Thursday, May 31, 2018

Bychkov Brings Two SFS Premieres to Davies

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, guest conductor Semyon Bychkov returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to present an overture-concerto-symphony program of seldom-encountered compositions. Indeed, “seldom” was so extreme that both the overture and the concerto were being played by SFS for the very first time. The entire program was steeped in nineteenth-century rhetoric, even if the concerto was completed in 1912.

That concerto is Max Bruch’s Opus 88a in A-flat minor, a concerto for two pianos and orchestra. Bruch wrote this piece for the Sutro sisters, the American pianists Rose and Ottilie. It is a bit ironic that San Francisco has had to wait so long for a chance to listen to this music, since the sisters were nieces of Adolph Sutro, a name familiar to anyone that has visited Cliff House or encountered the ruins of the Sutro Baths on the city’s Pacific coast. Both sisters had been students at the Berlin Conservatory (which is now part of the Berlin University of the Arts). One of the pieces they prepared as students was Bruch’s Opus 11 fantasy in D minor for two pianos; and Bruch was so impressed with their performance that he committed himself to writing a concerto for them.

The opus number reflects the fact that Bruch’s Opus 88 was also a “double concerto,” written in 1911 for clarinet, viola, and orchestra in the key of E minor. However, there is no thematic relation between Opus 88 and Opus 88a. Instead, Bruch composed Opus 88a around thematic material for an ongoing project, a suite for orchestra with organ, which he would not complete until 1915 and would not be published until after his death in 1920. The structure of Opus 88a may reflect they way in which Bruch had been approaching the suite, since the opening movement is a fugue preceded by an Andante sostenuto introduction. Both the second and fourth movements are sonata-allegro with Andante introduction, separated by an Adagio ma non troppo, which might be called the “official” slow movement.

One is struck by how straightforward all of these movements are. None of them take an extended approach to development, giving the impression that Bruch knew what he wanted to say and had no trouble wrapping things up after he said it. For the most part the concerto is organized around a give-and-take relationship between the two piano parts. Appropriately enough, these were again played by sisters, this time Katia and Marielle Labèque, making their first appearance with SFS since (if my records are correct) 2008.

Pianists Katia and Marielle Labèque (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

On that previous occasion they played Francis Poulenc’s two-piano concerto. Opus 88a was clearly a much more sober offering. Nevertheless, one could still sense a bit of wit in how riffs of elaboration would bounce back and forth from one sister to another. I would like to believe that Bruch intended that wit as a way to encourage the Sutro sisters to continue to play as a duo; but that wit could work the same magic with the Labèques, who are now seasoned professionals.

The overture that preceded Bruch’s concerto was Sergey Taneyev’s Opus 6, inspired by the Oresteia trilogy of plays by Aeschylus. Taneyev replaced Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky when the latter resigned from the Conservatory faculty in 1878. This is one of those cases in which the students are better known than the teacher, since Taneyev’s students included Reinhold Glière, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Alexander Scriabin.

Taneyev composed his Opus 6 in 1889, dedicated it to one of Tchaikovsky’s pupils, Anton Arensky; and its first performance was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself. It is unclear just how Taneyev saw the piece as either an interpretation or or a reflection on Aeschylus’ trilogy; but it is equally unclear that pursuing that question has much value. Far more significant is Taneyev’s capacity for working with the sonorities of a full orchestra. His ability to blend instruments from different sections is impressive and bordering on the uncanny.

The program note by James M. Keller cites Taneyev writing to Tchaikovsky to declare that his greatest interests are the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Wagner. There is no doubting that Taneyev had his own ways of tapping into Wagner’s technique at its richest, but one can also appreciate his valuing Mozart’s ability always to find the right way to balance the strings against both the wind and brass sections. These are all aspects of Taneyev’s work that are far more relevant that anything he might have been trying to say about Aeschylus.

Given the rich connection between Taneyev and Tchaikovsky, one can understand why Bychkov decided to conclude a program that began with a Taneyev overture with a Tchaikovsky symphony. His selection, however, was another piece that deserves more attention than it tends to get, the Opus 17 (second) symphony in C minor. This symphony draws heavily upon folk tunes from the Ukraine, known in the nineteenth century as “Little Russia.” (These days one has to wonder if “Big Russia” still feels the same way about that territory.)

Tchaikovsky tends to be best known for the last three of his six numbered symphonies, Opus 36 in F minor, Opus 64 in E minor, and Opus 74 (“Pathétique”) in B minor. Audiences tend to eat up the intense emotions, and all too many conductors seem to go to great lengths to dish out that emotional rhetoric as profusely as possible. Opus 17, on the other hand, reflects a younger Tchaikovsky with a much lighter disposition. Bychkov clearly associated this alternative mood, and the smiles on the faces of many of the SFS players made it clear that they were all to happy to follow him into that more cheerful territory. The result was a thoroughly upbeat symphonic account that complemented the far more sober rhetoric of the first half of the program, making for an experience that was not only well-balanced but also highly satisfying for being so.

IIC to Salute Genoa with a Concert

In Italy the Festa della Repubblica (republic day), which has been the national holiday of Italy since 1946, marking the ends of both Fascism and the Second World War, is celebrated on June 2. This year the Mayor of Genoa, Marco Bucci, will be visiting San Francisco to honor the occasion among this city’s Italian residents (including those of Italian descent). The Italian Cultural Institute (Istituto Italiano de Cultura, IIC) will contribute to the occasion by hosting a double concert to pay homage to the city of Genoa.

This will be a “double” concert because the program will be divided between two separate ensembles. One will be the duo of violinist Andrea Cardinale and guitarist José Scanu. While the guitar tends to be associated with influences from the Iberian peninsula, both Gioachino Rossini and Niccolò Paganini composed duets for this pair of instruments. Both composers are part of the Cardinale-Scanu repertoire, which extends forward in time to the present day.

Quartetto Dàidalos in performance (from a concert review posted by Tempo Stretto)

The other group will be Quartetto Dàidalos, founded in Novara in October of 2014 by four friends with a shared desire to explore the chamber music repertoire. Those friends are violinists Anna Molinari and Stefano Raccagni, violist Lorenzo Lombardo, and cellist Lucia Molinari. As might be suspected, their repertoire includes both Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert; and, because they are Italian, it also includes Giuseppe Verdi’s only string quartet.

This concert will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 5, 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.

Viktorija Gečytė at Mr. Tipple’s

As can be seen from the above logo, Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio offers “soul and spirits.” The latter is provided with a well-stocked and satisfyingly diverse bar with a six-tap dispensary for both wine and local beer. The “soul” comes from the fact that the venue offers live jazz almost every night, frequently with two different acts on a single night.

Last night Mr. Tipple’s hosted Lithuanian jazz singer Viktorija Gečytė, who is performing at a different venue in San Francisco every day this week. Gečytė is currently based in Paris and is currently in the middle of her Tenth Anniversary Tour that is taking in both the East and West Coasts as well as key cities in Europe. The tour began at the beginning of the month and will continue through July.

She is making the American portion of her tour with bassist Gene Perla, who leads a trio whose other members are Sean Gough on piano and Jon Arkin on drums. Things were a bit crowded on the Mr. Tipple’s bandstand with a baby grand piano and Arkin’s drum kit taking most of the space. There was also more than a suggestion that much of the clientele was there for the spirits; but those who came for the music tended to be attentive listeners, perhaps even more attentive that those who visit the more “mainstream” sites for jazz in this city.

With the exception of one song in Lithuanian, Gečytė’s offerings were taken from the Great American Songbook. However, while the “traditional” take on that Songbook tends to gravitate back to the Thirties and advance gradually from there, Gečytė had no trouble taking her repertoire all the way up to the Sixties. The result was that she could throw new light on songs that many of us know only through their initial recorded releases.

