Monday, September 16, 2019

On the Virtue of Raising Hell

Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema, which happens to be almost directly below where I live, started showing Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins this past Friday. There are very few films that I seek out as soon as they open, and even fewer of them that have nothing to do with either music or dance. However, there was no doubt in my mind that Janice Engel’s effort to chronicle the life and works of Molly Ivins in a documentary that runs a little over 90 minutes would be one of those films. Having now seen it, the first thing I can say is that my instincts were right on target.

I am not sure when I took my first hit of Ivins’ insight and the wit she engaged to seize and hold my attention. I am pretty sure that it was when she was being interviewed by Jim Lehrer, back when his television program was called The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Her sense of humor was so outrageous that I could catch Lehrer himself squirming from time to time; but that was a time when Ronald Regan was the 40th President of the United States, making jokes about “We begin bombing in five minutes” during a sound check, not knowing that the microphone was going out over the air.

Ivins seemed to live by the mantra of never taking anything too seriously. To the contrary, she knew how to tease humor out of any number of dire situations. Many took offense at her style, but most of those had been responsible for getting our country into those situations. For the rest of us, her humor provided a release value and possibly the reassurance that there were clearer heads who could tell a naked emperor from one that could be taken seriously as a leader.

My one concern is the risk that the generations that have followed mine may not pick up on what this account of Ivins opinions signifies. Those who read this site regularly know my mantra that the prevailing culture is one that is “ignorant of history and proud of that ignorance.” Engel’s documentary reminded me that such a perspective was around long before we became a nation of zombies aware only of the screen on a cell phone. Ivins certainly knew about that culture. However, hers was an age when people still read text in print, rather than reading from screens; and, while her words may have offended some, they flashed on light bulbs for others.

Will Engel’s film flash on any more light bulbs? Damned if I know. I do know that Ivins mastered a sense of presence, both in her writing and when addressing an audience; and the nature of that presence reverberates, at least to some extent, in “new media” figures such as Jon Stewart and John Oliver. Indeed, I suspect that, were she alive today, Ivins would be impressed that someone like Oliver can deliver persuasive argumentation on the scale of a written essay and still, by interjecting just the right jokes at just the right time, command an attentive real-time audience. So I would like to believe that there was always a foundation of optimism supporting the plethora of razor-sharp barbs coming out of Ivins’ writing; and, if I can believe that, I can also hope that those now following Oliver will get around to realizing that “getting the message” should never be a passive response.

Kopatchinskaja’s Debut Album with Camerata Bern

from the Web page for the album being discussed

It would be fair to say that violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja is one of the most adventurous performers on the concert circuit. I first encountered her back when I was writing for Through my contact with Naxos of America, I had the opportunity to write about her 2012 Naïve album of three violin concertos all by Hungarian composers. In order of appearance on the album, these were Béla Bartók, Peter Eötvös, and György Ligeti, all conducted by Eötvös. I was delighted by the “three ages” approach to the programming of this album and could not have been more pleased when it was nominated for the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category for the 2014 GRAMMY Awards. (I was not surprised when the award went to John Corigliano’s percussion concerto; but, for that particular round of awards, my own preference went to Magnus Lindberg’s second piano concerto!)

Kopatchinskaja fell off my radar until 2016, when Sony Classical released a recording of her performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 violin concerto in D major with Teodor Currentzis conducting the MusicAeterna orchestra. To call this an “over the top” performance would be the height of understatement. I came away with the impression that both Kopatchinskaja and Currentzis were going for notoriety. If so, then they succeeded admirably in their goal; but I was more than a little irked that they did so at Tchaikovsky’s expense. Nevertheless, Kopatchinskaja clearly got on a lot of radars, one of which led to her being appointed Music Director of the 2018 Ojai Music Festival, just before she began her tenure with the Camerata Bern in the fall of that same year.

This past Friday Alpha Classics released her debut album in her new capacity with Camerata Bern. As her Wikipedia page explains, Kopatchinskaja is very interested in “concept programming” (my phrase, not that of a Wikipedia author); and her new release is definitely a “concept album.” The title is Time & Eternity; and, on the first page of the track listing, just below the album title, Kopatchinskaja is credited with the “concept.”

