Thursday, August 31, 2017

Karajan with Soloists: The Second Round

The title of the eighth box in the thirteen box sets that comprise Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition is Herbert von Karajan and his Soloists 1969–1984. This may be taken as the “sequel” to the second box, which had the same title but covered the years between 1948 and 1958. The earlier collection consisted almost entirely of recordings made with the Philharmonia Orchestra, while the principal orchestra in this later collection is the Berlin Philharmonic.

As with the Philharmonia collection, I feel a need to question again the use of that possessive pronoun. Yes, there are a few recordings that feature members of the Berlin Philharmonic serving as concerto soloists. The most notable of these would be James Galway, who served as that ensemble’s Principal Flute from 1969 to 1975; but he is now better known by virtue of the solo career he subsequently established. The soloists listed on the cover of the box are Gidon Kremer, Anne-Sophie Mutter, David Oistrakh, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Alexis Weissenberg. Of these, the one coming closest to a “possessive” relationship would be Mutter, whom Karajan invited to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1975, when she was only thirteen years old; and she made her first recording at the age of fifteen, playing two of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s violin concertos with Karajan and the Berlin.

Nevertheless, the soloist that dominates this collection is Weissenberg, since he was part of Karajan’s project to record the five piano concertos of Ludwig van Beethoven. His recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor with Karajan and the Berlin is also included in this box. For the record (pun sort of intended) Weissenberg’s first concert appearance with the Berlin under Karajan took place in 1966; and the concerto was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) concerto in B-flat minor. This is earlier than the scope of this box, and the recording of Opus 23 was made in 1970 with the Orchestre de Paris. These concertos are offered back-to-back on a single CD in the box.

Weissenberg brought both solid technique and informed expressiveness to his performances. Late in life he succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease, and he died at the age of 82 on January 8, 2012. However, since that time his legacy of recordings has received relatively little exposure through either broadcasting or reissues of his catalog. One possible explanation may be found in the Beethoven recordings included in this box.

For better or worse, it is difficult to avoid comparing this “Beethoven cycle” with that of the nine symphonies found in the sixth box in the Warner Classics’ collection. Once again, we are confronted with a series of performances whose attention to structural logic and grammar cannot be faulted; but there is a strong sense that Weissenberg has chosen to side with Karajan in sidelining matters of rhetoric. The result is, again, what I previously called “a score-followers dream;” but that same result is just not particularly persuasive in commanding the focused attention of the listener.

Indeed, that result seems to extend over pretty much all of the concerto selections in this box. Consequently, the recording that fares best is that of César Franck’s “Symphonic Variations.” Like Weissenberg himself, this is music that has been unfairly neglected throughout the current circulation of the recorded repertoire. Both Weissenberg and Karajan clearly understood what makes this relatively brief (about a quarter of an hour in duration) composition tick; and the ticking itself is enough to draw in the attention of the curious listener.

It is also interesting to observe that the CD for this selection also includes Richard Strauss’ Opus 35 tone poem “Don Quixote.” Unless I am mistaken, this is the only Strauss tone poem for which the composer provided a subtitle: “Phantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Charakters” (fantastic variations on a theme of knightly character). One of the nice things about CD production is that it is easier to guide the listener through the structure of this piece, providing individual tracks for the initial statement of the theme, the ten variations, and the opening introduction and concluding finale. As a result, the listener just making acquaintance with this music will find just the right guidance in identifying the themes that characterize both that “man of la Mancha" (represented by the cello line played by Rostropovich) and the viola representation (played by Ulrich Koch) of his page, Sancho Panza.

What is missing in the packaging of this particular CD, however, are all of the text descriptions that Strauss provided for each of the sections. One can appreciate this omission as a consequence of lack of adequate space on the CD jacket. Given that all of this information can be found on the Wikipedia page for this composition, the omission is not a serious one.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music: September, 2017

Far more will be happening at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) next month in addition to the Centennial Celebration Weekend. Indeed, before those festivities get under way, two concerts will already have been given. Furthermore, all of the other options for this month will be free and, with one exception, will not require reservations. The SFCM building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Readers are encouraged to consult the Performance Calendar Web page at the SFCM Web site for the most up-to-date information about any of these offerings. Here is a chronological listing of events likely to be of interest:

Sunday, September 10, 2 p.m., Recital Hall: The first Faculty Artist Series concert of the new season will be given by clarinetist Jeff Anderle, Woodwinds Chair and Woodwind Chamber Music Coordinator. He will be joined by his colleagues in the Splinter Reeds all-reed quintet, Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Dana Jessen on bassoon, Bill Kalinkos on clarinet, and Dave Wegehaupt on saxophones. The program will revisit two of the selections that Splinter Reeds played this past April as part of the ROOM Series of inventive chamber music programming curated by Pamela Z. Those pieces will be Teresa Wong’s “Letters to a Friend,” which was given its world premiere at the April performance, and Eric Wubbles “Auditory Scene Analysis II,” which may be taken as a practicing composer responding to a psychological theory of perception. (The reader can guess who has the better sense of humor!) The quintet will also play Mark Mellits’ Splinter, an eight-movement suite, each of whose movements is named after a different type of tree. Other works will be two pieces that Cara Haxo collected under the title Exercises for Reed Quintet, Jannik Giger’s “Contaminare,” and Yannis Kyriakides’ “Hypothetical Islands.”

Monday, September 11, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: The second Faculty Artist Series recital of the season will present mezzo Susanne Mentzer, accompanied by pianist Craig Rutenberg. She has prepared a program that will cover a diversity of stylistic approaches to art song. Her selections will be Robert Schumann’s Opus 42 cycle Frauenliebe und -leben, Libby Larsen’s “Sifting through the Ruins,” Richard Strauss’ Opus 22 collection Mädchenblumen, three of the songs from Lili Boulanger’s Clairières dans le ciel, Erik Satie’s Trois Chansons de 1916, and Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s 1910 collection of Half Minute Songs. Violist Jay Liu will also be performing.

Monday, September 18, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: The final Faculty Artist Series recital in September will be given by the holder of the Isaac Stern Chair of the Violin Department, Ian Swensen, who is also co-Chair of String and Piano Chamber Music. His accompanist will be pianist Weicong Zhang. His program will begin with Suite italienne, excerpts from Igor Stravinsky’s score for the one-act ballet “Pulcinella,” which the composer prepared in collaboration with violinist Samuel Dushkin. This will be followed by Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 80 sonata in F minor and Bedřich Smetana’s reflection on Czech folk sources, “From the homeland.” The program will conclude with two selections by Maurice Ravel, the posthumous sonata in G major and the gypsy-inspired “Tzigane.”

Tuesday, September 19, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: This will be the concert given in conjunction with the Artist Residency of the quintet Spanish Brass. Program details have not yet been announced. During their residency, the group will also give a master class in the Concert Hall the preceding evening at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, September 18.

Friday, September 29, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: Nicole Paiement will conduct the first performance of the season by the New Music Ensemble. Guitar Faculty Member Marc Teicholz will be soloist in Clarice Assad’s three-movement suite for solo guitar and chamber ensemble, O Saci-Pereré. The program will also include Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “Transparent Walls” and Composition Faculty Member Elinor Armer’s “Recollections and Revel.”

Friday, September 29, 8 p.m., Recital Hall: Stage Director Michael Mohammed and Music Director Michael Horsley will present the first showcase program of excerpts performed by Musical Theatre students; details have not yet been announced.

