Friday, November 30, 2018

Choices for January 26, 2019 (and beyond)

The calendar for the first month of the new year seems to be filling up slowly. Nevertheless, with over a month to go, January 26 is already shaping up to be a day on which hard choices will have to be made. As was observed yesterday, this will be the evening of the third of the four concerts in Vox Populi, the title of the four-event PIVOT Series to be present by San Francisco Performances, when Gabriel Kahane will present his latest song cycle, 8980: Book of Travelers. However, that evening will present two additional vocal performances, along with a rather unique cross-cultural offering. Specifics for these alternatives are as follows:

7:30 p.m., Center for New Music (C4NM): As of this writing, this is the first concert to be presented at C4NM in the new year. It will be the second full concert of the season to be preformed by the Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) trio of soprano Nanette McGuinness, cellist Anne Lerner-Wright, and pianist Dale Tsang. The title of the program will be 56 x 54: “But Wait! There’s More!” This is the latest installment in performing the results of the 56 x 54 Call for Scores issued in 2015, consisting of 56 compositions created by 54 of the composers that were approached. The composers to be included on this program will be Jerry Casey, Melanie Mitrano, Loretta Notoreschi, Carlos Dos Santos, Scott Etan Feiner, Derek Jenkins, Dan Senn, and Anderson Viana. The trio will be joined by Julie Michael on viola and pianists Xin Zhao and Ilana Thomas. [added 1/15, 4:50 p.m.: Xin Zhao will be unable to perform for personal reasons; she will be replaced by Taylor Chan.] The program will conclude with Cinq Hommages, a solo piano composition by E4TT co-founder David Garner.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission for this concert will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members and $5 for students. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini event page.

7:30 p.m., Episcopal Church of the Incarnation: This will be the first program in the Vocal series to be presented by Sunset Music and Arts. This will be a shorter series than the one for Chamber Music, and four of the seven events will be free of charge. Those free events will be programs to showcase the young singers participating in the Phoenix Performance Symposium run by the Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute. Dates have not yet been fixed, but the plan is to present one recital in January, two in April, and one in May. Further information will be posted to the 2019 Community Series Web page on the Sunset Web site.

The first “formal” recital, however, will be on January 26. The recitalist will be baritone John Smalley, accompanied by pianist Janis Mercer. Smalley plans to focus on Czech and Russian composers with songs by Antonín Dvořák, Modest Mussorgsky, and Pavel Haas. In addition, Mercer will play Leoš Janáček’s only piano sonata, entitled “1.X.1905,” marking the date of the death by bayonet of František Pavlík during a demonstration in support of the Czech university in Brno. (The sonata is also known as “From the Street.”) Specifics for the other two recitals, which will also be held on Saturdays, are as follows:
  1. February 9, 7:30 p.m.: Ramana Vieira will present a program entitled A Journey to the World of Portuguese Fado. Vieira is a native of northern California of Portuguese descent, and the fado style reflects the Portuguese diaspora through its haunting ballads. Vieira, who is a pianist, vocalist, and songwriter, will demonstrate the impact of fado on different American styles.
  2. February 16, 4 p.m.: The final recital will be given by mezzo Nicole Takesono. She will present a “three countries” program, beginning in France with Hector Berlioz’ cycle Les nuits d’été. This will be followed by “La maja dolorosa” (the grieving woman), a song in three sections from the collection Tonadillas al estilo antiguo by Enrique Granados. She will then conclude with Leonard Bernstein’s “cycle of Five Kids Songs for Soprano and Piano” entitled I Hate Music.

The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation is located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices are $20 for general admission with a $15 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. Tickets may be purchased online through Eventbrite. As was the case in the article about the Chamber Music series, each of the hyperlinks on the above dates leads to the event page for single ticket purchases. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

8 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The title of the third of the four concerts to be presented in the 2018–2019 season of Voices of Music will be Musical Crossroads. This will be the program that integrates selections for Western and non-Western instruments, presenting music from the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries. The program will feature two guest artists, Laura Risk on instruments related to the violin and Imamyar Hasanov on kamancheh, an Iranian bowed string instrument. The concert itself if being presented as part of Voices of Music’s Women in Music Project.

St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. General admission will be $47 with a $42 rate for seniors and members of several of the local early music organizations and $5 for students. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an Arts People event page. In addition, the Box Office may be reached by telephone at 415-260-4687.

Piatigorsky’s Concertante Recordings on RCA

Jascha Heifetz (left) with Gregor Piatigorsky (right) on the cover of the RCA box set of their joint recordings (from the Web page for the collection)

As promised a week ago, in considering the RCA portion of the collection Gregor Piatigorsky: The Art of the Cello, I am addressing the concertante and chamber music performances separately. Of the four concertante pieces that Piatigorsky had recorded for Columbia, only Max Bruch’s Opus 47 “Kol Nidrei” (which had been coupled with Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 cello concerto in B minor) does not appear in the RCA catalog. Instead, the Dvořák concerto is the only work on the RCA album, performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) conducted by Charles Munch.

However, the absence of Bruch is compensated by a recording or Ernest Bloch’s “Schelomo,” also with Munch conducting the BSO. As Bruch’s Opus 47 had provided an “afterthought” following Dvořák, the Bloch selection follows a performance of William Walton’s cello concerto (also with Munch and the BSO). Thus, while Columbia opted for a “pairing” of late nineteenth-century rhetoric, RCA chose to link together two decidedly modernist (but still unabashedly tonal) composers.

Indeed, in my own listening experience, Walton and Bloch have one thing in common. Every time I listen to a composition by either of them, either in concert or on recording, I wonder why I do not hear more of their music! Unless I am mistaken, this Piatigorsky recording was my first encounter with Walton’s concerto, even though it has been recorded by the likes of both Yo Yo Ma and Steven Isserlis.

Bloch, on the other hand, gets a bit more respect, at least here in San Francisco, where he used to live; and “Schelomo” has become a concert favorite. Indeed, I have to wonder whether it was included on the Walton album by RCA as a marketing “lure.” “Schelomo” would attract buyers, who would then get Walton as part of the bargain!

Another marketing tactic may be responsible for the one oddity among the concertante selections. This is the recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 219 “Turkish” concerto in A major. Those who know their Mozart will immediately recognize that he never composed a cello concerto and that K. 219 is a violin concerto. Sure enough, the concerto soloist is Jascha Heifetz; and the album is actually titled The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts.

However, Piatigorsky is on the recording. He is leading the cello section of the accompanying chamber orchestra. Since no conductor is named, we can assume that Heifetz is also leading that ensemble. To be fair, the cello part is not particularly rich in this concerto; and the RCA recording team did not give it very much respect. Nevertheless, in some (slightly warped) literal sense of the words, this is a recording that Piatigorsky made for RCA!

A more “legitimate” conjunction of Heifetz and Piatigorsky can be found on the 1960 recording of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 102 “Double” concerto in A minor with Alfred Wallenstein conducting the “RCA Symphony Orchestra” (presumably a “pick-up” gathering of Hollywood studio musicians who happened to be available at the time). I know this recording well through my RCA Heifetz Collection, but I still can’t get enough of it. I continue to find it a valuable benchmark for the interpretation of this concerto on both technical and rhetorical grounds.

On the other hand, this is also the one selection that warrants two distinct RCA recordings. The other is much earlier (1951); and the violinist is Nathan Milstein. The performance is of The Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia (members of the Philadelphia Orchestra and others, who would give outdoor concerts during the summer months) conducted by Fritz Reiner. (The recording, fortunately, was made indoors at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia.) While the technology is weaker, this is also a thoroughly well-conceived interpretation. (By way of context, when Heifetz recorded the Brahms violin concerto in D major, Opus 77 for RCA, he performed with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Reiner.)

