Thursday, November 30, 2017

Choices for December 16, 2017

Having reviewed the choices for December 15 this past Sunday, it is now time to consider the alternatives for Saturday, December 16. One of those alternatives is the second day of the CREATE festival organized around the visit to The Lab by adventurous trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. However, for those who would prefer not to venture quite so far out on the “bleeding edge,” there are two alternatives likely to prove more palatable:

[added 12/1, 12:20 p.m.:

It did not take long for the number of alternatives to grow with a new addition to the list:

7:30 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The title of the next program prepared by the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco (IOCSF), the only ensemble to have named itself after the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, is Past Perfect: New Takes on our Favorite Choral Music. This will be a program of works that IOCSF has premiered in past seasons. The composers of those works will include Jake Heggie, David Conte, Nico Muhly, Marielle Jakobsons, Mari Valverde, Elizabeth Kimble, and Nilo Alcala. In addition IOCSF will present the world premiere of "Dream Triptych," written by 2017 Composer-in-Residence Elliott Encarnaión. St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Admission is free, but donations are always welcome.]

8 p.m., Red Poppy Art House: Plans for the remainder of the month of December at the Poppy do not yet appear to have been finalized, but the performance by members of Caminos Flamencos and Barrio Manouche on Friday, December 15, will be followed by a concert entitled Sephardic Soul & Balkan Music. Violinist and vocalist Michelle Alany will lead a group called The Mystics. The members of this ensemble are Gregory Masaki Jenkins on clarinet, Misha Khalikulov on cello, Travis Hendrix on bass, and an accordionist to be announced. The backgrounds of these musicians are situated in the Middle East, the Balkans, and those Eastern European Jewish communities that supported active klezmorim. Past training also includes the jazz and/or classical repertoires.

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. Because the Poppy is a small space, it is almost always a good idea to be there when the doors open. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20, and tickets will be sold only at the door.

8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: At exactly the same time Kitka will be taking its annual Wintersongs tour to the Old First Concerts (O1C) series. This year the tour is being held in conjunction with the group’s new holiday music CD entitled Evening Star. Kitka shares with The Mystics a focus on Eastern Europe, but they pursue that interest primarily through a cappella singing.

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 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.

Reflecting on Brian Brooks’ Reflections

Brian Brooks and Wendy Whelan (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, choreographer Brian Brooks returned to San Francisco Performances, again with with dancer Wendy Whelan, to give the first of two performances of his one-hour composition Some of a Thousand Words. (The second performance will take place tonight, again at 7:30 p.m.) The entire stage was exposed and empty, except for a rectangle of what may best be described as wallpaper hanging at the back. Also, at the very rear of the stage area, music stands had been set up for the members of the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas.

Some of a Thousand Words was structured in four movements followed by a coda. That coda had the title “First Fall;” and it was the duet, set to Philip Glass’ third (“Mishima”) string quartet, that was included in the program when Whelan and Brooks gave their first SFP recital in 2015. The heart of the full composition was its third movement, for which Jacobsen wrote “BTT” and led the Brooklyn Rider performance. (Gandelsman was first violin for the rest of the evening.) Each of the other four movements was structured around the work of the different composer. The first movement was set to “Arches,” a cello solo by Jacob Cooper. This was followed by Tyondai Braxton’s “ArpRec1,” which was played by Brooklyn Rider without either dancer appearing. The fourth movement set the last two of the three sections of John Luther Adams’ The Wind in High Places, “Maclaren Summit” and “Looking Towards Hope.”

Brooks is an abstractionist with a keen eye for detail, and those details permeated his duo work with Whelan throughout the evening. The evening began with the two of them executing a series of motions that combined the casual with the stylized. Both of them were staring intently out into the audience, keeping their gaze fixed for much of the first movement. It would not have taken long for those familiar with Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun” to realize that the dancers were not staring into empty space (or, for that matter, at the audience). Rather they were looking into a large mirror on the wall of the studio in which this choreography was constructed.

On my way back from the concert, I began to reflect (word chosen deliberately) on how much of Brooks’ choreography seemed to be derived from the idea of reflection and the much broader construct of symmetry. Those who think that symmetry is a relatively simple concept would do well to appreciate that the mathematician Hermann Weyl wrote an entire book on the topic, classifying a rich typology of symmetries on the basis of their respective underlying constructs based on abstract algebra. Many of those constructs were on display, not only in the choreography but also in the repeated design and design elements of that wallpaper. I would therefore venture to guess that the overall scope of Some of a Thousand Words involved a “tour” of many of those different instances of symmetry, all realized in terms of the relations between the two dancers.

However abstract this all may sound, there was nothing mechanical about how the dancers realized the choreography. The narrative may not have had any of those personality types that we associate with “story” ballets; but, if the choreography was “about” anything, it was about the different ways in which two individuals can relate to one another. That goal was realized strictly through movement, however, since facial expressions never intruded upon the unfolding of Brooks’ language of patterns.

For that matter, the music also refrained from intrusion. Cooper’s piece was perfect for laying the groundwork, since the cellist gradually unfolded the exploration of upper harmonics based on a single fundamental drone as Whelan and Brooks established their initial relationship with their “virtual mirror.” It would probably also be fair to say that, as the choreographic structures began to explore less familiar varieties of symmetry, the music ventured into more elaborate relationships between pitch classes and rhythms. Indeed, to the extent that the perspectives on symmetry were at their richest in the third movement, I would not be surprised if Jacobsen developed his score in conjunction with Brooks’ evolution of his choreography.

Nevertheless, there were times when I realized that taking all of this in was more demanding that I had anticipated. Indeed, I had to content with the fact that I often wanted to shift my attention to the music, simply because both the scores and their respective interpretations were so alluring. I then realized that any such shift of attention might take me away from the many fascinating details in Brooks’ choreography. The fact is that I really wanted to get better acquainted with both the choreography and the music, and it has been quite some time since I came out of a dance concert feeling that way.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Adobe Books: December–February

Curator Ben Tinker has announced plans for the next three months of programming in his adventurous series of live music at Adobe Books. Each of these will be three-set evenings with very little background information about any of the performers other than hyperlinks. However, if details are in short supply, experience has shown that these events can be very rewarding listening opportunities (and, for those who take the trouble to browse the shelves, they may be just as rewarding in offering reading opportunities).

All performances will begin on Fridays at 7:30 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:

60th GRAMMY Nominations Better than Expected

courtesy of Naxos of America

Almost a year ago I referred to the nominees for the 59th annual GRAMMY awards as “my annual reality check.” The latest round of nominations came out yesterday; and, while my reaction was to reflect on the sorry state of my personal taste almost immediately after they appeared, yesterday’s priority was the elaborately-packaged The John Adams Edition from Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. By the time I was ready to take stock of the GRAMMY situation this morning, my Inbox had accumulated enough publicity material to suggest that things would not be quite so disconcerting this time.

