Wednesday, January 31, 2018

2018 Schwabacher Recital Programs Announced

Bass-baritone Christian Pursell, who will sing in two of this season’s recitals (courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

At the beginning of this week, the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program jointly announced the program plans for the 35th anniversary season of the Schwabacher Recital Series. The series is named after James Schwabacher, who was a co-founder of the Merola Opera Program; and it provides an opportunity to showcase the talents of the exemplary artists who have participated in the training programs of the Merola Opera Program and/or the San Francisco Opera Center. As in the past, the season will consist of four concerts which will be held during the months of February, March, and April. While these used to be performances held on Sunday afternoons, all of this season’s concerts will take place on Wednesday evenings, beginning at 7:30 p.m. As was the case last year, the venue will be the Taube Atrium Theater. Specifics are as follows:

February 21: This season will begin with an ambitious undertaking, a performance of Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch in its entirety. These are all settings of German texts by Paul Heyse, which Wolf published in two separate volumes. The first volume consists of 22 songs composed between 1890 and 1891. Then in 1896 he published a second volume of another 24 songs.

The collection lends itself to performance in a single recital with an intermission between the two volumes. Wolf specified that the songs may be easily divided between a soprano and a baritone; and that is how they will be presented by two Merola alumni. The soprano will be Jana McIntyre; and the baritone will be Andrew G. Manea, now a second-year Adler Fellow. They will be accompanied at the piano by second-year Adler Fellow John Elam (also a 2016 Merola alumnus).

March 7: This program will be organized around a single literary source, Ludwig Tieck’s 1797 “Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence” (love story of the beautiful Magelone and Count Peter of Provence). Tieck structured his narrative in eighteen sections, each of which consisted of a single poem with a prose introduction. Between 1861 and 1899 Johannes Brahms set fifteen of these poems as songs for voice with piano accompaniment, published as his Opus 33. Director Aria Umezawa (second-year Adler Fellow and 2016 Merola alumna) has conceived a presentation of the song cycle that will include narration based on the prose passages and visual projection. The female and male “roles” from Tieck’s title will be sung by soprano Felicia Moore and bass-baritone Christian Pursell (both 2017 Merola alumni), respectively. Pursell is currently a first-year Adler Fellow. The pianist will be first-year Adler Fellow César Cañón, also a 2017 Merola alumnus. The narrator for this production has not yet been announced.

March 21: This will be a solo recital by soprano Toni Marie Palmertree, currently an Adler Fellow and a 2015 Merola alumna. She will be accompanied at the piano by Mark Morash, Director of Music Studies at the San Francisco Opera Center. Two of her selections will also require a clarinet, which will be performed by Jose Gonzalez Granero, Principal Clarinet in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. The first of these will be settings of three poems by Fiona McLeod composed by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, and the second will be three folk song arrangements by John McCabe. The composers of Palmertree’s selections for voice and piano will be Benjamin Britten, Claude Debussy, Federico Mompou, and Fernando Obradors.

April 4: The season will conclude with a quartet of vocalists. Pursell will return, joined this time by Adler Fellows Natalie Image (soprano), Ashley Dixon (mezzo), and Amitai Pati (tenor). The pianist will be Kevin Murphy. The program for this concluding recital has not yet been announced.

The Taube Atrium Theater is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located in the Veterans Building (on the fourth floor) at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. General admission will be $30. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an event page on the San Francisco Opera Web site. Note that, because much of the seating is raked, it is possible to select the option of Wheelchair Accessible seats. In addition, subject to availability, student rush tickets will go on sale at 5 p.m. at the reduced rate of $15. There is a limit of two tickets per person, and valid identification must be shown.

Subscriptions for the entire four-recital series are available for $100. However, these are not available online. They may be purchased in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, located in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. They may also be purchased by calling 415-864-3330.

Satoko Fujii’s New Solo Album

Satoko Fujii performing in San Diego in 2008 (photograph by Andy Newcombe, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

I have become increasingly impressed with how jazz pianist Satoko Fujii manages to keep me both busy and delighted when it comes to listening to the recordings she releases. My most recent article about her was written at the very end of this past December. This was when I had a chance to listen to Fukushima, her latest large-scale work for which she assembled her Orchestra of New York ensemble. Less than a month later, her own Libra label released Satoko Fujii Solo, swinging the pendulum to the opposite extreme. continues to be “blissfully ignorant” (as I previously put it) of her Libra releases; but it is easy enough to purchase this new album through the CD Store Web page on Libra’s Web site.

This latest album seems to be a benchmark for the pace of releases planned for the coming year. Fujii was born on October 9, 1958, meaning that this is the year in which she will turn 60. That birthday is a significant occasion in many Asian cultures, called “Kanreki” in Japanese and “Hwangap” in Korean. The significance of the number is that the lunar calendar is structured according to a 60-year cycle.

When the average life expectancy was less than 60, Kanreki marked a celebration of longevity. These days it is treated as a major occasion for retrospection. In Fujii’s case that will involve looking back over a career that has endured for more than 30 years. At the same time, she plans to maintain her activity by producing one new album for every month of the Western calendar. In other words Satoko Fujii Solo is the first of a planned series of twelve new recordings.

Honestly (and sadly) I am not familiar enough with the full extent of Fujii’s career to appreciate the extent to which this solo album is retrospective, prospective, or simply a “snapshot of the immediate present.” On the other hand I have had a long-standing interest in solo piano jazz and have been fortunate enough to be at several such concert performances. Furthermore, in my record collecting I have often gone after solo piano recordings from a variety of different sources, reaching at least as far back as Willie “The Lion” Smith, advancing through the solo sessions of Thelonious Monk, and including the solo piano album that Charles Mingus recorded for Impulse! Records.

I suspect what all of these solo gigs have in common is that the soloist is free to take her/his music in any direction (s)he wishes, without worrying about how (or if) anyone else (even a rhythm section) might choose to follow. The result is the musical equivalent of a dramatic soliloquy without being tied down to an explicit narrative. In Fujii’s case this can involve seeking out ways to elicit new sonorities from the piano; and, in at least one case, her work seemed to involve the use of electronics, even if just to establish a context including a pure sine wave of a fixed frequency to induce sympathetic vibrations of undamped strings. There are also moments in which she seems to be reflecting on her past listening experiences, using her memories to set her explorations off in a new direction.

It might thus be fair to call Satoko Fujii Solo an album of self-discovery; but my guess is that it will be just as much an album of discovery for anyone serious about listening to jazz.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stravinsky’s Music on Two Pianos on Hyperion

This Friday Hyperion will release a new recording of compositions that Igor Stravinsky wrote to be played by two pianists, most (but not all) of which required that each pianist play at a separate instrument. The recording offers an “all-star” coupling of pianists, both of whom have a solid command on the twentieth-century repertoire, Leif Ove Andsnes and Marc-André Hamelin. As usual, is taking pre-orders prior to the release date.

