Friday, August 31, 2018

Queyras Gives Vivaldi Sonatas Deserved Attention

courtesy of PIAS

It turns out that next month will mark more than the beginning of a new concert season. According to my records, next Friday, September 7, will be a particularly heavy date for the release of new recordings. (Experience has taught that almost all releases take place on a Friday.) Two of them caught my attention with enough enthusiasm that I felt that they both deserve heads-up notices. Consistent with the breadth of my tastes, one is firmly situated in the eighteenth century, while the other resides entirely in the twentieth.

The eighteenth-century selection is an album consisting entirely of compositions by Antonio Vivaldi involving a genre not usually associated with that popular composer. In 1740 Leclerc and Boivin published a collection of six (a familiar number for collections) sonatas for cello and continuo, which had been written by Vivaldi between 1720 and 1730. These are sometimes incorrectly identified as the Opus 14 collection; but that number is just as fictitious as the assignment of Opus 13 to the Opus 13 collection of sonatas entitled Il pastor fido (the faithful shepherd), none of which were composed by Vivaldi! The sonatas in the 1740 publication do not follow the ordering of Peter Ryom’s catalog (Ryom-Verseichnis, or RV). Here is the 1740 ordering with corresponding RV numbers:
  1. B-flat major, RV 47
  2. F major, RV 41
  3. A minor, RV 43
  4. B-flat major, RV 45
  5. E minor, RV 40
  6. B-flat major, RV 46
These days this collection does not get very much attention. Indeed, where my own listening is concerned, I have encountered only one of these pieces, RV 40; and that was as a concerto, rather than as a sonata. Vincent d’Indy and Paul Bazelaire reworked the sonata as a concerto (presumably with greater audience appeal in mind), which held pride of place in the repertoire of cellist Pierre Fournier. (Don’t get me started on the many efforts of musicians during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to make eighteenth-century music more “palatable” to their contemporary audiences!)

The fact is that there is no need to “disguise” any of these sonatas as concertos. They all follow the four-movement sonata de chiesa structure (slow-fast-slow-fast); and each has its own way of taking a more intimate approach to rhetoric than one encounters when a soloist is playing off the “support” of an ensemble. Fortunately, next Friday PIAS will release a new harmonia mundi recording by cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras through which listeners may appreciate the full scope of Vivaldi’s capacity for such intimacy. (As usual, this recording is currently available for pre-order from

Queyras performs with three continuo players, cellist Christoph Dangel, Lee Santana on theorbo, and keyboardist Michael Behringer. One of the more interesting features of the recording comes from efforts to establish different rhetorical stances based on key selection. Thus, all three of the B-flat major sonatas find Behringer playing on a small organ, while he uses the harpsichord for the other three sonatas in the collection. Those choices appear to reflect both how Vivaldi sought out different ways for the cello to be expressive in different keys and how the continuo then provides the “background” for those different approaches to expressiveness.

The result is an album that definitely stakes out territory beyond the usual expectations that one brings to listening to Vivaldi; and, at the same time, it reminds us that, as a recording artist, Queyras has established himself as committed to exploring an extensive diversity of approaches to performance in an equally extensive variety of social settings.

Old First Concerts: October, 2018

With Labor Day Weekend upon us, we have come to the threshold of the new concert season. This site has done its best to prepare readers for the month of September and has even begun to provide heads-up announcements for the month of October. As a result, it is not to soon (at least for those big on advance planning) to review the October performances that will be presented by Old First Concerts (O1C). These plans seem to be finalized. However, if it is necessary, this Web page will be updated; and notification will be provided through this site’s Facebook shadow page.

All O1C events take place at the Old First Presbyterian Church, 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. Hyperlinks for online purchase through specific event pages will be attached to the date-and-time information given below. 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. Here are the specifics for the month of October:

Friday, October 5, 8 p.m.: Club Glee was formed fourteen years ago by older alumni of the Glee Club at Waseda University, a leading Japanese private research university. Among the roughly two dozen vocalists, the average age is 74, and the group practices three hours every Sunday. The repertoire consists primarily of popular songs arranged by conductor Haruo Maruyama. Four years ago the group came to California to perform at a Waseda Alumni event in Los Angeles, and this will be their first visit to San Francisco. While the repertoire is not usually associated with attentive listening, the uniqueness of this group’s approach to music making definitely deserves more than casual attention!

Sunday, October 7, 4 p.m.: Dyad is the innovative duo of violinists Niv Ashkenazi and bassoonist Leah Kohn. As might be guessed, much of the repertoire is by contemporary composers; and the program will include works by Reena Esmail, Rachel Epperly, and Gernot Wolfgang. However, Niccolò Paganini composed a set of three duos for this particular combination of instruments, and Dyad will perform the first from that set. They will also perform “Prayer,” the first movement from Ernest Bloch’s suite From Jewish Life, originally scored for cello and piano.

Friday, October 12, 8 p.m.: The Stenberg | Cahill Duo consists of violinist Kate Stenberg and pianist Sarah Cahill. They got together as a duo in 2016, and I first encountered them in September of that year when they gave a Sunset Music | Arts recital at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation. That recital covered repertoire from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Henry Cowell, but since then the duo has dedicated itself to promoting the American experimental tradition and expanding it through the commissioning of new works. The O1C program will present the world premiere of “Talking in Circles” by local composer Aaron Gervais. They will also perform “Sueños de Chambi” by another local composer, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Linda Catlin Smith’s “With Their Shadows Long.” Two European composers, both women, will also be included on the program, Kaija Saariaho (“Tocar”) and a composition yet to be announced by Grażyna Bacewicz. Also yet to be announced will be a selection by Cowell.

Sunday, October 14, 4 p.m.: The Ives Quartet, which used to make regular appearances at O1C, has now expanded into the Ives Collective. Co-directed by violinist Susan Freier and cellist Stephen Harrison, the other members of the group are violinist Roy Malan, violist Melissa Matson, pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, and clarinetist Carlos Ortega. The title of their program will be Schickele Mix, featuring a 1982 quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano by Peter Schickele in a departure from his P. D. Q. Bach persona. This piece will be framed by two Russian compositions, Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 34, which he called “Overture on Hebrew Themes,” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 57 piano quintet.

Friday, October 26, 8 p.m.: The Vinifera Trio, the partnership of pianist Ian Scarfe with violinist Rachel Patrick and Matthew Boyles playing both clarinet and bass clarinet, formed in 2014; but I only became aware of them when I learned that a concert they had planned for November 18, 2016 in the Concerts at 405 Shrader series sold out very quickly, leading to 405 Shrader agreeing to host a second performance the following evening. Their O1C debut will be a bold one, featuring the music of Olivier Messiaen. They will be joined by cellist James Jaffe in a performance of the “Quatuor pour la fin du temps;” and Scarfe will perform movements selected from Messiaen’s twenty-movement “meditation” on the infancy of Jesus, “Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus” (twenty contemplations on the infant Jesus).

Sunday, October 28, 4 p.m.: Pianists Inara Morgenstern and Victoria Neve, both on the Music Faculty at San Francisco State University, will present a Halloween-appropriate program. Neve will give a solo performance of George Crumb’s “Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik” (at little midnight music); and the rest of the program will be devoted primarily to “seasonal” four-hand compositions by Charles Gounod, Steven Reineke, Paul Dukas, Robert Schumann, Alfredo Casella, and Toby Twining. The program will also include toy piano music and spooky vocal selections by Ariela Morgenstern.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Jane Ira Bloom Coming to Henderson Lab

Dawn Clement, Jane Ira Bloom, Bobby Previte, and Mark Hellas (from the SFJAZZ event page)

Readers may have noticed that recent Bleeding Edge columns have been trying to track some of the more adventurous activities in the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center. On the basis of my encounters with this venue, I have come to the conclusion that, as far as listening experiences are concerned, Miner Auditorium prioritizes “experience,” while the Henderson Lab is the place for “listening.” (Others may disagree and are free to do so!) As a result, I plan to try to do a better job of tracking Henderson activities, particular when “listening” is likely to involve a journey of discovery.