Sure enough, while items of interest could be found in only six categories last year, this year they went up to eight, two in jazz and six in classical. Furthermore, some of the recordings involved had escalated my response to enthusiasm, rather than mere approval. As might be guessed, some of the names involved this year had also shown up last year (or in earlier years); but I would prefer to think that this does not represent a failure of my tastes to change with the times!

This year I shall review the relevant categories in their numerical order. As was the case last year, I shall attach hyperlinks where appropriate. Since no articles will be involved this year, I can be more thorough with those hyperlinks. Having said all that, let me begin:

31. Best Improvised Jazz Solo

Can't Remember Why
Sara Caswell, soloist
Track from: Whispers On The Wind (Chuck Owen And The Jazz Surge)

Dance Of Shiva
Billy Childs, soloist
Track from: Rebirth

Fred Hersch, soloist
Track from: Open Book

Miles Beyond
John McLaughlin, soloist
Track from: Live @ Ronnie Scott's (John McLaughlin & The 4th Dimension)

Chris Potter, soloist
Track from: The Dreamer Is The Dream

Last year’s Hersch selection, the track “We See” from Sunday Night At The Vanguard, was the only one that made it to my radar. I continue to follow Hersch’s work with great interest. In this case, however, I have to review what I wrote about this track, which was that Hersch was following in the footsteps of Benjamin Britten, who had written a set of variations that began with the most elaborate variation and eventually concluded a gradual “distillation” process with the theme itself. Similar patience is required for this track when it comes to realizing that Hersch really is playing Benny Golson’s “Whisper Not.” This is a perfect example of jazz the way I like it!

33. Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Uptown, Downtown
Bill Charlap Trio

Billy Childs

Project Freedom
Joey DeFrancesco & The People

Fred Hersch

The Dreamer Is The Dream
Chris Potter

As that one track goes, so goes the entire album!

74. Producer Of The Year, Classical

Blanton Alspaugh

• Adamo: Becoming Santa Claus (Emmanuel Villaume, Kevin Burdette, Keith Jameson, Lucy Schaufer, Hila Plitmann, Matt Boehler, Jonathan Blalock, Jennifer Rivera & Dallas Opera Orchestra) • Aldridge: Sister Carrie (William Boggs, Keith Phares, Matt Morgan, Alisa Suzanne Jordheim, Stephen Cunningham, Adriana Zabala, Florentine Opera Chorus & Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra) • Copland: Symphony No. 3; Three Latin American Sketches (Leonard Slatkin & Detroit Symphony Orchestra) • Death & The Maiden (Patricia Kopatchinskaja & The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra) • Handel: Messiah (Andrew Davis, Noel Edison, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir & Toronto Symphony Orchestra) • Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 53, 64 & 96 (Carlos Kalmar & Oregon Symphony) • Heggie: It's A Wonderful Life (Patrick Summers, William Burden, Talise Trevigne, Andrea Carroll, Rod Gilfry & Houston Grand Opera) • Tyberg: Masses (Brian A. Schmidt, Christopher Jacobson & South Dakota Chorale)

Manfred Eicher
Mansurian: Requiem (Alexander Liebreich, Florian Helgath, RIAS Kammerchor & Münchener Kammerorchester) • Monk, M.: On Behalf Of Nature (Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble) • Point & Line - Debussy And Hosokawa (Momo Kodama) • Rímur (Arve Henriksen & Trio Mediaeval) • Silvestrov: Hieroglyphen Der Nacht (Anja Lechner)

David Frost
• Alma Española (Isabel Leonard) • Amplified Soul (Gabriela Martinez) • Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 6 (Jonathan Biss) • Bruckner: Symphony No. 9 (Riccardo Muti & Chicago Symphony Orchestra) • Garden Of Joys And Sorrows (Hat Trick Trio) • Laks: Chamber Works (ARC Ensemble) • Schoenberg, Adam: American Symphony; Finding Rothko; Picture Studies (Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony) • Troika (Matt Haimovitz & Christopher O'Riley) • Verdi: Otello (Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Günther Groissböck, Željko Lučić, Dimitri Pittas, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Sonya Yoncheva, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus)

Morten Lindberg
• Furatus (Ole Edvard Antonsen & Wolfgang Plagge) • Interactions (Bård Monsen & Gunnar Flagstad) • Kleiberg: Mass For Modern Man (Eivind Gullberg Jensen, Trondheim Vokalensemble & Trondheim Symphony Orchestra) • Minor Major (Oslo String Quartet) • Northern Timbre (Ragnhild Hemsing & Tor Espen Aspaas) • So Is My Love (Nina T. Karlsen & Ensemble 96) • Thoresen: Sea Of Names (Trond Schau)

Judith Sherman

• American Nocturnes (Cecile Licad) • The Birthday Party (Aki Takahashi) • Discovering Bach (Michelle Ross) • Foss: Pieces Of Genius (New York New Music Ensemble) • Secret Alchemy - Chamber Works By Pierre Jalbert (Curtis Macomber & Michael Boriskin) • Sevenfive - The John Corigliano Effect (Gaudette Brass) • Sonic Migrations - Music Of Laurie Altman (Various Artists) • Tribute (Dover Quartet) • 26 (Melia Watras & Michael Jinsoo Lim)

Once again, my enthusiasm is at its highest where Eicher is concerned. I may not follow up on everything that he releases. However, whenever I decide to listen to one of his productions, it always turns out to be an exciting journey of discovery. That said, I also have to speak up for the latest installment in Slatkin’s Copland project, particularly since he is the first person to record the score of Copland’s third symphony in the form that the composer originally intended.

75. Best Orchestral Performance

Concertos For Orchestra
Louis Langrée, conductor (Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)

Copland: Symphony No. 3; Three Latin American Sketches
Leonard Slatkin, conductor (Detroit Symphony Orchestra)

Debussy: Images; Jeux & La Plus Que Lente
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (San Francisco Symphony)

Osmo Vänskä, conductor (Minnesota Orchestra)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Barber: Adagio
Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)

There is some impressive competition here; but what matters most (at least to me) is how Slatkin has broken new ground in approaching music that we thought we knew.

77. Best Choral Performance

Bryars: The Fifth Century
Donald Nally, conductor (PRISM Quartet; The Crossing)

Handel: Messiah
Andrew Davis, conductor; Noel Edison, chorus master (Elizabeth DeShong, John Relyea, Andrew Staples & Erin Wall; Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Toronto Mendelssohn Choir)

Mansurian: Requiem
Alexander Liebreich, conductor; Florian Helgath, chorus master (Anja Petersen & Andrew Redmond; Münchener Kammerorchester; RIAS Kammerchor)

Music Of The Spheres
Nigel Short, conductor (Tenebrae)

Tyberg: Masses
Brian A. Schmidt, conductor (Christopher Jacobson; South Dakota Chorale)

My interest in Bryars goes all the way back to when Brian Eno released a recording of his music in his very first Obscure Records issue. The title of that album was The Sinking of the Titanic, which was on one side of the vinyl record. “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” was on the other. Bryars’ interest in madrigals has taken him to an entirely new place, and this is one of the two recordings I have that establish that place. The Fifth Century reminded me of how much I enjoy keeping up with Bryars’ progress as a composer.

