Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Naughton Twins’ “All-American” Album

Christine and Michelle Naughton (photograph by Jack De Gilio, courtesy of Unison Media)

Exactly two months ago, Warner Classics released its latest album of performances by the piano duo of twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton. The title of the album is American Postcard, and it surveys works by four American composers. It is perhaps fairest to list them chronologically according to date of birth: Aaron Copland, Conlon Nancarrow, Paul Schoenfeld, and John Adams (the last two born within about a month of each other).

Only one of the pieces on the album was composed for four hands on one keyboard, Schoenfeld’s “Five Days from the Life of a Manic-Depressive.” The Nancarrow sonatina was originally written for solo piano, but it was so complex that Yvar Mikhashoff prepared a four-hand version. The two Copland selections are arrangements of orchestral music, “El Salón México,” scored for two pianos by Leonard Bernstein, and “Variations on a Shaker Melody” (basically an excerpt from the score for “Appalachian Spring”), set for four hands by Bennett Lerner. The two Adams compositions are both arranged by Preben Antonsen. “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” is a four-hand arrangement of the orchestral fanfare of the same name; and “Roll Over Beethoven” is a two-piano transcription of Adams’ second string quartet. This album presents the world-premiere recording of the arrangement of “Short Ride on a Fast Machine.”

Taken as a whole, this is a highly engaging package. The overall disposition is a sunny one, even in the Schoenfield piece, since the composer is particularly gifted when it comes to taking tongue-in-cheek stances. Where the selections are based on orchestral sources, the sonorities are clearly more limited; but those limits do not obscure the joy of what can be communicated through only one or two keyboards. (Where “The Rite of Spring” is concerned, one frequently hears more of the “internal” details in the piano version than when they are struggling to be heard over the rest of a large and loud orchestra. On the other hand, “Appalachian Spring” was originally composed for a chamber orchestra; and I feel as if Lerner never quite captured the spirit of Copland’s transparency in his arrangement.)

Nevertheless, I have to take issue with the advance material that I received along with this new recording. Here is how the contributing composers are described:
Two of them, Aaron Copland and John Adams, are among the most prominent of the last 100 years; the other two can be described to some degree as mavericks – Conlan [sic] Nancarrow (1912–1997) and Paul Schoenfield (b. 1947).
To this I find it hard to resist saying:
I remember John Adams when he was a maverick!
More specifically, my knowledge of Adams goes back to 1975 with Brian Eno’s release of the second album on his Obscure Records label. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only recording of Adams’ three-movement suite American Standard in its entirety. (The second movement, “Christian Zeal and Activity” managed to find its way onto a Nonesuch album and became part of The John Adams Earbox.) For that matter, when I first heard “Grand Pianola Music” performed (for the first time, I think) in New York at the 92nd Street Y, there was noticeable hostility in its reception. Perhaps the author of that sentence linking Adams to Copland is working on a book about Adams with the planned title From Maverick to Monument!

Choices for June 15–16, 2019

Accounting for the second weekend in June will be a bit tricky. Two different groups will be presenting performances on both Saturday and Sunday. However, one will perform the same program twice, while the other will offer two different programs. As a result, the approach I shall take will be to organize options according to program content, rather than the performing organization. Hopefully, this will facilitate making decisions, including taking an additional entry on Sunday into account. Specifics are as follows:

Saturday, June 15, 8 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA): Other Minds (OM) will conclude its Festival 24 with two different performances. The first of these will be “The Pressure (A graphic musical tale of horror),” structured in fifteen scenes and performed with one intermission. Oakland-based composer Brian Baumbusch created this staged work on an OM commission with funding provided by the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation. The roles will be shared by four vocalists, who will also serve as narrators. These will be soprano Shauna Fallihee, alto Melinda Becker, tenor Ryan Matos, and bass Sidney Chen. Instrumentalists will include the members of the Friction Quartet (violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz), The Lightbulb Ensemble playing percussion instruments from different cultures, and two organists, Margaret Halbig and Brett Carson, the latter doubling on toy piano. Baumbusch himself will serve as primary narrator, and Nathaniel Berman will conduct.

The performance will take place in the YBCA Theater, which is located on the northwest corner of Third Street and Howard Street. Ticket prices range between $59.50 and $32.50. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an event page on the YBCA Web site.

Saturday, June 15, 8 p.m., and Sunday, June 16, 3 p.m., ODC Theater: Paul Dresher and Joel Davel have been performing as the Dresher | Davel Invented Instrument Duo since 2001. Both of them have been playing instruments such as Don Buchla’s Marimba Lumina, the ten-foot Hurdy Grande, and the fifteen-foot Quadrachord, the latter two invented and built by Dresher and Daniel Schmidt. Performing on these instruments involves an imaginative invocation of signals that may be interpreted for sound creation and/or control.

Their latest program, entitled Unseen | Unheard will feature the world premiere of Dresher’s latest composition, “Three for Two.” It will be performed in conjunction with the real-time display of a video created specifically for this concert by Naomie Kremer. The program will also present two additional Dresher works, “Glimpsed From Afar” and “Moving Parts, “ as well as Davel’s “Out of Thin Air.”

The ODC Theater is located in the Mission at 3153 17th Street on the southwest corner of Shotwell Street. General admission will be $25 with a $12 rate for students and children. Tickets may be purchased through separate event pages for the Saturday and Sunday performances on the ODC Web site.

Sunday, June 16, 2 p.m., War Memorial Opera House: As has already been announced on this site, San Francisco Opera will present the first performance of the last of the final three operas in the 2018–19 season, Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka. The War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Ticket prices range from $37 to $398. Remaining performances will all be at 7:30 p.m. on June 19, 22, 25, and 28. There is a single Web page for online purchase of tickets for all five of these dates.

Sunday, June 16, 7 p.m., YBCA: The final OM Festival 24 concert will be devoted to quarter-tone compositions by Ivan Wyschnegradsky performed on pianos specially tuned for the occasion. The performers will include the members of the HOCKET duo, Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff, Martine Joste, Director of the Association Ivan Wyschnegradsky, based in France, Vicki Ray, and Steve Vanhauwaert. Joste will give two solo performances, both of which will be United States premieres: the Opus 38 set of three pieces and the Opus 40. “Étude sur le carré magique sonore” (étude on the sonorous magic square). Donald Crockett will conduct three compositions for four pianos, including the United States premiere of “Cosmos.”

The performance will again take place in the YBCA Theater. Ticket prices are the same ranging between $59.50 and $32.50. They may be purchased in advance online through a separate event page on the YBCA Web site.

Francesco Piemontesi’s Uneven SFP Debut

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) wrapped up both its three-concert Discovery Series and its entire 2018–2019 season. The “discovered” artist, making his San Francisco debut, was the Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi, a former student of Alfred Brendel. The program he prepared was ingeniously conceived, but his delivery left much to be desired.

The high point of the evening came after the intermission, with his performance of the three moderately short pieces that Claude Debussy collected in the second book he entitled Images. Each of the pieces has its own visually evocative title: “Cloches á travers les feuilles” (bells heard through leaves), “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” (and the moon descends over the temple that was), and “Poissons d’or” (goldfish). Piemontesi clearly understood the visual inspirations behind each of these pieces and knew how to parse the richly interleaved passages in Debussy’s score pages to realize those inspirations. He also had a keen sense of how Debussy mapped out the passing of time in service to his descriptions, attaching as much significance to the flow of the moments as to the moments themselves. Those who know their Debussy know how many of his compositions arise from visual foundations, and Piemontesi clearly knew how to honor such visual infrastructure.