She definitely has the voice to cast such a light. She clearly attaches great significance to both pitch and rhythm, bringing solid clarity to both. Considering what many of today’s jazz vocalists do in the name of “stylization,” the solidity of Gečytė’s foundations counts for a lot. She is all about the music, first how it was conceived by the song writer and then about what she can do with that “raw material” to provide her own perspectives on performance without compromising (or abusing, as sadly seems to be the case with many other singers) either the words or the tune behind them.

Perla’s trio served up two selections before Gečytė took the bandstand. Gough is one of those pianists who can jump, feet first, into an elaborate fabric of embellishing riffs without necessarily letting on as to what he is embellishing. If there are “silent themes” (as Frank Tirro calls them) behind his piano work, Gough did little to suggest their presence. For one of the selections, I thought I heard “Stella by Starlight,” but only in a brief fragment in Perla’s bass work.

Perla was definitely a “full instrument” player, providing far more than rhythm walking up and down at a steady pace. I particularly liked the way he used the open E string (the lowest pitch) to punctuate some of his busier lines in a higher register. Similarly, his approach to rhythm provided a counterpoint of sorts to Arkin’s drum work. There was never a dull moment when this trio was at work, yet they also knew exactly how to accompany Gečytė without overshadowing her. The entire set ran for about 75 minutes, and there was never a feeling that any one of the selections was overstaying its welcome.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Pocket Opera to Present the Bel Canto Borgia

The next San Francisco offering by Pocket Opera will be given at the middle of next month. Having presented the elegance of eighteenth-century opera buffa this past Sunday, the company will advance boldly into the nineteenth century with bel canto in the service of narrative at its most lurid. The very title of the opera is enough to stimulate expectations, Lucrezia Borgia; and its composer, Gaetano Donizetti is associated with the bel canto style at its most luscious. The libretto by Felice Romani is based on the play of the same name by Victor Hugo.

Those expecting a musical account of Neil Jordan’s dramatization of the machinations of the entire Borgia family at the time when its patriarch was elected Pope Alexander VI (broadcast here on Showtime between 2011 and 2013) may be disappointed. Lucrezia is the only member of the family to be included in Hugo’s cast. The narrative is concerned primarily with her reputation for knowing where all the bodies are buried (including those of her third husband and her son), having been the one to put them there. From Donizetti’s point of view, this was just the sort of character that deserved bel canto expressiveness at its most passionate; and, for this performance, that expressiveness will be realized by soprano Rabihah Davis Dunn.

Rabihah Davis Dunn in costume for the title role in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia (photograph by Nicolas Aliaga Garcia)

The roles of the men closest to Lucrezia in Hugo’s narrative will be taken by bass Shouvik Mondle as Lucrezia’s husband, Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, and tenor Michael Desnoyers as Gennaro, who discovers that he is her son only after he has been poisoned by her. The opera will be sung in English to allow the family details to have their greatest impact. Musical direction will be by David Drummond. The production will be staged by Nicolas Aliaga Garcia.

This performance will take place at the Legion of Honor, beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 17. The Legion of Honor is located in Lincoln Park. It is approached by following 34th Street north of Clement Street (which is the southern boundary of the park). General admission is $50 with a discounted rate of $45 for seniors. Tickets will be sold at the door beginning at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are also available at the presale rate of $47 for general admission and $44 for seniors. Presale is being processed online through a Vendini event page, which allows for individual seat selection.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sony Releases Box Set of Salonen Recordings

At the beginning of this month, Sony Classical released a 61-CD box set of all of its recordings made by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Most of these are recordings made with three ensembles that figured significantly in his career. The earliest of these was the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, where he served as Principal Conductor from 1984 to 1995; and twelve of the CDs account for recordings made with that ensemble. Curiously, 1984 was also the year in which Salonen made his conducting debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he would eventually be named Music Director in 1992 and hold that post until 2009. 23 of the CDs in the box involve recordings made with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Salonen is now Conductor Laureate. Following that tenure, fourteen of the CDs were made with the Philharmonia Orchestra, where Salonen has been Principal Conductor since 2008.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Philharmonia at the Apple store in Berlin (photograph by Louisa Dedalus, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

As was the case with my recently completed effort to account for the 70 CDs in the Deutsche Grammophon box Karl Böhm: The Operas, a collection of this size cannot really be accounted for in a single article. Similarly,  I do not feel that much can be gained by trying to organize individual articles on the basis of the progress of Salonen’s career. Instead, my preference is again to make a roughly historical account of the contents of the Sony collection.

Such an approach will involve a somewhat richer set of categories than those applied to the Böhm collection. Here are the category labels I have chosen as a “working set.” I am sure there will be those eager to contest my approach to category-formation. However, like that fabled centipede, I did not want to find myself frozen in place, because I could not figure out which leg(s) to move first. So, with a somewhat take-it-or-leave-it rhetorical stance, I present the following category labels along with the number of CDs associated with each of them:
  • Toward the 20th century: 11 CDs
  • Early 20th century: 19 CDs
  • Later 20th-century tonality: 5 CDs
  • Post-Schoenberg: 14 CDs
  • Nordic preferences: 16 CDs
Note that the numbers add up to 65. This is because there are CDs that cross the category boundaries I have arbitrarily set. Note, also, that anything earlier than the twentieth century gets comparatively little attention, much of which shows up in the “Nordic preferences” category. By the same count several Nordic composers, including Salonen himself, have been placed in the “Post-Schoenberg” category, simply because my personal opinion is that the influence of Arnold Schoenberg and those who followed him is greater than that of any “Nordic roots.” Finally, I appreciate that there may be some who object (perhaps even rabidly) to some of the intra-category relations that arise, such as that of Schoenberg having to share the same category with Igor Stravinsky. Nevertheless, this is the way in which I have decided to stake out the territory; and I shall now begin with that first category of works leading up to the tumultuous times of the first decades of the twentieth century.

Right off the bat, this raises one of those issues of intra-category relations. Because the collection is ordered alphabetically by the names of the composers (with a few problems arising from CDs with works by more than one composer), the very first composer in the alphabetical ordering is Johann Sebastian Bach. However, the title of the album when it was originally released was Bach Transcriptions; and, while the “historically-informed” set may be driven up the wall by much (if not all) of the album, Salonen definitely needs to be considered in terms of his taste in transcribers.

Given that this recording was made in Los Angeles, it should not surprise anyone that the one transcriber of two selections made a name for himself in Los Angeles that had a lot to do with his partnership with Walt Disney in the production of Fantasia. That transcriber was Leopold Stokowski; and the album actually begins with the transcription of the BWV 565 organ toccata and fugue in D minor, the very first music to be performed in Fantasia. In the reviews he wrote for New York Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson often wrote about Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. He would invariably remind readers that Stokowski began as an organist and tended to conduct as if he were at an organ bench, dealing with the different families of instruments as if they were organ stops. Salonen seems to affirm this approach; and he knows how to play up its merits, not only in BWV 565 but also in the BWV 578 “little” organ fugue in G minor. Furthermore, by taking away all of the Fantasia imagery, the attentive listener can focus more easily on what Stokowski was doing in making these transcriptions; and, if the result does not sound like “pure Bach,” one can still both identify and enjoy its own characteristic merits.

At the other extreme we have Anton Webern’s orchestration of the six-part fugue in the BWV 1079 collection The Musical Offering. I do not call this a transcription because Bach wrote this fugue, which he called “Ricercar,” on six separate lines with no indication of instrumentation. Nevertheless, Webern paid little attention to how Bach had sorted out the six voices of his fugue. His orchestration was conceived on a phrase-by-phrase (if not note-by-note) basis. If Stokowski’s approach was inspired by playing the organ, Webern went beyond the limitations of an organist being able to play and change stops at the same time. However, if the sonorities themselves are unorthodox, the music itself is endowed with a rhetoric that is just as lush as Stokowski’s (or, for that matter, Webern’s early compositions before his move into atonality).

