Saturday, September 30, 2017

Andrea Ceccomori will Give a Solo Flute Recital at IIC

The next concert to be hosted by the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura, IIC) will take place at the beginning of next month. Past offerings have included solo recitals for piano and violin and a string quartet program. The next one will be another solo recital, this time by flutist Andrea Ceccomori. The program will reflect on both the distant and the recent past.

The composer from the “most distant” past will be Georg Philipp Telemann with a performance of one of his fantasias for solo flute. Ceccomori will play his own “Bachiana,” which will present his perspective on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He will also play several other works of his own composition. The other composers included on the program will be Giacinto Scelsi (“Pwyll”), Aldo Brizzi (“Studio per Krishna”), and local composer Luciano Chessa (“Riflesso”).

This concert will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 4, and is expected to last for about two hours. IIC is located in the Civic Center at 601 Van Ness Avenue. Admission is free, but registration is required to assure having a place. IIC has created a registration page specific for this event. Anyone who registers may also add the names of a maximum of two additional guests. Those wishing further information may call IIC at 415-788-7142.

Karajan’s Sibelius in Berlin

The last of the thirteen boxes in Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition is one of only two boxes devoted to a single composer. Where Walter Legge and the Philharmonia Orchestra were involved, the composer was Ludwig van Beethoven. The box consisted of six CDs and included the first cycle of the nine symphonies that Herbert von Karajan recorded. The final box with the Berlin Philharmonic, on the other hand, presents the music of Jean Sibelius. It consists of only four CDs and is in no way comprehensive. There is also a bit of ambiguity over the title of the box. The cover reads Karajan: Sibelius 1976–1981, and that is sufficient as a description.

The Philharmonia recordings devote three CDs and two tracks from a fourth CD to Sibelius. This is also not a comprehensive collection. Of the seven symphonies, the first and third are missing from the Philharmonia set; and the third and seventh are missing from the Berlin box. As might be expected, both include “Finlandia” (in both monaural and stereophonic recordings in the Philharmonia box), as well as the popular “Valse Triste” and the Opus 112 “Tapiola.” The Berlin box also includes another popular selection, “The Swan of Tuonela,” as well as the Opus 9 “En Saga” and the Opus 11 Karelia suite. There are also the recordings that Karajan made in Berlin in the Sixties for Deutsche Grammophon, which are also not comprehensive; but these predate the EMI sessions.

Those who know their Sibelius would probably agree that the toughest nut to crack is the fourth symphony (Opus 63 in A minor). Beginning with the tritone in the opening gesture, this is a score that is continuously restless from beginning to end, making it an acid test for any conductor to establish a sense of the whole and then make it clear how that whole breaks down into constituent parts. In this respect it is worth noting that the two recordings of symphonies by Anton Bruckner in the tenth box were both recorded between September of 1970 and February of 1971. Those symphonies have similar challenges, although they do not pursue the ambiguities of chromaticism the way Sibelius does. Nevertheless, I would conjecture that the listener who is well prepared to apprehend the part-whole relationships in Bruckner is probably just as qualified to do so in Sibelius’ Opus 63.

With that as a point of reference, I have to say that, where my own personal tastes are concerned, I am far more satisfied with these Berlin recordings of Sibelius than I am with those made by the Philharmonia (or, for that matter, those made with Deutsche Grammophon). Karajan’s command of Opus 63 in this box establishes a perspective from which one can appreciate all of the other recordings on this set of four CDs. That even goes for the Karelia music, which I find almost impossible to listen to without thinking of the old Marlboro cigarette commercials!

SFCM New Music Ensemble Plays Women Composers

Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Nicole Paiement presented the first performance of the season by the New Music Ensemble. She prepared a program consisting entirely of women composers that included a teacher-student connection. The teacher was Composition Faculty Member Elinor Armer, whose “Recollections” and “Revel” were performed by cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau and pianist Steven Bailey. The student was Aleksandra Vrebalov (Class of ’96), whose “Transparent Walls” also featured a solo cello (Jenny Crane), playing against an ensemble (conducted by Paiement) of ten winds, celesta (Chelsea Wong), and percussion. The full Ensemble was also joined by guitarist Marc Teicholz for “O Saci-Pererê,” a three-movement concerto by Clarice Assad.

Armer composed her two short pieces for the married duo of cellist Bonnie Hampton and pianist Nathan Schwartz. Both pieces capture the intimacy of a happy marriage and the playfulness that seasons that intimacy. “Recollections” amounts to a dialogue between the two players, whose respective parts reflect disagreements over what are supposed to be shared memories. Fonteneau was particularly good at capturing a prosodic delivery of his thematic material, which sometimes more than hinted at the acoustics of speech sounds. Bailey, on the other hand, offered the “husband’s perspective” through inventive approaches to rhythm and the coloration of raised dampers. Armer herself described “Revel” as a “romp;” and, in the context of “Recollections,” it amounted to a cheerful setting aside of disagreements.

“Transparent Walls” was commissioned by SFCM, where Paiement conducted the premiere on November 15, 2008. As the title suggests, the music is a study in the opposing qualities of transparency and opacity; and those qualities arise through imaginative approaches to their representation through contrasting sonorities. Those contrasts are first suggested by the opening celesta solo, whose characteristic attack times bring crystalline clarity to each note but whose long decay times begin to obscure that clarity as more notes sound. Similarly, there is often the sense that the clarity of the cello line is struggling to “establish perception” against walls of obscurity imposed by the winds. As a composition this was definitely an ambitious undertaking, sufficiently imaginative that it does not deserve to be heard only once (or twice) and then forgotten.

Similarly, Assad’s piece had also been previously performed at SFCM and was being given a “return performance.” “O Saci-Pererê” received its world premiere on January 14, 2016 during the first public concert of the International Guitar Competition and Festival Maurizio Biasini. It was dedicated to Teicholz, who performed it with Paiement and the New Music Ensemble. The title refers to a Brazilian mythological character, and each of the three movements explores a different story about him.

Assad has a keen ear for instrumental sonorities and a knack for making every sonorous quality an engaging one. Working the sounds of a guitar (even with amplification) into such a rich texture is no easy matter; but Assad was definitely up to the task. The result was an expansive palette of colors that covered the nature of Saci-Pererê’s character from his reputation as a trickster to his darker side that is decidedly evil.

Taken as a whole, then, this was an evening of revisiting compositions from the past legacy of SFCM. It was a gentle reminder than any composition worth its salt deserves more than one or two public performances. All three of these pieces amounted to more than a few grains of salt and definitely deserve more attention in repertory programming.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Monday Make-Out: October, 2017

As was the case a month ago, it seems a bit unfair to provide information about the Monday Make-Out at the Make Out Room less that 24 hours before the show starts. This coming Monday will be the first Monday in October, and this monthly series will take place as scheduled. The October program will follow the usual three-set format, this time beginning with a solo set that will be followed by two different trios.

That opening set will be taken by David Boyce, whose saxophone improvisations are augmented by real-time electronics. He will be followed by the Alex Jenkins Trio, which will be visiting from Sacramento. Luis Albert Clifford Childers plays a variety of brass instruments with rhythm provided by Jenkins on drums and Max Judelson on bass. The final set will be taken by the Amendola Trio led by drummer Scott Amendola. He will be joined by Jason Hoopes on electric bass and Karl Evangelista (who played on Labor Day as a member of the EGW Trio) on electric guitar.

Doors will at 8 p.m. this coming Monday, October 2, 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!

MTT Serves up the Full Extent of SFS Resources

Last night Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) gave the first of three performances by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) of a program that seemed designed to exercise the full instrumental resources of the ensemble. There were only two works on the program, but they definitely made for an intense and exhilarating workout. The first half was devoted to Béla Bartók’s second piano concerto with Jeremy Denk as soloist. The second half presented Hector Berlioz’ Opus 14, whose full title is “Symphonie fantastique: Épisode de la vie d’un artiste … en cinq parties” (fantastical symphony: an episode in the life of an artist, in five parts).

