Monday, December 10, 2018

Yuja Wang’s Mostly Russian Recital in Berlin

from the Web page for this recording

At the end of last month, Deutsche Grammophon released its latest recording of Chinese pianist Yuja Wang. Entitled The Berlin Recital, the album is a live recording of a solo recital that Wang gave in the Kammermusiksall (chamber music hall) of the Berliner Philharmonie this past June. The program consisted entirely of twentieth-century compositions by three major Russian composers, four short pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff, the Opus 70 (tenth) sonata by Alexander Scriabin, and the Opus 84 (eighth) sonata by Sergei Prokofiev. Between the Scriabin and Prokofiev sonatas, she played three of the eighteen études that Hungarian György Ligeti composed late in the twentieth century. (The last études in the collection were actually composed after January 1, 2000; but all of Wang’s selections were earlier than that date.)

This program is nothing if not a thoroughly vivid exercise in distinctively contrasting approaches to compositions. For all those differences, however, the selections are unified in the finger-busting technical challenges they impose. One might almost say that Wang conceived of this recital to demonstrate just how much diversity there can be in the space of technically demanding writing. It is therefore important to call out the extent to which Wang always seems to find just the right expressiveness to affirm that each composition is built on a solid rhetorical foundation, no matter how technically demanding its execution may be.

The contrast in expressiveness is most evident in the two sonata selections. Scriabin’s Opus 70 was the final composition that he called a sonata. It was written in 1913, not long before the composer’s unexpected death from septicemia in 1915. (He was only 43 at the time.) Like all of the sonatas beginning with Opus 53 (the fifth), it consists of only a single movement; and like all of the sonatas beginning with Opus 62 (the sixth), it has no key signature.

The author of the Wikipedia page for this piece describes it as “highly chromatic and atonal;” and it would be fair to say that Scriabin deploys his pitch classes is such a way as to avoid any sense of a perfect cadence establishing a tonal center. In the “Harmony” entry of the 1929 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, Donald Francis Tovey wrote:
Scriabin, each of whose last five sonatas is built round its own new chord, complained shortly before his untimely death that he had, after all, not succeeded in getting away from a sophisticated dominant seventh.
If Tovey’s attribution is correct, then it would be fair to say that in his “deathbed confession,” Scriabin sold himself short. Whether or not Scriabin knew of Arnold Schoenberg’s heavy use of the perfect fourth to distance his Opus 9 (first) chamber symphony from cadences based on a dominant seventh, Scriabin used that perfect fourth heavily in in Opus 70 sonata from beginning to end; and the persistent appearance of a C-F fourth in the bass line of the final measures is quite effective in keeping the dominant seventh at bay! Had Scriabin given more thought to ambiguity, rather than traditional harmony, he might have been less dismissive in his “final judgment.”

I do not think I have had an opportunity to listen to Wang play any music based on the Second Viennese School. However, in her interpretation of Opus 70, one gets the impression that she understands the nature of ambiguity and has no trouble letting Scriabin’s harmonic ambiguities remain unresolved. At the same time she also seems to appreciate how Scriabin has created that “sense of an ending” with that persistence of C-F providing an unmistakable foundation for the last nineteen measures of the sonata.

Mind you, this is not my first encounter with Wang playing Scriabin. I believe my first was a concert performance of the F-sharp major poème (Opus 32, Number 1) in 2010; and her 2014 recital in Davies Symphony Hall included a generous serving of Scriabin, culminating in the Opus 68 (“black mass”) sonata. She has a long-standing command of a “biographical scope” of Scriabin’s music in her  wheelhouse; and nothing could please me more than discovering that she is still extending her command of the Scriabin catalog.

As might be suspected, her approach to Prokofiev is quite another matter. Opus 84 is the last of his three “war” sonatas. While there is sometimes a wistful quality in how Prokofiev unfolds his thematic material and a fearless tendency to modulate into remote keys, one never worries about the tonal center being absent, even if it is more migratory than one might anticipate. From a rhetorical point of view, Prokofiev may have been aiming at the weariness of dealing with a war with no end in sight and a longing for a peace that seems out of reach. Nevertheless, there are also unmistakable “militant” qualities, which tend to be most evident in the final movements of each of the three sonatas.

Wang knows better that to try to outdo Prokofiev when it comes to martial metaphors. She is perfectly willing to focus on her technique and simply make sure that she brings clarity to every note that Prokofiev committed to paper. That technique is necessary, particularly for those listening to any of those war sonatas for the first time; and Prokofiev’s legacy could not have been better served than by Wang’s interpretation at this Berlin concert. Indeed, that same attentiveness to clarity serves her Rachmaninoff selections equally well, paying more attention to how she can balance the thematic lines that unfold simultaneously in different registers than to whether or not she can add anything to the expressiveness that Rachmaninoff had already committed to paper.

Where pure technique is concerned, however, nothing can surpass what Ligeti took to be an étude. It is hard to imagine him not feeling prankish about the demands he places on a performer. It would be fair to say that Wang takes a play-it-as-it-lays approach to the three études she selected for her recital. Each one of them requires a massive commitment of both mental and physical cycles, and Wang was could not have been better equipped on both counts. Since I have been fortunate enough to listen to Wang playing more Scriabin on this release, my real wish is that she decides to learn more of those Ligeti études, perhaps to a point where she can give a convincing account of the entire set!

The Bleeding Edge: 12/10/2018

This will be a relatively quiet week, whose most important day will be Sunday. As has already been reported, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players will celebrate Beethoven’s birthday with an in the COMMUNITY Series event entitled Sonic Meditations. That is also the title of the collection of sixteen “social encounters” by the late composer Pauline Oliveros; and the third piece from that collection will be performed. It will be followed by the final paragraph from Cornelius Cardew’s composition based on the Confucian treatise known as “The Great Learning.” Roll over, Beethoven! There will be only two other events of note this week, both involving the usual suspects:

Wednesday, December 12, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: This will be the December installment in the monthly offerings of experimental performances. As usual, the evening will consist of four sets. Like his father Don, Ezra Buchla is into building new sound-processing hardware; but, unlike his father, he tends to use his gear in the avant-pop genre. Sally Decker’s work involves approaching sound, language, circuit, emotion and exterior space as all of a piece. David Molina is a multi-instrumentalist, who is always interested in seeking out new instruments. He will be presenting Transient, his current solo project involving both ambient and noise genres. The remaining performer will be Tena Deletist, who performed this past May in the Composers in Performance Series concert at the Canessa Gallery.

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, December 13, 8:15 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week’s installment of the Outsound Presents LSG Creative Music Series will follow the usual format of two sets of improvisations. Outsound Presents Executive Director Rent Romus will play saxophones in the first set. He was a founding member of Guinea Pig in 1995. The group, which mixes free form noise, jazz, and grunge funk, is now in its third incarnation as the New Guinea Pig quartet, whose other members are Tony Passarell (saxophone, cornet, and percussion), Robert Kuhlmann (bass), and Aaron Levin (drums). The second set will present Leyya Tawil dancing to music improvised by Dominic Cramp on electronics and vocalist Amy Melissa Reed, also playing guitar and hydrophone. 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.