Webern’s teacher Schoenberg is also represented with an orchestration of the BWV 552 prelude and fugue in E-flat major that frame Bach’s third Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) volume, the one written explicitly for organ performance. The author of the Wikipedia page for Clavier-Übung III describes Schoenberg’s effort as a “recomposition,” perhaps because Schoenberg’s score included percussion. Schoenberg created this arrangement in 1928; and, interestingly enough, its first performance the following year was conducted by Webern. (Webern’s own approach to Bach’s fugue would not be completed until 1935.)

When we consider Stokowski, Schoenberg, and Webern collectively, we can appreciate how each of them had his own ideas about how to transplant Bach’s music into the twentieth century. In other words this really is music about moving “toward the 20th century!” On the other hand the other two transcriptions on this CD almost feel as if they are hanging onto the nineteenth century for dear life. In the case of Edward Elgar (the BWV 537 organ fantasia and fugue in C minor), this should not be surprising. On the other hand the CD concludes with a “suite” compiled by Gustav Mahler by selecting movements from two of Bach’s own orchestral suites (BWV 1067 in B minor and BWV 1068 in D major) and “recomposing” them in a spirit not that different from Schoenberg but with far more retrogressive results.

If this were the only way in which Mahler were represented in this box, I would say that he had been unjustly treated. Fortunately, Salonen is far kinder to Mahler in his approach to original compositions. The box includes both the third and fourth symphonies and the orchestral song cycle Das Lied von der Erde. The third symphony is one of the more imposing “monsters” in the Mahler canon. Its first movement is probably the longest single movement that Mahler ever wrote. Indeed, the score organizes the symphony into two parts, the first of which consists only of the first movement, while the second then accounts for the remaining five movements. Most concert performances take an extended (and well-needed) pause between these two parts.

Salonen is never daunted by the demands imposed by this symphony. As a result, the performance of the entire piece, which requires two CDs, is a thoroughly absorbing account, which is sure to please anyone who is serious about listening to the Mahler canon. The other Mahler selections also have merits, although I have to say that Plácido Domingo is far from my first choice for the high-voice songs in Das Lied von der Erde!

Lest one think that Salonen has little respect for music that is “too old,” I have to say that the one CD of Joseph Haydn was more enjoyable than the pessimist in me would have anticipated. The three symphonies included on the album, numbers 82 (in C major), 78 (in C minor), and 22 (in E-flat major) from the first Hoboken volume, are performed by the Stockholm Chamber Orchestra. In each case Salonen knows just how to scale down his resources and use them to the best rhetorical advantage. These are selections through which one can appreciate not only Haydn’s capacity for invention but also his ability to season that capacity with wit.

The attentive listener also gets a highly satisfying share of good old-fashioned nineteenth-century piano virtuosity in this portion of the collection. One CD has Emanuel Ax playing both of Franz Liszt’s piano concertos; and another has Yefim Bronfman playing the two most frequently performed concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Opus 18 in C minor and Opus 30 in D minor. Both soloists are performing with the Philharmonia Orchestra; and all four accounts serve up just the right combination of flamboyant rhetoric and disciplined execution.

Indeed, the only composer that does not fare particularly well in this segment is Richard Strauss. To his credit Salonen steers away from the “usual suspects” of the tone poems or the waltz excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier. On the other hand Salonen’s decision to “flesh out” the sextet that opens Capriccio with his own arrangement for the full strings of the New Stockholm Chamber Orchestra manages to lose much of the transparency of the original version. Similarly, Salonen never seems to “get” the interplay of the 23 solo voices in “Metamorphosen.” (Herbert von Karajan, on the other hand, not only “got it” but could even beef it up with a larger string section!) However, this is a single disc in a sub-collection of eleven; so there is no reason to worry that Strauss is not the “magnet” that will draw listening to the Salonen canon.

Two Feast Services this Week at Church of the Advent

The Rock of the Eucharistic Miracle in Bolsena, associated with the origin of the Corpus Christi feast (photograph by Maciej Szczepańczyk Mathiasrex, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

This week the Church of the Advent of Christ the King will be celebrating High Mass for two major feast days. At both services there will be a musical setting of the Mass sung by the church’s resident professional choir, Schola Adventus, led by Director of Music Paul Ellison. As always, the services will include additional musical selections presented by the choir and the organ.

The first of these, which will take place this coming Thursday, has already been announced; but some corrections are in order. The celebration will be for the Feast of the Visitation, rather than the Annunciation. The Mass setting will still be by Hans Leo Hassler, his Missa Dixit Maria. There will still be additional music by Franz Liszt; but the other composers will be Michel Corrette, Edward Elgar, and Francis Poulenc. The service will still begin at 6:30 p.m.

The Feast of Corpus Christi will be celebrated with a High Mass on Sunday, June 3. The service will also include a procession and solemn benediction. Schola Adventus will sing William Byrd’s Mass setting for five voices. The other choral selections will be “Oculi omnium” by Charles Wood, “Coenantibis illis” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and “O salutaris Hostia” by Thomas Tallis. This will also be Music Memorial Sunday, when the memory of loved ones may be honored through tax-deductible donations to the Music Endowment Fund. The service will begin at 11 a.m.

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 church services; but those attending the service are kindly requested to leave something in the collection plate.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Bleeding Edge: 5/28/2018

Only two of this week’s events have already been reported. The first is Diana Wade’s visit to the Center for New Music this Thursday to present a program entitled you make it weird, San Francisco. The other is the visit of the Imperial Jazz Co. to Bird & Beckett Books and Records. All remaining offerings will take place over the weekend, including a two-night gig at The Lab. Specifics are as follows:

Friday, June 1, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Cellist Hannah Addario-Berry will return to the Old First Concerts series, joined for this recital by pianist Kate Campbell and clarinetist Jeff Anderle. Addario-Berry is passionately committed to the music of living composers, and this program demonstrates that passion, even when she is not one of the performers. Three Bay Area composers will be featured. Among them Ryan Brown will be featured with the world premiere performance of “Kaolin” for bass clarinet and piano. The other two local composers will be Ryan Rey, whose “Specular Reflections” will be given its San Francisco premiere, and Belinda Reynolds with a performance of her “Dust.”

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 the 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.

Friday, June 1, and Saturday, June 2, 8:30 p.m., The Lab: The Pyramids is a world music and jazz ensemble founded by Artistic Director Idris Ackamoor in the Seventies at Antioch College. The group grew out of Cecil Taylor’s Black Music Ensemble. Since its founding, the group has split up and reformed on several occasions. In its current incarnation it is serving as artists-in-residence at The Lab: and, in that capacity, Ackamoor will lead the group in performances on two successive evenings. They will use these gigs to feature their new album, An Angel Fell.

The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street. This is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station. Admission will be $20 and $12 for members. Seats may be reserved through a login Web page for members and guest registration Web pages for Friday and Saturday for others. Doors will open at 8 p.m., and it is usually the case that a long line has accumulated before then.

