Friday, June 30, 2017

Midsummer Mozart will Return to SF Next Month

Following a one-year hiatus, the Midsummer Mozart Festival will return to concertizing with its new Music Director Daniel Stewart. The return will be a gradual one, since it will involve only a single concert program. However, that program will follow the past tradition of presenting music only by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The program will begin with the K. 201 symphony in A major. This will be followed by the K. 251 divertimento in D major, which Mozart scored for two horns, one oboe, and the usual string section. The “grand finale” of the evening will be the the K. 364 sinfonia concertante in E-flat major, with extended solo parts for violin and viola. The soloists have been long-time veterans of Midsummer Mozart Festival concerts, Concertmaster Robin Hansen and violist Elizabeth Prior:

courtesy of the Midsummer Music Festival

For this particular program the ensemble will perform as a chamber orchestra, led from the concertmaster's chair.

The San Francisco performance of this program will take place at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, located in Chinatown at 660 California Street, on the northeast corner of Grand Street. Those who have followed Midsummer Mozart in the past know that this has been the venue for Midsummer Mozart preview concerts presented in conjunction with Noontime Concerts™. The concert will take place on Monday, July 24, beginning at 7:30 p.m. and lasting for about two hours. All tickets are being sold for $50, and they may be purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Minkowski’s First Bach Recording on Erato Goes One-per-Part

About a month and a half ago Erato released its first recording of Marc Minkowski conducting the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. This involves him working with the French period instrument ensemble Les Musiciens du Louvre (the musicians of the Louvre), which he founded in Paris in 1982. Since 1996, however, it has been based in the Couvent des Minimes de Grenoble (Minim Monastery of Grenoble), quite some distance from the palace for which it was named. For this “Bach debut” recording, Minkowski selected the BWV 245 Passion oratorio based on the Gospel of John, a two-CD album.

Les Musiciens du Louvre has resources typical of a historically-informed approach to the performance of Bach. The two violin sections each have four players; and there are pairs of players for viola, viola d’amore, cello, flute, and oboe. That leaves individual players for the continuo instruments: gamba, bass, bassoon, contrabassoon, organ, harpsichord, and theorbo. More important is that there are only nine participating vocalists: sopranos Ditte Andersen and Lenneke Ruiten, altos Delphine Galou and David Hansen, tenors Lothar Odinius and Colin Balzer, and basses Christian Immler and Felix Speer. Odinius sings the music for the Evangelist, Immler depicts Jesus, and Speer sings the roles of both Peter and Pilate. All of the vocalists take solos in aria movements. There is no chorus of additional vocalists.

The result is that this is one of the most transparent recordings of BWV 245 currently available. Furthermore, that transparency allows Minkowski to work with relatively brisk tempi. He is hardly the only conductor to take this approach, but those of my generation tend to welcome each new effort to break loose from the tediously sacrosanct rhetoric that burdened just about every recording of Bach’s music, regardless of genre, during the first half of the twentieth century. More important is that Minkowski knows how to go fast without sounding as if he has a train to catch, a trait that has been serving him particularly well here in San Francisco, where he is conducting the contemporary instruments in the pit of the War Memorial Opera House for performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 Don Giovanni by the San Francisco Opera.

As an atheist I am somewhat limited in my ability to discuss rhetorical approaches to settings of the Passion text. However, it would be fair to say that Minkowski’s approach tends to evoke a setting more consistent with a Sunday School classroom than a cathedral congregation. The result is that the Evangelist comes across as telling a story; and, every now and then, an aria soloist comes along to give the narrative “artistic verisimilitude” through “corroborative detail” (with apologies to W. S. Gilbert). The overly pious might take this to be irreverent, but more likely it is a technique that brings the story closer to the listener than might be achieved through mere recitation.

The overall result is that even those familiar with any number of recordings of BWV 245 are likely to find themselves listening closely to the freshness of Minkowski’s approach.

Ars Minerva will Begin Season with Opera about Circe

Ars Minerva gave its first public performances in March of 2015, when it presented a fully-staged reconstruction of Daniele da Castrovillari’s 1662 opera La Cleopatra. The ensemble was founded by Executive & Artistic Director Céline Ricci, drawing upon her considerable experience in historically-informed performances of the pre-Classical repertoire. She both created the staging for La Cleopatra and sang the title role. Instrumental accompaniment was provided by Derek Tam conducting from the harpsichord. A little over a year later the same team created a full-staged reconstruction of Carlo Pallavicino’s opera The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles.

The results of the group’s next project will be performed at the beginning of the new season this coming September. This time the opera will be La Circe, whose composition is attributed to Pietro Andrea Ziani. The work was first performed in Vienna in 1665 as part of the birthday celebrations for the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. There is no record of it having been performed after that occasion.

The title character is the sorceress best known from the Odyssey. She held Odysseus and his crew captive on her island after having first turned the latter into swine. She then tried to seduce Odysseus, who managed to avoid her wiles by virtues of having been warned in advance by Hermes. Odysseus was thus able to restore his crew to human form and escape the island. Ziani’s opera begins after Odysseus’ departure and deals with the consequences of Circe having been tricked by Odysseus with Hermes assistance.

This opera will be semi-staged by Ricci, who will again sing the title role. The production will include an acrobat (Katherine Hutchinson), as well as seven other vocalists: Kyle Stegall, Kindra Scharich, William Sauerland, Jasmine Johnson, Aurélie Veruni, and Jonathan Smucker. Derek Tam will again conduct from the harpsichord. His instrumentalists will consist of a string quartet of violinists Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo and Natalie Carducci, violist Addi Liu, and cellist Gretchen Claassen. Continuo support will be provided by Adam Cockerham on theorbo. The opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles using a translation by Joe McClinton.

La Circe will be given two performances, both at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, September 8, and Saturday, September 9. The venue will be the ODC Theater, located in the Mission at 3153 17th Street on the southwest corner of Shotwell Street. Ticket prices are the “Gold” rate of $86 and the “Silver” rate of $56. Students will be admitted for $25, and there is a special VIP rate that includes a post-performance reception with the artists, a program booklet signed by all of those artists, and a tax-deductible contribution of $130. Tickets may be purchased through separate event pages for the Friday and Saturday performances.

SFS Concludes Season with Shakespeare Refracted Through Berlioz

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) led the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director), and three vocal soloists, mezzo Sasha Cooke, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, in a performance of Hector Berlioz’ Opus 17, “Roméo et Juliette,” which the composer called a “dramatic symphony.” This was the first of four performances of the final program of the 2016–17 season. Because this is a “choral symphony,” it is natural to seek out connections to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor; but the primary inspiration seems to have been a performance of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet play (in David Garrick’s edited version) performed at the Odéon Theatre in Paris with a cast that included Harriet Smithson.

Berlioz was hopelessly smitten with Smithson; and she had inspired his Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique.” They would eventually marry, after which they lived unhappily for several years. Berlioz began work on his Opus 17 in 1839, after the marriage but before the separation. The piece was given its first performance on November 24, 1839, after which Berlioz would work on revising the score until 1846.

What makes Opus 17 particularly interesting is that, while the Opus 14 symphony had a clearly-defined narrative line, Opus 17 is far from a “narration” of Shakespeare’s play. One might almost say that it amounts to a “view” of the plot; but that view is seen through a kaleidoscope, whose multiple reflections enlarge objects and distort them while blocking out other objects. The result is an epic panorama of symphonic and vocal sonorities, across which one encounters several key episodes from the plot along with almost as many minor ones. For example, Queen Mab shows up twice, first a tenor solo in the first movement and then in an orchestral scherzo in the fourth. Tybalt, on the other hand, is mentioned only in passing in the final movement.