My high opinion of Reiner also extends to his interpretations of the music of Richard Strauss, as I had observed in writing about Piatigorsky’s Columbia recordings. He does not return for the RCA recording of Richard Strauss’ Opus 35 tone poem “Don Quixote.” Piatigorsky made that recording with Munch and the BSO in 1953. (Reiner would make his RCA recording with the Chicago in 1958 with Antonio Janigro.) As the reader should probably guess by now, Piatigorsky had a good working relationship with Munch and his Bostonians. This was a time when the BSO took great pride in its brass section, and it does not take much listening to this Munch recording to see why!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

SFP PIVOT Festival Moving to Herbst Theatre

This season the innovative PIVOT Series, launched by San Francisco Performances (SFP) in March of 2016, will again consist of four performances taking place at the end of the final full week of January. However, this year’s festival format will be organized around a common theme, given the title Vox Populi (voice of the people). Take as a whole, the performances will present artists and works with political observations and meanings, shining a light on the power of music as the voice of the people to underscore the urgency of our time. The festival will again take place in a single venue; but this season the venue will be Herbst Theatre, which is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Program details are as follows:

Thursday, January 24, 7:30 p.m.: Israeli pianist Ran Dank will perform Frederic Rzewski’s set of 36 variations on the Chilean song “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” This song, written by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún, was popular among the followers of Salvador Allende. Allende was overthrown on September 11, 1973, replaced by a repressive junta led by the brutal General Augusto Pinochet (with more than a little help from the administration of President Richard Nixon); and Rzewski composed his variations two years later in September and October of 1975 in support of those Chileans who tried to resist Pinochet’s authority. Since that time the music has established itself in the piano repertoire alongside other major variations compositions, including Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 “Goldberg” variations, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 120 “Diabelli” variations, and Johannes Brahms’s set of variations on Niccolò Paganini’s A minor caprice for solo violin.

Friday, January 25, 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. [updated 1/17, 12:10 p.m.: Tickets for the 9:30 performance have been taken off sale; those holding tickets will be combined with ticket-holders for the 7:30 show.]: Jazz singer Paula West will present a program consisting entirely of songs by Bob Dylan. As can be seen from the times, she will perform the program twice. Need we say more?

Saturday, January 26, 7:30 p.m.: Gabriel Kahane will perform his newest song cycle, 8980: Book of Travelers. The cycle is based on portraits of the people he encountered following the 2016 presidential election. The morning after the election he began an 8980-mile trip to see how people reacted in different parts of the country; and the texts of his songs are based on those reactions. Kahane will accompany his singing at the piano.

Sunday, January 27, 5 p.m.: The festival will conclude with a recital by bass-baritone Dashon Burton entitled Songs of Struggle and Redemption. The program will include arrangements of both spirituals and protest songs. However, it will also present compositions by George Frideric Handel, Hugo Wolf, Richard Beaudoin, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Francis Poulenc, and Ernest Charles.

Those wishing to attend all four events will be able to purchase a PIVOT Festival Pass for $140. These may be obtained online through a City Box Office event page or by calling the SFP Box Office at 415-392-2545, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets are available for $40. These may also be purchased online from City Box Office, using the hyperlinks on the dates given above, or by calling SFP. (Note the separate hyperlinks for the two times of the West concert.) Single tickets will also be sold at the door.

Wes Montgomery Homage from Lindsey Blair

courtesy of The Tracking Station

This past August Southernmost Records released an album produced by guitarist Lindsey Blair. The title of the album was All Wes All Day, and those even remotely connected to the jazz scene will immediately recognize that the album is a tribute to Wes Montgomery. Blair leads a quartet whose other members are Mike Levine on piano, Waldo Madera on drums, and Nicky Orta on bass.

Ironically, this morning began with the SiriusXM Real Jazz channel playing “Yesterdays” from the Riverside Wes Montgomery Trio album, with Montgomery leading Melvin Rhyne on organ and Paul Parker on drums. However, the title of Blair’s album suggests that it consists entirely of Montgomery’s own compositions (one of which, “Jingles,” was on that Wes Montgomery Trio album, his first on the Riverside label). Blair’s title is almost accurate. It applies to the first nine tracks, while the last is Carl Perkins’ “Groove Yard,” which also has a place in the Montgomery discography.

Montgomery had a distinctive approach to plucking, which allowed him to play the same sorts of intricate improvisations that could be found among other instrumentalists associated with bebop and post-bop. (After jamming with Montgomery, John Coltrane invited him to join his group; but Montgomery chose to go his own way.) Much of Montgomery’s work tends toward understatement, but that just evokes the familiar illusion of still waters that run deep. Montgomery was prodigiously inventive, to the extent that, as has been said of the jazz pianist Art Tatum, a little bit can go a long way.

It is hard to imagine anyone doing justice to the Montgomery discography, not just due to his own inventiveness but also to have that inventiveness played off of the many giants with whom he jammed. On the Riverside albums alone one encounters both Adderleys (Cannonball and Nat), Tommy Flanagan and Bobby Timmons on piano, and bass players that include Ray Brown and Paul Chambers. Nevertheless, Blair has a keen sense of what makes that music tick; and he knows how to get that ticking to spread across his entire combo (including the far richer instrumentation for the “Far Wes” track).

As a “tribute” effort, All Wes All Day definitely knows how to capture Montgomery’s spirit; but I must confess that it urges me to spend more time listening to the Montgomery recordings in my collection!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

C: Landing Arts to Host Del Sol Quartet Premieres

Del Sol String Quartet members Rick Shinozaki, Benjamin Kreith, Kathryn Bates, and Charleton Lee (photograph by Reza Vali, from the Del Sol Web site) 

C: Landing Arts is an arts-appreciation program affiliated with the Del Sol String Quartet through the Del Sol Performing Arts Organization. Through its Golden Arts Society, a community of people dedicated to experiencing art together, members experience curated evenings of music and conversation in the manner of what the Society calls a “musical ‘book club.’” Members meet regularly on the second Saturday of the month, but next month the Society will be hosting a special performance by Del Sol.

That performance will mark the end of a three-day residency at the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music. The program will consist of six world premieres, each by a composer that is currently a fellow of that Academy. The names of the composers and their respective works are as follows:
  1. Aaron Garcia: Makeshift Memorials
  2. Anjna Swaminathan: A Secret Rendezvous
  3. Antonio Celaya: Whistling in the Dark Hours
  4. Erika Oba: Halcyon
  5. Jonah Gallagher: Ghost of Grass
  6. Sid Richardson: Comb
The program will also include Erberk Eryilmaz’s “Hoppa!,” composed on a commission from the Del Sol Commissioning Fund.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 12. The performance will take place at 751 47th Avenue, a house in Vista Del Mar that provides the base of operations for C: Landing Arts. This will be a special event for members of the Golden Arts Society, and  both regular and premium memberships may be arranged from the Brown Paper Tickets Web page. Members will be able to reserve their seats through electronic mail. Those who are not members may reserve a seat by making a donation to the Del Sol Commissioning Fund through a Web page maintained by Square. Those wishing to reserve more than one seat should make note during checkout to provide an “Additional note to merchant.”

