Sergey Khalikulov and three sopranos, Chelsea Hollow, Carolyn Bacon, and Jordan Amann. While he was briefly active in Paris, Weill is best known for his work in Germany, particularly working with Bertolt Brecht as his librettist, and subsequently for his work on Broadway musicals after his move to the United States. Both of these sides of his career will be presented. The Brecht collaborations will include selections from The Threepenny Opera and The Seven Deadly Sins, a “sung ballet” with a German libretto by Brecht that was commissioned and produced during Weill’s time in Paris. The musicals that will be featured will be Knickerbocker Holiday, One Touch of Venus, and Lost in the Stars. Traditionally, the concert includes an arrangement of “Happy Birthday to You” in the style of the composer being honored. The “Weill-style” arrangement will be prepared by Joseph Colombo.

This concert will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 4. The venue will be the Community Music Center Concert Hall at 544 Capp Street in the Mission between 20th Street and 21st Street and between Mission Street and Van Ness Avenue. As was announced at the beginning of the season, Brown Paper Tickets created a single event page for the sale of single tickets, which gets updated each time a concert has been given. General admission is $15 with a $10 rate for seniors and students. Admission includes not only the music but also wine, cheese, and birthday-appropriate dessert. Party hats are also provided.

Leila Josefowicz Impressively Transcends the Flaws of “Scheherazade.2”

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), gave its first performance of John Adams’ “Scheherazade.2” Adams wrote this piece in 2014 on a joint commission by the New York Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The Philharmonic had the honor of presenting the world premiere with violinist Leila Josefowicz as soloist and Alan Gilbert conducting. This past September Nonesuch Records released the first recording of the piece with Josefowicz performing the the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson.

Adams was present at Davies last night for both a pre-concert discussion and then to address the full audience before the performance began. (“Scheherazade.2” was the only piece on the first half of last night’s program.) On both of those occasions, he chose to make a passing reference to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov having “sleepwalked” through the tales in Arabian Nights while composing his Opus 35, which he titled “Scheherazade.” Opus 35 amounted to a dramatic symphony (to use the terminology of Hector Berlioz) and a symphony-concerto. Adams also used the descriptive phrase “dramatic symphony” but clearly wanted to distance himself from Rimsky-Korsakov, which was evident when he described “Scheherazade.2” as “a virtuoso romantic symphony-concerto on the grand scale which acknowledges its predecessors in works by Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bartók, and Berg.”

However, as this site observed when discussing the recording, there is a serious flaw in Adams’ perspective of Rimsky-Korsakov. He could have called his Opus 35 Arabian Nights, but there is a very good reason why he did not. Just as Scheherazade herself serves as the connecting thread across the 1001 tales in Arabian Nights, so did Rimsky-Korsakov enlist a solo violin part to serve as the teller of the four tales behind the titles of the four movements of Opus 35. Far from sleepwalking, Rimsky-Korsakov summoned up considerable conscious skill to create a piece of music that managed to embody not only the four tales but also the teller of those tales and her acts of narration. One might even conjecture that his skill in the interleaving of narrative and narration would later be pursued even more adventurously by his best-known pupil, Igor Stravinsky.

None of this seems to have registered with Adams. He transformed Scheherazade from a clever and resourceful concubine, making up stories as if her life depended on it (which it did), into a clever and resourceful contemporary Muslim woman trapped in a social world dominated by male fundamentalists. While this looks good on paper, Adams’ command of instrumental rhetoric never quite rose to realize this goal as a coherent listening experience. Ironically, for all the names of composers that he dropped, there was an unmistakable ambience of the Opus 35 violin concerto written for Jascha Heifetz by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer with a consummate gift for providing a musical setting for many of the great Hollywood films of the Thirties and Forties. Korngold’s command of narrative and narration was right up there with Rimsky-Korsakov’s; and, while several of the violin lines had an arching structure that Korngold favored, Adams never quite knew how to handle any deeper foundation for such surface features.

However, if the music has flaws, Josefowicz still deserves more than generous credit for evoking the voice of this latter-day Scheherazade so compellingly. This was more than a matter of technique, which can easily be appreciated on the Nonesuch recording. Rather, it also involved her ability to turn her interpretation of her solo part into a whole-body experience (presumably just as the original Scheherazade could hold her Shah’s attention by using her whole body to relate her tales).

Indeed, Josefowicz’ interpretation was so compelling that one could almost overlook the extent to which MTT never seemed to get his head around how to handle her exchanges with the ensemble. He certainly knew how to cue the outbursts, but it is hard to believe that Adams wanted this piece to be just a shouting match between the soloist and the orchestra. This is one of those very rare occasions when the recording seems to have trumped an actual performance, since Robertson commanded far greater control over how the St. Louis Symphony engaged with Josefowicz.

For the second half of the program, MTT decided to take SFS down memory lane, revisiting selected movements from Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 64 score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. MTT’s first recording with SFS was a full CD of such movements, arranged in such as way as to follow the ballet’s narrative thread. This was a shorter collection of those movements, no longer arranged in the order of the narrative.