Sunday, June 3, 7:30 p.m., Musicians Union Hall: The next offering in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series concerts offered by Outsound Presents will follow the usual two-set format. The first set will be the trio of local musicians Kim Nucci (saxophone), Seiyoung Jang (piano and flute) and Alex Cohen (guitar). All three of them use electronics to supplement their instrumental work. They will be followed by the latest innovations from Noertker’s Moxie, led by Bill Noertker on bass. For this performance Noertker will be joined by Annelise Zamula on alto saxophone and flute, Josh Marshall on tenor saxophone, and Daniel Pearce on drums. 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.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

When Bach’s “Goldberg” met the Ruffatti

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, Felix Hell took the console of the Ruffatti Concert Organ to present the final program in the San Francisco Symphony Organ Recital Series. He presented a program consisting only only one selection, his own arrangement Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988, best known as the “Goldberg” variations. The name comes from the often-told story about how harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, in the service of Count Hermann Karl van Keyserlingk, had to help his master’s bouts with insomnia by playing music for him in the middle of the night. This is the sort of story that deserves to be true even if it isn’t; but the greater significance of BWV 988 is that it was published as the fourth and final volume of Bach’s Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice), the complete set serving as a comprehensive document of Bach’s approach to pedagogy.

For the record the first two volumes in this set were written for a single-manual keyboard instrument; and the third was written for organ. The title page of the fourth volume begins with the following text (in English translation):
Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals.
Bach clearly had not intended this music to be played on an organ. However, keyboard practice is keyboard practice; and there is much that organ students can learn from examining and trying to play BWV 988. Hell took this suggestion one step further, providing a performing edition that would be suitable for both multiple manuals and a pedal keyboard.

This was a bold undertaking, but it deserves to be taken as a serious one. However, even the most sympathetic serious listener is likely to come away feeling that the results were mixed. The reason for such feelings may be explained with a bit of physics.

Most listeners are aware that the execution of every note includes what is called an amplitude envelope. This envelope defines the amount of time (however brief) it takes the sound to come to “full volume” (known as the “attack time”), the way in which that “full volume” is sustained, and the way in which it then decays into silence. When the key of a keyboard instrument, such as a harpsichord, is struck, the attack time is very rapid, probably even more rapid than when a string is struck by a piano hammer. That short attack time is due to the string being plucked. On an organ, on the other hand, a sound becomes audible by virtue of high-pressure air being forced through a pipe, which means that the attack time is significantly longer.

This makes a difference when polyphonic music is being played from the keyboard. The harpsichord accommodates rapid finger work far better than a pipe organ; and, as a result, it is more conducive to allowing the listener to appreciate the interplay of multiple voices, particularly when the notes in those voices follow each other in rapid succession. (Think about the differences in note durations in the fugue subjects that Bach wrote for organ when compared with those encountered in The Well-Tempered Clavier.)

Hell’s performance this afternoon suggested that he was well aware of how susceptible his playing would be to the laws of physics. For the most part he chose his tempos judiciously, honoring the priority that Bach placed on clarity of all voices in a polyphonic fabric. Fortunately, the lion’s share of the variations were written with such polyphony in mind. However, when Bach shifted his attention of full-handed chords and harmonic progressions, the sonorities of the massive Ruffatti Concert Organ tended to undermine the composers’ intentions, no matter how skilled Hell’s technique was. On a few of those occasions, Hell was able to substitute an appropriately dramatic rhetoric to supplant Bach’s pedagogical intentions; but there were still more than a few moments during Hell’s execution when one heard little more than a muddle of pipes sounding simultaneously.

The final Quodlibet variation of BWB 988, whose intricacy was not quite up to performance on a pipe organ (from the first published edition, on Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Fortunately, Hell offered an encore for those who had waited patiently to listen to some of Bach’s music that was actually composed for organ. He selected what may be the most popular of such pieces, the BWV 565 coupling of a toccata and fugue in D minor. To reward the audience for their patience, Hell served up about as lush an account of the toccata as could be imagined. It would have been physically unwise (if not impossible) to “pull out all the stops;” but the first full chord of that toccata roared even louder than it usually does in Leopold Stokowski’s orchestration of the piece. For all of that outrageous bluster, however, Hell still executed the fugue in a way that honored the sort of clarity that Bach always felt such polyphony deserved.

Thus, while there may have been a few missteps along the way, Hell served up a journey that satisfied the criteria of both informative and entertaining listening.

Kine Sandtrø to Give Annual Jenny Lind Concert

Jenny Lind recitalist and soprano Kine Sandtrø and pianist Julia Sjöstedt (from the YBGF Facebook Event page)

Every summer the Consulate General of Sweden joins forces with the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF) to host the annual winner of a scholarship named after Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, awarded jointly by Folkets Hus och Parker and the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. This year’s awardee is 26-year-old Norwegian soprano Kine Sandtrø, who enrolled in the candidate program at the University College of Opera in Stockholm last year. Her accompanist for her YBGF recital will be 23-year old Swedish pianist Julia Sjöstedt, who just began studies for a Master’s degree under the guidance of Stefan Bojsten. The program for this recital has not yet been announced and is usually handed out to the audience just before the performance begins.

This recital will be part of the YBGF Lunchtime series, presented on the Festival “main stage” in Yerba Buena Gardens, which fills most of the northwest corner of Howard Street and Third Street. This particular concert will begin at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 21, and should last for about an hour. Seats are usually set up in front of the stage; but if June 21 happens to be one of those rare days when the sun comes out, attendees should be prepared to have their own ways to shade themselves. There are also a few shady spots under trees near the stage, and some may even have chairs set up there. There is no charge for this (or any other) YBGF event; so showing up is all that is required.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Flambeau’s Delightful Taste of New Orleans

Flambeau players Brent Rampone, Doug Dayson, Steve Parks, and Tom Rigney (photograph by Linda Dembo)

This afternoon I made my first foray into the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival (YBGF) to listen to Tom Rigney and the group he formed called Flambeau. Working with this group, Rigney has built up both a repertoire and a catalog of recordings, most of which involve different approaches to “roots.” These styles include Cajun, zydeco, blues, funky grooves from New Orleans, ballads, and waltzes. Rigby leads the group on violin and takes most of the vocals. The rest of the group consists of pianist Caroline Dahl, Steve Parks on bass guitar, and drummer Brent Rampone. For this performance the group was joined by a guest artist, guitarist Doug Dayson, a venerable veteran of Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band.

Note that “most of” qualifier, though. The most engaging waltz that Flambeau played actually came from an opera aria, “O mio babbino caro” (oh my dear daddy) from Giacomo Puccini’s one-act Gianni Schicchi. The treatment was strictly instrumental, but the spirit of the music was as clear as if one were encountering it on an opera stage. Equally engaging was the group’s approach to George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” from his opera, Porgy and Bess. Then there was Rigney’s own Irish influences, which he acknowledged in a piece called “Guinness and Gumbo.”

The real surprise of the afternoon came from what I have always felt was a classic in the New Orleans blues repertoire. The program would have not been true to its roots, so to speak, without an account of “The House of the Rising Sun.” It would be hard to enumerate how many different approaches have been taken to the traditional folk song that probably deserves the label “New Orleans classic” more than any other. However, Rigney gave his version a longer than usual introduction, which gave absolutely no hint of what was about to come. In fact the whole introduction wove its way around motifs from, of all places, Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo.” Setting aside any connotations of Jewish tradition, was Rigney trying to tell us that he really wanted to be a cellist?

Any kidding aside, what made this afternoon fun was not only the extended breadth of Rigney’s take on “roots” traditions but also they ways in which he could draw on unexpected sources to put his own personal stamp on each number. He has been a YBGF regular for several years. It was clear from looking over the audience that he had built up quite a fan base. It was just as clear than many of those fans had come to dance as well as to listen, making the whole affair a truly festive visual offering. Both my wife and I were blown away by the whole occasion, so I suppose we have increased the size of his fan base by two!