In the absence of such background, however, his foreground left much to be desired. Why he decided to play the original (1913) version of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 36 (second) piano sonata in B-flat minor is a bit of a mystery. Rachmaninoff, himself, knew the work was problematic. He revised it in 1931, but the results were still not to his liking. Vladimir Horowitz prepared his own performing version with the composer’s approval; and, thanks to Horowitz’ reputation, this tends to be the version that receives the most attention.

However, if there were shortcomings in the 1913 score, they took a back seat to Piemontesi’s heavy-handed approach to performance. His execution galumphed its way through the sonata’s three movements (played without interruption) with little sense of value attached to either the thematic vocabulary or the composer’s capacity for embellishment and development. It was as if all that mattered was the need to take an intensely physical stance with little grasp of the motivation behind that stance.

If Piemontesi’s “brute force” approach to Rachmaninoff was disappointing, taking that approach to Bach was downright depressing. The conception of the first half of the program was an ingenious one. The plan seemed to have been inspired by the third of the collections that Johann Sebastian Bach published under the title Clavier-Übung (keyboard exercise). This is the volume that is framed by the BWV 552 organ prelude and fugue in E-flat major, performed last night in the arrangement for piano prepared by Ferruccio Busoni.

Clavier-Übung III is often known as the German Organ Mass due the the abundance of chorales, many based on the Mass text, that intervene between the prelude and the fugue. Piemontesi performed Busoni’s arrangements of chorale preludes from two other sources, the BWV 659 setting of “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (now come, Savior of the heathens), one of the eighteen “Leipzig” chorales, and the chorale movement from the BWV 140 cantata “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (awake, calls the voice to us). He then shifted to the Clavier-Übung II collection to play the BWV 552 “Italian” concerto. Finally, before closing out with the BWV 552 fugue, he played Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement of the Siciliano movement from the BWV 1031 flute sonata in E-flat major.

This would have made for ingenious programming had Piemontesi taken the trouble to honor the expressiveness of Bach, Busoni, and Kempff, each in his own proper place. Unfortunately, the prevailing aesthetic of this half of the program involved little more than energetic pounding. To be fair, Busoni himself could be an aggressive virtuoso; but there is no questioning the deep respect he held for Bach. His arrangement of BWV 552 is a major achievement, particularly when it comes to teasing out all of the fugal elements that reside in the prelude.

This transcription was not about trying to make a piano sound like an organ. Rather, it was about allowing a pianist to take pleasure in all of those structural details that Bach conceived for organists. Sadly, Piemontesi seemed more interested in extroverted bombast than in the pleasures Busoni had in mind. Indeed, that bombast resulted in more than a fair share of missed notes, almost enough to suggested that Busoni and Bach were being short-changed in equal measure.

Piemontesi did not announce his encore selection. In all likelihood it came from one of the many collections compiled by either François Couperin or Jean-Philippe Rameau. Piemontesi’s execution showed respect for embellishment without overplaying his hand, but the brevity of the occasion was much appreciated.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

New Music from a Composers’ Collective

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a week ago Innova released a new album of performances by the Friction Quartet. The title of the album is SPARK; and it involves new works that involved a 2010 collaboration between the Common Sense Composers’ Collective and two string quartets performing at the Banff Centre in Alberta, the Afiara quartet and Cecelia String Quartet. The participating composers were Dan Becker, John Halle, Belinda Reynolds, Melissa Hui, Ed Harsh, Carolyn Yarnell, Randall Woolf, and Marc Mellits.

About seven seasons ago, Becker was named as a curator at the Center for New Music (C4NM), a distinction that allowed him to arrange and present concert programs that he thought would be of interest to C4NM audiences. This was probably when he hatched the idea to prepare a program in which the eight SPARK compositions would be performed by a single string quartet. Since both Becker and Friction were based in the Bay Area, they would be an appropriate choice to perform that program. In addition, the ensemble, consisting of violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel (sharing leadership as first violin), violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz, made arrangements to record all eight compositions at Skywalker Sound.

The result was a program entitled Friction Plays With Common Sense, which took place at C4NM on the evening of March 15, 2017. Two days later Friction would begin four days of recording sessions at Skywalker Sound. SPARK was the resulting album. One of my observations about the concert was the risk of cognitive overload and the conclusion that “all eight of these pieces deserve more than a single listening.” With the release of SPARK, my wish has been granted!

For what it is worth, my favorite during the C4NM performance was Halle’s “Sphere(’s).” Lasting only five minutes and twenty seconds, this appears to be a highly distilled version of the 2002 “Spheres” composition that Halle composed in 2002. At my concert encounter, it did not take me long to realize that the title referred to jazz composer Thelonious Sphere Monk. The opening phrase came right out of “Straight, No Chaser,” after which it was subjected to the sorts of repetitions one would encounter in the early music of Philip Glass. However, as the performance progressed, the pace gradually slowed to the point that one could realize that Monk’s theme had its origins in “How Dry I Am” (which would explain his choice of title).

As they say, it gets better. In his television program “The Infinite Variety of Music,” Leonard Bernstein demonstrated the link between “How Dry I Am” and Richard Strauss’ leitmotiv for Till Eulenspiegel. Bernstein then threw in the transfiguration theme in “Death and Transfiguration;” and, in the brief duration of “Sphere(’s),” Halle manages to “transfigure” his reference to Monk into a recognizable suggestion of that transfiguration theme.

The other notable instance of a cross-reference could be found in the five short movements of Hui’s “Map of Reality.” It was hard to avoid associating the overall plan (not to mention the crystalline brevity of each of the five movements) with the five short movements of Anton Webern’s Opus 5 string quartet. Hui’s evocation of the concept of reality may seem pretentious, but it can also be taken as acknowledging that reality is what mind chooses to make of stimuli. Each movement of “Map of Reality” amounted to a small cluster of stimuli; and mind could make of it what it wished.

In my own experiences, the most intense of the offerings was and remains Becker’s “Lockdown.” This may be another case of one composer looking back on another. In this case the view of the past from the present would involve Frederic Rzewski, who wrote a piece for voice and chamber orchestra called “Attica,” a musical setting of first-person accounts of what happened during the 1972 riots at that prison. Becker, on the other hand, saw no need to add words to his mix. The rhetoric of his quartet writing was downright ferocious, as was the poignancy of a reference to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in the coda. I was glad to see that the full breadth of his emotional dispositions was conveyed on the SPARK recording as effectively as it had been in recital.

By now the reader should appreciate just how rich the content is on this new recording. Personal experience has taught me that this is not an album that you put into a player for listening from beginning to end. Each of the eight compositions has its own unique approach to both structural technique and rhetorical expression; and it is more than a little unfair to try to digest them all in a single gulp, so to speak. Fortunately, current technology facilitates listening to each of these pieces in isolation, all the better to appreciate its unique qualities. Nevertheless, I, for one, am delighted that they have all been served up in a single package!

Choices for June 8–9, 2019

The first weekend in next month will see a wide diversity of performing ensembles marking the end of their respective 2018–2019 seasons, along with one opening performance. Fortunately, the operative modifier there is “wide diversity.” This is likely to be a “something for everybody” weekend, when the only excuse for staying at home will probably be bad weather (such as what I am currently looking at through my window while writing this)! Specifics are as follows:

Saturday, June 8, 7:30 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Chanticleer will conclude its 2018–2019 season with a program entitled Sacred Ground. The program will survey the wide variety of compositions of sacred music from the sixteenth century to the recent past. Thus, it will begin with Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina’s “Tu es Petrus” setting of the Mass at one end and Paul Schoenfield’s set of four motets, which were co-commissioned by Chanticleer in 1995, at the other. The other composers will be closer (at least in temporal distance) to Palestrina than Schoenfield. They will include Hans Leo Hassler, Jacob Handl, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Francisco Guerrero, and John Dunstable. There will also be a variety of arrangements of traditional sources. These include one by Charles Wood on the English song “King Jesus Hath a Garden,” four by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw created for performances by the Robert Shaw Chorale, and one by former Chanticleer Music Director Joseph Jennings.