Such will probably be the case next month when Jane Ira Bloom will bring her quartet to SFJZZ. The SFJAZZ event page describes Bloom as “Jazz’s greatest living soprano saxophonist.” I am willing to go along with this with the disclaimer that even trying to take on the soprano saxophone involves an intense commitment to discipline reinforced by courageous determination. Like the soprano (E-flat) clarinet, the soprano saxophone is a difficult instrument to tame; and to elicit convincing expressiveness once it has been tamed is all the more difficult.

My first contact with Bloom was through her Sixteen Sunsets album, which came out in December of 2013. She had a solid command of tone through which she made it clear that she was not playing an alto saxophone in a very high register. Furthermore, her sense of pitch was so solid that it never gave the impression that she was using portamento to compensate for inaccuracies. Finally, she clearly knew how, as is the case with any single-reed instrument, different registers have different character, allowing her to find just the right rhetorical context for each of the fourteen tracks on her album.

The title of her SFJAZZ concert will be Wild Lines, taken from the title of her latest album, Wild Lines: Improvising Emily Dickinson. The tracks on this album are not so much focused on setting Dickinson’s words (as a composer of art song might do). Rather, Bloom reimagines the poetry and realizes her imagination through original compositions. The album consists of two CDs, the first of which is all music, while the second involves the interplay of the music with narrations of Dickinson’s poetry by the actor Deborah Rush. The music itself is played by Bloom’s current quartet, whose other members are Dawn Clement (piano), Mark Hellas (bass), and Bobby Previte (drums).

Like many of the Henderson offerings, this concert has been scheduled for two performances. Both will take place on Sunday, September 23, at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m, respectively, There are separate event pages for the online purchase of tickets to the 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. shows. All tickets will be sold for $30. The SFJAZZ Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street.

Fujii’s August Birthday Release with Mahobin

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

This month Satoko Fujii’s “Kanreki Cycle” release plan continued with her second quartet album. “Kanreki” is the Japanese noun that acknowledges the 60th birthday as a special occasion. Because Fujii will celebrate that birthday on October 9, she has been honoring the occasion by releasing a new album for every month of this calendar year. The cycle began, appropriately enough, with a solo album; but this was followed in February by a performance of the cooperative quartet Kaze, a half-Japanese half-French combo with Fujii as pianist and her husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet. has yet to acknowledge the existence of this project; so the best way to keep up (or catch up) with the releases is through the CD Store Web page on the Web site for Libra Records.

The quartet on this album is called “Mahobin,” which is the word the Japanese use for a thermos bottle. (Thermos bottles are the only items that Amazon will provide when searching on this word, even when the search is restricted to recordings!) The Japanese noun can also be translated as “magic bottle.”

The quartet is distinguished by the presence of Ikue Mori, who provides real-time electronic synthesis through software on her laptop. Fujii is again playing alongside her husband Tamura, and the quartet is completed by Danish saxophonist Lotte Anker. The title of the album is Live at Big Apple in Kobe, and it captures a set consisting entirely of free improvisation work that was recorded this past February 23.

Most of the album is devoted to a single uninterrupted free improvisation given the title “Rainbow Elephant.” Over the course of almost three-quarters of an hour, the group serves up a continuous weave of sound in which extended solos emerge as patterns defined by a weft that winds its way through the warp of ensemble sonorities. The integrity of that warp owes much to Mori’s synthesis, which may be one of the best examples of the continuo concept in the 21st century, on the one hand establishing an overall framework while, on the other hand, using improvisation to elaborate the functionality of that framework.

What is particularly striking is that, even when the solo work ventures onto the wild side (Anker conveys an understanding of John Coltrane without ever suggesting that she is channeling him), the overall rhetoric of the set is one of intimacy. The idea of a continuo is not just a convenient metaphor. In many ways “Rainbow Elephant” reflects back on the pre-Baroque spirit of instrumentalists taking the earliest steps in playing as an ensemble of voices that are both independent and members of a group. The only substantive difference in spirit comes from the techniques through which “Rainbow Elephant” fills a significantly extended period of time.

Indeed, one gets the feeling that “Rainbow Elephant” may have been intended to define the entire set. However, after its completion the quartet seems to have felt the need for an “encore selection.” This resulted in “Yellow Sky,” which is only about seven minutes long. As one becomes familiar with this album, one will recognize that both tracks begin with Mori establishing a similar context. Within that context the intimacy of “Rainbow Element” reemerges, perhaps with a bit more multi-voice activity, suggesting a slightly more complex approach to the overall weaving. Ultimately, “Yellow Sky” is neither encore nor afterthought. Rather, the four musicians take their respective approaches to free improvisation in new directions, endowing the piece with just as much creativity in a more compact temporal framework.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Richter’s Liszt and Chopin on Profil

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past April my “examination” of the collections of performances by Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter released by Profil discussed the recently issued collection of twelve CDs consisting of compositions by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. This had followed up on collections devoted entirely to Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, respectively. A little less that two weeks ago Profil released their latest Richter collection, this time featuring another “dynamic duo” from the nineteenth century, Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin. Like Schumann and Brahms, Liszt and Chopin were both friends and colleagues with at least some shared thoughts about both composition and performance.

As was the case with the previous releases, almost all of the tracks came from performances taking place in Russia, primarily in Moscow. There are only a few studio recordings, as well as a few recordings made outside Russia. For the most part these are presented as “bonus tracks,” alternative interpretations of pieces included earlier on each of the CDs. The recordings were made between 1948 and 1961. The one exception to this “bonus rule” occurs on the last of the twelve CDs in the album. The last six tracks of the entire collection are devoted to the music of Karol Szymanowski, his Opus 21 (second) piano sonata in A major and three of his mazurkas.

Richter’s recitals did not take the “comprehensive” approach that has become increasingly popular among pianists since the latter half of the twentieth century. For example, where the Opus 28 preludes of Chopin are concerned, we do not experience the full traversal across all of the major and minor keys covered by the entire collection. Rather, Richter prepared his own “suite” of selections from the complete set, making his own choices as to how they should be ordered. Similarly, he prepared his own suite of eight of Liszt’s twelve “transcendental” études, again imposing his own ordering.

I have to say that, personally, I sympathize with Richter taking this approach to preparing a recital. Readers may recall that Scott Foglesong took a similar approach with the short pieces by Johannes Brahms that were collected and published as his Opera 116, 117, 118, and 119 in the recital he gave this past January. It is all very well and good to have recordings that collect all of the Chopin preludes or Liszt études “in one place,” because technology now makes it very easy to listen to the tracks selectively. In a concert setting, on the other hand, going “page-by-page through the book,” so to speak, often leaves the listener feeling that the whole experience amounts to “one damned thing after another,” often before the entire traversal has reached the three-quarters mark!

It is also worth noting that, particularly where Liszt is concerned, Richter tends to go for the “spirit” of the music, particularly when that spirit is wildly unconstrained, rather than the “letter” of the marks on paper. Again, this is a case in which, if a pianist wants to give a clinically precise account of the score, he would be better off pursuing that goal in a recording studio. Liszt may have used the adjective “transcendental” as a way of letting others know that “these are not your piano teacher’s study pieces;” but they also embody a “new age” of relationship between performer and listener that “transcends” the sorts of relationships that had been established by Schubert and Beethoven (just as Beethoven had “transcended” the sorts of relationships that had been established by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Personally, I find the Liszt recordings exhilarating examples of Richter letting his hair down in his approaches (back when he had the hair to do so).

