Monday, March 19, 2018

A Significant Operatic “First” from Sony Music

courtesy of Sony Music

This past Friday Sony Music released a new recording of La liberazione di Ruggiero, the only surviving stage work by Francesca Caccini, taken by many to be the oldest existing opera by a woman composer. A contemporary of Claudio Monteverdi, Caccini got her musical training from her father and served at the Medici court. She probably did not see any of the productions of Monteverdi’s operas, written for performance during the pre-Lenten carnival in Venice; but, as a well-educated woman serving an enlightened nobility, she was was most likely aware of Monteverdi’s activities and probably would have seen publications of his scores.

Ironically, La liberazione di Ruggiero may also be the first Italian opera to be performed outside Italy. Like Monteverdi’s operas, it was first performed at Carnival time on February 3, 1625; but the performance also celebrated a visit from Prince Władysław of Poland. The opera made a deep enough impression on the prince that it received a revival performance in Warsaw in 1628. One wonders whether Monteverdi knew about this revival and had any thoughts on the matter!

The full title of the opera is La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina (the liberation of Ruggiero from the island of Alcina); and it is probably also the first opera (or at least first surviving opera) to be based on Ludovico Ariosto’s Italian epic poem Orlando furioso (the frenzy of Orlando). This particular tale of Orlando’s knight Ruggiero and the sorceress Alcina is probably better known today through George Frideric Handel’s HWV 34 opera seria Alcina; but, with Carnival in mind, Caccini conceived her opera as a comedy in four scenes with an instrumental prologue. As one listens to the music, it is not difficult to imagine that Caccini was aware of what Monteverdi had been doing and decided to try her own hand at his techniques.

The performance on this new recording is by the Huelgas Ensemble led by Paul Van Nevel. The recording was made during a performance on January 28, 2016 at the St. Augustine Church in Antwerp (Belgium) as part of the series of historically informed performances organized by AMUZ. Van Nevel prepared his own score based on the original manuscript, drawing upon different instrumental colors to accompany each of the characters in the drama. This is also the first recording of the opera to reconstruct the instrumental dances that contributed to the Carnival spirit of the original performances. Thus, while there are the same extended recitative passages that one encounters in Monteverdi, Van Nevel’s performing edition does much to lead the attentive listener through the narrative without giving any impressions of tedium. The result is a recording of a historical composition conceived in a manner that will definitely appeal to contemporary attentive listeners.

The Bleeding Edge: 3/19/2018

This is one of those weeks when the performances already announced outnumber the new ones. Mind you, this is due primarily because the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players is concluding its 2017–18 season with a weekend series of four concerts; but the Center for New Music is already “on the books” with two concerts of its own. Specifics for the remaining events are as follows:

Wednesday, March 21, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: This is the week of the monthly installment of adventurous programming. As usually is the case, the names of the performers for the four sets are (the one exception this month) as intriguing as their respective offerings: Relay For Death, Jim Haynes, AEMAE, and The Third Ear. (Finding the exception is left as an exercise for the reader.) The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Admission on a sliding scale will begin at $5. However, this will be a NOTAFLOF (no one turned away for lack of funds) event.

Thursday, March 22, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s LSG Creative Music Series concert will follow the usual two-set format. The first set will be a duo improvisation bringing tenor saxophonist Kevin Robinson together with Collette McCaslin on soprano saxophone, trumpet, and percussion. They will be followed by a solo electronics set taken by L.J. Altvater. Altvater creates cassette loops through his own cutting and splicing and then post-processes realtime playback through guitar effects pedals. 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, March 25, 4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Old First Concerts (O1C) will present pianist Edward Neeman performing the West Coast premiere of Larry Sitsky’s first piano sonata. Given the title “Retirer d’en bas de l’eau” (retrieve from below the water), the sonata was inspired by the voodoo ritual that invokes the invisible spirits of the dead. This dark composition will be complemented by Paul Schoenfield’s tongue-in-cheek Peccadilloes, a suite of six “offenses” against standards of “good taste.” The program will begin with the last (Opus 77) of Jan Ladislav Dussek’s 34 piano sonatas, written the year before his death in 1812, by which time alcoholism had gotten the better of him. He gave this sonata the title “L’invocation;” and it veers between raging invective and penitent prayer.

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.

Examining “Dream States” Through Song

Yesterday afternoon at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, Clerestory concluded its twelfth season with a program entitled Dream States: Songs of Daring and Whimsy. That subtitle suggests that, among other things, the program would use music to explore different dispositions of consciousness (such as daring and whimsy). This, in turn, led to the implication that this would probably be an offering in which the words mattered as much of the music; and, indeed, those words were reinforced by a rich set of insights revealed through the program notes provided by John Palmer. All this might lead the skeptical reader to wonder whether this was a concert or some unorthodox approach to a senior seminar.

The result was definitely a concert, but it was a vocal performance in which the words mattered as much as the music. That made it an opportunity to appreciate the clarity of diction encountered in all nine of the men of Clerestory. Yes, text sheets were still necessary. When the polyphony got thick (as it frequently did), the ear definitely needed the assistance of the printed page to resolve what the words actually were. Through that resolution, however, one could appreciate how each of the works on the program (possibly even the opening monophonic hymn) maintained an intense commitment to semantics over vague emotional impressions.

Indeed, if there was any problem with yesterday’s program, it was one of an ongoing risk of cognitive overload. Fortunately, individual selections tended to be on the short side; and, while the program was performed without intermission, the overall duration spanned a little more than an hour. Nevertheless, the richness of content with which that hour was filled put a real strain on memory trying to recollect just what had happened when one left the church sanctuary.

To my advantage, a few of selections were familiar. As a voracious consumer of all of the music of Johannes Brahms, I was glad to see two of his choral works on the program. The first of these was the setting of Paul Heyse’s “Waldesnacht” (forested night), the third of the seven choral songs in Opus 62; and the second was the second of two settings of Friedrich Rückert’s “Nachtwache” (night-watch), the second of the five choral songs in Opus 104. These were separated by a choral serenade by Edward Elgar setting Rosa Newmarch’s poem “Dreams All Too Brief,” which she adapted from a poem by Nikolai Minsky. Through recordings I had come to know all three of these pieces sung by larger resources, but the transparency afforded by the more limited Clerestory resources allowed for greater appreciation of both the polyphony and the moody qualities of the poetic texts.

Among my “first contact” experiences, the strongest probably came from Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Suite de Lorca, setting four poems by Federico García Lorca. However, I also welcomed the opportunity to listen to more of David Conte’s music in his setting of Robert Herrick’s poem “Charm Me Asleep.” Just as welcome was the idea of ending the whole program in a more popular vein. How could a program about “dream states” not include Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair?” Clerestory sang an a cappella arrangement by Gene Puerling that made this selection anything but banal. More ironic (but unintentionally so) was Jesse Antin’s arrangement of “When I Dream of Old Erin.” Nothing could have been more appropriate for Saint Patrick’s Day, even if the song was written by a Tin Pan Alley Jew (Leo Friedman, best known for having written “Let Me Call Your Sweetheart”)!