Eastern European Moods from Telegraph Quartet

Telegraph Quartet members Jeremiah Shaw, Joseph Maile, Pei-Ling Lin, and Eric Chin (from their San Francisco Performances event page)

Yesterday afternoon in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances launched its three-concert Discovery Series with a recital by the Telegraph Quartet, winner of the 2016 Walter W. Naumburg Chamber Music Award and currently Quartet-in-Residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The ensemble’s two violinists, Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, alternate in occupying first chair. The other members of the group are violist Pei-Ling Lin and cellist Jeremiah Shaw.

The “discovery” element of the program involved the trajectories of three composers of Eastern European origins. The “source” of those trajectories, so to speak, was Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, represented by his Opus 51 quartet in E-flat major, known as the “Slavonic” for drawing upon indigenous source material, particularly in its second movement based on the dumka form of sharply contrasting moods. Late in his life Dvořák encouraged another young Czech to begin studies at the Prague Conservatory. That young man was Erwin Schulhoff, and he was only ten years old at the time. Yesterday afternoon’s program began with a collection of five pieces, each based on a different geographical origin, only one of which was Czech.

Since he was of Jewish descent, Schulhoff’s career took a turn for the worst after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia. He ended up in the Wülzburg concentration camp, where he died of tuberculosis on August 18, 1942. Polish-born Mieczysław Weinberg was more fortunate. He graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1939, just as the Nazis were moving in on Poland; and he managed to flee to the Soviet Union before they got as far as Warsaw.

There he was fortunate enough to meet Dmitri Shostakovich, and the two became close friends. As might be guessed, however, that friendship had its own down-side when, following the end of World War II, Shostakovich once again found himself out of favor with Soviet authorities. Indeed, in February of 1953, Weinberg was arrested on charges of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism;” and the only thing that saved him was the radical shift in Soviet policies that followed the death of Joseph Stalin.

Nevertheless, Weinberg’s achievements as a composer remained in the shadows; and, for the most part, they remained there until after his death in 1996. Since then, however, there has been a growing interest in the vast catalog of his works (his “opus count” ran to 154) thanks, in no small part, to Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer (another Eastern European connection), British director David Pountney, who staged the first performance of Weinberg’s opera The Passenger, and the French Quatuor Danel, which made all seventeen of his string quartets part of their repertoire and recorded them all for the German cpo label between 2006 and 2009. (The entire six-CD collection is available as a box set.)

Telegraph chose to introduce Weinberg’s quartets to their audience with his Opus 35 (sixth) in E minor. This quartet was composed in 1946, the year in which Soviet Central Committee Andrei Zhdanov imposed the Zhdanov Doctrine, which led to Shostakovich’s second denunciation by Soviet authorities. Ironically, Weinberg was not impacted by the Doctrine on the grounds that no one was particularly interested in his compositions! Nevertheless, Opus 35 constitutes a major undertaking on the same epic scale as Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor, written during the darkest days of World War II.

Mind you, there is no question that Weinberg had his own distinctive voice, which would not be confused with that of Shostakovich. Nevertheless, he shared with Shostakovich a sophisticated discipline for polyphonic structures as a basis for intensely dark rhetoric. Each of the four principal movements of Opus 35 presents its own approach to that darkness through a different tempo.

Curiously, a rapid pace appears only after the first movement, with two intense movements that ferociously pass through like a bolt of lightning with a combined duration of less than five minutes. For those unfamiliar with the piece, trying to follow the movement structure on the program sheet can be a bit disorienting. However, disorientation may have been Weinberg’s way of expressing his awareness of his own state of neglect; and the more we know about Weinberg the man, the better equipped we are to respond to the expressiveness of his music.

Weinberg’s quartet was the only piece played during the second half of the program. The first half offered the balance of a far sunnier rhetoric. There are no dark shadows haunting the four movements of Dvořák’s Opus 51 quartet. Even in the second dumka movement, the Andante con moto section is more wistful than elegiac (and, of course, the essence of dumka is that balance between the discreetly subdued and the overtly raucous). Telegraph clearly appreciated the sheer delight expressed through this music, pleasantly reminding its audience that there is more to the Dvořák quartet repertoire than his popular Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major.

The opening Schulhoff selection was probably as unfamiliar as the Weinberg quartet to most of the audience. During the Twenties (yesterday afternoon’s selection was composed in 1923), Schulhoff was as adventurous as many of the more familiar composers of that decade. He wrote an essay in which he had the temerity to propose that, for all of his efforts at appropriation, Igor Stravinsky never really “got” jazz. (Even before I knew about either Schulhoff or his article, I agreed with this observation!) In his set of five pieces, Schulhoff steered clear of the American jazz sources he was getting to know; but he still came up with an outlandishly wacky tango movement. Indeed, each of the five pieces in the set seems to be grounded in parody; and no genre that he considers escapes unscathed. (The perverse liberties he takes with a Viennese waltz in the first piece perfectly establishes expectations for the remaining four.)

Given the intense seriousness of the second half of the program, there was a certain healthy quality in the sense of humor that Telegraph brought to their performance of the Schulhoff pieces. Like any good stand-up comedian, the group knew that the telling of the joke is often more important than the joke itself. They appreciated the discipline required to tell Schulhoff’s jokes the right way, the perfect approach to allowing the audience have a bit of fun before settling into the less frivolous offerings that would follow on the program.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Peter Grunberg to Give “Piano Talk” at SFCM

Pianist Peter Grunberg on the banner for his performance and talk (from the Eventbrite event page)

Piano Talks is a series of performances and talks focused on the piano and its prodigious repertoire. Presented by the Ross McKee Foundation, this offering is currently in its second season. Created in 1989 to continue the legacy of pianist and educator Ross McKee (1915–1987), the foundation has supported piano performance and education in the Bay Area. That support includes a nationally-organized piano competition for young artists, grants in support of piano performances, and scholarships for pianists at a variety of local educational institutions.

Next weekend the Foundation will present the second of its four Piano Talks events for the 2018–2019 season. Performance and discussion will be by Peter Grunberg, frequently seen giving pre-concert talks for the San Francisco Symphony. The title of the event will be Beyond the Piano – Before the Phonograph, and the focus of the discussion will be Franz Liszt. The focus will be on his transcriptions and paraphrases and will include his highly ornate transcription of Franz Schubert’s D. 741 song “Sei mir gegrüsst!” and paraphrases on music from two operas popular in Liszt’s day, Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma and Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. Grunberg will also play one of Liszt’s transcriptions of his own music, the solo piano version of his song setting Petrarch’s Sonnet 104 for the second (Italian) “year” in his Années de pèlerinage. The program will also include Liszt’s third Hungarian rhapsody, which drew upon Hungarian folk sources.

This concert will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 15. The venue will be the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. All tickets are being sold for $20, and they may be purchased in advance online at an Eventbrite event page.

Guitarist Vidovic Disappoints at St. Mark’s

Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic (from her SFP event page)

Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco Performances (SFP) and the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts jointly presented a solo recital by Croatian guitarist Ana Vidovic. Thanks to the Omni Foundation, Vidovic has been a regular visitor to San Francisco; but this was only her second SFP appearance since her SFP debut in December of 2006. The program was an imaginative combination of original compositions for solo guitar and arrangements, yet the evening as a whole turned out to be a disappointing one.