Choices for June 16, 2018

Those planning to attend the performances of the first cycle of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) by the San Francisco Opera next month will probably be seeking out “something completely different” for Saturday, June 16, the date that separates Siegfried from Götterdämmerung. My own plan is for a radical shift into Collaborations in Flamenco at the Red Poppy Art House. However, as of this writing, there are two alternatives for those wishing to take refuge in a more recital-like setting with a more casual twist:

[added 6/8, 2 p.m.:

3 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: The San Francisco Civic Music Association will present its next afternoon of free chamber music. Participating performers have not yet been announced. However, the three selections on the program definitely deserve attention. The program will begin with a rare opportunity to listen to the music of Rebecca Clarke, her “Dumka” for piano, violin, and cello. This will be followed by late chamber music by Gabriel Fauré, his Opus 120 piano trio in D minor. The final selection will be Johannes Brahms' Opus 100 (second) violin sonata in A major.

The Noe Valley Ministry is located at 3021 Sanchez Strteet. Admission is free. Registration is appreciated but not required. Those who wish may register through an Eventbrite event page. Seating is limited and available on a first-come first-served basis. Donations are gratefully accepted, with a $10 donation suggested for each person.]

[added 6/3, 8:30 a.m.:

7 p.m., Red Poppy Art House: The already-announced Collaborations in Flamenco, which will be given two separate performances over the course of the evening.

7:30 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The title of the next program prepared by the International Orange Chorale of San Francisco (IOCSF), the only ensemble to have named itself after the color of the Golden Gate Bridge, is Pilgrimage and Passage: Songs of Yearning. The featured work will be “Santiago,” the fourth and final movement of the cycle Paths of Miracles by Joby Talbot. The cycle is a reflection on the Peregrinatio Compostellana (“pilgrimage of Compostela”), better known as the Camino de Santiago, whose Latin name reflects following the Milky Way. The program will also include a reprise of “Dream Triptych,” written by 2017 Composer-in-Residence Elliott Encarnación and first performed this past December. Other composers whose works will be performed will be by Eric Banks, Eriks Esenvalds, J. David Moore, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Nicholas Weininger. St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Admission is free, but donations are always welcome.]

8 p.m., Community Music Center (CMC): The CMC Concert Hall will host the next installment in Paul Dab’s Fête Concerts series, whose program are structured around birthday parties. On this occasion the honoree will be Igor Stravinsky, who was born on June 17, 1882, making this an early celebration of his 136th birthday. Pianist Dab will be joined by violinist Abigail Shiman, soprano Anne Hepburn Smith, and clarinetist Sarah Bonomo. (Both Dab and Shiman are CMC faculty members.)

The major work on the program will be Stravinsky’s condensed version of the music originally written for “L’Histoire du soldat” (the soldier’s tale) scored for piano, violin, and clarinet. Smith will narrate a text by Douglas Penick that similarly scales down the original narrative by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. As a vocalist Smith will perform both Three Japanese Lyrics and “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Bonomo will play the set of three short pieces that Stravinsky wrote for solo clarinet, and Dab will perform the four solo piano études. Dab will also accompany Shiman in a performance of Suite italienne, selections from his score for the ballet “Pulcinella,” in an arrangement created in collaboration with Samuel Dushkin. Finally, the Fête Concerts tradition will continue with an arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in the style of the honored composer; and that arrangement has been prepared by local composer Joseph Colombo. As always, the celebration will also include wind, cheese, dessert, and the obligatory party hats.

CMC is located in the Mission at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street. There will be a pre-concert reception beginning at 7:30 p.m. There will be no charge for admission.

8 p.m., Monument: Monument, which has hosted many of the One Found Sound concerts, will host an album release recital by Jonah Sirota, former violist of the Chiara String Quartet. The event will be presented in partnership with Classical Revolution SF, and the album will be STRONG SAD, Sirota’s debut solo album. The album consists of eight new elegies for viola, each by a different composer: Sirota himself, the improvisation duo Mondegreen (whose members are Sirota and Kurt Knecht), and Paola Prestini, Nico Muhly, Valgeir Sigur∂sson, Robert Sirota, A.J. McCaffrey, and Rodney Lister. The concert will also include a performance by the Classical Revolution String Quartet, whose members are violinists Matthew Szemela and Anthony Blea, violist Charith Premawardhana, and cellist Lewis Patzner.

Monument is located in SoMa at 140 9th Street. Admission will be $20. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from an Eventbrite event page.

An Impressive Account of Unwieldy Brahms

There is no questioning that Johannes Brahms’ Opus 15 (first) piano concerto in D minor does not constitute his finest hour as a composer. The first performance on January 22, 1859 was given by Brahms at the piano under the baton of his friend Joseph Joachim. Following the poor audience reception, Brahms wrote to Joachim calling the performance “a brilliant and decisive – failure ….” Brahms was 25 at the time; and he was in the process of working on the concerto at the time he completed his first venture into orchestral writing, his Opus 11 serenade in D major. He clearly had a lot to learn, and he knew it.

Nevertheless, Opus 15 now enjoys a relatively secure place in the repertoire of Brahms’ compositions that are regularly performed. It may not get as much exposure as the second concerto (Opus 83 in B-flat major, not completed until 1881); but it definitely has more than capable advocacy in both the concert hall and on recording. Unfortunately, that advocacy has not received much recent exposure in Davies Symphony Hall. The last time the San Francisco Symphony performed Opus 15 was in February of 2014, when pianist Hélène Grimaud performed with guest conductor Lionel Bringuier. Opening night vividly recalled Brahms’ initial impressions. A relatively new timpanist drowned out the entire ensemble in the opening measure, and neither performers nor attentive listeners recovered from that muddle that ensued over the course of the concerto’s three movements.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night conductor David Robertson returned to the SFS podium, and Kirill Gerstein was his soloist for the first of two performances of Opus 15 being given in San Francisco this week. It was evident from that very opening gesture that Robertson understood how critical it was to balance all participating resources. Robertson not only knew how to keep that timpani line under control but also made it clear through control of dynamics that the opening gesture of the concerto has far more nuance than the raging of a wild bull.

Once the opening gesture has passed, both conductor and soloist still face many challenges. The orchestral introduction goes on at some length before the piano delivers its first utterance. Even then, it takes more than a little time before those utterances move on from intense virtuosity to a passage that actually counts for a theme. Nevertheless, it was clear that both Robertson and Gerstein appreciated that this was a concerto that established itself through its overall flow, rather than pleasant tunes that one can whistle while leaving the hall.

Indeed, that overall flow becomes the very substance of the concerto. Just as the opening gesture can only register with a nuanced reading, the journey through the concerto’s three movements involves energy levels that surge and recede, even settling back almost to utter stillness during the second movement. Both Robertson and Gerstein knew how to escort the attentive listener across the full breadth of those energy levels, capturing all of those “brilliant and decisive” qualities that Brahms had committed to his score pages without ever hinting that the undertaking had been a failure.

Robertson was just as attentive to nuanced detail in the symphony offering of his program, Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/102 in B-flat major. This was one of those symphonies that Haydn wrote for his London audience, enjoying his “star status” arising from the promotion of Johann Peter Salomon. “Liberated” from his “servant status” at Eszterháza, Haydn discovered that he knew how to cultivate popularity and enjoyed doing so. Indeed, this symphony not only is rhetorically delightful but also serves up even more surprises than Hoboken I/94 in G major (the symphony that took on the “Surprise” title).

Robertson’s physical technique perfectly managed Haydn’s rhetorical stances. Indeed, Robertson added a few gestures of his own. The first movement was wrapped up with such finality that much of the audience could not resist breaking into applause. Robertson graciously accepted the adulation, turning around to announce that the ensemble would now play three encores (to account for the remaining movements). By the time the performance had progressed to the false endings in the fourth movement, Robertson seemed to be drawing upon techniques of method acting to supplement his conducting, and the spirits behind Haydn’s music could not have been higher.