There was a good deal of sound and fury in the movements MTT selected; and he did not short-change either of those qualities. Indeed, listening to a full-throated account of that music coming from the Davies stage, one could appreciate the virtues of restricting it all to the confines of an orchestra pit for a ballet performance. Modulating the amplitude goes a long way towards placing the narrative of the choreography on a level playing field with the many outbursts one encounters in Prokofiev’s score. MTT, on the other hand, could, and therefore did, “pull out all the stops” (and cranked up the amplifier to 11)! The result was unabashed spectacle that could only be taken on its own terms but probably would have benefitted from a few less of those full-out episodes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Patrons of the Arts

This afternoon my wife and I attended the 2017 Medallion Society Luncheon of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). This is one of the ways in which SFO thanks its more generous donors. Our donation level is not up there with the heavy hitters, but it is enough to get us admission. This makes for a relatively pleasant afternoon of good food and people-watching.

My wife always likes to go through the enumeration of donors at the back of the booklet that awaited us at our places at the table. She encountered an ample number of familiar names. However, what surprised me was that my own traversal of the list turned up names that she did not know, members of the computer science community that I knew either as colleagues or individuals I had encountered at conferences. I was more than pleasantly surprised at how many of them there were, many of whom were more generous than we were. This led me to make a second scan in search of my more recent colleagues and familiar names associated with the younger members of the "technology generation" in the Bay Area. This time I came up with no hits at all.

This is the endemic problem of the performing arts these days, the "greying" of its audience base. I realize that the older generation writing about the young pups is a familiar cliché. Nevertheless, just about every sector of the performing arts to which I have some commitment has tried to attract a younger generation to the audience community; and the sad truth is that they have failed dismally. A generation that understands the world only through "social software" available on a smartphone is a generation that lacks either the motivation or the patience to become audience for the performing arts. Furthermore, it is very unlikely that anyone of any generation will be able to serve as a change agent to lure this sector into the "audience fold."

When I was a student, there were strident modernists who delighted in accusing concert halls of being little more than museums that served only past relics. However, in the city of San Francisco, there is an abundance of opportunities for "emerging" composers and performers interested in the more recent repertoire to lay out the fruits of their labors to those willing to serve as audience. Further more, those who show up tend, more often than not, to be appreciative. The question is whether those on the way up will have to rely on those "nearing the end of our journey" to serve as audience. If so, they face a future of dwindling audiences with little hope of having the resources to do anything about it.

It would appear that, regardless of how Hans Christian Andersen chose to tell the story, the Emperor's mechanical nightingale may have triumphed after all!

Chamber Music Rules in the Deutsche Grammophon Rostropovich Box

While admirers of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich may have some difficulty choosing between The Complete EMI Recordings, released in January of 2009, and the more recent Mstislav Rostropovich: Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon (DG), when it comes to chamber music, DG definitely rules the mother lode. This is not to dismiss the EMI offerings, which are likely to be of particular interest to those interested in cutting-edge modernism. However, those with a preference for more established traditions will definitely find their comfort zone in the DG selections, not only with Rostropovich but also with the company he keeps.

The “mother lode within the mother lode,” so to speak, is definitely the two discs containing the five sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven. As was the case with the violin sonatas, the first edition publications by N. Simrock list all of these sonatas as having been written for piano and cello; and it is clear that Beethoven saw himself as pianist and therefore worthy of “top billing.” The pianist on these recordings (originally released on Philips) is Sviatoslav Richter; and one could not ask for a better partnership of equals. Readers of this site are already aware of the clarity that Richter could bring to his expressive interpretation of whatever happened to be on the score pages, and Rostropovich matches him for both clarity and expressiveness every step of the way through these five sonatas. It is hard to imagine that anyone seriously interested in this side of Beethoven’s repertoire would want to be without these recordings.

On the hand the presence of three different recordings of Franz Schubert’s C major quintet might raise the eyebrows of those wondering if this is too much of a good thing. Each recording, of course, involves Rostropovich “sitting in” with a different string quartet at a different period in his career: the Taneyev Quartet in 1963, the Melos Quartet in 1977, and the Emerson String Quartet in 1990. There is no question about my own personal preference. Melos has a solid command of the Schubert quartet repertoire, having recorded all of them for DG. They are clearly “in charge” of both technical and rhetorical direction; and Rostropovich has no problem fitting in with them as a “team player.” (This is far from a secondary role. In one of my recital reviews for Examiner.com, I made the observation that, in this quintet, these is nothing secondary about the second cello!) On the other hand it is also interesting to listen to a younger Rostropovich joining forces with a Russian quartet, even if it is only for an alternative “nationalist perspective.”

A partnership as interesting as that with Richter can be found on the two discs of Decca recordings of Rostropovich performing with Benjamin Britten at the keyboard. Not all of these are performances of Britten’s own music, although the Opus 65 C major sonata for cello and piano is definitely a high point. However, there was often a decidedly recognizable element of playfulness that could be found when other composers were involved. There is a clear appreciation of the “fun” side of Schubert’s D. 821 sonata, originally composed for arpeggione, and the mocking rhetoric that can be found in both Robert Schumann’s Opus 102 “Volkston” (popular style) pieces and Claude Debussy’s D minor sonata.