Shakespeare’s play is so well known that no one need worry very much about the absence of a direct encounter with the plot. More important is how the musical resources trigger memories of that plot and how performance enables that triggering. From that point of view, it was almost impossible to find any faults in how MTT led his resources to present Berlioz’ score. As he had done with the Opus 14 symphony, Berlioz provided descriptions for his seven movements. These were effectively translated from the handbill (shown below) for the first performance and included in the program book, as were the French texts by Émile Deschamps and English translations by David Cairns. Those translations were also projected as surtitles, but the program book was much more helpful for providing context.

Handbill for the first performance of Berlioz' Opus 17 (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The primary virtue of last night’s performance was the clarity with which all the elements of Berlioz’ score were presented to the attentive listener. That same handbill enumerated 201 performers, 100 in the orchestra, the three vocal soloists, a twelve-voice chorus for the prologue, and separate choruses for the Capulets (42 voices) and the Montagues (44 voices). Between the sheer magnitude of those resources and Berlioz’ style, which frequently relied on laying out a series of fragmented impressions without very much structural or rhetorical glue, effective presentation poses any number of challenges. Nevertheless, MTT always seemed to know where to guide the ear through the landscape of all of those fragments, whether they involved accompanying the mezzo with only four cellos or negotiating the fugal counterpoint that arises every time the Capulets and the Montagues go at each other.

Cooke’s solo, by the way, not only never involves any of Shakespeare’s words but also references him explicitly! Similarly, Phan’s solo cites Mercutio before launching into his account of Queen Mab. Pisaroni was the only soloist to take on a narrative role, that of Friar Laurence, who also assumes some of the narrative duties that Shakespeare had assigned to Prince Escalus. Here again, however, it was the clarity of these soloists’ respective deliveries that guided the listener through the maze of Berlioz’ highly personal impressions of Shakespeare’s play.

The same can be said of how the SFS Chorus was managed. The reduced chorus for the Prologue took the center of the terrace seating. That meant that the Capulets and Montagues could be separated to the left and right (not that I was ever able to distinguish which was which). MTT always found the right way to balance choral and instrumental resources, making it easy for the listener to appreciate how text worked with music to define the landscape of the composer’s impressions. This all made for a thoroughly memorable evening that situated Berlioz in the best possible light for appreciating this massive undertaking.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The SFP 2017–2018 Dance Series will Include Music in Performance

Because the primary focus of this site is the performance of music, I have not, in the past, written advance information about the annual San Francisco Performances (SFP) Dance Series. However, the first performance in this series for the coming season will include the participation of a string quartet (not through a recording). That concert will see the return of Wendy Whelan, formerly of the New York City Ballet and now performing with dancer-choreographer Brian Brooks:

Brian Brooks and Wendy Whelan, courtesy of San Francisco Performances

They will give a reprise presentation of their duet, “First Fall,” which has now been incorporated into a larger piece, Some of a Thousand Words. Brooks created the choreography in partnership with the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, whose members are violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas. The music to be played as part of the performance will include works by John Luther Adams, Tyondai Braxton, Philip Glass, and Evan Ziporyn, as well as a new piece that Jacobsen composed for the occasion.

Some of a Thousand Words will be given two performances, both at 7:30 p.m., on Wednesday, November 29, and Thursday, November 30, respectively. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. This will be the first of only two offerings in the 2017–2018 Dance Series, the second being the return of Company Wayne McGregor for a full-evening work entitled Autobiography. That piece will be given three performances, beginning again at 7:30 p.m., on Thursday, March 8, Friday, March 9, and Saturday, March 10. These will take place in the YBCA Theater, which is located in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) at 700 Howard Street, on the northwest corner of Third Street.

The subscription prices for these two concerts at $120, $100, and $70. Unfortunately, these subscriptions are not available for online purchase. However, they can be purchased by phone by calling 415-677-0325. Single tickets will go on sale on July 31.

ECM will Release an Anniversary Album Honoring AACM

In September of 2015, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago hosted a concert in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The concert was organized by one of the group’s first members, wind player Roscoe Mitchell. The Museum’s exhibition on this occasion included both artworks by AACM members and percussion instruments used by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. This group was formed by Mitchell in 1967, joined by Lester Bowie on trumpet, Malachi Favors on bass, and sometimes Joseph Jarman on piano. It was originally called the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble, and the name became the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969.

The 50th anniversary concert took place in both the Museum theatre and the exhibition space itself. The program was organized around four different trios that Mitchell led. He played his composition “Prelude to a Rose” with trumpeter Hugh Ragin and Tyshawn Sorey on trombone and rhythm. “Dancing in the Canyon” was a free improvisation conceived jointly by Mitchell, Craig Taborn on keyboards, and percussionist Kikanju Baku. Mitchell’s “Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and The Final Hand” brought him together with percussionist Tani Tabbal and Jaribu Shahid covering the rest of the rhythm. Finally, Mitchell joined with two of his colleagues at Mills College, wind player James Fei and percussionist William Winant, to play “Spatial Aspects of Sound,” “EP 7849,” “Bells for the South Side,” “The Last Chord,” and “Panoply,” the last inspired by Mitchell’s painting of the same name:

Roscoe Mitchell's Panoply on the back cover of the booklet for the album being discussed

(Mitchell holds the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition at Mills.) The entire group joined together for “Red Moon In The Sky,” followed, without a break, by “Odwalla,” during which Mitchell introduced all of the players.

This concert was recorded in its entirety by David Zuchowski. Those recordings were then mixed and mastered for the production of the two-CD album Bells for the South Side, which will be released by ECM this Friday. As usual, is processing pre-orders.

As its Wikipedia page observes, “The AACM has been on the forefront of the avant-garde since its inception in 1965;” and, over the course of its different names, Mitchell’s Art Ensemble was at the forefront of performing music from that forefront. What is striking about this “retrospective” album is that the players are still looking forward, rather than recalling the past nostalgically. Indeed, these tracks are so prospective that they may well be disorienting to listeners not familiar with past AACM achievements.

This happens to be of great comfort to me personally. Those who follow this site regularly know that, more frequently than I would like, I respond to performances of “new music,” whether in a jazz setting or a recital, wondering what is so new about it all. I have tried very hard to avoid the now-overused adjective “lame” when confronted with such situations. It does not take much time with Bells for the South Side for the listener to appreciate that there is nothing lame about how Mitchell makes music with his colleagues. Even the quieter pieces still offer a firm kick to remind the listener of which way is forward. It thus seems fitting that this album of music performed to honor the 50th anniversary of AACM should be released in the 50th anniversary year of Mitchell’s Art Ensemble; and, for me at least, it is enormously comforting to know that the spirit behind the founding of that Art Ensemble continues to thrive.

(By way of a postscript, I should observe that my cat Daphne, who usually persistently tries to attract my attention while I am trying to write, responds to the tracks on this album by sitting quietly and staring at her image in the mirror.)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Omni Foundation will Extend SFP Guitar Series with Five Recitals

This past Thursday this site summarized the content of the five concerts in the 2017–2018 Guitar Series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). These events are offered in partnership with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. However, Omni has its own Dynamite Guitars season, which will include all five of the SFP offerings and add five more to the package. All of these concerts will begin at 7:30 pm. Four will take place in the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, three in Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor, and one in the Green Room on the second floor. The remaining concert will take place at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. The specifics for the five additional offerings are as follows:

Wednesday, October 18, Herbst Theatre: This will be the return of Brazilian guitarist Yamandu Costa, who gave his last Omni performance in Herbst in April of 2016. Costa plays a seven-string guitar, whose additional string extends the instrument’s lower register. His repertoire tends to focus on indigenous music from southern Brazil and northern Argentina, with particular attention to the “gaucho” rhythms of his sources.

Saturday, February 3, Herbst Theatre: The next returning artist will be the American musical icon Leo Kottke. Kottke’s style draws on blues, jazz, and folk music. In spite of past problems with his right hand, he specializes in syncopated polyphonic melodies. He plays both six-string and twelve-string instruments.