The “main attraction” on the album is the four-hand reduction of the score for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring.” Shortly before the ballet received its first performance on the (now notorious) date of May 29, 1913, Stravinsky and Claude Debussy gave a “special preview” of the music to a select audience. This is the one selection on the album that can be played on a single piano. However, Andsnes and Hamelin chose to perform it on two pianos for a series of recitals they scheduled during the 2016–2017 season (one of which I attended in San Francisco); and presumably that is the way they recorded it for this album.

Their San Francisco performance also included most of the other selections on this album. The longest of these was the concerto for two pianos that Stravinsky wrote between 1934 and 1935 to play with his son Soulima. In addition the encore selections for that concert also required two pianos. The first of these was Soulima’s arrangement of “Madrid,” which Igor originally composed as a piano roll and then orchestrated and included in the piece he published as Quatre études (four studies). The second was the “Circus Polka” that Igor wrote in 1942 for choreographer George Balanchine’s collaboration with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Stravinsky wrote this as a piano solo from which David Raksin (best known as the composer of “Laura”) prepared an arrangement for organ and concert band. Stravinsky subsequently rearranged the piece for orchestra for a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1944; and the two-piano arrangement was prepared by Victor Babin. All of these pieces are included on the Hyperion album along with Babin’s arrangement of the tango that Stravinsky wrote for solo piano in 1940.

I have to confess that, as a concert performance, this was a disappointing experience. To be fair, however, much of that disappointment may have come from my familiarity with a four-hands-on-one-keyboard interpretation of the score given by the ZOFO duo of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmermann. They played this music at their very first public concert, and it then showed up on the first recording they released. Comparing my memories of their performances with the partnership of Andsnes and Hamelin, I realized that much of the spontaneity of ZOFO’s interpretation arose from their side-by-side execution. In recital Andsnes and Hamelin had to exchange glances with each other across a distance somewhat longer than the length of either of the two grand pianos on the stage. This is a formidable distance, particularly when highly complex rhythms are involved; and the resulting account of “The Rite of Spring” never quite captured the fiercely spontaneous spirit behind the music.

Would Igor have taken this “distance problem” into account when he wrote his concerto for Soulima? We may never know for certain, but it is reasonable to assume that both father and son had considerable familiarity with each other’s playing habits. They may not have been quite as attuned to each other’s habits as Babin was with his two-piano partner Vitya Vronsky; but given the intensity that both Andsnes and Hamelin devote to their respective solo repertoires, I have to question whether they were ever psychologically close enough to bring life to some highly challenging abstractions for separate piano keyboards. All the selections on this album would be far better left to the performance technique of a duo that plays regularly as a duo, which must, of necessity, be qualitatively different from that of pianists concerned primarily with solo work.

Danish String Quartet to Make SFP Debut

The members of the Danish String Quartet (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Next month will see the second of the four concerts being presented by the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Shenson Chamber Series. The program will mark the SFP debut of the Danish String Quartet, whose members are violinists Asbjørn Nørgaard and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, violist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, and cellist Frederik Øland. They have chosen to frame their appearance with major string quartets from the twentieth and nineteenth centuries. They will begin with Béla Bartók’s first quartet (Opus 7 in A minor), which he completed in 1909. The program will conclude with a string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven written almost exactly 100 years earlier, the first (in F major) of the three Opus 59 quartets that the composer wrote in 1806 for Count Andreas Razumovsky. However, what will make this evening different from “just another string quartet recital” is that, between these two selections, the group will fill out the rest of the program by performing their arrangements of folk music from the Nordic countries.

This concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 19. As with all Shenson Chamber Series concerts, the venue will be Herbst Theatre. The entrance to Herbst is the the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Ticket prices are $65 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $55 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $40 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a City Box Office event page.

Encores Outshine at the Second RPO Concert

The RPO at the Royal Albert Hall during Proms season (photograph by Chris Christodoulou, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the London-based Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) presented the second of the two programs it had prepared for its visit to San Francisco as part of the San Francisco Symphony Great Performers Series. Those who attended the first program might be forgiven for wondering whether or not they were listening to the same ensemble with the same conductor on the podium. The appearances were certainly the same, including Thierry Fischer’s lively approach to conducting and any number of familiar faces in the ensemble (with particular attention to “female domination” of the viola section). However, just about every instance of technical skill coupled with expressive rhetoric that shone on Sunday evening was overshadowed by playing that was, at best, overblown and thoroughly detached from the interests of the serious listener.

The result was a program for which the encores provided just about the only source to make the commitment to two hours of listening worth the time. Piano soloist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, in particular, stood out above all others when he played the third (in D-flat major) piece in Franz Liszt’s Consolations collection (in its second version). Thibaudet probably appreciated the need for an understated suggestion of calm stillness, since he had just finished playing the solo part of Liszt’s second piano concerto in A Major.

Liszt spent considerable time working on this concerto, only finalizing his efforts in 1861. By that time it had been over half a decade since he had completed and published his only piano sonata (in B minor). The sonata was a massive work structured as a single uninterrupted movement with well-demarcated episodes, whose technical difficulty is matched only by the challenge of presenting the listener with something more than a shapeless onslaught of fireworks. Through experience I know that there are a few Liszt experts out there who know how to make sense of the piece. However, I have to wonder if even they can pull off a convincing account of the second concerto.

Once again Liszt worked with an episodic structuring of a single uninterrupted movement. Also again he worked with relatively little thematic material, exploring how it could be presented in a wide variety of guises as the concerto progressed. However, if there was any trace of the cerebral behind the score, it was blown away by the unabashed bombast that Thibaudet brought to his keyboard work, consistently matched with equivalent outbursts that Fischer elicited from the ensemble. If Victor Borge had been the soloist for this concerto, the audience would have been in stitches; but last night’s delivery had all the rhetorical gestures of a “serious” account, an account that quickly devolved into one tedious rant after another.

If Thibaudet redeemed himself with his encore selection, then Fischer came close to doing the same with his own selection at the end of the evening. This was Emmanuel Chabrier’s “España” rhapsody for orchestra. Fischer had just led the RPO through the original 1911 version of the full score for the Michel Fokine’s ballet “Petrushka” composed by Igor Stravinsky. In contrast to “The Firebird” (whose Stravinsky score was performed on Sunday night), whose narrative has all the ingredients of a conventional Russian folk tale, “Petrushka” is about the giddy chaos of Pre-Lenten festivities in the days of tsarist Russia. The narrative about the misfortunes of the puppet after whom the ballet was named are secondary.