Original sheet music cover of Stephen Foster’s song (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Center for New Music: April, 2018

A fair number of concerts to be presented at the Center for New Music (C4NM) next month have now been listed on the Calendar Web page. This list is probably not complete. However, as has been the case in the past (and also the case for the Red Poppy Art House), this article can be easily updated, using my Facebook shadow site to get out the word about updates. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. There will be some variation in admission charges for the events in April. All tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini event page. Hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages will be attached to each of the dates in the following summary:

Thursday, April 5, 7 p.m.: For those not yet informed, SopraDuo is the new name of the duo that was originally called One Great City. The performers are guitarist Timothy Sherren and Alexandra Iranfar, who serves as both guitarist and vocalist. This event will be a release party to celebrate their first album under their new name. Entitled House of Dreams, the album will consist entirely of original music written for the duo. Contributing composers include Nicolas Lell Benavides, Eric Choate, Michael Kropf, Shahab Paranj, and Emma Logan, who will be curating the event. The evening will begin with a reception at which food and drink will be served, followed by performances of selections from the album at 7:30 p.m. General admission will be $25; but there will be an “early bird” rate of $15. There will also be a discounted rate of $20 for C4NM members.

Saturday, April 7, 7 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a solo recital by guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan entitled ReImaginations – Cage, Shende & Bach on Guitar. Last October Edition Peters published Larget-Caplan’s arrangements for guitar of five early and mid-career compositions by John Cage. These selections will constitute roughly half of Larget-Caplan’s program. The other half of the program is the result of his collaboration with Bowdoin College composer Vineet Shende. Shende’s Carnatic Preludes involved reimagining several of the preludes from Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in a South Indian musical language. Larget-Caplan will pair his own realization of the original Bach prelude as a guitar solo with its corresponding selection in Carnatic Preludes. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Wednesday, April 11, 8 p.m.: Jason Thorpe Buchanan will curate a solo recital by Canadian percussionist Noam Bierstone. The program will consist of four compositions: Santiago Díez Fischer’s “one poetic switch” Pierluigi Bilione’s “Mani.Gonxha,” Anthony Tan’s “Pose IV: in situ,” and Vinko Globokar’s “?Corporel.” Over the course of the evening, Bierstone will perform on the piano, Tibetan bowls, and his own body. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Friday, April 13, 8 p.m.: Curator Logan will present the final installment of her Alone/Not Alone series. The program will be an evening of art, poetry, and music for solo voice and electronics. The vocalist will be Jill Morgan Brenner; and featured composers will include: Mary Jane Leach, Cecilia Ore, Kaija Saariaho, Kate Soper, and Nina C. Young. The theme of the event will be the resilience of the human spirit as viewed through the female experience. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members, seniors, and students.

Saturday, April 14, 7:30 p.m.: This program will present new music by composers Michael Rothkopf and Ric Louchard, who have been giving joint concerts of their music for over 40 years. Participating performers will be Monica Scott (cello), Diane Grubbe and Meerenai Shim (flutes), Ron Heglin (trombone and voice), Rachel Condry (clarinet), Daniel Magay (saxophones and flute), and John Worley (trumpet). There will also be a percussionist to be named at a later date. Rothkopf will present three pieces, one for computer, one for cello and computer and one for flute duo and computer. All five of Louchard’s pieces will be scored for a septet of piano, cello, drums, trombone, clarinet, saxophone and trumpet. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Sunday, April 15, 2 p.m.: Curator Julia Ogrydziak will continue her five-part HUSH Series with its third installment, “spring.” This will be a two-hour performance installation, which will be performed by the Long Tone Choir. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Thursday, April 19, 8 p.m.: Pianist and composer Monica Chew will work with soprano Jamie Lee to present a program entitled Ladies who Lieder. The featured composition on the program will be Chew’s song cycle An ordinary woman, based on texts by women poets. The program will also include the set of five songs by Richard Wagner usually known as the Wesendonck Lieder, named after Mathilde Wesendonck, who wrote the poems that Wagner set. They will also present the so-called Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss, which were only published after his death. Last, but certainly not least, they will offer Béla Bartók’s Opus 16, a set of five songs composed in 1916 that is seldom performed. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Saturday, April 21, 6 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a visit from New York by TwoSense, the chamber duo of cellist Ashley Bathgate and pianist Lisa Moore. The title of their program will be Look Left Again, and it will consist entirely of commissioned works with a focus on Bay Areas composers. Amy Beth’s “Kirsten Spun” will receive its Bay Area premiere. The other three composers on the program will be Ryan Brown (“Three Ideas Sleep (Furiously)”), Paul Dresher (“Family Matters”), and Martin Bresnick (“Prayers Remain Forever”). General admission will be $20 with a $15 rate for C4NM members.

Sunday, April 29, 8 p.m.: The next installment of the permutations series will present the Hypercolor trio. This is an all-rhythm avant-jazz combo consisting of Lukas Ligeti on drums, Eyal Maoz on guitar, and James Ilgenfritz on electric bass. They are currently preparing to record a follow-up to their eponymous debut album, which was released in 2015 on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

An Impressive Israeli Harpist

Last night in Herbst Theatre, Chamber Music San Francisco presented a concert given by the Israeli Chamber Project (ICP). Celebrating its tenth anniversary, this group brings together a rather distinctive collection of resources. There is a string quartet consisting of violinists Daniel Bard and Carmit Zori, violist Dmitri Murrath, and cellist Michal Korman. They are joined by two wind players, Guy Eshed on flute and Tibi Cziger on clarinet, as well as pianist Assaff Weisman; but what really distinguishes the group is the presence of harpist Sivan Magen.

Magen was, by far, the most impressive member of the group. He performed in five of the six offerings on the program. His role in the group encompassed solo work, accompaniment, and ensemble performance, all of which he managed with an impressive combination of both technical discipline and rhetorical expressiveness.

The most interesting offering of the evening involved almost the entire group. Only violinist Zori was absent. The work was an arrangement by Yuval Shapiro of four selections from Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “Petrushka.” Stravinsky planned a key role for the piano in this score, and he later prepared arrangements for solo piano of three excerpts from the full score. Shapiro drew upon Stravinsky’s excerpts but added a chamber realization of the opening scene.

This was no mean feat. Michel Fokine’s scenario is set in the celebration of the Shrovetide Fair (the Russian version of Mardi Gras) in Saint Petersburg. He choreographed a plethora of independent activities, each happening in different areas of the stage and sometimes bumping into each other. Stravinsky’s musical setting of this “organized chaos” was nothing short of pure genius; and, as might be guessed, he worked his orchestral resources to the max.

Nevertheless, Shapiro managed to distill all that chaos down to the capabilities of only six instruments. The fact that he used both piano and harp gave him more leverage than can be found in most chamber groups. Nevertheless, his use of individual instrumental voices was strikingly imaginative without ever going against Stravinsky’s grain.

There was even a brief moment when Shapiro’s arrangement succeeded where most conductors of a large ensemble never quite manage Stravinsky’s overwhelming demands. This took place in the concluding excerpt, when the action of the ballet returns to the fairgrounds. In the midst of this final round of chaos, Stravinsky wove his very opening theme into his thick instrumental fabric, assigning it to only two flutes and two piccolos. The rest of the orchestra is roaring out the theme for the “Dance of the Nursemaids;” and very few conductors seem to care very much whether or not those flutes and piccolos can be heard within the din. Playing with his ICP colleagues, on the other hand, Eshed had no problems with the audibility of his part!

As an accompanist, Magen joined Cziger for the opening selection of the evening. This was Robert Schumann’s Opus 94, a set of three romances, which were originally scored for oboe and piano. (This was Schumann’s only composition for oboe.) The program did not credit an arranger, and Cziger could easily have been playing directly from the oboe part. It would not surprise me to learn that Magen was similarly reading off of the piano part; and the result was impressively convincing.