St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Ticket prices will be $60 for Premiere seating, $50 for Preferred seating, and $20 for General Admission. All tickets are being sold online through a City Box Office event page.

Saturday, June 8, 7:30 p.m., Mission Dolores Basilica: The San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) will conclude its 40th anniversary season with a program entitled From East to West. The program will feature two world premieres, one commissioned by SFGC and the other commissioned by Classical Movements for SFGC. The former will be the latest collaboration with Richard Danielpour, entitled “Three Parables.” Its performance will also mark the debut of harpist Bridget Kibbey. The other will be Reena Esmail’s “The Love of Thousands.” In addition, Mahsa Vahdat will make her debut performing a selection of songs based on texts by Rumi and Hafez. She will be joined by SFGC in arrangements of these songs by Norwegian composer Tord Gustavsen. The other composers whose works will be performed will be Eric Banks, Frank Ferko, and Sarah Kirkland Snider.

Mission Dolores Basilica is located on the southwest corner of Dolores Street and 16th Street. For those planning to drive, free parking will be available in the schoolyard, whose entrance is off of Church Street. Ticket prices are $38 and $28. They may be purchased in advance online through a City Box Office event page.

Saturday, June 8, 8 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM): The Bay Area Rainbow Symphony will conclude its season with its annual Pride Concert. The featured composer will be Shawn Kirchner, who will also be the piano soloist in a performance of his Brokeback Mountain Suite. This will be preceded by the Prelude to the opera Fritiofs saga by the Swedish composer Elfrida Andrée. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Hector Berlioz’ Opus 14, the programmatic symphony that he entitled “Symphonie fantastique.”

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. The performance will take place in the Concert Hall. Ticket prices range from $35 to $10 depending on both location and special rates for seniors and students. Seats may be selected and purchased through a Tix event page.

Sunday, June 9, 2 p.m., War Memorial Opera House: As has already been announced on this site, San Francisco Opera will present the first performance of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 31 opera Orlando. The War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Ticket prices range from $37 to $398. Remaining performances will all be at 7:30 p.m. on June 15, 18, 21, and 27. There is a single Web page for online purchase of tickets for all five of these dates.

Sunday, June 9, 3 p.m., SFCM: Stephen Paulson will conduct the Season Finale concert by Symphony Parnassus. The soloist will be trumpeter Mark J. Inouye, performing the trumpet concerto by Grace Mary Williams. The program will begin with the world premiere of a composition by Preben Antonsen entitled “Arthur Machen’s Childhood.” The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 54 (sixth) symphony in B minor. Ticket prices will be $25 for general admission, $20 for seniors, and $10 for students and those under the age of 26 (with proof of identification). Online purchases are being handled by Brown Paper Tickets, but they may be purchased through a window embedded in the event page for this concert on the Symphony Parnassus Web site.

Sunday, June 9, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: San Francisco Choral Artists and its Artistic Director Magen Solomon will conclude the season with the annual SFCA+1 program. This year’s iteration will be a bit of an understatement, since there will be two musicians joining the ensemble, harpsichordist Jillon Stoppels Dupree and cellist Paul Hale. The former provided the inspiration for the program’s title, Castle, Court and Chamber: Harpsichords at Home. The program will interleave Baroque selections with music from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, along with more recent works by Composer-in-Residence Jean Ahn and Composer-Not-in-Residence Robinson McClellan.

Tickets purchased in advance will be $28 for general admission, $25 for seniors, and $12.50 for patrons under 30. Prices at the door will be $33, $29, and $15, respectively. Tickets may be purchased online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Center for New Music: June, 2019

The Center for New Music (C4NM) seems to have planned ahead for next month a bit more extensively than the Red Poppy Art House (for which I filed my first update this morning). Things will be a bit more elaborate this month, since curator Chris Brown will be presenting his EEP! (Electronic Ensemble Performance) Weekend. This will involve both workshops and performances, but this site will focus only on the performances. As usual, updating this Web page is easy; so I shall, as usual, use my Facebook shadow site to put out the word whenever this page is updated to account for additions and/or changes to the schedule.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. All tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini event page. Hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages will be attached to each of the dates in the following summary:

Friday, June 7, 8 p.m.: Julie Herndon will curate a performance by the Sl(e)ight Ensemble, the trio of flutist Erika Oba, violinist Mia Bella D’Augelli, and pianist Jacob Lane. They have prepared a program entitle Angles of Time, which will present new works inspired by alternative notations of time in music. The program will include “The Inner Planets and The Apple Tree,” a new piece by Steve Parris inspired by the orbits of the planets. The program will also include new works by all three members of the ensemble. Composer and artist Jesse Austin will contribute real-time projections of visuals. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Saturday, June 8, 2:30 p.m.: Bass-baritone Jóhann Schram Reed will make his C4NM debut. He will present the world premiere of the song cycle The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, composed for hims by Patricia Wallinga. The text is the poem of the same name by T. S. Eliot. David Conte’s 2003 song cycle Everyone Sang will also be included on the program, along with other selections from the American vocal repertoire of this and the preceding centuries. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Sunday, June 9, 4 p.m.: The next concert to be curated by Herndon will be Sonimenology. Described as “a cocktail hour of desirable sounds,” the program will bring together participants from a variety of background. The evening will be structured in three sets. The first will be a duo performance by Christopher Jette and Chris Christensen. This will be followed by a second duo set taken by Barbara Nerness and Stephanie Sherriff. John Davis will then conclude the program with a solo set. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Friday, June 14, 8 p.m.: The first EEP! concert will open with a duo performance by Amina Kirby and Jess Tambellini performing on handmade electronic instruments. They will be followed by vocalist Rodolfo Cordova-Lebron performing with the Monopiece trio of Nathan Corder (electronics), Matt Robidoux (guitar), and Tim Russell (percussion). Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Saturday, June 15, 8 p.m.: The second EEP! concert will open with a “completely different” duo. Brendan Glasson and Sally Decker will explore chaotic events within controlled environments. The will be followed by another duo, Kevin Blechdom and Blevin Blectum, who call themselves Blectum from Blechdom. In their own words, they “will whisk you away to a psychedelic organic-electronic universe of sonic snauses and fractal mallards intertwined in a generative long-from game for the future.” Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Sunday, June 16, 4 p.m.: The final EEP! concert will begin with an ambient electronic improvisation by three visitors from Los Angeles, Tim Feeney, Clay Chaplin, and David Sumner. The second half of the concert features The HUB, a collaborative, and improvisational performance practice characterized by the sharing of digital information via a network. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Tuesday, June 18, 7:30 p.m.: Pianist Nadia Shpachenko will present a CD Release Concert for her new album The Poetry of Places. Shpachenko will present the San Francisco premieres of five architecture-inspired works by Amy Beth Kirsten, Hannah Lash, James Matheson, Harold Meltzer, and Jack Van Zandt, all included on her CD. She will also perform two world premieres and two West Coast premieres of works by Paul Chihara, Thea Musgrave, José Serebrier, and Lewis Spratlan, respectively. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Saturday, June 22, 7 p.m.: C4NM will host Instrumentarium, a special benefit in celebration of the Bay Area invented instrument community. Pamela Z and Donald Swearingen will perform alongside special guests Krys Bobrowski, Brenda Hutchinson, and the Karen Stackpole Trio. The performance will be preceded by a reception with new music by Window Gallery curators Bart Hopkin and David Samas, which will begin at 5:30 p.m. General admission will be $30 with a $20 charge for C4NM members. Proceeds will support the Window Gallery and the development and implementation of the exhibits it presents.