The Final Volume of Rossini’s “Sins”

courtesy of Naxos of America

Earlier this month Naxos released the eleventh and final volume in pianist Alessandro Marangoni’s project to record the compositions in the fourteen unpublished volumes of music that Gioachino Rossini composed between 1857 and his death in 1868, collected under the title Péchés de vieillesse (sins of old age). Readers may recall that, when the tenth volume was released, it was described as the penultimate in the series. On that occasion I wrote that I had been using iTunes to index all the tracks, meaning that I would be in a good position to determine just how complete the project was.

I am happy to report that all of the entries in each of the fourteen volumes are now present and accounted for, along with twenty additional selections classified as “unassigned.” Ironically, seems to have been negligent in accounting for the completion of the series, at least for those who have been collecting it on CDs. After a frustrated amount of searching, I have concluded that, aside from live streaming, the only relevant Web page is for MP3 download. Those wishing to complete the collection with the physical item are advised to consult its Web page on the NAXOS DIRECT Web site.

This is also the fourth volume released under the Chamber Music and Rarities rubric. With the exception of a few piano solos that serve as introductions, all the selections are vocal solos or duets. Vocal resources include two sopranos, Laura Giordano and Maria Candela Scalabrini, two mezzos Giuseppina Bridelli and Cecilia Molinari, one tenor, Alessandro Luciano, and two baritones, Bruno Taddia and Vittorio Prato. All of them perform with a confident precision of pitch, an overall lightness of expressive rhetoric, and, when appropriate, just the right amount of a sense of humor. The album concludes with the final “unassigned” selection, in which Taddia sings Rossini’s name to a seven-note melodic line with the piano providing only the final cadence.

Like its predecessors, the entire album makes for a thoroughly satisfying listening experience. Nevertheless, now that the collection is available in its entirety, I would suggest that it is not particularly appropriate for “binge listening.” Marangoni has calculated well in making each release a stand-alone “recital;” and that is how each album would best be treated.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

SFCMP to Respond to the “Call” of Ives

The first San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) concert to be offered in the New Year will be the next installment of the in the LABORATORY series. These are programs that examine recent works from the past that push the boundaries of the concert experience. For the coming program that composition will be Charles Ives’ song “The Cage,” one of his more enigmatic creations.

Ted Hearne on the poster design for the next in the LABORATORY concert (from the SFCMP ticketing Web page)

The program as a whole, entitled Auto-Tuning Ives, will be structured around a call-and-response strategy. Composer Ted Hearne will provide the “call” with his own performance of “The Cage.” He will also be a respondent through the West Coast premiere of selections from his large-scale composition ‘The Cage’ Variations. These are scored for baritone voice accompanied by flute, clarinet (doubling on bass clarinet), percussion, piano, violin, and cello. The program will include five of the variations from Hearne’s collection. Other “responding” composers will be Ingram Marshall, Molly Joyce, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and Bay Area native Timo Andres. The program will conclude with another Hearne composition, “By-By Huey.”

This program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 18. The venue will be the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The performances will include SFCM students, participating as part of SFCMP’s education and professional development series. As is the case with the season concerts, there will be a free How Music is Made program at 4 p.m., which will include an open dress rehearsal of Hearne’s variations followed by a composer talk hosted by Artistic Director Eric Dudley. There will also be the usual pre-concert discussion with performers beginning at 6:45 p.m. SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. General admission will be $35, with a $15 rate for students. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from an SFCMP event page.

SFS Berlioz Album Poor Substitute for Being There

This Friday the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will release its latest SFS Media recording of a concert performance. The concert consisted entirely of Hector Berlioz’ Opus 17, a “dramatic symphony” entitled “Roméo et Juliette.” The album is based on recordings made at all performances of this piece in Davies Symphony Hall given between June 28 and July 1 in 2017. As usual, is currently processing pre-orders for this new album.

This concert was the final program of the 2016–17 season, given four performances. As “grand finales” go, things could not have been grander. The Davies stage may not have boasted a “cast of thousands;” but the resources were still pretty impressive. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) led SFS, the SFS Chorus (Ragnar Bohlin, Director), and three vocal soloists, mezzo Sasha Cooke, tenor Nicholas Phan, and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. (For the record, the initial performance of Opus 17 combined the resources of 100 instrumentalists with 101 vocalists, solo and choral.)

Berlioz began work on his Opus 17 a little less than nine years after he had completed his Opus 14 “Symphonie fantastique,” which is probably his most-performed composition. Opus 14 is a major landmark in the emergence of “program music” as a genre, since the five movements follow a clearly-defined narrative line. On the other hand Opus 17 cannot be taken as a “narration” of the play by William Shakespeare after which it has been named. In writing about the first of the four concert performances, I suggested that the music “amounts to a ‘view’ of the plot; but that view is seen through a kaleidoscope, whose multiple reflections enlarge objects and distort them while blocking out other objects.”

Berlioz himself may well have had such a kaleidoscope in mind. The handbill for the concert provided a generous amount of text description for each of the symphony’s seven movements:

Handbill for the first performance of Berlioz' Opus 17 (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

All of those descriptions were reproduced (translated into English) in the SFS program book, which also included all of Émile Deschamps French texts for the vocal sections along with English translations by David Cairns. The English was also projected as surtitles; but, as regular readers should know by now, I much prefer reading from the page, because it allows me to see how the passages relate to each other.

From this account readers may conclude that, for me at least, attending this concert was a literary experience as much as a musical one. I would even be so bold as to suggest that Berlioz would have approved of my having taken such a stance in listening to this composition. He probably would also have approved of the clarity that MTT brought to his interpretation of the score, whether it involved the vocal soloists, the collective diction of the chorus, or his ability to find just the right “rhetorical glue” to bring coherence to the combination of massive vocal and instrumental resources.

It would be fair to say that the SFS Media production team did their best to create a “recorded simulacrum” to the experience of “being there.” However, it would also be fair to say that even the highest-bandwidth technology it still not yet up to accounting for the rich extent of resources required to perform Berlioz’ Opus 17. This is a challenge that simply cannot be met. When we listen to recordings, we must appreciate their shortcomings and take what we can get.

On the other hand there is no good excuse for those producers short-changing the listening experience by failing to provide all the useful text material that could be found in the program book. The movement descriptions for the track listings woefully short-change the descriptions that Berlioz himself had provided; and the vocal texts are entirely absent in both French and English. As a result, I would suggest that only those coming to this recording with a rich understanding of the content, literary, as well as musical, of Opus 17 are likely to be engaged with the music for its roughly 90-minute entirety.

To be fair, I do not know for certain if a recording with a better source of background information is available. My only other recording is from my collection of the complete RCA recordings made by Arturo Toscanini, for which there are, for all intents and purposes, no useful booklet notes. However, even that album provided a closer (even if not close enough) account of the original Berlioz movement descriptions. I saved my SFS concert program book to keep with that Toscanini collection, and I am definitely glad to have done so!

A Showcase of Two SFCM Composers

The title of last night’s Faculty Artist Series recital, held in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), was A Composition Collaboration. That was because it featured two of the SFCM composition teachers, David Garner and MaryClare Brzytwa, creator of the Technology and Applied Composition program. Collaboration involved only one of the seven pieces on the program (not including Brzytwa’s “Entrance Music,” which, unless I am mistaken, was not actually realized); but the program served up one of the more diverse offerings of new and recent compositions.