If there is a weak spot in this collection, it can be found in the two discs of Beethoven string trios. These performances, recorded in 1988, brought Rostropovich together with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and violist Bruno Giuranna. Like the Opus 5 cellos sonatas, these were all written before 1800. However, while Richter and Rostropovich seem comfortable with the blending of exploration and wit that one finds in Opus 5, Mutter tends to lead the trios with an almost gruff aggression that does not really fit in with the playfulness that the young Beethoven could bring to those two elements of exploration and wit. These are performances that may honor the “flesh” of Beethoven’s score pages; but the “spirit” could have done with a bit more attention.

Fortunately, these are about the only weak selections in the chamber music side of this collection, making this genre a decided high point of DG’s anthology.

Strobe will Give its Next Recital at Music on the Hill

This past February 2 marked the first anniversary of Strobe, one of the more unique chamber ensembles one is likely to encounter. The group was formed by cellist Krisanthy Desby to explore the repertoire for oboe and strings. (The name is a mash-up of the nouns “strings” and “oboe.”) The oboist of the group is Laura Griffiths, joined by violinist Stephanie Bibbo and violist Caroline Lee, as well as Desby.

This ensemble will be performing their next program in the Music on the Hill concert series. Music on the Hill was formed in 1998 with the goal of presenting cutting-edge chamber music programming. It therefore seems appropriate that Strobe will use this occasion to offer the premiere of their first commissioned work, as piece not yet titled by Vincent Russo. They will also revisit their debut with a performance of the second (in C major) of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s five K. 439b divertimenti. According to the Neue Ausgabe, Mozart scored this for three basset horns, but Strobe plays it as a trio for oboe, violin, and cello. [updated 3/7, 3:40 p.m.: The Mozart selection has been changed to the K. 370 oboe quartet in F major.] Similarly, they will perform their own arrangement of Zoltán Kodály’s 1905 intermezzo for string trio. They will also perform Gordon Jacob’s 1938 oboe quartet, dedicated to the famous British oboist Leon Goossens.

This concert will take place at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 12. The venue for Music on the Hill concerts is St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, located in Diamond Heights. The street address is 101 Gold Mine Drive, which is at the corner of Diamond Heights Boulevard. General admission will be $18 with a $12 rate for seniors aged 65 and older and students up to eighteen years old. Children aged twelve and younger will be admitted at no charge. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Beatrice Rana Takes on a Major Bach Undertaking for her First Solo Album on Warner Classics

This Friday Warner Classics will release its first solo album of Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, winner of both the Silver Medal and the Audience Award at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. This will follow up on her debut album for Warner Classics, featuring concertos by Sergei Prokofiev (Opus 16 in G minor) and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Opus 23 in B-flat minor) in November of 2015. The new album already has a Web page on Amazon.com; and it is available for pre-orders. It consists of only one composition, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of (“Goldberg”) variations on an Aria theme.

I should probably begin by getting my primary misgiving off my chest, which is the booklet essay that Rana provided (translated into English by Ian Mansbridge) whose English title is “Beatrice Rana on the Goldberg enigma.” I appreciate that a noun like “enigma” tends to attract attention; but I have always been one to deal with BWV 988 at the level of mundane pragmatism. Johann Nikolaus Forkel’s story about harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg and his insomniac patron Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk is probably a myth (although a favorite Italian saying is, “It may not be true, but it is a good story!”). However, the value of BWV 988 can be found in the less romantic fact that Bach published this set of variations as the fourth and final volume of his Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) series; and Rana’s most interesting observation is that Bach’s Aria may well have been an elaboration of a chaconne theme for which George Frideric Handel provided 64 variations.

It is that Clavier-Übung project that disperses any “fog of enigma” that one might wish to attach to BWB 988. Just as Ludwig Wittgenstein took, as a fundamental premise, the principle that the meaning of any word resides in how that word is used, the very language of Bach’s title asserts that the essence of music resides in how it is made, rather than in any of the artifacts (such as pages of notation) that may facilitate the making. In other words every page in Bach’s mammoth publication project is there to serve the pedagogical act of a teacher guiding a pupil on those practices that provide a “toolkit” for making music at a keyboard. (The full scope of the Clavier-Übung includes organ keyboards as well as those of “clavier” instruments.)

The recognition of pedagogy as a significant act adds a new alternative to a bipartite distinction discussed previously on this site. This involves that transition around the turn of the nineteenth century between the private and public practice of making music. Pedagogy is a practice that is not private, but it is more limited than what might call a “public” practice. As Cantor of the Thomasschule zu Leipzig, Bach had to be an educator, as well as a working musician; and his educational practices probably involved one-on-many (as when preparing performances of his cantatas), as well as one-on-one practices he had previously experienced in educating his own sons.

The point is that BWV 988 is best approached as the work of Bach-the-pedagogue, rather than Bach-the-composer or Bach-the-performer in either a private setting (such as the gatherings of the Collegium Musicum at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig) or a public one (such as the sanctuary of the St. Thomas Church). Rana’s “Handel connection” is particularly apposite to this pedagogical point of view. As we know from the title page that Bach provided for his two-part and three-part inventions, pedagogy was not just a matter of clarity of execution. It also involved cultivating the craft of “invention” as “a strong foretaste of composition;” and what better way to explore invention that by observing one composer applying it to the work of another?

