Saturday, March 31, 2018

Kyle Gann Tries to Reinvent Tonality

courtesy of Other Minds

A little over a week ago, Other Minds released its latest recording, a two-CD album of Kyle Gann’s seventeen-movement suite Hyperchromatica. On the strength of numbers alone, this marks a significant addition to the ranks of compositions whose creators have chosen to reject equal-tempered tuning in favor of working with natural harmonics. The tuning systems for such efforts are known collectively as just intonation. In such systems all intervals are based on integer ratios, usually with a limit on the number of integers involved.

The movements in Hyperchromatica are based on 13-limit just intonation. Thus, the integers used in forming the ratios range from 1 to 13 along with different combinations arising from multiplication. Put in another way, all of the ratios have numerators and denominators that arise from multiplicative products of the prime numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13.

Those who read my extended essay about listening to integer ratios, written when I was trying to get my head around Lou Harrison’s compositions based on just intonation, may recall that the thirteenth harmonic has rich history. Benjamin Britten singled it out in the horn solo that begins and concludes his Opus 31 serenade, requiring that the horn be played without the use of valves. As might be guessed, that solo involves an abundance of tonic-to-dominant perfect fifths. However, towards the end of the solo, the dominant pitch is approached by stepwise motion from above; but the “step” is neither a semitone or a whole tone. It is somewhere between the two; and the result can be spooky, provocative, or downright disturbing, depending on the personal disposition of the listener. That result is the movement from the thirteenth harmonic to the twelfth (two octaves above the third harmonic, the basis for the so-called “perfect fifth”).

Britten wrote that daring passage in 1943 for Dennis Brain, the leading horn player of his day. Some 75 years have elapsed since then, during which Harrison emerged as only one of several composers bent on turning to just intonation to explore new ways to think about the fundamental foundations of musical composition. Remember, this was a time when many composers were wrestling with how to approach composition after Arnold Schoenberg had “emancipated” the concept of dissonance. Schoenberg himself saw that emancipation as a liberation from harmonic progression, meaning that the primary foundation of his own work was polyphony; but his was a polyphony that was similarly “emancipated” from the strictures of species counterpoint, which had is own rules based on a distinction between consonance and dissonance.

45 years on we now have Gann, who has written in his notes for the booklet accompanying Hyperchromatica, that his goal “is no less than to reinvent tonality.” I have to confess that this quote sticks rather uncomfortably in my craw. I prefer to think that tonality was discovered, rather than “invented.” Making music is a behavior that probably goes back to the earliest practices of prehistoric social groups. During those prehistoric times, there was probably the emergence of a fundamental precept that, if you liked something you did, do it again. Eventually, when our ancestors were not hunting or gathering, they would assemble in a group to tell stories, or sing them, or perhaps even sing them while others provided “instrumental accompaniment.” Not too long thereafter, those “instrumentalists” realized that they could “perform” just as well without “accompanying” the singers!

It probably took many centuries before mind developed to a point where one could consider these practices and recognize them as instances of some systematic infrastructure. Such systematic thinking dates back (at least) to Socrates (or Plato’s documentation of Socrates’ wisdom). However, it was only in the Middle Ages that more extensive efforts at such documentation advanced. Those efforts would eventually work their way into educational curricula. However, for a long time educational practices seemed to lack the ability to recognize the difference between a document that was descriptive and one that was prescriptive. So it was that the confusion between rules to be followed and descriptions of past practices first emerged; and, on the basis of some of Schoenberg’s more caustic writings, it would appear that all too many practitioners are still laboring under that confusion.

I am not sure where Gann stands in the midst of that confusion, but I think that one way to establish a point of view is by going back to the basics behind practices of making music. Put another way, what was Gann actually making in the process of creating each of the seventeen movements of his suite? At the most fundamental level, he was writing MIDI programs for Disklaviers. MIDI, of course, was based on the equal-tempered tuning of twelve semitones, all the same size, to the octave, the usual way in which most pianos are tuned. In order to deal with just intonation Gann had to alter the hardware of his Disklaviers to synthesize pitches they had not been designed to synthesize. Furthermore, to account for a gamut of 33 pitches per octave, he needed three of those Disklaviers to account for all of the pitches. In other words what Gann made was an extensive library of software to run on an array of hardware, which he had made specifically for that software.

All that probably sounds so dry that many readers may wonder, “What does that have to do with making music?” It is therefore to Gann’s credit that I have to say that, if one puts all thoughts of theory aside and just listens to these two CDs, it is not difficult to imagine that Gann was playing at some non-standard keyboard, perhaps even improvising, rather than building a software library. In other words, while his methods were not actually products of the tight coupling between listening and making, he has successfully created the illusion of that coupling.

Having accepted that illusion, what is the listening experience that emerges from these recordings? The overall impression is one of exploration, often involved with establishing some “seed” of content and then playing around with different approaches to expressing that seed. Those who have listened to (and enjoyed) many of the prolonged improvisations that have been recorded of Keith Jarrett’s solo piano work can appreciate this approach to listening; and, for the most part, Gann works on durational scales that are not quite as extended as Jarrett’s.

On the other hand everything we listen to in the present is informed by what we have listened to in the past. One of my first counterpoint teachers (from the days of that “great confusion” between description and prescription) would consistently come down on all of his students for writing what he called “slimy chromaticism.” Gann has a frequent tendency to run through long strings of consecutive “micro-semitones” in his gamut that would escalate my former teacher’s sense of “slimy” to a level he could not have imagined.

However, Gann’s “hyperchromatic” runs may be the tip of a more imposing iceberg. Over the course of these seventeen pieces, there is little sense of hierarchy in what Gann is playing. The durational value of individual notes often serve as a clue to which of his notes are basically embellishments, but it is not always clear just what they are embellishing. As one who continues to have considerable respect for the theoretical writings of Heinrich Schenker, I feel that the absence of a clear distinction between the embellishing and the embellished reduces much of what Gann is doing on these recordings to another term that my counterpoint teacher used to throw at us: noodling.

To be fair, I am sure that Jarrett has any number of critics that would throw that same term at many (all?) of his prolonged improvisations. For that matter, there are any number of reasons to believe that Miles Davis felt the same way when John Coltrane launched into one of his longer improvised takes on whatever tune they happened to be playing. In other words the experience of listening to Hyperchromatica may, for better or worse, simply be similar to that of my recent account of listening to the world premiere of Lera Auerbach’s Labyrinth, in which I cited Henry Miller’s definition of “confusion” as “a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.” Fortunately, a recording provides ample opportunity to eventually home in on an order that is not yet understood!

Takács Quartet to Return to SFP

Takács Quartet members Károly Schranz, Geraldine Walther, András Fejér, and Edward Dusinberre (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Next month the 2017–2018 Shenson Chamber Series, presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP), will conclude with a return visit from the Takács Quartet. This group was founded in 1975 by four students at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. It took its name from its first violinist, Gábor Takács-Nagy; and the other members were Károly Schranz (second violin), Gábor Ormai (viola), and András Fejér (cello). Edward Dusinberre replaced Takás-Nagy in 1993, and Geraldine Walther become the violist in 2005. (Those of us who have been in the Bay Area for a while know that, prior her joining the group, Walther had been Principal Viola with the San Francisco Symphony.)

The ensemble made its SFP debut in 2010. Since then they have become a favorite of SFP chamber music audiences, and next month will mark their fifth SFP visit. It will also be a landmark occasion, because Schranz has announced that he will retire this coming May 1. Thus, this will be has last appearance in the Bay Area as a member of the group.

While the number of Hungarians in the quartet has been declining monotonically, there is still a significant Hungarian presence in the repertoire. That presence will be taken by Ernő von Dohnányi with a performance of his Opus 15 (second) quartet in D-flat major. The program will begin with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 387 quartet in G major. The concluding selection will be Felix Mendelssohn’s final (sixth) quartet, his Opus 80 in F minor, composed shortly before his death in 1847.

This concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 18. 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 $75 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $60 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.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Final Schwabacher Recital to Honor Bernstein

When plans for the 35th anniversary season of the Schwabacher Recital Series were announced jointly by the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program at the beginning of this year, program details for the last of the four concerts had not yet been finalized. What was known was that the recital would present a quartet of vocalists, all of whom were 2018 Adler Fellows: soprano Natalie Image, mezzo Ashley Dixon, tenor Amitai Pati, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell. It had also been announced that the pianist for this event would be Kevin Murphy. Murphy will be a special guest for this occasion, since he is Director of the Steans Music Institute Program for Singers, a division of the Steans Music Institute, a pre-professional conservatory program held every summer in conjunction with the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois.

Collaborative pianist Kevin Murphy (courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

All of the program selections have now been determined. Now that the San Francisco Symphony has completed its cycle of programs celebrating the birth centennial of Leonard Bernstein, whose 100th birthday will be this coming August 25, it is time for the festivities to cross Grove Street, so to speak, and settle in at the San Francisco War Memorial. Most of the Schwabacher Recital selections will be of music Bernstein wrote for both the concert hall and the Broadway stage. There will also be songs by Bernstein’s close friend and colleague, Aaron Copland, as well as selections by two composers that Bernstein championed over the course of his career as a conductor, Gustav Mahler and Charles Ives.

The “theatrical” side of Bernstein’s career will conclude the program will selections from two major musicals, West Side Story and Candide, and his one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti.” At the other end, the program will begin with a set that will include the song cycle La Bonne Cuisine: Four Recipes for Voice and Piano, the Two Love Songs, three selections from Songfest, “I Go On” from Mass, and a setting of Psalm 148. Copland will be represented by two of the twelve songs he wrote setting poems by Emily Dickinson. The Ives offering will be his interpretation of Vachel Lindsay’s poem “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.” (Lindsay had his own thoughts about both music and instrumentation included in the published text of this poem.) The Mahler songs will include two settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert and one taking its text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the boy’s magic horn), the collection of German folk poems and songs edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano.

Like the other Schwabacher Recital programs, this concert will take place in the Taube Atrium Theater, 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. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 4. General admission will be $30. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an event page on the San Francisco Opera Web site. In addition, subject to availability, student rush tickets will go on sale at 7 p.m. at the reduced rate of $15. There is a limit of two tickets per person, and valid identification must be shown.

Adventurous Recital Deserves Remembering

Cellist Edward Luengo (second from right) with (left-to-right) teach Jean-Michel Fonteneau and accompanists Amy Chiu and Kevin Lee Sun (photograph by Kevin Kennedy, from Luengo’s Facebook site)

Every now and then one encounters a student recital so imaginatively conceived and so confidently executed that it burns its way into mind’s long-term memory. Such was the case last night in the Osher Salon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where graduating senior Edward Luengo presented his end-of-term cello recital. With a repertoire that allowed for four musical partners and extended from the end of the eighteenth century to the first decade of the current one, Luengo provided himself with a richly diverse palette with which to exercise his technical and expressive skills, both of which were firing on all cylinders.

The major works in each half of the program offered a stimulating balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The second half was dominated by Johannes Brahms’ Opus 99 (second) sonata in F major. Separated by two decades, one might say (at the risk of sounding too reductive) that the first of the cello sonatas (Opus 38 in E minor) is highly introverted, while Opus 99 is vigorously extroverted. There is even an energetic buzz to the pizzicato passages in the second (Adagio affettuoso) that seems to invite the listener into what might have been taken as a private space.

The fact is that each movement has its own characteristic set of personality traits. Working effectively with accompanist Kevin Lee Sun, Luengo knew how to mine each movement for its own individual traits and then tie them all together in his journey through the sonata’s four movements. This was a delightful reminder that, no matter how many times one has previously encountered this sonata, there will always be fresh ways to enjoy the listening experience.

In the first half of the program, on the other hand, Luengo served up a far less familiar undertaking. While many cellists tend to establish their twentieth-century chops by performing Zoltán Kodály’s Opus 8 sonata for solo cello, Luengo opted for his Opus 7 duo for violin and cello, composed during the previous year (1914). Structured in three movements, this duo is as much of a wild ride as is the cello sonata, drawing upon folk sources to explore new domains of modernist rhetoric.

Luengo was joined by violinist Maria van der Sloot, who initially had a bit of a problem mustering up the necessary energy to balance with Luengo. Within only a few minutes, though, the two were confidently established on a level playing field. The listening experience was probably a “first encounter” for most of the audience; and I suspect I was not the only one wondering why it took so long for me to become acquainted with this piece.

The program opened with the eighteenth-century offering, Ludwig van Beethoven’s WoO 46, the set of seven variations on the duet “Bei Männern, welch Liebe fühlen” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. Much of Mozart’s duet rhetoric was preserved in the interplay between cello and piano during the opening statement of the theme; however, even in his earliest works, Beethoven knew how to take his variations into unexpected regions. This demanded considerable virtuosity from both Luengo and his pianist, Amy Chiu. They may not have caught onto the many gestures of wit with which Beethoven spiced up his score, but their respective techniques were positively sparkling.

The most recent past was served up during the second half, which began with Guillaume Connesson’s 2008 suite, Les Chants de l’Agartha (the songs of Agartha, a mythical kingdom under the Mongolian desert). This selection made for an engaging complement to all of those imaginary beings lurking in Lera Auerbach’s performance of her own Labyrinth. However, Connesson was less cryptic in his approach to description, and each of his movements offered its own relatively brief account of an imagined setting.

The program concluded with “Encore,” composed in 2009 by Connesson’s colleague Jérôme Ducros. Composed in ternary form, the outer sections serve up large chunks of technically-demanding virtuosity taken to flamboyant extremes. The middle section allowed the cellist to catch his breath; but, ultimately, Ducros’ playful jab at concertizing ends up going on for too long. The opening section makes his point and could probably stand on its own just as well, if not better.

Luengo’s program also displayed his interest in French art song. The first half of his program included Pablo Casals’ arrangement of the first of three songs that Gabriel Fauré published as his Opus 7, “Après un rêve.” Calling this an arrangement is a bit generous. Casals left the piano part (played by Chiu) pretty much intact, having the cello follow the vocal line at the baritone level for the first verse and jumping an octave to the soprano level for the second.

The real encore that Luengo prepared was another French art song, Francis Poulenc’s “Les chemins de l’amour” (the paths of love). This was arranged for wind instrument and piano by Jacques Larocque. However, it is just as likely that Luengo followed Casals’ lead, since he again delivered the vocal line in two separate octaves, accompanied this time by Keisuke Nakagoshi. This selection amounted to an affectionate farewell from soloist to audience. Hopefully, this will turn out to be an au revoir, rather than an adieu!

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Choices for April 15, 2018

This site has already observed that the first weekend of next month will be a busy month, with a need for making hard choices that will begin on Friday evening and continue through late Sunday afternoon. On the following weekend, the choices will need to be made on Sunday; and those game enough to do so will need to jump from one side of town to the other, if they wish to attend more than a single event. Since April 15 is a Sunday, it will not be the usual deadline for filing tax returns. This may be relief for some, particularly with the deadline being pushed to April 17 to accommodate the celebration of Emancipation Day in the nation’s capital. Readers should thus have plenty of time to ponder the following choices:

3 p.m., McKenna Theatre: The next concert in the 2017–2018 season of the Morrison Artists Series, presented by the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU), will be the San Francisco debut performance by the Quatuor Van Kuijk. They will complement their own debut appearance with the Bay Area premiere of Akira Nishimura’s second string quartet, written in 1992 and given the title “Pulse of the Lights” by the composer. The program will begin by honoring the centennial of the death of Claude Debussy by performing his only string quartet, his Opus 10 in G minor. The second half of the program will focus on the third of Ludwig van Beethoven’s six Opus 18 (“early”) quartets.