80. Best Classical Solo Vocal Album

Bach & Telemann: Sacred Cantatas
Philippe Jaroussky; Petra Müllejans, conductor (Ann-Kathrin Brüggemann & Juan de la Rubia; Freiburger Barockorchester)

Crazy Girl Crazy - Music By Gershwin, Berg & Berio
Barbara Hannigan (Orchestra Ludwig)

Gods & Monsters
Nicholas Phan; Myra Huang, accompanist

In War & Peace - Harmony Through Music
Joyce DiDonato; Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor (Il Pomo D’Oro)

Sviridov: Russia Cast Adrift
Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Constantine Orbelian, conductor (St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra & Style Of Five Ensemble)

Perhaps I should confess that my interest in Gods & Monsters has at least something to do with the fact that I was fortunate enough to be able to listen to all but a few of the tracks at a “salon” recital that Phan gave this past March. Nevertheless, even before attending that recital, I was fascinated by the program Phan had conceived for this album and the diversity of composers he summoned to realize that program. All of those composers are from either Austria or Germany, all working in the setting of what we now call the Romantic period. As important as his selections is Phan’s attentiveness to finding just the right rhetorical stance from which to endow each German text with maximum impact. As a result, listening to the recording can be almost as compelling as listening to its selections in recital.

81. Best Classical Compendium

Alexandre Tharaud; Cécile Lenoir, producer

Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto & Oboe Concerto
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor; Tim Handley, producer

Kurtág: Complete Works For Ensemble & Choir
Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor; Guido Tichelman, producer

Les Routes De L'Esclavage
Jordi Savall, conductor; Benjamin Bleton, producer

Mademoiselle: Première Audience - Unknown Music Of Nadia Boulanger
Lucy Mauro; Lucy Mauro, producer

In this case all I can say is that there is no such thing as too much of the music of György Kurtág, whether in performance or on recording.

82. Best Contemporary Classical Composition

Concerto For Orchestra
Zhou Tian, composer (Louis Langrée & Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra)
Track from: Concertos For Orchestra

Picture Studies
Adam Schoenberg, composer (Michael Stern & Kansas City Symphony)
Track from: Schoenberg, Adam: American Symphony; Finding Rothko; Picture Studies

Tigran Mansurian, composer (Alexander Liebreich, Florian Helgath, RIAS Kammerchor & Münchener Kammerorchester)

Songs Of Solitude
Richard Danielpour, composer (Thomas Hampson, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
Track from: Danielpour: Songs Of Solitude & War Songs

Viola Concerto
Jennifer Higdon, composer (Roberto Díaz, Giancarlo Guerrero & Nashville Symphony)
Track from: Higdon: All Things Majestic, Viola Concerto & Oboe Concerto

My preference for Bryars in the Choral category should not negate my fascination with Mansurian’s approach to an approach to sacred music that is probably unfamiliar to most listeners. Mansurian hit the sweet spot in appealing to both the listener’s context of familiarity and the uniqueness of an Armenian rhetoric of expressiveness. In the context of recently composed works, this is music that definitely should not be neglected.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Disappointing Adams from Berlin

Shortly after the middle of this month, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, the “house label” of the Berlin Philharmonic, released The John Adams Edition. This is a six-disc collection of both audio and video documents that features those Adams compositions that were performed by this orchestra during its 2016–17 season, during which he served as the first Composer-in-Residence in almost twenty years. Chief Conductor Simon Rattle has, as might be guessed, the strongest presence, leading the performance of Adams’ two-act oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Two of Adams’ most compelling short pieces, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and “Lollapalooza” are conducted by Alan Gilbert. Gustavo Dudamel visits from Los Angeles to conduct the three-movement suite City Noir, which Adams wrote for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Kirill Petrenko conducts “The Wound-Dresser” with baritone soloist Georg Nigl. Finally, Adams himself conducts two substantial medium-length works, “Harmonielehre” and “Scheherazade.2,” a “dramatic symphony” (a phrase the Adams appropriated from Hector Berlioz) for violin and orchestra. The violinist is Leila Josefowicz, for whom the piece was written.

These discs are packaged as part of a hardcover book, which includes all track listings, the texts for the vocal selections, and the essay “Multifarious Music: The Composer John Adams,” written by Alex Ross.  There are also an abundance of pages with abstract designs by Wolfgang Tillmans, some of which are superimposed on the printed text. Tillmans’ preference for darkly shaded colors often makes the text almost unreadable. The discs also include the video “Short Rides with John Adams,” which is a documentary about his Berlin residency. There are also videos of Adams in conversation with horn player Sarah Willis and Peter Sellars, author of the libretto for The Gospel According to the Other Mary.

It is always good to begin with the good news. The high point of this collection is definitely “The Wound-Dresser.” As was recently observed on this site, this 1989 composition may be the best example of how Adams could mine intense musical expressiveness to complement the voice of an American poet (that poet being Walt Whitman). The rich poignancy of Whitman’s lines is given an intensely stirring account, which says something given that the performance was given by a Russian-Austrian conductor leading a German orchestra with an Austrian baritone as soloist. Compared with so many of his other compositions, Adams’ use of instrumental resources in “The Wound-Dresser” is remarkably transparent; and Petrenko knew exactly how to match that transparency to Adams’ evocation of Whitman’s voice.

Equally impressive was Gilbert’s account of the two short pieces. The video recordings made it clear that Gilbert himself was having the best of times conducting these works, and his ebullience clearly spilled over into the ensemble. Adams may have intended these as “light works;” but Gilbert’s meticulous attention to detail made it clear that, for each of these pieces, there was far more than mere surface structure.

Things get far shakier where the rest of the offerings are concerned. Dudamel can certainly be credited as a primary authority on City Noir. However, it seems as if Adams is deriving most of his pleasure from playing with clichés, and there is little that a conductor can do other than bring those clichés to light. More disappointing is Adams’ own work as a conductor. I have experienced performances of “Harmonielehre” by two other conductors (one, sadly, only on recording); and I have to say that both of them had a far firmer sense of the flow of thematic material and what I like to call the “landscape of climaxes.” “Scheherazade.2” has similar problems; but they are compounded by Adams having committed himself to account for more narrative than even the best of musical skills can handle.

Nevertheless, the tribulations of “Scheherazade.2” are as nothing compared to thoroughly inchoate treatment of narrative Sellars’ libretto for The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The text can only be described as a self-indulgent mash-up exercise that tries to interleave Old Testament and New Testament texts with prose and poetry by Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, Primo Levi (in English, presumably provided by a translator), Rosario Castellanos (in both Spanish and English), June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen (in Latin), and Rubén Dario (in Spanish). On the video one can see Rattle working nobly to endow this performance with some compelling expressiveness, but ultimately this is a Sisyphean task.

This brings up the issue of the value of the video version of all of the performances included in the collection. Back in 2009 when decided to run a series of articles on the theme of having concert experiences on a tight budget, I was an enthusiastic advocate of the Digital Concert Hall. This provided the opportunity to enjoy streaming videos of Berlin Philharmonic performances, both live and archived. It was not just a matter of having those videos available at a modest price. The value also came from, as I put it, “camera work that assists the ear in the listening process.”