However, there is another pedagogical aspect that emerged here in San Francisco when pianist András Schiff performed BWV 988 in the final program of his six-concert Bach Project, which took place in October of 2013. Schiff provided his own notes for the program book, suggesting that Schiff-the-performer up on stage was sharing attention with Schiff-the-pedagogue providing those in the audience with guidance on how to listen. Those notes observed that listening to BWV 988 could be approached as embarking on a journey; and, to make sure that the listener did not lose his/her way, Schiff’s essay postulated a basic underlying rule, “Always follow the bass line.” If Rana’s conjecture is correct, then that bass line had its origins in Handel (although Bach’s first act of “invention” was to extend its length).

Nevertheless, while Rana’s perspective may be one of the best brought to BWV 988 since Schiff’s decision to prepare that music for recital performance, her execution does not always live up to her insights. Most importantly, her somewhat varying attention to that bass line does not always make it easy for the listener to follow it. Thus, while there is no questioning her dexterity in mastering the many complex patterns that emerge out of Bach’s capacity for invention, it is unclear whether or not she accepts Schiff’s journey metaphor as an approach to listening to her performance.

Clearly, she is not obliged to follow Schiff’s rules in her own execution; but it is worth asking whether she wishes us to listen to her album as an integrated beginning-to-end experience. The answer may lie in her appeal to that journey metaphor in her own booklet notes. Judging from the printing of the track listing, it may be that her journey has less to do with chaconne-like recurrence of the bass line and more to do with Bach having organized his variations in ten groups of three, each of which concludes with a canon on an increasingly widening interval. In this case the risk is that there is a one-thing-after-another repetitiveness to the “guideposts” that threatens to obscure both the diversity on the surface structure and the sense that the journey is actually going somewhere.

Does this mean that Rana’s recording amounts to an alternative journey struggling to be recognized? That would probably be an unfair conclusion. After all, when played in its entirety, BWV 988 is a major undertaking; and this applies to the listener as well as to the performer. Anyone who decides to purchase this recording should not leave it on the shelf to gather dust. This is a performance that deserves multiple listening experiences, because it will only be through gradual acclimation that the serious listener will be able to decide for himself/herself whether Rana has established a convincing journey or was just playing with words in her booklet notes.

Center for New Music: Early March 2017

Having observed the absence of word from the Center for New Music (C4NM) about this month’s activities, I figured I would take some of the more personal notifications I have received as a point of departure for accounting for the first full week in March and that month’s preceding half-week. This will be a rather busy time, including a Sunday with performances in both the afternoon and evening. For those who need reminding, C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Tickets for all events enumerated below are now available for advance purchase online through the indicated hyperlinks:

Friday, March 3, 8 p.m.: This will be a two-set evening of audiovisual improvisations. In the opening set Bill Hsu will improvise video displays in real time to complement the musical improvisations of James Fei and Gino Robair. The second set will present live coded video created in real-time by Shawn Lawson in response to electronics provided by Ryan Ross Smith from a secret remote location. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Saturday, March 4, 8 p.m.: Pianist and vocalist Jenny Maybee will lead her band in a program of new compositions and arrangements on the themes of love, transformation, exploration, and state of being entitled Sacred Landscapes. General admission will be $20 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Monday, March 6, 8 p.m.: Casey Grev will give a solo saxophone recital augmented with electronics and multimedia. The program will consist of new and recent works by Georges Aperghis, Jason Thorpe Buchanan, Ann Cleare, Dai Fujikura, Ravi Kitappa, Alex Mincek, and others. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Wednesday, March 8, 8 p.m.: Trumpet virtuoso Andy Kozar, currently based in New York City, will present a program of five recent pieces for trumpet and electronics. These will be “Flutter” (Tyler Harrison), “Deviations from a Theme by Brahms” (Elizabeth Hoffman), “Still Life” (Scott Worthington), “Moving Target” (Jeff Gavett), and “Rahab’s Herbarium” (Adam Zahller). On the basis of this excerpt, it would appear that Hoffman’s Brahms source has been significantly concealed:

uploaded to YouTube by Andrew Kozar

Kozar will also perform in a set of improvisations with local performers including Tania Chen on piano, vocals by Ken Ueno, and Matt Ingalls on clarinets of different sizes. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Saturday, March 11, 8 p.m.: Utter will be a solo concert by Anne La Berge featuring interactive works that weave together performer, audience, and digital technology. “Utter” is also the concluding work on the program, composed by La Berge for flute, electronics, narration, and interactive tablets. There will be three other “flute++” compositions, “Delay/Line” by Sam Pluta, “Modes of Assisted Ventilation” by Hugo Morales, and “Telemachus” by David Dramm. The program will begin with Yannis Kyriakides’ “Oneiricon,” scored for tablets and musicians without the instruments being specified. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Sunday, March 12, 3 p.m.: This will be the first of two concerts to be curated by Danny Clay on the same day. The Cornelius Cardew Choir will perform the second “paragraph” from Cardew’s The Great Learning, his settings of seven paragraphs from the first chapter of Great Learning, the first of the so-called “Four Books” that illustrate the core value and belief systems of Confucianism. Cardew composed this piece for his Scratch Orchestra, whose performance of this particular paragraph is available on YouTube:

uploaded to YouTube by tiovelvet

This paragraph was composed for singers and drummers and consists of a single (large) score page. That page is divided into three columns:
  1. a very slow, long-tone melody with one of more words specified for each tone
  2. 26 rhythm patterns
  3. a lengthy description that accounts for how the singers deal with the melody, how the rhythmic patterns are to be performed, and an overall description of the entire performance
In the spirit of the Scratch Orchestra, the Cornelius Cardew Choir, founded here on May 1, 2001, brings together professional, amateur, and novice singers who collectively work to turn their ideas into sonic action. While the above video lasts about twenty minutes, Cardew’s score specifies that the duration of this paragraph should be about one hour. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Sunday, March 12, 7 p.m.: The second concert that Clay will curate will be a solo recital by pianist Adam Tendler. Tendler has prepared a program entitled still that will bring pioneering compositions by John Cage and Morton Feldman together with more recent works by Charlie Sdraulig and Marina Poleukhina. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini Web page.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Warner Classics to Release Musical and Visual Fantasies of Pianist Anderszewski

This Friday Warner Classics will release Fantaisies, its latest solo album of Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski. As usual, Amazon.com has already created the Web page for this album and is processing pre-orders. The album itself actually consists of a CD and a DVD. The former has been structured around a compare-and-contrast examination of how two composers approach the label “fantasia.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is represented by his K. 475 in C minor, and he is complemented by Robert Schumann’s Opus 17 in C major.

The question is whether or not there are grounds for comparing or contrasting these two compositions. K. 475 might almost be taken as an effort to document a spontaneous improvisation. It was originally published as an “overture” to the K. 457 sonata in C minor. The transition between K. 475 and the first movement of K. 457 is smooth enough that the two can be played with an almost instantaneous segue, which is precisely what Anderszewski does on this album.

Opus 17, on the other hand, gives the impression of having been deliberately calculated from beginning to end. It is in three movements, the first of which is distinguished by a coda that reflects on a motif used by Ludwig van Beethoven in his Opus 98 song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved). As András Schiff demonstrated in his ECM New Series recording of this piece, Schumann originally planned a reprise of that coda at the end of the third movement and then rejected it in favor concluding the movement on the terms of the preceding thematic material. Curiously, Schiff’s album chose to couple Opus 17 with Schumann’s last piano composition. This was his WoO 24 “Geistervariationen” (ghost variations), composed in 1854 only days before his suicide attempt. The 1893 Collected Works edition included the theme but not the variations, perhaps because the editors (Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms) thought that Schumann may have intended more than the five variations he had written. Those five variations were not published until 1939. This is the version that Schiff recorded, and Anderszewski similarly decided to record them following Opus 17.

Thus, Anderszewski seems to have decided that Opus 17 should serve as an “overture” to more Schumann, paralleling the coupling of K. 475 and K. 457. The problem is that, while K. 475 leaves the listener with a bit of suspense as to what will happen next, by the time the listener has traversed all three movements of Opus 17, (s)he is likely to feel that (s)he has had enough! Thus, while the Mozart coupling enhances the experience of listening to each of the two conjoined pieces, the Schumann approach leaves one craving more separation.

The latter case is also problematic in that Anderszewski does not seem to have a clear sense of overall architecture. The result is that his approach to Opus 17 tends to leap from one outburst to the next, leaving the listener more than a little perplexed about when the music will come to the climax that is the “true peak” of the entire composition. One almost feels as if Schumann is there to allow Anderszewski to display his technical prowess; and, while there is no debating that Anderszewski’s technical skills are impressive, Schumann deserves a cerebral approach to establish an impression that there is more to his music than fireworks.

Anderszewski’s command of Mozart seemed more secure, particularly in the sonata. On the other hand his approach to K. 475 suggested that he had not considered the possibility that this music had been the product of spontaneous improvisation. Other performances that have coupled these two pieces have tended to stress the idea that K. 475 amounts to a search for something that is not found until the more secure footing of K. 457 has been established. Anderszewski ran the risk of giving the impression that K. 475 was just another sonata movement, whose best location would be prior to the three movements of K. 457.

The DVD that accompanies this coupling of Mozart and Schumann is entitled Warsaw is my name. It is a half-hour montage of visual impressions of the city of Warsaw. Presumably, the selection and disposition of those impressions were all decided by Anderszewski; and that plan was then realized by a production team led by Julien Condemine. The images are preceded by a rather lengthy crawl of text that outlines the unpleasant history of governance in Poland over the course of the twentieth century. Whether or not Anderszewski’s choice and ordering of images stands as a reflection on that history is left to the viewer to decide.