Saturday, September 30, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: This is the one free event that will require reservations. It will mark the beginning of the Roots, Jazz, and American Music series, in which students will perform alongside faculty and members of the SFJAZZ Collective. The program will consist of standards from the Great American Songbook, as well as original pieces. Reservations may be placed through a Google Forms Web page.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

SFO Announces Plans for its Annual Park Performance

The first two performances of the 95th season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO), the opening of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, held in conjunction with Opera Ball 2017 at the Imperial Palace, on September 8 and the opening of Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” on September 9, will be followed by the annual free Opera in the Park concert. Specifics for the program for this event have not yet been announced, but it will feature acclaimed artists participating in the 2017 Fall Season performing arias and other operatic favorites. The SFO Orchestra will be conducted by Music Director Nicola Luisotti, and General Director Matthew Shilvock will serve as Master of Ceremonies.

The vocalists will include tenor Brian Jagde and soprano Toni Marie Palmertree, both in the cast of Turandot, mezzo Jill Grove and bass-baritone Alfred Walker from the cast of “Elektra,” and soprano Aurelia Florian, tenor Atalla Ayan, and baritone Artur Ruciński, all of whom will be singing in Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, which will be opening on Saturday, September 23. Four of the current Adler Fellows will also participate, sopranos Sarah Cambridge and Amina Edris and tenors Pene Pati and Kyle van Schoonhoven. Following a time-honored tradition, everyone (including the audience) will be invited to participate in the finale, the brindisi (drinking song) from the first act of La Traviata. (Don’t feel embarrassed is “libiamo” is the only word you know!)

The performance will begin at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 10. The venue will be the shell at the west end of Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park. This is easily accessible from the Muni bus stop for the de Young museum. Because the event is free, no tickets are required. Food and beverages will be available for sale, but attendees are welcome to bring their own fixings for a picnic. Those who wish further information are welcome to call 415-864-3330.

Palmetto Releases a Jazz Tribute to Carl Sandburg

This past Friday Palmetto Records released an album whose full title is Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg. Each of the eighteen tracks is an original composition based on one of Sandburg’s poems, organized into three “chapters,” grouped according to thematic content, and concluding with a two-track “Epilogue.” All of the compositions were by Wilson, who also plays drums in the performing combo:

Matt Wilson (photograph by John Abbott, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz

The other members are Dawn Thomson (voice and guitar), Ron Miles (cornet), Jeff Lederer (reeds, harmonium, and voice), and Martin Wind (acoustic bass guitar). Those poems that are not sung are read by Wilson, Lederer, and seven “special guests,” who are (in order of “appearance”) Christian McBride, John Scofield, Jack Black, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano, and Carla Bley. For the track based on “Fog,” which may be Sandburg’s best known (and probably shortest) poem, the “reader” is a recording of Sandburg’s own voice.

Honey and Salt is the title of a volume of Sandburg’s poetry that was published in 1963. The poems collected in that volume were written between 1953 and 1963. In other words all of the poems were written after Sandburg’s reputation had been well established; and a Complete Poems volume had already been published in 1950! Honey and Salt was the last publication by Sandburg himself before his death on July 22, 1967; and Wilson planned this album in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. For the record, none of the poems from the Honey and Salt book appear on the Wilson recording.

This should not be held against Wilson. Sandburg was also a collector of folk music; so he had some very strong thoughts about differentiating text-for-speaking from text-for-reciting. Note that I did not write “text-for-reading” in that last sentence. Every poem in Honey and Salt lends itself to recitation, frequently in highly dramatic ways. One does does not pore over these texts for the subtleties of internal and external connections, as one would have to do in taking on, for example, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Indeed, because Honey and Salt has only 111 pages, one could imagine that the complete collection could be given a theatrical presentation.

On the other hand, because Sandburg did not write text-for-reading, clarity of delivery is essential to the presentation of any of his poems, including all those predecessors of the Honey and Salt volume that were selected by Wilson. It would be fair to say that all of the narrated tracks on the album are true to Sandburg’s voice; but, unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Thomson’s vocal work. One gets the impression that Thomson worked only from Wilson’s charts, meaning that she never took the trouble to read any of the poems she sang in a speaking voice, cultivating an inner sense of the subtleties in Sandburg’s approach to phrase structure.

As a result, the album, taken as a whole, is a disconcertingly uneven offering. Many of the tracks fire on all cylinders, and Wilson himself should be singled out for accompanying Sandberg’s own voice with drum phrases that impressively echoed the vocal sonorities. On the other hand too many of the tracks tend to get lost at the level of the specific words, obscuring the poetry itself for anyone encountering the text being set for the first time.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Begin Labor Day Weekend with Nelson Lunding (again)

As was the case last year, the celebration of Labor Day weekend will begin (unofficially) in the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel this coming Friday. Once again the Concerts at the Cadillac series will host a visit by Nelson Lunding. Lunding is still a master bluesman in the New Orleans tradition, which includes both singing and playing his own music. However, he does not ignore the work of others; and, during his last visit almost exactly a year ago, he included music by both Jimi Hendrix and Thelonious Monk.

Like all Concerts at the Cadillac events, this show will begin at 12:30 p.m. and will take place this Friday, September 1. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street. Like all visiting artists Lunding will be playing the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, a fully-restored 1884 Steinway Model D Concert Grand. The purpose of the Concerts at the Cadillac series is to provide high-quality music to the residents of the hotel and the Tenderloin District; but all are invited to visit the venue that calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907.”

Vijay Iyer Leads a Sextet on his Latest ECM Release

This past Friday ECM released its latest album of jazz keyboardist and composer Vijay Iyer. Entitled Far From Over, this is the fifth such recording Manfred Eicher and ECM have produced with Iyer since 2014. The album is distinguished by Iyer leading a sextet featuring three horn players. Two are saxophonists, Steve Lehman on alto and Mark Shim on tenor; and Graham Haynes alternates between cornet and flugelhorn, as well as working with electronic processing. Rhythm is provided by Stephan Crump on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

This album is as stimulating as it is imaginative; but it also reminds the listener that the best jazz emerges from a combination of historical awareness and in-the-moment inventiveness. For those struck by the spelling of Haynes last name, he is, indeed, the son of drummer Roy Haynes. Haynes-the-father played with some of the most influential jazz artists of the twentieth century, including saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker and pianist Bud Powell. He is now 92 and, by at least some accounts, he is still going strong.

However, when it comes to a moderately large combo going strong, while listening to the more hard-driving tracks on this album, I could not resist reflecting back on the days when John Coltrane led groups of a similar size. Coltrane’s groups always seemed to work consistently from a solid foundation of disciplined technique upon which each individual member was free to go his (or her, once Alice Coltrane took over the piano) own way. As we all know from “My Favorite Things,” he could lead a group that could turn the utterly banal into “something completely different.” Furthermore, when Coltrane wanted to be “completely different,” he could go on for some time. (The 1963 recording of “Impressions” made in Stuttgart came close to half an hour in duration; and both studio takes of “Ascension” ran for about 40 minutes.)

Iyer is not working on quite such an extreme durational scale on Far From Over, but there is much on this album that recalls how boldly adventurous jazz could be half a century ago. Furthermore, Iyer plants that flagpole of fond recollection solidly in the ground on his very first track, which, ironically (and probably accidentally), happens to be entitled “Poles.” At the same time we can appreciate how far inventiveness has advanced when Haynes (the son) extends his brass work with imaginative use of sampling-and-playback technology. Too many improvisers have fallen into a clichéd rut in their use of that technology, so it is more that gratifying to listen to Haynes demonstrate that there is still new directions that digital processing can take in a combo.

There is also a quieter elegiac side to the album in tracks such as “For Amiri Baraka” and “Threnody.” Of these two the second had a stronger personal impact. However, this may be because I was fortunate enough to listen to Baraka reading some of his writings at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers not too long before his death. My guess is that Iyer is as familiar with the essays in Black Music (which were written when Baraka was using the name LeRoi Jones) as I am; and I suspect that he and I share the opinions about the “middle-brow” expressed in the essay “Jazz and the White Critic.” Nevertheless, I found the lyricism of “For Amiri Baraka” to be a bit too sweet for a writer whose capacity for the acerbic was always right on the mark.