Sadly, it appears that many (if not all) of the skilled video people who made the early generations of Digital Concert Hall videos so engaging are no longer on those jobs. There is frustrating inconsistency when the camera never seems to be looking at what the listener tends to be hearing. Sadly, Adams is the sort of composer who suffers more than others in this regard, since so much of his music involves intricately elaborate textures of instrumental activity across the entire ensemble.

We are thus left with a release whose packaging suggests a “luxury object” that does Adams far fewer favors than he deserves.

Sound-as-Art Coming to Canessa Gallery

from the Facebook Events page

In spite of the Zen-based equanimity that John Cage could bring to just about any adverse situation, every now and then he would let down his guard far enough to acknowledge an annoyance or two. One of those annoyances even made it into his writing. This was his frustration with those who would come up to him and ask, after one of his performances, “But is it music?” Cage eventually worked out a reply to the effect that, if you did not want to use the noun “music,” the noun phrase “organized sound” would do well enough.

The next concert coming to the Composers in Performance Series curated by the Meridian Gallery and held at the Canessa Gallery seems to have been conceived with that phrase in mind. Each of the three sets may be approached in terms of its own characteristic approaches to organizing some body of sonorous material. Two of the sets will be solos. The remaining set is a duo in which the nature of organization will also take into account the need for interpersonal interaction.

The members of that duo will be Wayne Grim and Rachel Smith. Grim currently curates and produces sound works for the Exploratorium. He can be called a sound artist, thus accounting for approaches to organization that are more likely to be encountered in the visual arts while applying them to what Pierre Schaeffer called “sonorous objects.” Similarly, Smith works as an artist in both the audio and visual domains, working with techniques that involve both ambient soundscapes and synthesis techniques based on chaos theory. Since both of them are interested in how communication takes place through sound, their duo performance should provide an opportunity to see how they communicate with each other through their respective approaches.

The first of the solo set performers will be Michael Gendreau. For Gendreau organization emerges from the use of existing physical objects and/or phenomena. For example, prior to a performance he will analyze the resonant frequencies of the space in which he will be performing. He can then bring those frequencies to audibility and use them as a “continuo” for any of the other sounds he produces during the performance. (Pauline Oliveros pursued a similar idea in a composition she prepared for Merce Cunningham’s dance “Canfield.”)

The other soloist will be local artist Thomas Dimuzio. Dimuzio has a solid command of sound synthesis through both analog and digital gear. However, he also adds physical objects to the mix. This allows him to take the pioneering work in musique concrète (all of which was tape music) as a point of departure and reconceive those techniques in the service of real-time performance and improvisation.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 13. The Canessa Gallery is located at 708 Montgomery Street, right on the “border” between the Financial District and North Beach. Admission is usually between $5 and $15, payable at the door and/or collected between sets.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 11/27/2017

Now that the feast food and leftovers have been consumed and digested, it is time for adventurous music-making to get back on track. Much of this week’s activity has already been given an account as follows:
December 1: the first of many concerts being given this month at the Red Poppy Art House
Competing events for what may be this month’s only weekend of hard choices: sfSoundGroup at the Center for New Music, Saturday and Sunday concerts at The Lab, and the latest SIMM Series installment
Nevertheless, there are three remaining events, one of which I fear is a result of a lapse of attention on my part. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, November 30, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: This is the one item that should have been posted sooner. The Luggage Store Creative (LSC) Music Series will follow the usual two-set format. The first set will be a duo improvisation bringing Tim Perkis’ work with live electronic gear together with percussionist Suki O’Kane. The second set will feature Kattt Atchley, who will perform a series of duets, each with a different partner. Those partners will be her husband Kenneth, Claudia La Rocco, and Susan Gevirtz. In addition Kenneth will engage his electronic gear for a duo improvisation with saxophonist Phillip Greenlief. The Luggage Store Gallery is at 1007 Market Street, directly across from the Golden Gate Theatre at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. As always admission will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

Friday, December 1, 9 p.m., Gray Area: I have to confess that my filter for Gray Area has a finer mesh than it does for other venues. This is because they tend to be relatively sparing in the information that they supply; and, when I read that information, I often get the impression that they are more interested is providing a club scene, rather than a refuge for serious listeners with adventurous tastes. In this particular case, however, it looks as if the listeners will be the primary beneficiaries.

The event is a visit from Laurel Halo, who was born in Michigan but is currently based in Berlin (as in Germany). Her latest album, Dust, was recently released by Hyperdub Records. Halo is a vocalist who subjects her vocalizations to a vast array of electronic processing techniques. She will perform with percussionist Eli Keszler, who is one of the contributors to the Dust album. There will also be contributions by house and techno producer Taraval, percussionist E. M. Malinowski (who performs as Experimental Housewife), and virtual artist Chelly Sherman.

The Gray Area Art And Technology Theater is located in the Mission at 2665 Mission Street. General admission will be $25 at the door. However, tickets may be purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page at which the charge is $20. This will be an extended event that is expected to run for about five hours. Only those aged 21 or older will be admitted.

Monday, December 4, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: Finally, it is not too soon to prepare for the Monday Make-Out at the Make Out Room, which takes place on the first Monday of every month. This will follow the usual format of three sets of adventurous jazz. Each set will be structured around a duo. Saxophonist and composer Beth Schenck will team with Matt Wrobel on guitar for music that definitely blurs the boundary between jazz and chamber music. (The two of them call themselves The Guthrie Project.) They will be followed by improvisations by cellist Crystal Pascucci and percussionist Scott Amendola. The final set will be a retrospective account of the music of Carla Bley and Annette Peacock. The performers will be Alison Niedbalski and Ross Peacock, who are likely to be joined by other players.

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!

MPHIL Releases its Second Recording


This past summer saw the launch of MPHIL, the “house” label for the Munich Philharmonic, whose recordings are produced in conjunction with BR-KLASSIK, which is the related “house” label for Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting). The label debuted with two symphony recordings, Franz Schubert’s D. 759 (“Unfinished”) symphony in B minor and Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (“From the New World”) symphony in E minor, both conducted by Sergiu Celibidache, who served as Music Director of the ensemble between 1979 and his sudden death in 1966. These were taken from the Munich Philharmonic’s archive recordings of concert performances.

The second album on this label was released a little over a week ago. Once again the conductor is Celibidache, and the recordings themselves are taken from the concert archives. Again, the CD offers two selections, Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children), settings of five of the 428 poems that Friedrich Rückert had collected under the same title, and Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Death and Transfiguration.” The earlier of the recordings is the Strauss, made on February 17, 1979. The Mahler recording was made on June 30, 1983 with mezzo Brigitte Fassbaender as soloist.

