Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Memorable Concerts of 2018

I see that this year’s month-by-month account of the most memorable concerts I attended during 2018 is being written several days later than last year’s. This is because my concert-going schedule lasted longer into the month of December than it did last year. I did not want to let anything escape my notice; and I am glad I made that decision. The fact is that there were several vigorous contenders for the most memorable concert of December, but I definitely benefitted by waiting until all of them had been given a fair shake.

Also, I was a bit worried about my disabled state during the month of August; but, fortunately, I was back on my feet (aided by crutches) going to performances before that month had elapsed. Thus, while the “pool of contenders” for August was smaller, I did not want to let the month pass by unrecognized. Here, then, are the month-by-month results of my retrospective review of 2018:

January: Audrey Vardanega’s Old First Concerts (O1C) Recital. I have been doing my best to follow the development of Vardanega’s career, primarily as a pianist, since I first encountered her as a Midsummer Mozart soloist. (I say “primarily” because, on that initial occasion, when she was not serving as the piano concerto soloist, she was playing in the violin section.) She has made several O1C appearances; and, unless I am mistaken, she has always had the company of fellow soloists. On this occasion her companions were violist Gonzalo Martin Rodriguez and cellist Chase Park. The three of them played Johannes Brahms’ Opus 114 trio in A minor with Rodriguez performing the part originally written for clarinet, as he had already done in a performance of the first (in F minor) of the Opus 120 sonatas that Brahms had also composed for clarinet. Park, in turn, was accompanied by Vardanega in a performance of the first and third movements of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 19 sonata (which Rachmaninoff had explicitly described as giving equal priority to both cello and piano). This recital took place early in the month; but, almost a year later, the memory is still vivid.

February: Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) presents Olivier Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen.” LCCE took on several ambitious undertakings in 2018, but this was the one that fixed itself most firmly in memory. This was one of the first pieces that Messiaen wrote for Yvonne Loriod, who was not yet his wife at the time; and he scored it for two pianos, taking the second piano part for himself. LCCE pianist Eric Zivian partnered with guest artist Sarah Cahill; and, to the best of my knowledge, this was my second encounter with a concert performance. I am not ashamed to admit that I cannot get enough of it. Furthermore, as readers will discover when this article advances to October, I feel the same way about many other Messiaen compositions!

March: Albany Consort’s instrumental arrangement of BWV 988. Every year Noontime Concerts sets aside a slot for the celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. The first time I attended one of these events, the performers were members of the Albany Consort, co-founded by Jonathan Salzedo and his wife Marion Rubinstein in 1974. Over the years I realized that this group seldom performs in San Francisco, meaning that I had few opportunities to follow their activities. This year they returned to Noontime Concerts for another birthday gig, playing Salzedo’s arrangement for string ensemble of Bach’s set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme. I have encountered a variety of different approaches to performing BWV 988, but this one was as satisfying as it had been perceptively imaginative.

April: Henry Cowell’s “world” explored by Bard Music West (BMW). Bard Music West is the result of Artistic Directors Allegra Chapman and Laura Gaynon decided to provide the Bay Area with a composer-centered festival similar to the one offered every summer on the campus of Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson in New York. The idea is to select a composer to serve as a “center point” around which other related composers “orbit.” In 2018 that “central” composer was Henry Cowell, who spend much of his life in the Bay Area. The “orbiting” composers included (among others) John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Charles Ives. (Ives’ music was first published in Cowell’s New Music Quarterly; and Cowell, together with his wife Sidney, wrote the first Ives biography.) Thus, while there was much to enjoy in discovering Cowell’s compositions, one of my personal high points came with the performance of Ives’ piano trio by Chapman on piano, Gaynon on cello, and Luosha Fang on violin, reminding me, somewhat poignantly, of how seldom I get to hear this composition in performance.

May: The final concert of the Volti season. It seems as if I cannot fit performances by the Volti a cappella choir into my schedule as often as I would wish. This group, conducted by Artistic Director Robert Geary, has the motto “Singing without a net;” and those programs I have managed to experience have been consistently adventurous. The title of this particular concert was Bay and Beyond; and it featured Playbook Choruses by Danny Clay, the composer selected for the season’s Choral Arts Laboratory, a commissioning and residency program for American composers under the age of 35. Clay’s collection of three pieces was based on guided improvisation (with the conductor participating as much as the singers). It was probably the first time I had experienced improvisation by an a cappella ensemble, and the results were memorable in more ways than I can enumerate!