The McKenna Theatre is 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 but advance registration is highly desirable. Reservations may be made through the event page for this concert. As usual, there will be a pre-concert talk at 2 p.m., which will be given by Richard Festinger, Artistic Director of the Morrison Artists Series. Also as usual, the trio will give a collective Master Class at noon on Monday, April 16. This two-hour session will take place in Knuth Hall, also in the Creative Arts Building, and will be open to the general public at no charge and with no requirements for tickets.

4 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: The second of the three concerts to be performed in San Francisco as part of the tenth anniversary of Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) is entitled Once/Memory/Night: Paul Celan. The E4TT musicians, soprano Nanette McGuinness and instrumentalists Dale Tsang on piano and Anne Lerner-Wright on cello, will be joined by Laura Reynolds on cor anglais and Ilana Blumberg Thomas in violin. There will be world premiere performances of three E4TT commissions, two of which are settings of Celan’s poetry. Those two will be David Garner’s “Die Eichne Tür” and “Nachtlang” by Jared Redmond. The remaining premiere will be Stephen Eddins’ “A Song for the End of the World,” a setting of poetry by Celan’s contemporary, Czesław Miłosz. Both Garner and Eddins will provide introductory remarks about their respective works. The program will also include “Mémoire de l’ombre” by Aleksandra Kaca, one of the composer’s contributing to E4TT’s 56x54 Call for Scores series. The remaining work on the program will be Libby Larsen’s “4 ½.”

The Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street. Tickets will be $30 for general admission, $15 for seniors, and $5 for students. Tickets at all price levels are currently available for sale online through an Eventbrite event page.

7:30 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: This will be the first of two solo recitals to be given by pianist András Schiff on the final stage of his North American tour. Both concerts will be presented jointly by San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), the latter as part of the Great Performers Series. Unless I am mistaken, this concert will provide the first opportunity here in San Francisco to listen to Schiff’s interpretations of the music of Johannes Brahms. He will play two of that composer’s collections of short pieces, the eight in Opus 76 and the seven in Opus 116, which he called “fantasias.” These pieces will be flanked on either side by the other two of Hans von Bülow’s “Three Bs.” Brahms will be preceded by Beethoven’s Opus 78 sonata in F-sharp minor and followed by Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 811, the sixth (and last) of the so-called “English” suites, written in the key of D minor. The Beethoven sonata will be preceded by another F-sharp minor composition, Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 28 fantasia, also known as the “Sonate écossaise” (Scottish sonata).

Ticket prices will be between $15 and $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 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.) The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The Box Office will also be open two hours prior to the beginning of the concert.

This is also a good time to describe the second program that Schiff prepared. He will continue his Brahms selections with that composer’s last three collections of short pieces, the three intermezzi of Opus 117, the six pieces of Opus 118, and the four pieces of Opus 119. This time the Beethoven selection, the Opus 81a (“Les Adieux”) sonata in E-flat major, will conclude the program. The Bach selection, the BWV 869 prelude and fugue in B minor, which concludes the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier will be played between Opus 118 and Opus 119. The Opus 117 and Opus 118 sets will be separated by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 511 rondo in A minor. For the opening selection, Robert Schumann will replace Mendelssohn with a performance of his WoO 24 set of variations on an original theme usually known as the Geistervariationen (ghost variations).

This second concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 17. The performance will again take place in Davies Symphony Hall. Ticket prices will be the same and may be purchased online through a separate event page.

Ars Minerva’s Operatic Character Studies at IIC

Yesterday evening the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura, IIC) hosted its latest musical offering. The title of the program was Women of the Mediterranean, and it was conceived and presented by mezzo Céline Ricci, Artistic Director of Ars Minerva. She was joined by two performers from past Ars Minerva productions, soprano Aura Veruni and mezzo Kindra Scharich. All instrumental accompaniment was provided by Derek Tam at the harpsichord.

Ricci created Ars Minerva in 2013 with the mission to engage new audiences for classical music through innovative productions of Baroque operas. The group’s first three productions all involved bringing forgotten music back to life. The first of these La Cleopatra by Daniele da Castrovillari, was presented in March of 2015, followed, a little over a year later, by Carlo Pallavicino’s Le amazoni nell’isole fortunate (the amazons in the fortunate isles). The most recent production was Pietro Andrea Ziani’s La Circe, which was given this past September. Ricci has not only performed in these productions but also covered just about all other aspects from background research to staging.

Céline Ricci in the role of Circe (from the Ars Minerva Web site)

As yesterday evening’s title suggested, the program was based on individual female roles from the operatic repertoire. The historical scope of the selections spanned the period from 1640 (Francesco Cavalli’s La Didone) to 1738 (Giovanni Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide, the next project being prepared for presentation by Ars Minerva). In the past I have often written about how, through his operatic arias, George Frideric Handel was a master of disclosing character traits, often using ternary form to capture the conflicting forces behind those traits. That technique was displayed in all its glory in Ricci’s portrayal of Medea in Handel’s HWV 9 Teseo. However, the other powerful dramatic form in opera was the lament; and that aspect of Handel’s imaginative skill was presented by Veruni, singing the role of Cleopatra in his HWV 17 Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar).

These are but two examples (by the most familiar composer on the program) from an overall presentation that examined nine different female operatic roles, each involving a different personality in a different dramatic situation. Perhaps the most salient virtue of the program was Ricci’s ability to maintain audience attention through the diversity of the offerings and the brief spoken texts through which each character was introduced to the audience. While there was no unifying narrative flow across the entire program, Ricci’s approach to presentation elegantly transcended the fatal trap of reducing the selections to Winston Churchill’s “one damned thing after another.” Through her conception and realization of the program, the attentive listener was drawn to not only the distinguishing musical properties of each selection but also the rich diversity of personalities that could be so penetratingly depicted through those musical properties.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

NEQ to Conclude Season with All-Haydn Program

Next month the New Esterházy Quartet will present the last of the four programs prepared for their eleventh season. Readers may recall that the entire season was conceived as a chronological “tour” of the early history of string quartet performance, with particular attention to works composed by Joseph Haydn. Each concert involved a different geographical location and a different year as follows:
  1. Italy, 1766
  2. Vienna, 1784
  3. Paris, 1822
  4. London, 1845
Since Haydn died in 1809, he was only alive at the time of the first two concerts. Furthermore, he was only present at the second, where he was playing second violin to Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf in the first chair. This gathering was best known for the presence of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on viola. (The cellist was Johann Baptist Wanhal.)

Ironically, the time and place of the final concert of the season have more to do with Ludwig van Beethoven than with Haydn. 1845 was the year in which the Beethoven Quartet Society was established in London, and it became the first organization to present the complete cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets. These were given in a series of concerts between April 21, 1845 and June 16, 1845. The members of the string quartet performing this cycle were violinists Camillo Sivori and Prosper Sainton, violist Henry Hill, and cellist Scipion Rousselot.

One would have thought that, after such an ambitious undertaking, those four musicians would have deserved an extended period of rest. However, the Society had other ideas. They decided (in an announcement released to their public) “that the same professional talent, and the same careful preparatory study which has made the beauties of the Beethoven Quartets so clear and intelligible to those who had the good fortune to attend the late performances in Harley Street should be applied to an illustration of the Quartets of Haydn, the great Father of that refined Music.” The performers decided that the program for this performance would consist of four Haydn quartets from different periods of his life. These are all in Volume III of Anthony van Hoboken catalog, with specific catalog numbers as follows:
  1. 22 in D minor: the fourth of the Opus 9 quartets, published in 1769
  2. 32 in C major: the second of the Opus 20 quartets, published in 1772
  3. 63 in D major: the fifth of the Opus 64 quartets, known as the “Lark” quartet, published in 1790
  4. 78 in B-flat major: the fourth of the Opus 76 quartets, known as the “Sunrise” quartet, published in 1797
This program, which covers almost 30 years of Haydn’s life will be the final offering of the season to be performed by NEQ. The title of the program will be Gratitude to Haydn. Haydn may not have “invented” the string quartet as a genre. However, he definitely had a strong hand in elevating it from the sort of private setting that he and Mozart shared with their colleagues to the public forum of audiences willing to pay a price of admission. In other words “Papa” Haydn may be regarded as the “father” of the very occasion that NEQ has organized for the conclusion of their season.