Friday, June 28, 7 p.m.: Herndon’s final curated concert of the month will be a solo piano recital by Ju-Ping Song. She will present West Coast premieres of powerful, visceral works for solo piano, soundtrack, and video by four women with strong, individual voices: Lois Vierk (United States), Rahilia Hasanova (Azerbaijan), Nicole Lizée (Canada), and Kate Moore (Australia). Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Saturday, June 29, 8 p.m.: Brown will curate a two-set evening. The performers will be Peter J. Woods and Christopher Burns, both of whom work with blends of sound, performance, and video art. Admission will be $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members and students.

Siggi String Quartet Makes Sono Luminus Debut

from the Amazon.com Web page of the album being discussed

This coming Friday Sono Luminus will release its first recording of the Icelandic ensemble Siggi String Quartet. The members of the group are violinists Una Sveinbjarnardóttir and Helga Þóra Björgvinsdóttir, violist Þórunn Ósk Marínósdóttir, and cellist Sigurður Bjarki Gunnarsson. They formed their quartet in 2012 during the Young Scandinavian Composers festival in Reykjavík in their native Iceland. Their album is entitled South of the Circle (referring, presumably, to the Arctic Circle). It surveys compositions completed between 2011 and 2018, all by Icelandic composers: Daníel Bjarnason, violinist Sveinbjarnardóttir, Valgeir Sigurðsson, Mamiko Dís Ragnarsdóttir, and Haukur Tómasson.

As might be expected Amazon.com has created a Web page for pre-orders. The information about the ensemble provided on this page is minimal. (The names of the performers are not given in any of the text, nor are they in the images of the front and back covers.) On the other hand, there is an amusing “Sponsored products related to this item” section at the bottom of the Web page for purchasing ladies’ hats made by Siggi Hats!

Those who have followed my writing for some time know that I have not “warmed up” (shameless turn of phrase) to the music of Icelandic composers. My most extensive experience has come from the music of Anna S. Þorvaldsdóttir. It took a concert performance by Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the San Francisco Symphony to wean me away from my generally dismissive attitude; but, even under those circumstances, my experience of that performance of “METACOSMOS” left me concerned that practice was being heavily outweighed by theory.

Thus, I was not surprised to encounter a booklet rich with background information about both the composers and the works being performed. Nevertheless, I cannot say that all of that input registered on my listening experiences with very much substance. While I would not go as far as to say that there is a disquieting sameness shared by all five of the composers, I can say that, having now had both “first contact” and “second contact” experiences, I have yet to encounter moments on this album that really prompted me to sit up and take notice. Granted, this is a purely subjective response; but it is one that has me concerned about a “new music movement” that may be making much ado about not very much.

SFSYO’s Stimulating “Mahler++” Program

SFSYO violinists (from the event page for this concert on the San Francisco Symphony Web site)

It was the music of Gustav Mahler that drew my attention to the San Francisco Youth Symphony Orchestra (SFSYO). My wife and I were living in Palo Alto when we learned that this ensemble (conducted by Alasdair Neale) would be performing Gustav Mahler’s second (“Resurrection”) symphony with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus on May 20, 2001. It would be not-quite understatement to say that we were overwhelmed with the results, both in the scrupulous attention to grammatical details and in the passionate (but not excessive) expressiveness of the interpretation. Since then, we have tried to return consistently for subsequent Mahler performances and have yet to be disappointed.

Indeed, one of those performances (which we missed) found its way to a recording produced by SFS Media. When SFSYO toured Europe in the summer of 2012 with conductor Donato Cabrera, they played Mahler’s first symphony in D major at the Berlin Philharmonie. That performance was recorded, and the album is still being distributed.

All this serves as introduction to observing that lightning struck again yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, this time with Christian Reif on the SFSYO podium. Reif’s SFSYO tenure, which will conclude after the ensemble makes its next European tour this summer, has had a generous share of high points. He, too, knows how to balance that “scrupulous attention to grammatical details” with the sort of expressiveness that seizes attention from the very first gesture and holds it all the way to the final cadence.

It was that discipline that carried him from the almost inaudible opening measures of the Mahler first to the final cadence of the fourth movement, the undisputed “highest peak” in the overall landscape of Mahler’s score, replete with steep ascents and declines. Indeed, the second half of yesterday’s program was so stimulating that it is important to acknowledge that it emerged not only from Reif’s control over the final execution but also from the amount of time put in by the San Francisco Symphony musicians that form the Coaching Team for SFSYO. To be fair, there were occasional ragged moments to remind the listener that this is not a professional ensemble; but such instances were more than subdued by Reif’s judicious management of the overall flow and the often bizarre shifts in both dynamic level and tempo that make this symphony such a bold act of composition.

Indeed, if technical discipline is a key virtue in SFSYO performances, it was exercised just as vigorously prior to the intermission. The second piece on the program was Nathaniel Stookey’s “Mahlerwerk,” a composition based on hundreds of fragments extracted from Mahler’s symphonic compositions. Anyone familiar with the Mahler canon knows full well how there are thematic elements that migrate from one composition to another. Back in my student days, I like to joked about the proposition that Mahler composed only one piece of music, which he began in his youth and was working on until the day he died. Stookey samples a rich abundance of representative samples and sends them off on a new migratory path.

His explanation of his technique prior to the performance was brief and straightforward. He knew that listening to the music was more important than listening to the sound of his voice. He probably also knew that those who really knew their Mahler would approach this piece as a “find that tune” game. To this end, each of the many fragments that he assembled was subjected to repetitions, enough to affirm its presence but not too many to overstay its welcome. Since superposition constituted the underlying structural logic, Reif was left to make sure that the presence of every fragment was properly established; and he achieved this goal with almost uncanny consistency. One way to conceive the result is to imagine the score that Carl W. Stalling would have provided for a Mahler biography depicted as a Looney Tunes cartoon. Such an experience may not have been as passionate a roller-coaster ride as the symphony that would follow the intermission, but it still emerged as one hell of a trip that I would gladly take again.

Yesterday’s program began with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 26 concert overture. Mendelssohn gave this overture the title “The Hebrides;” but, thanks to the Breitkopf & Härtel publication of the score, it has become known more familiarly as “Fingalshöhle” (Fingal’s cave). It is deceptively easy to dismiss Mendelssohn as a “lightweight” when he is placed beside Mahler; but that would be an unjust misrepresentation. There is more intricate detail in this overture than meets the ear, so to speak. This is particularly evident in the interleaving of ornate lines for the different string players, textures that are more readily associated with this composer’s chamber music. Reif’s management of such details could not have been more attentive, making sure that there was no sense of the program beginning with “just another concert overture.”

Taken as a whole, the entire afternoon’s performance could not have been more engaging and was an undisputed high point for those who take listening to Mahler seriously.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Naxos Pfitzner Song Project: Volume Three

Caspar David Friedrich’s Woman before the Rising Sun, whose spirit complements that of many of the songs on this new album (courtesy of Naxos of America)

A little more than a month ago Naxos released the third volume in its project to record the complete songs composed by Hans Pfitzner. (Sadly, this is another situation in which Amazon.com had made a hash out of the Web page for this selection. The Product Details are correct, but the Editorial Reviews were written for a decidedly different album! However, in contrast to last week’s observation about the Web page for Kathleen Ferrier remembers, the URL appears to be accurate. Nevertheless, those purchasing the album would be advised to check the details in the Cart before placing the order!) The fact that this third volume was released in the same year as the second (given that the first had been released in October of 2013) is a hopeful sign that the project is now proceeding at a satisfying pace. My past conjecture that the completion will result in five CDs still holds.