I suspect I am not the only one to declare “Petrushka” to be Fokine’s most brilliant piece of choreography. He managed to fill every corner of the stage with its own center of activity. This made Stravinsky the perfect composer, because he could account for each of those centers with its own musical gesture and then, following Fokine’s lead, superpose all of them. This makes the music as difficult to conduct as the choreography is difficult to realize on the stage. Sadly, while Fischer could keep up Stravinsky’s pace, he lacked the ability to bring each of that plethora of activities into its proper light.

This brings us back to “España,” which also churns with an abundance of lively activities. However, Chabrier splices all of those activities one after the other with almost cinematic sequencing. He never tries to throw combinations of them at the listener simultaneously. This seemed to be better suited to Fischer’s wheelhouse, and it was the one moment in the entire evening which high spirits paid off with a rewarding listening experience.

The program opened with Ottorino Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome” symphonic poem. The episodes in this piece swing radically between barely uttered subtleties at the beginning and end and brazen assaults of decibels in the middle. Fischer could not have done a better job in handling the delicate moments; but the raucous ones quickly got out of hand, often with no end of coarse sonorities coming primarily from the brass section. At best this was an account that informed the audience about where John Williams got some of his best Star Wars tricks, but it left the serious listener with little more than a desire for ear plugs.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Bleeding Edge: 1/29/2018

This seems to be a week in which a “loose end” of a last-minute announcement did not find my way to my “busy weekend” article. Nevertheless, there are three items that have already been given heads-up accounts:
  • February 2: On Playing Glass, the first of two events to be presented by San Francisco Performances in honor of composer Philip Glass’ 80th birthday
  • February 2: the preview for the Hot Air Music Festival being hosted by the Center for New Music (C4NM)
  • February 5: the opening concert of Earplay’s 33rd season
Specifics for the remaining events are as follows:

Thursday, February 1, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s LSG Creative Music Series concert will offer two sets with a heavy emphasis on electronics. The first set will consist of solo electronic noise pieces by A.C. Way performing as Thoabath. This will be followed by an Ami Sandoz performance by Ben Robinson. He explores new approaches to the violin and live performances, exploring the domain where the analog and the digital coexist, often colliding. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is on a sliding scale between $8 and $15.

Friday, February 2, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: The title of the next Friday evening concert to be presented by Old First Concerts (O1C) will be Piano, Clarinet, and Strings Attached. The featured clarinetist will be Lawrence London, who will be playing his own “Starry Nights, Doggy Days.” Two different pianists will contribute, Arkadi Serper and Marilyn Thompson; and the strings will be a quartet led by Victor Romasevich, joined by Michael Jones on second violin, Stephen Levintow on viola, and Jill Brindel on cello. Most of the program will be devoted to compositions by Iosif Andriasov, with whom Romasevich studied both violin and viola. As has been the case in past concerts that Romasevich has arranged, there will also be a selection by Andriasov’s son Arshak. The other composers to be featured on the program will be Sergei Taneyev and Aram Khachaturian.

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.

Saturday, February 3, 8:30 p.m., The Lab: While the performance of “Atlas” on February 24 has already been announced, the beginning of this month will see a visit from electronic music pioneer Bob Ostertag. Ostertag has been playing keyboard-less synthesizers since the mid-Seventies; and, when necessarily, he has designed and implemented his own instruments for performance purposes.

Bob Ostertag with a configuration of equipment made by Ed Buchla (courtesy of The Lab)

For his visit to The Lab, Ostertag will present both solo pieces and duos with his long-time collaborator Fred Frith, who has his own track record for working with electric guitar and other electronic gear.

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.

Admission will be $20, and members of The Lab will be admitted for $12. Advance registration is strongly advised. Separate Web pages have been created for members and the general public. Doors will open at 8 p.m., half an hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Events at The Lab tend to attract a large turnout, so early arrival is almost always highly recommended.

Debussy’s Instrumental Music on Warner

Last month, when I first started writing about Warner Classics’ Complete Works 33-CD box set of the music of Claude Debussy, I found that I had to explain why there were twelve CDs of the piano music when Warner’s Complete Piano Works box set of performances by Walter Gieseking contained only five CDs. Where the seven CDs of instrumental music in the Complete Works collection are concerned, the tables are slightly turned, but not by very much. The first two CDs of chamber music are pretty much straightforward, since, for the most part, Debussy worked on chamber music either very early or very late in his life as a composer; and the division into two CDs tends to reflect that division of the composer’s attention to the genre.

That leaves five CDs of orchestral works. In this case my point of reference was a Complete Orchestral Works box of nine CDs released by Naxos in February of 2012 with Jun Märkl conducting the Orchestre National de Lyon. In this case the difference has to do with the number of selections that were either subsequently orchestrated or rearranged for orchestra. Debussy himself sometimes had a hand in this process, but it is one that is still going strong today. Thus, the Naxos collection includes recent arrangements by composers such as Colin Mathews, who took on all 24 of the piano preludes. In the Warner collection, all arrangements are by Debussy’s contemporaries (although many of them were made after Debussy’s death). (For the record, so to speak, three of the Naxos tracks are included in the Warner collection, including the now-famous-in-its-own-right orchestration of “Clair de lune” from Suite bergamasque by André Caplet.)

In approaching the orchestral works taken as a whole, focusing particularly on those that are strictly Debussy’s own efforts, I have to confess a continuing bias for Märkl. I appreciate the extent to which this is one conductor’s approach to the body of work and the way in which that approach includes arrangements that reach into the very recent past. Warner, on the other hand, draws upon the extensive EMI library, which means that there is considerable diversity in conductors, ensembles, and soloists; and there are quite a few names (best left unmentioned) that have not left me with very much satisfaction in either recorded or “live” performances.

Nevertheless, I can confess to a personal weakness for André Cluytens, since I first encountered him at a time when I was just beginning to pay attention to conductors, rather than marks on score pages. He is represented on two selections in the Warner collection, the score for the ballet “Jeux,” created for choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, which was first performed in 1913, and the two dances that Debussy composed for cross-strung harp and strings in 1904, with the harp played by Annie Challan. The recordings for these tracks were made in 1963 and 1964. The pieces themselves deserve far more attention than they tend to get; and I was reminded that Pierre Boulez took a particular interest in the score for “Jeux.”

Conductor André Cluytens (photograph by Ron Kroon from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license)

Similarly, where the chamber music is concerned, I have to confess that I have preferences for recordings that were already in my collection. The one exception is the suite of twelve short pieces composed as interludes for the recitation of poems from the collection of erotic poetry by Pierre Louÿs entitled The Songs of Bilitis. Debussy scored these pieces for two flutes, two harps, and celesta; and each one is a minimal gem unto itself. These are performed by members of the Nash Ensemble led by Lionel Friend with the poems recited (in French) by Delphine Seyrig (a French actress whom I, like many others, know only for her performance in the film Last Year at Marienbad).

