Monday, July 31, 2017

Sono Luminus Releases Debut Album of Boyd Meets Girl

Boyd Meets Girl is the duo of Australian classical guitarist Rupert Boyd with his wife, American cellist Laura Metcalf. This past Friday Sono Luminus released the duo’s debut album, which is entitled, simply enough, Boyd Meets Girl. The release took place approximately halfway through the duo’s current tour of the United States. The tour began in Massachusetts on July 5, and the album was released a few days after their appearance at the Newport Music Festival. Their tour will continue through August 11, when it concludes in Santa Fe. They will then fly across the Pacific for a series of performances in both New Zealand and Australia between August 23 and September 22.

As might be guessed, the repertoire for cello and guitar is a bit slim. Nevertheless, the album begins with a relatively short three-movement composition by Jaime Mirtenbaum Zenamon, the sixth in a series of pieces he has called “Reflexões” (reflections). Zenamon himself is a guitarist, but this piece makes it clear that he understands enough about both the sonorities of the cello and the technical capabilities of a cellist to make for a well-conceived, albeit a bit bland, duet.

“Arafura Arioso” began as the second movement of a concerto for guitar and strings by Australian composer Ross Edwards. He then arranged the second movement especially for Boyd Meets Girl. The result has been given its premiere recording on this album. The music amounts to a geographical meditation, whose impact has not been short-changed by by Edwards’ arrangement. Similarly, the track “Allegretto Comodo” is a movement extracted from a longer composition. In this case, however, that composition is a sonata explicitly written for cello and guitar by Brazilian composer Radamés Gnattali.

The remainder of the album consists of arrangements prepared jointly by Boyd and Metcalf. The most straightforward of these are four of the two-part contrapuntal pieces that Johann Sebastian Bach called “inventions,” BWV 779 in F major, BWV 781 in G major, BWV 777 in E major, and BWV 784 in A minor. In this case arrangement seemed to involve little more than giving the lower line to the cello and the upper to the guitar.

Similarly, the cello fits will into the vocal line in Manuel de Falla’s arrangements of seven traditional Spanish songs, originally written for soprano and piano. Since much of the piano part was conceived to imitate a guitar, transcription was a relatively straightforward process. On the other hand the “Café 1930” movement from Astor Piazzolla’s Histoire du Tango suite was originally scored for flute and guitar, meaning that Metcalf had to take on the flute part.

Far more ambitious was the decision to take on Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” (mirror in the mirror). This was written for piano and violin, but this is not the first occasion on which the violin has been replaced by a cello. Indeed, the registration of the violin part is such that the cello can play the pitches written for violin without too much difficulty.

The challenge in performing this piece, however, has to do with how the accompaniment relies heavily on the resonant characteristics of the piano. Boyd’s decision to use harmonics for at least some of the pitches that Pärt required amounts to an innovative approach to an alternative sonority. However, for those of us who have taken the reverberations in the body of the piano to embody Pärt’s sense of a mirror, this arrangement comes up more than a little short.

The most innovative arrangement is that of Gabriel Fauré’s orchestral scoring of his “Pavane.” This allows for some interesting approaches to the sharing of the thematic material, which Boyd and Metcalf definitely handle imaginatively. If this is the most satisfying of the arrangements, the least is their approach to “Human Nature,” the track from Michael Jackson’s Thriller album written by Steve Porcaro and John Bettis. This is a matter of accounting for the flesh with little sense of the spirit. Boyd and Metcalf would have done well to consider the sorts of technical devices that Steve Riffkin summoned, when he arranged “Purple Haze” for the Kronos Quartet, before deciding to take on anything from Thriller.

Nevertheless, even if “Human Nature” amounts to the “encore selection” on this album, it suggests some of the symptoms of the production as a whole. Those are symptoms that indicate approaches to repertoire and execution that are affable without being particularly compelling. This is not to accuse the album of descending into the “easy listening” domain; but more attentive listeners are likely to come away feeling that none of that tracks on this album are particularly engaging.

The Bleeding Edge: 7/31/2017

After the comparative quietude of the month of July, August promises to be a more active month. Two events at the Center for New Music have already enjoyed the benefit of advance announcement. Opera on the Spot will present its double bill of one-act operas by Samuel Barber (“A Hand of Bridge”) and Gian-Carlo Menotti (“The Old Maid and the Thief”) on the evening of Friday, August 4, followed by an encore performance at Caffe Delle Stelle on Monday, August 7. Then, on the afternoon of Sunday, August 6, Michael Tan will bring his adventurous program of solo piano music to C4NM. That leaves time for a satisfying diversity of other adventurous activities during the coming week. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, August 2, and Thursday, August 4, 8 p.m., SAFEhouse Arts: This will be a program presented by RAW (Resident Artist Workshop), a residency program run by the SAFEhouse for the Performing Arts. The theme of the program will be the human body, and Arina Hunter will present a new solo utilizing her body as the source of all sounds. There will also be a choreographic exploration of the body by Rayla Meshawn, as well as other new work by Hunter and Katarina Countiss.

SAFEhouse Arts is located at 1 Grove Street at the corner of Market Street. Admission will be $15. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through Vendini event pages for the Wednesday and Thursday performances.

Thursday, August 3, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: This week the Luggage Store Creative (LSC) Music Series will present two sets of solo improvisations. The first set will be taken by guitarist and vocalist Owen Stewart-Robertson. He will be followed by a solo trumpet improvisation set by Brad Henkel, currently visiting from Germany. 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, August 6, 7:30 p.m., The Musicians Union Hall: This will be a double-header week for Outsound Presents, since the LSC gig on Thursday will be followed by the next program in the SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series. This will also be two sets. However, while LSC offerings tend to go for free improvisation at its freest, SIMM offerings generally explore jazz practices that include both composition and improvisation.

The opening set will be taken by the Hung Professionals, a trio let by Tom Weeks on alto saxophone with rhythm provided by Nathan Corder on guitar and Scott Siler on drums. For the second set Rent Romus, who runs Outsound, will lead his own Life’s Blood ensemble, paying alto saxophone and flutes. The group will also include Joshua Marshall on tenor saxophone, Heikki Koskinen on flutes and e-trumpet, Safa Shokrai and Max Judelson on bass, and Timothy Orr on percussion. 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.

Monday, August 7, 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 solo by percussionist Jon Arkin, supplementing his instruments with electronics. He will then return in the second set to perform in the modern jazz quartet (note the lower-case letters) IJKL. Those letters are the initials of the four performers, Arkin being the J of the group. The leader is trumpeter Ian Carey. The other letters are accounted for by Kasey Knudsen on saxophone and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass. The final set will be free improvisation by the Brian Pedersen Trio. Pedersen leads on saxophone, joined by Sung Kim on ozukuri, an instrument of his own creation, and Robert Lopez on drums.

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, July 30, 2017

The Long Tone Choir Contends with Adverse Conditions

This afternoon at the Center for New Music (C4NM), Rae Diamond returned with her Long Tone Choir to present a program prepared for the HUSH Series curated by Julia Ogrydziak. This program marked the launch of Ogrydziak’s series. It consisted of a single full-length piece, summer 1: insects, the second of a five-part series of what Diamond calls “performance installations.” Diamond has planned the entire series to explore the cycle of the seasons. This event marked the return of Diamond and her vocalists to C4NM, since they had previously contributed to a performance of Danny Clay’s “Turntable Drawing No. 25” at the beginning of last month.

summer 1: insects is an “installation” in a sprit somewhat similar to John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit,” which was performed yesterday afternoon. However, while Adams’ performers migrate to their respective “stations” and remain there for the duration of the composition, Diamond and her fellow singers migrate from one station to another as the piece unfolds. Each station consists of a sculpture that Diamond designed to suggest (but not explicitly denote) an insect; and hanging from the sculpture is a sheet of instructions to the vocalist.