Opus 14 could distinguish itself strictly as program music based on the grotesqueries of a thoroughly lurid narrative of an artist who is not only consumed by his obsession but is also dragged down to Hell by it. The fact that Berlioz could cast this narrative in the structure of a five-movement symphony only reinforces its assets. However, that would overlook the 90 instruments required to play the music (dutifully enumerated on the Wikipedia page for this composition). Furthermore, it is clear that Berlioz never favored any single line of the score over the others. This is music in which every member of the ensemble appreciates the significance of his/her contribution to the whole.

By the time the performance had concluded, one could read that appreciation on just about every face on stage. All four percussionists were smiling ear-to-ear. Their role in the final movement was critical to both the narrative plot and the musical rhetoric, meaning that they had a real workout on their hands. However, after the dust was blown away by the final fermata-held chord, they were not shy about letting us know how much fun it all was.

Indeed, last night there was a clear sense that MTT had put just as much intense concentration into performing this score as Berlioz had put into making it. Furthermore, that concentration was evident before even the first minute had elapsed. There is a fermata over a sixteenth-note rest in the fourth measure. Conductors tend to approach it as if it was there to allow a diva to take a breath before singing her next phrase. MTT held that rest as if it felt like it would last forever, the first hint at the warped mind of the narrative’s artist-protagonist.

So it was throughout the performance of the entire symphony. No matter how familiar the attentive listener may have been with this music, MTT kept serving up ways to turn the attention in directions that had probably not previously been considered. In so doing he succeeded in prioritizing the music itself over all the “special effects” summoned to depict the narrative.

About a quarter-century after the composition had been completed, Berlioz wrote a preface for the score, which included the following sentence:
The author hopes that the symphony provides on its own sufficient musical interest independently of any dramatic intention.
Both MTT and the SFS musicians performed in such a way as to honor that hope, and the results could not have been more satisfying.

In a similar way Bartók’s second piano concerto requires a meticulous balance between spectacle and discipline. In this case, however, the results were more mixed. Denk’s command of the solo work was unfailingly impressive. This was not just a matter of the hell-bent-for-leather intensity of his approach to the outer movements. He was equally attentive to the darker shades of the middle movement, a ternary-form Adagio with a middle section that amounts to a demonic Presto.

Denk also knew how to convey the overall arch structure of the concerto. The final movement thus emerges clearly as reflecting back on the thematic material of the opening movement. However, while the themes in the first movement were in a duple metre, they return in the third movement in triplet phrases. In other words there is a clockwork precision to Bartók’s structuring of this score; and, even when Denk was racing through the most rapid passages, there was always a sense that Bartók’s clock was ticking along in an orderly and disciplined manner.

Beyond the piano, however, this concerto takes a highly imaginative approach to instrumentation. The strings never play in the first movement. The second movement, on the other hand, consists entirely of only strings and timpani. Furthermore, the strings are muted and play without vibrato. It is thus only in the final movement that Bartók assembles his full ensemble.

Unfortunately, the first movement got off to a rocky start. The trombones and, to some extent, the trumpets went over the top far too soon; and their energy level tended to overwhelm pretty much all of the winds, sometimes even including the horns. It almost felt as if MTT was so wrapped up in the ebullience of the music that he forgot about keeping his resources properly balanced. (There were never any problems of balance in his Berlioz performance.) Fortunately, Denk’s dynamics could hold their own even when the orchestra was at its most rambunctious; but there was a clear sense that his effort was a Herculean one.

The good news was that Denk appreciated that all of this storm deserved to be followed by some calm. Following the concerto, he came out to take a solo encore. He chose the second (Andante) movement from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 545 sonata in C major. (This is the one whose first movement has one of Mozart’s best-known themes, usually played to death by just about every piano student around the world.) This is one of Mozart’s longer Andante movements; and, while the sonata itself may be as familiar as an old warm sweater, there are no end of eyebrow-raising twists and turns in the marks that Mozart committed to paper. Denk clearly appreciated that this movement was a journey unto itself; and it allowed him to “clear the air” in the wake of the intensity of Bartók’s rhetoric in a setting of both Classical discipline and contemporary expressiveness.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Choral Music from Karajan’s Berlin Period

The twelfth of the thirteen box sets that comprise Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition returns to the subject matter of the very first box but has advanced about a quarter century in time. The title of the box is Herbert von Karajan: Choral Music 1972–1976, which distinguishes it from the time span between 1947 and 1958 in the first box. There are only three compositions performed on the five CDs in this box, two of which had also appeared in the first box. In chronological order of composition these are Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 123 Missa Solemnis and Johannes Brahms’ Opus 45, A German Requiem.

Readers may recall that, in the first box, the Brahms selection came from the first public concert that Karajan gave after the ban imposed due to his Nazi membership was lifted. That concert took place on October 28, 1947. The recording in the twelfth box, on the other hand, was the result of a series of recording sessions with the Berlin Philharmonic (rather than the Vienna Philharmonic), which took place in both September and October of 1976. However, on both of these occasions, the choral resources were those of the Wiener Singverein, which is also the choir for Beethoven’s Opus 123.

The only other selection in the twelfth box is Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XXI/3 oratorio, The Seasons. For these recording sessions, made in November of 1972, Karajan drew upon the choral resources of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. While both of these boxes offered up an impressive array of vocal soloists, it is clear that, at both of these periods in his career, Karajan was at the top of his game when working with the resources of a large choir and a large orchestra.

This brings us to the factor that matters the most in the twelfth box and pervades most of the span of Karajan’s Berlin recordings. This is the factor of advances in recording technology, which enabled the capture of a far wider dynamic range than had been available to Karajan during his years with the Philharmonia Orchestra in England. That breadth of dynamic levels is evident particularly in the Beethoven and Brahms selections. One might almost say that it is evident with a vengeance.

The question that I continue to wrestle with, however (and I have been wrestling with it for over half a decade), is whether “higher fidelity” in reproduction makes a significant difference. When we sit in a concert hall, we appreciate a listening experience that takes in both the intensity associated with barely audible sounds and the intimidating fury of full-out fortissimo. However, most of us do not have living rooms that are up to accommodating that wide breadth of dynamic levels; and, for better or worse, too many of us are now listening to music through earbuds, rather than loudspeakers judiciously placed in a suitably-sized room. For that matter the first time I went to a complete performance of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung) in Seattle, I met a woman who had driven up from the Bay Area. Along the way she had been stopped for speeding while listening to the “Ride of the Valkyries” in her car!

The point is, to reword that old joke about bad behavior, what happens in the concert hall/opera house, should stay in the concert hall/opera house. Recordings can prepare us to have fuller experiences in those settings; but, when it comes to experiencing all the virtues of performance itself, no recording will ever cut that proverbial mustard. As a result, what matters most about the recordings in this box is whether they will play a role in our becoming better-informed listeners in any concert hall/opera house. My feeling about Karajan is definitely affirmative when it comes to both the Beethoven and the Brahms selections.

About Haydn, however, I feel less confident. I do not think this should reflect on the fact that the chorus is different. Rather, it involves Karajan’s efforts to endow Haydn with the same “majesty” one encounters in his approaches to both Beethoven and Brahms. After all The Seasons is a secular work, and its texts have more do to with entertaining aspects of life on earth than on any sacred matters. Having heard performances of Haydn in more intimate settings, I have little patience with Karajan’s approach to The Seasons, which tends to put everything Haydn has done under a magnifying glass that is totally unnecessary.

To be fair, however, the idea of a “historically-informed performance” had not really enjoyed extended public favor in 1972. My personal opinion is that the world had to wait for the arrival of CD technology before public opinion could begin to appreciate the virtues of that alternative approach. By the time that technology had become commonplace, Karajan was too set in his ways to worry about changing them.

There is an old joke that still gets repeated from time to time about an encounter between Wanda Landowska and Pablo Casals. Suffice it to say that the two of them had radical disagreement over the value of a historical perspective. It is said that Landowska ended one of their arguments by saying, “Very well, Pablo, you play Bach your way; and I’ll play it his.” Karajan may not be conducting according to “Haydn’s way;” but one should be able to understand “Karajan’s way” well enough to recognize what he felt were its virtues.