If my general impression has come off as somewhat lukewarm, I should conclude by saying that I still value the idea of having a single “complete works” resource available for reference purposes; and I suspect that, in future listening, I shall return to these instrumental CDs for more than mere reference!

Thierry Fischer Makes his Davies Debut with RPO

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the London-based Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) presented the first of the two programs it had prepared for its visit to San Francisco as part of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Great Performers Series. Their conductor was Thierry Fischer, currently Music Director of the Utah Symphony, a position he has held since 2009. Last night marked Fischer’s first appearance under SFS auspices.

The soloist for last night’s program was a familiar face on the Davies stage, French cellist Gautier Capuçon performing Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken VIIb/1 concerto in C major. Little is known about this concerto, particularly since the manuscript was lost for almost 200 years, rediscovered only in 1961 in Czechoslovakia. Prior to that discovery, the only known Haydn cello concerto was Hoboken VIIb/2 in D major, a stately but diverting work composed in 1783. The C major concerto is most likely earlier, probably composed between 1761 and 1765. It is refreshingly vigorous when compared with its successor, and its rediscovery has been a significant boon to cellists.

Cello soloist Gautier Capuçon (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Capuçon has never been shy when presented with an opportunity for vigorous rhetoric. He launched into the first measures of his solo as if he wanted to light a fire under the seat of every listener in Davies. Yet, for all of that intensity, it was clear that he also appreciated Haydn’s capacity for wit; and his initial roaring fire magically transformed into a host of dazzling sparklers, including the sparkles in his own eyes as he engaged some decidedly contemporary gestures in the service of his phrasing.

In establishing the overall delivery of the concerto, Fischer scaled back his string players considerably (although not enough to give a clear account of the parts for the two oboes and the two horns, which, fortunately, were given relatively to say by the composer). What was particularly interesting was that, in this more intimate setting, much of Capuçon’s interactions were channeled through Concertmaster Duncan Riddell. As a result, Fischer’s contribution to the overall delivery was relatively minimal; and he never seemed to mind his absence from the spotlight. Over the course of the entire evening, it emerged that this is a conductor whose top priority is getting the most out of his musicians, bringing their contributions to the center of attention, rather than dwelling on his own “leadership.”

Consequently, the Haydn concerto emerged as a feast of music-making, rather than simply a showcase for the soloist’s technical skills (which were present in great abundance) or the conductor’s “vision of the whole.” Indeed, Capuçon’s love of music-making also emerged in his encore selection. This was Pablo Casals’ arrangement of the Catalan Christmas song and lullaby “El cant dels ocells” (the song of the birds). Capuçon played this with an ensemble of five cellos and one bass, opting for chamber music, rather than solo display. Christmas may be long gone by now, but the encore selection was still a magical one.

The reduced resources for Haydn were also present in the opening selection, Henri Büsser’s 1907 orchestration of Claude Debussy’s four-hand piano composition Petite Suite, which he completed in 1889. This was the least satisfying selection of the evening. However, at least part of the problem may have involved Büsser trying to overplay his hand at Debussy’s expense, often requiring the ensemble to cope with thick textures that conceal the lilting rhythmic patterns. Fischer was clearly trying to make the best out of the cards that Büsser dealt him; but, to continue that metaphor, the presentation never rose above the level of an unfilled inside straight.

On the other hand the second half of the program was devoted entirely to Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 score Michel Fokine’s ballet “The Firebird.” This is one of Stravinsky’s richest orchestral scores, and Fischer was clearly on solid ground when it came to ushering the full RPO ensemble through the full breadth of the composer’s sonorities. This was a reading of Stravinsky’s score in which every note from every instrument signified, and Fischer clearly grasped the nature of each act of signification. At the same time, his overall command of tempo served effectively in advancing the ballet’s narrative, even if that narrative appeared only in the heads of those who had seen the ballet.

As if the abundance of orchestral sonorities from Stravinsky were not enough, Fischer offered, as an encore, the “Farandole” movement from the second suite that George Bizet composed based on the incidental music he composed for Alphonse Daudet’s play L’Arlésienne. This music is as rousing as it is familiar; and it was impressive that, after such a full-throated account of Stravinsky, the ensemble had enough energy to ignite one last round of fireworks. For those fortunate enough to have been in Davies, last night was definitely one for the books.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Only One Agreement at the 60th GRAMMY Awards

courtesy of the Universal Music Group

I see that the winners of the 60th annual GRAMMY awards have just been announced. Readers may recall that, at the end of last November, I wrote a piece about the nominations. I had been somewhat heartened that I had devoted my listening attention to items in eight categories, which was two more than when I had written about the 59th annual awards. Now that the awards have been announced, I find that I agreed with the judges over exactly one award, the same number of points of agreement that arose over the 59th annual awards.

At least I can take comfort that the one point of agreement was a particularly good one. I have been following the work of Gavin Bryars with great interest every since Brian Eno released a vinyl album that had “The Sinking of the Titanic” on one side and “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” on the other. I have come a long was as a listener since then, and I take comfort in how Bryars has come an equally long way as a composer. The award-winning album was The Fifth Century, an ECM New Series release. When I wrote about that album, I declared Bryars to be a composer of “once and future madrigals;” so, to some extent, my enthusiasm was an extrapolation of my interest of earlier madrigalists, such as Orlande de Lassus and Claudio Monteverdi. Nevertheless, Bryars remains very much a composer of the immediate present; and I just hope that such a quality had something to do with The Fifth Century winning the Best Choral Performance GRAMMY!

Company Wayne McGregor plans West Coast Premiere

Members of Company Wayne McGregor (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

The second of the two offerings in the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Dance Series will present the fourth appearance by Company Wayne McGregor. The British choreographer has created an uninterrupted 80-minute composition entitled “Autobiography,” which was first performed at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London on October 7, 2017. Created for his company of ten dancers, McGregor’s piece will be given its West Coast premiere by virtue of his visit to SFP.

The title refers to the fact that the dance has been structured around 23 influences, artifacts, and/or memories that have played an important role in the choreographer’s life. Most readers will probably recognize 23 as the number of chromosomes that form the human genome. One may thus call Autobiography a choreographic study that explores relationships between heredity and environment. The dance will be performed to a tape music composition by electronic musician Jlin, which mixes industrial sounds (Jlin is a former steel worker from Gary, Indiana), birdsongs, and recorded music.

This piece will be given three performances, beginning at 7:30 p.m., on Thursday, March 8, Friday, March 9, and Saturday, March 10. These will take place in the YBCA Theater, which is located in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) at 700 Howard Street, on the northwest corner of Third Street. Ticket prices are $65, $55, and $40. For advice purchase online, YCBA has created an event page with a pull-down menu for selecting the specific date. This includes an interactive seating plan, which shows which seats are available at which prices and which seats are wheelchair accessible.