The vocalists migrate from one station to another. There are no constraints on how long they remain at any station. However, once a direction, clockwise or counterclockwise, has been set, all performers must follow the order of the individual stations. Instructions may involve sound qualities, phonemic constraints, or, in two cases, specific words (“summer” and “ice”). The two-hour duration of the piece is marked at the half-way point with an invitation to members of the audience to join the choir; and the program provided a full sheet of instructions (which were not particularly complicated).

Ogrydziak conceived of HUSH as an opportunity to present a series of programs, each of which explored one of more aspects of sound as meditation. One could quickly apprehend the meditative qualities of summer 1: insects, as well as the focus that each of the performers brought to following the “rules of execution.” Unfortunately, there was a major disturbance that severely inhibited the ability of the audience to accept the intended meditative qualities. Several photographers had been enlisted to document the occasion; and, while their physical presence was not particularly disruptive, none of them seem to have appreciated that the latest technology advances in digital cameras no longer simulate the noise made by “old-school” physical shutters.

Thus, while it was easy enough to settle into Diamond’s particular approach to establishing a rhetoric of quietude, that quietude would be shattered by camera noise right about the time that the listener was buying into the effect Diamond was trying to achieve. As a result, the invitation to participate at the half-way mark felt more than a little questionable. Speaking strictly for myself, had I settled into the environment that Diamond had created during the first hour, I probably would have felt prepared to contribute when called upon to do so. Sadly, the photographers were too successful in undermining my ability to embrace either the theory or the practice behind Diamond’s work. Hopefully, she will be able to perform this piece again in a more conducive setting.

Hyo-shin Na’s Koto Duos to be Showcased at C4NM

One of the highlights of the launch of the new season at the Center for New Music (C4NM) will be a program of original koto music composed by Hyo-shin Na. Na has prepared a program consisting entirely of duos, which will be performed by her colleagues in the Wooden Fish Ensemble, Thomas Schultz on piano and Shoko Hikage and Yuki Yasuda playing both koto and bass koto. Na will provide commentary for each of the works that will be performed.

Hyo-shi Na (above left) and her Wooden Fish colleagues

The titles of Na’s compositions follow the same descriptive simplicity often encountered in the works of Morton Feldman. Thus, the program will begin with “Koto, Bass Koto” and “Koto, Bass Koto II,” the latter receiving its world premiere; and it will conclude with “Koto, Piano” and “Koto, Piano II.” The central work on the program will be “Koto Music,” which will be performed as a koto duo.

This concert will begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, September 10, and is expected to last about three hours. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $18 with a $12 rate for C4NM members. Tickets will be available at the door and may also be purchased in advance online through a Vendini event page.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” at Lands End

This afternoon John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” was given the sort of outdoor performance that the composer had intended by virtue of a partnership between SFJAZZ and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. As had been previously observed, this is an open-ended composition whose score pages may be distributed among 9 to 99 percussionists. Taken as a whole, the piece has a three-part structure.

The first section may be said to be “about” air. It involves different approaches to amplifying human breath, but some of the performers play whirly tubes and other objects that only make sound when spun at a rapid pace. All the performers began in a single location and gradually dispersed themselves to a variety of “percussion stations” situated throughout much of Lands End:

One of the "percussion stations" for "Inuksuit" (photograph by James Parr)

This made for a gradual transition into the second section, which consisted primarily of playing drums, cymbals, and gongs. I also heard one of those sirens operated by a hand-crank from a distance; but I took that to be one of the last vestiges of the first section. Another gradual transition led into the final section, which consisted primarily of metallophones but with some lingering presence of the cymbals and gongs.

Those present for this occasion were not given any “instructions.” Indeed, the most ideal audience members were probably those who encountered this performance by accident, having planned merely to take a hike in the park. However, it was clear that the word had gotten out about this event, because I have never before seen Lands End as crowded as it was this afternoon. The good news was that, for the most part, this audience “got” that this was music to be experienced as physical sensations distributed over a large space, rather than sit-still-and-listen concert music. Many were there with their dogs; and even the dogs seemed to “get it” (except for those who got too close to a really loud cymbal crash).

On the other had there was a downside to this impressive turnout. The Conservancy has some very strict rules about where visitors to Lands End should and should not go. They believe that “good fences make good neighbors;” and any do-not-pass signals are easily recognized. Unfortunately, some of the percussionists were playing on the other side of a few of those fences. The result was that there were a fair number of listeners who felt that, if the performers go could there, they could too. My guess is that the Conservancy was not terribly happy about this state of affairs; but, for the most part, disruption was kept pretty minimal.

As to the act of listening, I came away with the strong sense that every listener was entitled to make whatever (s)he wished out of being in the presence of the performers. Personally, I found myself wandering from one “station” to another. At any particularly station, I would try to get at least a brief look at the score and then try to relate what I saw to what I was hearing. I would then pay more attention to how this “local listening” fit into the context of other stations that were audible but not necessarily visible. Having dealt with listening both in-the-small and in-the-large, I then moved on to another station and repeated the exercise. This kept me rather absorbed into the entire composition all the way into the transition to the metallophones. After checking out a few of the metallophone players (whose sounds did not tend to carry very far), I felt I had experienced enough, allowing the act of taking my leave to be situated in those sound-making processes that were still active. (For the record, when I was leaving I also saw one percussionist stowing his gear!)

Having then boarded the Geary bus, I felt a warm sense of satisfaction over having had the opportunity to experience “Inuksuit,” presumably in the sort of setting that Adams had intended for the composition.

Emma Logan will Curate a Concert Series at C4NM

Composer Emma Logan is one of the current curators for programming at the Center for New Music (C4NM). Next month she will present the first installment in a series called Alone/Not Alone, whose concerts will explore the performer’s role in a sonic world created between acoustic and electronic instruments. The first recitalist in this series will be violinist Marian Yang:

Marian Yang, courtesy of the Center for New Music

Yang has prepared a program of four works by living women composers, all but one of which have been scored for violin and electronics. The one piece that does not involve electronics will be Shulamit Ran’s “Inscriptions,” which draws upon a wide diversity of playing techniques to establish the impressions of three distinct spaces in time. “Dandelion” was composed by Mary Kouyoumdjian for violinist Andie Tanning Springer; and it uses the interplay with electronics to serve as “commentary” on the standard repertoire. The title of Nina C. Young’s piece, “Sun Propeller,” refers to the appearance of rays of light that appear to come from the sun when light comes through the edges of clouds. The program will conclude with Kaija Saariaho’s “Frises,” which is based on four ostinato patterns frequently employed in Baroque music.

This concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Saturday evening, August 26. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. In addition to being sold at the door, tickets will be available in advance online from a Vendini event page.

Ali Paris Delights with Virtuoso Command of the Qanun

Last night Moroccan-Palestinian musician Ali Paris returned to the Old First Presbyterian Church for the second of three concerts he has planned for the Old First Concerts series. His instrument is the qanun, an Arabic instrument of the zither family that uses an elaborate 79-tone tuning system. Individual strings are tuned diatonically but are then subjected to microtonal displacement through a series of levers that stop the string at closely separated distances in a manner similar to the chromatic stopping of the strings of a pedal harp:

photograph by Ozan Yarman, designer of the above instrument, provided to Wikimedia Commons and released into the public domain

The name of the instrument comes from the Greek κανών (canon), an ancient instrument that inspired Harry Partch to build his Harmonic Canon instruments, which also involve microtonal tuning.

Paris’ command of his instrument was impressive, to say the least, all the more so because his repertoire was strictly melodic. He explained to the audience that harmony does not figure in Arabic music. All performance is in unison, including his singing along to his own instrumental accompaniment. Nevertheless, he displayed a keen sense of embellishment; and there was something thoroughly absorbing in the matching of his vocal embellishment to his instrumental technique. In most of his selections he was joined by Briana Di Mara playing a violin with the strings tuned G-D-G-D (a scordatura technique that was explored by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber in the seventeenth century). That tuning facilitated her following Paris’ melodic lines, although problems with the amplification equipment tended to mute her success in matching his pitches.