Over the course of the entire evening, the high point came after the intermission with Vidovic’s performance of the three-movement suite La catedral by Agustín Barrios (Mangoré). Mangoré was a skilled miniaturist, and the longest of his three movements tends to run only about three minutes in duration. Nevertheless, the music clearly pays homage to Johann Sebastian Bach’s mastery of contrapuntal technique, while the middle movement, “Andante religioso,” also recalls the expressiveness of aria solos in Bach’s sacred music.

While Vidovic approached these miniature studies with a solid command of technique, she never quite caught the expressiveness behind Mangoré’s effort to honor Bach’s memory. This turned out to be a critical flaw that pervaded the entire evening. Every selection posed its own set of technical challenges, all of which were met with confident execution. However, little thought seems to have gone into endowing each of those selections with its own distinctive rhetorical stamp that made it more than a technical exercise.

This was evident at the very beginning of the program, an arrangement of Bach’s BWV 1013 partita for solo flute in A minor by Croatian cellist Valter Dešpalj. While Vidovic made some acceptable tactical decisions about when to take Bach’s repeats, she always approached the conclusion of a section with a ritardando that suggested she had come to a conclusion, only then beginning her repeat of the section. In other words she never knew how to establish what literary theorist Frank Kermode called “the sense of an ending.” When first encountered in the opening Allemande movement, this was disquieting; but by the end of the partita it had become downright annoying.

However, from a diagnostic point of view, this particular trait, which Vidovic brought to many of her other selections, was probably a symptom of a much larger problem. No matter whose music she happened to be playing, there was little sense of a convincing account of how the thematic material was phrased. Rising to technical challenges never seemed to be a problem, but making those accomplishments rhetorically compelling did not appear to occupy Vidovic’s attention. Thus, while her four selections of short pieces by Francisco Tárrega promised a variety of different “character styles;” the sequence as a whole had an almost numbing sameness across its four offerings.

The bottom line was that what promised to be a fascinating evening of listening discoveries turned out to be sadly uneventful.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Two Seasonal Handel Performances from SFS

Members of the SFS Chorus (from the SFS event page for this concert)

As was the case last year, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will present two performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah. The conductor will be Jane Glover, who, according to my records, last came to Davies to conduct a subscription concert of Johann Sebastian Bach and Handel in May of 2012. Once again Ragnar Bohlin will prepare the SFS Chorus, which will perform with soloists Ying Fang (soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo), Nicholas Phan (tenor), and Joshua Hopkins (baritone).

The two performances of Messiah will both begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, December 14, and Saturday, December 15. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Scott Foglesong, which will begin one hour before the performance; and doors to the lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $65 to $225. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The Box Office is also open only for tickets to the evening’s performance two hours before the concert begins. Readers should note that this is a popular annual event, meaning that tickets in some of the sections of the hall may be limited or sold out. Finally, the event page has a hyperlink for a free podcast about Messiah hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone. There is also a hyperlink for sound clips from the oratorio. Both of these hyperlinks require Flash for listening, as well as for online seat selection.

One Found Sound: Divergence through Diversity

Last night at Heron Arts, One Found Sound (OFS) presented the second “chapter” in its season of three concerts organized around the overarching theme of storytelling. The title of the “chapter” was Divergence; and, if there was no sense of a narrative thread across the three selections of the program, there was certainly one of departure from expectations. The “underlying expectation,” so to speak, was the “conventional standard” for organizing a concert program to consist of an overture, a concerto, and a symphony. While that standard was honored, each of its elements had its own way of establishing a divergence.

The opening selection, “Teen Murti,” was by Reena Esmail, born in Chicago in 1983 of Indian ancestry. Her musical training followed Western traditions, taking her bachelor’s degree at The Juilliard School, followed by graduate work at the Yale School of Music. She currently teaches in the Precollege division of the Manhattan School of Music. As a composer, however, she has adopted her Western training to explore her Indian roots; and “Teen Murti” shows how she can take a Western genre, such as a concert overture, and rework it to provide a more interdisciplinary perspective.

Teen Murti was the name of the New Delhi residence of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. It translates into English as “three statues;” and Esmail’s score is structured into three major sections, inspired, by her own acknowledgement, by the plan for Modest Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition. However, as is the case in the Mussorgsky suite, those sections are linked by interstitial material that says as much about the spirit of the locale as the “statue” sections do.

Each of those sections amounts to a raga, which is introduced by a somewhat improvisatory approach to laying out the underlying gamut of pitches. During that introduction, every member of the OFS string section had her/his individual part. Within the overall fabric of those melodic lines, one could detect exchanges between individual voices along with a shared sense of “warming up” that one encounters in traditional raga performance. While the depiction of each of the “statue” sections may not have been as clear as Mussorgsky’s suite movements (at least to an American listener), even those unfamiliar with traditional Indian practices could appreciate the interplay among the performers and the dialectic of unity in the ragas themselves and diversity in the interstitial material.

The concerto selection was actually a concerto grosso by Swiss composer Frank Martin with decidedly unique instrumentation. The concerto instruments were a collection of seven winds, a “standard” wind quintet of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, to which were added a trumpet and a trombone. Accompaniment was provided by a string orchestra to which were added timpani and percussion.

Martin was clearly interested in the individuality of each of his solo instruments; and, over the course of the concerto, he explored the sonorities that would arise as they played in different groups. (Any student of combinatorics will recognize just how many of those groups could be formed. Fortunately, Martin did not attempt an exhaustive exploration of all of them.) The outer movements both reflected the composer’s capacity for high spirits, saving the playfulness of his percussion writing for the final gestures of the third movement. The middle movement was based on a “tick-tock” ostinato (which may have involved a prankish poke in the ribs at Joseph Haydn’a Hoboken I/101 symphony in D major). The prevailing rhetoric is cheerful with occasional ventures into the sardonic and perhaps even the sinister.

Most impressive about the concerto, however, was the throughly imaginative fabric of the composer’s rhythms. Indeed, it was through those rhythmic patterns that the accompanying strings could establish their own identity in the face of so many “competing” soloists. These days Martin tends to be known more by his name than by his work. This concerto was unabashedly tonal at a time when the pendulum had swung into atonality, meaning that many “in the know” were quick to dismiss it as unfashionable. From our present vantage point it is easier to appreciate just how imaginative the music was, as well as the freshness of Martin’s capacity for rhetoric.

The opening measures of Mozart’s K. 183 (Breitkopf & Härtel edition, from IMSLP, public domain)

The “divergence” of the symphony also involved a gentle poke in the ribs. When one thinks of the G minor symphony of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, K. 550 almost immediately comes to mind. Last night’s selection, however, was K. 183, sometimes known as the “little G minor symphony.” K. 183 has the usual four movements; but they are definitely on the shorter side.  The instrumentation involved an interesting approach on limiting the winds: two oboes, two bassoons, and four horns. The result was a vigorous account, which may have been a bit scrappy from time to time but still amounted to a delightful account of Mozart’s capacity for invention at the age of seventeen.