The pianist on the third volume is again Klaus Simon. However, the album is shared by two vocal soloists. Britta Stallmeister, from the first volume, returns to sing the Opus 35 set of six love songs all based on texts by Pfitzner’s contemporary, the pioneering German intellectual Ricarda Huch. She also sings the unpublished “Weihnachtslied” (Christmas song), joined by the children’s choir of the Freiburg Christuskirche, prepared by Chorus Master Hae-Kyung Jung. This track, the last one on the CD, is a world premiere recording. The remaining selections on the album are sung by mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. Given that the individual volumes of this project appear to be organized according to vocal range, my conjecture is that the third volume completes the account of the songs written for soprano voice.

From a musical point of view, there are unlikely to be any mind-bending surprises among the 23 selections on this new release. As has already been observed, Pfitzner described himself as an anti-modernist; and, in this respect, it is worth noting that melancholia tends to be the disposition that pervades most of those 23 songs. Nevertheless, both vocalists deliver expressive performances that respect underlying structure without going overboard in rhetorical expressiveness. While I cannot credit Pfitzner as a daring pioneer venturing in new directions (which I’m sure his ghost would appreciate), I have now been to enough song recitals to appreciate that too many vocalists tend to fall back on a limited number of “usual suspects” in the repertoire. Pfitzner’s music may not be pioneering or adventurous; but these songs could well serve to provide a refreshing departure from the same-old-same-old served up by too many recitalists.

Red Poppy Art House: June, 2019

This seems to be about the time of the month when I report on activities next month at the Red Poppy Art House. To be fair, however, the Upcoming Events Web page currently accounts only for the first extended weekend (extended by beginning on Thursday) and one date late in the month. Nevertheless, that is enough for a start. Those who follow this site regularly know that this Web page will be updated to reflect additions to the Upcoming Events list and that I use my “shadow” Facebook site to put out the word each time there is an update.

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Tickets are now being sold in advance online through Eventbrite. As a result, the dates provided below will be hyperlinked to the Eventbrite event pages for purchasing tickets.

Given the demand for these concerts, it is likely that only a limited number of tickets will be available at the door. Remember, the Poppy is a small space. Even those who have purchased their tickets in advance should probably make it a point to be there when the doors open one half-hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Here are the specifics for the events that have been posted thus far:

Thursday, June 6, 7:30 p.m.: After Muslim forces conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the eighth century, Jews lived there under protected status by virtue of being “People of the Book.” The result was a rich fertilization of crossed cultures that pre-dated the Renaissance by centuries. The Levoná Ensemble celebrates those inter-cultural results with a program of music from flamenco, Arabic, and Jewish sources. Their program interleaves their musical selections with stories of similar ancestry. The group is a quintet consisting of Faisal Zedan (percussion and vocals), Asaf Ophir (woodwinds and vocals), David McLean (guitar), Josh Mellinger (percussion), and Patrick Kelly (upright bass). Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Friday, June 7, 7:30 p.m.: Another perspective on Arabic influences will be presented by Vince Delgado’s Mid-East Tapestry Ensemble. Their repertoire encompasses a diverse array of classical, urban, and folk music from the Arabic-speaking countries, as well as Turkish, Greek, Armenian, and Persian traditions, along with original compositions. Delgado himself plays both qanun and percussion. He leads a quartet, whose other members are Coralie Russo (oud), Rami Ziadeh (riq and percussion), and Tom Shader (bass). Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Saturday, June 8, 7:30 p.m.: Maracujá is the duo that brings guitarist Terrence Rosnagle together with vocalist Caitlin Belem, who also plays saxophone, guitar, fiddle, and hand percussion. They have developed a repertoire that celebrates the rich diversity of Latin American sources, including samba, bossa nova, cumbia, son cubano, and much more. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

[added 5/21, 7:50 a.m.:

Saturday, June 15, 7 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.: Rupa & the April Fishes is led by vocalist Rupa Marya, who also plays guitar. In addition to being a composer, she is also an activist and a physician. Her genre is Libertation Music, which she describes as “a live experience which is a manifestation of a world beyond nations, where the heart of humanity beats louder than anything that divides us.” Accompaniment is provided by the April Fishes, whose members are Mario Silva (trumpet), Aaron Kierbel (percussion), Matt Szemela (violin), Jhno (piano), and Misha Khalikulov (cello). As can be seen above, there are two shows; but they are both handled by the menu of a single Eventbrite page. Admission for both performances will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.]

Friday, June 21, 7:30 p.m.: Vocalist Ramana Vieira will pay tribute to the fado classics made famous by Amália Rodrigues. Her selections will also include Portuguese folk music, jazz, and original compositions. She will be accompanied by the trio of Leslie Thorne (bass), Stephen LaPorta (percussion), and Jeff Furtado (guitar). Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

[added 5/20, 9:50 a.m.:

Saturday, June 22, 7:30 p.m.: Trance Mission brings together two San Francisco musicians with a percussionist from Los Angeles. The group was formed here in San Francisco by didgeridoo pioneer and multi-instrumentalist Stephen Kent and clarinetist and composer Beth Custer. They upgraded from their duo performances by adding percussionist Peter Valsamis, who also adds electronics to the mix. While the sense of trance comes primarily from the didgeridoo, the trio, as a whole, makes music perhaps best described as a new form of contemporary global jazz. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Sunday, June 23, 2 p.m.:  There seems to have been a break in this series this month. However, the next installment of the free Monthly Community Rumba, with music provided by Rumberos de Radio Habana, will return next month. While this is a free event, donations are warmly accepted. All donated money goes to the performing musicians, and a recommended amount is between $5 and $10.

Friday, June 28, 7:30 p.m.: Daptain Hook is a trio recently formed by three jazz musicians: Elé Howell (drums), Franklin Rankin (guitar), and Nick Panoutsos (bass). Their interest in jazz is complemented by explorations into both funk and rock. They will debut original music and feature vocals over their compositions. The vocalist for this concert has not yet been named. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Saturday, June 29, 7:30 p.m.: Master West African kamale ngoni (known as a hunter’s harp) player Mamadou Sidibe and fingerstyle guitar wizard Walter Strauss perform as a duo called the Fula Brothers. They create an intoxicating blend through intertwining melodic grooves, spirited improvisation, and songs in two languages. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.]

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Granados’ Opera Inspired by Goya

This coming Friday harmonia mundi will release a recording of Enrique Granados’ one-act opera in three tableaux, “Goyescas.” This opera was composed in 1915, drawing heavily on thematic material taken from the composer’s other Goyescas composition, a suite of seven pieces inspired by paintings of Francisco Goya. It was given its world premiere performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on January 28, 1916. (World War I prevented the premiere taking place at the Palais Garnier opera house for the Paris Opera.) As usual, Amazon.com has created a Web page for processing pre-orders.

courtesy of PIAS

Like the piano suite, the opera is based on six paintings from Goya’s early career. One of those is reproduced on the album cover, shown above; and this is the painting that inspires the beginning of the opera’s narrative. Goya had a keen eye for capturing subtleties of human nature on canvas, and the complexity of human nature finds its way into the libretto that Fernando Periquet y Zuaznabar prepared for Granados’ opera. Thus, the apparently frivolous frolicking encountered in the opening scene precedes the onset of tensions that will lead to a challenge to a duel in the second tableau and death at the conclusion.