The same can be said of his approach to Chopin, but my own personal reaction is that the impact is not registered as strongly. There are definitely moments that will make the attentive listener sit up and take notice (and it would definitely benefit many of the current breed of piano recitalists to get to know those moments and appreciate the nature of their impact). However, those moments do not arise with the same consistency that they do in the Liszt performances. There is even a sense that Richter is playing Chopin because he is expected to play Chopin (or, perhaps, because Soviet authorities felt it was important that “one of their own” should stand up to the “authority” granted to the likes of Arthur Rubinstein).

This may also explain why the “bonus tracks” allotted to Szymanowski, rather than Chopin, make for particularly satisfying listening experiences. Each of the three mazurkas that Richter selected from that composer’s Opus 50 collection serves up an almost shocking alternative point of view regarding what a mazurka is and what it can mean to listeners during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Equally impressive is the Opus 21 sonata, earlier than the mazurkas by about fifteen years but particularly impressive in the theme-and-variations approach of its second movement, with the variations culminating in a concluding fugue. This is a truly Janus-faced composition that looks back on traditions reaching at least as far back as Beethoven while, at the same time, making it clear that twentieth-century expressiveness must, of necessity, move on from the conventions of the nineteenth century, no matter how popular they were “at the box office.”

Outsound Presents to Launch 2018–2019 Season

courtesy of Outsound Presents

Outsound Presents has not yet finalized its plans for next month. However, September will begin with representative concerts in both the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series events on Thursday evenings and the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series concerts held at the Musicians Union Hall on Sunday evenings. Thus, it seemed appropriate to “jump the gun” on Bleeding Edge announcements for those already starting to plan their time after Labor Day.

The overall theme, so to speak, of the LSG Series is free improvisation. The first offering of the new season will consists of two sets. The opening set will feature a quartet called the Bamboo Skin 4-tet, which combines two saxophonists, John Vaughan and Brandon Evans, with two drummers, Mark Pino and Tim Orr. The performance will begin at 8:15 p.m. on September 6. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission will be on the usual sliding scale between $8 and $15.

SIMM Series concerts also tend to follow a two-set format. However, the performances are usually of composed works, which may (or may not) involve elements of indeterminacy and/or improvisation as part of the performance. The first set for the new season will be given by the Ric Louchard Trio, led by pianist Louchard. He will be joined by John Worley on both trumpet and flugelhorn and Dan Magay on saxophones and flute. The second set will feature SIMM regular Bill Noertker, who plays bass in his ensemble, which he calls Noertker’s Moxie. Noertker tends to develop large-scale compositions, which he then introduces section-by-section at his SIMM appearances. The season will open with the first part, entitled “Amor Fati,” of a new project entitled Tricycle. The other members of Noertker’s Moxie for this performance will be Annelise Zamula on alto saxophone and flute, Brett Carson on piano, and Jordan Glenn on drums.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on September 9. The Musicians Union Hall is  located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is usually on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Monday Make-Out: Labor Day, 2018

A “visual summary” of the next Monday Make-Out (designed by Lorin Benedict for the Facebook event page)

We are coming up on Labor Day weekend. Once again, because Labor Day is the first Monday of next month, the Monday Make-Out will be scheduled as usual. Since this event had not made it to the BayImproviser Calendar when I was writing this week’s Bleeding Edge column, I figured that this particular occasion should be cited on its own. As was the case last year, the Labor Day Make-Out will involve a lot of performers familiar to not only the Make Out Room but to those who read this site on a regular basis and manage to retain some of the content with a memory sounder than that of many public officials and/or heads of state. As usual, the evening will be organized into three sets, opening with a duo, which will then be followed by two trios.

The duo set will present improvisation work by clarinetist Ben Goldberg and guitarist Karl Evangelista. They will be followed by a trio that calls itself The Holly Martins, named after the protagonist of Graham Greene’s novella The Third Man. (Their Web page on the Edgetone Records Web site claims they are named after the character in the movie; but I try to be a purist in such matters, no matter how much I like Joseph Cotton!) Kasey Knudsen on alto saxophone and Eric Vogler on guitar improvise along with the vocals by Lorin Benedict. Readers may recall that Benedict works with phonemes, rather than more “meaningful” linguistic primitives; and I have previously written about how he has “escalated scat singing far beyond its roots in jazz.” The final set will be taken by the Green Mitchell Trio; and, in this case, I have not the foggiest idea how the name was chosen! The group was assembled by reed player Cory Wright, who joined forces with Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on drums. Wright is the group’s composer; but, since this is a jazz trio, improvisation is part of the performance.

Doors open at 8 p.m., and the music starts half an hour later. The Make Out Room is located at 3225 22nd Street in the Mission, near the southwest corner of Mission Street. The Make Out Room is a bar. That means that tickets are not sold, nor is there a cover charge. Nevertheless, a metaphorical hat is passed between sets; and all donations are accepted, not to mention welcome!

Monday, August 27, 2018

Schoenberg as Source for Fact and Fiction

A little over two months ago, the University of California Press released a fascinating new volume in their California Studies in 20th-Century Music series. On the surface, The Doctor Faustus Dossier: Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann, and their Contemporaries, 1930–1951 involves a bitter dispute between the two protagonists named in the title. However, as the rest of the title suggests, that dispute is embedded in a rich account of how, during the period designated in the title, Los Angeles became a cultural sanctuary for many of the most accomplished German artists and intellectuals, who had been driven out of first Germany and then Europe at large with the rise of the Nazis. That role of Los Angeles as a social context had been previously explored by another University of California Press book, Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism by Ehrhard Bahr, which came out in August of 2008.

The dispute grew out of the novel Doctor Faustus, which Mann began writing in 1943 and was first published in German in 1947. While Mann’s métier was writing fiction, he could be a stickler for details, or, as Mann liked to call them, “exactitudes.”  When he was writing his Buddenbrooks epic (which he completed in 1901), his acquaintance with medical practices made his accounts of those procedures in the book downright clinical. Doctor Faustus was published with the subtitle The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend (the English translation); and Mann was determined that, in writing the novel, he would be as well informed about music and its composition as he had been about medicine.

Based on this context, one can find a useful summary of the grounds for the dispute in a single paragraph on the Wikipedia page for Doctor Faustus:
Theodor Adorno acted as Mann's adviser and encouraged him to rewrite large sections of the book. Mann also read chapters to groups of invited friends (a method also used by Kafka) to test the effect of the text. In preparation for the work, Mann studied musicology and biographies of major composers including Mozart, Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Hugo Wolf, Franz Schreker and Alban Berg. He communicated with living composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Hanns Eisler. In Chapter XXII Leverkühn develops the twelve-tone technique or row system, which was actually invented by Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg lived near Mann in Los Angeles as the novel was being written. He was very annoyed by this appropriation without his consent, and later editions of the novel included an Author's Note at the end acknowledging that the technique was Schoenberg's invention, and that passages of the book dealing with musical theory are indebted in many details to Schoenberg's Harmonielehre.
In The Doctor Faustus Dossier that summary is fleshed out by a rich collection of documents, primarily letters and diary pages, written primarily by both Schoenberg and Mann but also, when necessary, by other sources. These documents were compiled by the book’s editor E. Randol Schoenberg (grandson of Arnold) and then augmented by footnotes that are almost always as engaging to read as the source texts themselves. Those source texts are preceded by an Introduction by Adrian Daub entitled California Haunting: Mann, Schoenberg, Faustus that both expands on the above summary and elaborates on the Weimar on the Pacific setting in which the events unfolded.