Still, in the context of the entire album, this is little more than a minor quibble. Of far greater significance is Iyer’s consistently imaginative approach to rhythm and the ways in which he can manage a combo of any size without slighting any of the members. For those unfamiliar with his work, Far From Over will provide an excellent “first contact” listening experience. However, given the composition of the group he has formed, there will be no shortage of new insights for those familiar with his work.

“New Music” from Two Earlier Centuries at C4NM

Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted a benefit concert for Lacuna Arts, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that provides both educational and performing opportunities for choral singers. The concert was a recital by baritone Sven Edward Olbash, who runs this organization. He is also a Teaching Artist with the San Francisco Opera and, in that capacity, spent this summer in New York at the Lincoln Center Education Leadership and Advocacy Lab. One of the results of this experience is a plan for the Lacuna Arts 2017–18 season that will focus on six “interactive choral experiences” along with two more traditional concerts. Support for this plan was the “target” of last night’s benefit concert.

In recognition of where he was singing, Olbash entitled his program The New Music. That title was also the title of a collection of monodies and songs for solo voice published by Giulio Caccini in 1602. The program opened with two selections from this collection, both settings of short poems, “Non più guerra” (no more war) by Giovanni Battista Guarini and “Amarilli, mia bella” (my lovely Amaryllis), whose verses were probably also Guarini’s.

Olbash observed that what made these pieces “new” was specificity of notation. In the early days of publication, secular music tended to consist of “tunes,” which the performer could take as a point of departure for embellishment or even more elaborate invention. (Think of performance practices for folk music.) Music-making was thus a responsibility shared by the creation of a document and the interpretation of that document.

Caccini’s Le nuove musiche thus contributed to a “shift of authority” that Rob C. Wegman called “from maker to composer,” which had begun to emerge during the second half of the fifteenth century. Through his specific attention to detail in his notation, Caccini firmly established that he, the composer, was the authority behind the music. Michel Foucault wrote an essay based primarily on the linguistic observation that “author” is the root of “authority.” We may thus view Caccini as establishing himself as an author of music, rather than a collector and publisher of tunes.

Olbash did not dwell on any of these theoretical matters. His attention was more focused on the relationship between singer and audience. Guarini was a popular poet among madrigal composers, so it is possible that many of the poems that Caccini had set for solo voice had already been given polyphonic treatment by others. However, by writing with such specificity for solo voice, Caccini may have wished to create the impression that the poet was now speaking through the composer’s music, perhaps with the same rhetorical impact one would have encountered at a recitation. Olbash nicely captured that sense of social intimacy in his delivery and his engagement with the continuo provided by Kevin Korth at the piano. One came away from these two short pieces with a sense of having been entertained but through an “authority of authorship” that had more than entertainment in mind.

These two short songs were followed by a full aria from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo, “Possente spirito.” This aria is sung by Orfeo in the third act, when he is trying to persuade Caronte (Charon) to ferry him across the Styx, even though he has not yet died. Orfeo pleads his case passionately; but the only result is that Caronte falls asleep, leaving Orfeo free to ferry himself. If this sounds a bit frivolous for one of the major myths of tragic love, we must remember that Monteverdi wrote this opera for a court performance held during the annual Carnival at Mantua. The audience probably got some good belly-laughs out of Orfeo triumphing over Caronte through “weapons of mass boredom.”

Nevertheless, Olbash clearly took Orfeo’s side in his own delivery. In this case he observed that Monteverdi had written two vocal lines, one entirely unadorned and the other richly ornamented with embellishment. This allowed the performer to decide just how much embellishment he felt was appropriate, and last night Olbash sang all of Monteverdi’s ornaments. The result was thus not only dramatic but also an accessible demonstration of the many different dimensions of the composer’s technique.

For this performance Olbash was accompanied by Caitlin Austin playing harmonium. Her instrument required operation of the bellows with one hand and keyboard continuo work on the other. She was clearly skilled at this, and the harmonium provided just the right sort of spooky sonorities for a grim vision of the River Styx and the even grimmer character of Caronte. Olbash emphasized this setting by using Michelangelo’s depiction of Caronte as “cover art” for his program booklet:

Michaelangelo depicting Charon (left) at work in his Last Judgment fresco (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Michelangelo also served as a “bridge” to the second half of the program, which was devoted entirely to Benjamin Britten’s Opus 22 settings of seven of the sonnets the artist had written. This is intensely personal music, which Britten wrote for himself and his life-partner, the tenor Peter Pears in 1940. The translations provided in the program booklet did not mince words when it came to homoerotic connotations (if not denotations). On the musical side what may be most interesting is the extent to which Britten establishes a unique genre to set the context of each of the sonnets. Not all of the genres are explicitly Italianate; but there is one (the second in the set) that suggests that the composer may have been studying the score of Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” (with its cast of “vile Florentines”) while working on his own settings.

Taken as a whole, Olbash’s program was relatively short. However, the extensive breadth of his “subject matter” was more than sufficient compensation. Most important was his capacity to identify the compelling elements of each of his selections, thus providing the attentive listener with a thoroughly engaging evening.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 8/28/ 2017

The end of August tends to be a relatively quiet time. This week will offer the final concerts of the month (which have already been reported) presented by both the Center for New Music and the LSG Creative Music Series. That will take us into September with the next installment in the monthly music series curated by Ben Tinker at Adobe Books. This will be a three-set evening by groups that appear to follow the old Second Act Monthly Experimental Music Showcase by coming up with names as innovative as the music they make:
  1. D O L P H I N M I D W I V E S appears to be a Portland-based solo harpist (unidentified on the Facebook About Web page) who specializes in ritual experiments and ecstatic noise.
  2. The Institute For Creative Dying is the solo project of Paul Michael Schaefer, also based in Portland, whose music involves (in his own words) “elemental guitar, visceral percussion & kinetic noise.”
  3. Voicehandler is the Oakland-based duo of Jacob Felix Heule on percussion and vocalist Danishta Rivero. Both of them perform with (in their words) “contemporary, disembodied electronics.” Rivero’s texts involve song forms deconstructed in relation to mythology and literature.
This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 3. Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street. The gig is free. However, donations will go directly to the performing artists and are strongly encouraged. In addition, Adobe will provide free refreshments to those who make a book purchase of $6 or more.

A Disappointing Piano Festival Conclusion

Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco International Piano Festival concluded in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The title of the program was Looking Back, Looking Forward. It allowed for a variety of interpretations, which were not always satisfying, although some were certainly thought-provoking.

Consider the opening set, which was the San Francisco debut of pianist Albert Kim. This involved coupling music by Joseph Haydn and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Haydn was firmly situated in the eighteenth century; but he always seemed to be looking to the future by taking new, and occasionally daring, approaches to making music in a wide diversity of genres. On the other hand, we call Rachmaninoff a twentieth-century composer, since that is the century of most of his mature life; but his music always seems to be a reflection on the previous century, to which he knew he could never return.

Both of these composers have many familiar compositions, but Kim did not play any of them. His Haydn selection was the Hoboken XVI/31 sonata (also called a divertimento) in E major. In the spirit of a divertimento, its three movements are relatively short. Nevertheless, Haydn has his thematic material jump through a variety of inventive hoops; and it is easy to imagine that he wrote this piece for instructional purposes to demonstrate to the student how easy it is to depart from the routine into more imaginative inventiveness. Kim basically let this music speak for itself through a clear account of the marks Haydn had put on paper without trying to overdo any of the inherently clever rhetorical turns.