On this new recording Josep Pons conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers. The vocal soloists are soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera, mezzo Lidia Vinyes Curtis, tenor Gustavo Peña, and baritone José Antonio López. I suspect that many, like myself, will find this a “first contact” experience with the opera but will have experienced past performances of at least some of the Goyescas piano pieces. (Some may even detect the presence of Consuelo Velázquez’ song “Bésame Mucho” in one of them.) However, those who know Granados only through his piano music are likely to be impressed with his vocal writing, both for individual voices and choral resources. If this recording motivates opera companies to bring this work back into repertoire, so much the better!

Updates for First SFS Subscription Concerts in June

Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong

When the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) brochure with the “final” schedule was released, the conductor for the first round of subscription concerts in June had not yet been announced. That information is now available on the event page for those concerts. They will be led by American conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, who will be making his SFS debut. He currently serves and Music Director and Conductor of the Eugene Symphony and Music Director of the Santa Rosa Symphony.

All additional information in the brochure has also been updated. The concerto soloist was originally announced as Nikolai Luganski playing the Grieg piano concerto. He will be replaced by French pianist David Fray performing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 491 concerto in C minor, one of the only two piano concertos that Mozart composed in a minor key. According to my records, Fray last visited Davies as soloist for Christoph Eschenbach, who conducted his performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 19 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major.

The rest of the program as listed in the brochure has also been changed. The concerto will be preceded by Mozart’s K. 367, ballet music composed for this K. 366 opera Idomeneo. The intermission will be followed by Giuseppe Verdi’s overture for his opera I vespri siciliani (the Sicilian vespers) and conclude with Edward Elgar’s Opus 50 concert overture “In the South,” also known by its subtitle “Alassio.”

This concert will still be given three performances, all at 8 p.m. on Thursday, June 6, Friday, June 7, and Saturday, June 8. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Laura Stanfield Prichard that will begin one hour before the performance. Doors to the Davies lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $20 to $156. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Flash must be enabled for online ticket purchases. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours prior to Sunday performances.

Four Pianists and Two Keyboards at O1C

Sara Cahill and Regina Myers (from the O1C event page for this performance)

Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts (O1C) presented a program organized by pianists Sarah Cahill and Regina Myers around musical selections exploring different aspects of social justice as motivation and inspiration. The compositions themselves were for both one and two pianos. For the most part, Cahill and Myers played different instruments; but they shared a common keyboard for two selections. For two of the compositions, they were joined by two additional pianists, Riley Nicholson and Monica Chew, with four hands on each keyboard.

The works on the program were composed between 1979 and the immediate present. Two of the piano solo selections, divided between Cahill and Myers, were premiere performances. Myers played the world premiere of Sharmi Basu’s “A muted body,” which recalled John Cage compositions that dealt more with activities to be engaged by the performer, rather than just a matter of fingers picking out notes based on score pages. Cahill gave the West Coast premiere of Teresa Wong’s “She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees, inspired by a Nina Simone song based on a text by Harlem Renaissance poet William Waring Cuney.

Only three of the offerings were written before 2000, and I have to confess that they awakened several comforting feelings of nostalgia. The oldest was “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,” the last of the four pieces in the North American Ballads collection that Frederick Rzewski composed between 1978 and 1979. Cahill and Myers played a two-piano version that enhanced the emergence of rhythmic complexities derived from the inventions of the Industrial Revolution. The ballad itself, however, is more concerned with the dehumanization of the worker than the complexity of the machine; and the performance elicited a poignancy upon reflection on how much further dehumanization has advanced under the Digital Revolution.

The program began with music for two pianos that Meredith Monk composed for her multimedia Ellis Island project. Rather than focusing on the usual American-the-land-of-immigrants trope, Monk and her colleague Bob Rosen chose to dwell on those turned back from Ellis Island, for whom the venue was known as the “Isle of Tears.” Cahill and Myers played an almost hypnotizing keyboard composition based on elaborate polyrhythms. I may have been fooling myself, but I liked to believe that Monk’s elaborate textures could be sorted out better because one piano was a Steinway and the other a Baldwin.

The other twentieth-century piece was Elinor Armer’s “Mirror, Mirror,” which she wrote in 1992 for a centennial celebration of her composition teacher Darius Milhaud. This was the piece that Cahill and Myers played on a single keyboard; and it was a satirical work based on the premise that four-hand performances have a tendency to be competitive, rather than cooperative. As the piece evolved, it was clear that sharing the keyboard was a contentious issue with each pianist reaching over into the other’s “turf.” There is, of course, the four-hand sonata by Milhaud’s former colleague Francis Poulenc, which divides the keyboard up into “center,” played by one pianist, and “outer margins” played by the other. That is music that is as much fun to watch as it is for listening; and Armer’s composition makes for a latter-day reflection on that same virtue.

The risk of the sort of program prepared for last night is that it serves up too much of a good thing. However, the pieces were short enough that all of the selections could be played without intermission. As a result, the programmatic undercurrents made for an experience more in the manner of an extended suite, rather than a sequence of separate works. Yes, there were intervals of rearranging who was sitting at which keyboard; but they were brief. More important was unification under different perspectives on the social world that made the entire program a highly satisfying journey.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Old First Concerts: June, 2019

Yesterday’s mail brought the latest calendar brochure from Old First Concerts (O1C), covering the months of June and July. As of this writing, the contents of the brochure seem to align with what can be found on the O1C Web site. As usual, this site will try its best to keep up with any source that has authoritative value. If necessary, updates to this article will be made online with notifications appearing on the shadow page for this site on Facebook.

All O1C events take place at the Old First Presbyterian Church, located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Hyperlinks for online purchase through specific event pages will be attached to the date-and-time information given below. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church. Here are the specifics for the month of June:

Sunday, June 2, 4 p.m.: Guitarist Grant Ferris is based in Nashville. However, he received a scholarship to study under David Tanenbaum at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which culminated in his receiving a master’s degree in Classical Guitar Performance. Much of his program will be devoted to English guitarist Ernest Shand, who will be represented by three compositions, his Opus 65 “Tsigane,” his Opus 60 “Air for the Guitar,” and his Opus 77, “The Gnomes.” The program will begin with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “Tonadilla for guitar on the name of Andrés Segovia,” followed by three Spanish pieces composed by Joaquín Rodrigo. Ferris will conclude with his own “Sketches for a King & Rasputin,” preceded by the Opus 41 suite for solo guitar by Jacques Hétu. There will also be a guest appearance by flutist Courtney Wise.

Friday, June 7, 8 p.m.: Pianist Allegra Chapman and cellist Laura Gaynon, Artistic Directors of Bard Music West, have formed the Ensemble Illume trio with violist Jessica Chang. This trio will play Kaija Saariaho’s “Je sens un deuxième coeur” (another heart beats), preceded by Johannes Brahms’ Opus 114 trio in A minor. Brahms originally composed this for clarinet, cello, and piano; but, as was the case for his clarinet sonatas, he subsequently prepared a viola part to replace the clarinet. Chang and Gaynon will begin the program with an arrangement for viola and cello of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 423 duo in G major, composed for violin and viola.

Sunday, June 9, 4 p.m.: Amos Yang, Assistant Principal Cello for the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and SFS bassist Charles Chandler will come together for another non-standard combination of instruments. They call they pairing 2LOW. They will perform the world premiere of Andrès Martin’s “Synchronicity.” They will also perform a duo arrangement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1008 suite for solo cello prepared for them by Shinji Eshima, who plays bass in the orchestras for both the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet.

Friday, June 21, 8 p.m.: This will be a more conventional duo program performed by Le Due Muse, whose members are cellist Sarah Hong and pianist Makiko Ooka. They have prepared a full evening of music by Franz Schubert, beginning with his D. 821 sonata in A minor, originally composed for arpeggione and piano. They will be joined by violinist Heeguen Song for a performance of the D. 898 trio in B-flat major. The duo will also play a selection of Schubert’s songs with Hong playing the vocal line.