The only harmonies of the evening came from David McLean’s flamenco technique on his guitar. The objective of the program seems to have been to explore the origins of flamenco as we now know it, origins that depended heavily on the cultural diversity of the Iberian peninsula under Moorish occupation. McLean was joined by flamenco dancer Kerensa DeMars and, later in the program, flamenco singer Clara Rodriguez. Along with Sage Baggott’s drumming, this amounted to a heady “stew” of cross-cultural influences.

Unfortunately, Paris’ efforts to explain some of those influences did not register very well. He, too, had to contend with amplification problems; and his technique of speaking into a microphone could do with some training. He probably would have done better in a more intimate space in which his voice could be heard without electronic assistance. However, the turnout for last night’s concerts was one of the largest that Old First has seen this season; so it is clear that working in a smaller space would have led to considerable disappointment among many. The preferable path would be for Paris to pay a bit more attention to basic showmanship in order that his impressive musical showmanship be better served.

Friday, July 28, 2017

CMC will Host 17th Annual Fresh Voices Festival

Goat Hall Productions is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization of singers/actors, composers, and writers passionate about contemporary opera and new music theater. The group calls itself “San Francisco Cabaret Opera” because most of its performances are given in an informal setting. Every year it produces a Fresh Voices Festival to showcase new works. This year will mark the seventeenth annual installment of the Festival, entitled Feet First into the Fire!

Poster design for this year's Fresh Voices Festival, courtesy of Goat Hall Productions

After visiting Vallejo and Albany, Goat Hall will bring this year’s production to the Community Music Center (CMC) in San Francisco. The program will showcase the work of eight composers, each represented by one or two compositions. The order of the program has not yet been determined. However, the composers, listed in alphabetical order, will be as follows:
  1. Mark Alburger: “2017” and “Cats, Dogs, & Divas”
  2. John Bilotta: “The League of Minor Characters”
  3. Doug Brandt: “Our Little Secret”
  4. Allan Crossman: “And Now…The Humans” and “Veganlied”
  5. Robert Denham: “The Way Home”
  6. Frank Johnson: “Five Love Songs of Stephen Crane” and “Defiled Is My Name”
  7. Helena Michelson: “The Mysteries”
  8. Dikkie Schoggen: “Aging Grace”
Thirteen vocalists will participate with piano accompaniment provided by Frank Johnson.

The San Francisco performance of this Festival will take place in the CMC Concert Hall. CMC is located in the Mission at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street. Tickets will be sold at $20 for adults and $15 for students and seniors. There will also be optional cabaret seating for $30. All tickets will be sold at the door.

Outwater Presents Vigorous Beethoven with Reduced Strings

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the Summer with the Symphony program presented its annual Music of Beethoven concert. Director of Summer Concerts Edwin Outwater led the San Francisco Symphony, choosing to reduce the size of the string section to the sort of scale that one would have expected to encounter in the early nineteenth century. Since modern instruments were being played, this was not, strictly speaking, a “historically informed” approach; but it allowed Outwater to experiment with the balance of winds and brass against strings with impressively delightful results. The program consisted entirely of music by Ludwig van Beethoven and followed the conventional (but not for the early nineteenth century) overture-concerto-symphony plan.

The concerto was the Opus 73 (“Emperor”) piano concerto in E-flat major, also played on a modern instrument by pianist Orion Weiss. This is a score that runs the entire gamut from full-out grandeur to an intimate quietude that almost anticipates a nocturne by Frédéric Chopin; and it turned out that reducing the number of strings facilitated an interpretation through which one could appreciate the full breadth of that dynamic range. How often does one realize that, in one of those quieter moments, the piano is accompanied by little more than a solo cello (played by Associate Principal Peter Wyrick)? Those who know their Beethoven concertos know that the composer engaged this rhetorical device in the last movement of his Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major; and he apparently liked the effect enough to try it out in another piano concerto.

Reducing the strings facilitated Outwater taking a brisk approach to his tempo selections. At a more rapid pace one could appreciate the extent to which the first movement of Opus 73 is practically a substantially prolonged cadenza, spanning the full duration between opening and closing gestures, into which the orchestra injects the obligatory theme or two. This makes for less interplay between soloist and ensemble than one would encounter in a concerto by, for example, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; but both Weiss and Outwater seemed perfectly comfortable with this break in tradition.

In this slightly unconventional territory, Weiss seemed to focus most of his effort on phrasing. Those sitting close enough to the stage could see his lips moving, suggesting that he was using prosodic shaping to provide a framework for his approach to interpretation. The result was, for the most part, both sensible and effective, even if there were a few barely-noticeable stumbles at the ends of some of the more intricate phrases.

The overall approach to “energy management” by both Outwater and Weiss was at its most effective in contrasting the second (Adagio un poco mosso) movement from the two outer movements. Here, again, there was the sense of an extended cadenza but in a far less flamboyant setting established by the ensemble. Indeed, any sense of thematic material shared between the pianist and the orchestra only came into play with the concluding Rondo. This would not have been a rondo without a recurring theme, and much of the substance of the movement involved how that theme was exchanged between soloist and ensemble. Here, at last, was some sense of Weiss working “in the same universe” as Outwater; and that impression of elements coming together did much to reinforce the conclusiveness of the concerto’s final measures.

Energy management was also paramount in Outwater’s approach to the symphony selection, the Opus 92 (seventh) in A major. This was a reading in which one could appreciate just how much of the “action” was taking place among the wind and brass players. This was where Outwater’s sense of scale paid the highest dividends.

The strings were there to balance the winds and brass without ever overwhelming them. One could thus appreciate the many devices by which Beethoven could unfold his thematic material through a broad palette of instrumentation strategies. However familiar this symphony may have been to much (most?) of the audience, Outwater engaged his resources to provide a fresh perspective for one of the most familiar pieces in the concert repertoire.

On the other hand the opening overture is more easily encountered on recordings than in performance. Beethoven’s Opus 117 King Stephen consists of an overture and nine vocal numbers setting commemorative texts by August von Kotzebue, written to honor Stephen I of Hungary, who became that country’s first king in 1000. As might be guessed, the overture gets far more exposure than the vocal pieces.

Outwater’s brisk account of that overture anticipated the vigor that he would bring to the following concerto and symphony selections. James M. Keller’s notes for the program suggest that Beethoven tried to evoke “a Hungarian flavor;” but this did not seem to involve much more than the alternation of slow and fast tempo selections. Under Outwater’s leadership the more salient characteristics of the overture emerged through changes in dynamic contour at different levels of subtlety. Indeed, there were distinct signs of playfulness in how Beethoven chose to handle those dynamic levels. Both the pace and its good-natured rhetoric almost suggest that this score might have inspired some of the more engaging moments in subsequent overtures composed by Gioachino Rossini. Outwater could not have made a better selection to “warm up” the audience for the delights that would follow.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Tchaikovsky Emerges as a Significant Karajan Strength

When this site discussed Herbert von Karajan: Orchestral Spectaculars 1949–1960 a week ago, that discussion observed that Warner Classics had compiled four boxes in its Karajan Official Remastered Edition to account for Karajan’s work with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Orchestral Spectaculars was the first of those four boxes, and I made no effort to conceal my lukewarm reaction. The title of the second of those two boxes is Herbert von Karajan: Russian Music 1949–1960, and the box as a whole left me feeling a bit more sanguine. The primary reason is that, of the seven CDs in the box, three are devoted entirely to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; and Tchaikovsky selections are included on two more.

This may puzzle some readers. Given that Walter Legge seemed to be in the process of providing the Philharmonia with a cash cow through the production and distribution of a massive library of EMI recordings, it is no surprise that Tchaikovsky would figure significantly in that library. On the other hand, when one considered the “cult factor” of Karajan’s personality traits, the prospect of his taking on Tchaikovsky may seem like a departure from his comfort zone.