On the surface this seems like a rather maudlin offering. Nevertheless, there is a plainspokenness to Rückert’s language in these poems. While some have taken this to be artificial posing (even if Rückert himself never intended the poems for publication), Mahler felt that they captured a purity of innocence. What resulted was one of his quietest and most serene compositions, in which both the size of his instrumental resources and their respective dynamic levels are never allowed to erupt as they do so consistently in his symphonies. Celibidache does an excellent job in keeping those dynamics subdued in such a way that one would not suspect the score of harboring sinister undercurrents. For her part Fassbaender comes off as delivering the texts as if she were on the knife-edge of revealing grief. The result is that her talent for holding back her emotions comes across as more intense than the emotions themselves would have been.

(I usually refrain from comparing recordings, since such comparisons tend to be unfair to the “primary subject matter.” Nevertheless, I must confess that I first came to appreciate this technique of “getting more by doing less” from the EMI recording of Kindertotenlieder that contralto Kathleen Ferrier made in 1949 with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. As I have previously mentioned, both Mahler and Walter are numbered among those who conducted the Munich Philharmonic in the past.)

On the other hand “holding back” seldom shows up in Strauss’ playbook. Emotions run high in “Death and Transfiguration;” and the ensemble required is a large one. Ironically, Strauss holds back only in the percussion section, requiring only a tam-tam gong to join the timpani. The rich brass section, on the other hand, makes it clear that the dynamic range is going to be a vast one. Nevertheless, Celibidache approaches the score with his usual meticulous level of control, appreciating that there can be only one “primary” climax, that rises above the raging of all of its contenders.

I am currently working my way through Charles Barber’s Corresponding with Carlos, a biographical treatment of Carlos Kleiber, based heavily on the author’s personal correspondence with the conductor during the final years of that conductor’s life. Reading the book reminded me of how often cults seem to form around particular performing musicians. (A non-statistical perspective suggests that most “cult objects” tend to be conductors, such as Wilhelm Furtwängler, or sopranos, such as Maria Callas!) Because Celibidache eschewed recording for so much of his life and because his interviews tended to be dismissive (to put it kindly) of so many of his contemporary conductors, it was inevitable that a cult would form around him. The release of recordings from the Munich archives provides an opportunity to appreciate Celibidache as a working musician, rather than a cult figure; and, as far as I am concerned, his qualities as such a working musician deserve to be remembered far more than his cult status!

Frederick Douglass Raises Adams Above the Banal

Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for a second viewing of the San Francisco Opera presentation of John Adams’ new opera Girls of the Golden West. Over the course of the week that followed my attending the world premiere of this opera, I found myself giving a lot of thought to the composer’s track record in the domain of setting text. I recalled that in his essays for The John Adams Earbox, he described “Harmonium” (the first three tracks of the first CD in the collection) as one of his “first mature statements in a language that was born out of my initial exposure to minimalism.”

For my part “Harmonium” was my first encounter with Adams setting text, one poem by John Donne (“Negative Love”) and two by Emily Dickinson (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “Wild Nights”). I was struck with Adams’ sensitivity to giving each of these poems a meaningful reading, not only in the phrasing of his writing for mixed chorus but also in his capacity to use his instrumental setting to establish connotations to enhance the denotations of the words themselves. “Harmonium” was completed in 1981. Within that same decade lighting would strike again with the composition of “The Wound-Dresser” (1989), adding Walt Whitman to the group those poets whose intense expressiveness had been deftly enhanced by Adams’ music.

It was in this context that, yesterday afternoon, I found myself listening to Adams’ setting of Frederick Douglass’ speech, which was subsequently published under the title “What to a slave is the 4th of July?” I had previously discussed how much of the second act of Girls of the Golden West had to do with a Fourth of July pageant that devolved into a White Supremacy rally, thus lending a “historical” account a reflective stance “on the current state of our government and the mentality of the electorate that brought us to that state.” It is in this context that Adams’ score has the mulatto chef Ned (known as Paganini in the “Shirley” letters of Louise Clappe) deliver Douglass’ words in the most solidly-conceived aria of the entire opera. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines clearly got Adams’ message, shifting his theatrical stance from a skillful servant to a compelling orator.

Davóne Tines channeling Frederick Douglass (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

I found myself reflecting back on “Harmonium.” Through that “initial exposure to minimalism,” Adams had begun to develop a grammatical foundation for his work, a structural framework that accounted for melody, harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm. By working with texts by Donne and Dickinson, Adams was able to build on that foundation by using those poets as a sort of rhetorical compass with which he could bring expressiveness to the abstract forms grounded in his grammar. Tines’ delivery of Adams’ aria made it clear that, at least for those few minutes, the composer was once again informed by that rhetorical compass. (Judging from the rest of the libretto, I would speculate that Peter Sellars has no rhetorical compass, preferring, instead, a fidget spinner.)

This is music that definitely deserves front-and-center treatment in a recital setting. I make this point because, while Tines was singing, I was looking around to see how the audience was reacting. I do not think I have seen so many audience members lulled into slumber at any previous opera performance I had attended! (That includes the operas of Richard Wagner.) It would appear that a generous section of the audience missed the best part of the Adams’ music.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Choices for December 15, 2017

Now that the list of options for the next weekend have been enumerated (and augmented), it turns out that the next day that will involve some serious choice-making will be Friday, December 15. This will give those overwhelmed by having to choose among too many options a couple of weeks of breath-catching. At present count, the number of alternatives for December 15 is relatively modest; but there is certainly time to things to get more crowded. The current specifics, in chronological order, are as follows:

7:30 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM): This will be the first concert in the Young Masters Series organized by San Francisco Performances (SFP). The young master in question will be Cuban jazz pianist Alfredo Rodriguez, whose jazz background is complemented by formal classical training. Rodriguez was born in Havana in 1985 and moved to Los Angeles in 2009, where he was able to enjoy mentoring by Quincy Jones. In 2011 he signed with Mack Avenue Records, the same label on which jazz trumpeter (and SFP Artist-in-Residence) Sean Jones records. It is worth noting that, while SFP did not announce an explicit Jazz Series for the 2017–2018 season, there have been an impressive number of jazz offerings for the season’s first half, including Adam Shulman’s Salon appearance at the Hotel Rex, Regina Carter’s appearance in the SFP Virtuosi Series, and Sean Jones’ participation in the Concerts with Conversation events at the Community Music Center, held in conjunction with SFP.

This performance will take place in the SFCM Concert Hall. SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, halfway between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. All tickets are being sold for $40 and may be purchased in advance online from a City Box Office event page. Because this is the first event of a three-concert series, subscriptions to the entire series are still on sale for $105. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a separate City Box Office event page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. SFP may also be reached by called 415-392-2545.

8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: As usual, the Old First Concerts (O1C) series will be offering season-appropriate music during the month of December. This particular occasion will see the return of the Lacuna Arts Chorale for the third year in a row, offering a program entitled Fire & Ice: Winter Madrigals. In the order in which their works will be performed, the featured composers will be Emma Lou Diemer (a collection of three madrigals), Morten Lauridsen (a collection of six madrigals called Fire Songs), Theodore Morrison (Winter Madrigals), Paul Mealor (“Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal”), and Abbie Betinis (“In the bleak midwinter”). Director Sven Edward Olbash will conduct, and the pianist will be Danny Sullivan.