Ironically, the most compelling work on the program was the oldest, “Dhurga Dances,” a composition for two pianos that Garner composed in 1998. The pianists were Garner’s colleague from Ensemble for These Times. Dale Tsang, and SFCM pianist-in-residence Keisuke Nakagoshi. Dhurga is a Hindu goddess, but Garner’s music did not dwell on familiar Indian idioms. However, it seemed to have been inspired by elaborately developed rhythmic patterns that one encounters not only in ragas but also in other cultures based in both West Africa and Latin America. It also seemed to involve a macrostructure derived from the Fibonacci sequence, but far too much was happening in the melodic lines emerging from the four performing hands to allow the listener much time to worry about counting beats or measures. Ultimately, “Dhurga Dances” was a stimulating bundle of energy that never fell back on any predictable clichés and held the attention of the serious listener consistently from beginning to end.

“Dhurga Dances” was the final work on the program and definitely the most rewarding. Tsang also played the world premiere of Garner’s Expressions: Five Ricercars on the names of Expressionist painters, which he completed last year. This is a suite of five movements, each of which has a theme derived from translating the letters of a painter’s name into a sequence of pitches. Those names are Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Paul Klee, Maria Blanchard, and Ego Schiele. True to the overall title, each piece evolves through contrapuntal techniques of imitative polyphony, each unfolding its own characteristic approach to overall structure. The five pieces were relatively brief and often witty, probably reflecting the ludic spirit that Garner brought to this particular composition project.

Less compelling was another suite, Cuadro Cuadrangulos (four quadrangles): Four Dances for Four Horns. This was commissioned by the all-horn quartet QUADRE. Each of the movements was based on a different Afro-Cuban dance form. Sadly, while the rhythmic energy of each of those movements had a well-defined dance spirit, there was more uniformity across the movements than one would have anticipated. Some of that uniformity may have been a consequence of the limited range of sonorities afforded by the four QUADRE players (Amy Jo Rhine, Lydia Van Dreel, Nathan Pawelek, and Daniel Wood). Sadly, on the technical side the group was not at their best. The French horn is not the most cooperative of instruments; but last night there seemed to be more problems with intonation and phrasing than one would have liked to experience.

All of Brzytwa’s offerings, on the other other, amounted to selections of tape music, played in darkness in the Recital Hall. My composition teacher specialized in making tape music, primarily for choreographers; and, as a result, most of my own early efforts (not that there were any later ones worth noting) also involved tape music. More recently I have occasionally tried to revive youthful memories by getting over to one of the concerts in the annual San Francisco Tape Music Festival.

What troubled me last night was an overall impression that there was nothing I had not previously encountered back in the late Sixties. Clearly, the technology has improved substantially. (My own contribution to the mix involved thinking in terms of systems involving multiple programs running in parallel with control operations handling matters of coordination.) The irony is that, while recent technology may have pushed back the boundaries of expressiveness, the expressions themselves do not venture very far from pioneering efforts by John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Brian Eno, and others too numerous to mention. Even in Garner’s collaborative project with Brzytwa, which involved both piano (Garner) and flute (Brzytwa) added to synthesized sound, neither the content nor the expressive rhetoric ever managed to get beyond the same-old-same-old of half a century ago.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Tim Brady’s Eclecticism on Starkland

Earlier this month Starkland released the album Music for Large Ensemble, featuring two compositions by Tim Brady. Brady does double duty on this album, playing solo electric guitar in “Désir,” his concerto for electric guitar and large chamber ensemble conducted by Cristian Gort, and then conducting his orchestral song cycle Eight Songs about: Symphony #7. Allan Kozinn has described Brady’s work as “entirely of his time, which is to say, eclectically rooted in the full range of modern styles, from neo-Romanticism to experimentalism and Minimalism, to say nothing of the great art-rock tradition that informs some of his guitar lines.”

Brady’s guitar virtuosity is almost immediately apparent at the very beginning of his concerto’s first of three movements, which are played without interruption. As often happens when a virtuoso soloist writes music for himself (think of Niccolò Paganini), the solo work tends to rule over the ensemble accompaniment. However, while Paganini required that the orchestra do little more than amble its way through the concerto’s themes, Brady expects his accompanists to follow his breakneck pace and keep up with the twists and turns of his eccentric rhythms. Since that accompaniment was written for a one-to-a-part chamber orchestra, the performance itself tends to reflect a madcap approach to jamming, even when the players are following the specifics of the notation.

The title of the song cycle is a bit enigmatic. The symphony is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (seventh), which was given the title “Leningrad.” This symphony was completed in December 1941, a time when the city of Leningrad had been under siege by the Nazis for about three months. (The siege would continue until the end of January of 1944.) The work would be given its first performance in Leningrad on August 9, 1942, apparently at the request of Joseph Stalin. As the Wikipedia entry for that performance notes, the work “was performed by the surviving musicians of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, supplemented with military performers. Most of the musicians were suffering from starvation, which made rehearsing difficult: musicians frequently collapsed during rehearsals, and three died.”

The texts of the songs, by Douglas Smith, give voice to Josef Stalin, Nina Varzar, wife of Shostakovich, citizens of Leningrad, a German soldier in the trenches, a prostitute, performers in the orchestra (two songs), and conductor Karl Eliasberg. On this recording they are sung by soprano Sarah Albu and baritone Vincent Ranallo. In theory this song cycle promises to be a fascinating perspective on a particularly dark time during World War II. Unfortunately, practice is another matter.

Part of the problem may have to do with distance from the subject matter. While Smith is an award-winning historian specializing in the history of Russia, he was born in 1962. This puts him at a significant distance from not only World War II but also the Soviet Union itself. Brady was born in 1956, putting him somewhat closer to the “historical source.” However, he was never as close to the siege as Shostakovich was. Indeed, the Soviet authorities circulated a photograph of Shostakovich serving as a fireman in in Leningrad 1942:

from a post by Anna Aslanyan on the London Review of Books blog

Thus, while Smith’s texts are well-chosen, it is unclear how much Brady really appreciated what was happening in Leningrad, what Shostakovich was doing at that time, and why he was doing it. The result is music that sounds more like an intellectual exercise than a reflection of one of the darkest times of World War II translated into music by a composer with direct experience of that darkness.

The Bleeding Edge: 11/26/2018

This week most of the action seems to be taking place at the Center for New Music. As a result, those offerings have already been accounted for in separate articles covering the schedules for November and December, respectively. In addition, tonight’s special Monday Make-Out concert was reported in last week’s Bleeding Edge article. That leaves only two further events to account for the coming week as follows:

Thursday, November 29, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s installment of the LSG Creative Music Series will follow the usual two-set format. Both of the sets will involve unconventional duo combinations. In the first Michael Fischer will provide soundscapes for texts narrated by Thomas Antonic. The second duo will bring Kanoko Nishi-Smith on koto together with Owen Stewart Robertson on guitar. It is worth noting, however, that Nishi-Smith’s approach to her instrument is far from conventional. The last time I heard her perform (which was at LSG), she used bows, brushes, and paper plates!  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.

Monday, December 3, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: The Make Out Room will go back to its usual schedule with its Monday Make-Out on the first Monday of next month. Also as usual, the evening will offer three sets of cutting-edge Bay Area jazz and improvisation. The first set will consist of improvised chamber jazz played by the quartet of Murray Campbell on violin, Randy McKean and Cory Wright on reeds, and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass. They will be followed by the more rock-oriented repertoire of Tony Passarell’s Shiva Xtet. Passarell leads on saxophone with rhythm provided by Robert Kuhlman on bass and Jim Frink on drums. There will also be a guest appearance by Karl Evangelista on guitar. The final set will involve the electronics of Dylan Burchett on laptop playing with guitarist Joel Nelson.

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! Doors will open at 8 p.m.