Whether or not that was actually the case, Karajan emerges on these recordings as a conductor who understood what made Tchaikovsky’s music tick. I came to appreciate that quality while reading Richard Osborne’s Conversations with Von Karajan (discussed yesterday), when I encountered the following Karajan remark, which arose while he was reflecting on Arturo Toscanini conducting Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor:
I realized then that no music is vulgar unless the performance makes it so.
There are any number of conductors who seem to find it impossible to resist a descent into vulgarity when taking on Tchaikovsky, particularly where his last three symphonies are concerned, Opus 36 in F minor, Opus 64 in E minor, and Opus 74 (“Pathétique”) in B minor. The music critic Julius Korngold is said to have taken his son, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, to task for “bathing” in the music he wrote, rather than composing it. From that point of view, there are too many conductors that view the scores of these symphonies as an “invitation to bathe.” There are even video documents of some of them that are not shy is displaying the vulgarity of such bathing tactics.

Listening to the Karajan recordings in this Russian Music box, one quickly appreciates that he resists the temptation to bathe by virtue of a comprehensive understanding of the musical qualities of each of those three symphonies. Even the Opus 49 “1812 Overture” benefits from this treatment, allowing the attentive listener to appreciate that there is more to this music than cannon fire! Furthermore, one gets to appreciate Karajan’s approach to Opus 36 twice, once with the Philharmonia and once with the Berlin Philharmonic.

Nevertheless, there are weak spots in this collection. The two most salient arise from a misconception of what is actually Russian. The most troubling is Karajan’s approach to Igor Stravinsky’s score for George Balanchine’s ballet “Jeu de cartes” (card game). Balanchine created this ballet for the American Ballet, the first professional ballet company he created in the United States; and, regardless of his Georgian and Russian background, Balanchine had no trouble creating a “red-blooded American” ballet based on a deck of cards. Stravinsky followed suit (so to speak) admirably; and about the only sign of European influence can be found in a passing reference to Gioachino Rossini. Unfortunately, Karajan never really catches on to the American spirit of this music; and what emerges is an overly formal reading with no trace of the wit in either Balanchine’s scenario or Stravinsky’s recognition of that wit in his music.

The other misconception concerns the suite Pictures at an Exhibition. One can definitely appreciate the Russian qualities of the piano composition that Modest Mussorgsky wrote under this title. However, by the time Maurice Ravel was done with his orchestration efforts, the overall rhetoric had migrated gracefully from Russia to France. Thus, while Pictures is not quite as out of place as “Jeu de cartes” is, many of the qualities that make Ravel’s orchestration so memorable seem to have eluded Karajan’s approach to the score.

On the other hand there is far more spirit to Karajan’s Ravel than there is in his approach to Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 67 “Peter and the Wolf.” This is a recording that was clearly made for its “family appeal.” However, it just as clearly was not in Karajan’s comfort zone. For that matter Peter Ustinov’s virtues as a narrator are better appreciated by adults, and even he seemed to feel out of place on this recording. (He seemed much happier with his account of Babar set to music by Francis Poulenc, even if he is speaking French on the recording he made.)

Make no mistake, Tchaikovsky is the “main attraction” in the Russian Music box; and anyone serious about listening to Tchaikovsky’s music will not be disappointed by Karajan’s interpretations.

Introspective Free Improvisation from a Trio of Colleagues

The opening set in the second of the five concerts being presented by the Sixteenth Annual Outsound New Music Summit focused on the free improvisation techniques of Collette McCaslin. Alternating among pocket trumpet, soprano saxophone, and percussion, McCaslin brought together two additional musicians with whom she has accumulated past duo experiences. One of these was Amy Reed, working primarily on guitar and occasionally vocalizing; and the other was percussionist Mark Pino deploying objects that complemented McCaslin’s percussion choices, only one of which involved a drum.

On both trumpet and saxophone McCaslin tended to spin out long lines that sounded more like incantation than melody. One might almost say that her capacity for free improvisation arises from an almost mystical connection with her instruments (including the percussion at her disposal). In that context both Reed and Pino responded by establishing the environment in which her ritual-like activities could unfold.

Reed was particularly imaginative in the ways in which she could use her electric guitar to establish sparse pointillist textures. This amounted to a refreshing change from the accompaniment rhetoric of harmonic progressions, but it also established ground rules according to which microscopic attention was as essential to her background as it was to McCaslin’s foreground. Pino then augmented the background with similar microscopic attention.

Each of Tuesday night’s pieces presented by the Usufruct duo tended to unfold over an extended duration, suggesting that the two performers gave equal attention to an overall plan and inventive improvisation within that plan. The pieces in last night’s set were, for the most part, shorter in duration. One might almost say that each was on the scale of a nineteenth-century lyric poem with the trumpet and saxophone evoking a poet’s voice without necessarily homing in on the poem itself. The entire set was relatively low-key and introspective, another way of establishing a complement to Usufruct’s rhetoric. However, if the players themselves were introspective, the music still reached out with its own subtle powers to engage the attentive listener.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

C4NM will Host an Evening of Interactive Electronics

Yesterday the Center for New Music (C4NM) used the Facebook Events site to provide a heads-up for another interesting concert that will take place next month. The first set will be taken by composer Thea Farhadian, who divides her time between San Francisco and Berlin. She performs solos for violin that include real-time electronic processing based on software written in Max/MSP. Her set will include excerpts from her album Tectonic Shifts, which was released this past November, and further improvisations that continue the approaches she explored on that album. The other set will present a duo performance of improvisations and collective compositions by Tim Perkis and Carter Scholz, both of whom work with real-time electronics. Scholz will also be at a piano keyboard.

This concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Wednesday evening, August 16. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. In addition to being sold at the door, tickets will be available in advance online from a Vendini event page.

Performances, Recordings, and Karajan

Given that I am now back on track in trying to write about Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition, one of my friends offered to loan me her copy of Richard Osborne’s book Conversations with Von Karajan. I accepted the offer, because I cannot recall having had any opportunity to read or listen to Karajan’s own account of how he approached his work. I also decided to read Osborne’s introduction, “Von Karajan: Profile of a Musician,” in the hope that I might encounter some objective third-party observations that might balance some of my own relatively jaundiced assessments.

One aspect of that essay particularly caught my attention, because it deals with an issue about which I have expressed some rather strong opinions in the past. This is the question of the value of recordings when compared with the experience of being physically present at a performance. Thus, my attention turned from casual to focused when I encountered the following sentence in Osborne’s essay:
When [Robert] Chesterman [in a CBC radio interview] put to Karajan the proposition that concert-hall sound was naturally superior to recorded sound, Karajan replied, ‘For whom?’
Karajan’s point was that even the best of concert halls have acoustical problems. So someone sitting in one of those problematic locations would probably be better off listening to a well-engineered recording. Osborne himself followed up with a comment about the “wretched … acoustics in large areas of the Royal Albert Hall,” suggesting that anyone who was actually interested in the performance of one of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts would do better to stay at home and listen to the radio broadcast.

I have to say that I am sympathetic with both Karajan and Osborne on this matter. For that matter, I find that my personal attitudes towards audience behavior seem to be getting grumpier as I progress from season to season; and I have to remind myself that, whatever the setting may be, odds are that only a small percentage of the turnout is actually there in the hall for the sake of attentive listening. Furthermore, I have to confess that my comments to the effect that capture technology still cannot achieve the bandwidth that listeners can accommodate may be too casual. I am not sure that I have actually seen an estimate of the reception bandwidth of the human ear, and my guess is that it varies from one subject to another.

Nevertheless, there are limits to my sympathy. There still remains the fact that a recording is a document of a performance; and I would argue that it is still the case that the document is distinct from the performance itself. Most important is that the document has a permanence that the performance lacks. Many would treat this as an asset, but it is worth considering the possibility of a downside. This has to to with the fact that individuals tend to listen to their recordings multiple times, rather than just once. This may be a good thing to the extent that the listener discovers new details with each successive listening experience. However, there is also the risk that multiple listening experiences will “burn” that specific performance into memory, inclining the listener to reject the possibility of a performance that takes a different approach to interpretation.

The other potential shortcoming of an audio recording is simply that it is limited to audio. One does not attend a performance with one’s eyes shut. Even if one is not explicitly aware, there are any number of visual cues that impact the listening experience. Admittedly, the impact of those cues depends heavily on the physical setting and where one happens to be seated in that setting; but, for just about any genre of music, watching music being made is a “richer” experience than simply listening.