Friday, December 7, 2018

61st GRAMMY Nominations Hit a Few Marks

logo for the 2019 GRAMMY Awards

Regular readers should know by now that the annual GRAMMY award nominations constitute “my annual reality check.” I take it for granted that GRAMMYs have more to do with commercial success (or, in the age of reduced expectations, at least commercial viability), while my own focus has always been on the listening experience. However, as I worked my way through those categories that touched on articles I had written, I came away with the impression that, at the very least, my attention (if not my total satisfaction) had been directed at more nominated items than in the past. Here, then, are my reflections on the relevant categories:

31. Best Improvised Jazz Solo

Regina Carter, soloist
Track from: Some Of That Sunshine (Karrin Allyson)
John Daversa, soloist
Track from: American Dreamers: Voices Of Hope, Music Of Freedom (John Daversa Big Band Featuring DACA Artists)
Fred Hersch, soloists
Brad Mehldau, soloist
Track from: Seymour Reads The Constitution! (Brad Mehldau Trio)
Miguel Zenón, soloist
Track from: Yo Soy La Tradición (Miguel Zenón Featuring Spektral Quartet)

Ironically, the GRAMMY judges neglected to cite the Fred Hersch album from which the track of Thelonious Monk’s “We See” was taken. The one released is entitled Live in Europe; and, in my collection at least, it is the second Hersch album to include the piece. In my book any intelligent account of a Monk tune is a must-listen experience; and Hersch’s trio account (with Hersch on piano) is as rhetorically compelling as it is intelligent.

32. Best Jazz Vocal Album

Freddy Cole
Kurt Elling
Kate McGarry With Keith Ganz & Gary Versace
Raul Midón With The Metropole Orkest Conducted By Vince Mendoza
Cécile McLorin Salvant

For the most part I am not big on jazz vocal performances. I count myself lucky when either Music Choice or SiriusXM plays a selection of a vocalist who has a basic awareness of pitch, and I rarely expect much more. As can be seen above, my only listening experience comes from another trio album; and, while McGarry has an unmistakably distinctive voice, I was most impressed by her ability to perform as a “team player.” Having said that, however, I would say that I do not expect to return to further listening of this album with any great frequency.

33. Best Jazz Instrumental Album

Tia Fuller
Fred Hersch Trio
Brad Mehldau Trio
Joshua Redman, Ron Miles, Scott Colley & Brian Blade
The Wayne Shorter Quartet

Here at least the GRAMMY judges remembered to give the title of the Hersch album, which allows me to reinforce my previous shout-out. Emanon is another matter. This is not so much an album as a graphic novel inspired by Shorter’s music. Mind you, the music is sufficient to keep the serious jazz listener absorbed without worrying about any visual stimuli; but, as experiments go, this one yielded unexpected (by me at least) satisfying results. To be fair, though, I was particularly drawn to the ways in which Shorter’s quartet played so well in a partnership with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

68. Best Historical Album

Rob Bowman, Douglas Mcgowan, Rob Sevier & Ken Shipley, compilation producers; Jeff Lipton, mastering engineer (Jackie Shane)
Martin Hawkins, compilation producer; Christian Zwarg, mastering engineer (Various Artists)
Hugo Keesing, compilation producer; Christian Zwarg, mastering engineer (Various Artists)
Robert Russ, compilation producer; Andreas K. Meyer & Rebekah Wineman, mastering engineers (Oscar Levant)
William Ferris, April Ledbetter & Steven Lance Ledbetter, compilation producers; Michael Graves, mastering engineer (Various Artists)

The Levant collection is the only contender in this list to be grounded solidly in the “classical” repertoire. However, Levant’s repertoire was so rich that (with only one exception) I ended up writing about this collection one CD at a time. However, because Levant was at his finest in his interpretation of the music of George Gershwin, the above hyperlink points to my account of the Gershwin CD in the collection.

73. Best Engineered Album, Classical

Mark Donahue & Dirk Sobotka, engineers; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Michael Christie, Garrett Sorenson, Wei Wu, Sasha Cooke, Edwards Parks, Jessica E. Jones & Santa Fe Opera Orchestra)
Mark Donahue, engineer; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Manfred Honeck & Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
Keith O. Johnson & Sean Royce Martin, engineers; Keith O. Johnson, mastering engineer (Jerry Junkin & Dallas Winds)
Bill Maylone & Mary Mazurek, engineers; Bill Maylone, mastering engineer (John Bruce Yeh)
Shawn Murphy & Nick Squire, engineers; Tim Martyn, mastering engineer (Andris Nelsons & Boston Symphony Orchestra)
Tom Caulfield, engineer; Jesse Lewis, mastering engineer (A Far Cry)

I think this is the first time I have written about a nominee for engineering. As readers will guess, I listened to this album for the opera, rather than the engineering. Nevertheless, Bates is particularly skilled at interleaving his electronica sources (which, whenever possible, he tends to play himself) with the performances of instrumentalists and vocalists. Thus, the fact that the engineering team could provide a well-integrated account of that mix of resources definitely deserves credit.

74. Producer Of The Year, Classical

  • Arnesen: Infinity - Choral Works (Joel Rinsema & Kantorei)
  • Aspects Of America (Carlos Kalmar & Oregon Symphony)
  • Chesnokov: Teach Me Thy Statutes (Vladimir Gorbik & PaTRAM Institute Male Choir)
  • Gordon, R.: The House Without A Christmas Tree (Bradley Moore, Elisabeth Leone, Maximillian Macias, Megan Mikailovna Samarin, Patricia Schuman, Lauren Snouffer, Heidi Stober, Daniel Belcher, Houston Gran Opera Juvenile Chorus & Houston Grand Opera Orchestra)
  • Haydn: The Creation (Andrés Orozco-Estrada, Betsy Cook Weber, Houston Symphony & Houston Symphony Chorus)
  • Heggie: Great Scott (Patrick Summers, Manuel Palazzo, Mark Hancock, Michael Mayes, Rodell Rosel, Kevin Burdette, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nathan Gunn, Frederica von Stade, Ailyn Pérez, Joyce DiDonato, Dallas Opera Chorus & Orchestra)
  • Music Of Fauré, Buide & Zemlinsky (Trio Séléné)
  • Paterson: Three Way - A Trio Of One-Act Operas (Dean Williamson, Daniele Pastin, Courtney Ruckman, Eliza Bonet, Melisa Bonetti, Jordan Rutter, Samuel Levine, Wes Mason, Matthew Treviño & Nashville Opera Orchestra)
  • Vaughan Williams: Piano Concerto; Oboe Concerto; Serenade To Music; Flos Campi (Peter Oundjian & Toronto Symphony Orchestra)
  • Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Volume 7 (Jonathan Biss)
  • Mirror In Mirror (Anne Akiko Meyers, Kristjan Järvi & Philharmonia Orchestra)
  • Mozart: Idomeneo (James Levine, Alan Opie, Matthew Polenzani, Alice Coote, Nadine Sierra, Elza van den Heever, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus)
  • Presentiment (Orion Weiss)
  • Strauss, R.: Der Rosenkavalier (Sebastian Weigle, Renée Fleming, Elīna Garanča, Erin Morley, Günther Groissböck, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra & Chorus)
  • Beethoven Unbound (Llŷr Williams)
  • Black Manhattan Volume 3 (Rick Benjamin & Paragon Ragtime Orchestra)
  • Bolcom: Piano Music (Various Artists)
  • Del Tredici: March To Tonality (Mark Peskanov & Various Artists)
  • Love Comes In At The Eye (Timothy Jones, Stephanie Sant'Ambrogio, Jeffrey Sykes, Anthony Ross, Carol Cook, Beth Rapier & Stephanie Jutt)
  • Meltzer: Variations On A Summer Day & Piano Quartet (Abigail Fischer, Jayce Ogren & Sequitur)
  • Mendelssohn: Complete Works For Cello And Piano (Marcy Rosen & Lydia Artymiw)
  • New Music For Violin And Piano (Julie Rosenfeld & Peter Miyamoto)
  • Reich: Pulse/Quartet (Colin Currie Group & International Contemporary Ensemble)
Since this award is also about production, I feel that, while this was a case in which I was familiar with more of the nominees than usual, the capture of a live performance of Bates’ opera makes that recording my favorite of those that I encountered over this past year.