In addition, McGregor and his dancers will host the next SFP Family Matinee Series event. The programs in this series have been conceived to engage young audiences, and McGregor will select appropriate excerpts of his work for the occasion. This event will begin at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 10; and it will also take place at the YBCA Theatre. Children are admitted for $15 with a $25 charge for accompanying adults. The pull-down menu on the aforementioned event page also includes an option for ordering tickets for this performance.

NEQ Reconstructs a 19th-Century Concert

NEQ members Lisa Weiss, Anthony Martin, William Skeen, and Kati Kyme (photograph by Barbara Butkus from the NEQ home page)

Yesterday afternoon at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) continued their eleventh season of programs based on the early history of string quartet performance. The title of the program was Paris, 1822—The Baillot Quartet. The program presented selections from a concert given by a string quartet led by Pierre Baillot in Paris on February 9, 1822 (which, coincidentally, also happened to be a Saturday). As usual, NEQ leadership was shared by the two violinists, Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss. Cello was played by William Skeen; and violist Anthony Martin served to introduce the program, observing that the concert that Baillot had organized probably ran much longer than the two hours of yesterday’s event.

It was previously observed on this site that, prior to the formation of the Baillot Quartet, none of yesterday’s selections had been performed in France. The composers of those selections (in order of yesterday’s performance) were Luigi Boccherini, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven, all of whom were probably known by French music lovers. Baillot’s innovation was to bring the chamber music repertoire to public performance, “liberating” it from its more intimate settings.

The coupling of Boccherini and Haydn for the first half of the program provided to be informative. The Boccherini selection was the last (in A major) of the six quartets published as his Opus 32; and it was followed by Haydn’s “Fifths” quartet (named for the presence of that wide interval in his melodic lines), Hoboken III/76 in D minor. This was the second of the Opus 76 quartets, the last complete set of six quartets that Haydn published.

Back in my student days there was a tendency to dismiss Boccherini as “the wife of Haydn.” However, yesterday’s programming made it clear that, when it came to imaginative approaches to composition, Boccherini could be just as strikingly innovative as Haydn. Furthermore, as was demonstrated at the beginning of the current NEQ season, Boccherini was the cellist in what has come to be recognized as the first professional string quartet.

The major work in the second half of the program was the fifth (in A major) of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “early” collection of six quartets, his Opus 18. Because the third movement is a set of variations on a theme, NEQ chose to precede it with a set of variations by Mozart, the Andante movement from his K. 464 quartet (also in A major). This pairing called attention to the fact that both variations movements featured, as one of the variations, a “walking bass” pattern for the cello. This technique did not originate during the Classical period. One encounters it often in continuo lines of Johann Sebastian Bach, particularly when accompanying arias and duets in his sacred music. However, when poured into the new bottle of “the Classical style,” the old wine definitely packs a new punch. (It would pack an even strong one when appropriated by jazz musicians in the twentieth century!) It is not hard to imagine that Beethoven had been impressed with Mozart’s rhetorical move and decided to try it out in his own (distinctively different) way.

The overall result was that, as usual, it was an afternoon of highly engaging music from the early days of the string quartet, whose programming was seasoned with several informative tidbits.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Cellist Hakhnazaryan is Next SFP “Young Master”

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Next month will see the second concert in the annual Young Masters Series organized by San Francisco Performances (SFP). The program will present the San Francisco debut of Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan. His accompanist will be pianist Noreen Polera, who will be appearing under SFP auspices for the third time. (At her first appearance she accompanied cellist Clancy Newman.)

Hakhnazaryan moved to the United States at the age of 22 to begin his studies at the New England Conservatory. This was in 2011, the year in which he won Cello First Prize and Gold Medal at the fourteenth International Tchaikovsky competition. Prior to making the move, he had been mentored by Mstislav Rostropovich. Since then he has accumulated an impressive track record of performances as a concerto soloist, a recitalist, and member of a chamber ensemble.

Hakhnazaryan’s program for SFP will consist of original compositions and arrangements. Nineteenth-century romanticism will be represented by both Robert Schumann’s Opus 70 coupling of Adagio and Allegro movements and Johannes Brahms’ Opus 99 (second) sonata in F major. He will play an arrangement (probably the one by Jules Delsart) of the “Meditation” music from the second act of Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs. He will also play an arrangement of the opening prelude (also known as both “Asturias” and “Leyenda”) from Isaac Albéniz’ Opus 232 suite Cantos de España (songs of Spain). This will be coupled with Rodion Shchedrin’s “In the Style of Albeniz,” which he originally composed for violin and piano in 1973. Also from the twentieth century will be Gaspar Cassadó’s Requiebros” (complements), which was dedicated to Pablo Casals.

Those who have been following the Young Masters Series may recall that, when cellist David Requiro gave his performance in this series in March of 2014, he concluded with a fascinating encore selection. This was “Sachidao,” the third of the set Five Pieces on Folk Themes by the Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze. Hakhnazaryan’s recital will include all five pieces in this set as the most recent selection on his program.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 16. The venue will be the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. All tickets are being sold for $40. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a City Box Office event page.

Timo Andres’ “World Building” Exercise

Last night at the Strand Theater, San Francisco Performances presented the third program in this week’s four-concert PIVOT festival. As had been reported this past Thursday, the second program had brought together an impressive assembly of performers, all coordinated by pianist Sarah Cahill, to honor the centennial of the birth of the composer Lou Harrison. By way of contrast, last night offered a solo recital by pianist Timo Andres, who featured the works of three American composers, the oldest, Eric Shanfield, having been born in 1979. Andres, born in 1985, himself is younger than all three of these composers. The other two were Caroline Shaw, born in 1982, and Christopher Cerrone, born in 1984.

Each composer was represented by a single piece. They were presented in a context established by compositions selected from the first of the two volumes of Leoš Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path. All of the ten pieces in this volume (of which eight were performed) were given evocative titles serving as either denotative or connotative description. Description also lay at the heart of the music of the three recent composers, leading Andres to introduce his program as an evening of “world making.”

This all made for a promising evening with a program that looked very good on paper. Unfortunately, making good on the promise was a major challenge. In the domain of text types, realizing description through words is one of the most challenging undertakings; and, if description is already intimidatingly difficult when it comes to putting marks on paper (and I am reminded of that difficulty every day of my working life), it is all the more difficult when it involves phenomena that only “exist” by virtue of the passing of time. From this point of view, Janáček’s short piano pieces are almost overwhelmingly impressive. Each one reflects its assigned title with only a few brief gestures; yet the sensitive listener, particularly if (s)he is familiar with the subtleties of the composer’s prose-like rhetoric, readily learns how to “get it” for each of the titled compositions in the first volume of On an Overgrown Path.