The Rachmaninoff selections came from the two collections of études that he called Études-Tableaux (study pictures). From the first set, Opus 33, he played the first in F minor and the fourth in D minor. From the second set, Opus 39, he played the second in A minor, the fifth in E-flat minor, and the seventh in C minor. Rachmaninoff described these pieces as “music evocations of external visual stimuli;” but he was not specific about those stimuli. Rather, he felt that, for any one of these pieces, listeners (and, presumably, the pianist) should “paint for themselves what it most suggests.”

As a performer of études, Kim certainly worked hard to make sure that all the notes were in their proper place. However, he never seemed quite to catch on to how Rachmaninoff could weave elaborate textures of counterpoint, often summoning up more voices than one feels capable of counting. As has been the case since Renaissance counterpoint at its most ornate, this is often a matter of highly fluid movement between foreground and background. Sadly, Kim showed few signs of appreciating what foreground and background were, let alone how he could express that fluidity through his execution. Instead, the listener was treated to the spectacle of jumping through an imposing series of hoops with little recognition that playing an étude might involve something more. Ironically, it was through Rachmaninoff’s efforts to find a link to those “visual stimuli” that we can appreciate that he was as capable of “looking forward” as Haydn was; but, apparently, Kim never saw that memo.

The final set by Bobby Mitchell, on the other hand, involved a clearer distinction between present and past. However, while Frederic Rzewski’s “Ruins” is situated very much in the present, there is good reason to see a retrospective connotation in his title. Structurally, “Ruins” is a chaconne. However, Rzewski runs his chaconne through the same sort of meat-grinder of provocative contemporary virtuosity that had “processed” the traditional theme-and-variations form in “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (which Mitchell had played this past Thursday). “Ruins” is a much shorter piece; but it is a stimulating example of how tried-and-true approaches from the past can find a new set of unique voices in the immediate present.

“Ruins” was followed by a performance of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 58 sonata in B minor. To call Mitchell’s approach idiosyncratic would be the height of understatement. One might almost accuse him of deliberately reducing the score to “ruins” from which any recognition of Chopin would be, at best, fragmented. Perhaps Mitchell wished remind us that the need for intense political conscience, which seems to be a dominant quality in Rzewski’s lifeworld, has no room for the likes of a Chopin.

The most challenging portion of the program was the second set presented by Eunmi Ko, making her San Francisco debut. She has taken a great interest in the Korean composer Isang Yun, who was forced to move to Germany after he defied South Korean law by visiting North Korea. Yun died in Berlin in 1995; and, over the last few years, Ko has commissioned composers to write “tribute pieces” to honor the memory of Yun’s life and works. She played seven of these recent works (six of which were world premieres), along with Yun’s “Interludium A.”

The problem is that Yun’s music has not been given very much attention in this country. As a result he was probably unfamiliar to just about everyone in the audience. Unfortunately, the only way that such listeners could orient themselves was by visiting a Web page on Ko’s Web site. Listeners were advised to do so when Ko was introduced (provided they turned off the ring-tone on their cell phones). However, there is considerable detail on this Web page, not the sort of thing that can be read while listening at the same time, let alone on the limited size of a phone display.

At best one could appreciate Yun’s approach to abstraction. One might even begin to recognize how that abstraction triggered the efforts of the composers Ko had commissioned. (However, Yun’s own piece was not the first one to be played.) However, all of this was really too much, particularly in the context of two other very full sets. This is a project that cries out for an extended lecture-demonstration with just as much attention paid to the quality of the lecture text as to the music being performed. That would be a full-evening project. which would require as much commitment to persuasion through text as to offering a compelling piano performance.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Monday Make-Out for Labor Day

Next weekend will be Labor Day weekend; and, because Labor Day will be the first Monday of next month, the Monday Make-Out will be scheduled as usual. Given that many will be making plans for the long weekend, an earlier heads-up than usual seems appropriate. Those who follow this site regularly will probably be happy to see a lot of familiar names coming to the Make Out Room for the occasion, meaning that the “official” end of summer holidays will be celebrated with some really adventurous jamming. As usual, the evening will be organized into three sets with the groups getting larger as things progress from one set to the next.

The program will open with duoB, which is the duo (as its name implies) of Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on drums. They will be followed by the free jazz improvisations of the EGW Trio, named for its three members, Karl Evangelista (guitar), Jordan Glenn (drums), and Francis Wong (saxophone). The final set will be taken by Aaron Novik’s Berlin Suite, a quintet whose members all fit comfortably into those borderlands between jazz and chamber music. Novik leads while playing a variety of reed instruments, and he will be joined by Kyle Bruckman on oboe. Both Mezzacappa and Glenn will return as members of this group, and the fifth performer will be Crystal Pascucci on cello.

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!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

90 Minutes of Paula West at Yerba Buena Gardens

This afternoon the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival presented a 90-minute concert by Paula West, in the course of which she sang fifteen songs all compacted into a single set:

Paula West, courtesy of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

Her rhythm section was a trio led by Adam Shulman, which presented one instrumental selection before West took the stage. The other rhythm players were Owen Benjamin on bass and Greg Wiser-Pratt on drums, both of whom had opportunities for solo takes during several of West’s songs.

West’s repertoire is eclectically extensive, which could not have provided better refuge on such a politically-charged day. Early in the set West dropped the line, “No fascists here.” However, she kept her selections relatively apolitical until the end of the set, after which, as an encore, she sang the traditional song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” which became a major civil rights anthem among the followers of Martin Luther King.

Nevertheless, time has ways of playing tricks on us. Through a shift in context, a song that was once sentimental can acquire sharper edges. West chose to acknowledge the death of Glen Campbell at the beginning of this month by singing one of his best-know hits, “Wichita Lineman.” The trouble is that, when we listen to Jimmy Webb’s lyrics, they no longer seem quite as poignantly sentimental as Webb probably intended them to be. Rather, it is almost impossible to listen to those works without thinking of the National Security Agency (NSA); and the song could almost be adopted as NSA’s “corporate anthem.” Hence that judicious used of the adverb “relatively” in the last paragraph! Mind you, I doubt that West intended to stress the fascist connotation this song has now assumed; but today’s world is definitely not the one in which Webb and Campbell lived.

Fortunately, West’s repertoire had relatively little to do with such dark sides. Personally, I was particularly glad to see her include Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “The Waters of March” (for which Jobim wrote the English lyrics, as well as those in Portuguese). Also, readers may recall that last week I concluded my account of the Jazz Herstory Collective at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival by citing my “ongoing quest for singers who can do justice to the legacy of Bessie Smith.” West turned out to be such a singer with an account of Wesley Wilson’s “Gimme A Pigfoot” that could not have been truer to Bessie’s memory. For that matter, the legacy of Bob Dylan fared just as well with her interpretation of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

The one weakness that emerged from time to time had to do with West’s sense of pitch. This was probably just a matter of the physical conditions that confronted her, whereby those on the audience side of the loudspeakers could hear the instrumentalists better than she did. For the most part West held her own about as well as could be expected; but her account of Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” ran the risk of straying into the territory of the stylizations of Darlene Edwards.

SFS Bernstein Centennial Events Schedule

Yesterday (August 25) was Leonard Bernstein’s 99th birthday. The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) have planned a series of events between now and August 25, 2018 as an extended celebration of Bernstein’s birth centennial. That will include four concert programs and a film screening with “live” musical accompaniment that will take place over the course of the coming season. Since the first of those will take place a little less than a month from today, this is a good time to review all the options that will be available.