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 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.

8 p.m., The Lab: This will be the beginning of a two-day CREATE festival dedicated to Wadada Leo Smith, a trumpeter who has explored the most adventurous frontiers of both jazz and classical music. Over the course of two concerts on two successive days, Smith will lead five ensemble performances. He will also join the members of the RedKoral Quartet (violinists Shalini Vijayan and Mona Thian, violist Andrew McIntosh, and cellist Ashley Walters) in a performance of “Pacifica,” his twelfth string quartet. Similarly, the ROVA quartet of Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin, and Steve Adams will play Smith’s first saxophone quartet. In addition Jesse Gilbert will contribute video art, and Hardedge will create sound designs. Hardedge will also work with the opening set, which will bring guitarist Lamar Smith together with Pheeroan akLaff on drums.

Like the Friday concert, the Saturday (December 16) concert will begin at 8 p.m. There will also be a seminar on Saturday afternoon, beginning at 1 p.m., at which Smith will discuss some of the principal components of his music. The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street. This is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station.

General admission for each of the two concerts will be $40. Admission for the Saturday afternoon seminar will be $50. General admission to the entire festival will be $70 with a $60 rate for members of The Lab. There will be separate registration Web pages for members and guests for Festival Passes, as will as single-event registration pages for the Friday concert, the Saturday concert, and the Saturday seminar. Doors will open half an hour before each event is scheduled to begin. Events at The Lab tend to attract a large turnout, so early arrival is almost always highly recommended.

Haroutounian’s US Recital Debut at Herbst

Lianna Haroutounian (from her Web site)

Yesterday afternoon Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian made her United States solo recital debut in Herbst Theatre. The event was arranged by what seems to have been an ad hoc organizing committee calling itself “Friends of Lianna.” Haroutounian clearly had a lot of friends, who turned out in enthusiastic abundance; but the recital also had much to offer to those of us who learned about the event through other channels.

Haroutounian divided her program into four sections. The first consisted of Italian songs, two by Gioachino Rossini, three by Vincenzo Bellini (the last of which was subsequently repurposed for his opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi), and one by Gaetano Donizetti. This was followed by six settings of Armenian melodies by Komitas. The intermission was followed by a Russian set of two songs by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and two by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The final set turned to opera with two arias from Adriana Lecouvreur (Francesco Cilea) and one each from L’amico Fritz (Pietro Mascagni) and Faust (Charles Gounod). Between the two sets in the second half, Haroutounian’s accompanist, Tamara Sanikidze, performed Frédéric Chopin’s posthumously published nocturne in C-sharp minor.

No text sheets were provided, and the titles for the Armenian and Russian selections were given in the alphabets of their respective languages. Thus, there were many challenges for listeners interested in the relationships between words in music. To be fair, however, those relationships were not strictly necessary for many of the offerings. With her experience in opera Haroutounian commanded an informed control of body language, which always seems to have been conceived to establish the spirit of the text, even if the literal meaning was beyond the grasp of most of the listeners.

From a personal point of view, my interest was greatest in the Russian set. Those who have followed my work know that I have written about recorded compilations of the complete songs of both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. These seldom show up on recital programs, so I do my best to keep up with those rare occasions.

In this case, however, the occasion had its dark side. Haroutounian dedicated the two Tchaikovsky songs to the memory of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who had died this past Wednesday. Hvorostovsky had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in June of 2015; and it is to the credit of both modern medicine and Hvorostovsky’s personal commitment that he succeeded in battling his malady for about two and a half years. His recent recording of Rigoletto will now stand as a memorable symbol of the strength he brought to that battle.

Both of Haroutounian’s Tchaikovsky selections were from early collections, beginning with the first of the Opus 16 songs, followed by the fifth of the Opus 6 songs. The six Opus 6 songs were written in 1869, meaning that the only “familiar” Tchaikovsky composition written earlier would have been his first (“Winter Dreams”) symphony in G minor, which he composed in 1866 but had not yet published . On the other hand the Opus 16 collection was written shortly after his first string quartet in D major. It is therefore no surprise that neither of Haroutounian’s selections had what could be called “the familiar Tchaikovsky sound.” However, the sounds of those songs are not so much retrogressive as they are searching for new approaches to expressiveness (what Stefan George called “air from another planet” in the text that Arnold Schoenberg set for the final movement of his second string quartet in F-sharp minor).

Indeed, Haroutounian’s overall program made for an engaging balance between the “comfortably conventional’ (so comfortable that text sheets would not be necessary) and the adventurously unfamiliar. The latter was certainly the case with Komitas, since many serious listeners had given little thought to Armenian music prior to his bringing his settings to the performing repertoire. At the same time Haroutounian had the sort of physical bearing that could convey depths of expressiveness even when the music was unfamiliar, if not unknown, to many of her audience’s serious listeners. For that matter, even Sanikidze’s approach to “posthumous” Chopin offered those listeners a journey into discovery, having found her own voice in which to express a nocturne fraught with ambiguity and even structural uncertainty.

Familiarity was in richer supply when Haroutounian moved on to her four encores. Even the Tchaikovsky selection was familiar, the last of the Opus 6 songs best known by its English title “None but the Lonely Heart.” She also offered what may be Alfredo Catalani’s only warhorse, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from his opera La Wally. She then appealed to the personal side of her audience, first with an a cappella rendering of an Armenian song and then with George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for the rest of us.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Carlo Grante’s Scarlatti Sonata Project Advances to its Fifth Volume

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a month ago, Music & Arts released the fifth volume in Italian pianist Carlo Grante’s project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Regular readers know that I have been following this project with great interest, even though, during my time with, I took the time to report on the reissue of a Warner Classics box set of all of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas performed by the late harpsichordist Scott Ross. Grante’s performances have been just as capable technically as Ross’; but he also knows how to shape his approaches to expressiveness around the piano, rather than the harpsichord. This puts me in the somewhat awkward position of having little more than business-as-usual to say about his latest release.

Nevertheless, there is definitely something different about this new release that has nothing to do with musical values. By now I have become used to the fact that the indexing techniques over at are so arbitrary that I often have to summon up rather unorthodox strategies to find the Web pages for a particular album. For Grante’s fifth volume I was unable to come up with a strategy that worked; and, as a result, I decided to see if Google would do a better job. The bottom line is that Google could not negotiate the dense fog of searching Amazon any better than I could.

The good news, however, is that, through Google, I was able to find the Web site for Music & Arts itself. As might be guessed, this site has a search engine that takes Music & Arts products into account somewhat more effectively. Furthermore, this is a site from which one may purchase directly from Music & Arts; and this site has a Web page for Grante’s fifth volume.