New SFP Series To Begin with New Chamber Opera

This past June this site reported that, early in the 38th season of San Francisco Performances (SFP), there would be the launch of the Hear Now and Then Series. This would be a series of five programs that would interleave contemporary and recent music with the early music repertoire. The first of these programs will be the third event in the 2017–2018 SFP Calendar, following the first concert in the Vocal Season with mezzo Isabel Leonard and the 38th Season Gala.

The Hear Now and Then Series will begin with a one-hour spoken-word chamber opera by Danny Clay, which will be given a staged performance directed by Sean San José. The title of the opera is “Echoes;” and it will involve an impressive diversity of performers. The text sources will come from the poet-performers of the group Youth Speaks, led by collaborating curator Tassiana Willis. The participating poets will include Gabriel Cortez, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Enrique García Naranjo, Ashley Smiley, and Michael Wayne Turner III, all of whom will perform their own texts.

Clay’s score will provide the auditory context in which these poems will be performed. He will combine field recordings of streetscapes with music for the combined resources of the Kronos Quartet and The Living Earth Show. Kronos, whose members are violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang, have been promoting adventurous repertoire since the group formed in 1986; and they participated in the inaugural 2016 season of the SFP series PIVOT: New Adventures in the Performing Arts. The Living Earth Show is the duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson, which commissioned composers to provide the music they would play for Do Be, a full-evening theater piece presented by Post:Ballet a little over a year ago.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 7. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Premium tickets are $55 with tickets in other sections of the house selling for $45 and $30. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box event page, which provides a floor plan color-coded according the the ticket prices. As of this writing, tickets are available at all prices. In addition, student tickets will be sold at the door at a 50% discount in all sections. Those wishing further information may call 415-392-2545.

Because this is the first concert of a series, subscriptions are also still on sale for $295 for premium seating, $250, and $150. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page, which includes information about the locations associated with each of the price levels. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

October Will Begin with a Friday of Choices

The first Friday of next month will be the next date on which the serious listener will have to make a hard choice. The rest of the weekend appears to be a bit more accommodating … at least for now. The good news it that the alternatives will cover a diversity of approaches to making music, meaning that most readers will probably have the opportunity to “play favorites” (unless they are omnivorous)! As of this writing, all of the options will begin at 8 p.m. on the same date, October 6. Specifics are as follows:

Center for New Music (C4NM): Emma Logan will be curating a program entitled A Woman’s Point of View – An Evening of Art Song with Winnie Nieh and Paul Dab. Nieh is a soprano, whose interest in working with music from the “immediate present” is deftly complemented by a repertoire that reaches back to the pre-Classical repertoire. Dab has similarly broad interests and has been establishing himself as an impresario as well as a pianist.

In the program for this recital, that “immediate present” will include Logan herself, with a performance of Songs from The Book of Light, a setting of three poems by Lucille Clifton. The program will also include two other Bay Area composers. “When You Are Old” is Rita Zhang’s setting of a poem by William Butler Yeats inspired by his unrequited love for Maude Gonne. In contrast Julie Barwick uses Nature Songs to set the sharp imagery of descriptions of nature by the poet Janet Lewis. The program will conclude with Libby Larsen’s Songs from Letters, whose texts are taken from the letters that Calamity Jane wrote to her daughter Janey. In addition, in order to set a historical context, the program will begin with the six songs in Clara Schumann’s Opus 13, which sets poems by Emanuel Geibel, Heinrich Heine, and Friedrich Rückert.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission for this concert will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini event page.

Herbst Theatre: This will be the San Francisco performance by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale of the United States premiering the first-ever composition co-commissioned by PBO and the London-based Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The work is a full-length oratorio by Scottish composer Sally Beamish entitled The Judas Passion. The libretto was prepared by David Harsent, drawing upon Gnostic texts for source material. The Philharmonia Chorale (Bruce Lamott, Director) will perform with PBO led by Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan. Vocal soloists will be soprano Mary Bevan, tenor Brenden Gunnell, and bass-baritone Roderick Williams. Beamish’s oratorio will be given an “overture” in the form of the first (E minor) suite from Georg Philipp Telemann’s Tafelmusik collection.

Herbst Theatre is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices will range from $28 to $120 dollars for premium seating. Tickets are currently available for advance purchase through a City Box Office event page.

Because this is the first concert in PBO’s 37th season, subscriptions are still available. As in the past, for those who do not wish to subscribe to all six concerts, the full season will be split into two equal halves, each of which will be covered by a separate “Trio” subscription package. This season there will also be an "Opera Lovers Trio" of the three vocal programs in the six-concert season. Full details and hyperlinks for placing orders can be found on the Subscription Packages Web page on the Philharmonia Baroque Web site.

Davies Symphony Hall: This will also mark the beginning of a month-long series of concerts by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) led by guest conductors. The first of these will be Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański, who will take the podium for two different concert programs. His first program will follow the usual overture-concerto-symphony format. The overture will feature the one Polish composer to be included with the “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” by Krzysztof Penderecki. Violinist Augustin Hadelich will be the concerto soloist, performing Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 in E minor. The symphony will also be in E minor, Dmitri Shostakovich’s tenth (Opus 93).

This concert will be given three performances, at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 6, and Saturday, October 7, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 8. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Alexandra Amati-Camperi that will begin one hour prior to each concert. Doors to the lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins.Ticket prices range from $15 to $95. 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 the event page has three hyperlinks for free podcasts, one for the concerto and two for the symphony. These are hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, and they require Flash to be activated for listening. The event page also has hyperlinks of sound clips from both of these selections, which also require Flash to be activated. 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, the Friday performance 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 Amati-Camperi 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.

Finally, because this is likely to be a busy month, it will probably be worth while to summarize the specifics about the remaining SFS programs for October.

The second concert will see the SFS debut of Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša. He has prepared a program that will focus on his own nationalistic roots. The composers will be presented in chronological order, beginning with Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 92 “Carnival” overture, proceeding through Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic poem “Vltava” (the Moldau), and concluding with Leoš Janáček's symphonic rhapsody based on Nikolai Gogol’s tale of Taras Bulba. The concerto soloist for this program will be Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski in a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 453 concerto in G major.

This concert will be given three performances, at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 13, and Saturday, October 14, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 15. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Laura Stansfield Prichard that will begin one hour prior to each concert. Doors to the lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins.Ticket prices range from $15 to $95. 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 the event page has a hyperlink for a free podcast about the Taras Bulba rhapsody. This is hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, and it requires Flash to be activated for listening. The event page also has a hyperlink of a sound clip from the Dvořák overture, which also requires Flash to be activated. 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 week Urbański will return to the SFS podium, this time with concerto soloist Sol Gabetta, who will be making her SFS debut. Argentinian cellist Gabetta made her San Francisco debut last November, giving a recital for San Francisco Performances. For her concerto debut with SFS, she will play Dvořák’s Opus 104 cello concerto in B minor. [updated 10/12, 8:05 a.m.: Gabetta has withdrawn because her newborn baby is unexpectedly not able to travel with her at the time. The soloist for the Dvořák concerto will be cellist Joshua Roman.] The remainder of the program will consist of the overture to Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute and Witold Lutosławski’s “Concerto for Orchestra.”

This concert will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, October 19, Friday, October 20, and Saturday, October 21. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Scott Foglesong that will begin one hour prior to each concert. Doors to the lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $15 to $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 the event page has a hyperlink for a free podcast about the Lutosławski composition. This is hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, and it requires Flash to be activated for listening. The event page also has hyperlinks for sound clips from the the other two selections on the program, which also require Flash to be activated. 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 program of the month will see the return of Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä. Once again he will demonstrate his expertise with the music of Jean Sibelius, this time in a performance of that composer’s Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor. The violin soloist will be Baiba Skride, making her SFS debut. The “overture” that will precede this concerto selection will be Sibelius’ best known tone poem “Finlandia.” The second half of the program will be taken by Shostakovich’s Opus 10 (first) symphony in F minor.

This concert will be given three performances, at 2 p.m. on Thursday, October 26, and at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 27, and Saturday, October 28. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Elizabeth Seitz that will begin one hour prior to each concert. Doors to the lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins.Ticket prices range from $15 to $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 Shostakovich symphony hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone. The event page also has a hyperlink for a sound clip from that symphony, which also requires Flash to be activated. 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.