Karajan understood this, and this is probably why he involved himself directly in film and video recordings of his performances. It is also why, on this site, I have consistently sung the praises of Jordan Whitelaw. Whitelaw appreciated the distinction between merely hearing and attentive listening, and he understood how visual input could influence the latter. The result was a long series of video documents of performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for a Public Television program called Evening at Symphony. Since I have not yet seen any of Karajan’s video documents, I shall not try to compare him to Whitelaw but simply emphasize that there is much to be gained from appreciating that we listen with our eyes, as well as our ears.

Usufruct Launches 16th Annual Outsound New Music Summit Concerts

Last night the Concert Hall of the Community Music Center hosted the first of the five concerts on successive evenings that will constitute the Sixteenth Annual Outsound New Music Summit. The first set was taken by the Usufruct duo of Polly Moller (flutist and vocalist, composer and improviser) and computer musician Tim Walters. The program book was kind enough to explain that the name of the group is a legal term denoting “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property.”

This was a coy way of explaining that the Usufruct aesthetic is one of appropriation in which appropriated content is deconstructed into fragments (not all of which are readily recognizable) and reassembled. The reassembly process involves both improvisation and notated charts. The set itself broke down into a series of distinguishable segments, each of which was probably an individual composition. Nevertheless, the ordering provided some suggestion that those pieces were part of an overall structure for the entire set.

The way in which the Usufruct aesthetic was put into practice was probably most clearly demonstrated towards the end of the set, which saw Moller declaiming words in isolation separated by long pauses against a “wash” provided by Walters’ electronic sources. As more and more words were uttered, the listener gradually appreciated that they had all been extracted from Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The words gradually gave way to phrases, but the overall text registered only through these faint suggestions.

Was this intended as a suggestion of deterioration? Earlier in the set Moller had given what seemed to be a similar treatment to the legal code concerned with the disclosure of material classified for the sake of national security. Her style of declamation involved intensity with sinister overtones. However, the deconstruction of the source text suggested a speaker whose command of coherence was, at best, minimal. I am sure that any references of a Head of State with similar problems of incoherence was purely coincidental!

As an instrumentalist Moller alternated between flute and bass flute. In this case her approach to fragmentation offered few clues as to what her sources may have been, which was probably what she intended. Of greater interest was how her fragments could be captured and transformed through Walters’ software. Thus, what began as isolated fragments gradually grew into richly elaborate passages of counterpoint that combined Moller’s solo work with the results of Walters’ transforms. Because Moller played into a microphone, the music, as such, existed by virtue of the speaker system; and one could readily enjoy the ambiguity of which of the sounds were “live” and which were coming from Walters’ laptop.

Moller’s vocal work included song as well as declaiming text. There was considerable diversity in her approaches to vocalizing, suggesting the same scope of diversity that one encounters among those numbered pieces that John Cage identified as “Solo for Voice.” (The presence of computer-based sounds meant that Moller’s work was not, strictly speaking, solo, but neither were some of Cage’s “Solos.”) Moller’s delivery also shared with Cage the premise that singing can involve calculated theatrical delivery. Indeed, there was often an ambiguity as to whether the act of singing entailed dramatic action or vice versa. This made for “song work” that kept the listener guessing as to where content had originated and where it would be going.

This extensive diversity in Moller’s approaches to performance made for a thoroughly engaging set that definitely got this summer’s New Music Summit off to a rousing start.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Another Heads-Up for an Adventurous Piano Recital at C4NM

This month began with a heads-up announcement about Michael Tan’s recital at the Center for New Music (C4NM), which will be taking place at the beginning of next month. Another “forward pass” of a month’s duration involves another piano recital at C4NM that deserves save-the-date recognition. This occasion will be an evening of solo improvisations by Danish pianist Søren Kjærgaard.

I first learned about Kjærgaard through the extended twists and turns of the introductory talk that Torben Ulrich gave for his Meridian Music event at the Canessa Gallery in January of 2016.

Søren Kjærgaard (right) with Torben Ulrich (left), courtesy of Torben Ulrich

Kjærgaard regards his solo performances as “an artistic research project that looks into solo performance as an expressive format for multi-layered and multi-directional improvisation.” This involves cultivating a solo piano technique that requires the player to participate in feedback processes. Kjærgaard’s work also includes audio-visual documentation, experimenting with different ways of listening and reflecting on the creative process in an attempt to open up new ways of creating real-time feedback as part of performance practice.

This concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Wednesday evening, August 23. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. In addition to being sold at the door, tickets will be available in advance online from a Vendini event page.

Midsummer Mozart Delights with Solo and Ensemble Work

Last night in Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Midsummer Mozart Festival presented the only program prepared for its 2017 season. The ensemble consisted of an appropriately reduced string section joined by two oboes (Laura Griffiths and Ruth Stuart) and two horns (Glen Swarts and David Goldklang). In the absence of a conductor, the group was led by Concertmaster Robin Hansen.

Hansen was also one of the two soloists in the major work on the program, the K. 364 sinfonia concertante in E-flat major with solo parts for violin and viola. Hansen was joined by Principal Viola Elizabeth Prior. Both Hansen and Prior joined in the ensemble parts when they were not serving as soloists.

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral is a rather cavernous space, but its acoustics have a reputation for being conducive to both small ensembles and chamber music. One could thus close one’s eyes to escape the physical properties of the space and appreciate the intimacy of last night’s interpretation of K. 364. This was evident as much from the relationship between ensemble and soloists as it was in the give-and-take of a playful conversation between the two soloists. This was a reading that evoked how the late Director of the Festival, George Cleve, felt the spirit of Mozart should be experienced; and the result was an account of this familiar composition that served both Mozart and Cleve in equal measure.

All of the string Principals participated in solo work in the performance of the K. 251 divertimento in D major. The scoring also includes two horns and a single oboe part (Griffiths) with abundant opportunities for solo work. Over the years of Midsummer Mozart seasons and preview concerts at Old St. Mary’s, I have enjoyed a series of opportunities to enjoy Griffiths performing this piece. Her rhetoric has run the gamut from prankish to refined, giving convincing accounts of both extremes. Last night she opted for the latter with an exquisitely polished delivery of the full gamut of solo work allotted to her instrument. Given that Mozart may have written this piece for his sister’s birthday, the prankish approach is definitely justified; but Griffiths’ rhetorical stance definitely fit well into the overall tenor of the evening.

Contrary to usual planning, the program began with the symphony selection, K. 201 in A major. This symphony has a killer opening, which almost feels as if it is suggested, rather than stated. Yet that subtlety has to contend with an octave leap as the opening interval:

The opening measures of K. 201 (from IMSLP, public domain)

Under Hansen’s leadership, the group confidently rose to the challenge that Mozart had set; and, having established the stance that this symphony would take, it pursued the opposition of energy and refinement over the course of all four movements, each of which cast that opposition in a different light.

We should all be glad that the Midsummer Mozart Festival is still alive and well, even if it is a bit more modest than it used to be.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Old First Concerts Spans Three Eras of Russian History

Yesterday afternoon the Old First Concerts series at Old First Presbyterian Church presented the duo of Korean cellist Sarah Hong and Japanese pianist Makiko Ooka, who perform under the group name Le Due Muse. They were joined by Korean violinist Jiwon Evelyn Kwark. The program consisted of a cello sonata flanked on either side by a piano trio.

All of the composers were Russian, and what made this program particularly interesting was that each of the three selections captured a different period in Russian history. The cello sonata was the most recent. However, the substance of the program can be better appreciated if those periods are considered in chronological order.

The earliest work on the program was the first of the two compositions that Sergei Rachmaninoff entitled “Trio élégiaque.” Rachmaninoff was a child prodigy, who began his studies at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1883 at the age of ten. The family moved to Moscow, and Rachmaninoff studied at the Moscow Conservatory between 1885 and 1888. On February 11, 1892, about a month short of his nineteenth birthday, Rachmaninoff performed his first independent concert; and the program included the premiere of his first “Trio élégiaque,” written in the key of G minor.