As this visual montage unfolds, the viewer gets to listen to several of Anderszewski’s recordings. As might be guessed, there is a generous share of the music of Frédéric Chopin, some of which reinforces different artistic impressions of that composer that emerge in some of the images. Almost as much attention is given to the piano music of Karol Szymanowski; and those selections do much to establish the underlying twentieth-century framework of this visual study.

More perplexing is the presence of Anton Webern’s Opus 27 variations. Webern probably appreciated the flaws of both Adolf Hitler and Nazism; but he was still a strong believer in German nationalism, making him not the most “politically correct” source of music for a reflection on twentieth-century Warsaw! This is likely to be particularly problematic because, for the most part, Anderszewski’s selection of images will probably have the most effect on those already familiar with Warsaw, rather than those (like myself) who have never been there. Nevertheless, this film was clearly conceived as a personal impression; and Anderszewski is certainly entitled to his own thoughts about his own city!

The Bleeding Edge: 2/20/2017

Most of this week’s action seems to be taking place at the Center for New Music (C4NM). Since C4NM does not seem to have put out a dispatch for the month, it looks like I am handling activities there on a weekly basis, courtesy of the calendar service provided by BayImproviser. Curiously, it looks as if things will be quiet at the Luggage Store Gallery this week; but Outsound Presents will still be offering one of its Sunday SIMM (static illusion methodical madness) Series concerts. Here is the rundown for the week as it currently stands:

Wednesday, February 22, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: Second Act is offering a satellite show at a different venue in the Lower Haight. Programming will still involve intense performances that are not for the faint of heart. Dror Feiler, born in Tel Aviv and currently working in Stockholm (was he the one Trump had in mind?), will be the chief provider of decibels with both solo saxophone work and in a second set shared with Black Spirituals. The other two sets of the evening will be taken by Derek Gedalecia performing as Headboggle and the >XTINGUISHER> DUO of Zoe Stiller and BG Anaraki.

The Peacock Lounge is located at 552 Haight Street. Like most Second Act events, doors will open at 7:45. Admission will be $5 but only for those aged 21 or older.

Thursday, February 23, 8 p.m., C4NM: The PRISM series, curated by Julia Ogrydziak, will present a performance of “Bhajan,” a four-movement composition for electric violin (Robin Lorentz) and live electronics (provided by composer Nicholas Chase). This will be the music’s first presentation following its world premiere in Los Angeles, and the performance will be followed by a Q&A with both performers. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of where Golden Gave Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Both levels of tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Vendini event page.

Friday, February 24, 8 p.m., C4NM: Kyle Bruckmann will curate the next installment in the sfSoundSalonSeries. This will be a visit by Baltimore-based composer David Smooke marking the release of his solo album Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. He will perform compositions from that album for toy piano and electronics. He will then improvise with Ken Ueno (voice) and Matt Ingals (clarinets and contrabass garden hose). Admission prices will again be $15 and $10 with advance purchase through a Vendini event page.

Saturday, February 25, 8 p.m., C4NM: Mark Alburger is continuing his Opus Project series of concerts, each of which consists of compositions with the same opus number. The opus number for the program he prepared for the end of last month was 49, and this month he moves on to 50. This time the earliest work on the program will be by Anton Arensky (1900); and the most recent will be Alburger’s own “L.A. Stories,” composed in 1994. General admission will again be $15, and the $10 rate will apply to seniors and students, as well as C4NM members. Tickets will be available for advance purchase online through a Vendini event page.

Sunday, February 26, 4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Old First Concerts will present the Bernal Hill Players celebrating the release of their new CD Neighborhoods of Mexico City with a program entitled Music of Two Cities. The composers representing San Francisco will be Erik Pearson (“Inner Postcards from San Francisco,” composed in 2010) and Katrina Wreede (“Episodes at China Basin,” composed in 2011). The Mexico City composers will be Gabriela Ortiz (“Tepito” from 2015) and Eduardo Gamboa (“Mixcoac” from 2012). The program will also include “Incident at Neshabur,” composed jointly by Carlos Santana and Alberto Gianquinto in 1970. The performers will be Jennifer Peringer (piano), Martha Rodriguez-Salazar (flute), Sarah Bonomo (clarinet), and Samsun van Loon (cello).

The Old First Presbyterian 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.

Sunday, February 26, 7:30 p.m., The Musicians Union Hall: The next SIMM Series concert will follow the usual format of two sets, each somewhat less than an hour in duration. The first set will be taken by the James Washington Quartet, led by Washington at the piano. Steven Faivus will play alto saxophone, and rhythm will be provided by Rob Bassinette on bass and Carl Hofmn on drums. This group will be followed by the Matt Renzi Trio with Renzi playing saxophone, oboe, and English horn. He will be joined by Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on drums. 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.

ARTEK Mines a Melancholy Take on Love from Monteverdi’s Madrigals

Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco Early Music Society continued its 40th season in San Francisco with a visit from the ARTEK ensemble based in New York City. The full title of the program was Bridge of Sighs: Selections from the Madrigals, Book 7 (1619), by Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643). The bridge, which crosses the Rio de Palazzo canal in Venice connects, the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the so-called New Prison (Prigioni Nuove), providing those about to be imprisoned with their last view of Venice. However, as ARTEK Director Gwendolyn Toth explained, the program had nothing to do with this dark reputation but, instead, addressed the legend that a couple kissing under the bridge in a gondola at sunset will be granted eternal love. (This was the basis for the plot of the movie A Little Romance.)