ECM Releases Gary Peacock’s Latest Trio Album

Much of Gary Peacock’s career has involved his playing bass in the setting of jazz piano trios. Some of his earliest work took place in trios led by pianists that included Paul Bley, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett. At the end of the last century, he was working with a trio led by pianist Marilyn Crispell; and after drummer Paul Motian died, they continued to work together as a duo. At the beginning of this month, ECM released an album of a trio that Peacock himself is now leading, whose pianist is Marc Copland, with whom he has worked since the Eighties, and drummer Joey Baron.

The title of the album is Tangents, which is also the name of the final track. “Tangents” is one of the five original compositions that Peacock has contributed to the album. The others are “Contact,” “December Greenwings,” “Tempei Tempo,” and “Rumblin’.” What is impressive is the diversity of rhetorical stances that cuts across these pieces. There is not necessarily an easily classifiable “Peacock sound” as much as a chameleon-like ability to blend into whatever contextual setting the charts establish. This is particularly evident in “Empty Forest,” which is the collaborative effort of all three members of the trio. The album also features two pieces by Baron, “Cauldron” and “In And Out,” and one by Copland, “Talkin’ Blues.”

That last piece makes it clear that this is a group that can be cheerful, just as easily as it can be intensely introspective. This should not be confused with “Talking Blues,” which basically involves reciting rhymed couplets over a simply chord progression (which has nothing to do with twelve-bar blues). Copland’s piece is neither verbal nor suggestive; but it also has its own way of breaking with twelve-bar blues tradition. Indeed, one of the interesting factors of Peacock’s bass work is his ability to break with any sense of a tonal center without leaving the listener worrying about being dragged into the world of Arnold Schoenberg. (I first became aware of this technique when listening to Peacock’s work with Crispell.)

Two “outside” composers also have tracks on this album. The greater surprise would probably be the trio playing Alex North’s theme for the film Spartacus. This could easily have descended down the primrose path to schmalz. Instead, the listener gets the sort of meditative quietude that reaches back to tracks like “Flamenco Sketches,” which Miles Davis composed for his Kind of Blue album. Indeed, the other “outside” composer is Davis himself with a performance of “Blue In Green” from that same album. For that matter, Peacock’s favorite rhetorical stance throughout this album seems to be one of an inner calm; and, considering how many advocates for agitation are currently stirring up the world, we could do with lots more of Peacock’s approach to making music!

Verdi’s “Fallen Woman” Disappoints at SFO

The word “traviata” only appears early in the final act of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. Facing death, Violetta uses it to describe herself; and, in the supertitles that Jerry Sherk provided for the current production of this opera by San Francisco Opera (SFO), given its second performance in the War Memorial Opera House last night, the word is translated as “fallen woman,” which is also how it appears in many libretto texts. By the time Violetta sings those words, she has fallen from a great height (as Jean Cocteau once said of Oedipus). Sadly, in last night’s staging, it felt as if the production had fallen with her.

La Traviata may be one of Verdi’s most popular operas; but, when compared with much of his other work, it cannot be called one of the best he crafted. Even Aida, which many would regard as the height of pure spectacle in the Verdi canon, brings more depth of personality to its characters and reflects much of that depth through its music. One might say that the score falls along with Violetta, although the height of the music is not where many would imagine.

That height can be found in the very first measures of the opera’s first act. This is a passage in which time seems to stand still, almost as if Verdi had finally cracked some of the rhetorical secrets in the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, whose scores Verdi supposedly kept for bedtime reading. (Franco Zeffirelli seemed to grasp the significance of Verdi’s relation to time in this passage through the way in which he crafted an establishing sequence for his film of La Traviata.)

Unfortunately, these few measures are followed by some of the most tedious oompah accompaniment that Verdi ever wrote. The fact that Music Director Nicola Luisotti, conducting last night, could pull down his dynamics to mask this tedium with judicious understatement established his as the most musical mind of the evening. For the remainder of the opera’s three hours, Luisotti was always there teasing out subtle dynamic contours that not only kept the action moving forward but also managed to transcend any sense of the routine in Verdi’s writing.

Sadly, even with the stunning sets designed by John Conklin and the period-appropriate costumes of David Walker, activity on the stage rarely rose to the level of what was going on in the pit. This was unfortunate, since the current production is the latest outing of the staging conceived by John Copley, which has been in the SFO repertoire since 1987. Sadly, Shawna Lucey seemed desperately out of her element in her efforts to bring Copley’s vision to the stage for the current run. What had been both sensible and compelling on past occasions came off as little more than negligent.

Equally problematic was the casting. This is a scenario with three key characters and a lot of extras. All three of those characters were presented by vocalists making their respective SFO debuts. Violetta was sung by Aurelia Florian, Alfredo Germont, who is smitten with Violetta, was sung by tenor Atalla Ayan, while the part of his father Giorgio was taken by baritone Artur Ruciński. Of these three Ayan gave an account that was dramatically convincing and musically sound. His voice was relatively light, but he used it to advantage in presenting Alfredo as a flesh-and-blood character.

Florian, on the other hand, was all about her powerful dynamics, which, sadly, made a poor balance with Luisotti’s ongoing attentiveness to subtle shifts in volume. There was some hope that Florian’s decibels would tone down a bit by the final act; but, even at death’s door, he Violetta account kept firing away on all cylinders. Nevertheless, Florian managed to bring at least some sense of personality to her portrayal. Ruciński walked through his role as if he never quite knew what to do with himself. Previous productions of Copley’s staging made it clear that the son-father relationship was as significant as that of the two lovers; but last night Ruciński had almost nothing to bring to realizing that relationship.

Even if La Traviata was not Verdi’s finest effort, it still has qualities worthy of attention. Luisotti knows this and did his best to stand up for Verdi through the composer’s instrumental writing. Sadly, little was done to do the same for the vocal side of this opera.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Ben Tinker Plans Two Concerts for Adobe Books Next Month

Back in August I wrote about “the monthly music series curated by Ben Tinker at Adobe Books.” Apparently, Tinker has been sufficiently successful in lining up talent that he has been able to secure two slots on the Adobe calendar for next month. Both of these will be three-set evenings, suggesting that Adobe has “officially” established itself among the ranks for venues for adventurous programming.

Both performances will begin at 7 p.m. and are expected to run for about two hours, if not somewhat longer. 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. At past events Adobe has provided free refreshments to those who make a book purchase of $6 or more, and it is likely that the managers of the book store will maintain this effort to encourage reading their offerings. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, October 5: Two of the sets will be solo acts. Vocalist Megan Mitchell, trained in both the jazz and classical repertoires, will perform under the alias Cruel Diagnosis. She uses electronics to build up layers of vocal lines, which are then set in a context of electronically warped field recordings. In addition Dominic Cramp will perform as a soloist under the name Lord Tang. Finally, there will be live electronic music provided by the Glashaus duo of Amma Ateria and Andrej Hrončo.

Friday, October 20: This program will also present two solo sets with both soloists working with real-time electronics and/or digital software. Kim Nucci plays woodwinds but also designs her own audio processing circuits. Pamela Z is a virtuoso vocalist who uses digital technology for sampling, synthesis, and control. The remaining set will be taken by T.D. Skatchit & Company. As was observed about two weeks ago, “company” consists of guest artists, who perform with the duo of Tom Nunn and David Michalak performing on Nunn’s invented instruments that he calls skatchboxes. For this gig, the guest will be trumpeter Tom Djll, who also works with real-time electronics; so this particular performance is being called “ELECTRIC SKATCH.”

Kyle Bruckmann’s Latest Improvised Adventures

Last night Kyle Bruckmann took the first set at the Center for New Music, opening for selections from The Marrow, the latest record from Ehnahre, a Boston-based ensemble that “has been pioneering an effort to rethink and redefine what metal, extreme, and new music can be.” Bruckmann’s approach can be stated more modestly. He explores the possibilities for free improvisation among small groups often involving new ways of playing old instruments.