75. Best Orchestral Performance

Manfred Honeck, conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra)
Thomas Dausgaard, conductor (Seattle Symphony)
David Alan Miller, conductor (National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic)
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (San Francisco Symphony)
Andris Nelsons, conductor (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

This was a case in which I only encountered one of the nominees and found that, for the most part, it did not rise to the level of orchestral interpretations of Schumann that I had previously encountered.

76. Best Opera Recording

John Adams, conductor; Aubrey Allicock, Julia Bullock, Gerald Finley & Brindley Sherratt; Friedemann Engelbrecht, producer (BBC Symphony Orchestra; BBC Singers)
Michael Christie, conductor; Sasha Cooke, Jessica E. Jones, Edwards Parks, Garrett Sorenson & Wei Wu; Elizabeth Ostrow, producer (The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra)
Christophe Rousset, conductor; Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Emiliano Gonzalez Toro & Judith Van Wanroij; Maximilien Ciup, producer (Les Talens Lyriques; Choeur De Chambre De Namur)
Sebastian Weigle, conductor; Renée Fleming, Elīna Garanča, Günther Groissböck & Erin Morley; David Frost, producer (Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; Metropolitan Opera Chorus)
Constantine Orbelian, conductor; Francesco Demuro, Dmitri Hvorostovsky & Nadine Sierra; Vilius Keras & Aleksandra Keriene, producers (Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra; Men Of The Kaunas State Choir)

Readers probably know that I rarely get enthusiastic about the music of Giuseppe Verdi. They might therefore assume that this was some sort of “sympathy gesture” for Hvorostovsky, who died ten days after I filed my review of this recording. It is not. Whatever my opinions of Hvorostovsky may have been, what most attracted and sustained my attention was Sierra’s jaw-dropping account of Gilda, as intensely expressive as it was technically precise. On this recording Sierra set a new standard for how “Caro nome” deserves to be sung.

81. Best Classical Compendium

JoAnn Falletta, conductor; Tim Handley, producer
The King's Singers; Nigel Short, producer
Simon Rattle, conductor; Christoph Franke, producer
Jerry Junkin, conductor; Donald J. McKinney, producer
Peter Oundjian, conductor; Blanton Alspaugh, producer

Much as I admire Rattle and his admiration of Adams, there was little in this collection that attracted or sustained my listening attention.

82. Best Contemporary Classical Composition

Mason Bates, composer; Mark Campbell, librettist (Michael Christie, Garrett Sorenson, Wei Wu, Sasha Cooke, Edwards Parks, Jessica E. Jones & Santa Fe Opera Orchestra)
Du Yun, composer (International Contemporary Ensemble)
Jake Heggie, composer; Terrence McNally, librettist (Patrick Summers, Manuel Palazzo, Mark Hancock, Michael Mayes, Rodell Rosel, Kevin Burdette, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Nathan Gunn, Frederica von Stade, Ailyn Pérez, Joyce DiDonato, Dallas Opera Chorus & Orchestra)
Aaron Jay Kernis, composer (James Ehnes, Ludovic Morlot & Seattle Symphony)
Missy Mazzoli, composer (Olivia De Prato)

For all of my admiration of Bates and the impressive efforts to bring his opera to a recording, I have to say that Heggie and his colleagues also deserve recognition. This was my first encounter with his venture into comedy. DiDonato’s command of the leading role fit right into the comedic spirit that punctuates the score. This is definitely a recording that deserves “return visits” on a regular basis.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Profil Shifts its Attention to Hans Knappertsbusch

courtesy of Naxos of America

Almost exactly a month ago, the Profil label, which has become the go-to source for recordings of major musical performances from the past, shifted its attention from leading pianists, such as Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, and operatic archives, such as the complete operas of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to a major conductor, whose career spanned roughly half of the twentieth century. As a student I associated the name of Hans Knappertsbusch with recordings of the operas of Richard Wagner, many of which were documents of performances at the Bayreuth Festival. However, my first contact with him came from a Japanese DVD of films of Great Conductors (the title of the DVD). Knappertsbusch appeared only once, in an excerpt of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (ninth) symphony in D minor.

This was not the first time I had come close to being terrified by the sight of a conductor at work. (The first time came when I saw Georg Solti give a concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold with the Chicago Symphony at Carnegie Hall. I had a front row seat, and I was almost afraid to breathe.) However, there was something about the austerity of Knappertsbusch’s bearing and the intensity of his attention to every member of his ensemble that left me quaking in my boots.

I came to appreciate that Knappertsbusch’s intimidating appearance was a product of his recognition that music was the only valid authority and the confidence with which he could then defy any challenge to that authority. Indeed, he is the only conductor from the first half of the twentieth century whose command of Wagner’s music was so impressive that he could get away with refusing to join the Nazi party. Even Adolf Hitler wanted him dismissed; but there were so few top-notch conductors in Germany during World War II that the Nazis ultimately had to concede that German music would not survive without him! Indeed, he even earned a place on the “Gottbegnadeten” list of cultural individuals whose work was too valuable to have their lives put at risk through military service.

If Profil’s recent ten-CD release has a title, it would be Brahms, Bruckner: The Symphonies. This is clearly only a fraction of Knappertsbusch’s repertoire, but it is a good place to start. Four of the CDs are devoted to the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms, along with the three “usual suspects” of shorter works, the two overtures, “Academic Festival” (Opus 80) and “Tragic” (Opus 81), and the orchestral version (Opus 56a) of the set of variations on a theme attributed to Joseph Haydn. Each of the remaining six CDs consists of a single symphony by Anton Bruckner. As usual, I shall apply my “divide and conquer” strategy, using this article to focus only on the Brahms recordings.

By now I may well have lost count of the number of recordings I have of different conductors performing the Brahms symphonies. Thus, while curiosity drew me to this recent Profil release, skepticism tried to gain the upper hand while I was listening to these performances. That skepticism was at its highest when I approached the Opus 73 (second) symphony in D major.

The opening measures of that symphony may well be the most intimidating examples of understatement in the orchestral repertoire. It is as if Brahms wanted his almost trivially simple theme to insinuate itself, rather than subject itself to declaration. The Knappertsbusch recording, made in 1956 with the Munich Philharmonic, could not be more arresting in its subtlety. Indeed, Brahms is extremely judicious about loosening those reins of understatement; and Knappertsbusch knew exactly how to reinforce the shock value of those moments without letting his reading go over the top. There will be many complaints about the technical shortcomings of this recording; but, for those willing to listen to the music lurking behind the somewhat muddled sonorities, this recording may well rise above just about any other recorded account of the symphony.