The very first program to follow the season-opening festivities will consist entirely of compositions by Bernstein. MTT will conduct a program that will begin with the jazzy “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” with Principal Clarinet Carey Bell as featured soloist. [updated 9/7, 5:35 p.m.: The SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) will then join SFS for a performance of the Chichester Psalms cycle. The treble solo will be taken by boy soprano Nicholas Hu.] Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny will then make his SFS debut, joining mezzo Isabel Leonard in a performance of the song cycle Arias and Barcarolles. Bernstein composed this as chamber music in 1988, scored for mezzo, baritone, and four hands on a single piano keyboard. The original four hands were provided by Bernstein and MTT:

The 1988 premiere of Arias and Barcarolles, courtesy of SFS

On this program Bruce Coughlin’s orchestration of the piano part will be performed. The program will then conclude with the suite Symphonic Dances, a compilation of instrumental music from the musical West Side Story prepared by Irwin Kostal and Sid Ramin, both of whom prepared the score for the film version of this musical.

This concert will be given three performances, at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 22, and Saturday, September 23, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 24. [updated 9/7, 5:40 p.m.: There will be an Inside Music talk given by Bernstein scholar and biographer Humphrey Barton that will begin 90 minutes prior to each concert.] Doors to the lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $35 to $159. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, prior to the performances themselves, the Program Note Podcasts Web page will have a free podcast about West Side Story hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

At the beginning of November, MTT will present the second program with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet serving as guest soloist. He will be featured in a performance of Bernstein’s second symphony, which the composer named “The Age of Anxiety” after an 80-page poem by W. H. Auden, who called it (probably with a very arch sense of irony) “A Baroque Eclogue.” For this series of performances MTT has decided to couple this symphony with Richard Strauss’ Opus 40 tone poem “Ein Heldenleben” (a hero’s life). Listeners will be free to decide for themselves just who the “hero” is on this particular occasion.

This concert will be given three performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, November 2, and Friday, November 3, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 5. Ticket prices range from $15 to $155. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, prior to the performances themselves, the Program Note Podcasts Web page will have a free podcast about “The Age of Anxiety” hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

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

In January MTT will conduct a concert performance of the musical Candide, for which Bernstein composed the score. The lead roles of Candide and Cunégonde will be taken by Jay Armstrong Johnson and Meghan Picerno, respectively. The SFS Chorus will also perform.

This concert will be given four performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, January 18, Friday, January 19, and Saturday, January 20, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 21. Ticket prices range from $35 to $159. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, prior to the performances themselves, the Program Note Podcasts Web page will have a free podcast about the musical hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The following month a remastered version of the West Side Story film will be screened three times. SFS will give a live performance of the score prepared for this film. David Newman will conduct.

The three screenings will all take place at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 1, Friday, February 2, and Saturday, February 3. Ticket prices range from $46 to $166. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. There is also a free podcast about the musical hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, which has already been posted and may be played through a hyperlink on the event page. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The final concert in this series will mark the SFS debut of conductor Andrey Boreyko, currently Music Director of the Orchestra National de Belgique. Violinist Vadim Gluzman will return as soloist in a performance of Bernstein’s “Serenade after Plato’s ‘Symposium,’” whose movements basically serve as sketches of the personalities of the participants in this particular Platonic dialogue. The opening selection will be the orchestral divertimento that Bernstein composed in 1980. The second half of the program will consist entirely of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 47 (fifth) symphony in D minor. This symphony has its own “Bernstein connection,” since it was part of a program that Bernstein prepared for performance with the New York Philharmonic during a visit to the Soviet Union when the Cold War was at its coldest.

This concert will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 22, Friday, February 23, and Saturday, February 24. Ticket prices range from $15 to $159. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, prior to the performances themselves, the Program Note Podcasts Web page will have a free podcast about the Shostakovich symphony hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Jamming with Arabic Classical Music

Last night Moroccan-Palestinian musician Ali Paris returned to the Old First Presbyterian Church to present the last of the three concerts he prepared for the Old First Concerts series. Once again he played the qanun, basically a zither with a highly sophisticated microtonal tuning system, often singing while playing. On this occasion he led a trio, whose other members were percussionist Faisal Zedan, playing different types of hand drums, and violinist Briana Di Mara. As was the case at Paris’ second concert, Di Mara had two violins, one with the usual G-D-A-E tuning and the other tuned G-D-G-D.

The full title of the program was Arabic Classical From Morocco to Syria. The presentation itself had less to do with the origins and dissemination of Arabic music than with a sampling (without much sense of ordering) of styles from different parts of the world. Those unfamiliar with the culture (such as myself) probably had trouble recognizing the distinguishing features of those styles. However, as is the case with other accounts of “early music,” listening had less to do with notated manuscripts and more to do with a practice of making music that combined basic thematic material with rich opportunities for improvisation.

Indeed, as Paris observed in his comments to the audience, Arabic music is monodic; and harmony, as we know it, does not figure in any of the Arabic treatises of “music theory.” Thus, each piece would begin with a melody shared by both qanun and violin, after which the two performers would repeat the melody, adding new embellishments as the execution proceeded. Sometimes, but not always, there would be a back-and-forth exchange of approaches to embellishment in what might be called “dueling banjos” rhetoric. More often, however, Paris tended to dominate the embellishing processes, simply by virtue of the advanced capabilities of his instruments.

All of this activity took place against a sophisticated rhythmic pattern, based on strong and weak pulses, established by Zedan. However, once that pattern was established, it, too, was subjected to embellishment. Furthermore, because Zedan could sound different pitches on the basis of how he struck his instruments, he could also offer his own take on back-and-forth exchanges with Paris.

The result was an approach to music-making in which spontaneity was the dominant element, as much as it is when those who really know their jazz gather together in a combo. For those of us not familiar with the culture, the results were fascinating and thoroughly engaging. For others they were downright infectious. I have not idea how bubeleh would be translated into Arabic, but there were three of them sitting a few rows in front of me. They were swaying with the rhythms, smiling at the back-and-forth exchanges, and even bursting into the chorus of one of the songs. All of this more than compensated for any problems that the players had in describing what they were doing to the audience (the same sorts of problems that had surfaced during the second concert).

Friday, August 25, 2017

Fritz Busch and the Origins of Glyndebourne

A little less than a month ago, Warner Classics released a 9-CD box set that continues their ongoing interest in historic recordings. The title of the collection is Fritz Busch at Glyndebourne; and it consists of performances of music for four major operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492), Così fan tutte (thus do all women, K. 588), Don Giovanni (K. 527), and Idomeneo (K. 366). However, this release is as much about the history of Glyndebourne itself as it is about Busch’s artistic achievements.

Dealing with the latter first, those who have been following my work back to the days of are likely to recognize the significance of the Busch name for reasons that have much more to do with music than with beer. Fritz was the older brother, by about a year, of Adolf, who led one of the earliest string quartets to prepare an extensive series of recordings of chamber music. November of 2015 saw the release of Adolf Busch & Busch Quartet: The Complete Warner Recordings, an impressive collection of sixteen CDs that amounted to a significant profile of the performance of chamber music during the first half of the twentieth century. (One of the “guest artists” in this collection is Rudolf Serkin, who would eventually marry Adolf’s daughter Irene.)

Fritz made his conducting debut in 1908 and quickly established a strong reputation, which included a close association with Mozart’s music. However, the rise of Adolf Hitler led to Busch losing his position with the Dresden State Opera. Both of the Busch brothers realized that it would be necessary to leave Germany. After several tours of South America, Fritz was offered the position as the first Music Director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, which he accepted.