This was a time when Russia was still a monarchy, and organizations like the Moscow Conservatory depended on royals and nobles for support. One of the strongest supporters was the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, grandson of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia. The Grand Duke was, himself, a pianist and had been a personal friend of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Whether or not the Grand Duke was in Rachmaninoff’s first audience, the composer certainly knew his influence on standards of taste at the Conservatory; and those standards would have been on his mind when he presented his first original work to the public. The trio was only a single movement, about a quarter hour in duration, coupling a Lento lugubre introduction with a Più vivo main section. Rachmaninoff was clearly more interested in the rhetorical impact of his thematic material than in any of the virtuoso displays for which he would later be better known (if not notorious). Yesterday afternoon’s performance had no trouble maintaining the low-key understatement of that rhetoric, presenting this “beginner’s effort” in the best possible light.

The next period in history that figured in the overall program was that of World War II. Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor in the summer of 1944, a time when Soviet forces had finally overcome the German invasion. Shostakovich had written his Opus 65 (eighth) symphony in C minor about a year earlier; and this is usually taken as his most harrowing response to the conditions of life in wartime. The trio is probably best known for the “Dance of Death” rhetoric of its final (fourth) movement. The principle theme suggests a Jewish melody and may have been an intentional reflection of the Nazi efforts to exterminate Russian Jews.

From a technical point of view, the trio is most challenging in its opening measures in which the cello introduces the first theme played entirely with harmonic bowing. Hong rose capably to the demands of this opening passage, which seems to suggest the human spirit pushed up to (if not beyond) the breaking point. This marked the beginning of a journey through emotions that may not have been as dark as those in Opus 65 but were still fiercely intense. From a point of view of overall scope, this was the major work on the program; and all three members of the trio mustered the necessary technical and rhetorical skills to deliver the treatment it deserved.

The end of World War II may have meant the end of the Nazis, but it also meant that Joseph Stalin was still the authoritarian power. 1946 was the year of the Zhdanov Doctrine, developed by Andrei Zhdanov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. That doctrine was an attack on “Western” influences on the creative arts, condemned as being “formalist.” This was a time when Shostakovich had to hide his compositions in his locked desk drawer, since any thought of performance was out of the question.

Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Opus 81 (second) cello sonata in A minor may be one of the better examples of a composer trying to stay on the right side of the Zhdanov Doctrine. The themes that evolve over the course of the sonata’s three movements are easily recognizable, and straightforward melody prevails over both embellishment and development. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine Stalin having hummed any of these tunes after listening to a performance. (It would probably have been better for all concerned had the music lured him into slumber.) Le Due Muse gave the score an honestly sincere account without overly stressing the dark times under which it had been composed.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Ligeti’s Legacy (According to Ligeti)

According to my records, The Ligeti Project originated with Teldec Classics’ decision to release a series of recordings of performances of the music of György Ligeti that would not be exhaustive but would be both representative and authorized by Ligeti himself. The result was five CDs produced and released between 2001 and 2004, each with a booklet of Ligeti’s own commentary (translated into English by Louise Duchesneau). Ligeti was alive for the duration of the entire project, but he was in ill health. It is thus reasonable to assume that he worked at least relatively closely with the two conductors that prepared the performances that were recorded, Jonathan Nott with the Berlin Philharmonic and Reinbert de Leeuw with two Dutch groups, the Asko Ensemble, with which he worked frequently, and the Schönberg Ensemble, which he founded.

I first became aware of this project when my wife was given the last of the five CDs as a gift. At the time I appreciated the contents, but I had so many other Ligeti recordings at my disposal that I did not give the full collection very much thought. Nevertheless, when I became aware that Warner Classics had reissued the full five-CD collection as a box set, I decided that it was time to give the effort more attention. Incentives included the fact that I had been following de Leeuw’s work since his earliest vinyl recordings with the Schönberg Ensemble.

However, what really drew my attention was the fact that the “Hamburg Concerto” was included on the fourth CD of the set, the second of the two for which Nott was conductor. As a result of my recent interest in just intonation and composing with overtones of the natural harmonic series that do not “fit into” equal-tempered tuning, I discovered that Ligeti had composed this concerto for four natural horns and chamber orchestra. All four instruments worked with the first sixteen overtones, but each was based on a different fundamental frequency. This provided Ligeti with considerable flexibility in designing not only the contrapuntal interleaving of thematic lines but also the harmonies that would emerge from the resulting simultaneities.

Ligeti clearly put considerable thought into his efforts. The seven-movement concerto was composed between 1998 and 1999. However, he revised the score in 2003, which may have been in conjunction with Nott’s schedule for the overall recording project. If so, then this particular recording may be the most authoritative in the entire collection.

What is most important about the collection taken as a whole is the way in which all performances honor Ligeti’s meticulously extreme attention to detail. That attention is evident even in the earliest works that were recorded involving arrangements of traditional songs and dances from Romania and Hungary. (This amounts to the ethnomusicology of Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók viewed through a new set of lenses.) Most likely all recordings the result of excellent relations between the performers and the production team; and it is impressive to see that the album producers have specifically indicated which of the performances were given “live recording” treatment.

Those who have listened to other sources of Ligeti’s music may well quibble about what is missing. In my case what I miss the most is the piano version of the Musica ricercata collection (even though Max Bonnay’s arrangement for bayan is certainly interesting) and the works for harpsichord. Nevertheless, one cannot fault the value of any of the recordings in The Ligeti Project when it comes to helping the mind behind the ear orient itself to the many diverse and unique qualities of Ligeti’s approaches to making music.

Outwater Evokes SFS Orchestral Colors at Their Finest

For last night’s Summer with the Symphony program presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), Director of Summer Concerts Edwin Outwater prepared and conducted a program that flourished with a wide diversity of imaginative approaches to instrumentation. The major work on this relatively brief offering was Gustav Holst’s Opus 32 suite The Planets, in which each of the seven planets (other than Earth) was characterized not only thematically but also through its own unique approach to orchestral sonorities. The planets themselves were preceded by two short pieces devoted to the moon, the “Song to the Moon” aria from Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 114 opera Rusalka, sung by soprano Julie Adams, and André Caplet’s orchestration of the “Clair de lune” movement from Claude Debussy’s piano collection Suite bergamasque. The “overture” for the program departed from the heavens with John Adams’ down-to-earth fanfare “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.”

Holst was one of those British musicians with prolific output and scrupulous discipline. He was content to focus his attention on education and practice and was not prepared for the “smash hit” status of The Planets. If anything, he seemed to regret fame interfering with the day-to-day music activities that he cherished. The fact is that this suite has more than its share of razzle-dazzle effects; and Holst was so focused on pulling so many rabbits out of one hat that larger questions of architecture, both in each movement and over the entire suite, seem to have been neglected.

Nevertheless, it is music in which just about every instrument has an opportunity to display its virtues; and Holst managed to embody all of those virtues in a programmatic framework that appealed to popular, rather than merely academic, attention. I had never really appreciated how much detail had gone into this score until I had an opportunity to listen to it being prepared at an open rehearsal at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. As a result of that experience, I find myself aware of new aspects of the score’s many details each time I have an opportunity to listen to the piece in concert (which is not often). Last night it was clear that Outwater, too, was aware of those details and responded with assiduous care in making sure that every one of them was brought to audience attention. If Holst had the shortcoming of repeating himself too many times, Outwater responded by finding the most appropriate pace for each movement, duly dismissing just about every possible opportunity for tedium to rear its head.

Just as impressive was the amount of attention Outwater devoted to Caplet’s orchestration of Debussy. Caplet was a close friend of Debussy’s and clearly had a deep understanding of Debussy’s own compositions. However, it is important to note that, while Caplet probably understood the details of Debussy’s instrumentation techniques as well as Debussy did, he judiciously made sure that his setting of “Clair de lune” departed from just about all of those instrumentation techniques. Instead, Caplet chose his own palette of sonorities, which he felt would best suit Debussy’s thematic material; and the result almost amounts to an original composition in its own right. Under Outwater’s baton SFS revealed the full breadth of Caplet’s imagination, offering a listening experience with as much to discover as any of Holst’s suite movements.