Saturday, March 24, Green Room: This will be the D’Addario Performance Series recital of the Omni season. The program will be shared by two contrasting styles. Russian Grisha Goryachev is one of the very few guitarists in the world who is currently reviving the tradition of solo flamenco guitar performances in a concert setting. He will be complemented by Italian Andrea de Vitis, who specializes in the classical guitar repertoire.

Saturday, April 7, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: One of Japan’s premiere guitarists, Shin-ichi Fukuda, will give a solo recital. His repertoire focuses primarily on the contemporary concert repertoire. The Cuban composer Leo Brouwer dedicated to him the “Concerto de Requiem” that he composed for guitar and orchestra as a memorial piece for Toru Takemitsu.

Saturday, April 21, Herbst Theatre: This will be the second edition of a four-set smorgasbord of different approaches to guitar virtuosity. The opening set will be taken by the duo of guitarists Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo. They will be followed by the Brazilian Badi Assad, a singer as well as a guitarist and sister of the Duo Assad guitarists, Sérgio and Odair. The geography will then shift to Finland with a solo set taken by Olli Soikkeli. The evening will then conclude with a solo set by Cesar Garabini, born in Brazil and currently living in New York City.

Subscription packages for the 2017–2018 season are currently available by calling 415-242-4500. The price of the full series of ten concerts provides a 20% discount over the purchase of ten individual tickets. There is also the Create-Your-Own option. The subscriber can create his/her own package of four or more concerts and receive a 14% discount. Single ticket prices are $45 and $55 for St. Mark’s, $45 for the Green Room, and $35, $45, and $55 for Herbst Theatre.

New PRISM Quartet Album is More About Sounds Than Colors

A little over two months ago the PRISM Quartet released its latest album on its own XAS Records label. The group consists of four saxophonists covering the four registers of the instrument: Timothy McAllister on soprano, Zachary Shemon on alto, Matthew Levy on tenor, and Taimur Sullivan on baritone. Shemon also plays a “hookah” saxophone, which connects the mouthpiece to the instrument by seven feet of rubber hose, somewhat in the manner of the water pipe for which it is named. Based on the commissioning of new works built around the idea of musical colors, the title of the new album is Color Theory:

The result of this project is an offering of three compositions, the eight-movement suite Blue Notes and Other Clashes by Steven Mackey, “Future Lilacs” by Ken Ueno, and Stratis Minakakis’ Skiagrafies, consisting of two sections, “Traces” and “Shadow Memories,” played without interruption. The performance of each of these pieces requires the participation of additional musicians. Mackey’s piece complements the quartet of saxophonists with the four members of So Percussion, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, and Eric Cha-Beach. The remaining two tracks include Partch, an ensemble originally founded by Music Director John Schneider to perform the music of Harry Partch. As a result of his interest in the natural harmonic series, Partch built a large family of instruments all based on dividing the octave into 43 unequal tones; and Ueno and Minakakis are two composers that have pursued the use of Partch’s instruments for their own compositions. Minakakis also serves as conductor for both of these pieces; and Ueno’s work also requires an electric version of a guitar that Partch originally designed, played by Derek Johnson.

The accompanying booklet includes an extended essay by John Schaefer. In the interest of full disclosure, Schaefer’s New Sounds program on National Public Radio was my favorite source for listening when I spent the better part of the Eighties living in Stamford, Connecticut. Like Schaefer-the-announcer, Schaefer-the-writer provides excellent background that will guide the curious listener through the tracks on this album. My personal technical background, on the other hand, raises any number of questions as to whether any of these pieces have any connection to color that goes beyond choices of titles; but, quite honestly, I do not think that matters very much.

Just as Partch pursued upper harmonics in search of new sonorities, the real value of this album lies in how its three composers each pursue a similar quest for such sonorities. Ironically, they all come from a time when the received wisdom was that composers would discover such sonorities by exploring the affordances of electronic hardware and computer software. There is thus something at least slightly ironic about the back-to-instruments aesthetic behind his album. Beyond the irony, however, is a vast landscape of new ways to approach listening; and I, for one, would be happy to see other composers stake out other areas in that landscape on the basis of what Mackey, Ueno, and Minakakis have achieved.

From a personal point of view, however, I would have to say that I was particularly drawn to “Future Lilacs.” To be fair, however, I should add that I have had the good fortune to listen to Ueno as a performer, in addition to listening to performances of his music. As a performer he has been particularly interested in the exploration of upper harmonics through different Asian throat singing techniques. As a result, I warmed very quickly to “Future Lilacs” when I realized that the melodic contour of upper harmonics coming out of Johnson’s guitar work amounted to an instrumental version of those throat singing techniques.

I was also impressed by how the PRISM players could control their own intonation to align with the tones produced by Partch’s instruments. After all, if a saxophone is capable of rich vibrato, there is no reason why the central axis of that vibrato should be confined to the frequencies of equal-tempered tuning. The members of PRISM clearly appreciated that acute listening was rigorously necessary when playing with Partch instruments. I have no idea how much rehearsal time this required; but the resulting sonorities in both the Ueno and Minakakis pieces were instrumental (pun intended) in guiding the listener through each of their respective logical paths.

Mackey’s piece, on the other hand, was a series of short takes. All of them involve PRISM working within the context of different landscapes of percussion sonorities. Most of these were grounded in a playful wit, most evident when the “Mottled March” veers off in the direction of the march at the beginning of Igor Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du soldat.” Still, brevity is at the soul of that wit. Mackey had spot-on intuition for when the listener would arrive at the I-get-it moment, meaning that he knew when it was time to move on to the next piece in his suite.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Berlin Classics’ Collection of Weber’s Clarinet Music Gets American Distribution

This past February Berlin Classics released a two-CD album of the complete works for clarinet by Carl Maria von Weber. The clarinetist was the impressive young soloist Sebastian Manz, Principal Clarinet with the SWR Symphonieorchester, affiliated with Southwest German Radio (SWR) and administratively based in Stuttgart. The album divided neatly into one CD for chamber music and the other for orchestral works with the orchestra conducted by Antonio Méndez. The best-known chamber music is the Opus 34 clarinet quintet, which Manz plays with the casalQuartet. The remaining chamber works are performed with Martin Klett on piano. Until this past April, this album was only available through import; but it is now being distributed in the United States by Naxos of America.

In making these recordings Manz is not shy about acknowledging the influential role of jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman. Goodman was one of the first to record the second concerto (Opus 74 in E-flat major); but there was some controversy about his “jazzing-up” his performance with his own knapsack of rhetorical twists. Manz had no problem with Goodman’s approach. (For that matter, I do not have any problem either. It is hard to imagine that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ever “stuck to the text” when playing one of his piano concertos. Most likely he was taking liberties with that text long before he got to the cadenza!)

As a result, this is a highly personalized approach to playing Weber. If Weber’s own composition devices tended to be on the predictable side, Manz shows no problems in presenting them to the attentive listener with a refreshing layer of spontaneity. It is highly likely that most of the works on this album will be “first contact” encounters for all but clarinet students and enthusiasts. On the other hand pieces like the Opus 34 quintet and the Opus 26 concertino in E-flat major tend to get a fair share of exposure. The result is that it will be through these pieces that most listeners will be able to appreciate how Manz puts his own personal stamp on the music.

There are many who would quickly dismiss Weber for lacking the depth of his better-known contemporaries. However, this is a recording that prioritizes the making of music over the documenting of it. Manz is definitely a music-maker of the first order; and this album provides a first-rate introduction to his skills.