By the time Fritz was approached, Glyndebourne had a history that exceeded Busch’s lifetime by centuries. It is the name of a manor house in East Sussex that dates back to the fifteenth century. The significant figure in the site’s history is John Christie, who obtained use of the house in 1913 after the death of his grandfather, William Langham Christie, and would subsequently come into full legal possession in 1920. He would host amateur opera evenings at the house; and at one of them, in 1931, he met the soprano Audrey Mildmay, who would become his wife. Their honeymoon took them to the festivals at both Salzburg and Bayreuth and became the seeds of the project to host a similar festival at Glyndebourne. The first season, with Busch as Music Director, began on May 28, 1934 and lasted six weeks. The first opera to be performed was The Marriage of Figaro, followed by Così fan tutte.

Christie was also responsible for starting the tradition that members of the audience should attend in formal evening dress. As a Web page on the Glyndebourne Web site explains, Christie “felt that it was one of the ways the audience could show its respect for the performers.” The very fact that this Web page exists testifies that this tradition still holds, complete with photographs to affirm the case:

Members of the Glyndebourne audience fortify themselves prior to the performance

Less than two weeks after Figaro was first performed, the Glyndebourne Theatre hosted the first recording crew. A fair amount of the musical numbers (but none of the recitatives) was recorded; and the project would have to wait until the following summer to be completed. That meant that the entire project had two different basses singing the role of Bartolo, Norman Allin in 1934 and Italo Tajo in 1935. Here in the United States RCA would subsequently release this as a “complete” recording; but, even overlooking the recitative omissions, this was not the case. The chorus in the first act was never recorded; and, particularly critical to the plot, Barbarina’s (only) aria at the beginning of the final act (which is critical to the plot) is missing.

Nevertheless, the recordings that Busch made are a significant element in the overall history of opera performance. Today, however, their major contribution is to demonstrate just how much things have changed, particularly in how we approach Mozart. While it may not have been Busch’s intention, the prevailing rhetoric of performances of all of the operas seems to have more to do with the expectations of the polite society that took the trouble to show up than with any of the characteristics that we now recognize as revolutionary in Mozart’s capacity for invention. To say that these performances reduce the libretto texts of Lorenzo Da Ponte to episodes of Downton Abbey would be a bit of an exaggeration but would still probably capture the mindset behind the rhetorical stances taken by both singers and instrumentalists.

On the other hand it may be that Busch needed the benefit of a few consecutive seasons before figuring out just how far he could push his audience. Thus, among the Da Ponte operas, Don Giovanni was the last to be recorded (in the summer of 1936). Even with the limitations of recording technology on factors such as dynamics, one gets the sense that Busch had finally reached a secure position from which he could see how far he could push the envelope. If you want your Don to be downright diabolical, there are any number of recordings (including some very recent ones) that never rise to the intensity of Busch’s rhetoric. Furthermore, by this time recitatives had become an expected part of the package, meaning that the recording is as much about the narrative as it is about the vocalists.

Also, as a matter of historical record, it is worth nothing that Mildmay (now Mrs. John Christie) sings in two of the opera recordings. She was there at the very first recording sessions in the role of Suzanna. She then went on to put her personal stamp on the part of Zerlina, and that stamp is now there for all audiences to experience as a result of those 1936 recording sessions.

The summer festival suspended production with the outbreak of the Second World War. Glyndebourne itself became an evacuation center for children from London. Activities resumed with the conclusion of hostilities, and Busch would return for two more summers in 1950 and 1951, respectively. His 1950 visit led to a recording of excerpts from Così involving somewhat more familiar names: Sena Jurinac and Blanche Thebom as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella and Richard Lewis and Erich Kunz as their lovers Ferrando and Guglielmo. Curiously (and a bit sadly), Despina never shows up on these excerpts. The following summer Busch conducted Idomeneo. This time the recording sessions took place in the Abbey Road Studios and involved only excerpts; but this was an era before a culture emerged that figured out how to bring dramatic intensity to opera seria, regardless of its vintage.

Center for New Music: Remainder of September 2017

Plans now seem to have been finalized for the remainder of next month’s launch of a new season at the Center for New Music (C4NM). The one event that was given advance notice was the Banned Books Solidarity Concert, which will be presented by Phonochrome on the afternoon of September 24. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Not all of the events listed below will have the same price of admission, so that information will be provided with the description of each particular show. However, all tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini event page. Hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages will be attached to each of the dates in the following summary:

Sunday, September 17, 7 p.m.: Not to be confused with the verses of Ira Gershwin, Portato Portato is a chamber trio that divides its base between Oakland and Santa Cruz. The members are Jacob Lane on keyboards, Michelle Lee on flutes, and Jon Meyers on percussion. They play original works as well as selected compositions from this and the preceding century. When they work on new pieces, they are committed to an attentive relationship between the composer and the performers. Two of the works on the program will be by members of the trio, “Diaphane I” by Lane and “Daniel in Chicago” by Myers. They will also play Louis Andriessen’s “Melodie” and one of Morton Feldman’s major compositions, “Why Patterns?” General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members and students.

Wednesday, September 20, 8 p.m.: Following up on their free performance of Terry Riley’s “In C” as part of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, Brooklyn Raga Massive will come to C4NM for a concert that will be curated by Jim Santi Owen. This will actually be a subgroup of Brooklyn Raga Massive that calls itself the Raga Jazz Messengers, which plays a repertoire that combines the American Jazz Songbook with Indian Classical Music. (Whether or not Art Blakey has a place in that Songbook remains to be seen.) Personnel for this performance will be Sameer Gupta on drums, Pawan Benjamin on saxophone, Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Jay Gandhi on bansuri, and Michael Gam on bass. They will be joined by local guest artists making special appearances for the occasion. General admission will be $20 with a $15 rate for C4NM members.

Saturday, September 23, 8 p.m.: Eric Glick Rieman will lead a combo he calls the Knitting Ensemble for an evening of his own compositions. He will be playing a prepared and modified Rhodes electric piano. The remainder of the group will consist of Jakob Pek on guitar, Brett Carson on piano, and two percussionists, Nava Dunkelman and Suki O’Kane. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Monday, September 25, 7 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a two-set evening of local and visiting talent. The opening set will be taken by the local group, a newly-formed quartet, which probably will be named Black Gagaku. The group seems to have been formed by Kyle Bruckmann, who will be playing oboe, cor anglais, and electronics and will be joined by Jacob Felix Heule on percussion, Kanoko Nishi on koto, and vocalist Danishta Rivero. They will be followed by the Boston-based ensemble Ehnahre, which will be playing selections from its newest album, The Marrow. The performers will be Ryan Mcguire (vocals and bass), Richard Chowenhill (guitars), and Joshua Carro (percussion and electronics). General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Highlights of the SFCM Centennial Season

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was founded in 1917. That means that the coming season will mark the centennial of the oldest institution of its kind on the West Coast of the United States. Several concerts and events have been planned specifically to mark this landmark occasion. Here are the key centennial-specific events currently planned:

A series of four performances will mark the beginning of the season with a Centennial Celebration Weekend. In order of presentation, these will be as follows:
  • Saturday, September 16, 5:30 p.m., Recital Hall: Things will begin with a recital by the Pre-College students. This event is still in the planning stage, so program details have not yet been announced. Tickets will be free, but reservations will be required. Reservations may be requested by filling out a Google Forms Web page.
  • Saturday, September 16, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: The major kick-off event will be the first concert of the season by the Conservatory Orchestra, conducted by Director Eric Dudley. He has selected two compositions, both of which were performed shortly after SFCM’s founding. One of these, Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” will serve as the grand finale, replete with unabashed spectacle. The other will be Igor Stravinsky’s far more austere “Symphonies of Wind Instruments.” The program will begin with “Icarian Rhapsody,” composed by faculty member Mason Bates. General admission for this concert will be $20 with a $15 rate for students. Tickets may be purchased through a Click4tix Web page, which includes a chart showing seat availability.
  • Sunday, September 17, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: This will be a recital of both chamber music and solo piano music. Performers will include faculty, students, and Class of 2017 graduate, pianist Joanna Rozewska. The chamber music will feature the first movement of the first string quartet by Ernest Bloch, who served as SFCM Director between 1925 and 1930. The other chamber selections will be the second movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 493 piano quartet in E-flat major and the final movement of Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 15 (first) piano quartet in C minor. The piano works will include two pieces by Frédéric Chopin, the second (in A-flat major) of the Opus 50 mazurkas and the Opus 23 (first) ballade in G minor. The program will also feature Adolf Schulz-Evler’s Opus 12, his piano transcription of “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II, which he called a set of “Arabesques.” Tickets will again be free with reservations required through a Google Forms Web page.
  • Sunday, September 17, 7:30 p.m., Osher Salon: The final event will be a showcase of the works of students in the Technology and Applied Composition Department under the guidance of Executive Director MaryClare Brzytwa; no reservations will be required for this free concert.