For those who have not yet heard him, Bruckmann is an oboist; and last night he alternated among oboe, cor anglais (English horn), and bass oboe. This turned out to entail more than an extended pitch range. Bruckmann has cultivated a skill for overblowing techniques that give rise to chords of upper harmonics, often distant enough to get beyond the pitches of the equal-tempered scale. Listening to him play last night, it seemed as if the length of the instrument had an effect on which of those harmonics could be coaxed into those chords. Thus, beyond the obvious factor of pitch level, each of the three instruments had its own characteristic sonorities arising from these overblowing techniques.

This seemed to set the theme, so to speak, of the improvisation, which lasted around 40 minutes. That theme was the exploration of familiar instruments approached by their respective performers in unfamiliar ways. Bruckmann led a quartet, whose other members were Jacob Felix Heule on percussion, Kanoko Nishi on koto, and vocalist Danishta Rivero working with analog electronic gear.

In that domain of seeking out new ways to play old instruments, Nishi was probably the most adventurously extensive. Her instrument was the Japanese koto which is traditionally played by plucking its strings. Nishi approached her instrument first with a bow and later with a mallet. She also used a fragment of a polystyrene plate both to mute the strings and to educe new sonorities by rubbing the strings in different ways. The result was a highly physical approach to performance in which just about every sound was unexpected (including the rare appearances of plucked koto strings).

In a similar radical departure from convention, Rivero’s performance often seemed to involve the appearance of vocalizing, while the resulting sounds (when they were audible at all) only seldom matched her physical delivery. In this setting her use of electronics was sparing, primarily serving to reinforce the few moments of climax realized through intense dynamics. She also had a massive shock of hair that could cover her entire face, often creating a mystery as to whether the sounds were her own or products of her electronic gear. This was as much theater as it was vocalizing, but it fit well into the overall exploratory framework of the set.

In this context Heule’s percussion work was probably the most conventional. He worked primarily with drums and cymbals and had his own devices for exploring the possibilities of unanticipated sonorities. He did some particularly interesting things with a CD slid along the surface of one of the drum heads. He also had an imaginative way of working with his bass drum pedal that always seemed to fall short (deliberately) of establishing any sense of a predictable rhythm.

The set itself seemed to be divided into two independent sections, each of which was structured according to a symmetrical rise and fall of dynamic level. Keeping the dynamics under tight control facilitated apprehending each of the knapsacks of techniques managed by each of the performers. The result may have been an improvisation of coexistence, rather than coordination; but it was populated by throughly fascinating and engaging “multiple existences.” The result was a journey of discovery that left one curious about just what this group might come up with the next time.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Karajan’s Twilight of the Nineteenth Century

Like the tenth box, the eleventh of the thirteen box sets that comprise Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition has a title that reflects the composer that are included, Herbert von Karajan: Brahms • Bruckner • Wagner • R. Strauss 1970–1981. These are all composers associated with the final years of the nineteenth century, and they are not the only composers represented in this particular collection. The others are Johan Strauss II, Franz Schmidt, and Engelbert Humperdinck.

It is in this historical period that Karajan appears to find his most extensive comfort zone with the Berlin Philharmonic. This is most evident in his approach to the two symphonies by Anton Bruckner that are included, the fourth (“Romantic”) in E-flat major and the seventh in E major. In both cases Karajan works from scores edited by Robert Haas for the first critical edition of Bruckner’s works. This edition fell out of favor following the end of the Second World War, since Haas himself was a member of the Nazi party. Most likely, however, these were the scores from which the young Karajan learned his Bruckner; and he apparently saw no reason to compare them with subsequent scholarly efforts.

Unless I am mistaken, the fourth and the seventh are the only two Bruckner symphonies that I have encountered in performance. Between those concert experiences and the recordings about which I have written, I feel as if I have settled into a comfortable acquaintance with both of them. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to pick on flaws, whether they involve a structural logic that never tends to go very far beneath the surface or harmonic progressions that take a long time and do not advance very far.

From a rhetorical point of view, however, the sympathetic listener should have no trouble recognizing, if not appreciating, the extent to which Bruckner, who may have been happiest when his job involved serving as church organist, could summon musical expressiveness as a means to communicate the personal conviction of his faith. One might think that this might not be the best match for a conductor like Karajan, who tended to present audiences with a basically secular disposition. However, if Karajan never sought to be as devout as Bruckner, as an interpreter he seemed to grasp what it would take to “let Bruckner be Bruckner;” and both of these recordings succeed through Karajan’s ability to convey how he went about doing so. Bruckner experts may chafe at some of Karajan’s approaches to interpretation; but, for those with little background listening experience, these recordings definitely make for a good way to get to know this composer.

Equally satisfying are the orchestral excerpts from the operas of Richard Wagner. This should not be a big surprise. If, as has already been observed, Karajan served up some of his best chemistry when working with the Wiener Singverein, then he could be just as stimulating in his contributions to opera production, not only for his work in the orchestra pit but also for his consummate skill in working with vocalists. All of the Wagner excerpts involve the use of an instrumental ensemble either to set the context for the narrative of the opera or to reflect on it. For that matter the satisfaction that one can take in his approach to Wagner can also be found in his interpretation of the overture to Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel.

It would probably also be fair to say that, through his understanding of opera, Karajan could be more successful than others in negotiating the narrative threads of Richard Strauss’ tone poems. That skill can be appreciated in the recordings of both “Ein Heldenleben” and “Symphonia domestica,” whatever the shortcomings of the narratives themselves may be. As a result, the only real weaknesses in this box can be found in Karajan’s approaches to Johannes Brahms; but it has already been observed that Karajan was more in his element with Brahms’ choral music than he was with the orchestral repertoire.

The Bleeding Edge: 9/25/2017

Following up on “the new normal,” I shall begin with a hyperlinked chronologically-ordered list of those events that have already been discussed in earlier articles:
September 25: The final concert for this month at the Center for New Music, a two-set evening curated by Kurt Rohde
September 28: The final concert for this month in the LSG Creative Music Series
September 30: Film Scores Without Films at the Red Poppy Art House
September 30: The evening of new directions in computer music presented by NextNow
October 1: The evening of audiovisual improvisations at Artists’ Television Access
Once again, these outnumber the additional alternatives for the week. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, September 27, 8 p.m., The Bindery: It looks as if Experimental Music Night will be a monthly offering at this venue. Once again, the poster design follows the lead from the Monthly Experimental Music Showcase that used to take place at Second Act, complete with names of the performing groups that can be as provocative as the music:

courtesy of the Bay Improviser Calendar

For those interested in the names of at least some of the performers, Elf Ass is a combination of the Ettrick duo of saxophonist Jay Korber and drummer Jaco Felix Heule with Tralphaz, which is the name David Lim takes when he is working strictly with electronics. M-KAT, on the other hand, provides the initials of the first names of the performers: Mark Pino on percussion with electronics, Kersti Abrams on a variety of winds of different nationalities, Andrew Joron on theremin, and Thomas Harrison on bass.

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.

Friday, September 29, 9 p.m., Gray Area: This will be a four-set evening of different approaches to live electronic music. The featured offerings will be the Siete Catorce project of Marco Polo Gutierrez and a solo performance by DJ LAG. The opening sets will be taken by Kush Arora’s Only Now project and Tr4vi3za.

The Gray Area Art And Technology Theater is located in the Mission at 2665 Mission Street. General admission will be $12. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page.

Sunday, October 1, 4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: The next offering in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series will be a recital by Chilean-born pianist Pola Baytelman. She has prepared a program that will explore a variety of different Hispanic influences. Spain itself will be represented by Isaac Albéniz with selections from his Iberia collection. The other European composer will be Darius Milhaud, who served as  secretary to Paul Claudel when the latter was the French ambassador to Brazil. Saudades do Brasil is a collection in which Milhaud reflects on how Brazilian music influenced him, and Baytelman will also play selections from it. Brazil will also be represented by its own composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos with arrangements of movements from the fourth of his Bachianas brasileiras suites, as well as his “Ciclo brasileiro.” Finally, Baytelman will play the three Argentinian dances that Alberto Ginastera collected for his Opus 2, as well as his “Milonga.” The program will also feature one composer from the United States, Paul Schoenfield, with his Six Impressions on Hassidic Melodies.

The Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will still be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church.