During the second half of the program, Magen returned to the piano literature. This time he played his own arrangements of piano music by both Schumann and Johannes Brahms. The Schumann selection was the “Intermezzo” movement from Faschingsschwank aus Wien (shifting the pre-Lenten carnival from Saint Petersburg to Vienna). More challenging was the second of the three Opus 117 intermezzo compositions by Johannes Brahms.

Both of these were impressive undertakings, and Magen gave a skillful account of his arrangement efforts. Nevertheless, while this included sensitive awareness of basic thematic content, it was still clear that a harp could not replace a piano where these two composers were involved. Both of them showed as much attention to the melodic lines of inner voices as they did to the primary themes. However, while inner voices can be brought out by proper finger control on a piano keyboard, both physics and physiology work against achieving the same results on a harp. Thus, while Magen’s arrangements provided an excellent platform for his technical skills, that platform could not really support the full musicianship behind the music he chose to arrange.

Sadly, the most evident weakness of ICP resided in its string players. Neither Bard nor Korman were able to bring the necessary assertiveness to Shapiro’s Stravinsky arrangement, and things went downhill in the remaining selections. The full quartet never really balanced with the flute, clarinet, and harp in the performance of Maurice Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro movements. However, this was but an omen of a painfully uncomfortable account of Schumann’s Opus 44 quintet for piano and string in E-flat major, which concluded the evening. Whether it involved intonation, balance, or phrasing, none of the string players knew how to engage with either each other or Weisman’s piano work. Such an approach to a relatively familiar selection made it hard to believe that these musicians have been working as a group for ten years.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

San Francisco Conservatory of Music: April and May, 2018

As we near the end of the academic year at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), it will make sense to group the final two months into a single article, particularly since there is only one event to announce for the month of May. Unless otherwise specified, all events 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 any of these offerings. Here is a chronological listing of events likely to be of interest to serious and attentive listeners:

Monday, April 2, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: The first Faculty Artist Series concert of the month will be presented by David Conte, Chair of the Composition Department. Conte will be joined by SFCM faculty, alumni, and staff in a survey of his recent work. The program will feature the world premiere of his latest song cycle, Madrigals for the Seasons. There will also be three Bay Area premieres, the song cycle for baritone and piano Everyone Sang, and two pieces of chamber music, an elegy for violin and piano and a sonata for clarinet and piano. The program will also include the aria sung by Kate from the opera East of Eden and the collection of settings of three of the poems of Christina Rossetti.

Friday, April 6, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 8, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: The full-length opera for the spring semester will be Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied. First performed about a decade ago, the libretto tells the story of Jim Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in the history of our country. Tickets will be required for this performance, $20 for general admission and $15 for seniors, students, and SFCM members. Tickets may be purchased online through a Click4Tix event page set up to take orders for both of the performances.

Monday, April 9, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: The final Centennial event of the season will present compositions by past and present faculty members of the Composition Department: Elinor Armer, David Garner, David Conte, and Aaron Jay Kernis.

Sunday, April 15, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: The Historical Performance Department will present the winners of this season’s Baroque Ensemble Concerto Competition. Those winners will be violinists Alyssa Wright and Shelby Yamin, playing concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Tartini, respectively, guitarist Matthew Xie playing a Vivaldi lute concerto, and cellists Chiyuan Ma and Stephanie Li, joining forces in a Vivaldi concerto for two cellos. All performances will be on historical instruments.

Saturday, April 21, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: Michael Mohammed, Director of the Musical Theatre Workshop, will present a revue entitled Enchanted Evening. Details will be announced at a later date. The Music Director for this production will be Michael Horsley.

Sunday, April 22, 4 p.m., Recital Hall: The final faculty performance of the academic year will be a program consisting entirely of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach played on historical instruments. The performers will include the two co-Directors of the Historical Performance department, Elisabeth Reed on cello and Corey Jamason on harpsichord. They will be joined by Elizabeth Blumenstock on violin. Again, all performances will be on historical instruments.

Sunday, April 29, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: Edwin Outwater will be guest conductor for the final concert of the academic year to be given by the Conservatory Orchestra. The program will present two of Richard Strauss’ tone poems, “Don Juan” and “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.” It will conclude with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/98 symphony in B-flat major. Tickets will be required for this performance, $20 for general admission and $15 for seniors, students, and SFCM members. Tickets may be purchased online through a Click4Tix event page.

Friday, May 4, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 6, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: Heather Mathews will direct two chamber opera performances, both based on libretti by Mark Campbell. The first of these will be William Bolcom’s Lucrezia followed by John Musto’s Bastianello. The conductor will be Curt Pajer. Both performances will be free, but reservations will be required. Separate Google Forms Web pages have been created for registering for the Friday and Sunday performances.

Bill Frisell’s First Solo Album in 18 Years

courtesy of Sony Music

Yesterday Sony Music released Music IS, a solo album by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. The number of combos in which Frisell has performed and/or led comes close to innumerable; but he has not made a solo album since Ghost Town, which was released by Nonesuch eighteen years ago. The title of the new album has a somewhat amusing backstory. Frisell has made a personal mantra out of the sentence “Music is good,” which he picked up from banjo player Danny Barnes. As he has put it in his own words:
Everything I need to know is that phrase, “Music is Good.” I almost called the album that, but then I thought that it might be too literal. It’s good to leave it open.
Ironically, the titles of the tracks on this new album, many of which have been previously recorded, are about as literal as one can get. Some, such as “Pretty Stars,” could not be more visual. Others, like “The Pioneers,” seem to have been conceived as evocations of familiar genres. Then there are memory pieces that identify either past colleagues (“Ron Carter”) or venues (“Kentucky Derby”).

Frisell seems to have no trouble inventing new melodies. He seems to do it almost every morning, the way many of us would take that time to read the newspaper (or, in this more “contemporary” world, scan our news feeds). All of his tunes get documented on single pages of staff paper. Again, Frisell has his own thoughts about the process:
I don’t know where the melodies come from. I try not to judge anything and just let them be.
After deciding to make a solo recording, Frisell booked himself to play for a week at The Stone in New York. He used those sessions to review all those pieces of staff paper that he had accumulated, finding his own distinctive paths from notation to performance. This prepared him to take his thoughts about performance into a recording studio. What came out of that studio is a collection of sixteen tracks, only a few of which are longer than five minutes in duration. Some are “straight” solos, some involve different forms of electronic processing, and a few are products of mixing multiple tracks.

Taken only on the surface, this album could easily be dismissed as “easy listening” or that blissed-out “new age” style that became associated with Windham Hill Records (whose catalog is now distributed through Sony Music Entertainment). However, for those willing to listen more closely, it should not take long to find the depth of these still waters, a depth that takes in the full richness of issues that arise when one commits to making music. Frisell may have approached Music IS as a sort of personal diary, but it is a diary offering much to learn to anyone willing to commit to giving it a serious reading.

Simone Porter’s Engaging Janáček at SFP

Violinist Simone Porter (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Performances (SFP) concluded its 2017–2018 Young Masters Series with a violin recital by Simone Porter. Porter is currently studying with Robert Lipsett at the Colburn Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, but last season she performed as soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel at the age of nineteen. Her accompanist last night was pianist Hsin-I Huang, and both of them were making their respective San Francisco debuts.

Like many emerging recitalists, Porter prepared a program that went for breadth, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at one end at Esa-Pekka Salonen at the other. There was an impressive diversity of compositional structure in her selections; but each half of the program began with a multi-movement duo sonata. Of these two the strongest impressions were left by Leoš Janáček’s only violin sonata, a piece with a somewhat rocky history.