Several other events specific to the Centennial Season have been planned. For the most part the details have not yet been announced, but it will probably be worth while to make note of the dates. Specifics are as follows:
  • There will be a series of three Faculty Centennial Concerts that will feature both performances and compositions by faculty members; the dates for these recitals have been set for October 16, January 28, and April 9.
  • There will be a special all-day event on January 21 that will offer a series of concerts all programmed in honor of SFCM’s Chamber Music Legacy.
  • On January 31 the inaugural class of students in Roots, Jazz, and American Music will give a side-by-side performance with the members of the SFJAZZ Collective.
  • Finally, there will be one special event that will be held in the Nourse Theater, rather than in any of the SFCM spaces, during the afternoon of February 25. Sunday with the Sopranos will be an afternoon of music and discussion. The performers will include Patricia Racette, Frederica von Stade, and faculty member Deborah Voigt. They will be joined by other guests, all with strong ties to SFCM.

For those who have not yet visited, SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office, which is in the building’s entrance lobby. The Box Office is open Monday through Friday in the morning between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and in the afternoon between 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. It is also open one hour prior to all performances for which tickets are required. The Box Office telephone number is 415-503-6275.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Innovative “In C” Coming to Yerba Buena Gardens

As a rule I am not particularly big on outdoor concerts. The acoustics are rarely up for seriously attentive listening, meaning that the experience tends to be more on the social side than the musical one. Nevertheless, there are exceptions; and this summer presented us with one of the best of them in last month’s offering by SFJAZZ, in conjunction with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, of John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit.” This was, after all, a score for 9 to 99 percussionists, who begin in a central location and then are supposed to disperse themselves across a vast outdoor space. At last month’s performance that space was Lands End, and Adams’ conception of an open-ended score realized in an extended outdoor setting could not have been better served.

Regular readers also know that I try to set aside the time to sample some of the outdoor offerings in the annual Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF). One is surrounded by imposing masses of man-made architecture; and, during this particular summer, that visual factor is being reinforced by the ongoing ambient sounds of the latest construction projects. This is not the best of settings for encountering a promising young soprano or even an innovatively eclectic jazz combo; but, as the hyperlinks reveal, I was there to experience both and take them in as musical, rather than merely social, events.

However, next month, as YBGF runs towards the conclusion of this season’s schedule, it will host an offering that is closer in spirit to Adams than to Jenny Lind or that “border region” between jazz and soul. That offering will be a performance of “In C,” another open-ended score, this time composed by Terry Riley. It would not be unfair to say that “In C” was one of the most revolutionary contributions to the aesthetic shift that began to take place in the early Sixties. The score consists simply of 53 short numbered musical phrases, and it may be played by any number of performers on instruments of their choosing. Among the pieces that have come to be called “minimalist” (for better or worse), “In C” may be the one that has received the most performances by the largest number of different ensembles.

With all that as context, next month’s YBGF offering is likely to be a significantly unique approach to playing the piece. That is because the performers will be Brooklyn Raga Massive, which was co-founded by Sameer Gupta, who used to be based here in San Francisco. This is a group that is inspired by Indian Classical Music and the instruments involved in performing that music; but it takes that foundation as a point of departure for new approaches to music-making, which includes a weekly Raga Music Jam Session and a recent “Coltrane Raga Tribute” concert. Over the past three years this group has been performing “In C” with traditional Indian instruments; and, when they come to visit San Francisco next month, they will bring “In C” to YBGF in a performance that will also include members of San Francisco’s own Classical Revolution. The result should be engagingly consistent with Riley’s personal aesthetic, which has frequently involved approaches to synthesize Western and Eastern perspectives.

from the Facebook Events Web page

This performance will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday, September 16. Yerba Buena Gardens has a street address of 760 Howard Street. This is the northwest corner of Third Street, and the grounds of the Gardens extend to the north and to the west. The stage for most YBGF concerts is situated roughly to the west of the entrance to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is on the other side of Third Street. All YBGF events are free, but donations are collected at the conclusion of every performance.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Saxophones Will Rule at Next SIMM Series Concert

According to my records (and those on Facebook), the next concert to be offered by Outsound Presents in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series will serve up a veritable feast of saxophone performances. Both of the sets to be performed will feature a saxophonist drawing upon multiple instruments of different sizes. The first set will feature Jon Raskin, who is probably best known as one of the founding members of the Rova Saxophone Quartet and is still going strong in his membership. On this occasion, however, he will give a duo performance with Moe! Staiano on percussion.

The second set will be taken by the Lords of Outland. This group was created in 1994 by saxophonist Rent Romus, who is also Executive Director of Outsound Presents. The Lords of Outland has developed original music ranging from unhinged free improvisation to thematic compositional suites inspired by abstract and socio-political poetry, science fiction, horror, and fantasy, that last genre being richly informed by Finnish folklore. At this SIMM Series concert Romus will be playing alto, soprano, and C-melody saxophones. He will be joined by Ray Schaeffer on electric basses and Philip Everett, who will play electronic autoharp and a diversity of percussion instruments.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 10. It will take place in the Musicians Union Hall, which is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Del Sol Records Riley and Scodanibbio

As was observed yesterday, the Del Sol String Quartet (violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates) will be holding a release event this coming Saturday for their latest album on Sono Luminus, Dark Queen Mantra, which will be available on Friday:

courtesy of Jensen Artists

For those who are impatient, is, as usual, processing pre-orders. The album features one of Terry Riley’s earliest compositions for string quartet, a coupling of two short movements entitled, respectively, “The Wheel” and “Mythic Birds Waltz.” (I have heard Del Sol play the “Mythic Birds Waltz” on its own.) This early work is coupled with the Riley composition for which the album is named, which he wrote in 2015. Dark Queen Mantra is a three-movement suite for string quartet and guitar; and, on this album, the guitar part is taken by Riley’s son Gyan. Between these two Riley compositions, Del Sol plays Mas Lugares, a five-movement suite involving transformations of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi composed by Stefano Scodanibbio. Del Sol had played all three of these selections in a recital they gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in December of 2015, and the recording sessions for this album were held about two months later.

Taken as a whole, the “program” for this album is a decidedly lyrical one. In that respect it is highly appropriate that the “core” of that program should be based on the texts of the Italian poems that Monteverdi had chosen to set as madrigals. Furthermore, Scodanibbio’s approach to “transformation” involved a significant departure from “transcription.” He was clearly aware of Monteverdi’s skills as a contrapuntist; but he chose to explore those skills in terms of note-against-note relationships based on natural harmonics. Those explorations led Scodanibbio to new approaches to dissonance. Thus, while the words that Monteverdi set are not part of Scodanibbio’s composition, the emotional intensity behind those words comes through with greater strength than we tend to encounter in “straightforward” performances of Monteverdi’s scores.