My only quibble has to do with the nuts-and-bolts of the production process. While the booklet provides many useful thoughts about the music itself, the reader learns about Klett’s contribution as pianist only in passing. An even greater slight is the failure to name the members of the casalQuartet. This may be Manz’ album, but all contributing musicians should be acknowledged for what they have contributed! Finally, there is no explicit explanation for the presence of Lars Olaf Schaper’s name on the back cover. He plays bass in the SWR Symphonieorchester; but he has been singled out because a bass has been added to the string quartet in the performance of the Opus 34 quintet (meaning that it has become a sextet)!

The Bleeding Edge: 6/26/2017

This month felt like it came in like a lion, but it seems to be going out like a lamb. This week sees the return of the ZOFO four-hand-on-one-keyboard duo of Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi to the Old First Concerts series at the Old First Presbyterian Church, as was announced about a month ago. Specifics for the few other activities are as follows:

Thursday, June 29, 6 p.m., Prelinger Library: This will be the next installment in the Indexical Moment/um series of “performing-ethnomusicology” events arranged by percussionist Marshall Trammel, founder of Music Research Strategies. As was the case last month, Trammel will give a duo performance with an invited artist. This month’s collaborator will be the South African musician and painter Moguawane Mahloele. Mahloele is accomplished in both the making and playing of African (Alkebulan) drums, entoros (mouth harps), dipelas (also known as “kalimbas”), nakas, flutes, sekeres, and makhoyames (bowed instruments with gourd resonators).

The Prelinger Library is located in Room 215 at 301 8th Street. Unfortunately, the library is not visible from the street. Those wishing to enter can dial 016 on the intercom by the door. (Instructions for access are also on the intercom itself.) The library is wheelchair accessible, but space is limited. Those wishing to attend this event are requested to RSVP through electronic mail for confirmation. Donations will be accepted at the door.

Thursday, June 29, 6 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: Outsound Presents will continue its usual format of two sets of free improvisation in the Luggage Store Creative Music Series. The first set will bring together Christine Richers and Laura Schwartz. Richers specializes in low strings (cello and bass) and also works with electronics. Schwartz’ primary instrument is horn. The second set will feature the Pet the Tiger Instrument Inventors Collective, whose Director is David Samas. The group will play the Harmonic Series Gamelan:

from YouTube

This is a collection of instruments tuned to the natural harmonic overtones of Schumann resonances, extremely low frequency reverberations detected in the ionosphere. Performers will be Bart Hopkin, Peter Whitehead, Daniel Schmidt, Stephen Parris, Derek Drudge, and Sally Davis. 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.

Monday, July 3, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: One week from today will be the first Monday of the next month. That makes it is the night of the Monday Make-Out at the Make Out Room, three sets of adventurous jazz that are scheduled for presentation on that monthly occasion. The first set will be a trio improvisation by Larry Ochs on saxophone with rhythm provided by Hamir Atwal on drums and Karl Evangelista on guitar. They will be followed by the Sound Underground Trio of David Leon on saxophone, Alec Aldred on trumpet, and Jonah Udall on guitar. The final set will be taken by Lost Planet, which features the guitar work of Len Paterson and Steve Clarke. They will be joined by saxophonist Dave Slusser and drummer Thomas Scandura.

Doors open at 8 p.m., and the music starts half an hour later. The Make Out Room is located at 3225 22nd Street in the Mission, near the southwest corner of Mission Street. The Make Out Room is a bar. That means that tickets are not sold, nor is there a cover charge. Nevertheless, a metaphorical hat is passed between sets; and all donations are accepted, not to mention welcome!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

San Francisco Opera’s Puccini Sustains a Return Visit

This afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for another performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème in the current Summer Season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). I had multiple reasons for doing so. This was the performance that is on the subscription series for which my wife and I have tickets. It also turned out to be the second of the (only) two performances that soprano Julie Adams gave in the role of Mimì. Finally, by way of a confession, I realized that, when I covered opening night, I was so wrapped up in the intricate qualities of the staging that I neglected to say anything about what was happening in the orchestra pit. As I have previously observed, my subscription tickets afford an excellent view of just about all of the musicians except for those in what was, this afternoon, the second violin section; and it is hard to resist dwelling on how the conductor (Carlo Montanaro) manages the complex relationship between what those musicians are doing and what happens up on stage.

This is a particularly challenging matter where La Bohème is concerned. This is very much an opera that prioritizes the vocalists above all other matters. Indeed, it almost (but not quite) feels like a revival of the Baroque tradition of one set piece after another through which each character reveals his/her dispositions while whatever flow of narrative there may be comes to a screaming halt. Of course the expressiveness of the nineteenth century marked a radical shift from that of the seventeenth, but all that means is that each era had its own characteristic resources for creating and executing virtuoso display.

Thus, what was important about Montanaro was how he accepted this prioritization and managed his instrumental resources to support it. Much of his effort had to do with pacing, allowing the singers liberty to prolong certain moments. (Puccini was very helpful in this regard. You know where those moments are because instrumental activity is minimal, if it is there at all.) Such an approach enhanced a sense of spontaneity that originated in the vocal work but was then reflected by the orchestral support. In addition I found myself more aware of sensitive control of the dynamic contours. This seemed to be one of the primary techniques which which Adams made this role her own, and it would not surprise me to learn that Montanaro himself had been involved in some of the coaching to prepare her for her performances.

Beyond her musicianship, however, Adams had at least a minor problem with her own healthy disposition. During the first act she never quite got into character in a manner that suggested that Mimì was doomed from her very first encounter with Rodolfo (tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz). Mind you, Adams was not the only weak link in this chain. From a narratological point of view, the major weakness in the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is that there is too much of a tendency to treat poverty and the hunger associated with it as a jolly affair. The one compensation came with Adams’ change in makeup prior to the final act. She assumed a death-warmed-over look that made it clear that the trajectory for the remainder of the opera would be an unrelenting downward spiral. Here again, however, relationship with the music was critical, since, by virtue of Montanaro’s guidance through the score, Adams never left the viewer feel as if she were wallowing in his misfortune.

This summer’s performances were the first revival of a production first presented here in November and December of 2014. Since La Bohème is the most frequently performed opera in the SFO repertoire, it is likely to return to the War Memorial Opera House sooner rather than later. This production is enough of a “keeper” that management may do well to resist the temptation of committing significant resources to bringing on a new staging.

The San Francisco Performances 2017–2018 Virtuosi Series

The San Francisco Performances (SFP) Virtuosi Series is notable for its eclectic scope. Rather than focusing on a single genre or medium, the series brings together four outstanding performers, each with his/her own distinctive way of establishing his/her reputation. The emphasis of the four concerts in the 2017–2018 season will be on chamber music, but that involves honoring my person conviction that jazz is chamber music by other means. All of the concerts will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Herbst Theatre. The entrance to Herbst is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Tuesday, November 7: Violinist Leila Josefowicz will make a welcome return to SFP. Those who try to follow her regularly know that she has also been a well-received visitor to Davies Symphony Hall for performances with the San Francisco Symphony. For this recital she will be joined by pianist John Novacek. The core of her program will consist of two twentieth-century sonatas written within half a decade of each other. The earlier of these will be the first of Sergei Prokofiev’s two sonatas for violin and piano (Opus 80 in F minor), which was completed after the end of the Second World War in 1946, although the composer began work on it in 1938. The Prokofiev sonata will be complemented by Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1951 sonata for solo violin. The program will conclude at the very end of the twentieth century with John Adams 1995 “Road Movies.” The opening selection will be Friedrich Hermann’s arrangement of Jean Sibelius’ Opus 44 “Valse Triste,” originally written as incidental music for Arvid Järnefelt's 1903 play Kuolema (death), whose author was the composer’s brother-in-law.