Sunday, October 1, Musicians Union Hall, 7:30 p.m.: The next concert to be offered by Outsound Presents in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series will consist of two sets of inventive compositions work. The first set will present The Lost Shapes, a quintet all of whose members contribute compositions. Those members are Safa Shokrai (bass), Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Darren Johnston (trumpet), Jason Levis (drums), and Kasey Knudsen (alto saxophone). They will be followed by the nOOi duo of Bill Noertker (perhaps spelled “nOertker” for this occasion) on bass and Mark Oi on guitar. Again, both performers are composers. 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 $15.

The Resurrection of HP Will Not Be Televised

I just finished Stephen Shankland’s CNET report of his interview with Ron Coughlin, who runs the Personal Systems Group at HP, the computer and printer business that split off from Hewlett-Packard in 2015. Coughlin believes that personal computers are still a hot item and that HP is bringing a plethora of innovations to that market. He may be right, but his optimism does not necessarily provide grounds for feeling bullish about HP.

The problem is one of a legacy that goes all the way back to the days when William Redington Hewlett and David Packard were still actively involved in their company’s future. Hewlett-Packard was originally a hardware company. It designed and produced an impressive variety of devices that changed the nature of work in the technology sector. However, these were devices that were designed by engineers for use by other engineers.

As a result, for example, the idea that a digital computer could be “personal” was never part of the HP mindset. The same could be said for the idea that the value in a personal computer had more to do with its software than with its hardware. Thus, in the early days of HP’s venture into digital technology, they may have set a world record for some of the most user-hostile interfaces on the market. Apparently, this legacy does not signify in Coughlin’s mindset. Do a text search on Shankland’s article; and you will discover that the word “interface” never appears.

For those of us for whom computers dominate over the working environment, the future is far from the rosy one that Coughlin anticipates. That is because the software we are using keeps getting progressively worse. This is not just a problem of protection against malware. It is also a matter of basic functionality.

For example, part of my work involves using a Web-based “B2B” (business-to-business) download service. Most downloads are large and are therefore delivered as compressed files that need to be “unzipped” after they have been downloaded. This past summer, many of us using this service discovered that we were getting defective ZIP files that could not be decompressed. Over the course of several months, some of us participated in a variety of test cases, none of which showed signs of much progress. Then, one day, my Inbox had a message that asked if I had tried using Chrome. Sure enough, the Chrome browser downloaded perfectly sound ZIP files while both Firefox and Safari were fumbling the ball!

More recently, I have been making heavier use of audio streaming. For this I need to explain that I use a MacBook Pro, whose lid is kept closed while I work from an HDMI feed to a wide-screen display with “entertainment quality” speakers. Many of my audio resources require Flash, which is software that I try to avoid as much as possible. As a result, I have a setup in which only Safari permits the use of Flash from the sources I need. After the latest Flash “upgrade” (scare quotes intended) I discovered that the audio was no longer coming from my display but, instead, was squeaking out from under the lid of the MacBook! This time I was prepared; and, sure enough, things worked properly once I used Chrome instead of Safari!

I suppose we could turn this into a story about how Google will take over the world. I suspect that Google may have the best talent pool of software engineers in the technology sector, but I do not think that this is necessarily a matter of malicious intent. Rather, I think it has to do with the fact that the basic skills behind writing, testing, and releasing software have all been condemned to SNAFU status. Furthermore, we are so dependent on the technology that, as E. M. Forster predicted in “The Machine Stops,” we basically self-adapt to accommodate every degradation of the services we require. This happens not only at our desks but also in the face-to-face purchases we make, whether on a checkout line or at a food truck.

As the title of Forster’s short story suggests, things eventually come to a head with an across-the-board failing of all service technologies. This does not lead to mass chaos, because people have been so numbed by their dependence that they cannot even think about what to do next. In terms of contemporary culture, Forster assumes a mass of aimless zombies, rather than an angry mob with torches and pitchforks! Was he successful in seeing the future, and are we it?

Puccini’s Percussion in Abundance

During my first encounter with this season’s production by San Francisco Opera of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, I was seated on Orchestra level with the percussion section directly in front of me at a distance of about ten rows. This may be one reason why I described the performance as “unabashedly loud” without taking it to task for being unduly noisy. The fact is that, at that close proximity, I could appreciate how much diversity could be found Puccini’s percussion instrumentation and how imaginatively he used that diversity.

Yesterday afternoon I returned to my higher vantage point from which I could observe the percussionists themselves, rather than just listening to their instruments. The activity may not have been quite as vivid as the staging conceived by Garnett Bruce; but, for those as interested in the instrumental side of the score as in the vocal work, the musicians definitely put on a show that came close. Aside from the timpanist, who is responsible only for his four drums, there were six percussionists involved in an almost free-flowing ballet to account for a wide diversity of instruments.

On the pitched side these included a glockenspiel, a xylophone, a marimba, chimes, and, most importantly, eleven Chinese gongs, each with a different (and highly distinctive) pitch. These had to blend with triangle, funeral drum, cymbals, tam-tam, and what sounded like two distinct snare drums with different pitches. In addition there were both a woodblock and a gong played backstage, along with the onstage gong that Calaf strikes at the end of the first act. As far as I could tell, tenor Brian Jagde did this himself without any help from anyone backstage or in the pit!

All of these instruments contributed to establishing a rhetorical stance that rarely relaxed from the intensely visceral. Additional coloration was provided by two harps and a celeste in the pit and an offstage organ for the end of the second act. One did not so much hear the low pedal pitches of that organ as be aware that one’s whole body was vibrating sympathetically with it.

In this context it is important to make special note of the conducting technique of Music Director Nicola Luisotti. He clearly appreciated that every sonorous gesture from a percussionist provided its own contribution to the libretto’s narrative. Those contributions were just as critical as the parts played by the strings, winds, and brass. Then, of course, Luisotti had to make sure that all of that “instrumental action” blended in just the right quantities with the intensity of the demands on all the solo vocalists and the heavily-populated chorus prepared by Ian Robertson.

The skillful ability to manage so wide a variety of musical and dramatic resources has much to do with why the SFO Turandot has established itself as one of the most consistently compelling productions in the repertoire. In my last account I focused my attention on how all of those solo vocalists served the narrative demands of the libretto so well. This time I came away with an even deeper appreciation of the extent to which satisfying those demands requires critically well-informed leadership from both Luisotti and Robertson. It is hard to think of a better case being made for SFO being such a valuable asset to the San Francisco cultural scene. Since only one performance of the current run of this production remains (on Saturday, September 30), those who have not yet experienced this case being made would do well to clear the weekend calendar for the last chance. (Readers may recall that there will be a second run of six performances that will begin on Saturday, November 18. These will involve new singers for the roles of Turandot, Liù, and Timur, as well as a change in conductor.)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

SFS Announces Special Oktoberfest Event

Those who have been following the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) regularly know about special events that are offered in conjunction with the Day of the Dead and Chinese New Year, not to mention the slew of holiday-themed offerings during the month of December. Next month yet another nationality will get acknowledged with a festive celebration. SFS has announced its first-ever Oktoberfest celebration.

courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Inside Davies Symphony Hall Resident Conductor Christian Reif will lead SFS in a program structured around Bavarian waltzes and polkas, rollicking opera arias (yet another chance to take a crack at the brindisi from La Traviata), and traditional drinking songs. There will also be complementary beer and games. There will also be special VIP packages providing access to a biergarten offering unlimited beer, German bites, a polka band dance party, and other festivities. Only those age 21 or older will be admitted to both Davies and the biergarten.

Reif and SFS will be joined by vocalists Julie Adams (soprano), Daniela Mack (mezzo), David Blalock (tenor), and Edward Nelson (baritone). They will sing selections by not only Giuseppe Verdi but also Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ambroise Thomas, Jacques Offenbach, Gaetano Donizetti, Franz Lehár, Sigmund Romberg, and, of course, Johann Strauss (the son). (The father will be given instrumental recognition with his “Radetzky” march.) Members of the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) will also participate. The full program, with instrumental interludes, will be played without intermission.