By the time the album has advanced to the fourth symphony (a concert recording of the WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne made earlier in 1953), the attentive listener will begin to appreciate the many devices that make Knappertsbusch’s rhetoric so compelling. Even when the recording balance is not at its best, one can appreciate how judicious he is in balancing the different sections of the ensemble. One might say that he is being even more sensitive to sonority than Brahms may have been. Similarly, he takes a very flexible approach to tempo. A lesser conductor might turn that approach into annoying fits and starts; but Knappertsbusch can use subtle shifts in tempo to keep the attentive listener on the edge of his/her seat, anxiously wondering what will happen next.

Those who approach these recordings thinking that they know all there is to know about how Brahms’ symphonies should be performed are in for a rude awakening and will hopefully greet that awakening with unabashed delight!

2019 Sunset Music and Arts Jazz/World Series

Once again Sunset Music and Arts will have a Jazz Series as part of its 2019 season. This time it is being called the Jazz/World Music Series, and it will actually begin with an overlap with the Vocal Series. In this case all concerts will be held on Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. Specific dates for those concerts (including the opening overlap) are as follows:

[12/7, 11:20 a.m.: Two more events have been added, neither of which will take place on a Saturday.

Friday, January 25, 7:30 p.m.: Argentinian pianist Pablo Estigarribia was classically trained, but he is now considered among the best tango musicians of his generation. He still works in the classical genre from time to time, primarily to reflect on the tango traditions that are now at the heart of his repertoire. One result has been his composition of “Rapsodia sobre un tema de Piazzolla” for piano and orchestra. His Sunset recital will be a solo performance.]

February 9: This is Ramana Vieira’s A Journey to the World of Portuguese Fado program, which is also the second concert in the 2019 Vocal Series.

March 23: Pianist Laura Klein was originally classically trained. However, after getting her degree at the Buffalo campus of the State University of New York, she studied jazz performance at the Berklee School of Music and has been playing in combos ever since, often providing her own compositions and arrangements. She has been based in the Bay Area since 1984.

[added 12/7, 11:25 a.m.:

Sunday, April 7, 7 p.m.: Mezzo Andrea Baker will present a program entitled Sing Sistah Sing! She uses it as a platform for a celebration of the sound and extraordinary breadth of the African American female voice and a heartfelt retelling of some of the incredible life stories of the vocalists that influenced her work. Sources of those influences include Leontyne Price, Marian Anderson, Donna Summer, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday.]

May 4: This is the program that ventures furthest into the “world” category. Cuarteto Puentes is an ensemble of four (of course) Bay Area dancers and musicians. They specialize in tango, attending to not only the music but also the dance style behind that music.

July 13: Like Klein, Amy Stephens is both a pianist and a composer. Her own interest in the classical side has resulted in a particular interest in the Third Stream movement, which saw collaborations between classical and jazz musicians about half a century ago. This year she released an album Becoming, in which she performs new Third Stream works for solo piano by herself and others.

July 20: [12/7, 11:15 a.m.: hyperlink for tickets added This appears to be a last-minute addition to the calendar, which has not yet been set up for online purchase of tickets.] Brass Over Bridges is a brass quintet that is particularly interested in giving outreach performances to both schools and local communities. They have developed an eclectic repertoire but have not yet provided details about the program they will bring to Sunset.

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.

Terry Riley Opens Other Minds’ 25th Season

Last night in the YBCA (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) Forum space, Other Minds presented the opening concert of its 25th anniversary season. Executive & Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian observed that this was the same space that was used for Other Minds’ first concert, making last night somewhat of a homecoming event. The program was devoted entirely to the music of Terry Riley, who served on the first Other Minds Board of Directors and has figured significantly in those qualities of “otherness” that have distinguished Other Minds concerts over the following quarter century.

Gloria Cheng and Terry Riley at the keyboard (from the Facebook Event page for last night’s concert)

The first half of the program consisted entirely of solo compositions played by Gloria Cheng. She began with Riley’s two earliest works, dating from 1958 and 1959, and devoted most of the time to the five pieces in the seventh book of works that Riley has entitled The Heaven Ladder. Riley himself player three solo pieces after the intermission, and he was then joined by Cheng to give a four-hand performance of “Cheng Tiger Growl Roar,” which he composed for her. Both Cheng and Riley provided the notes for the program book, making this a thoroughly personal recital in just about every way.

Riley’s earliest pieces were written when most of his time at the piano was devoted to playing the music of Arnold Schoenberg. This marked a move away from his previous interest in “rebellious” composers like Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud. Schoenberg’s music made for an entirely new experience for Riley, not only for its lack of a tonal center but also for its approach to prosody that often made the very concept of phrase structure as ambiguous as its “emancipated” dissonances. It is not difficult to recognize the presence of Schoenberg in Riley’s own phrase structures, but one is just as aware of how Riley engaged those structures with a different (and unique) underlying logic. It is particularly worth noting Riley’s own observation that the music grew out of listening for the right sounds without taking into account the grammatical constraints that guided Schoenberg’s own approach to atonality.

The program then leapt from the Fifties to the Nineties with “The Walrus in Memoriam.” Riley’s rhetoric has shifted to another one of his past influences, that of ragtime. The music was intended as a memorial for John Lennon with “I Am the Walrus” underlying (usually subtly, rather than explicitly) the thematic material. This was then followed by the five Heaven Ladder pieces.

Riley noted that these were the first piano pieces written out in their entirety since his two Schoenberg-inspired compositions. During the intervening 35 years, his music-making at the keyboard drew heavily on memory and improvisation, very much in the spirit of past jazz piano masters. While she was playing from the pages of Riley’s notations, Cheng’s performance still reverberated with gestures of spontaneity. Riley’s program notes suggest that each of the pieces has its own unique inspiration and resulting personality; and there is something touching in the way the set is framed by music for his twin grandchildren, opening with the “Bear Dance” of grandson Misha and concluding with a lullaby for granddaughter Simone.

Following the intermission, Riley preceded the two pieces listed on the program with what seemed to be an improvisation. On the basis of what he said (not very clearly), the music may have been based on an earlier organ piece entitled “The Bull.” The two pieces listed in the program, “Simply M…” and “Requiem for Wally,” were both memorial pieces. The “Wally” of the second piece was ragtime pianist Wally Rose; and the music was particularly notable for how Riley could work polyrhythmic grammar into traditional ragtime rhetoric.

Finally, “Chang Tiger Growl Roar” took its title from the initials of its two performers. It consisted of four movements, one for each word in the title but not in the same order. Rather, the “Cheng titles,” “Growl” and “Cheng” began the set; and Riley’s words, “Tiger” and Roar,” concluded it. Each of these pieces amounted to an engagingly playful gesture, suggesting that the acts of two friends making music together always transcends any of the marks set down in paper to document that music.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Esa-Pekka Salonen to be Next SFS Music Director

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen (photograph by Andrew Eccles, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

This morning San Francisco Symphony (SFS) President Sakurako Fisher and Chief Executive Officer Mark C. Hanson announced that Esa-Pekka Salonen will become the ensemble’s next Music Director. His tenure will begin in September of 2020; and he will be the twelfth Music Director in the orchestra’s 107-year history. (It is perhaps worth inserting, at this point, that Salonen visited the SFS podium to lead SFS on the 100th anniversary of the day on which it gave its first performance, December 8, 1911.) Salonen will succeed Michael Tilson Thomas, whose 25-year tenure as Music Director will conclude in July of 2020.