Friday, November 17: This program will offer the jazz perspective on chamber music. Regina Carter has had a long-standing relationship with SFP; and, between 1997 and 2001 she was the first SFP jazz Artist-in-Residence. She also received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006. She honored her connection to SFP by writing “What Ruth Felt,” which she played at A Heartfelt Gala at the end of last September, a special concert to honor SFP founder and President Emeritus Ruth Felt. For her next visit she will lead a quintet in a program entitled Simply Ella. The legacy of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald will be honored with performances of Carter’s own arrangements of iconic works performed by Fitzgerald ranging from love ballads to the mind-bending scat singing in her bebop interpretations.

Thursday, February 8: Jörg Widmann will return, once again, in his joint capacity as clarinetist and composer. He will be joined by pianist Gilles Vonsattel. Three of his compositions will be performed during the second half of the program. These will be his “Circus Dances” for solo piano, a set of five fragments (Bruchstücke, with no apparent connection to Max Bruch) for clarinet and piano, and a solo fantasia for clarinet. The other composers included on the program will be Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Carl Maria von Weber.

Wednesday, February 21: The final “visiting virtuoso” in the series will be flutist Emmanuel Pahud, who will be joined by pianist Alessio Bax, no stranger to the Bay Area, particularly through his involvement with Music at Menlo. The program will begin with Francis Poulenc’s sonata for flute and piano. The remainder of the program will involve Pahud taking the solo part in works originally written for other instruments. These will be Franz Schubert’s D. 821 sonata in A minor for arpeggione and piano, Schumann’s Opus 73 set of three fantasy pieces (Fantasiestücke), originally intended for clarinet and piano, and Mendelssohn’s 1838 violin sonata in F major, which was not published during the composer’s lifetime.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $240 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $200 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $140 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on July 31.

Kronos Quartet Folk Song Album Goes Full-Bore Middle-Brow

Back in the days when my “full-time occupation” was computer science, I remember coming across a review of a paper submitted to a technical conference in which the reviewer described the content of the paper as filling “a well-needed gap.” I was reminded of that scabrous and withering assessment while listening to the latest Kronos Quartet album, Folk Songs, released by Nonesuch at the beginning of this month. This was apparently the product of festival performances given in 2014 to celebrate the label’s 50th anniversary.

Kronos has been a “Nonesuch property” for a significant share of that label’s history. Indeed, the label’s discography accounts for all of the changes in personnel that the ensemble has sustained. Personnel for the anniversary concert was the same as it is to this day. David Harrington still leads as first violin, joined by founding members John Sherba on second violin, and Hank Dutt on viola. Cello is taken by Sunny Yang. However, the concert saw them join forces with four Nonesuch vocalists, Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant; and the Folk Song album is a document of the resulting performances.

When Nonesuch albums first his the record stores (remember them?), it was quickly clear that the label was trying to be hip and eclectic, offering a refreshing alternative to the middle-brow offerings from labels like RCA and particularly Columbia with its high-value middle-brow champion Leonard Bernstein. When it came to genres, Nonesuch cast a wide net; and, for a while a least, it appeared that the producers knew how to give each genre the serious treatment required for stimulating listening. There was also a hip sense of humor when Joshua Rifkin produced The Baroque Beatles Book. (Rifkin was also the key figure in Nonesuch’s contribution to revived interest in Scott Joplin.)

Folk Songs is far from hip and cannot be counted as eclectic just because it mashes up performers from different backgrounds. To be fair, that mash-up also includes the contributions of the arrangers, Nico Muhly, Donnacha Dennehy, Jacob Garchik, and Gabriel Witcher. For the most part those arrangers seem to be giving the Kronos players something to do while the vocalists accompany themselves on instruments like guitar, harmonium, and hand drum. Every now and then, one hears a portamento with a bit of bluegrass rhetoric; but, for the most part, the music plods its way behind vocalizing that tries to sound down-home but comes off as merely affectation.

Earlier this week I expressed discontent over a recent BIS recording of Vadim Gluzman. Gluzman had built up an impressive repertoire of recordings of adventurous compositions, but his latest album was all music by Johannes Brahms. My response was to ask, rhetorically, whether BIS no longer wanted Gluzman to be Gluzman. I hope that it will not be long until Nonesuch decides to let Kronos be Kronos.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Plans for the Sixteenth Annual Outsound New Music Summit

Outsound Presents has now updated the Web site for its annual New Music Summit with information about the schedule for this year. The festival will consist of five concerts on successive evenings at the end of next month. All performances will begin at 8:15 p.m., and each will be preceded at 7:30 p.m. with a Q&A session moderated by Rent Romus at which performers will talk about their work and take questions from the audience. Each concert will consist of two sets. Participants will be as follows:

Tuesday, July 25: Evil Genius is a jazz trio with a significant departure from the ordinary. That departure involves the use of a tuba, played by Stefan Kac, as the lead melody instrument. Rhythm is provided by Max Kutner on guitars and Michael “Bonepocket” Lockwood on percussion. They will be followed by the Usufruct duo, that brings Polly Moller (flutist and vocalist, composer and improviser) together with computer musician Tim Walters.

Wednesday, July 26: Animals and Giraffes is the team of saxophonist and composer Phillip Greenlief and writer Claudia La Rocco. They have worked together with some of the Bay Area’s finest improvisers on different ways to explore the intersection of text and sound. They will be followed by the improvising duo of Amy Reed (guitar and voice) and Collette McCaslin (trumpet and soprano saxophone).

Thursday, July 27: Reed player Sheldon Brown has formed a group called Blood of the Air to perform a suite (of the same name) of pieces based on the poetry and speech melodies of Beat/Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia. The other performers are Darren Johnston (trumpet), Lorin Benedict (voice), Andrew Joron (theremin), Dave MacNab (guitar), John Finkbeiner (guitar), Jonathan Alford (piano), Vijay Anderson (drums), and Alan Hall (drums). This large-ensemble set will be followed by the improvising neem duo of Gabby Fluke-Mogul on violin and Kelley Kipperman on bass.

Friday, July 28: Surplus 1980 is a local post-punk band founded in 2009 by multi-instrumentalist Moe! Staiano. It will be followed by the VOCO trio of Alex Young on guitar, Tim Sullivan on drums, and Josh Martin on bass. They will perform ten original compositions that take conventional instrumental rock as a point of departure and then apply shifts in genre, tempo, time signature, and dynamics.

Saturday, July 29: The opening set will feature Karen Borca, known as the only bassoonist to make a mark in avant-garde jazz and free jazz. She will be joined by Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Donald Robinson on drums. The low register will continue to prevail in the second set with Positive Knowledge. This group brings together Oluyemi and Ijeoma Thomas, the former on bass clarinet and the latter a spoken word artist. They will be joined by Hamir Atwal on drums.

All concerts will take place in the Concert Hall of the Community Music Center in the Mission. The address is 544 Capp Street, which is just north of the northwest corner of 20th Street and between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue. Tickets are currently on Sale at Early Bird prices. A Festival Pass for all concerts in $45, general admission to a single concert is $13, and the rate for students and seniors is $9.50. All tickets may be purchased online through a single Eventbrite event page.

Finally, the concert series will be proceeded by the annual Touch the Gear expo. This is a hands-on family-friendly event open to the general public. It provides an opportunity for everyone to get better acquainted with the instruments, technologies, and techniques involved in the ways music will be made during the concerts to follow. This will run for three hours on Sunday, July 23, beginning at 5 p.m. It will also take place in the Concert Hall of the Community Music Center, and there will be no charge for admission.

Music Takes a Back Seat at This Week’s SFS Concert

The title of this week’s concert by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) at Davies Symphony Hall, which received its first performance last night, is Music for a Modern Age. It is unclear just what that meant, since the music on the program spanned an entire century, from 1906 (Charles Ives’ “From the Steeples and the Mountains”) to 2016, the West Coast premiere of the setting by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) of Carl Sandburg’s poem “Four Preludes on Playthings of the World.” Furthermore, to add to the confusion over just what, if anything, the overall theme was, this was one of those evenings dominated by projection screens, stage directors, and choreography. Those who came to listen to the music quickly found themselves in the center of a massive battle for attention.