June: Curium’s O1C debut recital. The Curium piano trio was founded around the middle of 2017 by violinist Agnieszka Peszko, cellist Natalie Raney, and pianist Rachel Kim. Its name comes from the 96th element in the periodic table; but the intention seems to have been to honor Marie Curie, for whom that element was named, since the trio has developed a repertoire around female composers, both past and present. Appropriately, their O1C debut included both Clara Schumann and Kaija Saariaho. I was particularly struck by the Saariaho selection, “Light and Matter,” an interest that was subsequently reinforced when I encountered the piece on Jennifer Koh’s Saariaho X Koh recording. I have to say that I have trouble resisting smug satisfaction when I encounter a recording that recognizes the value of composition I had previously known only through performance!

July: Adam Shulman at the Red Poppy Art House. This turned out to be a good year for jazz listening for a variety of reasons, one of which had to do with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screening Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes. Pianist Shulman, leading a quartet whose other members were Patrick Wolff on saxophones (both alto and tenor), Miles Wick on bass, and James Gallagher on drums, prepared a program entitled Forgotten Gems from the Bebop Era; and, to borrow a phrase from my composition teacher, I was in hog heaven! I was particularly delighted with Shulman’s decision to feature three tunes by Thelonious Monk that I had previously known only from recordings.

August: Lavay Smith at Biscuits and Blues. I have to confess that this item is on the list only partly on musical grounds. Smith is a regular at Biscuits and Blues. However, in this case the performance marked the first time I had made it to a concert venue away from my home (on crutches) following my accident. This was not my first encounter with Smith, who is one of my favorite departures from my usual interest in bebop. Her “book” takes its sources from Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing, Joe Williams, Helen Humes, Lester Young, Jay McShann, Walter Brown, Jimmy Witherspoon, Myra Taylor, and Big Joe Turner. I could not always keep up with what she was performing; but I have to thank Smith’s pianist Chris Siebert for clearing up several inaccuracies in the piece I wrote (all of which were then included as amendments to the original).

September: San Francisco Opera (SFO) integrates “Cav” and “Pag” into a single narrative. For the opening production of SFO’s 96th season, director José Cura conceived of a single set that would present the double bill of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” (rustic chivalry) and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” (clowns) as two episodes unfolding in a single small Italian village. It was not so much that the narrative of “Cav” was continued by “Pag.” Rather, because “Pag” is about a troupe of traveling players, they could be viewed as wandering into a place that had just experienced a tragedy of homicide. (The village funeral procession was the first thing the audience saw when the curtain rose on “Pag.”) For those who like metaphors, it was as if the warhorse was charging into a new battlefield; and the result was anything but a here-we-go-again experience at the opera.

October: More Messiaen comes to O1C. Another throughly engaging account of Messiaen’s music was provided by the members of the Vinifera Trio: violinist Rachel Patrick, clarinetist Matthew Boyles, and pianist Ian Scarfe. Scarfe prepared a video introduction, which provided background about both Messiaen and the major work on the program, the “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time). The trio was joined by cellist James Jaffe for this performance; but the quartet was preceded by Scarfe playing the first movement of a cycle of solo piano compositions that Messiaen entitled Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (twenty contemplations on the infant Jesus). This provided a bit of “ear training,” allowing listeners to get used to Messiaen’s sonorities before they were deployed in the much longer quartet.

November: The Living Earth Show’s program of nine “American” compositions. For those unfamiliar with this group, The Living Earth Show consists of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson, both of whom are not only thoroughly skilled at their instruments but also proficiently adept at mastering alternative techniques. They presented a program of works written on commission by a collection of nine living composers, each of whom was born in, immigrated to, or utilizes the musical traditions created within the current borders of the United States. The diversity of these selections demanded an equivalent diversity of technical proficiencies for the sake of execution, making the discipline that the players brought to the music as engaging as the extensive imaginative qualities of the music itself.

December: The annual Holiday Concert presented by Voices of Music. Every December Voices of Music presents a Holiday Concert featuring a performance of the eighth of the twelve concerti grossi in Arcangelo Corelli’s Opus 6 collection of twelve. Corelli’s score for this particular concerto includes the inscription “Fatto per la notte de Natale” (made for the night of Christmas); and it is popularly known as the “Christmas Concerto.” That performance is then framed by selections from the same time frame, most of which are concertos featuring a highly engaging diversity of solo technical display on period instruments. This year’s concert was particularly interesting, however, in that it provided a platform for a younger generation of players (one of whom, Alana Youssefian, was an alumna of the Historical Performance program at the Juilliard School, who had earlier served as soloist at a Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra concert.)

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