Due to a scheduling conflict that arose this past October, San Francisco audiences will have their first opportunity to experience Salonen leading SFS next month. He will conduct the three concerts taking place from January 18 through January 20, replacing Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, who had to postpone her debut performances with SFS due to maternity/family leave following the birth of her first child. Salonen has changed the program originally planned for that week to one that will consist entirely of instrumental selections.

He will acknowledge his Finnish background with a performance of Jean Sibelius’ Opus 22, which he called his Lemminkäinen Suite, also known as Four Legends from the Kalevala. As might be guessed, each of the movements is based on a different runo (canto) from the Finnish national epic Kalevala. The best known of these is “The Swan of Tuonela,” based on Runo XIV, in which Louhi charges Lemminkäinen with the task of shooting the black swan that swims around Tuonela, the island of the dead. The movement is particularly known for its extended cor anglais solo.

Salonen will also present the SFS premiere of “METACOSMOS” by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Unless I am mistaken, this will be the first time that San Francisco audiences will be able to listen to Thorvaldsdottir’s music since San Francisco Contemporary Music Players performed her “In the Light of Air” in October of 2016. (However, Steven Schick, who conducted that performance, will be conducting her music with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Chamber Orchestra at the end of this coming February.) The remaining work on the program will be Richard Strauss’ Opus 30 tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra” (thus spoke Zarathustra), inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical discourse of the same name.

The three performances of this concert will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 18, and Saturday, January 19, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, January 20. Ticket prices range from $35 to $156, and they may be purchased through this concert’s event page, 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.

On the longer scale of time, Salonen will be part of a plan to evolve SFS from the inside out by introducing a new artistic leadership model. That evolution will emerge through collaboration with eight partners from a variety fo cultural disciplines. These partners will work with Salonen and SFS to embark on a future of experimentation by collaborating on new ideas, breaking conventional rules, and creating unique and powerful experiences in and around the concert experience. The group assembled comprises eight artists from varied creative realms:
  1. pianist, film producer, and composer of award-winning film scores, Nicholas Britell
  2. soprano and curator, Julia Bullock, who has made social consciousness and activism fundamental to her work
  3. flutist, educator, and advocate for new and experimental music, Claire Chase
  4. composer, new music curator, and member of The National, Bryce Dessner
  5. violinist, musical director, and artistic trailblazer, Pekka Kuusisto
  6. composer and genre-breaking collaborator, Nico Muhly
  7. artificial intelligence entrepreneur and roboticist, Carol Reiley
  8. jazz bassist and vocalist, Esperanza Spalding.
Salonen is no stranger to cross-disciplinary undertakings. One of his more impressive achievements during his tenure as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London was his experimental re-rite project. The basic idea involved turning a recorded performance of Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring” into an activity space. That space was provided by the Bargehouse on London’s South Bank, where the project filled all four stories of that warehouse building. The result was an interactive experience through which listeners would be exposed to the nature of performance in conjunction with the act of listening.

Van Oosten Adds Franck to his CD Repertoire

When one reviews the Discography section on the Wikipedia page for Dutch organist Ben van Oosten, one sees that it is dominated by French composers, particularly those of the nineteenth century. As his biographical summary observes, van Oosten “gravitated toward the French Romantic Organ school of the 19th century that had its origins in the new symphonic organs of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.” Nevertheless, one significant name is absent from the Discography list, that of César Franck.

That absence was remedied this past September, when Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm (MDG) released a four-CD collection of van Oosten playing Franck, entitled simply The Organ Works. Note the absence of “complete” in the title. Anyone who consults the Wikipedia list of Franck’s compositions will quickly see that this falls short of a “complete works” release. On the other hand it definitely goes beyond the apex recording of Marie-Claire Alain, which includes the adjective “complete” on the front cover but consists of only two CDs. A more “honest” account would be the TELARC recording of Michael Murray, whose two CDs are listed as constituting the “complete masterworks for organ.”

Van Oosten goes beyond both Alain and Murray by giving an account of music that predates the first piece assigned an opus number, the Opus 16 C major fantasy, the first piece in a set of six composed between 1856 and 1864. This includes two earlier pieces from 1846 and 1854, respectively, as well as selections from a posthumous publication of 30 short pieces. Given that most of Franck’s organ music was created on a moderately lengthy scale, there is much to enjoy in his capacity for brevity; and that is reason enough for van Oosten to offer a collection that is about twice as long as those of his colleagues.

As might be guessed from his personal interests, all of van Oosten’s Franck recordings are made on a Cavaillé-Coll organ, specifically the one in the Church of St. Ouen in Rouen, France. This is a large four-manual pipe organ, which, ironically, was built in the year of Franck’s death, 1890. The instrument has not been altered since then. So, while it is not an instrument that Franck would have played, it provides one of the best current accounts of the sonorities that Cavaillé-Coll had in mind.

The Cavaillé-Coll organ in Rouen (photograph by Gérard Janot, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Where such massive instruments are concerned, one often has to deal with mediocre organists who are interested in little more than making a mighty noise. (Here in San Francisco we have to deal with this matter when organists come to play the Ruffatti Concert Organ in Davies Symphony Hall.) One of the advantages of listening to van Oosten play those posthumously published short pieces is that one can appreciate that his instrument is as capable of intimacy as it is of inducing “fear and trembling” through its unbridled fortissimo sonorities. Indeed, it is through van Oosten’s meticulous attention to dynamics that one can appreciate that the three chorale pieces that Franck composed near the end of his life in 1890 really are based on chorale themes!

To be fair, listening to these four CDs did not leave me longing for an account of those compositions that were not included; but the collection, taken as a whole, definitely left me with a broader view of Franck’s techniques as both composer and performer, as well as the ways in which his keyboard skills at a piano were complemented by those at an organ console.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

OFS to Finish “Storytelling” Season in February

Members of the OFS string section (from the One Found Sound Gallery Web page)

Those who follow this site regularly will know that, this coming Friday, at the beginning of what has shaped up to be a very busy weekend, One Found Sound (OFS) will present the second “chapter” in its season of three concerts organized around the overarching theme of storytelling. It therefore seems fair to let readers know sufficiently in advance that the season will wrap up at the beginning of February with the final “chapter,” which will be entitled Recollection. However, it will be just as fair to note that one of the “conflicts of interest” in February will be the same as that for this coming Friday, a San Francisco performance by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) taking place at exactly the same time.

Fortunately, the repertoire selections will be decidedly different. While PBO will be presenting its annual program about the transition from the eighteenth century into the nineteenth, the OFS program will provide three selections from the twentieth century, each of which takes its own approach to “retrospection.” The least familiar of those selections will probably be Béla Bartók’s second orchestral suite, composed between 1905 and 1907 (and subsequently revised in 1943). Both suites were composed before Bartók joined Zoltán Kodály’s ethnomusicological pursuits, but they both reveal his early interest in indigenous folk songs.