The source texts are then followed by two previously published essays by Richard Hoffmann (who had worked as Schoenberg’s assistant) and Bernhold Schmid (who cites the Hoffmann article). The book then concludes with six appendices. These include Schoenberg’s “Composition with Twelve Tones,” written in 1941 and his most authoritative personal statement on his twelve-tone approach to composition, and the entirety of the 22nd chapter of Doctor Faustus, cited in the Wikipedia summary. One of the appendices is by Theodor Adorno, an excerpt from the essay “Schoenberg and Progress” that was published in his book Philosophy of New Music. The other three appendices are reflections on Jewish and German culture, one by Schoenberg and two by Mann.

The most important feature of this book, however, is not the dispute itself but the way in which both the source texts and the footnotes deliver a highly absorbing account of “Weimar on the Pacific” life. Some of the tidbits are as surprising as they are informative. Who would have guessed that Mann was a fan of Jack Benny, particularly when the act included his bad violin playing? My favorite is a quote from Schoenberg that was prompted by a conversation about Giacomo Puccini:
Puccini? Isn’t he the one who pre-impersonated Lehár?
Then there are occasional moments when we realize that Mann’s attention to detail is not always as thorough as he would have liked. Thus, in a letter to Bruno Walter, Mann asserts that Hugo Wolf seemed never to have attended a conservatory. Where Mann got this idea is unclear; but, as we know, Wolf not only attended the conservatory in Vienna but also, while there, was a fellow student of Gustav Mahler!

Some might worry that the inclusion of a single chapter from Doctor Faustus, presented without any attempt to establish context, would have been unfair to the author. To some extent that probably depends on what one thinks of the author. Most of the substance of the Doctor Faustus chapter is a dialog between Leverkühn and Serenus Zeitblom, the “friend” serving as narrator. That dialog sounds very much like two graduate students arguing about their respective thesis topics. It is easy for the reader to get bogged down in this hypertrophied intellectualism. Reading it reminded me of how I felt during a similar dialog at the beginning of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice film!

On the other hand, however thick the verbiage may be, it is easy to see how Schoenberg and those around him (due to eye troubles, Schoenberg himself never read Mann’s novel) would have been taken aback by the explicit appropriation of the phrase “emancipation of dissonance.” Had Schoenberg been better known at the time, readers might have recognized the phrase and appreciated its nod to its source. However, Schoenberg never enjoyed that level of popularity; and it is not unreasonable that his concerns about posterity would lie at the heart of the dispute that emerged.

However, this raises another point, which is the role of Adorno in the overall narrative. Mann’s source for the “magic square” description of a twelve-tone row and its transforms can, in all probability, be attributed to Adorno, rather than Schoenberg’s “Composition with Twelve Tones” essay; so it is not out of the question that Mann associated that concept of emancipation with Adorno rather than Schoenberg. This could easily have been a phrase dropped in casual conversation that resonated with Mann’s imagination and then surfaced in how Leverkühn expressed himself. It is almost certain that Mann did not get the idea from reading Adorno, whose multi-page paragraphs leave even the most informed readers questioning what the point is, assuming that there was even a point worth making!

What may be more interesting, however, is how one of Mann’s passages ended up resonating into a future that neither Mann or Schoenberg could have anticipated. Consider what Zeitblom is saying in the following passage:
The way you describe the things, it comes to a sort of composing before composition. The whole disposition and organization of the material would have to be ready when the actual work should begin, and all one asks is: which is the actual work? For this preparation of the material is done by variation, and the creative element in variation, which one might call the actual composition, would be transferred back to the material itself—together with the freedom of the composer.
In many respects the idea behind this passage reflects on an interplay between decision and automatism, the two terms that György Ligeti invoked in his 1960 article for Die Reihe about Pierre Boulez’ “Structure Ia.” Ligeti never mentions Mann in that article, and my guess is that neither Ligeti nor Boulez ever read Doctor Faustus. Nevertheless, I enjoy a bit of amusement with the idea that Mann’s thoughts may have actually come home to roost in the post-Schoenberg era!

The Bleeding Edge: 8/27/2018

This is the week of transition from August to September, and it turns out that September is going to begin with a major undertaking. Fortunately, the August portion of the week is relatively quiet. The final concert of the month at the Center for New Music has already been announced. That leaves only two other August events:

Wednesday, August 29, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: The monthly offering of experimental music will follow the usual tradition of groups whose names tend to be as provocative as the music they make. The end of summer will be celebrated with an evening of five, rather than the usual four, sets. As usual, the names of the groups suggest little about what they will actually be performing: Madonna-Id the Nut, Anti-Ear, ARE SQUAR2D, Svist, and Chiko.

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Doors will open at 7:45 p.m. to enable the first set to begin at 8 p.m. sharp. Admission will be $5.

Thursday, August 30, 8:15 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): The LSG Creative Music series will wrap up the month with three sets of instrumental and electronic improvisations. The evening will begin with the Angel Archer duo of Sheila Bosco on drums and Brian Lucas on bass. They will be followed by a solo guitar set by Alee Karim. Electronic improvisations will be provided in the final set by J.Lee performing as captjrab. 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.

September will then begin with a four-night celebration of John Zorn’s 65th birthday, which will be on September 2. This will involve seven shows being presented between Saturday, September 1, and Tuesday, September 4. Zorn will be present for the occasion and will be joined by an impressive array of local and visiting artists. Programming is currently planned as follows:

Saturday, September 1, 8 p.m.: Three different groups will perform Zorn’s bagatelles. Zorn himself will lead his own Bagatelles Quintet on saxophone, joined by saxophonist Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen on bass, and two drummers, Kenny Wollensen and Kenny Grohowski. They will conclude the program, which will begin with the Trigger trio of Will Greene on guitar, Simon Hanes on bass, and Aaron Edgcomb on drums. They will be followed by the cello duo of Erik Friedlander and Michael Nicolas.

A 2005 Masada concert with (left-to-right) Joey Baron, Greg Cohen, Dave Douglas, and John Zorn (photograph by Checiàp, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Saturday, September 1, 10:30 p.m.: This will be a performance of the three books that Zorn published under the title Masada. This comes from a time when Zorn was writing very large numbers of very short pieces. The number of Masada pieces is so large that it is unlikely to be covered in its entirety at this concert. Three different combos will participate in the performance. Zorn will conduct the Masada Trio with Friedlander on cello and Cohen on bass joined by Mark Feldman on violin. Zorn will play in the Masada Quartet, whose personnel is the same as the Bagatelles Quartet but with Douglas on trumpet, rather than saxophone. Finally, there will be vocal performances by Sofia Rei, accompanied by JC Maillard playing his SazBass, an eight steel-string electroacoustic instrument, which is a hybrid of the Turkish saz and the Greek bouzouki.

Sunday, September 2, 8 p.m.: Zorn will lead an improvisation session as a benefit for The Stone, the performance space in New York that Zorn helped establish to serve as a platform for his own adventurous efforts and those of his colleagues. Zorn will lead the group, which will also include vocalist Mike Patton, Matt Hollenberg on guitar, John Medeski on organ, and, again, two drummers, Grohowski joined this time by Dave Lombardo. In addition Medeski, Hollenberg, and Grohowski will perform as the Simulacrum trio.