It was originally composed in 1914, but Janáček could not find a violinist interested in performing it. In 1915 he published the second (Ballada) movement separately and set about to revise the sonata as a whole. The completed revision was first performed in 1922. As a point of reference for Janáček’s activities as a composer, his best known works between 1914 and 1922 would probably be his opera Káťa Kabanová (first performed in 1921) and his symphonic rhapsody in three movements, “Taras Bulba” (completed in 1918).

I have SFP to thank for introducing me to Janáček’s violin sonata, since I first heard it in January of 2009 at an SFP recital given by violinist Christian Tetzlaff accompanied by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. Sadly, last night was only my second performance encounter, although I wrote about a recording for when harmonia mundi reissued an album of violinist Isabelle Faust accompanied by pianist Ewa Kupiec. Like the composer’s two string quartets, this sonata shows the composer’s skill at bringing intense dramatic qualities to seemingly abstract compositional forms. In the case of the sonata, the listener is so drawn into Janáček’s rhetorical skills that (s)he barely notices the solid foundation of traditional sonata movement forms. Last night’s performance brought back fond memories of those rhetorical skills, owing as much to the intricate interplay between Porter and Huang as to Porter’s own solo work.

Would that the same could have been said of their approach to the opening selection, Mozart’s K. 376 sonata in F major. To her credit Huang summoned just the right lightness of touch to capture the high spirits of the music without overplaying the many show-off gestures that Mozart required from the keyboard. Unfortunately, Porter approached her part with the same uncompromising intensity that listeners would subsequently encounter in her Janáček performance. Where Mozart was concerned, however, this came across as challenging Huang’s keyboard work, rather than complementing it.

Indeed, forcefulness came across as the strong suit in Porter’s hand of rhetorical skills. This certainly saw her through with a bold approach to Salonen’s “Lachen Verlernt” (laughter unlearned). However, her performance did not necessarily give a credible account of the work’s structural foundation (a chaconne) or the source of its rhetorical stance (Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, the title being taken from a line of text in the libretto).

Once again, I have SFP to thank for my listening experience with this piece, since I first heard it performed by Jennifer Koh in Herbst Theatre in March of 2010. On that occasion it was performed with a projected video created by Tal Rosner, which tended to distract more than enhance. On the other hand Koh had programmed “Lachen Verlernt” to follow a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo partita in D minor, which concludes with a chaconne movement of monumental proportions, when compared with the structures of all the preceding movements. That “predisposition” made for a far more engaging listening experience than Porter was able to summon up last night.

The remainder of the program consisted of relatively short pieces. These included three selections from Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 64 score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, arranged from violin and piano by D. Gruness. (The first of these,”Dance of the Knights” was mistakenly labeled “Montagues and Capulets” in the program.) There was also the “Nigun” movement from Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem suite and Maurice Ravel’s “Tzigane.” The encore selection was Fritz Kreisler’s transcription of “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” the fourth of the seven songs in Antonín Dvořák’s Gypsy Songs cycle. All of these selections were given adept accounts with solid technique, but none of them seemed to match technical command with a firm sense of a rhetorical setting.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Anne Rainwater Piano Recital Tomorrow

Pianist Anne Rainwater (photograph by Jamie Jung, from Rainwater’s Web site)

This is a last-minute announcement; but it is definitely worth making. Oakland-based pianist Anne Rainwater will be presenting the March installment in the Seventh Avenue Performances recital series. I remember when this series was launched; and I am more than a little disappointed that it fell off of my radar, particular since it is now in its fifteenth season. I have been most aware of Rainwater’s work through her many appearances at the Center for New Music, including her membership in the New Keys ensemble of four pianists, whose other members are Kate Campbell, Anthony Porter, and Regina Schaffer.

Tomorrow she will be presenting a program conceived to probe the very nature of listening to music. She is particularly interested in looking beyond the music itself (what Immanuel Kant called the “thing-in-itself”) to address the impact of context, suggesting that perception always involves more than just the individual observer and the observed object. Where music is concerned, context has both historical and immediate aspects. On the historical side listening is impacted by knowledge of when a piece was composed and possibly the circumstances under which composition took place. However, in the “immediate present” context may be involved how listening to one composition will impact how we listen to the next piece on the program.

To address these issues, Rainwater will explore how the music of two contemporary composers, Mei-Fan Lin and Danny Clay, can influence how we listen to the twentieth-century composers Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Arnold Schoenberg and vice versa. Similarly, because all three of those past composers were living at the same time at the beginning of the twentieth century, Rainwater can address the questions of how much influence they had on each other and in what ways. As of this writing, the specific compositions on the program have not yet been announced; but it is clear that Rainwater has put some imaginative thought into preparing a concert program that will also serve as a “dataset.”

This recital will begin tomorrow evening, March 17, at 7:30 p.m. The Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church is located at 1329 Seventh Avenue, about half a block south of the stop for the Muni N trolley line. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for students and seniors and $5 for children aged twelve and under. Tickets are available in advance online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

MTT Leads Bernstein’s Copland 3rd with SFS

2015 was a pivotal year for those with a serious interest in listening to the music of Aaron Copland. That was the year in which Leonard Slatkin made the decision to use the original version in his performance of Aaron Copland’s third symphony in one of his subscription series concerts with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Those performances were recorded and eventually surfaced in June of last year as the third release in Slatkin’s project with Naxos to record Copland’s symphonic music.

In his program notes for this week’s performance in Davies Symphony Hall of the Copland third by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) led by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), James M. Keller explained why that original version was changed. The symphony’s champion was Serge Koussevitzky. Copland wrote it on a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated it to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. Serge conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first performance on October 18, 1946. It was well received and other conductors, including George Szell, rallied to promote it.

Keller continued the story as follows:
Koussevitzky’s protégé-on-the-rise, Leonard Bernstein, also championed the work early on, although Copland’s feathers were considerably ruffled when Bernstein decided to cut eight measures from the finale [between rehearsal numbers 129 and 130 in the score published by Boosey & Hawkes] without bothering to discuss the matter with the composer first. Copland eventually came to Bernstein’s point of view on the cut—which, in the end, is hardly an earth-shattering issue.
In his notes for the booklet accompanying the Naxos recording, Slatkin claimed, “Only recently has the original version been made available to musicians.” I am not quite sure what constituted availability in Slatkin’s sense of the word. Those eight measures are in my Hawkes Pocket Scores copy, which is basically a lithograph of the original 1947 printing. I bought it in Philadelphia before I had graduated high school. (I know this because I wrote in my name and address, and the address was written before the ZIP Code system was introduced.) At the time I had the Everest recording of Copland himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of this symphony, and it did not take me long to realize that something was missing!

It is hard to argue with Keller’s claim that eight measures out of a 155-page score do not make for “an earth-shattering issue.” Nevertheless, when those eight measures surfaced on Slatkin’s recording, they hit me with a real jolt. In that brief segment Copland managed to summarize his thematic lexicon with multi-voice polyphony at its finest, crafted with enough discipline to bring a smile to the face of his strictest teacher, Nadia Boulanger (assuming she had a chance to read the score, if not listen to the music itself). Perhaps Bernstein felt that the shift in rhetoric at that point was too abrupt and would interrupt the “heroic” flow of the rest of the coda; but, for my own part as some readers may know, I greeted the release of Slatkin’s Naxos recording with great enthusiasm.

As a result, I was a bit disappointed last night to find that MTT chose to side with Bernstein rather than Copland in this matter. Sadly this was one of several disappointments. The more crucial issue had to do with concern for that landscape of climaxes based on the premise that there should be one peak rising above all the others. MTT approached Copland’s first use of fortissimo (on page 4 of that Boosey & Hawkes score) as if it were the top of Mount Everest. This set the tone for the unfolding of all four of the symphony’s movements, pulling out all the same stops each time Copland was building up his dynamic level. As a result, whether or not that cut was taken, it was difficult not to approach the final measures of the symphony with little more than a sense of fatigue. What, in his own recording, Copland had recorded as a journey was reduced to a merciless trek.