All that remains, therefore, is to account for what one is getting when one commits to listening to this volume, which, like the fourth volume, consists of five CDs. As has already been observed, the largest published collection of sonatas published during Scarlatti’s time is the set of fifteen volumes published in Parma between 1752 and 1757. Grante has been working his way through these Parma volumes since the release of his own first volume, and his fifth volume of CDs accounts for the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth of the Parma volumes. One should thus expect that the next release will close off the Parma traversal and turn to the other collections, which include pieces that were also published in the Parma volumes. Since those Parma volumes account for 463 of the 555 sonatas in Ralph Kirkpatrick’s catalog, that means that 92 sonatas will remain to be recorded. Given that this fifth volume consists of 90 sonatas, there is a good chance that Grante’s project will conclude with his next release.

LSG Creative Music Series: December, 2017

Except for the Thursday that falls in the middle of the twelve days of Christmas, December will be a full month for the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series. Thus, as was the case earlier this month, December will offer three two-set evenings of adventurous improvisation in a variety of genres. As usual, these events will begin on (or close to) 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is usually on a sliding scale between $6 and $15. Specifics for the concerts this month are as follows:

December  7: The first set will be taken by the quartet of Jordan Boyd on drums, Robert Kirby on both guitar and synthesizer, Cameron Thomas on percussion, and Gorge Casa on saxophone with effects. The group calls itself sauti kelele, which is Swahili for “sound noise.” They perform both original compositions and improvisational material. They will be followed by a duo improvisation by Kevin Murray on drums and Michael Whalen on vibraphone.

December 14: The first set will be a duo improvisation by Matt Robidoux on guitar and Gabby Fluke-Mogul on violin. They will be followed by solo cello work by Tyler J. Borden. Borden will be visiting the Bay Area from San Diego.

December 21: The final concert of the year will open with the free improvisation duo that calls itself Plutonian Burritto. Scott Bazar plays guitar, electric pitchfork, and electronic gear against Charles Pagano’s percussion work. Pagano also takes credit for any comic relief that is provided. The year will close out with Jake Rodriguez providing the latest installment in his audio-visual-performance-noise-musique-brain-blend (his wording) that he calls bran(…)pos.

MTT’s Mahler Triumphs Again with SFS

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the major work on the program was Gustav Mahler’s fourth symphony in G major, performed by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). As anyone who has followed SFS programming under MTT’s directorship knows, Mahler has maintained pride of place in the repertoire. By my own personal account, this seems to have been my third encounter with the Mahler fourth in the SFS subscription series, having heard MTT conduct it in the past with both Measha Brueggergosman and Susanna Phillips as soprano soloist in the fourth (and final) movement, a setting of the folk poem “Das himmlische Leben” (life in heaven) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the youth’s magic horn), the anthology compiled by Clemens Brentano and Achim van Arnim.

Last night the soloist was mezzo Isabel Leonard; and, once again, MTT demonstrated his well-informed approach to interpreting Mahler’s score, which excels in both breadth and depth. The fourth is one of the only two Mahler symphonies that usually clock in at less than an hour. The other is the first in D major; and, while both symphonies are vastly extensive in both scope of resources and rhetoric, the fourth tends to be more accessible, primarily because Mahler was on more secure footing as a composer by the time he began work on that symphony in June of 1899.

As he has done regularly in the past, MTT maintained consistent control over the breadth of Mahler’s resources, particularly when control involves “dissolving” from one combination of instruments to another during the statement of a single theme. It may well be that what distinguishes Mahler most, particularly in his symphonies, is his ability to unfold his melodic material without ever establishing a single focal point. In Mahler’s writing we appreciate how much a century has distanced the practice of music from an ensemble that sounds like an oversized string quartet with other instrumental sections added to provide “color.” It is through his adept management of what may be called “fluid focus” that MTT can tease out the expressiveness of not only Mahler’s marks on paper but also the many different dimensions of rhetoric that lie behind the notation, so to speak.

For her part Leonard effectively captured the naivety of how a child imagines what it is like in Heaven. There is nothing transcendent in these words. The child’s conception of heaven (with a grudging nod to Jean Piaget) consists entirely of worldly things and deeds, such as feasts and dances. Mahler interrupts this “ceremony of innocence” (apologies this time to William Butler Yeats) with sarcastic reflections that tend to involve the winds and the percussion; yet, by the time the poem has run its course, the instrumentation has settled down to a comforting serenity, accepting this child’s vision for the spirit, rather than the substance. This narrative approach to the song was probably MTT’s idea, but Leonard had no trouble working with it and reinforcing it with her own approaches to expressiveness.

If there was anything to criticize at all, it would have been MTT’s approach to the third (Ruhevoll) movement. This movement is structured as a double set of variations, and it is hard to believe that Mahler did not model it on the third movement (Adagio molto e cantabile) of Ludwig van Beethovens’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor. The two themes are both extended in duration in both the Beethoven and Mahler symphonies.

Variations only work when mind can first take in what is being varied. Beethoven’s sense of cantabile tends to invoke limitations of breath when singing; and one can “parse” the themes from Opus 125 in terms of where a singer would have to take a breath. “Ruhevoll” means simply “serene;” so it is not out of the question to wonder whether Mahler had a similar approach to cantabile in mind for his set of variations, linking the durations of his thematic elements to those limitations of breath. Unfortunately, MTT tended to stretch those durations to a point where they would be familiar only to those who already knew them; and those stretches undermined the impact of the variations that would follow.

As things turned out, MTT was more interested in the coda of this movement, a fanfare that seems symbolically to be opening the gates of Heaven. As in past performances, the vocalist only entered the stage as this fanfare unfolded. We then followed her through those gates, only to discover that we had entered a child’s imagination, a sharp and ironic contrast to the majestic rhetoric that had concluded the third movements. This is clearly where MTT had decided to focus his priorities; but I, for one, missed enjoying the more traditional approach to variation technique in the third movement.

The first half of the program was devoted entirely to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Leonard performed as soloist in “Exsultate, jubilate,” the K. 165 motet in four sections written for the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini. Authorship of the Latin text is unknown but may have been provided by Rauzzini. Mozart probably wrote this as a “show-off” piece for Rauzzini, since the words seem to be there only as pegs on which the composer could hang virtuoso passages to spotlight the soloist.

Joseph Hutchinson’s 1795 portrait on Venanzio Rauzzini (photographed by Mike Peel at the William Herschel Museum in Bath, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Leonard dealt with those passages with dexterity. Unfortunately, her approach to dynamics was not quite so dexterous. She tended to punch her high notes as if she were thinking about knocking them out of a ballpark. Equally inconsistent with the nature of the music was her physical bearing, which came across more like a cabaret soubrette than a devout Catholic singing the praises of the Almighty.

Dynamics were also problematic in MTT’s approach to the opening selection, the first SFS performance of the K. 509 set of six German dances. The appearance of reduced strings on the stage was promising. However, Mozart wrote this as “rustic” music with strong representations for winds (including a piccolo), brass, and timpani. As a result, too many of the passages for strings, particularly when they involved interleaving themes, were obscured by all of the other instruments. This was one of those cases in which overall balance should have been served by adding more strings to the mix, rather than reducing their numbers. The result was a rather awkwardly unbalanced galumphing account of what should have been a little joyous romp. It would appear that attention to Mahler detracted giving Mozart his due for his share of the program.