Sunday, September 2, 10:30 p.m.: Two different groups will play more music from Masada. Hollenberg will lead the Cleric quartet, whose other members are Nick Shellenberger (keyboards and vocals), Dan Kennedy (bass), and Larry Kwartowitz (drums). The other group, Secret Chiefs 3, includes Grohowski playing with guitarists Trey Spruance and Jason Schimmel, Matt Lebofsky in keyboards, Eyvind Kang on violin, Shanir Blumenkranz on bass, and Ches Smith on percussion.

Monday, September 3, 6 p.m.: Zorn himself will celebrate his 65th birthday with a trio performance with Terry Riley on piano and Laurie Anderson on violin, also providing vocals.

Monday, September 3, 8 p.m.: The trio performance will be followed by a survey of original chamber music compositions by Zorn, some of which will be presented for the first time. Nicholas, Blumenkranz, and Smith will return for this recital. They will be joined by Chris Otto on violin, Steve Gosling on piano, and Sae Hashimoto on vibraphone.

Tuesday, September 4, 8 p.m.: The featured artist on the final program will be pianist Brian Marsella. He will perform a selection of the solo bagatelles. He and Wollensen will also play more Masada music in two different combos. One is Marsella’s own trio, which includes Jason Fraticelli on bass. The other is a quartet called Banquet of the Spirits, whose bass player is Blumenkranz and also includes percussionist Cyro Baptista.

All performances will take place at The Chapel, which is located in the Mission at 777 Valencia Street. There are a variety of different ways to purchase both single and multiple-event tickets. They are all summarized on a single Web page. (Note that this Web page was created as the result of a search. The Chapel is not my favorite place when it comes to taking an organized approach to content, or other aspects of concert production for that matter. Nevertheless, Zorn clearly likes the place, since he is traveling across the country to celebrate his birthday there!) Doors for each performance will open half an hour before start time.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Opera Parallèle in San Francisco: 2018–2019

Opera Paralléle Production Reel (from YouTube)

Once again Artistic Director Nicole Paiement and Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel have assembled three innovative productions for the 2018–2019 San Francisco season of Opera Parallèle. These will include a world premiere, a revival of a one-act opera originally created for the Hands on Opera project, and the return of last season’s holiday offering. Each production will be presented in a different venue and will be given at least three performances. Specifics are as follows:

December, Marines’ Memorial Theater: The holiday offering will be the return of Rachel Portman’s two-act opera The Little Prince, based on the book of the same name by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry with a libretto by Nicholas Wright. Staging will again be by Staufenbiel, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus will again join forces with the Opera Parallèle performers. Paiement will again conduct. The opera will be given three performances at 7 p.m. on Friday, December 7, and Saturday, December 8, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday December 9. The Marines’ Memorial Theatre, located at 609 Sutter Street, just off Union Square. (Note that the venue does not have an elevator to the balcony level and that the orchestra level is on the second floor of the Marines’ Memorial building.)

March, Z Space: The world premiere production will present the 80-minute chamber opera “Today It Rains,” composed by Laura Kaminsky working with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. The opera is a reflection on Georgia O’Keeffe’s first encounter with Santa Fe in New Mexico and the impact that the southwest desert would have on her subsequent work. Kaminsky scored the work for eleven instruments and eight singers, two of whom depict the characters of O’Keefe (mezzo Peabody Southwell) and her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (baritone Daniel Belcher). Reed has also designed a visual context of projections in which the narrative of the libretto unfolds. Again staging will be by Staufenbiel, and Paiement will conduct. There will be four performances, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 28, Friday, March 29, and Saturday, March 30, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 31. Z Space is located in NEMIZ (the NorthEast Mission Industrial Zone) at 450 Florida Street, between 17th Street and Mariposa Street.

May, Community Music Center (CMC): The season will conclude with a “main stage” production of the one-act opera “Xochitl and the Flowers,” composed by Christopher Pratorius Gomez and based on a children’s book of the same name by Jorge Argueta. Roma Olvera transformed Argueta’s text into the opera’s libretto. The original production was developed over the course of an eight-week residency with third graders in the Alvarado Elementary School Spanish Immersion Program, whose classes are bilingual (English and Spanish). Olvera’s libretto, which is set in the Mission District, was correspondingly bilingual, with transitions between the two languages that are often too smooth to detect. Staging will be by Beth Wilmurt, and Martha Salazar will conduct. There will be three performances, on Saturday, May 18, at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., and on Sunday, May 19, at 2 p.m. CMC is located in the Mission at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street.

Tickets will be sold separately for the first two of these three productions, so there will be no subscription option. Prices will vary according to venue and will be forthcoming. For “Xochitl and the Flowers,” those attending are requested to pay what they can at the entrance. In addition, the Benefit Gala, Creative Rebels,  will be held in the Green Room of the Veterans Building on Wednesday, October 10, beginning at 6 p.m. This will be an evening of wine, dinner, and a 22-minute “montage opera” that will celebrate such operatic heroes as Harvey Milk, Georgia O’Keeffe, Steve Jobs, Julia Child, and Sister Helen Prejean, sung by mezzo Eve Gigliotti, baritone Robert Orth, and bass Kenneth Kellogg, accompanied by pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi. The evening will culminate in a special performance by guest of honor Philip Glass. Tickets are priced from $300 to $500, with tables and sponsorships available for $5,000 to $15,000; all proceeds benefit Opera Parallèle’s productions, and community engagement programs. As of this writing, the Opera Parallèle Web site has not yet been set up to handle tickets; so those wishing to attend should call 415-626-6279. The Veterans Building is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

LCCE Announces 2018–2019 Season

The 2018–2019 season of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) will run from October to June of next year. As was the case last season, there will be five programs, four of which will be held in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Also similar to last season, the remaining program will involve two performances of a pair chamber operas, which will be presented at Z Space. All SFCM concerts will be held on Mondays at 7:30 p.m., and the chamber opera program will be given both an evening and a matinee performance. As in the past, each concert will have its own thematic title. Details are as follows:

October 8, SFCM, Singing the Gamut: The “gamut” in this case is both the diversity of both human emotions and composers that have not received very much attention. Traditional composers of vocal music, such as Vincenzo Bellini and Alfred Bachelet, will share the program with Jon Deak’s double bass solo “Big Bad Wolf,” the celebratory fun of Mario Davidovsky’s “Festino,” and the tender emotions brought forth by Sheila Silver’s song cycle On Loving. The concert will also feature works by two up-and-coming composers, Charles Peck’s “Sunburst,” which won the LCCE 2018 Composition Contest, and the world premiere of a work not yet titled by Jonathan Favero, scored for guitar, viola, cello, and double bass.

November 18, SFCM, Volti + Left Coast Premieres: As was the case last season, the Volti chamber choir will again join forces with LCCE. There will be world premiere performances of two new works for vocal ensemble with chamber ensemble accompaniment, composed, respectively, by Laurie San Martin and Gregory Spears. There will also be a world premiere of a new work for oboes and strings written by Addie Camsuzou. Titles have not yet been announced for any of these two works. The program will begin with Benjamin Britten Opus 2 “Phantasy Quartet,” scored for oboe and strings.

January 14, SFCM, The Sound of Nature: The world premiere on this program will be Clarice Assad’s “The Lumerians,” scored for flute, two cellos, and percussion accompanied by an ensemble of cellos. Featured composers will include George Crumb, Evan Hause, and Kurt Rohde. By way of contrast, the program will begin with the “Sonata Representativa” in A major by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber.

March 4, SFCM, Bay Area Spotlight: This program will present world premieres of works by three local composers, Tina Tallon, Elainie Lillios, and Pater Van Zandt Lane, all of whom have composed works that explore the interplay between viola and electronics. The program will be framed by two sonatas, concluding with the sonata for clarinet and piano by local composer David Conte. The opening sonata will be the only piece by a composer no longer living, Rebecca Clarke’s sonata for viola and piano.