Far more serious was the “overture” for the evening, Brett Dean’s “Engelsflügel” (wings of angels). This piece grew out of a “tribute” composition for solo piano that Dean wrote to honor one of Brahms’ late works, his Opus 119 set of four solo piano pieces. He would later rework his ideas for an ensemble of winds, brass, and percussion; and that piece was subsequently rescored for full orchestra. Robertson gave the world premiere of the orchestral version in June of 2014 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, where he is now Chief Conductor and Artistic Director.

Writing as one with a great interest is Brahms’ late pieces for solo piano, I have to say that I felt as if I would need a Geiger counter to detect any traces of Brahms in “Engelsflügel.” Nevertheless, I would hardly want to fault what Dean has achieved with this piece, which is a rich command of instrumental sonorities. I would even go so far as to say that Dean evokes one of the richest palettes for a rhetoric of orchestral blends that any serious listener has encountered since the efforts of Alban Berg. If my own thoughts never homed in on Brahms, there were more than a few moments that recalled Wozzeck drowning in the lake in which he threw the knife with which he had just killed Marie. Brahms may, indeed, be lurking in Dean’s score; but it may be the Brahms whose ideas had been refracted through Berg’s own compositional imagination.

Friday, May 25, 2018

MTT to Return to SFS Podium with Russian Opera

Preliminary rendering of how the scenic design for Boris Godunov by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock will fit into Davies Symphony Hall (created by Mac Moc Design, courtesy of SFS)

Those attending the first performance of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung), presented next month by the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial Opera House, particularly those planing a special visit to San Francisco for the occasion, will have the opportunity to make the occasion one of even greater operatic excess. During the “free day” between Die Walküre (the Valkyrie) on June 13 and Siegfried on June 15, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will give the first of three performances of a semi-staged production of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov in Davies Symphony Hall, on the other side of Grove Street. Following over a month of visiting conductors, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) will return to Davies to conduct. James Darrah will lead the production team, whose other key members will include Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago and Projection Designer Adam Larsen with both scenic and costume designs by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock.

Many of the key roles will be sung by visiting Eastern European vocalists, beginning with the title role to be sung by bass Stanislav Trofimov. Other visiting artists of note will be tenor Sergei Skorokhodov (Grigory), tenor Yevgeny Akimov (Prince Shuisky), bass Vyacheslav Pochapsky (Varlaam), bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev (Pimen), baritone Aleksey Bogdanov (Andrei Shchelkalov), and tenor Stanislav Mostovoy (Holy Fool). More familiar names will be those of mezzo Catherine Cook (the innkeeper), Philip Skinner (Nikitich), tenor Elliott Encarnación (a boyar in attendance), and bass Chung-Wai Soong (Mityukha). Ragnar Bohlin will prepare the extensive choral work, which will be sung by both the SFS Chorus and the Pacific Boychoir (Andrew Brown, Director).

Both the composition of the score and the production of the opera have complicated histories. Mussorgsky began working on the opera in October of 1868 by preparing his own libretto based on the drama of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, written predominantly in blank verse. Pushkin’s play consisted of 25 scenes, which Mussorgsky stripped down to seven, grouped into four parts. This version was completed in 1869 but was then revised in 1872. That revised version consisted of a two-scene prologue followed by four acts with two, one, two, and two scenes, respectively, making for a total of nine scenes.

The music itself endured what might best be called a checkered history. In 1896 Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov prepared a performing edition of the score with the goal of correcting what he took to be errors in Mussorgsky’s manuscripts. (Fun fact: When this version was first performed, the role of Varlaam was taken by Fyodor Stravinsky, known these days, if at all, as Igor’s father.) Rimsky-Korsakov subsequently revised his version in 1908; and it was this version through which the opera received tis first performance outside Russia, at the Paris Opera. Mussorgsky’s 1869 version would not be heard outside Russia until a performance in London at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in 1935. These days Rimsky-Korsakov’s good intentions no longer have very much currency, and the version most likely to be performed in Mussorgsky’s own 1872 revision. No specific information has yet been released as to whether or not this will be the version performed. However, probably for reasons of time, only seven of its nine scenes will be performed, dispensing with the third act, both scenes of which take place in Poland.

This concert will be given only three performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 14, and Friday, June 15, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 17. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Alexandra D. Amati that will begin half an hour before the performance. Doors to the Davies lobbies open fifteen minutes prior to the lecture. Ticket prices range from $35 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 Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

New Music to Inspire Climate Awareness

The mission of the ClimateMusic Project is to educate, inspire, and enable diverse audiences to engage actively on climate change. Put another way, the organization seeks to present experiences for their audiences that will make climate science personal, rather than an objective compilation of data and interpretations of those data. To this end project participants include not only world-class scientists and technology visionaries but also composers, musicians, and artists.

As of this writing, two composers have been actively involved in the project. The first contributor was Erik Ian Walker, whose “Climate” is a 30-minute multimedia composition that provides musical accompaniment for the visualization of climate conditions over a 500-year period that reaches back to 1800 and projects forward, through two possible future scenarios, to 2300. Played in front of a projection of the animated visualization, the music is scored for a combo of both acoustic and electronic instruments with solo violin work written for Michèle Walther.

Next month will see the premiere of a new string quartet by the second composer to contribute to the project, Richard Festinger. The title of his piece is “Icarus in Flight.” The piece may be viewed as a chamber music tone poem, conceived to track the last 200 years of human drivers of climate change, including land use, fossil fuels, and population growth. The piece will be given its premiere performance by the members of the Telegraph Quartet: violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw:

Eric Chin, Jeremiah Shaw, Pei-Ling Lin, and Joseph Maile, members of the Telegraph Quartet in performance at Old First Presbyterian Church (from the Telegraph Quartet Gallery)

This performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 9. The venue will be the Noe Valley Ministry, located in Noe Valley at 1021 Sanchez Street, just west of the 24th Street stop for the Church Street trolley and near the southeast corner of 23rd Street. General admission will be $25 with a $45 charge for reserved seating in the first three rows. Tickets are currently available in advance online from a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Doors will open at 7 p.m.

According to the ClimateMusic Project, this will be the only musical performance of the evening. The program will begin with an introduction by Dr. William Collins, Director of the Climate and Ecological Sciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. There will also be time to engage with both the artists and the scientists behind the work, both before the music is played and afterwards at a closing reception.

The Remainder of the DG Böhm Collection

Having accounted for the three major categories in the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) box set, Karl Böhm: The Operas (the First Viennese School, Richard Wagner, and Richard Strauss), I must now take the eight remaining CDs into consideration. Three of these are “documents” organized primarily around Böhm himself discussing, in German, his life and work. The last of these is Karl Böhm: Erzähltes Leben (Karl Böhm: A Life Retold). The eight tracks divide his autobiographical account into distinct episodes, punctuated by brief musical excerpts. These excerpts include symphonic music by both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, leading (at least) this listener to hope that there will soon be a subsequent DG release of Böhm’s instrumental recordings. More substantial and relevant excepts can be found in a lecture about Mozart’s operas. The disc with this lecture includes two other addresses, one to the press about the 1967 release of his recording of Don Giovanni and the other about his relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic.

The longest musical excerpts come from the 1972 Metropolitan Opera Gala, organized to honor the retirement of Rudolf Bing as the company’s General Manager. The two selections honor three of the vocalists who were leading figures during Bing’s tenure. The first presents soprano Teresa Żylis-Gara and tenor Franco Corelli singing the love duet that concludes the first act of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. This is followed by Birgit Nilsson’s riveting account of the final scene in Richard Strauss’ Opus 54 “Salome.” Both of these are “gala” performances, aimed more at a festive audience than at an attentive account of the entire opera; but, even in this more festive context, the deliveries of these excerpts never fail to hit the mark at dead center. This CD also includes Böhm’s reflections (again in German) about Strauss and his relationship to the composer.