Regardless of any of the intentions behind the overall programming, the winner of that battle would have to be director and choreographer Patricia Birch. Her life span may not be as wide as last night’s repertoire (her Wikipedia page does not give her date of birth); but she was in the original production of West Side Story. By 1975 her resume included choreography for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Grease, and A Little Night Music. A high point of her past work with MTT and SFS was the full-evening show The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theatre.

Last night she closed out the evening with a staging of George Antheil’s “A Jazz Symphony,” which she developed with MTT. This was the major composition on a recent recording discussed on this site this past Thursday. It would be fair to say that Antheil’s music was neither jazz nor a symphony; but it may be the most musical reflection on that cultural milieu known as “The Jazz Age” conceived by a composer. Birch cooked up a series of dynamite dance routines focused on a pair of flappers (Kiva Dawson and Erin Moore); and both music and dance were embedded in some highly imaginative video work by Clyde Scott.

Since Birch was experienced in working with the Davies stage, she knew how she could use the space to best advantage. However, where theatre directors often achieve their most striking results when they break down that “fourth wall” (separating the audience from the stage), Birch used the raucous qualities of Antheil’s music as inspiration to break down the wall around the musicians. Thus we had Dawson flirting with solo pianist Peter Dugan (sometimes in ways making one wonder how he was still able to execute all of Antheil’s demands):

courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

More impressive was how Moore took the four players at the rear of the first violin section and turned them into her “supporting chorus,” teaching them their moves and then parading them to different areas of the stage. (The empty chairs were quickly replaced by four other violinists. Antheil’s piece requires a very large ensemble; and the first violin section needed to maintain its balance.)

The whole affair was a delightfully memorable hoot, unless you were there to listen to Antheil’s music. As was discussed earlier this week, there is no shortage of wit in the composer’s score. Some of it was quickly apparent, particularly in some of Dugan’s solo work (before he became distracted). However, there are no end of playful devils in the details of this music; and there were just too many demands on attention to give those devils the due they deserved.

Indeed, there were not many opportunities for focus on the pleasures afforded by just listening. The opening Ives selections fared best of all. As in the past, MTT arranged a spatial approach to the performance of “The Unanswered Question.” The strings were stationed in the inner lobby for Orchestra seating, while Mark Inouye took the trumpet solo from the right arm of the uppermost tier. The effect could not have been more stirring; but it was definitely equalled by the four “church-bell” (actually metal plates) players in the terrace during “From the Steeples and the Mountains.” Ives never heard this music performed; but the give-and-take between the bells and a brass choir summoned up all of those concepts of God and Nature that made such a deep impression on the Concord philosophers that the composer so admired.

Similarly, the performance of four of the movements from the suite for violin and American Gamelan composed collaboratively by Lou Harrison and Richard Dee placed priority on the listener. (The “inner suite” of three “Jhala” movements was omitted.) Nadya Tichman performed the violin solo with all of the melodic lyricism that both composers evoked in their score. Sadly, the American Gamelan was not the Old GrandDad collection of instrument designed and constructed by Harrison and his partner William Colvig. Those were the instruments used when the suite was performed in its entirety as part of the Other Minds 22 festival. Last night they were replaced by a more uniform collection of metallophones whose pitches were based on Harrison’s approach to just intonation.

Unfortunately, this made for more uniformity in the accompaniment than had been experienced at Other Minds. Each of the OldGrandDad instruments was made as its own individual piece of work. When a collection of them were assembled, one could appreciate not only the sound of the group but also the contributions of the individual instruments. Last night the only differences one could detect in the accompaniment had to do with register. The resulting disadvantage was that interleaving lines in a single register tended to get muddled, meaning that the listener was less aware of the Javanese spirit that had inspired the score.

However, muddle was a far greater problem with MTT’s composition. There is a discursive prose-like quality to Sandburg’s text that tends to demand a delivery closer to conversation than singing. Michael Hovland’s entry for Grove Music Online offers a moderate list of composers and their settings, but chances are that none of these will be recognized by most readers. (Hovland’s article comes from the second edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music.) Even with MTT reading the text before the performance and with soprano Measha Brueggergosman singing into a head-mounted microphone, there was no opportunity to get any sense of the relationship between words and music. Perhaps it was just as well that the listener was besieged with five screens of video and a pair of “backup” vocalists (soprano Mikaela Bennett and mezzo Kara Dugan) suggesting that the whole thing was a Supremes act that never made it off the drawing board. (The staging by James Darrah did not make it off the drawing board either.)

The result was an evening of sharply changing variations, but credit must go to Birch for guaranteeing that things ended on a high note.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friction Quartet will Give Next “Residence” Concert at O1C

courtesy of the Friction Quartet

Regular readers probably know by now that the members of the Friction Quartet are currently Artists-in-Residence in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series. As pictured above in left-to-right order, the performers are violinist Kevin Rogers, cellist Doug Machiz, violist Taija Warbelow, and violinist Otis Harriel. Those who have attended past performances should also know that leadership is shared between Rogers and Harriel.

Exactly four weeks from today Friction will give its next O1C concert. The featured work on the program will be the United States premiere of “The Still Dancers” by Peter Hellawell, currently Professor of Composition at the Queen’s University of Belfast. Last year at the Center for New Music, Friction played Hellawell’s “Driftwood On Sand;” and that performance was captured on video:

YouTube video of Friction Quartet playing "Driftwood On Sand"

The program will also include Bedřich Smetana’s second string quartet in D minor. The last years of Smetana’s life were difficult. He had written his autobiographical first quartet in E minor in 1876, giving it the title “From My Life.” While most of the four-movement score recalled better times, the final movement is interrupted by a piercing high E that depicts the onset of his deafness. By the winter of 1882–1883, he was suffering from depression, insomnia, and hallucinations. He wrote the second quartet in defiance of orders from his doctor to refrain from all musical activity. He would die at the Kateřinky Lunatic Asylum in Prague on May 12, 1884 with cause of death registered as senile dementia.

The remainder of the program has not yet been announced. The performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, July 21. O1C performances take place at the Old First Presbyterian Church, which is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Boulevard. General admission will be $25 with discounted rates of $20 for seniors and $5 for 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.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Soprano Ylva Stenberg Performs Impressively at YBGF

Every year Folkets Hus och Parker and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music award a scholarship, named after soprano Jenny Lind, to a promising soprano. The award also comes with several performance opportunities, one of which is given as part of the annual Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YGBF). This year’s awardee was the Swedish soprano Ylva Stenberg; and her one-hour recital, presented outdoors with no admission charge, began this afternoon at 12:30 p.m. She was accompanied at the piano by Allan Timofeitchik.

The program was an impressive interleaving of the familiar and the unfamiliar, including combining the two in one selection. That last was the song “Aime – moi!,” which Pauline Viardot wrote in 1848 by adding a vocal line to the second (in the key of D major) of Frédéric Chopin’s four Opus 33 mazurkas. In the absence of a text sheet, it was difficult to determine whether the words worked for or against Chopin’s rhetoric. However, there was clearly considered judgment behind how Viardot made this mazurka into a song; and Stenberg’s interpretation definitely captured Chopin’s spirit.

On the more unfamiliar side, chances are that the songs of Swedish composers Hugo Alfvén, Gösta Nystroem, and Gunnar de Frumerie were probably all “first contact” experiences; but for most of the audience that was probably just as true of the two songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff. For that matter the same could be said of Timofeitchik’s solo performance of a nocturne by Ottorino Respighi, the third of a set of six pieces composed between 1903 and 1905. Where art song was involved, familiar ground only came into sight with the performance of three songs by Richard Strauss, “Die Nacht” (Opus 10, Number 3), “Morgen” (Opus 27, Number 4), and “Allerseelen” (Opus 10, Number 8). The last two of these are likely to be familiar to those who attend vocal recitals regularly, and those who know them would have recognized the sensitivity that Stenberg brought to her performance.