Saturday, June 1, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 2, 2 p.m., Z Space, Dorothea and Artemisia: This program will present the world premiere performances of two original chamber operas. Christopher Stark’s “From the Field” will explore the life and work of Dorothea Lange, who used her camera to spread the word about those hardest hit by the Great Depression. The second half of the program will present “Artemisia” by Laura Schwendinger, which examines the art and milieu of Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Subscriptions for the full season are currently available for $125 for general admission and $105 for seniors. This amounts to a savings of up to $25 per ticket if tickets are purchased individually. There is open seating for all concerts. Tickets may be purchased online through the Subscriptions Web page on the LCCE Web site. Subscriptions are also available for $50 for students and those under the age of 35. These apply to currently enrolled high school and college students. Single tickets will be sold at the door for $35 for general admission and $18 for those under the age of 35. A separate Web page has been created with all of the necessary hyperlinks for purchasing individual tickets.

Capriccio Showcases Music by Dmitry Kabalevsky

courtesy of Naxos of America

For those of my generation, the Soviet composer Dmitry Kabalevsky was responsible for one of the most popular pieces of orchestral music, whose title (as well as the composer’s name) was unknown to most listeners. That was because all of those listeners knew it as the theme music for a television game show called Masquerade Party in which celebrities would disguise themselves and members of a panel would then have to figure out who they were beneath the disguise. The music itself was a madcap Presto affair, which was the second movement, entitled “Comedians’ Galop,” from Kabalevsky’s Opus 26 orchestral suite The Comedians. During the Fifties and early Sixties, its popularity was rivaled only by the “Sabre Dance,” an equally wild and wooly affair extracted from the ballet Gayane by another Soviet composer, Aram Khachaturian, and frequently chosen to accompany daredevil circus acts.

Generations later Kabalevsky has become all but forgotten in the United States. The overture to his Opus 24 opera Colas Breugnon surfaces from time to time, usually through either broadcasting or a pops concert, while The Comedians is all but forgotten. However, at the beginning of this month, the Capriccio label, based in Austria, released an entire album of Kabalevsky’s music. The Colas Breugnon overture is included, but it is there as the beginning of a four-movement orchestral suite that the composer extracted from his Opus 24 opera. There are also two concertante compositions, the Opus 48 violin concerto in C major and the Opus 75 rhapsody on the theme of the song “Schoolyears,” scored for piano and orchestra. The remaining orchestral selections are the Opus 64 “Pathetique” overture and the Opus 65 symphonic poem entitled “Spring.”

All of these selections are played by the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz (state philharmonic of the Rhineland-Palatinate), based in Ludwigshafen am Rhein in Germany. The ensemble is led by chief conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens, who has held the position since August 1, 2009. The concertante soloists are violinist Yury Revich and pianist Magda Amara. The release is part of a series called “modern times,” which seems to be a project conceived by Steffens to review the nature of modernism during the twentieth century (possibly taking inspiration from Charlie Chaplin). According to my records, my first (and only until today) encounter with this series came with the release of an album devoted entirely to the music of George Antheil.

The Kabalevsky album definitely goes down easily on the ears. His themes are consistently accessible, and he clearly delights in using the full auditory spectrum of an orchestral ensemble. The basic units of his compositions, whether movements or sections, tend to be brief. He says what he has to say and then moves on to say something else. His Opus 48 concerto will definitely appeal to violinists who enjoy strutting their virtuoso capabilities, and audiences for such violinists will be easily won over by Kabalevsky’s upbeat rhetoric.

None of this, however, should suggest that the composer was in any way casual or sloppy in his technique. Every track on this album is clearly based on a solid foundation of technical discipline. However, the “program” for the entire album is just as clearly one that it not inclined to wallow in profundities. In other words this is a recording of good healthy fun, and it is nice to know that such recordings still get released from time to time.

Lavay Smith at Biscuits and Blues

Lavay Smith on her latest album cover (from its Web page)

For as long as I can remember walking by Biscuits and Blues, on the northwest corner of Mason Street and Geary Boulevard, I can remember seeing announcements of forthcoming performances by Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. (To be more accurate, my first awareness of Biscuits and Blues took place almost exactly 23 years ago, when, for the first time, I was living in the Bay Area, having moved to Palo Alto from Singapore.) It did not take long for me to learn who Smith was and what kind of music she made; and my “first contact” with her, in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center, was not the best of experiences. However, that had more to do with the physical and acoustic problems of the space, rather than the performers; and last night I finally compensated for those defects by going to Biscuits and Blues to experience the music in a more conducive environment. To make a long story short, I was not disappointed … far from it.

Smith’s vocal repertoire extends way beyond the many different approaches to singing blues. Her monthly announcement at Biscuits and Blues cites a book that takes its sources from Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams, Helen Humes, Lester Young, Jay McShann, Walter Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, Myra Taylor, and Big Joe Turner. Instrumental backing is provided by her “all-star seven-piece little big band,” the Red Hot Skillet Lickers.

As I wrote about the Fil Lorenz Little Big Band, this amounts to a “chamber ensemble” with one player per instrument, serving up a traditional Thirties sound with more intimate resources (that fits comfortably into the moderately close quarters of Biscuits and Blues). Last night’s players were Lyle Link on alto saxophone, Rob Barics on both tenor saxophone and clarinet, Mike Olmos on trumpet, Danny Armstrong on trombone, and a rhythm section of Greg Wyser-Pratte on drums, Andrew Emer on bass, and Chris Siebert leading from keyboards (piano and organ). (Readers may recall that Olmos played trumpet for Lorenz’ group last month in Union Square.)

Before Smith took the stage, the band provided an “overture” in the form of the song “Symphony in Sid” by Illinois Jacquet, written for “Symphony Sid” Torin, the leading disc jockey for jazz recordings (and subsequently host for performances) during the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties. Torin was well known by just about every leading jazz musician, and Jacquet was one of many to have named a composition after him. Last night “Symphony in Sid” immediately set the high spirits for all that would follow when Smith took the stage.

While Smith’s comfort zone is firmly fixed in the traditions of the Forties and primarily from Kansas City, her opening number was based further south along the Mississippi River. She began with “Bourbon Street Parade,” a song by New Orleans drummer Paul Barbarin. This began the evening on a high note, with extended solos taken by each of the band’s members. There was also a free-blowing Dixieland spirit in which each of the wind/brass players was playing his own take on the tune itself, a superposition of distinctive points of view that was as glorious as it was cacophonous.

In terms of my own personal experiences, the evening was an engaging blend of the familiar with opportunities for discovery. Most interesting in the latter category was Arthur Johnston’s “Sweet Lotus Blossom” with lyrics by Sam Coslow. The original title for this song was “Marahuana;” and it was written for the 1934 film Murder at the Vanities, released by Paramount Pictures. This became part of the book for Duke Ellington’s band; and last night the Skillet Lickers used Ellington’s 1929 “The Mooche” to introduce the vocal line. [added 8/26, 5:40 a.m.: The setting of the song itself, however, was Siebert’s transcription of a Forties recording made by Julia Lee.] Siebert also channeled Ellington’s spirit in the introduction he provided for Smith singing Irving Berlin’s 1926 “Blue Skies.”

[updated for greater accuracy 8/26, 5:45 a.m.:

On the Basie side Smith sang “I Want a Little Boy,” which is the “flip side” of the song “I Want a Little Girl,” co-written by Murray Mencher and Bill Moll. The arrangement was based on a recording made by the Basie band in 1940. At that time Basie’s vocalist was Jimmy Rushing.]