Friday, November 24, 2017

ABS Begins 29th Season Next Month at Grace

Interior of Grace Cathedral (photograph by Daderot, from Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

The 2017–2018 season for American Bach Soloists (ABS) will officially get under way next month with its twentieth consecutive year of Christmas performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah. Since 1998 ABS has presented this work in Grace Cathedral to more than 40,000 attendees. Next month’s performances will feature three ABS debut appearances by soprano Suzanne Karpov, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, and baritone Hadleigh Adams. They will be joined by tenor Zachary Wilder. Both Cohen and Adams are former Merolini. Adams was an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera and Cohen is a member of the "incoming class" of Adler Fellows for 2018, who were named earlier this week. Karpov, in turn, is an alumna of the ABS Academy, as is Cohen. Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas will conduct the leading period-instrumentalists of the ABS ensemble, joined by the historically informed singers of the American Bach Choir.

All performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 13. Thursday, December 14, and Friday, December 15, respectively. Grace Cathedral is located at the top of Nob Hill at 1100 California Street, between Taylor Street and Jones Street. Ticket prices range between $20 and $125. Tickets for any of the performances may be purchased from a single Web page on the ABS Web site. Each of the three performance dates has a hyperlink showing the different areas in the Grace sanctuary corresponding to the different price levels. Mousing over any of these areas shows which seats are available for sale. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 800-595-4849 (4TIX).

Thursday, November 23, 2017

ALIA VOX Reissues Early Spanish Music Release


At the end of last week, the ALIA VOX label used its Heritage series to reissue a recording of some of the earliest documented music from the Iberian peninsula. The music comes from a volume known as the Cantigas de Santa Maria (canticles of Holy Mary). These are 420 poems written in the medieval Galician-Portuguese language, each of which includes a line of monophonic music notation. These were written during the reign of Alfonso X of Castile, between 1221 and 1284. Known as “El Sabio” (the wise), he is often taken to be both author and composer.

The collection is framed by an introduction and two prologues. 356 of the poems are narrative accounts of miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary. Every tenth poem is a hymn. The remaining poems refer to Marian or Christological feasts. To say that the narratives tend to be on the longish side would probably invite accusations of understatement. Presumably those at Alfonso’s court had time for such extended expressions of Christian devotion. There are also narratives that clearly appeal to the baser instincts of Alfonso’s courtiers, such as the one about the nun whose pregnancy “vanished” after she appealed to the Virgin Mary.

One of the surviving codices includes miniatures showing musicians playing instruments:

photographic reproduction from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

It would be reasonable to assume that the melodic lines of the songs had instrumental accompaniment. It would also be reasonable to assume that the accompaniment did not necessarily reproduce the notated line. For that matter one may also assume that multiple voices would perform the songs in some form of harmony. The marks in the codex do not constitute the alpha and the omega of how the music should be made.

The performances on the Alia Vox release were prepared and led by Jordi Savall. The performers were the vocalists of La Capella Reial de Catalunya and the musicians of Hespèrion XX. The recordings were made in February of 1993 in the Colegiata romana de Cardona in Catalonia. One of the tracks was recorded much later, in April of 2008.

Savall has a consistent reputation for taking imaginative approaches to early music, recognizing that, even in the thirteenth century, listeners (and probably performers as well) had better things to do than play the same music over and over with only the words changing. Whatever the narrative accounts of the Virgin Mary may have been, these were probably familiar stories that would require a bit of individual panache to keep the listening experience from getting tedious. Savall thus deserves credit for recognizing that innovative arrangement needs to be part of performance.

The good news is that the inside cover of the album provides a convenient listing of which instruments are played by which members of Hespèrion XX. The not-so-good news is that there is not a track listing that accounts for which instruments are performed for which selections. In that respect the earlier release, at the beginning of this year, of the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat is likely to be more informative for those unfamiliar with early music practices.

This earlier recording was made from a concert performance, in which instrumental improvisations were interleaved with the vocal selections. The track listing specifies which instruments are involved on which tracks. In addition this recording was packaged with a “bonus” DVD of the concert performance itself. As a result, one has the benefits of not only knowing which instruments are in play but also seeing how they are played. The Llibre Vermell album thus provides excellent “prerequisite listening” for those whose interests then take them to Alfonso’s Cantigas.

Xmas at Davies to Include Bach Collegium Japan

courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

As part of next month’s seasonal programming, the Great Performers Series hosted by the San Francisco Symphony will present the Davies Symphony Hall debut of the Bach Collegium Japan led by internationally renowned conductor Masaaki Suzuki (pictured above). In December of 2012 Suzuki visited the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale to present a Christmas-themed concert. This time he will bring his own ensemble to present four of the six cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach collected as the BWV 248 Christmas Oratorio.

Bach wrote the cantatas to be performed at different services. It is unclear whether or not Bach ever intended them to be collected for a single performance. According to the composition’s Wikipedia page, such a performance was not given until December 17, 1857. Of the four cantatas that Suzuki has selected, he will begin with the first three of the set, written, respectively for Christmas Eve and the second and third days of Christmas, and conclude the last one, written for the Feast of Epiphany. Soloists will be soprano Sherezade Panthaki (who sang with Suzuki during his 2012 visit), alto Jay Carter, Tenor Zachary Wilder, and bass Dominik Wörner.

This concert will be given only one performance at 8 p.m. on Saturday, December 9. Ticket prices range from $25 to $99. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Cellist Ashley Walters to Preview Recording

Cellist Ashley Walters (photograph by Todd. H. Carlson, from her Web site)

Last month the Los Angeles label populist records released a solo album of six performances by cellist Ashley Walters, who is also based in Los Angeles. This recording has not yet found its way to but Bandcamp has created a Web page that supports streaming, download, and the purchase of a compact disc. The title of the album is Sweet Anxiety, which serves as a reflection on one of the two tracks that emerged from her decade-long collaboration with composer Nicholas Deyoe, entitled “another anxiety.”

Next month Walters will come up from Los Angeles to give a recital at San Francisco State University (SFSU). She has prepared a program based on the contents of her album, which will include “another anxiety.” She will also perform the fourteenth of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza compositions, the one written for solo cello, a pioneering piece that explores a wide diversity of non-standard approaches to playing the instrument.

Walters will be in the Bay Area because she is currently touring with the great adventurous jazz improviser, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. (Details about Smith’s visit to San Francisco will be coming shortly.) As a result her recital program will feature Smith’s “Sweet Bay Magnolia with Berry Clusters,” which he wrote for her and is also included on her Sweet Anxiety album. The recital will also include “Plainsound-Litany” by Wolfgang von Schweinitz, who is currently teaching at the California Institute of the Arts. This is a study in intonation based on natural harmonics, which requires non-vibrato tuning and playing techniques in order to emphasize the resonances of double-stop playing.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 12. It will take place in Knuth Hall, which is located in the Creative Arts Building at SFSU, a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. Tickets are free, and no advance registration will be required.