Max Weber in Bedford Falls

Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House to take in the second of the two Thanksgiving weekend performances of Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life presented by the San Francisco Opera. This time I could enjoy my subscription vantage point, which allows me to divide my time between the activity on stage and the activity in the orchestra pit. Nevertheless, this turned out to be an occasion when the narrative held the focus of my attention, whether it was being reinforced by Leonard Foglia’s staging or by Heggie’s setting of Gene Scheer’s libretto.

That focus was directed primarily on how the narrative served a socioeconomic precept I had cited at the end of my previous account of the opening-night performance. I considered the possibility that the narrative may be viewed almost like a “lesson play” (in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht) on the opposing views of the banker Mr. Potter (sung by baritone Rod Gilfry) and the protagonist George Bailey (sung by tenor William Burden). As I put it, the lesson goes back to “Max Weber’s contention that any society in which the only value is monetary value is a seriously flawed social institution.” Over the course of his writing, Weber took this principle in two directions, one involved with loss of freedom and the other with loss of meaning. (Jürgen Habermas would subsequently explore these two losses at greater length in his Theory of Communicative Action.)

As the narrative of It’s a Wonderful Life unfolds, there are any number of indicators of how freedom may be in jeopardy. Potter is revealed to be not only a banker but also a slumlord. The Bailey Building and Loan, founded by George’s father and then taken over by George after his father’s death, becomes a symbol of freedom those those less well-off. It manages as an organization in which the community provides money to help the community, using the underlying capital to build affordable houses. When “Angel Second Class” Clara (soprano Golda Schultz) gives George a vision of a world in which he had not yet been born, freedom has fallen victim to that jeopardy. Potter not only owns the town but also its citizens, whom he holds in a “virtual slavery.”

Loss of meaning, on the other hand, has less to do with the narrative itself and how different generations end up reading it. My own thoughts were triggered this morning when I saw a sign in my condominium complex that referred to “our neighbors.” It triggered a sinking feeling that the very meaning of the noun “neighbor” no longer had much currency when confronted with a mentality that is cripplingly limited to Facebook friends.

Those thoughts then turned to the two critical plot-turns in the opera narrative. The first takes place during the crash of 1929, when Bailey and his new wife Mary (soprano Andriana Chuchman) take the money intended for their honeymoon and distribute it among the depositors of the Building and Loan. That act is then reflected with those same townspeople give their money to Bailey upon learning that the Building and Loan had suffered an unexplained loss of $8000.

The Bailey family, Mary (Andriana Chuchman), George (William Burden), and Uncle Billy (Keith Jameson) with the money given my the neighbors to make up for the lost $8000 (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

This triggered reflection on those currently prevailing mentalities. I realized that there was now a generation that would react to these episodes by asking “Why didn’t they just set up a GoFundMe page?” That struck me as the essence of a mentality of individuals whose focus on Facebook friends had essentially sapped the meaning out of the noun “neighbor.” In our present day loss of meaning is no longer a threat considered by Weber and Habermas; it is a stark reality.

Heggie’s opera, of course, is not a lecture in socioeconomic theory. It is not even a PBS “Socioeconomics for Dummies” television series! Nevertheless, it is a source of reflection on who we are and what we have become; and, through the imaginative uses of abstraction in Foglia’s staging, it is probably an even greater source of reflection than Frank Capra’s film of the same name had been. Sadly, while those of my generation still seem to appreciate and value such opportunities for reflection, there is a younger brave new world out there for which the concept of “reflection” has joined that of “neighbor” in having lost the essence of its meaning.

Opera cannot change the world, but my second viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life left me wishing that it could.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Two Sides of Wayne Horvitz on New Releases

Wayne Horvitz at the piano (photograph by Daniel Sheehan, courtesy of AMT PR)

Paul de Barros, who wrote the liner notes for Wayne Horvitz’ Joe Hill album, described him as a “defiant cross-breeder of genres.” Early last month two new Horvitz albums were released, one of which makes a solid case for his ability to “cross-breed,” while the other seems to have emerged from a week of free jazz jamming at its freest. Horvitz established himself in the New York scene in the late Eighties as a member of John Zorn’s Naked City; but he has had no trouble blazing his own trails, both musically, and geographically, since he is now based in the northwest of this country.

Perhaps as a result of working with Zorn, Horvitz has never been afraid to venture into that domain that many would call “classical.” His catalog includes five string quartets, an oratorio, and orchestral works for ensembles of different sizes. That aspect of his efforts is most evident on the album Those Who Remain, which seems to be available from only in digital form for either download or streaming. The title piece is a two-movement composition inspired by the writings of poet Richard Hugo. (The title of the first movement is also the title of a Hugo poem, “Three Stops to Ten Sleep.”) Hugo is best known for writing about changing communities in the Pacific Northwest, and Horvitz’ music amounts to a reflection on those settings that were of particular interest to the poet.

The remainder of the album is devoted to Horvitz’ fourth string quartet, a four-movement composition given the title “These Hills of Glory.” Once again, the music reflects the composer’s interest in his natural surroundings. However, what is particularly interesting is that this piece was his second venture into augmenting the string quartet players with an improvising soloist. On the Those Who Remain album, that soloist is clarinetist Beth Fleenor, playing with the members of the odeonquartet (violinists Gennady Filimonov and Jennifer Caine, violist Heather Bentley, and cellist Page Smith).

Listening to this piece left me wondering about how it had been prepared. Clearly, the quartet had to put in a respectable amount of time on its own, working out specifics of phrasing and intonation that are not necessarily immediately obvious when reading through the score. This then raises the question of when and how Fleenor became part of the rehearsal process.

Put simply, how spontaneous can one player be when, for the other four players, spontaneity has more to do with execution, rather than invention? Obviously, this question cannot be answered by listening to a single recording of a single performance. Nevertheless, there is something about Fleenor’s playing that suggests her role as being one of an imaginative observer; and, for me at least, that is enough to encourage me to spend more time listening to this composition.

The jamming album is The Snowghost Sessions; and, in this case, has made it available in both physical and digital forms. This is a trio album on which Horvitz plays an impressive variety of keyboard instruments, acoustic and electronic. The other trio members are Geoff Harper on bass and Eric Eagle on percussion. The album title comes from the fact that the trio had a week-long residency at the SnowGhost recording studio in Whitefish, Montana.

(The very idea of going to a remote location in Montana to make use of a high-quality recording studio is more than a little mind-boggling. The tradition of recording engineers inventing their own gear and then building their own studio to work with it optimally goes back at least to the days of Rudy Van Gelder. However, Whitefish is quite some distance from Englewood Cliffs. Oh, brave new world that has such places in it!)

Horvitz’ trio did not go to SnowGhost with any well-defined objective in mind. Horvitz would sketch out charts and the group would play. While they were playing, the recording equipment would be running. By the end of the week it was clear that all three players needed to think about whether or not they had the material for an album. To paraphrase the final sentence from Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, they had and The Snowghost Sessions is it.

LCCE to Begin New Year with “Sound of Nature”

LCCE percussionist Loren Mach (photograph by Vivian Sachs, from the LCCE event page for this concert)

The title of the first Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) program to be performed in 2019 is The Sound of Nature. The concept behind the title was the presentation of works focusing on climate change and the natural world. That theme will be highlighted by the world premiere of “Lemuria,” a concerto by Clarice Assad scored for two cellos, percussion, and cello choir. The conductor will be Matilda Hofman.