Like all of their other San Francisco performances, NEQ will present Gratitude to Haydn on a Saturday afternoon, April 14, at 4 p.m. Once again the venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. General admission is $30. Seniors, the disabled, and members of the San Francisco Early Music Society will be admitted for $25; and there is a $10 rate for students with valid identification. A Brown Paper Tickets event page has been set up for advance ticket purchases.

Lera Auerbach’s Imaginative Diptych for SFP

Pianist and composer Lera Auerbach (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night Lera Auerbach returned to Herbst Theatre to make her fourth appearance presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). This time she came as the third of the four pianists giving recitals in the 2017–2018 Piano Series. Her program was a particularly special one, however, because the second half consisted entirely of the world premiere of Labyrinth, which was commissioned by SFP and written in honor of SFP Founder and President Emeritus Ruth Felt. This extended suite, roughly 50 minutes in duration, was preceded by another extended suite of approximately the same duration, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

It would be fair to describe Labyrinth as a “response” to the “call” of Mussorgsky’s suite. However, the response tends to be more one of differences, rather than similarities. Mussorgsky composed a well-considered “promenade” through an imagined but orderly display of drawings and watercolors produced by Viktor Hartmann. Auerbach’s labyrinth certainly has order; but it is, to paraphrase Henry Miller, an order which is not necessarily readily understood. Thus, in place of Mussorgsky’s “Promenade” movements, which guide the lister from one visual impression to another, Auerbach introduces an imagined character called the Traumwanderer (dream wanderer), whose “passages” follow the twists and turns of the composer’s imagined labyrinth in which pictures have been replaced by the “imaginary beings” conceived by Jorge Luis Borges.

However, before examining the nature of these passages and beings, it is necessary to consider Auerbach’s “response” as a pianist to the “call” of Mussorgsky’s score. The very opening notes were delivered with intense attacks and raised dampers that allowed the entire body of the piano to resonate with every note. Rather than serving as a polite entry into a room of images, Auerbach confronted the listener with a challenge:
I know you have heard this music many times before; but, believe me, this time will be different!
There is no doubt that difference was established to a significant, if not awe-inspiring, degree.

The most evident feature involved wild swings between dynamic extremes. Just as wild were her virtually unfettered approaches to rapid passages, played as if the keys were about to fly away from the body of the instrument. In addition there was her ability to invent embellishments for certain passages that had not been captured by Mussorgsky’s marks on paper, every one of which made perfect sense in the context of the notes that the composer did write. Finally, there was some sense of a tongue-in-cheek reminder that Mussorgsky was subject to fits of madness, which were probably related to his alcoholism. Auerbach seemed to be channeling a persona that was not quite in its right mind, but there was never a sense that her own performing was about to run off the rails.

Labyrinth, on the other hand, might be viewed as a journey through efforts to seek out order in the midst of a vast imagined confusion. In addressing the audience before playing her music, Auerbach stressed that the audience was not obliged to know anything about Borges’ imaginary beings, just as most who listen to Mussorgsky’s suite have seen few, if any, of Hartmann’s images. Indeed, even the Traumwanderer music is more of a mood setting than the clearly defined theme of Mussorgsky’s “Promenade” movements. That mood then inhabits those imaginary beings that inhabit Auerbach’s labyrinth, and it is unlikely that even those familiar with Borges’ descriptions would have recognized them on the basis of only a single listening experience.

However, if the level of detail was never “intuitively obvious,” one had no trouble apprehending the overall rhetoric of uncertainty. Indeed, in her remarks Auerbach even made it clear that most listeners could well get lost in her labyrinth. However, she assured all that she would eventually lead us to the exit.

Thus, I have no trouble asserting that my own listening skills were put to the test. Nevertheless, while there were times when, even with the title headings on the program sheet, I was not sure where I was, as I wandered further into Auerbach’s labyrinth, I realized I could look back and detect the first signs of order in where I had been. By the time I reached the exit that Auerbach has prepared, I realized that I was all set to make the journey again. I just hope that I do not have to wait too long for my next venture into that labyrinth!

As a “reward” for our completing her journey, Auerbach served up four encores, announcing none of them. The one everyone recognized was a repeat of the “Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” from the Mussorgsky suite. Auerbach served up a clear sense of humor when she performed this in the context of the entire suite, and her humor was just as enjoyable in the excerpt. That selection was preceded by music by Alexander Scriabin that I have not yet had enough experience to identify. The chicks were then followed by two of Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas. Here, too, I cannot recognize all of them specifically; but the second was the K. 9 in D minor, which seems to be a favorite for many pianists, past and present. (In my personal collection of recordings, one of those “past” pianists is Dinu Lipatti.)

[added 3/28, 10:35 a.m.:

The Scriabin encore was the second (in A minor) of the Opus 11 set of 24 preludes in all of the major and minor keys. (I feel very sheepish about this, since I actually put some time into learning to play that particular prelude!) The first of the two Scarlatti encores was the K. 149, also in A minor.]

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Two Student Cello Recitals at SFCM This Week

Readers have probably noticed that the monthly previews for concerts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) tend to focus on faculty and visitors. However, they also probably know that, every now and then, I shall put up an advance piece about a student recital. Such articles are usually triggered by students industrious enough to create and post Facebook Event pages. I figure that such students should be rewarded a bit for their initiative (at least until Cambridge Analytica comes up with a way to use information about Bohuslav Martinů for more insidious purposes)!

With those observations as context, I felt it worth letting readers know that this week will be offering two student cello recitals on two consecutive days. I have long had a personal interest in the cello; and, unless I am mistaken, the very first time I decided to take on a major box set during my tenure at, the box was one of all of the EMI recordings made by Mstislav Rostropovich. As a result I am currently reviewing my iCal to see if I can squeeze at least one of these into my listening schedule.

Like all student recital offerings, these concerts will be free of charge; and reservations will not be required. The SFCM building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Readers are encouraged to consult the Performance Calendar Web page at the SFCM Web site for the most up-to-date information about both of these offerings. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, March 28, 8:30 p.m., Recital Hall: Cellist Leo Baluk is a first-year Master’s student, and this will be his very first SFCM recital. This program will feature the last of the three suites for cello composed by Ernest Bloch in 1957, near the end of his life when he was living in Agate Beach in Oregon. The major works to be played with piano accompaniment will be Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonata in F major, the first of his two Opus 5 sonatas, and Friedrich Grützmacher’s arrangement of Luigi Boccherini’s B-flat major cello concerto. Baluk will also play Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 109 in D major, entitled “Song Without Words” and not related to any of the 48 solo piano pieces given the same title. Baluk will have two piano accompanists, Amy Chiu and Xiaoxiao Ji.

Thursday, March 29, 7:30 p.m., Osher Salon: Complementing Baluk’s concert, cellist Edward Luengo will be performing his last recital as an SFCM undergraduate. Luengo’s program will be distinguished by a departure from the usual coupling of cello and piano. He will play Zoltán Kodály’s Opus 7, a duo for violin and cello. His violinist partner will be Maria van der Sloot. All of the other works on the program will have piano accompaniment. His “historical” offerings will be Beethoven’s WoO 46, the set of seven variations of the duet “Bei Männern, welch Liebe fühlen” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute, and Johannes Brahms’ Opus 99 (second) sonata in F major. The second half of the program will present two relatively recent works. Luengo will conclude with a piece by Jérôme Ducros entitled, appropriately enough, “Encore.” Composed in 2009, this will be preceded by “Les Chants de l’Agartha,” which Guillaume Connesson composed in 2008. In addition, the first half of the program will include Pablo Casals’ arrangement of the first of three songs that Gabriel Fauré published as his Opus 7, “Après un rêve.” Accompaniment will be shared by three pianists, Chiu (again), Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Kevin Lee Sun.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Napolitano’s Inventive Album of Time-Consciousness

This Friday Odradek Records will release its latest solo album of Italian pianist Pina Napolitano. Napolitano first came to my attention when Odradek released her recording of the complete piano music of Arnold Schoenberg, but I must confess that the cognitive scientist that continues to lurk within me was as interested in her background in Classical Philology as it was in her approach to playing Schoenberg’s music. In some respects the breadth of her scholarly background is as evident in her new album, entitled Brahms the Progressive and currently available for pre-order from, as it was in her Schoenberg album, if not more so.