[reworded for greater accuracy 8/26, 5:50 a.m.:

While the spirit of Kansas City was a live and well throughout the evening, the entire set was still framed by the spirit of New Orleans. The opening selection of “Bourbon Street Parade” was complemented at the conclusion by] a truly grand finale rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Armstrong joined Smith for the vocals on this one (and this was not the first time he sang during the evening); and Smith was given a table napkin by one of the members of the audience. As she started to wave it over her head, a second line formed spontaneously and wound its way in and around all of the tables in the dining area. All this was entirely in the spirit of the Biscuits and Blues menu and ended the set on a gloriously exuberant note.

Readers who have been following this site over the course of this month may have realized that this was my first effort to cover a performance since my femur fracture on August 1. Currently getting around on crutches, I was clearly in no shape to join the second line and had to enjoy it as a spectator. Nevertheless, I had my own raised spirits knowing that I was “back in the saddle” of spending time at live performances, rather than focusing only on audio and video recordings!

Friday, August 24, 2018

Rossini at Cross Purposes with Tragedy

Set design for an 1824 performance of Semiramide in Milan (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Almost two month’s ago PBS aired a telecast of Gioachino Rossini’s opera Semiramide as the latest program in its Great Performances at the Met series, which is now in its twelfth season. This opera was first performed on February 3, 1823 at La Fenice in Venice, and it was the last opera Rossini composed in Italy before moving to Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life. The libretto was written by Gaetano Rossi, drawing upon Semiramis, a tragedy by Voltaire based on a legend about an Assyrian queen of the same name.

From a musical point of view, Semiramide is practically a textbook example of Rossini’s approach to the bel canto vocal style. The term “bel canto” originated in the eighteenth century. While its original meaning involved “emphasis on beauty of sound and brilliancy of performance rather than dramatic expression or romantic emotion” (as Willi Apel put it in the Harvard Dictionary of Music), it might be said that Rossini was a pioneer in “pushing the envelope” of flamboyant technique while trying to maintain the dramatic context in which that technique was exercised.

That effort to strike a balance between seemingly opposing priorities was quite a challenge. Nevertheless, Rossini came up with some notable successes, particularly in his early comedies, such as The Barber of Seville, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and La Cenerentola. However, when it came to tragedy, his skills were not quite as sharp; and, in some ways, Semiramide is a case study in Rossini’s shortcomings in bringing tragedy to the opera stage.

Consider the overture, which, in many ways, is almost as popular as the overture he wrote for William Tell. That popularity has much to do with the lightness of touch that pervades the overall rhetoric of the music, a lightness that suggests that what is to follow will be as delightful as romp as one expects when going to see The Barber of Seville. As might be guessed, Voltaire’s tragedy is about as far from such a romp as can be imagined; but the rhetoric of the music throughout the two acts of Semiramide never seems to let go of the “sunny disposition” of the overture. Thus, we have a queen (the title character), warriors, and priests (not to mention a ghost) singing about power, intrigues, and revenge, all while the ensemble in the orchestra might just as well be playing for an English garden party.

However, this is where the bel canto style figures as so important. Ultimately, the bel canto tradition assumes that people go to the opera (and, by 1823, that meant “people pay to go to the opera”) to hear “pretty voices.” What those voices are singing is secondary to any concerns for whether the rhetoric of the music is consistent with the rhetoric of the text. To warp the words of William Shakespeare, the question of “What is Semiramis to a member of the audience?” simply did not signify.

This poses a major challenge for how operas tend to be staged today. Of course audiences still want to be dazzled by awe-inspiring technical feats by the vocalists; but I would be bold enough to suggest that technical razzle-dazzle now tends to be viewed as icing, rather than cake. A pastry that is all icing and no cake is not particularly appetizing (or, for that matter, healthy).

In that perspective John Copley had his work cut out for him in staging Semiramide. He could not allow the underlying narrative to move along at a more rapid pace without compromising Rossini’s score, which allowed just about every vocalist with a solo part to strut his/her bel canto stuff at the drop of a hat. (Note that each such “strut” also allowed members of the audience to bring what action there was to a halt with sustained repetitions of “Bravo!”) On the basis of the PBS telecast, it would appear that Conklin’s solution was to find ways to match the visual with the vocal, so to speak. Thus he had both Set Designer John Conklin and Costume Designer Michael Stennett flood the stage with eye candy, in the hope that, should a member of the audience experience some fatigue from exposure to one exorbitant bel canto turn after another, (s)he could turn to the imagery for an alternative diversion.

In some ways all this is a bit unfair, to Voltaire if not to anyone else. While the revenge theme of the plot is a bit convoluted, it plays out the details in such a way that the viewer is often guessing about just where things are going. (Disclaimer: I made it a point to avoid reading any summary of the plot before watching my recording of this telecast. I take a very dim view of a libretto that lacks the literary basics to speak for itself. Now that titles relieve me of the problem of understanding the words, I find that my approach to an opera experience has definitely changed for the better, particularly where the role of the text is concerned.) Presumably Rossini’s audiences were not concerned about such a guessing game, at least where tragedy was concerned. Enjoying the pretty voices was enough for them!

As to the performance that PBS broadcast, I would say that the bel canto skills of all of the vocalists were not consistently up to snuff. This should not be a surprise given the number of hoops through which any of them are required to jump. For this reason I do not wish to call out any individual names. (Those interested in cast details will find them at the other end of the first hyperlink in the text of this article.)

On the other hand I do want to single out the name of the PBS Music Producer Tim Martyn. I was, on the whole, consistently satisfied with the efforts of conductor Maurizio Benini. Rossini provided him with generous instrumental interludes, which he treated as seriously as accompanying the vocalists, if not more so.

However, the ways in which Benini managed his instrumental resources were not always easy to recognize, simply because the overall balance was out of whack more often than not. A few camera pans across the orchestra pit suggest that this may have been a product of microphone placement that was dangerously arbitrary. Martyn never seemed to recognize that what happens in the pit is often just as interesting as what happens on stage, meaning that there were too many instances when Rossini’s skills at instrumentation were undermined.

MTT and SFS to Present Two-Weeks of Stravinsky

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (by Stefan Cohen, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

One of the major focal points that Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) has brought to his tenure with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) has been the repertoire of composer Igor Stravinsky. MTT has presented performances of seldom-heard compositions, combining those presentations with insights into the more familiar favorites. The final two weeks of September will be devoted to two subscription concerts, which will survey Stravinsky’s early ballet scores, his neoclassical violin concerto, and a dramatic composition (which he called a mélodrame) that receives far less attention than those more familiar pieces.

That mélodrame, “Perséphone,” will lead off the first of the two concerts in this all-Stravinsky series. The piece was scored for speaker, solo voices, chorus, dancers, and orchestra, using a libretto by André Gide and unfolding in a single uninterrupted act. Choral resources will include not only the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director) but also both the San Francisco Girls Chorus (Valérie Sainte-Agathe, Director) and the Pacific Boychoir (Andrew Brown, Director). The primary vocal soloist will be tenor Nicholas Phan. The performance will not involve any choreography. However, the narrator will be Leslie Caron, who (prior to being “discovered” by Gene Kelly) began her career as a ballerina, performing with Roland Petit’s Ballet des Champs Elysées. The first half of the concert will present “Perséphone,” followed, after the intermission, by the complete score for Michel Fokine’s one-act ballet “The Firebird,” which marked the beginning of Stravinsky’s career with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

This concert will be given three performances, at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 21, and Saturday, September 22, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 23. The Inside Music talk will be given by Peter Grunberg, beginning one hour before each performance. Doors to the Davies lobbies open fifteen minutes prior to the talk.