The concert will begin at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, October 3. Ticket prices range from $29 to $89. 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. VIP guests will be admitted to the biergarten at 6 p.m. and will then be able to return for the after-party at 8:30 p.m. There are three prices for admission, $175 ($20 tax-deductible), $295 ($105 tax-deductible), and $5000 for a table of ten ($3100). The event page provides the benefits provided for each price level, along with separate hyperlinks for purchasing tickets. Concert seating is included. Further information may be obtained by contacting the Volunteer Council at 415-503-5500.

A Weak Start for NCCO’s New “Partnership”

The program book for New Horizons the title of the first program in the 2017–2018 season of the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) names Daniel Hope as “Artistic Partner.” One is expected to distinguish this from “Music Director;” but it is unclear how or why. A chamber orchestra is, de facto, a much more collaborative organization than a full symphony orchestra, suggesting that all participants are partners and that responsibility for direction will be fluid and/or shared. New Horizons marked Hope’s first appearance as a “partner” in this organization; and the overall experience suggested that its was still unclear what that partnership would entail.

Like outgoing Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Hope clearly had a hand in selecting repertoire, meaning that those of us on audience side should expect to encounter new faces. The most striking of these last night was that of the late Polish composer Wojciech Kilar (who died in his late seventies in 2013). He was represented by the shortest work on the program. “Orawa” is named after the river that crosses the border between Poland and Slovakia; and it is easy to make a case that this piece is a latter-day reflection on “Vltava” (the Moldau) from Bedřich Smetana’s cycle of six symphonic poems, Má vlast (my homeland).

Like Smetana’s river, Kilar’s begins with a trickle and gradually builds strength, encountering local folk music along its path. Unlike Smetana, however, Kilar based his structure on a grammar of repetitive structures that could easily be a reflection of the music of Philip Glass, who coined that phrase as his preferred alternative to “minimalism.” Kilar, however, is more disposed to repetition with minor variations than Glass is when precise repetition is at the heart of his music. The result is a refreshing (an apposite attribute for a river) technique that takes Glass’ device in an innovative direction.

Last night’s performance approached that technique with vigorous enthusiasm. Furthermore, it was evident that this was a collaborative enthusiasm, rather than one induced a led by a “music director.” Hope may have been the one to place Kilar on the NCCO radar; but the embrace of his music was decidedly collective, making for the most stimulating experience of the evening.

“Orawa” was played immediately after the intermission; and that enthusiasm spilled over into the final work on the program, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 48 four-movement serenade in C major. If this music verges on the simplistic in its structural logic, that simplicity is balanced by a rhetoric that is predominantly upbeat and highly infectious. Only a heart of stone could avoid being drawn into the ebullience of it all; and this was definitely the selection in which one could appreciate the best advantages of the new “partnership” the NCCO players had established.

Sadly, the virtues of the second half of the program had to balance for the inadequacies of the first. Most disappointing was the concerto that Alan Fletcher wrote for Hope on a commission that NCCO shared with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and the Savannah Festival (giving Hope the opportunity to play the piece in three different settings). Both Hope and Fletcher provided introductory remarks, but this was one of those unfortunate cases in which the verbal explanation turned out to be more compelling than the musical discourse itself. If “Orawa” demonstrated all of the positive virtues of effective partnership, Fletcher’s concerto came across as a tedious slog in which none of the participants conveyed very much to the listener about where everyone was going or why they were going there.

Unfortunately, tedium also ruled over the opening selection, Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 octet in E-flat major, played by the full string ensemble. Hope made it a point to remind the audience that Mendelssohn was sixteen when he composed this piece; and there is no denying that, at that young age, the composer commanded a prodigious talent for conceiving themes and then putting all their notes in the right place. Unfortunately, last night’s performance never got beyond doing justice to all of the marks that Mendelssohn put on paper, meaning that the expressiveness of those notes came up in short supply. Thus, not only was the intimacy of exchange among eight voices lost by the magnitude of the ensemble but also the comparatively flat delivery made Mendelssohn’s youthful ebullience sound like another tedious slog.

Perhaps this was just a demonstration of the principle that partnerships are not made overnight. Establishing a new relationship takes time. Unfortunately, the next steps will have to wait until January, since Hope will not be present at the second concert in NCCO’s four-concert season. This is a partnership that is likely to require more patience than may have been anticipated when it was initiated.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

An Extra Sunset Chamber/Ensemble Concert Tonight

Sadly, this is a last-minute announcement; but it is definitely one considering. Prior to the final concert in the Sunset Music | Arts Chamber Ensemble Series for this year, a concert has been added to the schedule. This will be an evening of baroque chamber music arranged by harpsichordist Derek Tam and his colleagues, Natalie Carducci and Cynthia Black on violin and Gretchen Claassen and Bruno Hurtado Gosalvez on gamba. (Readers may recall that Tam, Claassen, and Carducci all played in the instrumental ensemble for the Ars Minerva production of La Circe at the beginning of this month.)

Poster for tonight's concert showing Carducci, Claassen, Gosalvez, and Tam (from the Eventbrite Web page)

The program has been conceived as sort of a “world tour” of baroque practices. Four composers will be presented, each from a different country. The first composer will be the Austrian Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber with a performance of the third part of his 1680 collection of instrumental music Mensa sonora. He will be followed by the three-movement “Autumne” section of the suite The Seasons composed by Christopher Simpson. Simpson lived in England during the time of the Civil War and fought on the Royalist side, meaning that he tended to be “on the move” after the War ended. The program will then return to mainland Europe with a performance of a “Sonata a 4” by the German Johann Gottlieb Graun. The journey will then end in France with a four-part sonata in five moments to which François Couperin gave the title “La Sultane.”

This performance will take place tonight, September 23. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices are $20 for general admission with a $15 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. Tickets may be purchased online through Eventbrite. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

MTT Surveys the Breadth of Bernstein’s Compositions

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) presented the first of four concert programs planned for the ensemble’s 106th season as an extended celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s birth centennial. (Bernstein’s 100th birthday will be on August 25, 2018.) The program consisted of four selections, two of which were products of post hoc orchestral arrangement, whose years of composition ranged from 1949 to 1988. Bernstein’s approaches to composition were almost as diverse as the many disciplines in which he chose to practice. Indeed, it is not difficult to confuse him with the hero of James Thurber’s cowboy story, who jumps on his horse and rides off madly in all directions. From that point of view, four compositions hardly do justice to the full breadth of Bernstein’s imagination; but MTT’s choices certainly offered a taste of just how extensive that scope was.

Nevertheless, one could also say that there was a unifying theme, which was Bernstein’s own distinctive voice. I almost wrote “distinctive American voice” in that last sentence, thinking primarily of the extent to which Bernstein distinguished himself from all those other American composers who went to Paris to learn how to write American music from Nadia Boulanger. However, Bernstein was a New Yorker through and through, even if all of his initial educational years, all the way up to his graduation from Harvard University, took place in Massachusetts; and we all know that thoughts about what constitutes “American” start changing even after one crosses the Hudson River!

The distinction of Bernstein’s voice has much to do with the fact that he was as comfortable in the worlds of jazz and Broadway musicals as he was in the company of the New York Philharmonic, with whom he made his conducting debut and subsequently served as Music Director from 1957 to 1969. It thus seemed appropriate for MTT to begin his program with the 1949 “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs,” written for Woody Herman’s jazz band (known as “The Herd”), and concluded with the symphonic suite of dances from the 1957 musical West Side Story. The former apotheosizes the wild abandon that was gradually taking over jazz groups, many of which had previously been expected merely to provide music for dancing, after the rise of be-bop practices. The latter surveys the breadth of character types in the musical and their sharply contrasting emotional dispositions.

“Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” was the edgier of these two selections. During the pre-concert talk MTT observed that the only regret anyone had about this music was that it was only seven minutes long. The program notes by James Keller describe it as having “three continuous portions” (corresponding to the nouns in the title); but the truth is that, once this music is in full steam, all three of those portions are coexisting and challenging each other with the vigor of the best be-bop improvisers. The only down-side was that the program book never bothered to name the five saxophonists (two altos, two tenors, one baritone) against whom Principal Clarinet Carey Bell (whose new suggestion of a goatee seemed to fit right into the be-bop spirit) wailed out a series of sharp-edged solo riffs for which that last section is named.