The “Song to the Moon” may well be Dvořák’s most compelling piece of solo vocal work. It has a folk-like simplicity on the surface. However, beneath that surface one encounters the complexity of conflicting emotions from which the best fairy tales emerge. As Patricia Racette once observed in a master class, singing in Czech is no easy matter. However, those who know Julie Adams through her work with the San Francisco Opera know that one of her past efforts was the role of the ingenue Kristina in Leoš Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Affair. This translated into a solid command of the text from Dvořák’s libretto and a delivery of this poignant song that went straight to the heart.

As was already mentioned, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” was the down-to-earth introduction to all the cosmic ventures that would follow. This, again, is music in which every note plays a critical role in one detail or another. Most fascinating is how John Adams managed to take gestures that have at least a vague sense of familiarity and warp them with slightly off-beat rhythmic patterns, often superposing several of those patterns.

All too often this music is played for the splashy effects of its surface structure. Outwater, on the other hand, clearly understood all of those rich details lying beneath the surface. However familiar this music may have been to many of the audience, last night’s performance disclosed so much that those who thought they knew the piece probably found it a journey of new discoveries.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

CMSF Offers Early Bird Subscription Rate for 2018 Season

As is the case every season, those who wish to subscribe to the 2018 season of Chamber Music San Francisco (CMSF) can enjoy a special discounted “Early Bird” rate. The San Francisco season will consist of ten concerts that will take place between February and May. All performances will take place in Herbst Theatre, located in the Veterans Building on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Concerts will alternate between Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. Specifics are as follows:

February 11, 3 p.m., James Ehnes: This highly talented violinist made his San Francisco recital debut with CMSF in April of 2012, having made his San Francisco debut with Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in June of 2010. Since that time he has returned to Davies Symphony Hall to perform with SFS under both MTT and Charles Dutoit. He has also accumulated an impressive number of recordings involving highly imaginative approaches to both familiar and unfamiliar repertoire. Program details have not yet been announced.

February 24, 8 p.m., Michael Schade: This will be a “special project” project that tenor Schade conceived in honor of legendary tenor John McCormack. He has prepared a project (whose details have not yet been announced) that will include arrangements that violinist Fritz Kreisler prepared for recitals he gave with McCormack. Schade’s “channeling” of McCormack will be complemented by Livia Sohn “covering for” Kreisler.

March 4, 3 p.m., Seong-Jin Cho: This award winning young South Korean pianist made his San Francisco debut as a CMSF recitalist at the end of this past February. The only composer he will revisit from last season’s recital will be Frédéric Chopin, this time playing the Opus 58 (third) sonata in B minor at the conclusion of his program. He will begin with two sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven, Opus 13 (“Pathétique”) in C minor and Opus 109 in E major. Between his Beethoven and Chopin sonatas, Cho will play selections from the two books of solo piano compositions that Claude Debussy entitled Images.

March 11, 3 p.m., Angela Hewitt: This pianist, who visits the Bay Area regularly, will give a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme.

March 17, 8 p.m., Israeli Chamber Project: This ensemble is based in both Israel and New York. It has previously performed in San Francisco under the auspices of the Morrison Artists Series. It amounts to a “string quartet++” group, where those plus signs will best be represented by a performance of Maurice Ravel’s coupling of Introduction and Allegro movements scored for flute, clarinet, harp, and strings. The group also includes a pianist, who will participate in a performance of Robert Schumann’s Opus 44 piano quintet in E-flat major. The program will also include solo piano music by Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Igor Stravinsky.

April 15, 3 p.m., Artemis Quartet: This Berlin-based string quartet will take a meat-and-potatoes approach to their program. They will conclude with the first (in A minor) of Schumann’s Opus 41 string quartets. Schumann will be approached in chronological order, beginning with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 590 quartet in F major, followed by the third (in D major) of Beethoven’s (“early”) Opus 18 quartets.

April 22, 3 p.m., Midori: Violinist Midori Gotō is a Bay Area favorite. She has an impressively wide interest in repertoire. In past visits she has given both solo performances and appeared with accompaniment. She has not yet announced the program she has prepared for CMSF.

May 5, 8 p.m., Yeol Eum Son: This medal-winning Korean pianist will be making her San Francisco debut. She has prepared a program that will definitely have the broadest scope of the CMSF season. At one end she will begin with Mozart’s K. 264 set of nine variations in C major on “Lison dormait,” an arietta from one of Nicolas Dezède’s comic operas. On the much more recent side she will play both Arvo Pärt’s “Variations for the Healing of Arinushka” and selections from Friedrich Gulda’s suite Play Piano Play, discussed on this site a little over a month ago.

May 13, 3 p.m., Brandenburg Concertos: This will be the annual Mother’s Day concert presented by the Archetti Baroque String Ensemble. This group presents historically-informed performances of music from the Baroque period with particular attention to Bach. Every year at least one of the six “Brandenburg” concertos is included on the program.

May 20, 3 p.m., Alexander Gavrylyuk: The season will conclude with the San Francisco debut of this medal-winning Ukrainian pianist. The scope of his program will range from the Hoboken XVI/32 sonata by Joseph Haydn in B minor to selections by Sergei Rachmaninoff. He will also play Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s organ masterpiece, the BWV 565 toccata and fugue in D minor.

The Early Bird rate applies to both the full series of ten concerts and to the miniseries option of four or more concerts. The Early Bird price of the full series is $340, a savings of $206. A Web page has been created that provides for both options. In addition, Director Daniel Levenstein has offered an additional incentive. Those who can identify the two themes quoted in this passage will be entitled to a $25 credit on the order they place:

courtesy of Chamber Music San Francisco

I have not been able to find a site on the Web on which one can provide the solution to this puzzle. However, once the order has been placed, it should be possible to phone in the solution to 415-759-1756. One may also purchase subscriptions through this number, rather than ordering online. The Early Bird offer will expire on September 1, and single tickets will not be available until January 1.

Friction Quartet Concludes O1C Residency with Two Premieres

Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts (O1C) presented the members of the Friction Quartet (violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz) in their final recital in the capacity of O1C Artists-in-Residence. While the two violinists tend to share leadership, Harriel occupied the first violin chair for the entire concert. The first half of the program was dedicated to two premiere performances, the West Coast premiere of Will Healy’s “Future Caprices” and the United States premiere of Piers Hellawell’s “The Still Dancers.” The second half of the program consisted entirely of Bedřich Smetana’s second string quartet.

The first half of the program might have been called “Future and Past New Music.” Healy’s piece was commissioned by the Great Lakes Chamber Festival explicitly to be played by Friction. In his note for the program book, he suggested that the music had its origin in an effort “to imagine the type of concert music that will exist in coming years.”

In an earlier life I used to hang out with futurists, and I discovered that their forecasting tended to project forward by about several generations. I quickly saw the reason for the strategy: They would not be around to be taken to task if their projections were not realized! That sobering experience braced me for how Healy would face the task he had set for himself.

However, I quickly found myself dwelling on the second word of his title. As I watched the Friction players negotiate a series of awesomely challenging virtuoso passages, it was hard not to think of those 24 caprices for solo violin that Niccolò Paganini published as his Opus 1. In my imagination I found myself observing Healy looking at Paganini but with his telescope reversed, as if one could look at the future by looking at the past through the wrong end. While this may have been a personal impression that had nothing to do with what Healy had in mind, the dominant impact was established by the demanding technique and the apparent ease with which Friction negotiated all the twists and turns posed by those technical challenges.

The Hellawell premiere, on the other hand, was of a piece that was about 25 years old, since it was written in 1992. It consisted of three short pieces, each with an introductory “Invocation,” which could be played separately, rather than in sequence. Hellawell described each of the invocations as “using exploratory sound-worlds” through techniques such as knocking or scratching with a coarse surface. The “dancers” of the title were natural phenomena, “formed by movement but now apparently static,” as Hellawell put it. Those phenomena were trees, rocks, and clouds.