Like Atlantis, Lemuria is one of those “lost lands” that was ultimately discredited by nineteenth-century scientific theory. It was believed to have been located in either the Indian or Pacific Ocean. It was presumed to have been utopian. Assad provides the following description, which motivated her approach to writing her concerto:
The legend tells us that the Lemurian people possessed a very strong connection to nature and were very caring and sensitive to each other’s needs. There were no wars, no hunger, no violence, no need from individuals to profit at other people's expenses. Lemuria is believed to have vanished during a tragic, great flood, and this dramatic shift destroyed the entire civilization, leaving no traces of evidence behind.
Since Assad is Brazilian-American, it may be reasonable to assume that her approach to instrumentation reflected an earlier Brazilian composer, whose skills as a cellist led to several extraordinary compositions for cello ensemble. That composer was, of course, Heitor Villa-Lobos. The concerto soloists will be the two LCCE cellists, Tanya Tomkins and Leighton Fong; and the percussionist will be Loren Mach. Tomkins and Fong will also play Kurt Rohde’s cello duo “credo petrified;” and Tomkins will give a solo performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1009 solo cello suite in C major.

Mach will be featured in two other works on the program that reflect aspects of nature. He and guitarist Michael Goldberg will play George Crumb’s duo “Mundus Canis” (a dog’s life). Mach will then give a solo performance of Evan Hause’s composition for five-octave marimba, “Fields.” Over the course of three movements, this piece emerges as a celebration of nature’s wide-openness and free spirit.

The San Francisco performance of this program will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, January 14. The venue will be the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Single tickets will be sold at the door for $35 for general admission and $18 for those under the age of 35. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an event page on the LCCE Web site.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A Guitar at a Schubertiad

I must confess that I have had a fascination with the concept of the Schubertiad that reaches almost as far back as when I first undertook serious writing about the performance of music. (According to my records, the first time I expressed interest was in March of 2009.) The idea of chamber music being performed in a space that was more like a drawing room than even a modest-scale recital hall appealed to me. It seemed as if not only was this an opportunity for the listener to get closer to the music but also it was more conducive to the performers getting closer to each other.

Since that time I have been fascinated with how different performers try to capture intimacy for both the players and the listeners. Sometimes this involves “departing from the text,” not only with regard to the size of resources involved but also to what those resources are. From that point of view, I shall always remember February of 2013 as the month in which I first encountered the use of a guitar in the performance of chamber music by Franz Schubert.

The composition in question was the D. 821 sonata in A minor, written for pianoforte and arpeggione. The solo instrument for which the sonata was written was basically a hybrid of guitar and cello, closer to pre-Baroque viols in that it is both bowed and fretted. However, a viola student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music chose to play the solo part of this sonata with accompaniment provided by a guitarist. A little research on my part revealed that the Swedish guitar virtuoso Göran Söllscher had rearranged the piano accompaniment for D. 821 as guitar accompaniment. His version had the guitar accompanying a violin, but it could work just as well in accompanying a viola or a cello.

Pablo Márquez and Anja Lechner (photograph by Hubert Klotzeck, courtesy of ECM Records)

This brings me to my recent encounter with an ECM New Series album scheduled for release this coming Friday. The album features cellist Anja Lechner in a duo recital with guitarist Pablo Márquez. The album is entitled Die Nacht, taken from Schubert’s D. 534 song. Not only is Schubert the center of attention on the album; but also, the centerpiece of the Schubert selections is a cello-guitar performance of the D. 821 sonata. As usual, is currently taking pre-orders for this new album.

Intimacy is decidedly of the essence across all of the selections on this album. Indeed, Lechner plays the vocal line of five of Schubert’s songs; and I suspect I am not the only one who does not miss the words! As to the sonata, there have been any number of cellists that have made a showpiece out of it, often playing it with such energy as to register with listeners sitting up in some remote balcony of an enormous concert hall. Lechner is clearly more interested in quietude than vocal display, and it serves her reading of the sonata in the same way that she can communicate the spirit behind the Schubert songs without bringing the words themselves into the performance. This may mean that Márquez serves this recording primarily as an accompanist, but he does so with an understated rhetoric that one would not find in a piano accompaniment and is engagingly moving.

Interleaved among the Schubert selections are three nocturnes by his contemporary, Friedrich Burgmüller. While Burgmüller was, himself, a pianist, he wrote these explicitly for cello and guitar. As a result, they provide an orienting framework for the distinctive sonorities of this pairing; and the entire album both begins and ends with the first of these three nocturnes.

The overall result is an album that does a particularly effective job of capturing the social spirit behind the Schubertiad without compromising any of the underlying musical values of the selections being performed, and I would give anything to find just the right drawing room where I could listen to Lechner and Márquez present these selections in a recital setting!

SFCM: January, 2019

Since next month will be relatively quiet, it is not too soon to start planning for when the concert season gets back in gear after New Year’s Day. Performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) will not kick in until the end of the second full week of January. The beginning of a new semester means that there will be a relatively slow start-up period. However, there will still be a few interesting offerings taking in diverse approaches to music-making.

The SFCM building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. Readers are encouraged to consult the Performance Calendar Web page at the SFCM Web site for the most up-to-date information about any of these offerings. Unless stated otherwise, all concerts are free. Nevertheless, reservations are recommended; and, where necessary, a hyperlink to a Google Forms Web page will be provided for making them. Here is a chronological listing of events likely to be of interest to serious and attentive listeners:

Friday, January 11, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: Those familiar with SFCM know that it supports a variety of competitions, not only for instrumental soloists but also for composers through the annual Jim Highsmith Award. This year four competition winners will be honored in a single program. Furthermore, in a break with past tradition, the orchestral ensemble for the performances will be the Berkeley Symphony under the baton of Martin West. The instrumental competition winners will be trombonist Nicole Hillis (’18), playing the concerto by Henri Tomasi, guitarist Ji Hyung Park (’19), playing Manuel Ponce’s “Concierto del sur,” and violinist Boxianzi Ling (’20), playing Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 concerto in E minor. The Highsmith winner will be Daniel de Togni (’18), whose “Tsuioku: On the Internment of Japanese Americans” will be given its world premiere. Reservations may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.

Friday, January 25, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: The Persephone Chamber Ensemble is an all-female chamber group dedicated to programming music that highlights the integration of both traditional and contemporary vocal and instrumental chamber music. Two SFCM alumnae are members, mezzo Kindra Scharich (’03) and violist Wendy Clymer (’05). They will use the slot to highlight the work of a female composer, who is also a member of the SFCM faculty, Elinor Armer. Scharich will sing her “Nocturnes,” scored for mezzo and piano quartet. Clymer will be joined by violinist Ilana Blumberg Thomas, cellist Amy Brodo, and pianist Lois Brandwynne. Scharich will also sing Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 61 cycle La bonne chanson and Ernest Chausson’s Opus 37 “Chanson perpétuelle.” The piano quartet will perform Fauré’s Opus 45 (second) quartet in G minor. Reservations may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.

[added 1/8, 3:50 p.m.:

Sunday, January 27, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: There will be a special Chamber Music Faculty Concert to celebrate the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on January 27, 1756. The program will feature the SFCM quartet-in-residence, the Telegraph Quartet, whose members are violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw. They will play the K. 575 quartet in D major. In addition Chin will join violinist Ian Swensen in a performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 56 sonata for two violins in C major. Swensen’s Mozart contribution will be a performance of the K. 423 duo in G major with violist Dimitri Murrath. Reservations may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.]

Monday, January 28, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: The recitalist for the first Faculty Artist Series concert of the New Year will be clarinetist Jeff Anderle. He will be joined by the members of the Delphi Trio, violinist Liana Bérubé, cellist Michelle Kwon, and pianist Jeffrey LaDeur, for a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time). The remainder of the program has not yet been announced. Reservations may be arranged through a Google Forms Web page.