Sadly, none of the three living composers came close to Janáček in taking on the task of description. Andres provided a text statement for the program book, which enumerated what each of those composers intended to describe; but there was little, if any, indication that any of them “got it.” Cerrone even resorted for descriptive titles for the first two of the three movements of his “The Arching Path.” At best, however, these only helped a Google user to home in on the image of the bridge he had in mind:

The Musmeci bridge over the Basento River in Potenza, Italy (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Note, however, that it is not the path above that is arching but the concrete surface that, though a skilled understanding of properties of the material, has been twisted and turned as if it were rubber.

Sadly, about all Andres could communicate through performing this piece was that it went on for a very long time. Nevertheless, there was a certain consistency to its “linguistic toolkit,” affirming that, even if the composer spoke too long, he had clearly put much thought into how he was saying it. Shaw’s “Gustave le Gray,” named after a pioneer of photography, was far more outrageous. In the midst of a somewhat pointillist rhetoric, which may have reflected the graininess of early photographic images, she inserted “whole cloth” the fourth (in A minor) of the four mazurkas that Frédéric Chopin published as his Opus 17. Was all that pointillism supposed to be photographic technology applied to a “portrait of Chopin” as the “subject?” Only The Shadow knows! More satisfying was Shanfield’s “Utopia Parkway,” which had a playfulness that served its task of paying homage to Joseph Cornell, even if the object of that playfulness was more than a little remote to those familiar with Cornell’s works.

Unfortunately, the “Janáček framework” did not fare much better than the new works being framed. Andres never seemed to warm up to that prose-like rhetorical stance that the composer took. As a result, while all of the notes were in their proper places, the attentive listener could never really grasp the “conversational” style of description behind the music. Everything had to do with pitch classes and sharply contrasting dynamic levels, but Andres never seemed to recognize how these were the building blocks of so many extraordinarily well-shaped phrases.

Perhaps the original intention behind Andres’ program was that Janáček would serve as a platform on which this new generation of composers could stand; instead, those composers tended to “lower the bar,” bringing down Janáček’s best qualities as a composer along with it.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Three Jazz Quintets in One Night at CMC

New jazz composers Dillon Vado, Erika Oba, and Ian Faquini (courtesy of the Community Music Center)

The title of the February installment of Jazz in the Neighborhood (JITN) at the Community Music Center (CMC) will be Power of Five: New Chamber Jazz for Quintets. In a single evening three separate combos will be making their respective San Francisco debuts. Guitarist Ian Faquini leads Quinteto Brasiliense, whose other members are Rebecca Kleinmann (flute) and Natalie Cressman (trombone) on the front line with rhythm provided by Scott Thompson on bass and Brian Rice on percussion. The Ends Meat’ Catastrophe Jazz Ensemble is led by Erika Oba alternating between piano and flute. Vocals are provided by Rachel Austin with Eli Maliwan on woodwinds, Chris Bastian on bass, and Daria Johnson on drums. Finally, drummer Dillon Vardo leads Never Weather. The front line for this group consists of trumpeter Josh Reed and Aaron Wolf playing different sizes of saxophone. The rest of the rhythm section consists of Justin Rock on guitar and Tyler Harlow on bass.

Each of these groups will be playing new works by its respective leader. For this occasion Oba will be presenting the premiere of her new chamber jazz suite Strange Moon, which was inspired by a celestial love story from Japanese folklore. As might be guessed, Faquini’s compositions reflect Brazilian rhythms and harmonies, while Vado’s compositions often encompass a broad spectrum of emotions in a single piece. The entire evening will serve to launch the Next Stage program, a platform upon which JITN plans to support professional musicians whose careers are just beginning.

Like past JITN programs, this concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 16. The performance will be held in the CMC Concert Hall. CMC is located in the Mission at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street. Tickets will be sold at the door at prices of $20 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. Tickets may be purchased in advance (until the end of the day on February 15) for $18 through a CMC event page. Those wishing further information may call 415-826-2765.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

SFP Virtuosi Series Widmann Recital Cancelled

Readers may recall that the third artist to be featured in the San Francisco Performances (SFP) 2017–2018 Virtuosi Series was Jörg Widmann, returning in his joint capacity as clarinetist and composer. Due to an unexpected scheduling conflict, Widmann has had to cancel his entire United States tour, which was to include his appearance in Herbst Theatre on the evening of February 8, joined by pianist Gilles Vonsattel. This performance will not be rescheduled during the 2017–2018 season. Patrons who have purchased tickets will be contacted by SFP to exchange their tickets for another performance.

SFSYO Continues 35th Season in March

Members of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

[information added 2/26, 12:35 p.m.:

As has already been observed, this season marks the 35th anniversary of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO). The second performance of the season will take place at the beginning of March, and conductor Christian Reif has prepared some imaginative programming for the occasion. Most important will be the premiere performance of “… within the shifting grounds …,” a new work by Iranian composer Anahita Abbasi on a commission involving collaboration the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Members of ICE will participate in the program. This performance will be live-streamed to the Facebook Page for the San Francisco Symphony. The performance is expected to begin at approximately 2:20 p.m.]

The program will also include one of a set of fandangos scored by Michael Burritt for six percussionists. Burritt is currently Chair of the Woodwinds, Brass, and Percussion Department at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester. While the remainder of the program will consist of more familiar composer names, many of the selections will also involve departures from the ordinary. For example Richard Strauss will be represented by his Opus 7, a serenade in E-flat major scored for thirteen wind instruments, which he composed in his late teens. The selection by the twentieth-century composer Carl Ruggles will be his 1921 “Angels,” which is scored for a muted brass ensemble. Bolder brass sonorities will be found in a selection of canzonas by Giovanni Gabrieli, possibly in the arrangements for modern instruments prepared by Tim Higgins, Principal Trombone of the San Francisco Symphony. Those craving the more familiar will be satisfied by the second half of the program, which will be devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major.

This concert will be held in Davies Symphony Hall, beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 4. Ticket prices are $55 for reserved seats in the Loge and Side Boxes and $15 for general admission. 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 Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. (This is also the main entrance to the hall itself.) There is also a hyperlink for sound clips from the Beethoven selection, which requires Flash for listening. 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.

PIVOT Celebrates Lou Harrison’s Legacy

Pianist Sarah Cahill, arranger of last night's concert (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Composer Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday was on May 14, 2017; and last season offered an abundance of opportunities to learn about and appreciate Harrison’s works and life, which had ended at the age of 85 on February 2, 2003. The most extensive of these efforts was the two-concert series presented as Other Minds 22 under the title Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison. However, his music was also presented by the San Francisco Symphony in both a subscription concert (entitled Music for a Modern Age) and a Sunday afternoon chamber music recital that included Harrison’s “Varied Trio.” San Francisco Contemporary Music Players contributed with a three-concert festival entitled Lou Harrison: A Centenary Celebration, which explored Harrison’s impact on the present as well as his own music. In addition to these many performance opportunities, Indiana University Press published an impressively comprehensive biography, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, written jointly by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell.