Ticket prices range from $32 to $156. 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. The event page also has an embedded sound file of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about “The Firebird” and sound clips of previous SFS performances of the piece. Flash is required to play these sound files.

The second week of programming will feature the two ballet scores that Stravinsky composed for Diaghilev following the success of “The Firebird.” These were Fokine’s “Petrushka” and Vaslav Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” The second of these remains best known for the riot that broke out when the ballet was first performed. Between these two offerings, violinist Leonidas Kavakos will be the soloist in a performance of Stravinsky’s only violin concerto.

This concert will be given four performances, at 8 p.m. on Thursday, September 27, Friday, September 28, and Saturday, September 29, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 30. Instead of the Inside Music talk there will be a screening of Keeping Score – Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Because of the duration of this background analysis prepared by MTT, the presentation will begin 90 minutes before each performance. Doors to the Davies lobbies open fifteen minutes prior to the screening.

Ticket prices range from $15 to $166. 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. The event page also has embedded sound files of KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcasts about both of the ballets and sound clips of previous SFS performances all three of the pieces on the program. Flash is required to play these sound files.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Jazz Chez Hanny: A Salon Setting for Jazz

About a week ago I first became aware of Jazz Chez Hanny through my Facebook connections. This turns out to be a regular series of house concerts devoted to jazz concerts. “Hanny” is computer programmer Frank Hanny, who in 2000 decided to celebrate his 50th birthday with a party that would involve a performance by jazz pianist Jessica Williams. Things worked out so well that the idea evolved into one of monthly Sunday afternoon concerts set in Hanny’s living room.

The organization of these events is based on a relatively simple set of ground rules, all of which are outlined on the home page for the Jazz Chez Hanny Web site. Each event has a recommended donation, currently $20. All of the money goes to the musicians, and donations can only be made in cash. The events usually consist of two sets separated by a potluck break. As a result, all who plan to attend should bring food and/or drink to share. Seating is first come, first served; and, as a result, reservations are strongly recommended. Reservations are placed through an electronic mail address. Mail messages received after noon on the day of a performance are unlikely to be seen until after the show is over, and cancellations should be given at least 24 hours advance notice. Finally, volunteer efforts for cleaning up after the show and moving furniture to accommodate both players and listeners is always appreciated.

The next two offerings to be presented in this series will be as follows:

Dahveed Behroozi (from the Jazz Chez Hanny event page for this concert)

This month’s concert will feature pianist and composer Dahveed Behroozi. Born in San Jose, Behroozi received most of his training in New York City. His jazz skills owe much to his studies with Fred Hersch, but he also studied both the classical and the contemporary piano literature with Ursula Oppens. He is currently back in the Bay Area teaching at Gavilan College, San Jose State University, and Santa Clara University.

Roni Ben-Hur and Harvie S (from the Facebook event page for this concert)

The following month will present the duo of guitarist Roni Ben-Hur and Harvie S on bass performing with Sylvia Cuenca on drums. This past May Ben-Hur and S released a trio album called Introspection with drummer Tim Horner. This involved innovative arrangements of classic jazz standards. Most likely this gig will feature tracks from that album.

Both performances will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoons, August 26 for Behroozi and September 16 for the trio gig. The “house” for this house concert is located at 1300 Silver Avenue. This is best reached by public transportation by taking the Muni 44 bus going east from Glen Park Station. For those thinking of driving, parking tends to be available on Silver Avenue, Silliman Street, one block south of Silver, and Holyoke Street, which connects Silver and Silliman.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Morrison Artists Series Announces 63rd Season

The Morrison Artists Series is one of the most valuable sources of free chamber music within the San Francisco city limits, provided under the auspices of the Morrison Chamber Music Center, which is affiliated with the College of Liberal & Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU). 2018–2019 will be a landmark season, because last month Professor Cyrus Ginwala of the SFSU School of Music was appointed to succeed Richard Festinger as Artistic Director of the Morrison Chamber Music Center. However, the mission of the Morrison Artist Series to advance the art of chamber music and its appreciation by offering admission-free concerts and educational programs of the highest quality will remain unchanged.

As was the case last year, this 63rd season will consist of seven concerts held in the McKenna Theatre of the Creative Arts Building. Each concert will be preceded by an informative lecture, which will be held one hour prior to the performance. In addition each performing group holds a master class for students in the SFSU School of Music to which the general public is invited to observe.

The schedule for artists participating in the 2018–2019 season is as follows:
  1. Sunday, September 16, 3 p.m., Alexander String Quartet (ASQ): ASQ has been Ensemble in Residence at SFSU since 1989. They contribute regularly to the Morrison Artists Series. This time they will share the stage with the Ensemble-in-Residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Telegraph Quartet. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 octet in E-flat major. The first half of the program will present two sharply contrasting string quartets, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 428 in E-flat major and Krzysztof Penderecki’s third quartet, which he completed in 2008.
  2. Friday, October 26, 8 p.m., Orlando Consort: The Ambassadors will be a program surveying French, Italian, Spanish and British vocal chamber music from the early Renaissance.
  3. Sunday, December 2, 3 p.m., Thalea Quartet: Formed in the summer of 2014 at the Zephyr International Chamber Music Festival in Courmayeur, Italy, Thalea was appointed the following year as the first quartet-in-residence at SFCM. They will present the world premiere of “A History of the String Quartet in its Natural Habitat,” composed by Vincent Calianno and scored for string quartet in pre-recorded electronics. This piece will be framed by two string quartets that differ as significantly as the two selected by ASQ. The program will begin with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/33 in G minor, the third of his six Opus 20 (“Sun”) quartets. The program will conclude with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 73 (third) quartet in F major.
  4. Sunday, February 10, 3 p.m., Nordic Voices: The program that will be presented by this six-voice a cappella ensemble from Oslo, Norway has not yet been announced.
  5. Sunday, March 10, 3 p.m., Musicians from Marlboro: Musicians from Marlboro is the national touring program associated with the Marlboro Music School and Festival held every summer in Vermont. The visiting artists for this recital will be violinists Robin Scott and Tessa Lark, violist Kim Kashkashian, cellist Christopher Richter, and pianist Zoltán Fejérvári. The program will present the world premiere of a duo for violin and viola by Berkeley-based composer Ken Ueno. The program will begin with Haydn’s Hoboken XV/27 piano trio in C major. The remainder of the program will be taken from the twentieth century, Zoltán Kodály’s Opus 12 serenade scored for two violins and viola and Maurice Ravel’s 1914 piano trio in the key of A minor.
  6. Friday, April 12, 8 p.m., Trio Ancuza Aprodu: Named after its pianist, Trio Ancuza Aprodu is a piano trio “embedded” within the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain. The string players are violinist Gael Raessert and cellist Valerie Dulac. They have prepared a program framed by two piano trios from the time of the transition from romanticism to modernism. The program will begin with Claude Debussy’s early (1880) trio in G minor and conclude with Gabriel Fauré’s late (1923) Opus 120 trio in D minor. Between these two selections Raessert and Dulac will play Ravel’s 1920 duo sonata.
  7. Sunday, May 12, 3 p.m., JACK Quartet: The season will conclude with a recital by one of the leading chamber ensembles dedicated to the performance of contemporary classical music. Currently, the quartet members are violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell. They have not yet announced the program that they plan to present.
The home page for the Morrison Chamber Music Center provides the full summary of these performances. The name of each group has a hyperlink, which provides additional information about the pre-concert talk and master class. (This will also be where further program details will be added.) The Creative Arts Building is a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. Three weeks prior to each concert date, each of these Web pages will have a hyperlink through which tickets may be reserved. Tickets are not required for the master classes, which will be held in the Knuth Recital Hall, also in the Creative Arts Building.