Fortunately, things fared somewhat better before the intermission with the performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 26 (third) piano concerto in C major. This music is also given to extreme levels in its dynamics, not to mention a solo part that insistently places the piano as a member of the percussion family. Fortunately, soloist Behzod Abduraimov, making his SFS debut, was not shy in displaying his percussive prowess; but he also knew how to show just as much respect to Prokofiev’s quieter and more lyrical passages. Just as fortunate was that MTT similarly appreciated the dynamic contours on the orchestral side of the concerto, making for a thoroughly engaging partnership between soloist and ensemble.

The program began last night with the world premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s “Sudden Changes,” written on a commission by both MTT and SFS. This was a large-ensemble piece lasting only about fifteen minutes. From the very beginning, one could appreciate the title: No sooner would a motif be established in one part of the orchestra than some other instrumental resource would interrupt it with “something completely different.” This made for a wild ride challenging the limits of perception. Just as mind tried to form one auditory category, that category would be blown away by another one.

Composer Charles Wuorinen (photograph by Nina Roberts, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Imaginative as this concept may have been, it went on too long. It did not take much time for the attentive listener to “get” the “rules” of Wuorinen’s “game.” However, once those rules were grasped, there was little to offer other than more of the same, leaving the impression that the score could have had twice the impact at half the duration.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Red Poppy Art House: April, 2018

Once again, this site will take an “incremental” approach to tracking those events to be offered at the Red Poppy Art House during the month of April. The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Unless stated otherwise, tickets will be available in advance online through Eventbrite. As a result, the dates provided below will be hyperlinked to the Eventbrite event pages for purchasing tickets.

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. Here are the specifics for those events that have been posted thus far:

Sunday, April 1, 7 p.m.: Daniel Riera will present a program entitled A Tribute To Guinga. Guinga is the performing name of the Brazilian guitarist and composer Carlos Althier de Souza Lemos Escobar. As a child he was called “Gringo” due to his pale skin; and “Guinga” was his idiomatic pronunciation of that noun. Riera spent six years at Guinga’s California Brazil Camp and developed an informed love of both the elegant melodies and their lush harmonies. At this concert those songs will be arranged for a chamber ensemble of winds, strings, and percussion led by Riera, whose primary instrument is the flute. The other players have not yet been announced. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Thursday, April 5, 7:30 p.m.: Ole, Opa! is a group that was formed in 2016 as a collaboration of flamenco dancer Bianca Rodriguez and vocalist Jenny Luna. The idea was that Rodriguez would apply her flamenco technique to Luna’s repertoire, which consisted primarily of songs of Balkan and Turkish origins. The group is now a quartet with contributions from Gopal Slavonic on guitar and Joey Friedman on saxophone. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

[added 3/17, 4:30 p.m.:

Friday, April 6, 7 p.m.: Het Hat Club returns to the Red Poppy to perform their own interpretations of jazz classics from the French Romani community, whose best-known member is probablu Django Reinhardt. This is a group whose members are Valentin Desmarais on saxophone, Antonio D. Erchie, Jr. and Isaac Misri on guitar, and Bito Janos on accordion. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.]

Sunday, April 8, 7:30 p.m.: This will be a duo performance by French bassist François Moutin and New York vocalist Kavita Shah. They will present original music conceived specifically for this combination of resources, as well as their own distinctive arrangements of standards. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

[added 3/18, 10:10 a.m.:

Thursday, April 19, 7:30 p.m.: Bay Area guitarist Jack Tone-Riordan will lead a trio backed up by Darrell Green on drums and David Ewell on bass. The group will play music from Tone-Riordan’s recently released recording Deep Space. Tone-Riordan’s improvisations draw upon both blues and jazz. His repertoire includes original compositions and standards from the Great American Songbook Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.]

[added 3/17, 4:45 p.m.:

Friday, April 20, 7:30 p.m.: The jazz trio led by Ramana Vieira on piano with Brad Bivens on guitar and Leslie Thorne on bass specializes in the Portuguese fado style. However, they also play a variety of American standards, as well as original compositions. Vieira often adds vocalization to her keyboard work. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Saturday, April 21, 7:30 p.m.: Pianist and accordionist Rob Reich will make his next visit to the Poppy. He will be joined by Ben Goldberg on clarinets of different sizes and Scott Amendola on drums. The bass player for his quartet has not yet been announced. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Sunday, April 22, 2 p.m.: This will be the next installment of the free Monthly Community Rumba, with music provided by Rumberos de Radio Habana. While this is a free event, donations are warmly accepted. All donated money goes to the performing musicians, and a recommended amount is between $5 and $10.]

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

More of the Richter Legacy from Praga

Efforts to maintain a thorough “digital documentation” of the performances by pianist Sviatoslav Richter will continue this Friday when Praga Digitals will release a two-CD album of that pianist’s performances of music by Franz Schubert. The collection consists primarily of five sonatas that cover the period between August of 1817 and September of 1828, that last being the single month during which Schubert composed his last three sonatas, all as wildly innovative as they were monumental in temporal scale. Each of these five sonatas was performed at a different place on a different date. Specifics are as follows:
  1. D. 575 in B major, New York (Carnegie Hall), April 15, 1965
  2. D. 625 in F minor, Munich (Herkulessaal), July 23, 1978
  3. D. 784 in A minor, Tokyo, February 6, 1979
  4. D. 894 in G major, Moscow, May 5, 1978
  5. D. 958 in C minor, Salzburg, August 1972
In addition, there is a recording of the C minor Allegretto movement (D. 915) made at the Teatro Comunale in Florence on October 23, 1962. As usual, is currently processing pre-orders for this release.

Those who followed my writing last year know that a good deal of my attention went into recordings of Richter released by a generous number of different sources. They would be justified in asking if, after all that effort, I had had enough, particularly given the amount of time I had put into the ten-CD album released by Profil that consisted entirely of performances of Schubert. Obviously, I have not had enough; and, where Schubert is concerned, all of the performances on this new Praga release are later than those in the Profil collection. Furthermore, only two of the works on this new album could be found in the Profil collection, the D. 784 and D. 958 sonatas. In other words, no matter how you choose to cut it, this new recording consists entirely of performances I had not yet encountered.

Mind you, whenever I am confronted with moderate or large number of selections, it does not take me long to home in on favorites. In this particular case I would have to say that the top of my list is firmly occupied by D. 894. This is because this was my first serious acquaintance with one of Schubert’s piano sonatas, established through a 1966 RCA Victor recording of Peter Serkin, which seems to be available on Amazon only through third-party vendors and only in vinyl form. By 1966 I had developed an enthusiastic taste for the symphonies of Gustav Mahler, but I was not prepared for a piano sonata whose first movement required about half an hour to state and develop its thematic material!

By the time I was living in Santa Barbara in the early Eighties, I had a piano teacher who not only encouraged me to take on this sonata but also challenged me memorize the exposition portion of that opening movement. As a result I now tend to go after any available opportunity to listen to how any pianist approaches this sonata. It has been quite a wild ride, particularly since I began to document my listening experiences back in 2009; but, for all of those opportunities that have presented themselves to me, I have yet to tire of encountering both performances and recordings of D. 894.