Equally familiar would have been her concluding with “Caro nome” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. She was perfectly comfortable with all of the virtuoso demands that Verdi imposed but also brought an understanding of Gilda’s perplexed state with a man she took (mistakenly) to be a poverty-stricken student. Less familiar was her opening with “O luce di quest’anima” from Gaetano Donizetti’s Linda di Chamonix. Here performance was more a matter of leaping through all of the virtuoso hoops, regardless of whether or not the underlying narrative was being properly signified.

It is also worth emphasizing, once again, the knowing sensitivity that Stenberg brought to her performance. Conditions in Yerba Buena Gardens were far from conducive to a song recital. Both a waterfall at one end of the space and jackhammers beyond the other did their best to undermine this free outdoor concert. However, for all of those hazards, the turnout was a good one; and it seemed as if just about everyone in the audience could focus on the music without worrying about the onslaught of distractions. Stenberg is likely to be a dynamite soprano when she is performing under more favorable conditions!

Capriccio Honors George Antheil’s “Bad Boy” Reputation

At the end of last month, I reported that the British Chandos label had begun a project with the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by John Storgårds, to record the music of American composer George Antheil. I used that article to discuss the composer’s “bad boy” reputation, noting that Antheil himself chose that epithet, using it in the title of his autobiography. I then observed that the new Chandos album had pretty much slighted any of the composer’s “bad boy” qualities.

I am therefore happy to report that, at the beginning of this month, Capriccio released a brand-new (based on recordings made this past January) album that vigorously affirms Antheil’s self-appointed reputation:

courtesy of Naxos of America

The orchestra is the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, the leading symphony orchestra of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The ensemble is led by Chief Conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens, who has held that position since the beginning of the 2009/2010 season. The album was co-produced for Capriccio by Deutschlandradio Kultur and Südwestrundfunk (SWR). That is quite a team in support for a composer whose music is seldom performed in his own country.

It does not take long for the listener to appreciate how Antheil acquired his self-professed reputation. The opening selection is “A Jazz Symphony,” which was written in 1925 for a series of concerts organized by Paul Whiteman entitled Experiment in Modern Music. (This was the same concert series that had premiered George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in Carnegie Hall.)

Whiteman never performed the piece. The polite reason is probably that he did not have the resources. Antheil’s instrumentation required two oboes, two clarinets, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, various percussion, two banjos, three pianos (including one soloist), and a full string section. The less polite reason is that Antheil’s writing probably scared the bejesus out of Whiteman. Many of the leading jazz musicians of Whiteman’s day accused him of trying to “make a lady” out of jazz; and that remark was not intended as a compliment! “Rhapsody in Blue” may have found the right sweet spot between the testosterone-laden qualities of Whiteman’s critics and the more polite tastes of Carnegie Hall audiences; but Antheil was far less inclined to compromise. Ironically, the conductor that did perform “A Jazz Symphony” (at Carnegie Hall) was W. C. Handy (who was definitely more in touch with “real jazz” than Whiteman ever was) leading the Harlem Symphonietta.

One might then be justified in asking how well an orchestra in the Rhineland-Palatinate could manage with all the “bad boy” qualities that Antheil packed into this piece. As far as I am concerned, the answer is “Very well, indeed!” Mind you, it helps if the listener has some basic familiarity with “Rhapsody in Blue;” but, thanks to United Airlines, it is hard to find listeners lacking that acquaintance. Of course the reason for that background awareness is not that Antheil appropriated from Gershwin. Quite the contrary, he takes just about every memorable moment that Gershwin concocted and, in true “bad boy” style, turns it on its head. The music amounts to a wildly disruptive romp through “induced expectations;” and chief pianist Frank Dupree was anything but tame in taking on the rhetoric of the solo part.

This is just as much the case on the second track, which is Antheil’s first piano concerto. This was written earlier than “A Jazz Symphony” in 1922, during Antheil’s time in Europe. In many respects this piece is also a romp through how music was being made at the time, particularly in Paris. Appropriations of bits and pieces of Igor Stravinsky keep popping up, and there is a pretty clear sense that Erik Satie is lurking between the cracks. In a similar way it is difficult to listen to the final track, “Archipelago ‘Rhumba’” without thinking of Darius Milhaud. Antheil wrote that piece in 1935, and it is hard to imagine that he had not been exposed to a performance of “Le Bœuf sur le toit” when he was in Paris during the previous decade.

The tamest selection on the album is the orchestral suite that Antheil extracted from his score for Eugene Loring’s ballet “The Capital of the World.” This may be the only ballet based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and that may be its only distinguishing feature. It was first performed in December of 1953, and Antheil probably extracted the suite around the same time. If it owes any debt of appropriation, it would be to Manuel de Falla; but Hemingway’s plot never runs as deep as any of the narratives that inspired Falla. Antheil’s score is competent enough; but it comes off sounding as if it had been written “on spec.” In the history of Ballet Theatre relationships with composers, the one that Agnes de Mille had with Aaron Copland is far more memorable.

The San Francisco Performances 2017–2018 Guitar Series

This coming season San Francisco Performances (SFP) will once again partner with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts in presenting its Guitar Series. While the series usually consists of solo recitals, three of the five concerts will each have a way of offering a variation of its own. All of the concerts will begin at 7:30 p.m., but the venue will alternate between Herbst Theatre and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. The entrance to Herbst is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Friday, October 26, Herbst Theatre: This will be the SFP debut recital given by guitarist Jason Vieaux. He will be joined by Julien Labro on the bandoneon. Both players will share responsibility for arranging the selections on the program. They collaborated an on arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Esucalo,” while Vieaux prepared an arrangement of Pat Metheny’s “Antonia.” The program will open with Labro’s arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” followed by his arrangement of Radamés Gnattali’s Suite Retratos. The program will conclude with two short pieces by Rossen Balkanski, a prelude and a scherzo, with Labro taking the piano accompaniment on bandoneon.

Saturday, November 11, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Russian guitarist Irina Kulikova will make her SFP debut. Specifics have not yet been provided, but her program will include music by the Russian composer Konstantin Vassiliev. She will also include guitar works by Federico Moreno Torroba and Agustín Barrios (more generally known as Mangore). In addition she will play arrangements of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin.

Friday, December 1, Herbst Theatre: Uruguayan master Alvaro Pierri will return to SFP. His program will also include music by Mangore. He will also play works by Ralph Towner, Dušan Bogdanović, and other composers.

Saturday, March 10, Herbst Theatre: This will be an “all-star” evening that will present both Eliot Fisk and Angel Romero. Between the two of them, they will play and arrange a wide diversity of solo and duet compositions. The composers to be represented on the program will be Antonio Vivaldi, Luigi Boccherini, Isaac Albéniz, Manuel de Falla, Joaquin Rodrigo, and Manuel Ponce.

Saturday, April 28, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The series will conclude with the return of American lutenist Paul O’Dette, who has not yet announced the details of his program.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $250 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $220 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $150 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on July 31.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

HAT HUT Records Releases Ayler Live in Copenhagen

When the most adventurous of the jazz players in the Sixties ventured boldly into avant-garde practices, saxophonist Albert Ayler may well have been the most provocative. Enjoying the benefits of retrospection, jazz historian Ted Gioia, in his 2011 The History of Jazz, called Ayler a “virtuoso of the coarse and anomalous.” For the benefit of readers who expected saxophonists to provide them with smooth melodic lines, Gioia explained that first adjective by observing that Ayler was more interested in discovering and exploiting new sonorities than in giving clear and polished accounts of the notes.