The program was presented in two parts separated by an intermission, ten madrigals in the first part and eight in the second. (The total number of madrigals in the seventh book is 29.) All of the texts addressed the theme of love. However, the prevailing mood had more to do with sighs of frustration than with the promise of eternal love. Nevertheless, by providing improvised connecting material for the instrumental accompaniment between the madrigals, each half of the program had its own integrated continuity. This allowed the program to proceed at a rather efficient clip, rather than dragging on through polite applause after each madrigal.

Note that reference to the instruments. The seventh book was the first of the nine that Monteverdi published in which all of the selections had a “concerted” accompaniment. Indeed, the full title of the publication was Concerto. Settimo libro di madrigali. Yesterday that accompaniment was provided by Toth at the harpsichord joined by Daniel Swenberg on theorbo. The rest of the ensemble consisted of seven vocalists, sopranos Laura Heimes and Clara Rottsolk, mezzo Barbara Hollinshead, Ryland Angel alternating between countertenor and tenor (sometimes in the same madrigal), tenors Andrew Fuchs and Philip Anderson, and bass-baritone Peter Becker.

By my count only three of the madrigals in the seventh book are solos. Most of the program consisted of ten duets performed in seven different combinations of vocal ranges. There were also  three different combinations of trios and two quartets. The entire ensemble performed the opening selection “A quest’olmo, a quest’ombre” (to this elm, to this shade), which is the only six-part piece in the collection. The only work written as a solo was presented as the conclusion. “Se pur destino e vole” (if heaven wishes and ordains). This had the longest text of the program, and that text was divided across all seven of the vocalists.

It is unclear whether Monteverdi intended this music for an audience of listeners. He could just as easily had only the performers in mind gathering in a private setting. Nevertheless, his approach to composition tends to involve a balance between elaborate counterpoint and either solo or homophonic writing. This means that a listener (at least one knowledgeable in Italian) has little trouble following clear statements of the words which then are subjected to elegantly conceived elaborations.

In a concert setting those of us with little (if any) understanding in Italian can only manage with a bilingual text sheet. Following a printed text, one comes to appreciate how Monteverdi knew how to prioritize the semantics of a poem over its underlying (and often highly elegant) structure. As a result, those who followed these texts quickly appreciated just how many sighs were expressed over the course of the eighteen madrigals in the program.

Nevertheless, this was far from a one-thing-after-the-other experience. Each madrigal had is own characteristic approach of sighing, to do speak. Toth had clearly designed the program to focus on diversity of the individuals within the unity of the theme. The result was that the overall sense of entertainment through diversion prevailed in parallel with the intricate elegance of Monteverdi’s approaches to setting Italian verse.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci will Return to San Francisco for an All-French Recital

Soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci was last seen in San Francisco during the Summer 2015 season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO), when she sang in two of the three operas presented during that portion of the subscription season. She was there when the Summer 2015 segment began, singing the role of Cassandre in Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens (the Trojans); and she then went on to perform in the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s Two Women, in which she sang the role of Cesira. Next month she will return, this time to present the second of the four productions in the second season of SF Opera Lab. These are the more exploratory offerings that SFO is presenting in the Taube Atrium Theater of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera. Antonacci will be joined by Donald Sulzen, who will accompany all of her performances at the piano.

The major offering Antonacci has prepared will be Francis Poulenc’s one-act opera “La voix humaine,” whose libretto closely follows the play of the same name by Jean Cocteau. Cocteau conceived of his script as one side of a conversation: a woman is conversing with her lover, whose attentions have turned to someone else. Poulenc used his score not only to do justice to Cocteau’s words but also to explore both the narrative’s setting and the protagonist’s interior thoughts through the instrumental accompaniment. The score was originally written for soprano and piano, completed on June 2, 1958. Poulenc then prepared an orchestration, which he finished almost exactly two months later. For her recital, Antonacci will sing the original voice-and-piano version.

“La voix humaine” will be performed after an intermission, which will be preceded by a more conventional art song recital. Poulenc will also be part of this portion with his 1950 seven-part song cycle La Fraîcheur et le feu (the cool and the fire), settings of poems by Paul Éluard that the composer dedicated to Igor Stravinsky. The Poulenc selection will be preceded by Claude Debussy’s 1897 setting of three of the erotic lesbian poems collected by Pierre Louÿs under the title The Songs of Bilitis. Louÿs claimed that these were translations of original poetry in Ancient Greek, but the sources have never been identified. (In 1900 Debussy created Musique de scène pour les chansons de bilitis, instrumental “interludes,” scored for two flutes, two harps, and celesta, intended to introduce recitations of twelve of Louÿs’ poems. Six of these were rescored for piano four hands and published under the title Épigraphes Antiques in 1914.) Antonacci will begin her recital with “La mort d’Ophélie” (the death of Ophelia), the second of the three Tristia (Opus 18) songs composed in 1849 by Hector Berlioz to set texts from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera is 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 $95. There will be three performances, all taking place at 8 p.m. on March 11, March 14, and March 17, respectively. Tickets for all dates may be purchased through the SF Opera Lab Web site.