On the other hand D. 625 will probably strike most listeners are the greatest curiosity in this new collection. This sonata is listed as incomplete in Otto Erich Deutch’s catalog; and, as might be expected, there is a Wikipedia page that provides a reasonably good account of what is there and what is missing. Most of the attention there is given to the opening Allegro movement, which cites a couple of recent efforts to create a completed version. However, when András Schiff recorded the sonata, he decided to play only what Schubert wrote, which makes for a noticeably abrupt break in the flow of the music. Richter did the same at his Munich recital; and, for all I know, Schiff was following Richter’s lead.

Personally, while I cannot get enough of the late works, I enjoy the fact that Richter chose to bring several of the earlier Schubert sonatas to light. I am thus pleased that, for this side of the catalog, there is no serious overlap between the Profil collection and this new Praga release. In other words content counts for just as much as quality, and the serious listener will find much to gain from his/her encounter with this new Praga Digitals recording.

Brownlee to Bring West Coast Premiere to SFP

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

This month will conclude with the third of the four concerts in the 2017–2018 Vocal Series being presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). The vocalist will be tenor Lawrence Brownlee, whom I first came to know in the fall of 2016 when his second album with Delos, Allegro io son (happy am I), was released. The timing could not have been better, because, less than a month after encountering this recording, I was enjoying the second of the six performances he gave to make his debut with the San Francisco Opera in Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale.

Now Brownlee is scheduled to give his SFP debut, and the occasion will be all the more special because it will feature a West Coast premiere. The idea for the program originated in 2016 when Carnegie Hall asked Brownlee to plan a recital there. In an interview Brownlee told The New York Times that he knew he wanted to include Robert Schumann’s Opus 48 Dichterliebe (a poet’s love) song cycle. He then decided that the Schumann cycle should be complemented by a more contemporary cycle “detailing our own perspective of what it is to be a black man in America” (Brownlee’s words).

This objective led to a collaborative project with composer Tyshawn Sorey and poet Terrance Hayes. The result was a program that would couple Schumann’s Opus 48 in the first half with Cycles of My Being, what emerged from Sorey’s partnership with Hayes, in the second. The world premiere was given this past February 20 at a recital presented by Opera Philadelphia, and Brownlee is now taking his program on a more extensive tour. As a result, we in San Francisco will get to hear Sorey’s new work before it arrives in Carnegie Hall on April 24. Brownlee’s accompanist for these performances is pianist Myra Huang, who will also be making her first SFP appearance.

This recital will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 31. 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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Albany Consort to Celebrate Bach’s Birthday

Members of the Albany Consort in performance (courtesy of the Albany Consort)

My first encounter with Jonathan Salzedo’s Albany Consort took place on March 24, 2009, when they presented a Noontime Concerts recital celebrating the 324th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was born at a time when different parts of Europe were using different calendars, the older Julian version and the newer (as of 1582) Gregorian. For this reason Bach’s Wikipedia page gives his birthday according to both calendar systems. As a result, those wishing to celebrate the occasion can usually get away with doing so sometime late in March.

Honoring that time frame, the Albany Consort will be returning to Noontime Concerts to celebrate Bach’s 333rd birthday. For this occasion Salzedo will be presenting Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme. Bach composed this for keyboard, and several of the variations indicate that two separate manuals are required. However, Dimitry Sitkovetsky prepared an arrangement for string ensemble, which Salzedo’s daughter, violinist Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo, performed during her studies at Juilliard School. Those who have been around here for a while would not have had to travel to New York to learn about this arrangement. The New Century Chamber Orchestra performed it in November of 2010, and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra took their turn with it early in 2012.

However, Salzedo describes himself as “an incurable experimenter.” Thus, while he was willing to take Sitkovetsky’s arrangement as a point of departure, he tinkered with the score enough to put his own personal stamp on it. Indeed, he even scored one of the variations as a “family affair,” in which his wife, Marion Rubinstein playing organ, will join both him (on harpsichord) and Laura. The other members of the ensemble that will play at Noontime Concerts will be violinists Rachel Hurwitz, David Wilson, Aaron Westman, and Maxine Nemerovski, violist Katherine Hagen, cellist Joyce Park, and Roy Whelden on violone.

This performance will begin at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 20. As always, these concerts will take place at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Chinatown. The cathedral is located at 660 California Street, on the northeast corner of Grant Street. There is no charge for admission, but this concert series relies heavily on donations to continue offering its weekly programs.

An Emerging Composer Deserving Attention

Front cover of the book behind the title of last night’s concert (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) continued its 25th anniversary season with a program entitled Sonnets to Orpheus. However, it was the one composition on the program that lacked an “Orpheus connection” that stole the show. That was the winner of LCCE’s 2017 Composition Contest, a ten-minute work for solo piano by Chiayu Hsu entitled “Rhapsody Toccata.” This piece was played by Katy Luo, currently based in Honolulu but with past connections to LCCE.

“Rhapsody Toccata” was true to its name. From the very opening gestures, the listener could sense a ghostly presence of Franz Liszt as the first round of phrases disclosed themselves. However, because the strings at both extremes of the piano had been prepared, the emerging sonorities established that the composer was doing far more than trying to channel Liszt. Indeed, the very sense of “rhapsody” was far more expansive, perhaps with a nod or two to Johannes Brahms and a few rather more obvious evocations of George Gershwin.

Where the rest of the title was concerned, Luo played Hsu’s score with a sense of spontaneity, which made it clear that she had established a firm command of all the marks on paper. If composers like Liszt and Gershwin were lurking behind the “rhapsody” noun, the spirit of toccata could be traced all the way back to keyboard music that displayed Johann Sebastian Bach at his most impetuous. The result was a wild ride through keyboard legacies, all delivered with rapid-fire focus by Luo’s capacity for technical command. This is music that definitely merits more exposure, and LCCE has done the music world a serious solid in acknowledging the capacity of an emerging composer deserving of further attention.

The title of the program was that of a cycle of 55 sonnets written in German by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The second half of the program was devoted entirely to a song cycle by Eric Moe, which set six of those sonnets. This was complemented by the first half, which presented reflections on the Orpheus myth realized in music by Claudio Monteverdi, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Aida Shirazi, and Luiz Bonfá. All of these pieces featured solo flute work by Stacey Pelinka with string support provided by violinists Anna Presler and Ilana Thomas, violist Phyllis Kamrin, and cellist Tanya Tomkins.

The Monteverdi and Gluck selections were excerpts from their respective operatic settings of the Orpheus myth. Of these two, the Gluck performance came closest to the original instrumentation, although the “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” was originally written for two flutes. However, the accompaniment was strictly by strings; and one-to-a-part playing offered more intimacy than would be encountered with a larger ensemble. Pelinka’s command of the solo line was confident; and the group, as a whole, offered far more than adequate justice to Gluck’s legacy.

Monteverdi did not fare quite as well. In this case the instruments were not quite the right fit to the composer’s own approach to instrumentation, and doling vocal lines out to instruments usually does favors to neither the notes intended for voice or the instruments selected to play them. The title of Shirazi’s piece, which was being given its world premiere, was “Vestiges;” and it was clear from her remarks to the audience that these were reflections of memories of both of these Orpheus operas in a contemporary setting.

How well Shirazi succeeded in her goal cannot be assessed on the basis of a single listening experience. It was not easy to recognize the sources behind the vestiges, so to speak; but that is not necessarily to the detriment of the composition. Suffice it to say that this music certainly deserves more listening opportunities.