Those not up on their Schoenberg may not know that the source of the title of this new album comes from Schoenberg himself. It was originally the title of a radio talk that Schoenberg delivered in 1933 as part of a celebration of the centennial of the birth of Johannes Brahms on May 7, 1833. This lecture took in more than most radio listeners could accommodate, but the world had to wait until 1950 for a printed version to appear in the collection Style and Idea. Schoenberg’s introductory note described it as “a fully reformulated version of my original lecture;” and it would be subsequently re-edited by Leonard Stein for an expanded edition of Style and Idea, which was first published in 1975.

There is much to be gained from reading this essay. On my first encounter, I was particularly aware that Schoenberg had as much to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as he had to say about Brahms. However, what struck me the most was the way in which he felt it was necessary to discuss the nature of composition for the sake of better informing the attentive listener. As a practicing musician with well-cultivated listening skills, Napolitano could approach the essay from a different point of view. As her album notes observe, hers was a perspective on the nature of time-consciousness or, as she put it, “the past continuously rethought, relived, and in a certain sense changed by the present.”

That perspective was given a more poetic account in the opening lines of “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Four Quartets poems by T. S. Eliot:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
For that matter, Eliot’s text amounts to a poetic account of the more prosaic text in the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, analysis that is almost frighteningly consistent with what “wet brain” scientists have been discovering about time-consciousness over the last few decades.

Thus, when I listen to the two collections of short pieces by Brahms (Opera 118 and 119) on this new album, the act of doing so is informed by not only my own crude attempts to play these pieces some 30-odd years ago but also the many ways in which I have listened to performances since then, both in concert and on recording. Indeed, the same can be said of the recordings of the Opus 1 sonata of Alban Berg and Anton Webern’s Opus 27 “Variations for piano.” Indeed, I came to this album with listening experience of every selection, including the Webern pieces without opus numbers, the 1906 piece for piano, the 1924 “Piece for children,” and the 1925 piece “in the tempo of a minuet.”

As one who cannot overlook structural properties, I was struck by how the entire album was arranged. The Berg sonata served as the “keystone” of the album’s “arch” structure. It was preceded by the early Webern piece, which, in turn, was preceded by the 1924 piece, which might be called “a young person’s guide to the twelve-tone row.” On the other side the Berg sonata was followed by the “minuet tempo” piece, which was then followed by Opus 27. This Second Viennese School “core” was preceded by Opus 118 and followed by Opus 119.

I find it interesting that the Brahms’ pieces were all composed late in the composer’s life. Berg and Webern, on the other hand, were younger and going through periods of transition, many of which were influenced by their awareness of similar transitional efforts of Schoenberg, their shared teacher. Yet what pervades the entire album is a sense of music emerging from the “immediate present” of each of the composers, a “time present” with any number of different perspectives of “time past” while, perhaps, also thinking of the “time future” that will eventually “contain” their respective efforts.

Mind you, none of these abstruse philosophical perspectives need have any impact on how one actually listens to this new album. What is important is the expressiveness that Napolitano brings to her interpretations of Brahms, which reminds us that the immediate present of listening to her is just as vivid as Schoenberg’s immediate present when he listened to the late piano music of Brahms being played. Similarly, the vividness of that immediate present of Schoenberg and his pupils then “progresses” through time to become the immediate present in which Napolitano can play the works of all three of those composers. In other words the cognitive exercises that emerge from listening to this album’s scope of different “times past” may then result in a more informed approach to listening to Napolitano’s earlier all-Schoenberg album. All of those experiences may then resonate in subsequent acts of listening to just about any music from the nineteenth and earlier centuries.

The Bleeding Edge: 3/26/2018

This promises to be a relatively quiet week. As has already been reported, the Center for New Music (C4NM) will wrap up the month with concerts on both Thursday and Friday. That leaves only two other items for this week, one of which will require making a choice on Thursday. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, March 29, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): Since C4NM and LSG are separated by only about half a block, it can be frustrating when both are active at the same time. However, the LSG Creative Music Series is devoted almost entirely to improvisations, meaning that this particular evening will mark a significant difference from the soprano recital taking place at C4NM at the same time. This week LSG will offer three sets, rather than the usual two. The opening set will be taken by The Shoes, which seems to be a trio that describes itself as “Avant-garde psychedelic jazz punk” without naming and names. The second set will be taken by a trio led by sfSound saxophonist (and sometime conductor) John Ingle. His rhythm backup will be provided by Kjell Nordeson on drums and Scott Walton on bass. The final set will be taken by a similar (but not quite so) trio called Key West, whose members are Brian Pedersen on saxophone, Jay Korber on drums, and Randylee Sutherland on cello. 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.

Sunday, April 1, 9 p.m., The Lab: The latest offering from The Lab appears to have more to do with April Fools’ Day than with Easter Sunday. That seems the best way to approach the title of the program, Psychodropping: raising a hire self: consultations in blended mediums. This will be, in part, a release party for a new DVD of Oracle+; but it will also be a launch concert for a tour that Oracle+ will be making with RRLEW and Frank’s Tina Tales. Based in Oakland, Oracle+ is the duo of sisters Stephanie and Miel Lister, whose influences include muscle cars and computers. Also from Oakland is Frank’s Tina Takes, a solo set by an “Armchair pathologist of the last century and beyond.” Between these two sets, Rachel Lewallen will present her latest solo project, RRLEW, which she calls “the Rube Goldberg Machine of performance art.”

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 $15, and members of The Lab will be admitted for free. Advance registration is strongly advised. Separate Web pages have been created for members and the general public. Doors will open at 8:30 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.

Unfamiliar Repertoire from Edward Neeman

Pianist Edward Neeman (courtesy of Old First Concerts)

Yesterday afternoon at the Old First Presbyterian Church, the Old First Concerts series presented a solo recital by the Australian-American pianist Edward Neeman. Neeman used the occasion to introduce the music of his teacher at Australian National University, Larry Sitsky, to the audience. He devoted the second half of the program to the West Coast premiere performance of Sitsky’s first piano sonata. The composer names for the first half, Jan Ladislav Dussek and Paul Schoenfield, were probably familiar to at least some of the audience; but the compositions themselves were most likely “first contact” experiences.

Sitsky gave his first sonata the title “Retirer d’en bas de l’eau” (retrieve from the waters of the abyss), a phrase referring to the voodoo ritual that invokes the invisible spirits of the dead. Each of the movements has a programmatic title, beginning with “The Waters of the Abyss.” This is followed by “Invocations of the Invisibles,” “Loa of the Crossroads,” and “Danse de rejuissance” (dance of rejoicing). He wrote this sonata for Neeman, who gave the world premiere performance at the Juilliard School.

Any programmatic framework is secondary to the strikingly aggressive improvisatorial rhetoric of the music. The details of the ritual (which Neeman tried to explain without very much success) are secondary to the more general idea of the loss of the individual self as part of an ecstatic religious ceremony. The music itself abounds with violent tone clusters, which could not have done a better job of orienting curious listers in preparation for the celebration of the music of Henry Cowell to be presented by Bard Music West at the beginning of next month. At the same time, there is at least the appearance of an intense devotion to the faith behind the ritual, suggesting that this music could have been written by Olivier Messiaen had he, in another life, chosen voodoo over Catholicism.