Sunday, June 23, 4 p.m.: The repertoire will shift to jazz with a performance by the Golden Circle Sextet. This group was founded by Dan Neville on vibraphone and Rebecca Kleinmann on alto flute. The other members are Destiny Muhammad on harp, Gaea Schell on piano, Shimpei Ogawa on bass, and Pepe Jacobo on drums. This is clearly a non-standard collection of instruments for jamming, and their book consists of unique blends of Colombian sources with an Afro-Cuban style.


Sunday, June 30, 4 p.m.: Following the world premiere of Kanta Judezmo at Congregation Emanu-El at the end of this past April, composer Sascha Jacobsen will bring his resources to Old First Presbyterian Church. As can be seen in the above photograph, those resources include mezzo Melinda Becker (foreground),  violinists Jory Fankuchen and Michele Walther, violist Charith Premawardhana, cellist Lewis Patzner, percussionist Edgardo Cambon, and guitarist Carlos Caminos. The program will also include dancers Andrea Fuchilieri and Emanuel Colombo (behind the musicians). The libretto was prepared by Bobby Coleman, who will serve as narrator.

The Latest Volti Album from Innova

courtesy of Volti

Three weeks ago Innova released the latest album of performances by Volti. Based in San Francisco, this group is an a cappella vocal ensemble that specializes in new music, much of which is commissioned by Volti itself. The new album, given the rather lengthy title the color of there seen from here, marks the ensemble’s 40th season. The back cover of the album proudly displays the ensemble’s motto, updated for this special occasion: “Singing Without a Net for 40 Years.”

The album itself consists of five premiere recordings, each by a different composer, all currently living in the United States. In order of appearance, those composers are Forrest Pierce, Tonia Ko, Robin Estrada, Mark Winges, and Žibuoklė Martinaitytė. Only the Martinaitytė composition, “The Blue of Distance,” was not commissioned by Volti; and Winges is the ensemble’s resident composer. Through my own listening experiences, I have encountered three of these composers, Estrada, Winges, and Martinaitytė; but the only one of the selections that I have listened to in performance is Estrada’s “Cæli enarrant,” which was performed at the final program of the 39th season in May of last year.

One of my great regrets is that I do not get to enough Volti concerts. Mind you, I have yet to go to one in which I have listened to a composition that I had previously encountered; so I always come away from these occasions feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the newness. Nevertheless, there is always considerable diversity across the entire program, meaning that there is no “Volti sound” or “Volti style” that would establish some basis of predictability. For that matter, such diversity is evident in the only multiple-movement composition on the album, Ko’s “From Ivory Depths,” whose two movements require significantly different technical skills. That diversity is clearly established throughout the new album, but it affords the advantage of enabling multiple listening experiences for each of the compositions.

In my case I suppose that the deepest impressions come from composers that approach phonemes as “component sound sources,” often with an attention to the synthesis of lexemes from the conjunction of phonemes that is deliberately secondary. Listening to “Cæli enarrant” in concert, I was struck by the incomprehensibility of the text as the basis for a mystical experience. This was not so much a negative reaction as it was the impressions of an atheist speculating on the nature of religious experience. To some extent this rethinking of the role of linguistic building blocks was reinforced by the Martinaitytė composition performed on the same program as “Cæli enarrant.” The title of that piece was “Chant des Voyelles” (incantation of vowels), which seemed to have reflected her interest in an Egyptian prayer consisting only of vowels.

According to my records, this is the third time I have set myself the task of writing something that makes sense about a new Volti recording (not counting their contribution to a Christmas “sampler” album). In each case I have returned to the album several times after having written about it. Since each album tends to involve a different collection of composers adding to the Volti repertoire, I feel as if I am “growing a new mindset” with each new album. As a result, I am not embarrassed to admit that, as has been the case with past albums, the growth of the mindset for the color of there seen from here is still “work in progress.” Nevertheless, just like my encounters with extensive newness every time I attend a Volti concert, I know that the work will progress; and I have every reason to believe that the results will be satisfying!

A Disappointing Mahler Seventh at Davies

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to lead a performance of Gustav Mahler’s seventh symphony in E minor. When I last heard MTT perform this symphony at the end of October in 2014, I observed that I had been able to listen to this symphony more than any other work in the Mahler canon during MTT’s tenure. It therefore struck me as appropriate that he would make one last visit as the end of that tenure drew near.

It turns out that the fifth symphony (in C-sharp minor) and the seventh were the first two Mahler symphonies to enter my record collection. (They were given to me by a relative who wanted nothing to do with them.) I have always felt that they make a logical pair, since their five movements are organized in a 2+1+2 structure. However, while the fifth has one of Mahler’s longest Scherzo movements at its core, the Scherzo of the seventh goes by as fast as Lou Costello running out of a haunted house. It is flanked on either side by movements identified as Nachtmusik. The predecessor is a bone-chilling march (leading me to wonder if Mahler knew that line from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” about “where ignorant armies clash by night”); and the successor is basically a lover’s serenade (accompanied by both mandolin and guitar). The beginning movement carries connotations of the onset of darkness, with a harp arpeggio picking out the first stars to be seen in the sky. At the other end of the symphony, the concluding Rondo leaves the night to face the rise of a blazing sun on the horizon.

I have deliberately chosen ornate descriptions because, while the structure is scrupulously formal, there is not a note that passes that does not underscore some expressive disposition. My appreciation of MTT’s efforts as a conductor had much to do with the precise skill with which he could endow all of those notes with their individual connotations. By the time I had experienced his 2014 performance, the Mahler seventh was firmly established in the upper echelons of my personal hierarchy.

Sadly, last night’s effort emerged as far less memorable. The command of the individual notes was as solid as it had ever been, and the overall balance of the resources could not have been better. However, those past sensitivities to subtle connotations did not register as securely last night; and, while the overall dynamic range was rich enough, it seemed as if there were too many climax moments that the attentive listener could not sort into lesser peaks and the “real ones” (as Pierre Boulez put it). As a result, what could usually be enjoyed as a long night’s journey into day kept running the risk of devolving into “one damned thing after another.”

It is clear that MTT has assembled plans for an impressive number of “farewell offerings” between now and the end of next season; and last night left me concerned that some of those that follow may be as disappointing as last night’s offering.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Choices for May 19, 2019

Having already reviewed the modest alternatives for this coming Saturday, it turns out that the Sunday option at the Community Music Center (CMC) will have more competition than the two performances on Saturday. Sunday will be a busy day with a generous amount of diversity among the additional options. The first of these will begin at exactly the same time as the CMC offering. Specifics are as follows:

2 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) will give its final concert with SFSYO Wattis Foundation Music Director Christian Reif as its conductor. It should be fair to say that the SFSYO season will go out with a bang, since the final work on the program will be Gustav Maher’s first symphony. By way of preparation, the first half of the program will conclude with Nathaniel Stookey’s “Mahlerwerk,” an unabashed pastiche involving hundreds of fragments for the nine symphonies that Mahler completed. The program will begin with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 26 concert overture, “The Hebrides,” also known (thanks to the Breitkopf & Härtel edition) as “Fingalshöhle” (Fingal’s cave).

Ticket prices are $55 for reserved seats in the Loge and Side Boxes and $20 for general admission. All tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the San Francisco Symphony 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, from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours before the beginning of the concert on Sunday.