The first half of the program concluded with Bonfá’s “Manhã de Carnaval” (morning of Carnival), which figured significantly in Marcel Camus’ film Black Orpheus. (For the record, Monteverdi’s opera was written for performance during the celebration of the pre-Lenten Carnival in Venice.) Composer Nick Benavides (who is also LCCE Managing Director) created an arrangement played by Pelinka, Presler, and Tomkins. Benavides did not try to go for Bonfá’s distinctively Brazilian rhetoric (the other composer contributing to the film was Antônio Carlos Jobim); but his arrangement definitely evoked a satisfying spirit of jamming among three players who clearly enjoyed each other’s company as much as the music.

For all of the engaging features of the first half of this program, Moe’s composition emerged as a serious disappointment. Much of the problem may have had to do with the fact that his understanding of his source text (which was not, strictly speaking, Rilke but came from Stephen Mitchell’s translations into English) seldom (if ever) involved any features that went deeper than the surface. As a result, the listening experience seemed to suggest that the composer had done little more than hang some awesomely impressive virtuoso work for a soprano vocalist on a string of syllables that seemed right for the occasion.

Nevertheless, if we put literary criticism aside, it is hard to ignore the awesome talent that soprano Nikki Einfeld brought to accounting for all of those syllables. If disregarded the text, one still had a highly imaginative creation of chamber music for soprano, oboe, piano, and string quartet. One might argue that Moe did not have quite enough imagination to extend over more than half an hour (which was the composition’s duration). However, when one encounters a work for the first time, one learns to take what one can get. As a journey through provocative sonorities rendered with the best of virtuoso skills, Moe’s Sonnets to Orpheus had much to offer; but it probably would have been more satisfying as a somewhat shorter instrumental suite with a vocalizing soprano.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Bleeding Edge: 3/12/2018

Things seem to be getting back up to speed where adventurous music is concerned. This week the number of new events is the same as those that have already been reported. In that latter category we have the follows:
  1. Center for New Music: ensemble proton bern on March 15 and Free as AIR on March 16
  2. March 16: the next Jazz in the Neighborhood event at the Community Music Center
  3. March 18: Karl Evangelista at the Red Poppy Art House
Specifics for previously unannounced events are as follows:

Wednesday, March 14, 8 p.m., The Bindery: This month’s installment of the monthly Experimental Music Night series will follow the usual four-set format. Those sets will offer one trio, one duo, and two solos. Ctrl-Z is the trio of Ryan Page, Nick Wang, and Daniel Steffey performing scored music for live electronics. OMMO is the duo of Julie Moon and Adria Otte, improvising with both analog and digital electronics and voice. Madalyn Merkey will give a solo performance with electronic circuitry of her own design. Finally, Minor Fluctuation is a solo project by multi-instrumentalist Rob Williams.

The Bindery is located in Haight-Ashbury at 1727 Haight Street. Doors will open at 7:45 p.m. Admission will be $5.

Thursday, March 15, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG):  This week’s LSG Creative Music Series concert will follow the usual two-set format. The first set will be taken by Banyan Tree, an improvisation duet formed in Los Angeles in 2017. The performers are Maneesh Raj Madahar and Jamie Green on Fender Rhodes and amplified violin, respectively. They will be followed by a solo improvisation set taken by percussionist Daniel Steffey. 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, March 16, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Old First Concerts (O1C) will present a chamber music recital featuring West Coast premiere performances of works by Jeremy Crosmer and Bosba Panh. The performance will be by Holes in the Floor, a quartet of cellists Jonathan Butler, Eunghee Cho, Yejin Hong, and Joy Yanai, who began playing as a group at the New England Conservatory of Music. Panh’s composition has not yet been given a title, while Crosmer’s is his second suite scored for a quartet of cellos. The group will also play similarly scored music by Alexandre Tansman, as well as an arrangement by Laszlo Varga of the chaconne movement that concludes Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 D minor partita, originally composed for solo violin.

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.

Sunday, March 18, 7:30 p.m., Musicians Union Hall: This will be the next concert in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series offered by Outsound Presents. The evening will consist of the usual format of two sets of inventive composition work. The first set will present vocalist Lorin Benedict and guitarist Eric Vogler, who perform as the duo Bleeding Vector. In the second set saxophonist Rent Romus will join percussionist Nava Dunkelman and Jakob Pek, who divides his time between guitar and percussion. The Musicians Union Hall is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Edgar Meyer’s Overture Steals the Show

Joshua Bell (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night the Great Performers Series, presented by the San Francisco Symphony, continued with a visit to Davies Symphony Hall by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (ASMF). This English chamber orchestra, which was founded in 1959, was conducted by its current Music Director, violinist Joshua Bell. While the original group was a string ensemble (playing without a conductor), last night’s visiting ensemble included a chamber-scale complement of winds and brass, as well as a timpanist.

Bell prepared a traditional overture-concerto-symphony program for last night’s concert. However, the overture was anything but traditional. It was conceived by composer Edgar Meyer as a “compact” violin concerto written on a commission for Bell and the ASMF ensemble, which came at a time when the Bravo! Vail music festival requested an overture. The two projects were folded into one, which was an overture for violin and orchestra, first performed in Vail in June of 2017.

Meyer may be the most eclectic bass player in the business these days, working regularly with not only Bell but also the likes of Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and even James Taylor. The overture he composed was high-spirited unto an extreme, coming about as close as one could get to manic without going over the edge. Perhaps he welcomed the opportunity to write music for higher-pitched strings, whose physical properties would allow rapid playing less likely to be muddied than when played at much lower pitches. In the midst of this wild ride, the violin solo emerges as an intensely demanding perpetuum mobile on steroids. Bell responded to the challenges Meyer prepared like a duck takes to water.

As might be expected, the execution of that solo part demanded intense concentration, which Bell definitely knew how to deliver. That, however, was the rub. How could someone so focused on so many challenging passages have any cognitive cycles remaining to lead the ensemble?

Most likely the answer was that he couldn’t. Meyer had written a score in which all of the players, with guidance from their respective section leaders, could get by through playing against a shared metronome. The demands of the tempo allowed little room for any more nuanced approaches to performance, such as attentive phrasing. In other words, the piece was rather like a roller coaster, a thoroughly exhilarating wild ride that turned out not to go anywhere. For what it was, it was engagingly enjoyable; but it was also a flourish of style over substance.

However, if Bell could get away with little more than style in his overture, this luxury was not afforded by either the concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 218 in D major) or the symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven (the “Pastoral” Opus 68 in F major). As a result, like Leo Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each of these pieces was disappointing in its own way. Where the concerto was concerned, Bell never seemed to get beyond a command of the technical and expressive challenges posed for the soloist, meaning that his attention to the ensemble tended to be sketchy at best. As a result, there seemed to be little regard for Mozart’s consummate gift for establishing a witty give-and-take between soloist and ensemble in just about any concerto he every wrote. There was no sense that the music itself provided an intimate bond, a sense that San Francisco audiences were able to enjoy particularly well when Benjamin Beilman visited the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) as both Guest Concertmaster and soloist this past November. All of the notes may have been present, but any sense of Mozart himself was sorely missed.

For the Beethoven selection Bell chose to lead from the Concertmaster’s chair. My initial thought was that this might not be a bad idea. The leaders in the string section could approach each other as members of a string quartet, and the sections they were leading could follow suit. The winds and brass could then orient themselves through attentive listening to the strings.