The Sitsky sonata was definitely the high point of Neeman’s recital. His approach to Dussek’s final piano sonata, Opus 77 in F minor, given the title “L’invocation,” tended to be weak on grounds of both technique and rhetoric. Neeman played as if he had lead weights on his right foot, muddling any sense of Dussek’s skills as a polyphonist in a murk of sustained notes. Schoenfield’s witty music has had several advocates in San Francisco; but, according to Neeman, he and his teacher, James Tocco, are the only ones (other than Schoenfield) to have performed the composer’s Peccadilloes suite. Unfortunately, in hammering out all of the notes on the score pages, Neeman never managed to capture any of that trademarked Schoenfield wit in this composition.

Neeman’s encore came from one of Fanny Mendelssohn’s collections of short pieces entitled Songs Without Words, but he never bothered to say which piece from which collection.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Warner Classics’ Remastering of Live Callas

courtesy of Warner Classics

In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the death of soprano Maria Callas on September 16, 1977, Warner Classics released Maria Callas Live: Remastered Live Recordings 1949–1964. Thus turned out to be what the late General Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. would have called the “mother of all historical recording collections,” a box set of 42 CDs encompassing twenty complete opera recordings along with three Blu-ray discs providing video documents of five performances. As readers might guess, it took me quite some time to work through the entirety of this package; and, in the interest of full disclaimer, I must begin by observing that I am not now nor have even been one of those rabid enthusiastic fans of all things Callas. Nevertheless, this is a project that clearly cannot be overlooked; and, as always, it will be up to the individual listener to decide just how rewarding the results are.

My guess is that the first thing likely to be on the mind any reader with even casual knowledge of Callas will be whether or not the collection includes the famous (notorious?) “Lisbon Traviata.” For those unacquainted with the story behind that unauthorized recording or the play by Terrence McNally (called “The Lisbon Traviata”), it concerns Callas singing the role of Violetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata in a performance at the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos is Lisbon (capital of Portugal) on March 27, 1958. So, for the benefit of those holding their breaths, this recording is decidedly part of the collection.

Because the recording was unauthorized, only two thousand albums of long-playing vinyls were pressed, which is why it became as much a cult object as a collector’s item. My guess is that there were even collectors for whom possession was enough. Like many collectors of early jazz, the fact that playing the record would subject it to wear and tear meant that holding the object was more important than listening to it.

Fortunately, that cult status went out the window with the arrival of CD technology. It did not take long for the recording to receive mass production, and it became just another opera recording. So how does the recording hold up to attentive listening? For that matter, how to any of the recordings in this anniversary collection (most, if not all, of which are similarly unauthorized) hold up for those more interested in the music than the legendary Callas personality?

This is where I must disclose my personal skepticism. Across all twenty of those full-length recordings of “live” opera performances, Callas is consistent only when it comes to uneven execution. Whenever there is some baseline reference for pitch, her intonation seldom homes in on it. Furthermore, that inconsistent sense of pitch is magnified by dynamic levels that swing into fortissimo far more often than they register expressively in piano or softer. To be fair, both of these problems may be attributed to inattentive conducting or adverse acoustic conditions in the space being recorded, which would explain why those recordings were never officially sanctioned for production.

Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that nineteenth-century Italian opera is far from my favorite genre, I have to say that it was only through that Lisbon recording that I began to cultivate a serious appreciation of the tenor voice of Alfredo Kraus. Mind you, I have always had serious concerns about how the role of Alfredo Germont is performed after having listened to Niccolai Gedda make an absolute hash of it at the Metropolitan Opera in the late Eighties. To be fair, Gedda had passed his 60th birthday by the time of that performance; but, for better or worse, he managed to keep himself into the game up through his late 70s.

Kraus was not the only “second banana” in this set that drew my enthusiastic attention. Baritone Tito Gobbi’s Scarpia at the Royal Opera House in London in early 1964 provided the key to elevating Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca above the level of cheap melodrama. This makes the two CDs of the performance on January 24, 1964 more than worth the price of admission, as does the black-and-white video of the second act made shortly thereafter on February 9. Of course much of the impact of the video came from Franco Zeffirelli’s direction of the production. However, this just showed that Gobbi was as good at giving Zeffirelli what he wanted as he was in serving up a compelling account of Puccini’s music.

That leaves the one unexpected surprise the occurred while working my way through this collection. That was the September 29, 1955 performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor made at what was then called the Städtische Oper in Berlin with Herbert von Karajan conducting. It was through this recording that I finally developed some respect for Donizetti’s skills through the sextet sung in the second act. Karajan had a solid command in coordinating the conflicted roles of Edgardo (Giuseppe Di Stefano), Enrico (Rolando Panerai), Lucia (Callas), Raimondo (Nicola Zaccaria), Arturo (Giuseppe Zampieri), and Alisa (Luisa Villa). If no one else could coax Callas into being a good team player, Karajan should be credited as the conductor who succeeded where others never really managed.

Nicholas Phan’s SFP Recital will Include Preview

SFP Vocal Artist-in-Residence Nicholas Phan (courtesy of SFP)

Next month the San Francisco Performances (SFP) 2017–2018 Vocal Series will conclude with a recital by the current Vocal Artist-in-Residence, tenor Nicholas Phan. This will be Phan’s first Vocal Series concert, having already appeared twice in past Salon Series offerings, the most recent of which was almost exactly a year ago. His accompanist will be pianist Myra Huang, who will be making her SFP debut this coming Saturday, when she accompanies Lawrence Brownlee’s Vocal Series recital.

The title of Phan’s program will be La Bonne Chanson—Songs of the Parisian Belle Époque. The period of the Belle Époque (beautiful era) is usually set between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the beginning of World War I in 1914. This was a time when Paris saw the emergence and flourishing of several significant composers, including Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, and Erik Satie. This was also the time of the short-lived Lili Boulanger and one of the more innovative composers of art song, Reynaldo Hahn.

All of these composers will be included in Phan’s program. Indeed, the Fauré selection will be La Bonne Chanson, his Opus 61 cycle of nine poems from a volume with the same title by Paul Verlaine. Fauré composed this collection between 1892 and 1894, followed by a version for voice, piano, and string quartet, which he created in 1898. The Debussy selection will also present Verlaine poems, six of which he collected for his Ariettes oubliées (forgotten songs), which he completed in 1887. The Satie cycle will be Ludions (probably best rendered in English as “let us play”), a setting of five texts by Léon-Paul Fargue with provocative titles such as “The American Frog” and “Rat’s Tune.” The program will also include selections from the two volumes that Boulanger published under the title Clairières dans le ciel (clearings in the sky). The program will begin with Hahn’s setting of Théophile de Viau’s poem “À Chloris.”

This recital will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 12. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is 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. Tickets 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.

In addition, SFP will present a “prequel” to Phan’s recital, a lecture/performance entitled French Song and the Belle Époque. The lecture will be delivered by SFP Music Historian-in-Residence Robert Greenberg. On the performance side Phan will share the stage with vocalist colleagues Rhoslyn Jones (soprano) and Renée Rapier (mezzo). In addition, pianist Robert Mollicone will be joined by the members of the Alexander String Quartet, violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. Presumably, this will provide an opportunity to listen to how Fauré reworked some of his Opus 61 songs for voice, piano, and string quartet. The other composer whose music will be performed will be Debussy.

This event will also take place in Herbst Theater at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 7. Regular readers probably know that the entire weekend will be a busy one, but this afternoon event will conflict with only a few of the alternatives previously summarized. Ticket prices will be the same as those for the April 12 recital. Tickets may again be purchased in advance online through a City Box Office event page.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

SFS Announces Conductors for April

Next month there will be three subscription programs presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), none of which will be conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. The original plan was that the first of these would be led by Daniel Harding, making his SFS debut; and the other two were scheduled for Charles Dutoit’s annual visit to the podium in Davies Symphony Hall. However, because SFS severed all ties with Dutoit at the end of last year, the two programs planned by Dutoit will be led by two different conductors with only one minor alteration.