4 p.m., Church of the Advent of Christ the King: Resident choir Schola Adventus, led by Music Director Paul Ellison, will provide the music for a Solemn Evensong & Benediction service officiated by Father Paul Allick. Music for the Preces and Responses will be by William Smith, and Herbert Murrill will be the composer for the canticles. The anthem for the service will be Healey Willan’s “Rise Up My Love;” and the hymn will be “Tantum Ergo” in a setting by Tomás Luis de Victoria. Ellison will play the organ for the processional and recessional selections, composed, respectively, by Marcel Dupré and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Since this is a religious service, no admission will be charged; but a collection will be taken. The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center.

5 p.m., Grünberg-Nelson residence: Having hosted the annual fundraising gala for LIEDER ALIVE! four weeks earlier, artist-in-residence pianist Peter Grünberg and his husband John Wyatt Nelson will again open their home for a special LIEDER ALIVE! recital entitled Viaggio in Italia! (I travel to Italy). Grünberg will accompany soprano Heidi Moss Erickson and tenor Chris Nichols. The program will include excerpts from the operas of Giacomo Puccini, three art songs by Ottorino Respighi, and five selections from one of Italy’s best known tourists, Benjamin Britten. These will be three of his settings of sonnets by Michelangelo and two movements from his solo piano suite, his Opus 5 Holiday Diary. The program will conclude with the four songs that Richard Strauss composed in 1948, near the end of his life, which were only published after his death under the title Four Last Songs. Nelson will provide free-flowing Prosecco and a delicious Italian supper. 

The Grünberg-Nelson residence is located in the Forest Hill Extension at 16 Edgehill Way. All tickets are being sold for $50. They may be purchased through an Eventbrite event page.

Jeffrey Holmes’ Inventive Approach to Microtonality

courtesy of MicroFest Records

Those who have been following this site for some time probably know by now of my interest in albums released by MicroFest Records that explore compositions and performances based on the use of just intonation. Tomorrow, MicroFest will release a new album that takes a distinctively different approach to microtonality. May the Bridges I Burn Light My Way is a two-CD survey of compositions by Jeffrey Holmes, whose interests have more to do with his Nordic descent than with the sorts of influences that inspired, for example, Lou Harrison’s approach to just intonation. The first of the CDs consists of chamber music works composed between 2006 and 2014; and, where microtones are involved at all, they serve to contrast the equal-tempered tuning of a piano with the more fluid pitch orientations of the other instruments. The second CD consists of chamber music for guitar; but Holmes does not write for the Just National Steel Guitar, which had been designed with just intonation in mind. Instead, he tends to write for two guitars tuned to different pitch standards. As usual, Amazon.com has already created a Web page, which is processing pre-orders as I write this.

The Just National instrument tends to be used to enable “integer-based” approaches to both the perfect fifth (the 3:2 ratio) and the major third (the 5:4 ratio). Holmes, on the other hand, is more interested in the seventh harmonic. The 7:4 ratio is 31.2% of a semitone lower than the minor seventh. Some have argued that the 7:4 interval is the “blue” seventh; but I have yet to encounter laboratory results based on recordings by early blues singers to support this hypothesis. For those not familiar with the harmonic series, that 7:4 interval sounds decidedly weird. The way Holmes works with his interval is to score his music for two guitars with separate tunings, one of which is tuned around the natural interval of the seventh harmonic.

This definitely makes for sonorities that are distinctively different from those who confine themselves to working primarily with “natural” perfect fifths and major thirds. However, to paraphrase the Rumpelstiltskin character from Once Upon a Time, difference comes with a price. More often than not, Holmes tends to work with his microtones horizontally, rather than vertically. The result is an abundance of melodic lines or motifs that are subject to what my counterpoint teacher used to call “slimy chromaticism.” While he was clearly using that phrase pejoratively, it can definitely have a spooky effect when used sparingly. Unfortunately, Holmes tends not to be sparing; meaning that, in any given composition in which the seventh harmonic is used, it usually overstays its welcome sooner, rather than later.

Nevertheless, I suspect that I shall be revisiting this album from time to time. For one thing, I like many of his approaches to instrumentation, particularly when he can take a more specific approach to intonation than one encounters in most compositions. Also, I am just beginning to get used to his influences from Nordic mythology; and, given that my only alternative sources for that domain are Richard Wagner and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I figure that I owe myself a more “realistic” perspective on that particular genre of traditional music.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

SFO’s 2019 Summer Season Begins Next Month

Last summer San Francisco Opera (SFO) programming consisted entirely of three performances of Richard Wagner’s four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung). This year the Summer Season will return to its usual format, offering the final three operas in the 2018–19 season. Each of these will involve a production new to San Francisco and the ability to experience both SFO debuts and role debuts. Here are the specifics about the three operas to be presented in the order of their respective first performances:

Carmen by Georges Bizet: This will be the latest addition to the repertoire of an opera staging by Francesca Zambello, perhaps best known for her impressively inventive approach to staging the Wagner Ring cycle. This production was originally created by Opera Australia, based on an earlier co-production by the Royal Opera House (at Covent Garden) and the Norwegian National Opera. The program will feature two significant role debuts by J’Nai Bridges in the title role and Matthew Polenzani as Don José, fated to fall in love with the gypsy Carmen. In addition, James Gaffigan will be making his SFO debut conducting all but one of the performances. The remaining performance will be conducted by Michelle Merrill, who will also be making her SFO debut.

Carmen will be given seven performances. These will take place at 7:30 p.m. on June 5, 11, 14, 20 (the performance that will be conducted by Merrill), 26, and 29 and at 2 p.m. on June 23. The libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy will be sung in French with English supertitles. The approximate running time will be three hours.

Orlando (HWV 31) by George Frideric Handel: This opera is based on Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso (raging Roland), the tale of a Christian knight that fought with Charlemagne in his war with the Saracen army’s attempt to invade Europe. Harry Fehr will make his American opera debut reviving his production for the Scottish Opera in which the title character becomes a World War II pilot that has fallen victim to shell shock. This will be a role debut performance for mezzo Sasha Cooke.

Indeed, the opera has only five roles, all of which will be new to the vocalists. Of particular interest will be the role of the African prince Medoro, which will be sung by countertenor and Adler Fellow Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, making his SFO debut. Angelica, the Queen of Cathay, who is in love with Medoro, will be sung by soprano Heidi Stober; and the shepherdess Dorinda will be sung by soprano Christina Gansch, who will be making her American opera debut. Finally, the magician Zoroastro, who will eventually restore Orlando’s sanity, will be sung by bass Christian Van Horn. Conductor Christopher Moulds will also be making his SFO debut.

Orlando will be given five performances. These will take place at 2 p.m. on June 9 and at  7:30 p.m. on June 15, 18, 21, and 27. The libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. The approximate running time will be three hours and twenty minutes.

Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák: The title of this opera is the Czech word for a water sprite in Slavic mythology that can be found in both lakes and rivers. The libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil may have been inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid;” but Kvapil chose to reject Andersen’s happy ending, using his text to expose truths that are powerfully and painfully human. Staging will be by David McVicar for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and this revival will be staged by Leah Hausman.

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen will make her debut in the title role. Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson will sing the role of Vodník, the water goblin that rules the lake in which the rusalka swims. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich sings the role of the prince with whom the rusalka falls in love. When she wishes to become human in order to embrace the prince, Vodník send her to consult the witch Ježibaba (mezzo Jamie Barton), who enables the transformation. However, that is only the first act, leaving two more acts for the consequences to go downhill! The conductor will be Korean Eun Sun Kim, who is Principal Guest Conductor of the Houston Grand Opera, where she made her debut last season.

Rusalka will be given five performances. These will take place at 2 p.m. on June 16 and at  7:30 p.m. on June 19, 22, 25, and 28. The libretto will be sung in Czech with English supertitles. The approximate running time will be three and one-half hours.