The opening selection will be Maurice Ravel’s orchestral version of the “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (pavane for a dead infanta), which he originally composed for solo piano. The music itself does not draw explicitly on the sixteenth-century pavane genre. Instead, it serves more as a historical reflection of the setting of the Spanish court at that time. Since the orchestral version was created in 1910, its composition comes close to that of Bartók’s suite. The final work on the program will be Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 25 (“Classical”) symphony, whose references to eighteenth-century traditions are more explicit. Ironically, Prokofiev created this piece much later than the contributions by Bartók and Ravel, having completed it in September of 1917.

Like this Friday’s concert, the final concert in the season will take place at Heron Arts, beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 8. Heron Arts is located in SoMa at 7 Heron Street on the block between 7th Street and 8th Street. All tickets are being sold for $25. They may be purchased online through an Eventbrite event page.

Another Major Reissue from HAT HUT

Morton Feldman at the 1976 Holland Festival (photograph by Rob Bogaerts, from Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

This past spring I wrote about how the Swiss HAT HUT label has been reissuing its earlier recordings. The reissues are being given what amounts to a “paperback” treatment, replacing the traditional “jewel case” with simpler (and much thinner) cardboard packaging. The latest round of these reissues took place this past October, and I was glad to see that it included an album consisting entirely of music by Morton Feldman.

If Feldman’s music received relatively less attention that it deserved during his lifetime, his scores saw an increasing number of champions after his death in 1987. Here in the United States, Mode has a “Feldman Edition,” whose releases have not been particularly systematic but have been consistently valuable for those interested in listening to informed performances of Feldman’s music. Mode has never been afraid to take on his long-duration compositions, the most massive of which was his second string quartet performed by the FLUX Quartet with a total duration of a little more than six hours.

That album was released in 2002; but in 1998 HAT HUT released a four-CD album of a performance of “For Philip Guston,” recorded at the Slee Concert Hall at the University of Buffalo in August of 1991. The performance was given by Eberhard Blum (piccolo, flute, and alto flute), Nils Vigeland (piano and celesta), and Jan Williams (glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, and chimes) and lasted about four and one-half hours. Last month’s reissue was first released in 2000, based on recordings made in October of 1997. The original Web page on still exists and presumably is now being redirected to the reissue.

The title of the album is Atlantis, which is also the title of the last of the three pieces on the recording. All three are scored for large orchestra; and, on the recording, Lucas Vis conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. The two compositions that precede “Atlantis” are “String Quartet & Orchestra” and “Oboe & Orchestra.” Those two pieces were composed in 1973 and 1976, respectively, by which time most of Feldman’s titles had more to do with instrumentation than anything else.

“Atlantis,” on the other hand, was composed in 1959 and may well be Feldman’s earliest effort in working with a large ensemble. (I only encountered Feldman’s name for the first time when I was an undergraduate in the mid-Sixties. Leonard Bernstein tried to conduct one of his pieces at a New York Philharmonic subscription concert. All I remember is that the music critic for Time described it as sounding “like noodle soup going down the drain.”)

During the Seventies Feldman tended to take a mosaic-like approach to composition. In the time I spent with the score of “Piano” (completed in May of 1977), even though I never felt that I came even close to being able to play the music properly, I developed an appreciation of how the score had been constructed from a relatively limited set of “tiles of different colors,” which were then subjected to a wide variety of different patterns arising from collocation. The differences among those patterns, however, could often be so subtle as to escape the attention of “real-time” listening, particularly when the overall duration demanded more than an hour of attention.

In the 1973 and 1976 compositions, one can acquire some basic awareness of those tiles; but what is more likely to draw attention is the way in which Feldman creates and then resolves tensions between “concertante” sonorities and those of different groups of instruments in the ensemble. The respective durations of these two pieces are about one-half and one-quarter of an hour, making for manageable experiences that may well alternate between attentive listening and meditation. Indeed, because these durations are “manageable,” the compositions serve as useful exercises to engage before approaching Feldman’s more extended approaches to duration.

“Atlantis,” on the other hand, comes from a time when Feldman was using graph paper for his notation. The horizontal axis would represent time, and a number in a square would indicate the number of notes that would sound in the duration corresponding to the length of the square. The result amounts to a study that seems to reflect the pointillist technique of painting. However, while painters like Georges Seurat could use that technique to group the “points” in the interest of creating “shapes;” Feldman is clearly more concerned with the points themselves, particularly in how, through both superposition and succession, they may be distributed across the resources of a chamber orchestra. Since the duration is only a little more than ten minutes, the listening experience can be highly engaging due to the imaginativeness of the diversity of sonorities. On the other hand, once the listener “gets it,” (s)he will probably recognize that Feldman could go only so far with this technique, which is why the music composed in the Seventies is so different in its underlying logic.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Fred Hersch’s Vanguard “Debut” on Palmetto

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

This Friday Palmetto Records will release its latest album of jazz pianist Fred Hersch. To be clear about the matter, however, this is not an album of Hersch’s latest work in studio or in performance. Rather, it is a “historically significant” album documenting the first time that Hersch performed as a leader at the Village Vanguard in a series of concerts that took place in July of 1997. As usual, has a Web page for processing pre-orders.

For Hersch, leading his own group at the Vanguard was “equivalent to the first time a classical musician plays at Carnegie Hall.” I would agree both intellectually and enthusiastically. Indeed, my first visit to Carnegie Hall was, ironically, one of the most forgettable listening experiences I endured, since it was a performance by Gershon Kingsley’s First Moog Quartet! On the other hand, the very first time I went to the Vanguard, I was there to listen to Thelonious Monk. Details may have blurred in my memory, but the experience itself is as vivid as ever.

When Hersch made his leader debut, he was no stranger to the Vanguard. He had been playing there as a sideman since 1979. He built up his “schooling” there by playing with an impressive “faculty” of “teachers.” Those leaders included Joe Henderson, Art Farmer, Lee Konitz, Ron Carter, and Al Foster. For his first time out as leader, he worked with a basic trio, whose rhythm was provided by Drew Gress on bass and Tom Rainey on drums.

To be fair, this new Palmetto album is far from a complete account of Hersch’s debut. Indeed, the duration of the album is only a little short of an hour. However, Hersch had tapes of all his performances from which he hand-picked eight tracks that he was willing to “share with the group.” Five of them were standards: “Easy to Love,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Three Little Words,” “I Wish I Knew,” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Only two are Hersch originals, “Evanessence” and “Swamp Thang,” while the remaining track is Gress’ “Andrew John.”

Anyone who follows this site regularly should know by now of my enthusiasm for Hersch’s capacity for inventiveness. Indeed, he can be just as imaginative with standards as with his own work and that of those close to him. He is also equally at home at unfolding an extended original (and sometimes cryptic) introduction for a familiar standard (“My Funny Valentine” being the best example on this album) as he is with jumping right in to make sure everyone knows what the tune is. (“Easy to Love” is an excellent example, even if Hersch’s interpretation is more “about” the joy of a relationship, rather than the coy act of wooing, which comes closer to what Cole Porter probably had in mind.)

To be fair, the more I listen to Hersch’s albums, the more I can build up my own mental model of how he goes about his work. This has enabled me to listen to his interpretations and improvisations with the same level of attention I can bring to a classical pianist playing one of the late sonatas by Franz Schubert. As a result, each new encounter through recordings leaves me feeling better equipped to listen to Hersch at work in a setting that encourages attentive listening. In the past San Francisco Performances has provided that setting, and I hope they will get around to doing it again in the foreseeable future!