While Harding will be new to SFS, this will not be his first appearance in Davies. He led the Staatskapelle Dresden when they gave a Great Performers Series concert in October of 2010; and, at that time, I was impressed with not only his conducting but also with the appearance of pianist Rudolf Buchbinder as his concerto soloist in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 54 (fourth) piano concerto in G major. At next month’s concerts, Harding’s debut will be complemented by the SFS debut of his concerto soloist, pianist Paul Lewis. Once again the concerto will be by Beethoven, this time Opus 37 (the third) in C minor. That concerto will fill the first half of the program.

The second half will be devoted entirely to Richard Strauss’ Opus 64 tone poem “An Alpine Symphony.” In spite of the title, there is nothing in this piece’s 22 continuous sections that even vaguely suggests symphonic structure. Nevertheless, this is an extended (on the order of one hour) work for a massive ensemble (about 125 players). It is also Strauss’ last tone poem before he shifted his focus to opera.

This concert will be given three performances, at 2 p.m. on Thursday, April 12, and at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 13, and Saturday, April 14. Ticket prices range from $15 to $159. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, there is a free podcast about “An Alpine Symphony,” hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone, which can be played on that event page. In order to listen to SFS audio files, Flash must be enabled. Finally, the Inside Music talk will be given by Scott Foglesong, one hour prior to the beginning of the performance. Doors will open fifteen minutes earlier. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The following week Yan Pascal Tortelier will return to the SFS podium as the first replacement for Dutoit. The program will be devoted entirely to Maurice Ravel, but not in a way that one might anticipate. Tortelier will begin with two of Ravel’s orchestrations of piano compositions by Claude Debussy. The first of these will be the sarabande movement from the suite entitled (ironically enough) Pour le Piano. The second is the 1890 composition published under the title “Danse” but also known as “Tarantelle styrienne.” These selections will be followed by Ravel’s best known song cycle with orchestral accompaniment, Shéhérazade. The vocalist will be mezzo Susan Graham. The second half of the program will present Tortelier’s own concert arrangement of the music that Ravel composed for the one-act ballet “Daphnis et Chloé.”

This concert will be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 19, Friday, April 20, and Saturday, April 21. Ticket prices range from $39 to $159. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, there is a sound clip of previous SFS performances of the “Daphnis and Chloé” music, which can be played on that event page; and Rik Malone’s podcast about that music is currently available from the Program Note Podcasts Web page. In order to listen to these audio files, Flash must be enabled. Finally, the Inside Music talk will be given by James Keller, one hour prior to the beginning of the performance. Doors will open fifteen minutes earlier. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The second replacement for Dutoit will be SFS Resident Conductor Christian Reif. The program will put an intriguing dramatic twist on the usual overture-concerto-symphony format. The opening selection will be “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” an orchestral excerpt from Richard Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods), the last of the four operas that constitute Der Ring des Nibelungen. (Fun fact for denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Götterdämmerung is the German translation of the Old Norse noun “Ragnarök.”) The “Rhine Journey” is not, strictly speaking, an overture; but it is played during the transition between the prologue and the first act, which sort of makes it the overture in the three-act frame of reference! (This is the one departure from Dutoit’s original plan, which was to begin with a “real” opera overture.)

The remainder of the program will follow up on the Wagner spirit of the opening. The concerto will be by Wagner’s friend (as well as the conductor of the premiere of Lohengrin), Franz Liszt, his second piano concerto in A major. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet will return to the Davies stage to serve as concerto soloist. The “symphony” on the program will be Gustav Holst’s best-known venture into working with Wagnerian orchestral resources, his Opus 32 suite entitled The Planets. The women of the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) will provide the haunting voices as the final movement (“Neptune, the Mystic”) fades into the ether.

This concert will be given three performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 26, and Friday, April 27, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 29. Ticket prices range from $39 to $159. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. In addition, there are sound clips of previous SFS performances of both the Liszt and Holst selections, which can be played on that event page. Rik Malone’s podcast about The Planets will be added to the Program Note Podcasts Web page prior to the first performance of this program. In order to listen to these audio files, Flash must be enabled. Finally, the Inside Music talk will be given by Foglesong, one hour prior to the beginning of the performance. Doors will open fifteen minutes earlier. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

In addition, these performances will be preceded by a Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 26, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Foglesong at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the pieces rehearsed are at the conductor’s discretion. General admission is $30 with $40 for reserved seats in the Premiere Orchestra section, the Side and Rear Boxes, and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

Schick’s Last SFCMP Round: Concert #1

Last night I went over to Z Space to take in the first of the four concerts wrapping up the 2017–18 season of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP). Presented as part of the at the CROSSROADS series, the four programs were designed to recognize two landmark occasions: the 85th anniversary of the birth of Pauline Oliveros and the conclusion of Steven Schick’s tenure as SFCMP’s Artistic Director. Last night the second concert was devoted to Oliveros, while the first took place on Schick’s turf.

That turf was, indeed, one of “crossroads,” coupling two pieces from the present decade with two composed about half a century ago. Strictly speaking, however, it was unclear whether or not those two roads ever “crossed.” Indeed the contrasts between the two ends of that half-century were almost shocking in their differences, both technical and rhetorical.

The highlight of the evening was the the world premiere of “Cold mountains, one belt, heartbreak green” composed by Carolyn Chen under an SFCMP commission. Chen’s instrumentation was, to say the least, imaginative: bass flute (Tod Brody), violin (Hrabba Atladottir), cello (Stephen Harrison), harp (Karen Gottlieb), and percussion (Loren Mach). Chen was inspired by Wai Lim Yip’s English translation of a poem by Li Bai. The title comes from the second line of that poem, and the sections of her composition correspond to individual noun phrases in the English text.

Sadly, the program notes by Robert Jackson Wood gave a rather haphazard account of those sections and their associated nouns; so the attentive listener was left with the sonorities evoked by the performers. In their pre-concert conversation, Chen and Schick talked about the challenge of working with instruments having distinctively different dynamic ranges. Sadly, the techniques discussed in theory during that conversation never really surfaced in practice. Instead, one could appreciate how different voices would come and go within a somewhat nebulous context in which an integrated blend never seemed to be part of the agenda.

A much better sense of resource management could be found in Xavier Beteta’s “La Catedrale Abandonata,” evoking two abandoned cathedrals in Mexico and Germany, respectively. The opening seemed to suggest a parallel with Claude Debussy’s “La Cathédrale engloutie” (the sunken cathedral) prelude, with Debussy’s sustained echoing open fifths being replaced by the ostinato of a single tone. Over the course of only about ten minutes, Beteta knew how to evoke a poignant sense of isolation reflecting on the ruined structures that had inspired him, thus making for one of the more memorable offerings of the evening.

Just as memorable was Galina Ustvolskaya’s “Grand Duet” for cello (Harrison) and piano (Kate Campbell). Composed in 1957, this was, without a doubt, the most aggressive work on the program. The violence of its rhetoric delivers as shocking punch today as it did over 50 years ago. The demands on the cello were so aggressive that, for one of the five movements, Harrison switched over to a bass bow to get a stronger sound out of his strings. Yet, while the performance clearly aimed to assault the senses, both Harrison and Campbell brought a clarity to Ustvolskaya’s writing that led the attentive listener through her twenty-minute wild ride with little sense of how much time had passed.

On the other hand Luciano Berio’s 1964 Folk Songs felt like it went on forever. Much of the problem was due to the fact that no text sheet was provided for these songs. For that matter, there was no clear list of what the songs were or the different “folk” sources behind them. All that was provided was the URL for the Web page giving the lyrics and (when necessary) their translations. Sadly, the layout was so poor that this page would not even have served those bothering to bring it up on their cell phones.