What Wondrous Berg is This!

Soprano Susanna Phillips (photograph by Zachary Maxwell, from her IMG Artists Web site)

This season the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) decided to celebrate the Thanksgiving weekend with a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor. However, last night at Davies Symphony Hall, what made the occasion “worth the price of admission” (as P. T. Barnum would have put it) was the “overture” selection made by Music Director and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) to precede the symphony. This was the orchestra version of what Alban Berg published under the title Seven Early Songs, performed by soprano Susanna Phillips, who would return as one of the Beethoven soloists.

As we could read in the program notes by the late Michael Steinberg, Berg composed 86 songs for voice and piano between 1900 (when he was fifteen years old) and 1908. Since he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg in October of 1904, it would be reasonable to assume that Schoenberg’s influence can be found in about half of those songs. Three of them would be the first of Berg’s compositional efforts to be performed in public. However, it would not be until 1928 that Berg would revise those three songs, along with four others, and have them published under the title Seven Early Songs, set for medium voice and piano. At the same time Berg worked on a version for high voice and orchestra, also completed in 1928 but not published until 1969.

One might thus call these songs a mature reflection on a youthful effort. Indeed, the very idea of an orchestral version probably grew out of the rich insights into instrumental color that had surfaced in Berg’s Wozzeck opera, which was first performed in 1925. Wozzeck is, in many ways, pivotal in Berg’s life. The Opus 6 set of three pieces for orchestra, composed in 1915, may be viewed as a “warm-up” exercise preceding his work on that opera. So there is a certain symmetry in the many passages in the orchestral version of the Early Songs that seem to reverberate with sonorities that can be traced back to Wozzeck.

MTT last performed these orchestral songs in May of 2009 as part of a Festival of parallel explorations of the music of Berg and Franz Schubert. Last night’s account was just as perceptive and loving as the one from the last decade. Much of that perception had to do with MTT’s detailed approach to balancing the instrumental resources, making sure that every sonority was established both in its own right and through its blend with other sonorities. (For the most part every instrumental line in the score, including those for percussion, benefits from understatement.)

For her part Phillips could not have been a more satisfying vocalist. Her sense of pitch was impeccable, allowing her free rein to establish the position of her own sonorities among Berg’s instrumental resources. She also seemed to appreciate the extent to which each of the seven songs amounted to a miniaturist interpretation of a relatively brief poem. The texts were not as abbreviated as those of a haiku; but, through Phillips’ interpretation, one could appreciate each song as a passing moment, which seemed to reverberate in memory immediately after it concluded. Most important, however, was how Phillips worked with MTT to bring sheer transparency to music that, under less secure hands, could have been a muddle of overly-thick textures.

Nothing could have been more different than the Beethoven symphony that followed. For better or worse, this is music that has “masterpiece” written all over it in a twenty-point bold font. There certainly was no shortage of glorious moments, many of which involved the vigorously celebratory rhetoric from the SFS Chorus prepared by Ragnar Bohlin. The solo vocal work, on the other hand, has to jump through any number of flaming hoops that tend to challenge the listener as much as the singer. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines and tenor Nicholas Phan had the advantage of extended solo work. Both rose to the occasion. In Phan’s case that was a literal rising, summoning full strength to give a solid account of the very top of his register. Phillips and mezzo Kelley O’Connor, on the other hand, were there to add texture to the vocal quartet writing, a tangled complex of counterpoint at its most adventurous.

Nevertheless, it seemed as if MTT was not at the top of his game when it came to managing the overall landscape of the music’s climaxes. He was already over the top at the recapitulation section of the first movement, allowing little room to build up further intensity in the final movement. Thus, once the vocal passages got under way, there was no shortage of vigor but little sense that the music was ascending to a coda that, by all rights, should have been the “highest peak” of the evening.

Still, if MTT’s approach to Beethoven was short-changed by the efforts he had put into his Berg interpretation, I, for one, was perfectly happy with Berg coming out ahead.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Piatigorsky’s Early Years Recording with Columbia

1945 photograph of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

A little over a month ago Sony Music Entertainment released their latest anthology based on the significant and substantial archival material now available to the organization. The title of the collection is Gregor Piatigorsky: The Art of the Cello, and it consists of all of the recordings that this cellist made for both Columbia and RCA. Piatigorsky’s name will probably be familiar to those who have already encountered RCA’s Heifetz Collection (released in 1996) and/or Rubinstein Collection (remastered in 1999), neither of which are currently available. Personally, I have been waiting for a “Piatigorsky collection” for several years, simply because I wished to account for his achievements beyond his partnerships with such luminaries as Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein.

We often overlook the fact that the twentieth century was the first century in which documentary records of musical performance could be compiled with results that could, for the most part, be faithful to the technical skills of the performers. Furthermore, due to the Russian Revolution and Adolf Hitler’s attempts to conquer all of Europe, it was “the best of times” to bring such artists into contact with the first serious generations of engineers working in audio recording technology. Furthermore, thanks to both Hitler and Joseph Stalin, some of the best of Europe’s musical talent gravitated to Los Angeles, where the film industry provided a home base for most of those engineers. Thus, this wealth of archival material owes much to the right people being in the same place at the same time.

Of the 36 CDs in the Piatigorsky collection, 28 contain the recordings that were recorded and released by RCA. That leaves eight CDs, the first seven of which were released by Columbia. The eighth seems to have been produced under the Vox Cum Laude label. Most of the content of these recordings comes from the time when Piatigorsky was head of the cello department at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia between 1941 and 1949. Thus, he did not become part of the musical life in Los Angeles until several years after the end of World War II. At that time he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California and remained there until his death at the age of 73 on August 6, 1976.

This article will focus on those first eight CDs, dividing the RCA releases into concertante and chamber music categories. As might be guessed, one cannot get very comprehensive with only eight CDs; but they certainly provide an introduction to the sort of music that Piatigorsky favored. As might be guessed, his repertoire was not as adventurous as the sorts of compositions associated with the chronicles in Dorothy Lamb Crawford’s book, Evenings On and Off the Roof. Indeed, Crawford’s sources have almost nothing to say about the fact that Heifetz, Rubinstein, and Piatigorsky (often along with violist William Primrose) offered Los Angeles music lovers a much more familiar repertoire of chamber music. (I was somewhat amused to see that, in The Doctor Faustus Dossier, the only thing mentioned about Heifetz and Piatigorsky is that they were neighbors of Arnold Schoenberg and Thomas Mann!) Indeed, one of Crawford’s sources even went as far as to take Piatigorsky to task for his failure to include Zoltán Kodály’s solo cello sonata in his repertoire!

On a more positive side the author of Piatigorsky’s Wikipedia page quotes Richard Strauss on having conducted Piatigorsky in a performance of his Opus 35 tone poem “Don Quixote.” Strauss supposedly declared, after the slow variation in D minor, that Piatigorsky had evoked “Don Quixote as I imagined him.” Sadly, we do not have a recording of that performance; but Columbia did record Piatigorsky playing “Don Quixote” with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra back when it was conducted by Fritz Reiner. Given that I have often felt that Reiner knew more about conducting Strauss than Strauss did, that would make this particular CD in the collection one of the most valuable! Similarly, I would argue that the recording of Piatigorsky playing Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 cello concerto in B minor with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra made for a particularly memorable experience. (To be fair, however, I grew up in Philadelphia during the Ormandy years; so my reaction may well be one of nostalgia.)