The remaining five CDs account for what might be called the “extremes” of Böhm’s repertoire as a conductor. One is structured around eight arias and one duet from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 17 opera Giulio Cesare with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing the title role of Julius Caesar and Irmgard Seefried singing role of Cleopatra. The ensemble is the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Let’s not try to kid anyone here. This is an account of Handel that will probably drive those with a serious commitment to historically-informed performance up the wall. Anyone that well informed about Handel will know that the role of Caesar was written for an alto castrato; and, if there is any good news about this recording, it is that we do not have to listen to Fischer-Dieskau demean himself by trying to sing falsetto! This album is probably the result of a decision made in some board room having more to do with DG’s balance sheets, rather than giving Handel the treatment he deserves.

Fortunately, Fischer-Dieskau redeems himself more than sufficiently on the CD on which he sings Mahler’s settings of texts by Friedrich Rückert, both the five Kindertotenlieder songs and four of the songs originally published in the Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (seven songs of latter days) and subsequently included in the Rückert-Lieder collection. Böhm conducts the Berlin Philharmonic on all nine of the tracks; and, given how much attention this collection gives to Strauss, this nod to Mahler has much to appreciate, however brief it may be. This CD also has a final track presenting Johannes Brahms’ Opus 53, known as the “Alto Rhapsody.” The alto is Christa Ludwig; and the male chorus consists of members of the Wiener Singverein, all performing with Böhm leading the Vienna Philharmonic. Since this collection already offers impressive accounts of choral music by Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Beethoven, the inclusion of the Brahms selection is welcome indeed.

Original cover of the vinyl album of Böhm’s Lulu recording showing Evelyn Lear and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the final scene of the opera’s first act (from

Most interesting, however, is that the collection also includes Alban Berg’s two operas, Wozzeck and Lulu. Both of these are impressively intense. Böhm seems to have put the full extent of his understanding into both operas and has elicited just as much understanding from the leading vocalists in both operas, who happen to be the same on these two recordings. Fischer-Dieskau sings the title role in Wozzeck and Dr. Ludwig Schön in Lulu; and he is joined by Evelyn Lear singing the title role in Lulu and Marie in Wozzeck. The only down-side is that the Lulu recording was made in 1968 and thus predates the publication of Friedrich Cerha’s three-act version, which was published in 1979. It is unclear whether or not Böhm ever examined Cerha’s score, but it would appear that he never prepared it for either performance or recording. Given the intensity that he brought to what has been recorded, I, for one, wish that a recorded legacy of Böhm’s approach to Cerha’s score was available.

Anka Draugelates Visits HUSH Series at C4NM

Anka Draugelates in the poster for last night’s concert (courtesy of C4NM)

The HUSH Series, curated by Julia Ogrydziak at the Center for New Music (C4NM), presents concerts that explore sound as meditation. Last night’s offering featured a visit from Germany by Anka Draugelates, a vocalist that accompanies herself on viola. She was joined by dancer and choreographer Kilta Rainprechter, also from Germany. Draugelates presented a one-hour program entitled “im Fluß der Zeit” (in the river of time) in which the two of them performed with local artist Cheryl E. Leonard, playing primarily instruments of her own invention, punctuated with sampled sounds from natural sources.

As the series title suggests, the performance was one of subtle quietude. Draugelates’ vocal selections probably came from folk sources, one of which was in English; but it is entirely possible that she was also experimenting with sonorities at the syllabic level. She tended to use the viola to provide a sustained and subdued continuo, often suggesting the steady sonorities one often encounters in Hardanger fiddle music.

Leonard contrasted Draugelates’ approach to pitch with sounds from more natural sources. This included bowing physical objects, such as pieces of driftwood “planted” in a base of sand. (Draugelates also prepared several wind chimes, that appeared to be made of driftwood often in the shape of bones, unless they were bones in the shape of driftwood.)

While Leonard tended to focus on those natural sound qualities, one of her more impressive constructions took a unique approach to pitched tones. A glass vessel with a hole in the bottom deposited a stream of sand on a glass plate fitted with a concrete microphone. Those with some knowledge of physics know that such flat surfaces have a geometry of nodal points that induce vibrations at different frequencies. Thus, when the vessel changed position, the pitch of the sand bouncing off of the plate varied; and Leonard eventually let the vessel swing freely, providing a “natural melodic line.”

To borrow wording from Clive Barnes, Rainprechter danced through the sonic environment created by the seemingly independent efforts of Draugelates and Leonard. Near the beginning of the performance, she also added to the sounds when Draugelates suspended a wind chime on each of her elbow joints. She supported these instruments with impeccable balance, providing an intriguing instance of the creation of music arising from human movement.

The entire performance took place in most of the area of the C4NM performing space. Chairs for the audience were set up around the periphery, but the performing area itself was a large one. As a result each member of the audience had a preferred, but limited, view. Given the impressive array of objects and electronics that Leonard had prepared, I naturally biased my own view in that direction. This had little impact on Draugelates, whose own music-making had penetratingly distinctive qualities. On the other hand I was not in the best of positions to follow Rainprechter and therefore exercised my own personal bias for the sonic elements of the performance. Others would have come away with entirely different impressions of the overall experience.

Ogrydziak describes the concerts in her series as giving “a space and a moment to breathe in a hectic world.” Clearly, a one-hour performance occupies more than “a moment.” Nevertheless, where an artist like Draugelates is concerned, it is not difficult to abandon any personal sense of clock-time and let things unfold at their own pace. The sense of retreat from “a hectic world” still maintains; and all it took was walking out the front door of C4NM onto Taylor Street to appreciate the virtues of the intimate serenity of Draugelates’ offering last night.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wagner’s Epic Begins in Three Weeks!

The “Magic Fire” scene that concludes Die Walküre, the second of the operas in Der Ring des Nibelung (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

In three weeks’ time Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung) will return to the War Memorial Opera House. This will be the second time that Francesca Zambello’s staging of this four-opera epic will be performed by the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Traditionally, attending performances of the entire cycle has had a bit of a cult status, reserved only for the hardiest of lovers of Wagner’s music (which has always been a distinctive subset of the entire community of opera-goers).

However, when plans for the return of Zambello’s production were first announced, the director observed that audiences, in general, have become more acclimated to narratives that unfold over a long span of time than they used to be. George Lucas’ initial conception of Star Wars as a narrative that fills nine full-length films almost always comes up as an example; but television has played just as important a role in extending attention spans. Think of how, on HBO, The Wire unfolded its intense narrative of the decline of the middle class (which is how Director David Simon approached the project) over the course of five seasons or, to shift to the immediate present, Billions, basically a saga of vulture capitalism, is currently playing out (with no sense of when or how the tale will end) at a gripping pace worthy of the account of the Trojan War by the Homeric bards. Furthermore, with the appearance of Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), at least a few of the characters in Wagner’s narrative are likely to be familiar.

Nevertheless, there is still very much a cult of those whose passion for the Ring operas is so strong that they will travel significant distances for a chance to experience the full cycle in its entirety. It should therefore be no surprise that, according to General Director Matthew Shilvock, over 90% of tickets to the three performances of the full cycle that will take place next month have already been sold. Many of those tickets have been purchased by Wagner fans, who will be visiting San Francisco explicitly to attend one of those three performances.

Mind you, sales have been going on for some time. As a season subscriber, I received notification of priority availability of tickets through mail that was dated September 26, 2016. (I should add that the sale of tickets for my wife and myself was finalized in less than a month of our receipt of that notification.) However, in the face of all of that demand, seats in the Orchestra section are still available for both all three of the full-cycle performances and all twelve of the individual opera performances, through a special Web page created on the SFO Web site.