Other Minds 22 Launches with a Double Centennial Celebration

Last night Mission Dolores Basilica hosted the first of the two concerts for this season’s Other Minds 22 festival of new music. The title of the entire festival is Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison. However, last night’s program was entitled Pacific Rim Centennials, because, in addition to honoring Harrison in this year of his hundredth birthday, the program also included three pieces by Korean composer Isang Yun, who was similarly honored, having been born on September 17, 1917.

It is probably important to observe that there was significant personal resonance with the program that was prepared for last night, because the concluding selection was my very first contact with Harrison’s music; and I have never forgotten that experience. Ironically, it came from the days when I was first acquiring the craft of writing about dance. I was at Jacob’s Pillow Dance for the beginning of the summer festival; and the final work on the program was “Clear Songs After Rain.” This had been created by Norman Walker; and it consisted of six short movements, each intended to be a choreographic haiku. Walker set his piece to a six-movement suite that Harrison had composed in 1951 with solo parts for violin and piano accompanied by a very small orchestra.

Walker had probably discovered this music through a Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI) album on which the soloists were the Ajemian sisters, Anahid on violin and Maro on piano. Anahid was married to record producer George Avakian, who was instrumental in not only getting the piece recorded but also recruiting Leopold Stokowski to conduct. The exotic sonorities of the score made such a deep impression that I barely remembered the choreography, but I played the album with great frequency on the campus radio station of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Last night was therefore personally significant, because it was my first opportunity to listen to that suite in performance, rather than on recording. The “role of Stokowski” was taken by conductor Dennis Russell Davies. Again there was a “marital connection,” since the piano solo was taken by Davies’ wife Maki Namekawa, last seen here almost exactly two years ago as one of the three pianists in the program of the twenty piano etudes composed by Philip Glass prepared by San Francisco Performances.

The violin soloist was Yumi Hwang-Williams, but the deepest impression came from just how small the orchestral ensemble was. The piano was one of three keyboards, the others being a celesta (Evelyn Davis) and a tack piano (Andrew Jamieson). Three winds (Joanna Martin on flute, Janet Woodhams also on flute but doubling on piccolo, and Kyle Bruckman on oboe) were complemented by three strings (cellists Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, playing separate parts, and Scott Padden on bass). That left harpist Meredith Clark and percussionist William Winant, whose only instrument was a tam-tam.

There was an almost uncanny transparency to Harrison’s blending of these diverse sonorities, as well as a sense that each of the six movements involved an overlay of individual activities, rather than any more traditional approaches to either counterpoint or harmony. It was also easy to appreciate how the brevity of each movement could have inspired Walker to create a dance around the concept of haiku. Most important, however, was Davies command of balance, which, in the conducive acoustics of the Mission Dolores Basilica, allowed the attentive listener to savor every one of Harrison’s sonorous qualities, both as individual events and through the skill with which he combined those events.

The other ensemble work on the program was also by Harrison, the third of a series of pieces he called “Canticle.” The music was composed in 1941 at a time when both Harrison and Cage were devoting much of their attention to writing for percussion. For this piece Davies conducted five percussionists (Winant, along with Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, and Nick Woodbury), to which were added Martin on ocarina and Brian Baumbusch on guitar. However, neither of the latter two were given any pitch specifications; so they both amounted to “percussion by other means.” This piece also provided an excellent opportunity to appreciate Harrison’s ability to overlay both sonorities and rhythms, the latter often inducing new dimensions of rhythmic complexity. Davies knew exactly how to manage the tempo, and the coordination among the performers could not have been more impressive.

The remainder of the program consisted of chamber music selections by both Harrison and Yun. The Harrison pieces were his very early (1938) piano sonata (his third), in which he explored how to adopt Arnold Schoenberg’s serial techniques to his own purposes, and the much later (1988) “Grand Duo” for violin and piano. The latter was a major undertaking, lasting more than half an hour. Only two of its five movements were performed. Davies was the pianist for both pieces, accompanied by Hwang-Williams in the duo.

The two of them also performed Yun’s “Gasa.” He was also represented by two solo pieces. Hwang-Williams played the first of two violin pieces he called “Kontraste;” and Namekawa played his last solo piano work, “Interludium A,” so named because it was written for pianist Aki Takahashi. In contrast to the Harrison selections, Yun’s approach to composition tended to focus on individual sonorities, even when they arose for multiple notes sounding simultaneously. There was also a sense that listening to his music is analogous to looking through a magnifying glass. The result is highly stimulating, but it is also cognitively demanding.

The entire program was thus an abundance of diversity. However, that abundance sustained over about three hours. Where unfamiliar offerings were concerned, that was quite a bit to try to take in as part of a single concert-going experience. Nevertheless, even in the face of cognitive overload, there was much to engage the attentive listener; and both Harrison and Yun were well served by the experience.