Berio’s intention seems to have been to rethink traditional music by providing unconventional instrumental settings. As a result, this rather modest collection requires two percussionists (Mach and Nick Woodbury), along with two winds, flute (Brody) and clarinet (Peter Josheff), two bowed strings, viola (Meena Bhasin) and cello (Harrison), and a harp (Gottlieb). The songs themselves, written for Cathy Berberian, were sung by mezzo Silvie Jensen. By the third song one could pretty much “get” what Berio was trying to do; and little was gained from listening to him do it again and again over the full stretch of eleven songs.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Holy Week at Church of the Advent

Paul Ellison leading Schola Adventus at last year’s Palm Sunday celebration (from the Church of the Advent Web site)

This Sunday will mark the beginning of Holy Week with the celebration of Palm Sunday. Paul Ellison, Director of Music at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King, has prepared a rich selection of both processional and vocal music for six of the services that will be held between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. The vocal resources will be those of the church’s resident professional choir, Schola Adventus. Here are the specifics regarding those selections:

March 25 (Palm Sunday), 11 a.m.: This is the service for the Blessing of Palms, a Procession, and a High Mass celebration. It will include a plainsong incantation of the Passion text from the Gospel of Mark. Vocal selections will be by Tomás Luis de Victoria, Giammatteo Asola, and Orlande de Lassus.

March 28 (Holy Wednesday), 6:30 p.m.: This will be a Choral Tenebrae service with music by Victoria and Manuel Cardoso.

March 29 (Maundy Thursday), 6:30 p.m.: This is the service the celebrates the Stripping of the Altar. There will again be a Procession and High Mass celebration. The music for the Procession will be Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 654 chorale prelude on the hymn “Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele” (adorn yourself, O dear soul). This is the fifth chorale is the collection of eighteen known as the “Leipzig” chorales. Vocal music will be by Felice Anerio, William Byrd, and Maurice Duruflé.

March 30 (Good Friday), 6:30 p.m.: This is the day of the Solemn Liturgy, which will be a plainsong incantation of the Passion text from the Gospel of John. There will also be a celebration of the Mass of the Presanctified. Music will be by Victoria, Sebastián de Vivanco, John IV of Portugal, Giovanni Maria Nanino, and Pierre de Manchicourt.

March 31 (Holy Saturday), 10:30 p.m.: This will be the night of the Great Vigil followed by the First Mass of Easter. The postlude will be Jean Langlais’ “Incantation pour un jour saint” (incantation for a holy day). Vocal music will be by Anerio, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Heinrich Isaac. A hosted reception will follow this service.

April 1 (Easter Sunday), 11 a.m.: Holy Week will conclude with a Procession and High Mass. The Langlais organ composition will again be performed as postlude. Vocal music will be by Victoria, Byrd, and Ferdinando di Lasso, son of Lassus. There will also be a singing of Charles Wood’s arrangement of the traditional Dutch hymn “This joyful Eastertide.”

The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center. There will, of course, be no admission fee for any church service; but those attending the service are kindly requested to leave something in the collection plate.

Glorious Viennese Polyphony from MTT and SFS

Alma Mahler, the link between the two compositions on last night’s program (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The concept of polyphony almost always tends to be associated primarily with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his predecessors. However, the approach to composition based on the coordination of multiple voices began to reemerge in early twentieth-century Vienna (a city that was far from a hotbed of polyphony in pre-Classical music history). Restoring the priority of polyphony played a major role in Arnold Schoenberg’s efforts to “emancipate” dissonance; and those efforts would be subsequently reflected in the works of his two best-known pupils, Alban Berg and Anton Webern.

Nevertheless, the revival of polyphony did not strike Schoenberg like a bolt from the blue. He would have been well aware of how Gustav Mahler utilized polyphonic thinking, particularly in his works for large orchestra. Mahler, in turn, through his “day job” with the Vienna Court Opera would have been just as aware of how Richard Wagner could use polyphonic approaches to his thematic material to enhance their dramatic effect.

As a result, polyphony served as a significant unifying theme, so to speak, last night in Davies Symphony Hall, when Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) led the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in a “preview” performance of the concert program that SFS will take on its three-city tour of Southern California, which will begin this Tuesday. Like the above two paragraphs, that program takes a “reverse flow” approach to music history, beginning with Berg’s violin concerto, followed, after the intermission, by Mahler’s fifth symphony in C-sharp minor. This made for a major undertaking, lasting almost half an hour longer than a “standard” SFS program; but it was easy to lose track of time when the offerings were so stimulating.

For those of us going in with knowledge of both of these compositions, it became quickly apparent how powerful this pairing would be. Among those less familiar with it, the Berg concerto is probably best associated with its dedication “to the memory of an angel.” The music was Berg’s response to the news of the death by polio of Manon Gropius, the eighteen-year old girl whose father was the architect Walter Gropius and whose mother was Mahler’s widow. It is easy to take a biographical account of the concerto’s two movements, the first evoking the subject’s carefree childhood (including a Carinthian folk tune) and the second beginning in the shadow of death and steadily working its way to the Acceptance stage as described in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ book On Death and Dying (depicted by Bach’s harmonization of a chorale).

Those with a little more background know that, in writing this concerto, Berg drew upon Schoenberg’s techniques for working with a twelve-tone row but that he did not follow those techniques rigidly. Indeed, while Schoenberg conceived of the row as a way to make sure that no one pitch class had priority over any other, Berg designed a row rich with triadic implications that entailed such prioritizing. Nevertheless, the score is not so much a journey through the exposition and development of themes as it is an assembly of a diversity of motifs.

As in Wagner’s music, these motifs engage among each other through both agreements and conflicts. Furthermore, like Wagner, Berg had particular skill in distributing those motifs across his instrumental resources. Thus, one frequently encounters motifs in superposition through settings that can depict conflict as readily as agreement. It is through that ability to present not only the motifs but also the rich varieties of interplay that Berg displays his thorough understanding of polyphony as he had learned it from Schoenberg’s music; and, just as in Wagner, it is through that interplay that the music serves up its most dramatic qualities.

In last night’s performance, with Gil Shaham as violin soloist, the attentive listener quickly discovered that there was also a spatial factor in how Berg deployed his motifs. Again as in Wagner, motifs are often associated with specific instruments, which means that, in a concert setting (as opposed to listening to a recording), that attentive listener begins to be aware of the physical layout of those instruments. Furthermore, it is through spatial coordination, rather than traditional “point-against-point” thinking, that one appreciates not only the motifs themselves but also how they engage with each other, revealing yet another dimension of those Wagnerian dramatic qualities.

Shaham’s appreciation of that interplay makes him one of the best advocates for Berg’s concerto among the current crop of violinists. Through his understanding of the drama that emerges through the interplay of motifs, he knows that his violin part is not always in the foreground. As a result, when the drama calls for it, his playing can weave its way among the other motifs coming from the ensemble. He appreciates that every one of the instruments in Berg’s score has, at some time or another, a “role to play” through expressing one or more of those motifs. The solo part is just another one of those roles; and, like just about any other dramatic part, it does not spend all of its time in the spotlight.

This approach to Berg’s concerto provided an excellent context for listening to Mahler’s symphony. Once again, this is music that expresses itself through motifs, rather than through traditional themes. Furthermore, the full extent of orchestral resources is engaged in deploying those motifs. Thus, the attentive listener quickly appreciates that the spatial distribution of those resources is as meaningful in Mahler as it was in the Berg concerto.

The one factor that distinguishes the two compositions is the overall sense of flow within which those motifs emerge. While both compositions are products of intense dramatic expression, there is a jaggedness to Berg’s rhetoric that contrasts with the smoother flow encountered in Mahler. Indeed, one of Mahler’s greatest gifts is his ability to allow a motif to flow from one instrumental voice to another as it is being expressed. MTT clearly comprehended the distinction between these two strategies, and he knew how to give each of them its due attention. As a result, the attentive listener could come away from last night’s performance appreciating that the similarities across these two compositions are just as rhetorically significant as their differences.