Furthermore, the opera performances themselves have been embedded into a broader Ring Festival offering events both before and during each cycle. Indeed, the first of these events took place this past February at the monthly meeting of the Wagner Society of Northern California. However, many preparatory and supplementary events remain, all of which have been summarized on another Web page on the SFO Web site.

In the midst of all of this abundance, I am trying hard to resist piling on too much of my own perspective of this experience. However, as a result of an encounter with a “Wagner virgin” (Zambello’s phrase, not my own), I wanted to offer a few remarks to those considering a “first encounter,” be it with the cycle, Wagner’s operas, or opera in general. My reason for doing so is based on an observation that those who know little about Wagner are often afflicted with misleading, if not inaccurate, information (better known, these days, as “fake news”).

That observation arose from a personal encounter with a friend, who, in spite of avid enthusiasm for the classical repertoire, had shied away from Wagner. She had confessed that her suspicions could be traced back to the classic Warner Bros. Cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc,” which had Elmer Fudd sporting a Viking helmet while singing “Kill the Wabbit” to the theme of the “Ride of the Valkyries,” the music that opens the final act of Die Walküre (the Valkyrie), the second of the four operas in the Ring cycle. It was only after the release of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, that I had the leverage to get her to change her mind.

Film buffs may recall that this film began with the prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde played against a blank screen. After she saw the film, I asked her what she thought of the opening; and she confessed to being totally wrapped up by it. That allowed me to reply, “You know that was Wagner’s music, don’t you?,” doing my best to avoid feeling smug.

Since my friend has long enjoyed going to SFO performances, her opinion shift led to some questions about whether or not it was time to get to know the Ring. I agreed with her that a commitment to the entire cycle might be more than she might wish to take as a “first contact” experience. I then explained that the last opera in the set, Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods, perhaps more familiar to the MCU crowd through its translation into the Old Norse noun “Ragnarök”), incorporates the entire narrative, because, at the beginning the three Norns, who weave the rope of Destiny, summarize everything that has happened in the first three operas. Having given that good news, I observed, by way of “full disclosure,” that the running time of Götterdämmerung tends to be over five hours. I then explained that the shortest opera is the first, Das Rheingold (the gold of the Rhine), which takes somewhat more than two and one-half hours; but it is performed without an intermission. As a result, I came away with the sense that my friend was not yet ready to take the plunge for even one of those four operas.

The bottom line is that Wagner takes his time in all four of the operas. Nevertheless, there are few moments when you feel as if he is dragging his heels. One reason is that, whatever the characters may be singing or doing, the music is always there providing a perspective on what is being observed. That music is based on a rich lexicon of themes and thematic fragments, known collectively as “leitmotifs.” These identify not only characters but also objects (such as swords), locations (such as the Rhine river), and ideas (such as the curse that is placed on the ring around with the entire plot revolves). There are even those who would argue that the leitmotifs do a better job of telling that story than the words that Wagner wrote for the libretto of each opera.

As to the current production here in San Francisco, Zambello has taken some innovative approaches to setting the narrative in California in a time span that reaches back to the days of the Gold Rush (the source of the gold from which the ring is made) to a futuristic high-technology world in which the rope of Destiny has been replaced by a server farm. The result is that the visual conception of the full cycle shares with the music the ability to advance the observer through the narrative without leaving behind any feelings that Wagner was taking too long to make his point. All this means that even those who are even slightly curious should go to that Ring Web site and do some browsing. Given how the demand for tickets has progressed, there is no time like the present!

50-Year-Old Civil Rights Songs Surface at CMC

Betty Reid Soskin (standing behind violinist) with the CMC Teen Jazz Orchestra and vocalist Jamie Zimmer (third from right), photograph by Lisa Lee

Since the rise of the civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties, Betty Reid Soskin was doing her part by writing songs. Through her music she offered up her own poetic reflections on her experiences as a mixed-race woman confronting segregation at work and in the East Bay housing market. She built up a library of her work on personal tapes that were never released commercially or even produced in more professional settings.

Soskin is now 96. At that age she is America’s oldest park ranger. She is also a beneficiary of new technology through which all of her old recordings have been digitized to provide a historical record of the breadth of her songwriting efforts. Last night jazz bassist Marcus Shelby, who directs the CMC (Community Music Center) Teen Jazz Orchestra, prepared arrangements of a selection of these songs to bring them to the attention of a full concert audience. Shelby also recruited local jazz artist Jamie Zimmer to serve as vocalist.

The results of Shelby’s efforts were presented yesterday evening in the CMC Concert Hall. Soskin’s words and music could not have been more timely, particularly in light of the historical fact that last April 4 was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Those of us who believe in steady progress would have thought that this would have been an occasion to appreciate how far things had advanced, particularly with the election of the 44th President of the United States. However, anyone who pays close attention to the daily news knows that regress is threatening to unravel all of that progress; and Soskin’s words could not be a better reminder of where that regress will take us (if it has not already done so).

Zimmer was an excellent choice for bringing Soskin’s words to performance. Between the clarity of her diction and her solid sense of pitch, the attentive listener could relish the full impact of every phrase in Soskin’s text. Her delivery was judiciously seasoned with improvised vocalizations that reflected the poignancy of the text, particularly in its expression of frustration. Soskin was skillful in keeping the anger under control; and, in doing so, she left that intensity to be filled in by any listener paying close attention to her words.

Soskin’s share of the program was preceded by a final “report” on the progress of the CMC Teen Jazz Orchestra. Shelby clearly wants this group to appreciate the legacy of past jazz masters in its repertoire. For this particular concert those masters were Herbie Hancock, Benny Golson, Duke Ellington, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Mingus. All of his selections deserve attentive and informed listening; and, from a technical point of view, there was no hiding that the CMC players were not quite up to doing these pieces justice.

Nevertheless, Shelby brought a positive spirit to the occasion; and one could see how he was encouraging the group to keep going in their efforts to bring these thorny pieces under control. More importantly, however, was Shelby’s emphasis on the fact that any jazz playing worth listening to, no matter how modest the effort, deserves to be seasoned by some serious improvisation. If all of the CMC players still have a way to go before getting a piece like Mingus’ “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” under control, there was no mistaking all of the positive energy behind those who stood up to improvise their own takes on the tune. This may be “work in progress” jazz; but the committed jazz aficionado should have no trouble seeing where that progress is heading.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

SFCA to Conclude Season with American Music

Next month San Francisco Choral Artists (SFCA), led by Artistic Director Magen Solomon, will present the third and final program in its 2017–18 season. The full title of the program is More Pianos Than Bathtubs: America’s music. That title refers to the fact that, one hundred years ago, there were more pianos than bathtubs in American homes. The program has been organized to visit those American homes at various times in American history.

Those different periods will be represented by American composers including William Billings, Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, William Grant Still, Aaron Copland, and John Cage. The program will also introduce new works by Composer-in-Residence Michael Kaulkin and Composer-Not-in-Residence Sylke Zimpel. Finally, there will be an assortment of “traditional” (the category label for music without an attributed composer) songs, including spirituals, music from shape-note tunebooks, folk songs, work songs, and play songs. The SFCA ensemble will be joined by tenor Brian Thorsett and pianist Teresa McCollough.

Visiting soloist, tenor, and American music specialist Brian Thorsett (courtesy of SFCA)

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 4 p.m. at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, which is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the intersection with Franklin Street. Single tickets will be sold at the door for $33, $29 for seniors, and $15 for individuals aged 30 and under with valid identification. However, if single tickets are purchased in advance, the prices will be $28, $25, and $12.50, respectively. All online purchases are handled through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.