One encounters similar effects in “Dark Queen Mantra,” the title of the final movement in the suite of the same name. This movement is, indeed, the mantra of the suite, dwelling on the repetition of a simple phrase through which the listener can transcend the complexity of the here-and-now. Nevertheless, here, too, the impact of intonation arises, again through bowing techniques involving frequencies based on nodal points, rather than the pitches of an equal-tempered chromatic scale. In addition the use of sul ponticello bowing imposes even harsher overtones that emerge as the darkness suggested by the movement’s title. As a result, this final movement contrasts sharply with the almost nostalgic qualities suggested by the suite’s first two movements.

Contrast is similarly at heart of the final selection. “The Wheel” amounts to a slow jazz ballad, perhaps reflecting the early days of Riley’s career, when he supported himself by playing in piano bars. The “Mythic Birds Waltz,” on the other hand, is a splendid exercise in rhythmic complexity that pretty much defies anyone to try to waltz to it. Indeed, if there is any trace of Vienna at all in this piece, it is decidedly obscured by other influences, the most significant of which probably involve Riley’s interest in the rhythmic patterns of classical Indian music, which he studied with Pandit Pran Nath.

As a result there is much to be gained from beginning-to-end listening where this album is concerned; and the combination of the keen ears of the Del Sol players and the engineering skills in the recording studio make that listening experience a highly satisfying one.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 8/21/2017

As I write this the sun does not seem to have been able to burn off the San Francisco cloud cover in time for the eclipse. Over the weekend I was joking with a friend that the best (not to mention safest) way to watch the eclipse would be through the Internet. It would appear that Karl the Fog was in agreement with me. He has made the cover thick enough that I cannot even tell if the sky is darkening! Indeed, that Web page that the Exploratorium was supposed to provide for online listening to a sonification of the eclipse performed by the Kronos Quartet, as reported last week, is still “off the air.” In the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

Regarding activities taking place later this week, both the Center for New Music and the Luggage Store Gallery have already been taken into account. That leaves only a few other items, but the first of those was a bit of a surprise. Here are the specifics:

Wednesday, August 23, 8 p.m., The Bindery: For the last few months this site has been reporting on the relocation of the Monthly Experimental Music Showcase from Second Act to the Peacock Lounge. Second Act became The Bindery, which calls itself “A Place for the Curious;” and one of its offerings for “the curious” will be Experimental Music Third Wednesdays. As things currently stand, it seems as if we shall now be getting shows from both series each month, since the Peacock Lounge has appropriated the poster design that had been used by Second Act and The Bindery has a new design with a new aspect ratio:

courtesy of the Bay Improviser Calendar

If this is, indeed, the launch of a new series, then it is certainly starting off with a bang. The main attraction will be the latest sound and video created by longtime avant-gardist Henry Kaiser. Whether Kaiser will be physically present for the occasion is unclear. However, it is likely that the other three groups performing will be physical, rather than virtual. Furthermore, they all have names to continue one of Second Act’s most provocative traditions: Neha Spellfish, Drought Spa, and Filthmilk (as seen above). (In the immortal words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know!”)

The nuts and bolts of this show are basically the same as they were at Second Act. The Bindery is located in Haight-Ashbury at 1727 Haight Street. Doors will open at 7:45 p.m. Admission will be $5 and will be restricted to those age 21 or older.

The remaining two events for this week are both organized around releases of new recordings:

Friday, August 25, 8 p.m., Artists’ Television Access: In the interest of full disclaimer of personal bias, I used to think that Dina Maccabee was the best part of the Real Vocal String Quartet. Since her departure she has extended her viola and vocal work to take in real-time digital processing and video projections. This has resulted in a brand new solo album entitled The World Is In The Work. She will celebrate its release with a live performance of the entire album. Artists’ Television Access is located in the Mission at 992 Valencia Street. Admission will be $10, payable at the door.

Saturday, August 26, 2 p.m., Alley Cat Books: This Friday Sono Luminus will release Dark Queen Mantra, the latest recording of the Del Sol String Quartet, whose members are violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates. The title of the album is also the title of the opening composition, which Terry Riley composed in 2015. He scored it for string quartet and guitar, and on the album the guitar part is taken by Riley’s son Gyan. The album also includes two shorter Riley pieces, “The Wheel” and “Mythic Birds Waltz,” played continuously on a single track. Between the Riley selections, Del Sol plays “Mas Lugares,” which involves transformations of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi composed by Stefano Scodanibbio.

Composer Luciano Chessa, who has championed Scodanibbio’s work, will serve as moderator for this release event. Del Sol will perform selections from the album, recognizing the contributions of both composers. There will also be time for discussion and album signings. Alley Cat Books is located in the Mission at 3036 24th Street just east of Treat Avenue (between Folsom Street and Harrison Street).

The Quietude of Stephen Whittington’s Quartet Music

This past Friday Cold Blue Music released its second recording of compositions by Australian composer Stephen Whittington performed by the Zephyr Quartet, whose members are violinists Belinda Gehlert and Emily Tulloch, violist Jason Thomas, and cellist Hillary Kleinig. The ensemble is also based in Australia, and recordings took place at the University of Adelaide in September of last year. This was Cold Blue’s second album of Zephyr playing Whittington’s music, the first having been Music for Airport Furniture (presumably a witty nod to both Erik Satie and Brian Eno), which was released in 2013.

The title of the new album is Windmill, which is also the title of the second of two compositions on the CD. The first is a seven-movement suite entitled …from a thatched hut, while “Windmill” is a single movement slightly less than ten minutes in duration. Both pieces may be said to be based on impressions; but only “Windmill” derives from the visual. The impression of …from a thatched hut is more cultural in nature, dealing with Chinese scholars of the past that lived as hermits (anchorites without any of the Christian connotations).

The windmills that Whittington had in mind are those constructed in isolated areas in order to bring underground sources of water to the surface. When farming first began to be practiced west of the Mississippi River, just about every individual farm depended on such a windmill. Any number of movies captured the haunting qualities of the creaking sounds made by both the rotating blades and the pumping mechanism.

Whittington tried to capture those sounds in “Windmill;” and, allowing him the benefit of artistic license, he did a pretty good job. However, what makes the piece particularly compelling is what might be called its rhetoric of isolation. The suggestion is that, on any given farm, it is often the case that the windmill is the only source of sound; and, once Whittington establishes the nature of that sound, he punctuates it with extended periods of silence. Those silences blur the boundary of when the piece actually ends, an effect that is even spookier when one is listening to a recording than when one is watching the piece being performed.

The title of …from a thatched hut comes from two of those hermits evoked by the music. The first of these was Bai Juyi, who was a successful politician until a change in the balance of power forced him into exile. Since he was a devoted practitioner of Zen, he saw exile as an opportunity to think on less worldly matters; and he documented his thoughts in the book Record of the Thatched Hut on Mount Lu. Whittington’s other source is the Song dynasty landscape painter Xia Gui, known for painting hand scrolls of prodigious length. One of these was called Twelve Views from a Thatched Hut.

Those familiar with Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a book compiled by Paul Reps from a variety of sources of Zen and pre-Zen writing, will probably be familiar with the sorts of hermits that inspired Whittington to compose …from a thatched hut. (Those who do not know the book may still know some of the source material, since John Cage appropriated many of the anecdotes for “marginalia” in several of his books.) In many ways Whittington’s suite makes for excellent music to accompany reading Reps’ book. Indeed, Cage’s own autobiographical statement mentions the Indian singer Gira Sarabhai as one of his sources of inspiration: “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” It is not unreasonable to approach …from a thatched hut through its capacity “to sober and quiet the mind,” resulting in greater susceptibility to the Zen teachings that Reps documented.