Ayler was far from the only one to explore this territory. Among saxophonists the names of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy should come to mind immediately. However, Coltrane had the benefit of having mastered more traditional approaches to playing jazz. His reputation provided him with the “bully pulpit” from which he could pursue such adventurous projects as Ascension and Meditations and provide Dolphy with work as a member of his combo. While Ayler never played with Coltrane, the latter was there to help the former out with financial support.

In 2002 the Albert Ayler Estate released a CD entitled The Copenhagen Tapes, an audio document of the quartet that Ayler led during a visit to Copenhagen in September of 1964. (Ayler’s dead body was found in New York’s East River on November 25, 1970, and his death was presumed to be a suicide.) The quartet began earlier in 1964 as a trio in which Ayler performed against a rhythm section of Gary Peacock on bass and Sunny Murray on drums. In July of that year, Ayler provided a freely improvised soundtrack for Michael Snow’s film New York Eye and Ear Control; and his trio was augmented by Don Cherry on trumpet, John Tchicai on alto saxophone, and Roswell Rudd on trombone. Cherry would then join the trio on their trip to Europe. They were to have been joined by Dolphy, but Dolphy died in Berlin on June 29.

The Copenhagen Tapes was the result of two sessions. The first six tracks were recorded live at the Club Montmartre on September 3. Alternate takes of three of those selections, “Vibrations,” “Saints,” and “Spirits,” were then recorded in studio by Danish Radio on September 10. At the end of this past April, all six live tracks were reissued by the Swiss label HAT HUT Records under the title Albert Ayler Quartet: Copenhagen Live 1964:

Those unfamiliar with how far Ayler ventured from conventional jazz practices will definitely find their curiosity satisfied by this recording. Indeed, there is something unabashedly (and unashamedly) primal in what Ayler and his colleagues brought to Copenhagen. Even the fact that each track has a title that is a simple plural noun reinforces those primal qualities. Indeed, those who visit this site regularly will find on these tracks the sorts of qualities that have inspired me to refer to the most adventurous of avant-garde efforts as being out on the “bleeding edge.”

Those without a taste for such adventures may find themselves uneasy in listening to this album. Some might even call the listening experience painful. Such listeners need to bear in mind Gioia’s approach to Ayler as a maker of new sonorities. Those sonorities were so new in their time that they were even more shocking than Edgard Varèse’s effort to compose music for thirteen percussionists (“Ionisation”) about half a century earlier. Indeed, when Frank Zappa started pursing his own “bleeding edge” interests with larger ensembles, there is a good chance that he wanted his saxophone players to follow in Ayler’s path.

The six tracks on this recording may not be for the faint of heart, but those willing to steel themselves for the listening experience will have much to discover on this album.

Casting Announced for Second Fully-Staged Merola Production

Last week the Merola Opera Program announced the casting for the three one-act operas that will be performed as the first full-length fully-staged production of the 60th anniversary season. The second production of the season will be devoted entirely to Gioachino Rossini’s two-act opera La Cenerentola. The title is the Italian rendering of the name “Cinderella;” and Jacopo Ferretti used Charles Perrault “Cendrillon” (the “original source” of the fairy tale we know) as his point of departure.

Ferretti modified Perrault’s source in a variety of interesting ways, some of which may have involved the vocal resources that Rossini preferred. For one thing, there are no named characters in the Perrault text, except for the nickname of the title character. Ferretti gave her a real name, Angelina. The part was originally sung by contralto Geltrude Righetti and will be sung in the Merola production by mezzo Samantha Hankey (a winner of this year’s Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions):

Samantha Hankey, courtesy of the Merola Opera Program

Similarly, the Prince is given the name Ramiro; and he will be sung by tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro. The stepsisters are endowed with the “faux classical” names Clorinda (soprano Natalie Image) and Tisbe (mezzo Edith Grossman). In a more radical alteration, their mother becomes the fatuous and greedy Don Magnifico (bass-baritone Andrew Hiers). Most importantly, however, is that magic plays no part in the unfolding of the plot. Angelina’s virtuous behavior is rewarded by the machinations of the philosopher Alidoro (bass-baritone Szymon Wach), who is also Ramiro’s tutor. Finally, there are some mistaken identity high jinks involving Dandini, the Prince’s valet (bass-baritone Christian Pursell). Those who might be wondering about why Angelina should have such a low voice should bear in mind that Righetti had already created the role of Rosina in The Barber of Seville.

This production will be staged by Chuck Hudson, who has worked in both opera and theater and was a co-creator of Seattle Opera’s Young Artist Program. The conductor will be Mark Morash, who has given many past Merola performances and is Director of Musical Studies for the San Francisco Opera Center. This production will be given two performances at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 3, and 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 5.

These performances will take place in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. Ticket prices will be $70 and $50. Tickets are being sold by the Box Office in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. The Box Office may also be reached by telephoning 415-864-3330. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Tickets for both performances are also available online. There will also be student tickets available for $15, but these must be purchased in person at the Box Office upon presentation of valid identification.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Is BIS Tiring of Letting Vadim Gluzman be Vadim Gluzman?

I have been following recordings of violinist Vadim Gluzman for over half a decade. my generally positive impressions have much to do with his approach to repertoire, and I first became aware of him in conjunction with his work with composer and pianist Lera Auerbach. Indeed, one of those missed opportunities that I particularly regret was the San Francisco Performances recital in 2004 when the two of them played Auerbach’s Opus 46 set of 24 preludes (in all major and minor keys) for violin and piano.

By way of compensation, I began to look into Gluzman’s recorded repertoire with the Swedish BIS label. This led me to write up my listening experiences for and my describing Gluzman as “representative of a new ‘breed’ of violinists who are not content to settle into the ‘middle-brow’ groove of the ‘standard repertoire.’” Sadly, those experiences took place shortly before my only encounter with Gluzman in performance.

He was one of the soloists for a San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription concert entitled Barbary Coast and Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exposition, at which he was required to channel violinists from that historical period, such as Ole Bull, Henryk Wieniawski, and Fritz Kreisler. That “middle-brow” experience reminded me of the famous story about Arnold Schoenberg that Alex Ross recounted in his book The Rest Is Noise. Schoenberg had been invited to a dinner party by his friend Harpo Marx at which Fanny Brice (remember Funny Girl?) walked up to him after a few (or more) drinks and said, “C’mon Professor, play us a tune!”

Gluzman’s latest BIS album came out at the beginning of last month, and it is devoted entirely to the music of Johannes Brahms:


Now, to be fair, while Brahms has left us all with no end of memorable tunes, there is much more to both his symphonic and chamber works than tunes we can whistle and hum with fond satisfaction. By the same count, Gluzman has no trouble summoning up “tune rhetoric,” even if doing it for Auerbach required applying a not-so-thin veneer of irony. Furthermore, the odds are good that all three of those historical violinists that SFS required Gluzman to channel probably knew of and played Brahms Opus 77 violin concerto in D major and at least some of his chamber music.

Nevertheless, listening to this new album, which features Gluzman playing Opus 77 with the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Chief Conductor, James Gaffigan, left me with the uneasy feeling that this violinist was just not in his comfort zone. Things were somewhat better with the chamber music selections that filled out the recording, the Opus 78 violin sonata in G major and the WoO 2 scherzo in C minor that Brahms’ contributed to the “F-A-E Sonata,” an effort in which he collaborated with Robert Schumann and Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich in creating a sonata to honor Joseph Joachim. One reason why these performances rise above the ordinary is that Gluzman is again accompanied by pianist Angela Yoffe, his partner for his more adventurous chamber music recordings for BIS. When these two get together as a duo, they rise so far above the sorts of “tunes” that make the middle-brow happy that they could probably get Brice’s ghost to rise up and take notice!

Still, I feel a bit disappointed that BIS has released an album that seems to go for middle-brow expectations of the familiar; but those circumstances may have more to do with my failure to pay attention to announcements of such releases.