This past Wednesday I found myself comparing the techniques of John Luther Adams and Olivier Messiaen where large masses of rock were concerned. Hellawell has his own distinctive language in his second piece, probably because he was more interested in the lichen patterns on the surface, rather than in the rocks themselves. More interesting was how, across the entire composition, he could evoke impressions of stasis through a medium that, by its very nature, requires movement. The result was as engaging as it was imaginative, and it was delightful to learn that Hellawell is in the process of writing his next quartet for Friction.

Smetana described his second quartet as taking place “after the catastrophe.” That catastrophe had concluded his first quartet in E minor, which was given the programmatic title “From My Life.” A sustained high E played as a harmonic (demonstrated last night by Rogers) depicted the onset of Smetana’s deafness. By the time he began work on the second quartet in 1882, both his mental state and his entire body were thoroughly wrecked to the point that his doctor had ordered him to refrain from all musical activity. In introducing the second quartet, Harriel observed that writing a single measure involved massive effort.

It is therefore no surprise that the duration of the second quartet is about one-third shorter than that of the first. Smetana made every measure count, and the sensitive listener will quickly appreciate the emotional weight of each of those measures. To their credit, the Friction players never tried to overdo the intensity of Smetana’s rhetoric. One thus apprehended the poignancy of the situation without ever feeling as if the composer was wallowing in his grief. Harriel noted that this quartet is played far less often than the first. Friction has done a great service in giving it the attention it deserves; and perhaps at some future recital they will play the two quartets in sequence as successive episodes from the composer’s final years.

Friday, July 21, 2017

LCCE Announces 25th Anniversary Season

The 2017–2018 season will mark the 25th anniversary of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE); and it will run from this October to May of next year. Here in San Francisco, all performances will be held in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), with the exception of one special chamber opera program, which will be given two performances at Z Space. All SFCM concerts will be held on Mondays at 7:30 p.m., and the chamber opera program will be given both an evening and a matinee performance. As in the past, each concert will have its own thematic title. Details are as follows:

October 9, SFCM, A Garland for Weinberg: This program will begin with Mieczysław Weinberg’s Opus 28 sonata for clarinet and piano. This piece will be followed by the world premieres of two pieces composed as tributes to Weinberg by Julie Herndon and Stephen Blumberg, respectively. Weinberg was born in 1919 to a Jewish family in Warsaw. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1939, around the time when the Nazis were descending upon Poland. He thus fled to the Soviet Union and settled in Minsk. The program will conclude with a Polish composer that remained in Poland, Krzysztof Penderecki. The LCCE string players will perform his “Leaves of an Unwritten Diary,” composed for string quartet and bass.

Saturday, November 4, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 5, 2 p.m., Z Space, Death and a Knight: Kurt Rohde’s chamber opera “Death With Interruptions,” based on the novel by José Saramago, will be given a new production that will be performed by the original cast, which includes cellist Leighton Fong, soprano Nikki Einfeld, baritone Daniel Cilli, tenor Joe Dan Harper, and the Volti chamber choir. The program will begin with Rohde’s most recent chamber opera, “Never was a knight…,” a singspiel based on vignettes from the text of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote and scored for tenor and small ensemble.

February 5, SFCM, Visions de l’Amen: Eric Zivian and Sarah Cahill will team up for a recital of music for two pianos. The program is named after the major work to be performed, a suite of seven pieces by Olivier Messiaen. There will also be world premiere performances of two other compositions for two pianos by Christopher Castro and Philip Acimovic, respectively.

March 12, SFCM, Sonnets to Orpheus: This program takes its title from a composition by Eric Moe scored for soprano, oboe, string quartet, and piano. Two other composers inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice will also be represented. There will be excerpts from Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo and the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” an instrumental interlude from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. The program will begin with the world premiere of a new work for strings and flute by Aida Shirazi.

May 21, SFCM, A Rare Serenade: The season will conclude with Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 24 serenade for voice and seven instrumental parts (clarinet, bass clarinet, mandolin, guitar, violin, viola, and cello). This piece will be coupled with the world premiere of another serenade for small ensemble. this one composed by LCCE Managing Director Nicolas Lell Benavides. The program will begin with a trio for violin, viola, and guitar by Sándor Jemnitz.

Subscriptions for the full season are currently available for $125 for general admission and $105 for seniors. This amounts to a savings of up to $25 per ticket if tickets are purchased individually. There is open seating for all concerts. Tickets may be purchased online through a Vendini event page. Subscriptions are available for $50 for students and those under the age of 35. These apply to currently enrolled high school and college students. School representatives may contact Managing Director Nick Benavides for further details. Information is also available by sending electronic mail to the Box Office. Single tickets will be sold at the door for $35 for general admission and $18 for those under the age of 35. The hyperlink for the online purchase of single tickets has not yet been activated.

Stunningly Delightful Merola Voices Undermined by Poor Direction

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the first full-length fully-staged production in the 60th anniversary season of the Merola Opera Program was given the first of two performances. The program was a triple bill of one-act operas, each involving only three characters. The result was an opportunity to appreciate extended passages of deft solo and duo work by selected Merolini. These opportunities were relatively evenly distributed across three highly varied selections, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “La serva padrona” (the servant mistress), Gustav Holst’s Mahabharata-based “Savitri,” and William Walton’s “The Bear,” based on a play of the same title by Anton Chekhov.

Where vocal talent was involved, it was clear that the audience was in good hands as soon as bass-baritone Daniel Noyola sang the opening notes of the Pergolesi opera. He clearly appreciated the buffo nature of Uberto, master of the title character, Serpina. Vocally, soprano Jana McIntyre’s Serpina could not have been a better match in that role. Both vocalists had a solid sense of pitch matched with the light delivery so necessary in comic opera from any century. Sadly, this sometimes involved prevailing over Christopher Ocasek’s conducting, which not only had lapses in its lightness of touch but also never quite realized that “da capo” does not mean “do it exactly the same way again.”

Matters were not helped by the decision of Director Peter Kazaras to pay more attention to the mimed role of the servant Vespone (bass-baritone David Weigel) than to exploring different ways to use the da capo structure to flesh out the personalities of the leading roles. Vespone came across as sort of an early ancestor of Harpo Marx; and, to his credit, Weigel’s mime technique was irresistible. Indeed, it was so irresistible that it frequently felt as if Kazaras was frustrated that both Serpina and Uberto kept getting in the way of his contrivances.

Holst’s opera fared much better. The narrative involves the young wife Savitri (soprano Kelsea Webb) outwitting Yama, the god of Death (Weigel, singing this time), to save the life of her husband Satyavan (tenor Addison Marlor). Kazaras used both the program book and the projected titles to establish a relationship between this narrative and the tremendous number of British casualties that arose from the Battle of the Somme during the First World War.

Visually, the action was translated from the mythic world of Mahabharata to an English country house. (Think Brideshead.) While Kazaras’ concept was ingenious, the extended opening in silence depicting Savitri writing at a vast table did little to establish her character. Ultimately, both male roles were much more sharply conceived and rendered, which sadly blunted the reason why Savitri’s character was strong enough to challenge Death and prevail. Weigel’s depiction of Death was the more compelling, even if he had more than a little trouble maintaining pitch in his opening a cappella solo.

Where “The Bear” was concerned, problems began with the opera itself. Working with Paul Dehn, Walton conceived a libretto which repeated itself far too often. The result was a sad disservice to Chekhov, whose original narrative was so compact that it fit both neatly and effectively into a half-hour episode of Have Gun – Will Travel (complete with commercial interruptions). Conceivably, Kazaras could have compensated for the text’s shortcomings by fleshing out the intersecting trajectories of the title character (Smirnov, sung by bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum) and the “eternal widow” Popova (mezzo Ashley Dixon) with a bit of variety in the details. Both of these vocalists were impressive, but there was a limit to how many times one could sit through their exercising the same schtick over and over again.