Fortunately, that celebratory spirit has reverberated into the current season. This was strikingly evident this past November when the China National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra and its Music Director and Chief Conductor Lü Jia included Harrison’s concerto for pipa on the program they presented at Davies Symphony Hall. Last night, with May 14, 2018 just beginning to come into view, an all-Harrison program was presented by San Francisco Performances for the second program in this week’s four-concert PIVOT festival. The program was prepared by pianist Sarah Cahill, who shared the stage with violinist Kate Stenberg, the members of the Alexander String Quartet (violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson), and the William Winant Percussion Group, along with a brief appearance by Sophia Shen playing pipa.

The standard catalog of Harrison’s compositions (which is included as an Appendix in the Alves-Campbell biography) was compiled by Leta Miller and Frederic Lieberman. It has 313 entries running from an elegy for solo piano composed in 1927 to “To Honor Mark Bullwinkle,” composed for Javanese gamelan in 2002. There are any number of reasons why it is unlikely that there will ever be a comprehensive account of this catalog; but its breadth practically guarantees that any all-Harrison concert is likely to turn up at least one selection that will be new for each member of the audience. In my case the only familiar selection was the performance of “Varied Trio” by Cahill, Stenberg, and Winant, whom I had previously heard play this piece in November of 2016. Everything else on the program was a “first contact” experience; and I must confess that I felt like a kid in a candy store.

Cahill opened the program with her only solo performance, the three-movement suite A Summerfield set, consisting of a sonata, a ground, and the concluding “Round for the triumph of Alexander.” The piece was named for Susan Summerfield, the harpsichordist who arranged a teaching position for Harrison at Mills College; and the piece can be played by either piano or harpsichord. The piece was one of several on the program that drew attention to Harrison’s contrapuntal skills, which always struck an imaginative balance between traditional practices and strikingly original sonorities. That technique was equally evident in the five-movement “String Quartet Set,” for which Lifsitz recalled Harrison’s coaching when the Alexander played the piece at San Francisco State University. In this piece also counterpoint is thrown into an entirely new light through Harrison’s imaginative definitions of rhythm through “delay” techniques, suggesting an ancient practice in which one player would follow another’s lead.

Most of the program, however, was devoted to the thoroughly cosmopolitan approach to percussion sonorities presented by Winant and his Percussion Group of students. As may be guessed from his pipa concerto, Harrison was a passionate advocate for world music long before that phrase became part of working vocabulary for the rest of us. Where percussion was involved, this often entailed finding the right media to produce the right sounds by digging around in junk yards. As a result, he could evoke an Aztec spirit for “Song of Quetzalcoatl,” whose instrumentation was far from “authentic” but whose impact was no less compelling. On the other hand, for the threnody piece he wrote in memory of the Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, he chose to accompany a poignant viola line with the subdued subtlety of Javanese gamelan practices.

The evening as a whole ran about two hours without an intermission. However, the diversity of Harrison’s compositions was so great that there was “never a dull moment.” As we near the end of Harrison’s centennial year, it was hard to avoid feeling that this evening had a bit of a valedictory feel to it. For my part, however, I took it as a reminder of just how extensive and broad are the selections in the Harrison catalog. I, for one, would be just as happy were these regular occasions to visit those selections continue with just as much dedication and imagination even after the calendar has crossed Harrison’s 101st birthday!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Generous Collection of 17th-Century Dance Music

The original title page of Praetorius’ Terpsichore publication (from IMSLP, public domain)

This coming Friday Ricercar will release a recording of selections from what may be the most extensive collection of early French dance music. Entitled Terpsichore, the collection was compiled by the German composer Michael Praetorius. The table of contents lists 312 entries. However, since the very first entry contains twenty tunes, the total number of such tunes is far greater than the number of entries. The Ricercar recording, which is currently available for pre-order from, has 37 tracks; but, like the Terpsichore volume itself, there are tracks that offer several short tunes in succession.

Whether or not Terpsichore is the first published volume of an ethnomusicological study (What else would you call the efforts of a German composer to collect French dance music?), it is certainly one of the earliest. In fact many of the entries in this collection probably originated with the sixteenth-century French violinist Pierre-Francisque Caroubel; and Praetorius marked those pieces as such. However, there are also entries explicitly marked as being of uncertain origin, while others bear Praetorius’ own name, possibly because he was responsible for transcribing them. Most likely, there is far for musicological detail behind this collection than can be reduced to the booklet notes provided by Jérôme Lejeune (translated from French into English by Peter Lockwood).

Most interesting is probably the absence of any information about instruments, given that all the music in Terpsichore is instrumental. The author of the Wikipedia page for Terpsichore observes that some performers have turned to another Praetorius publication, Syntagma Musicum, for thoughts about which instruments are appropriate for which dances:

A page from Syntagma Musicum illustrating several instruments (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

However, that same author also thinks little of taking this approach.

This new recording brings together several different instrumental ensembles. Much of the effort comes from a group called the Ricercar Consort, whose Director is Philippe Pierlot. However, there are two different string ensembles within that group, one a consort of viols, led by Pierlot, and another a consort of violins led by François Fernandez. There is also the La Fenice ensemble, whose Director is Jean Tubéry, which provides early instruments from the wind and brass families. Finally, there is La Bande des Luths (consisting entirely of lutes of different sizes), whose Director is Philippe Malfeyt.

This is an imaginative approach to making sure that the resulting recording is an engaging listening experience, rather than merely a “historical document.” Some may still feel that a single CD whose duration is almost 75 minutes is too much of a good thing. However, the production teams behind this recording have put out an admirable effort when it comes to pacing the sequencing of the tracks and coming up with novel approaches as the individual tracks unfold. At the very least, this album has put considerable imaginative thought into how to draw and hold the attention of those who may be sampling the “early music” repertoire for the first time.

Music in the Mishkan 2018 to Offer Two Concerts

Plans for the nineteenth season of the Music in the Mishkan chamber music series have been announced by Music Director and violinist Randall Weiss. Once again Sharon Bernstein, Cantor of the synagogue where these concerts are performed, will be featured as a guest artist. Those who have followed this series know that Bernstein’s extensive interest in the repertoire of Yiddish song is both scholarly and musically expressive. Also, Weiss will continue his interest in seldom-heard composers by presenting a piece by one of the prisoners at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Robert Dauber, who died at Dachau after having been transferred there. Program details are as follows:

March 4: The Dauber selection will be that composer’s only surviving work, a serenade for violin and piano. It will be both preceded and followed by major works from the piano quartet repertoire. The program will open with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 26 in A major and conclude with Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 15 in C minor.