Bernstein himself planned out the structure of the West Side Story suite; but the orchestration was then realized by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal, both of whom were prodigiously active in both New York and Hollywood. (Kostal was responsible for the soundtrack of the West Side Story film.) The suite was not planned as an outline of the narrative. Instead it tended to focus on those sections that were conceived primarily for Jerome Robbins’ choreography. From that point of view, the music stands very well on its own, perhaps even better for having been freed of texts that are beginning to sound more than a little painfully dated. MTT’s decision to conclude with this suite was a judicious one, since it was a prime example of Bernstein’s ability to bring down the house with just the right well-honed musical climax gestures.

The central portion of the program involved vocal selections. The 1966 “Chichester Psalms” was performed before the intermission, which was then followed by the 1988 song cycle Arias and Barcarolles. These tended to be the weaker portions of the evening. One has to admire Bernstein’s chutzpah in choosing Hebrew as the language for the Psalm excerpts that were written to be sung in Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, but the evidence suggests that the composer’s command of Latin was far stronger than his knowledge of Hebrew! Ultimately, the music amounts to hanging notes on syllables; and those notes that have been flatted for the sake of a jazzier rhetoric emerge as the most memorable moments. (Many of those moments were provided last night by boy soprano Nicholas Hu, who seemed more comfortable with the words than did the SFS Chorus.)

Arias and Barcarolles, on the other hand, is basically an ego display. Almost all of the words are by Bernstein himself, a few come from a story his mother used to tell, and one of the songs is in Yiddish. Ultimately, the words mattered less than their delightfully arch delivery by both mezzo Isabel Leonard and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. The original accompaniment for these songs was just four hands on a single keyboard. As seems to be well known by now, the original four hands belonged to Bernstein and MTT.

Bruce Coughlin created an orchestral version in 1993 which does not even try to suggest how the music sounded coming from a piano. MTT gave this account a spirited reading that was perfectly matched to Leonard’s and McKinny’s sassy deliveries. They were deftly matched in “Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight” by the jive-talk exchanges by actors Matt Herrero and Jack O’Reilly in the roles of that couple’s unruly children. Ultimately, this cycle served up Bernstein at his most sentimental. As might be guessed, that sentiment would, from time to time, teeter on the brink of excess; but MTT was always there to keep it from going over the edge.

Friday, September 22, 2017

CMSSF Announces New Program for the End of this Month

This month will conclude with the latest program prepared by the string quartet that calls itself the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco (CMSSF). The performers, who are also the founding members, are violinists Natasha Makhijani and Jory Fankuchen, violist Clio Tilton, and cellist Samsun van Loon. As has been the case with their last two programs, this performance will also feature a guest artist. This time cellist Hannah Addario-Berry will join the group for a performance of Franz Schubert’s D. 956 quintet in C major.

The title of the program is Miniatures and Monuments; and it has been designed to juxtapose the music of Anton Webern (almost all of whose compositions are distinguished by their brevity) with Schubert’s more “monumental” achievement. From a historical point of view, it is worth observing that Webern was born just 50 years after Schubert’s death. In that context it is also worth noting that one of Webern’s “orchestration studies” involved setting the D. 820 collection of Schubert’s German dances, which were only published after the composer’s death. Taken in its entirety, the program not only juxtaposes the significant differences between these two composers but also the contrast of brevity with prolongation.

Thus, the program in its entirety is framed by extended compositions by both composers. The D. 956 quintet, which will fill the entire second half, will be complemented by the performance of Webern’s 1905 “Langsamer Satz” (slow movement), composed when he was studying with Arnold Schoenberg. Between these “bookends” CMSSF will perform Webern’s Opus 9 collection of six bagatelles, only one of which is longer than one minute in duration. This will be followed by a (somewhat longer) Schubert “fragment,” the D. 703 Allegro movement in C minor, generally known as the “Quartettsatz” (quartet movement).

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 30, and is expected to last about two hours. It will take place at Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church, which is located in the Mission at 455 Fair Oaks Street. Ticket prices at the door will be $20 with a $5 rate for those aged eighteen and under. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through an Eventbrite event page.

Urania Document’s Richter’s Schubert and Liszt

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past July Urania Records released a two-CD album of recordings of concert performances made by pianist Sviatoslav Richter between 1956 and 1966. The selections have been arranged in such a way that the first disc is devoted entirely to the music of Franz Schubert, while all of the selections on the second disc are by Franz Liszt. Each of the individual pieces was recorded at a different concert; so the intention seems to have been to provide a CD-by-CD compare-and-contrast approach to these two composers.

This may seem like an unlikely coupling. However, while Schubert may not have been the flamboyantly extroverted recitalist that Liszt was, both men were decidedly forward-looking composers. Furthermore, two of the Schubert selections on that first CD were composed during his prodigiously productive and adventurous final year of life. Indeed the first tracks on that CD are devoted to his final piano sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major; and, in what seems like a judicious effort of “parallel programming,” the second CD begins with Liszt’s only piano sonata.

It is also important to note that, regardless of matters of extroversion or introversion, both of these composers were capable of summoning up rhetorical devices of the highest order. When this music is properly played, the attentive listener is likely to find himself on the edge of her/his seat, no matter how familiar (s)he may be with the score itself. Richter was the sort of pianist who cared about whether or not you would sit up and take notice, and it is not difficult to appreciate the extent to which each of the selections in this collection exudes that demanding authority. Furthermore, the authority is reinforced with that clarity of execution that was such a key factor in establishing Richter’s reputation.

The Urania producers clearly appreciated these qualities in Richter’s recorded legacy. The D. 960 recording was made at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1964; and the first movement may well offer the slowest interpretation of “Molto moderato” that one is likely to encounter. Richter’s intention seems to be to remind the listener that Schubert’s overall intention was to establish a rhetoric of moderation in such a way that there are only a few occasions that “rock the boat,” so to speak; but they do so with an intensity that demands subsequent soothing with the return of that moderato. At the same time, Richter makes a convincing argument that, when he wished to do so, Schubert had a solid command of the ability to convey the impression of time standing still.

This contrasts sharply with the following selection, the D. 760 (“Wanderer”) fantasy in C major. This piece is suffused with manic qualities, almost as if Schubert is preparing the way for the Florestan side of Robert Schumann’s character that would soon follow. It is in this performance, which took place in Paris in 1963, that we can appreciate the clarity of Richter’s execution. One also gets the impression that, when the quieter reference to Schubert’s song of the same name arises, Richter approaches it with the same discipline that he would bring as an accompanist at a vocal recital. The Schubert set then concludes with one of Schubert’s venture into “impromptu structure” during the last year of his life, the second (in E-flat major) in the D. 946 set of three ternary-form piano pieces.

The Liszt sonata performance was also recorded in Aldeburgh, this time in the summer of 1966. It is the latest recording in this collection. It also provides abundant “food for thought” for those seeking parallels between Liszt and Schubert. Both of these sonatas were experimental in their respective times, and both were seeking new approaches to structure. The Liszt sonata, however, is a single uninterrupted movement. Every now and then a recording is released that uses track divisions to clarify structural boundaries for the curious listener. Unfortunately, this recording is not one of them; but Richter has his own gifts for escorting the attentive listener through Liszt’s structural framework.

The remainder of the Liszt CD presents selections from two of that composer’s best known collections. First there are five of the études from the 1852 Transcendental Études, taken from a performance in Prague in 1956. These are followed by three pieces from the three Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) suites, one from each of the respective “years.” These were taken from a performance in Moscow in 1958. With the exception of the first two of the études, these amount to Liszt exploring the idea of a tone poem as a solo piano composition. Indeed, several of his piano pieces that may be taken as tone poems would subsequently surface as orchestral music under the title Symphonische Dichtung (symphonic poem).

It would be fair to say that all eight of these offerings are finger busters. However, Richter has a way of drawing the attention to the technical challenges without dwelling on the efforts required to overcome them. Here again, it is because of his commitment to clarity that these pieces emerge as music worthy of attentive listening, rather than platforms for exhibitionist display. As a result, those who tend to take Liszt’s own capacity for exhibitionism as a necessary premise are likely to be convinced by Richter’s readings that there is more “genuine” music in these pieces than one might be inclined to expect.