This was a good idea in theory; but, in practice, it did not hold up for 50 measures (at most). By that time it had become painfully apparent than none of the ASMF players was particularly attuned to the critical role of listening in the act of playing. (This made for another sharp contrast with the experience of listening to NCCO.) As a result, over the course of the entire symphony, there was a clear sense that every member of the ensemble was going his/her own way (all they like sheep), with little guidance other than occasional timekeeping coming from Bell. The results were at their extreme during the fourth (Thunderstorm) movement, during which timpanist Adrian Bending managed to drown out everyone on stage with his period-appropriate hard mallets.

Back in the days when Neville Marriner was churning out ASMF recordings to beat the band, there were any number of scornful jibes that the group was all about quantity rather than quality. Bell has yet to show any signs that this trend has been reversing. Given that this ensemble is willing to show as much attention to living composers as those of past centuries, it is more than a little unfortunate that they cannot give better accounts of the extensive repertoire they supposedly command.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Ars Minerva to Visit Italian Cultural Institute

courtesy of the Italian Cultural Institute

The next music event to be hosted by the Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura, IIC) will involve a visit from Ars Minerva. Those who have been following this site may recall that this year’s concert season began with a full-length fully-staged production by Ars Minerva of the seventeenth-century opera La Circe, composed by Pietro Andrea Ziani with a libretto by Cristoforo Ivanovich. Based in San Francisco and created by Artistic Director and mezzo Céline Ricci, Ars Minerva has been pursuing its mission of bringing forgotten music back to life since its formation in 2013.

At the end of this month, Ricci will come to IIC to present her latest project, Women of the Mediterranean Baroque Arias. Ricci has prepared a selection of arias by Claudio Monteverdi, Francesco Cavalli, Carlo Pallavicino, George Frideric Handel, Pietro Andrea Zani, and Giovanni Porta to survey the different ways in which those composers developed female characters through the arias they composed. She will be joined by two other vocalists, soprano Aurélie Veruni and mezzo Kindra Scharich (both of whom had been in the cast of La Circe). Accompaniment will be provided by Derek Tam at the harpsichord.

This concert will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 28, and will probably last for about two hours. IIC is located in the Civic Center at 601 Van Ness Avenue, Suite F. Admission is free, but registration is required to assure having a place. IIC has created a registration page specific for this event. Anyone who registers may also add the names of a maximum of two additional guests. Those wishing further information may call IIC at 415-788-7142.

Two Guitarists Survey Spanish Repertoire

Four months ago this site reported on a harmonia mundi album entitled Encuentro, the Spanish noun for “encounter.” That title referred to encounters between Manuel de Falla and Federico García Lorca based on their shared interests in the folk origins of Spanish song. It also referred to the encounter of a flamenco singer, Estrella Morente, with a classically-trained pianist, Javier Perianes, to account for music arising from the encounters of Falla and Lorca.

Last night Herbst Theatre provided the venue for a similar encounter of performers, whose programming was inspired, at least in part, by that relationship between Falla and Lorca. This was the latest joint presentation by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts and the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Guitar Series. In this case the encounter was between two master guitarists, both of whom have previously performed for SFP. American Eliot Fisk was appearing for the fourth time since his debut in 1997; and Spanish guitarist Ángel Romero was making his second appearance, having made his solo debut in 2008. He is also known for his many performances with The Romeros, joining his brothers Celin and Pepe in a quartet created and led by their father Celedonio.

Fisk and Romero collaborated on preparing two-guitar arrangements of the two major compositions on the Encuentro album. The Falla offering consisted of six of the songs collected in Siete canciones populares españolas (seven popular Spanish songs), composed in 1914. Lorca was represented by eight of the songs in his collection Canciones españolas antiguas (old Spanish songs), for which Lorca himself wrote the original piano accompaniment. The collection consists of twelve songs, and only six of the eight performed were listed in the program. The interest in “origins” reflected by both composers was captured in the title of the evening’s program, Viva España.

Both of these collections were well represented by the Fisk-Romero transcriptions. The one Falla song that was omitted (“Seguidilla murciana”) was the most overtly pianistic. In the remaining selections Romero consistently took the vocal line, while Fisk accounted for the piano accompaniment (much of which was clearly inspired by Falla’s familiarity with Spanish guitar technique). The Lorca settings, on the other hand, were, for the most part, strophic. This allowed both Fisk and Romero to present their own takes on playing the “tune” of the song itself.

Much of the rest of the program involved the reflections of other Spanish composers on source material similar to that harvested by Falla and Lorca. Isaac Albéniz was represented by two of his more familiar piano pieces, “Sevilla” from his first Suite española and “Torre Bermeja” (red tower) from his Opus 92 collection of twelve Piezas características. Both of these involved Albéniz translating familiar guitar tropes into piano passages; so, to a great extent, Fisk’s solo transcriptions were restoring Albéniz’ transformations back to their “natural order.” The same could probably be said of his solo arrangements of Manuel Ponce’s lyrical “Estrellita” and Ernesto Halffter’s “Habanera.” On the other hand Francisco Tarrega was represented by his arrangement of a virtuoso violin étude composed by Jean-Delphin Alard for ambitious students.

For his own solo portion of the program, Romero played two pieces composed by his father, “Malagueña” and “Fantasia.” While there was relatively little spoken introduction of any of the music on the program, Romero became positively chatty in introducing his father’s music. The “method behind the madness” soon became apparent: Both of the pieces Romero played were dedicated by his father to the woman he would subsequently marry. As Romero put it, without that music, he might not have come into existence!

The one significant departure from Spain came at the very beginning of the evening. Fisk and Romero jointly transcribed a lute concerto in D major by Antonio Vivaldi. In my student days this was frequently called the “Vivaldi guitar concerto,” because it was a favorite among guitarists who were swept up in the rising Baroque movement. However, Vivaldi seems to have been unfamiliar with both Spanish music and Spanish instruments. Romero took the solo lute part, and Fisk provided ripieno support.

The one transcription that never really rose to the heights of the original was that of the Adagio movement from Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” This again was a joint transcription with Romero again taking the solo line. If Friday night’s Ébène Quartet performance of the second of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59 quartet reflected on the earlier performance of the first of the set by the Danish String Quartet, then last night’s Rodrigo selection reflected on Ébène saluting Miles Davis in their encore. When it comes to transcribing Rodrigo’s concerto, it is hard to beat how Gil Evans arranged that Adagio for Davis’ Sketches of Spain album. Evans clearly appreciated Rodrigo’s bold sweeps of orchestral sonorities and found just the right way to rework them for big band resources. However, those bold sweeps cannot get very far with only two guitars; so it was hard to listen to the Fisk-Romero arrangement without the bolder sonorities of both Rodrigo and Evans reverberating in memory.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Noontime Concerts to Host Chopin-Liszt Recital

Yesterday this site announced the next concert that MUSA would be giving in the Noontime Concerts series. Another offering worth considering will take place this coming Tuesday in this regular offering of events that calls itself “San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break.” The occasion will be the latest visit to the Bay Area by Hungarian pianist Péter Tóth. Tóth has been a frequent visitor and has given several recitals in the Old First Concerts series since 2007.

Hungarian pianist Péter Tóth (from the Noontime Concerts event page)

He has prepared a program that will be divided between Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. His Chopin selections will be the first (in C-sharp minor) of the two Opus 26 polonaises followed by the three Opus 15 nocturnes, in the keys of F major, F-sharp major, and G minor, respectively. The Liszt portion will begin with the B minor ballade and the second Hungarian rhapsody. They will be followed by the first (Swiss) “year” from the Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) collection.

This performance will begin at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 13. As always, these concerts will take place at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Chinatown. The cathedral is located at 660 California Street, on the northeast corner of Grant Street. There is no charge for admission, but this concert series relies heavily on donations to continue offering its weekly programs.