April 22: Once again Bernstein will accompany herself at the piano for the program’s middle selection. She has entitled this portion of the program Doubly Suppressed, Doubly Forgotten. Brahms will again open the program, this time with his Opus 100 violin sonata in A major. Bernstein’s segment will be followed by one of Dmitri Shostakovich’s most explicit (and poignant) ventures into Yiddishkeit, his Opus 67 piano trio in E minor.

Cantor Sharon Bernstein (from the Congregation Sha’ar Zahav Web site)

Both of these concerts will take place on a Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. The performance venue is Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. This is located at 290 Dolores Street at the northwest corner of 16th Street. Tickets for the general public are $25, but members of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav will be admitted for $20. There is also a discounted rate for the two-concert series of $45 for general admission and $35 for members of the congregation. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Constant Contact Web page, which processes payment through PayPal. A wine and cheese reception will follow the performance.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Inna Faliks: Pianist More Important than Story

Not too long ago the mail brought me a Delos CD entitled Polonaise-fantaisie: The Story of a Pianist. This amounts to an audio document of a recital-monologue conceived by the Odessa-born pianist Inna Faliks. The monologue itself was autobiographical, with selections of solo piano music serving to separate the episodes of the narrative. On the recording Faliks only plays the piano, and the text is narrated by the actress Rebecca Mozo, currently based in Los Angeles.

I have to confess that I am skeptical about musicians who choose to talk about themselves. I suspect that my proclivities date all the way back to the eve of my high school graduation, when I cancelled all other plans in order to stay home to watch the CBS broadcast of the ballet “The Flood,” choreographed by George Balanchine to an original score by Igor Stravinsky. It was the first time I ever heard Stravinsky speak. My guess is that anyone who saw that broadcast still remembers what he said:
I don’t want to tell you more; I only want to play you more.
Decades (and no end of unkind biographical accounts) later, I still feel that the only way a musician (composer or performer) can express himself/herself is through making music.

To be fair, the Web page of Faliks’ album bears the “Amazon’s Choice” seal of approval. My guess is that this acknowledgement comes from having received only five-star customer reviews. Unfortunately, glowing as those reviews were, they came from only five customers! Even a college freshman squeaking by with a “gentleman’s C” in statistics would probably recognize the lack of mathematical significance in this evaluation.

Normally, I would just let an album like this slide, falling back on that classic quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.
Nevertheless, listening to this album left me with another one of those Stravinsky moments: I really wish she had played more and told less. This was because the playing on the album included Elliot Carter’s “Retrouvailles” and two short pieces by Harrison Birtwistle, “Ookooing Bird” and “Living with Music” (the former, unfortunately, consigned to the background behind Mozo’s narration). There is even a creditable account of George Gershwin’s three piano preludes.

Faliks deserves more time devoted to listening her be a pianist, and those interested in her background would probably be just as satisfied with a printed version of her text.

Red Poppy Announces First March Concert

Nick Hours and Katy Stephan (from their Red Poppy event page)

Plans are not yet fleshed out for the month of March at the Red Poppy Art House, but the first concert for that month has now been announced. The program, entitled Dreamy Nighttime Music & Visuals, will feature three vocalists. The evening will conclude with Katy Stephan, who accompanies herself at the piano. She likes to sing her own songs of contrast, sweet and salty and/or delicate and powerful. It should be no surprise that her music goes beyond concert settings. Her voice as been featured in major motion picture soundtracks, and she has created scores for dramatic productions, modern dance, and even the circus.

She will be preceded by two short consecutive sets taken by vocalist Nick Hours, who accompanies himself on guitar. His first set will be strictly acoustic; and he will be joined by another guitarist, Hamza Tayeb, and Holly Mead on cello. The second set will feature projected visuals against the acoustics of stronger beats coming from drummer Nate Toutjian. It will also offer vocal duet work when Hours is joined by vocalist Claire Gendler.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 1. The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Tickets will be sold at the door on a sliding scale between $15 and $20 and may also be purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page. Given the demand for these concerts, it is likely that only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. Remember, the Poppy is a small space. Even those who have purchased their tickets in advance should probably make it a point to be there when the doors open one half-hour before the performance is scheduled to begin.

Monday, January 22, 2018

National Sawdust Releases Akiho’s Second Album

At the beginning of this year, National Sawdust released the second album of original works by composer Andy Akiho, entitled The War Below, currently available for MP3 download from The album title is also the first title of a five-movement suite, Prospects of a Misplaced Year, which fills most of the album. The remainder of the album is a two-movement septet created for the LA Dance Project in collaboration with choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Prospects of a Misplaced Year is a piano quartet bringing pianist Jenny Q Chai together with the members of the Friction Quartet, violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Douglas Machiz. Instrumentation for the septet consists of a string quartet of members of The Knights (violinists Colin Jacobsen and Ariana Kim, violist Mario Gotoh, and cellist Caitlin Sullivan) along with Vicky Cho on piano, percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum, and Akiho himself playing steel pan.

That last phrase should suggest that Akiho has a playful streak. Most listeners should quickly recognize that streak through the engagingly imaginative approaches to rhythms encountered in both of these pieces. However, there is also a literary side to the composer’s ludic inclinations. The middle movement of Prospects of a Misplaced Year is “(K)in(e)tic (V)ar(i)atio(n)s,” with the parenthesized letters spelling out Rogers’ first name. Similarly, while it is unclear when Akiho began work to fulfill his commission, there is good reason to assume that he was working on the piece after Election Day in 2016, meaning that the reference to a “misplaced year” has to do with a ripped-from-the-headlines context. In that context one might also consider the title of the final movement, “On The tideS of november” has having a political message embodied in the capital letters TS, an acronym that should need no explanation for most readers! Finally, one cannot help but wonder whether or not the Friction violist has something to do with the title of the first movement and the entire album.

Nevertheless, it is the upbeat rhetoric of Akiho’s musical imagination that will draw the attention of the listener and hold on to it through the entire duration of both of the compositions included on the album. That imagination extends to finding his own ways to work with the now accepted technique of preparing a piano to use it as a percussion instrument, bringing an engaging palette of sonorities to Prospects of a Misplaced Year. Akiho is equally comfortable when working with repetitive structures and when developing gradual transformations of such structures over the course of one of his movements. In other words he has taken, as a point of departure, a genre that takes us back to the early work of composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich and developed a toolbox of techniques to find his own balance between repetition and alteration. The results on this album are two compositions that both are likely to hold up to successive experiences of attentive listening, at least in the opinion of this attentive listener!