On the chamber music side it almost seems as it the Columbia producers wanted to record “a little of this and a little of that” in that same “middle-brow” spirit that looms over so many of their recordings of pianist Oscar Levant. On the other hand I have to confess that Piatigorsky’s recording of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 65 sonata in G minor is not only one of the most coherent I have encountered but also, more often than not, downright compelling. This may not be a “sonata for the ages;” but, playing with pianist Ralph Berkowitz, Piatigorsky went a long way to making it sound that way! As to whether or not Piatigorsky’s spirit should be taken to task for having neglected the Kodály sonata, I was more than a little surprised to discover that he had recorded Anton Webern’s Opus 11 set of three little pieces with pianist Charles Rosen!

As might be guessed, much of the fun on the chamber music side arises once Heifetz is in the picture. Thus, we have what is probably the earliest recording of the two of them playing “Suite italienne.” This was Piatigorsky’s own arrangement of selections from Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “Pulcinella.” Ironically, the Stravinsky selection is on the same CD as the Webern. It would be nice to fantasize about Piatigorsky have helped Stravinsky to get his head around Webern’s music; but the truth is that the Webern pieces were recorded in March of 1972, almost a year after Stravinsky’s death in April of 1971!

Thus, while RCA has the lion’s share of the recordings that Piatigorsky made, there is much to appreciate in the first eight CDs of this recent Sony release.

2019 Sunset Music and Arts Season Opening

Once again Sunset Music and Arts has organized its season around the calendar year, meaning that the fifth season will get under away around the middle of this coming January. Similar to San Francisco Performances (SFP), programing will be organized around five different concert series, each based on a different genre of performance. Unlike SFP, however, tickets are sold only for individual concerts, rather than as discounted groups. Like 2018, 2019 will begin with the Chamber Music series, which will offer ten concerts, one of which will be a free recital by a young artist. The full schedule will be as follows:

Friday, January 11, 7:30 p.m.: The season will open with a performance by American cellist Ben Capps, currently based in New York. He will be accompanied by Russian pianist Vassily Primakov, and their program will have a decidedly Russian bias. The concluding work will be Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 40 sonata in D minor, which will be preceded by two short works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The first of these will be the Opus 62 “Pezzo capriccioso” in B minor, originally scored for cello and orchestra. This will be followed by a cello-piano arrangement of the fourth of the six Opus 19 pieces originally written for solo piano, the nocturne in C-sharp minor. The program will open with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 69 sonata in A major.

Saturday, January 19, 7:30 p.m.: The recital will be given by the Liaison Ensemble, an early music group based in San Francisco. The performers are mezzo Melinda Becker, harpsichordist Susie Fong, cellist Hallie Pridham, and Tatiana Senderowicz on theorbo. Most of the program will be devoted to new compositions for old instruments created under the auspices of the Helia Music Collective, co-founded by composers Emma Logan and Julie Barwick. The program will feature four works by Helia-supported composers, one each by Logan and Barwick, respectively, and the other two pieces by Emily Koh and Lily Chen, respectively. The program will begin with songs by two seventeenth-century women, Barbara Strozzi and Francesca Caccini.

Saturday, February 23, 7:30 p.m.: The San Francisco-Munich Trio, which divides its time between those two respective cities, will be in the Bay Area for the next recital in the series. The group consists of bassoonist Friedrich Edelmann and cellist Rebecca Rust. The pianist for the group has tended to vary over past recitals given in San Francisco. Neither the pianist nor the program content has been announced for the February recital.

Sunday, March 3, 7 p.m.: Trio 180 is the faculty piano trio-in-residence at the University of the Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. The group has experienced several personnel changes under its common name. Current members are violinist Ann Miller, cellist Vicky Wang, and pianist Sonia Leong. Their program will offer three piano trios, each from a different century and played in chronological order. They will begin with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XV/25 (“Gypsy”) trio in G major. This will be followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 66 trio in C minor. The program will end in the twentieth century with Paul Schoenfield’s raucous “Café Music.”

Saturday, April 6, 7:30 p.m.: The Circadian String Quartet consists of violinists David Ryther and Sarah Wood, violist Omid Assadi, and cellist David Wishnia. They are probably best known for having created The Sound and the Fury: The Rite of Spring Re-imagined, Ryther’s transcription of Igor Stravinsky’s famous (notorious?) ballet score, which requires each of the quartet members to double on percussion instruments. They have not yet announced their program for April, so we can only guess what imaginative projects may be in the works.

Saturday, April 13, 7:30 p.m.: Ensemble Illume is another piano trio, all of whose members are women. However, it does not have the usual piano trio instrumentation, since the higher string voice is taken by Jessica Chang on viola. The other members are cellist Laura Gaynon and pianist Allegra Chapman. They will begin their program with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 114 trio in A minor, originally composed for clarinet, cello, and piano. (Given that both of Brahms’ clarinet sonatas also have versions for viola and piano, the arrangement of Opus 114 seems entirely consistent with the composer’s aesthetic.) There will be only one other work on the program, “Je sens un deuxième coeur” (I feel a second heart), composed by Kaija Saariaho in 2003.

Saturday, May 11, 7:30 p.m.: As if to complement Ensemble Illume’s approach to repertoire, Trio Terme is an ensemble that does consist of clarinet (Stacey McColley), cello (Nina Flyer), and piano (Geoffrey Burleson). [updated 12/2, 12:55 p.m.: This will provide an opportunity to listen to Brahms’ Opus 114 as the composer originally wrote it! The other composers to be represented on the program will be Alexander von Zemlinsky and Nino Rota.]

Saturday, June 8, 7:30 p.m.: Flyer will return, this time as a member of Trio Foss. This ensemble is the “standard” piano trio, whose other members are violinist Hrabba Atladottir and pianist Joseph Irrera. Once again, program details have not yet been announced.

Saturday, June 15, 5 p.m.: This will be the free concert showcasing the young violinist Ajay Mallya. Mallya’s program will include two solo compositions. He will play the first two movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1001 sonata in G minor and the second (in the key of A minor) of Eugène Ysaÿe's Opus 27 collection of six solo violin sonatas. With pianist Dmitriy Cogan as his accompanist, Mallya will play César Franck’s A major sonata, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 301 sonata in G major, and the “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” by Camille Saint-Saëns. While there will be no charge for admission, registration through the hyperlink attached through the date is advised to guarantee admission.

[added 5/7, 4:30 p.m.:

Friday, June 28, 7:30 p.m.: Ensemble 1828 is the piano trio whose members are violinist Nicole Oswald, cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak, and pianist Alison Lee. Those who know the music of Franz Schubert probably recognize 1828 as the year of his death. It is also well known that Schubert was almost super-humanly productive during the last twelve months of his life. The program will include solo piano music, duos for piano and both violin and cello, and the D. 898 piano trio in B-flat major.]

Saturday, October 5, 7:30 p.m.: The series will conclude with a performance by the Curium Piano Trio. Named after the 96th element of the periodic table, which, in turn, was named in honor of Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only woman to have won that award not only twice but also in two different sciences. Curium honors Curie as a symbol of the innovations of female minds, past and present; and, to that end, they have developed a repertoire around female composers, past and present. Thus, when they made their Old First Concerts debut this past June, they presented a throughly engaging program featuring both Clara Schumann and Saariaho. The members of the ensemble are violinist Agnieszka Peszko, cellist Natalie Raney, and pianist Rachel Kim. Program details for their Sunset debut have not yet been announced.

All performances will take place in the Sunset district at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices are $20 for general admission with a $15 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. Tickets may be purchased online through Eventbrite. As observed above, subscriptions are not being sold; but each of the hyperlinks on the above dates leads to the event page for single ticket purchases. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.