While the very use of the noun “concept” puts me into “Spock raises left eyebrow” mode, I have to say that the two “main events” on this album definitely make it worth “the price of admission” (as P. T. Barnum might have said). Much of the booklet is devoted to Frank Martin’s six-movement Polyptyque suite for violin and two small string orchestras. The suite was inspired by a set of six panels all based on the Passion of Christ by Duccio di Buoninsegna in the early fourteenth century. The panels were installed at the Maestà Altar in Siena; but, more importantly, they have all been reproduced in the accompanying booklet. Context is further enhanced by inserting transcriptions for string orchestra of chorale movements from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 245 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel of John. Furthermore, the movement depicting the Crucifixion is followed by “Crux,” a trio for violin, timpani, and bells by the Czech composer Luboš Fišer, as a substitute for a Bach chorale. We shall never know how Martin (who died in 1974) would have reacted to this treatment of his music; but, as a synthesis of music and image, it comes across highly effectively.

The other major work on the album is Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s “Concerto funebre,” also scored for solo violin and string orchestra. I first came to know this concerto because Gil Shaham included it in the first volume of a series he called 1930s Violin Concertos. As the booklet notes by Kopatchinskaja and Lukas Fierz observed, this concerto was composed “in 1939 out of a sense of outrage and despair at the Nazi terror in Germany.” The chorale form also contributes to the overall structure; and the final movement is based on a Russian song of mourning for the victims of the failed 1905 Revolution, thematic material that subsequently surfaced in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 103 (eleventh) symphony, a programmatic account of that failed revolution. This concerto is also embedded in context, preceded by Jewish music of mourning as arranged by John Zorn and followed by the “Kyrie” movement from the Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut, again transcribed for string orchestra.

My only quibble is that, as concepts go, this album seems to be structured around perspectives on death (without embellishing those perspectives with thoughts about the afterlife), leading me to wonder if the overall title Time & Eternity is a bit displaced, if not downright deceptive. The fact is that this album does not need a “programmatic” title to orient the listener. Between the ideas behind the compositions by Hartmann and Martin and the images that inspired Martin, there is more than enough in this package to allow the listener to “get the message.”

I am reminded by one of the Hasidic sayings that Martin Buber included in his Ten Rungs collection. It is presented in question-and-answer form. The topic is the First Commandment, and the question is, “Why is God cited for taking us out of Egypt? Why does it not describe God as the creator of Heaven and Earth?” Buber cites a Hasidic description how man would have reacted to the latter alternative:
Then man might have said, “Heaven—that’s too much for me!” So God said to man: “I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now you come here and listen to me!”
Both Hartmann and Martin have composed first-rate come-here-and-listen-to-me music that needs no assistance from a “concept title!”

The Bleeding Edge: 9/16/2019

This is shaping up to be a relatively quiet week, but not an uninteresting one. Three “usual suspects” events have already been taken into account. Two are at the Center for New Music (C4NM): Colin Martin and Friends on September 20 and Christina Braun and Tom Nunn on September 21. Then, one week from today, the Make Out Room will host the second Monday Make-Out concert of the month. That leaves four events not yet taken into account, all of which are in familiar locations as follows:

Wednesday, September 18, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: Last month I observed that the monthly series of experimental performances hosted by the Peacock Lounge seemed to have moved over to the Noisebridge hackerspace. However, this appears to have been a one-off occasion. Based on my brief glimpses of the Peacock through the window of the Haight-Noriega bus, I would guess that there may have been some renovation and/or repair at the Peacock; but it appears that activity has returned to business as usual. That means the usual assortment of four sets, often performing under provocative names that offer few hints about the performances themselves. This week’s “usual suspects” will be Sharon Tate Fetus Explosion, Shatter Pattern, Kit Clayton, and Glochids.

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight (sometimes known as Haight-Fillmore) at 552 Haight Street, between Fillmore Street and Steiner Street. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. to enable the first set to begin at 8 p.m. sharp. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $5 and $10.

Thursday, September 19, 7 p.m., Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM): Another reflection on last month involved my identifying a concert by double reed virtuoso Kyle Bruckmann with the title Experiments in Sonic Potential. That turns out to be the title of a series of monthly concerts hosted by CJM in partnership with C4NM. This month the performance will be by the animals & giraffes duo of Phillip Greenlief on reeds and reader Claudia La Rocco. Most likely, the performance will again last for about one hour, as it did last month.

CJM is located at 736 Mission Street, opposite Yerba Buena Gardens and along Yerba Buena Lane, which connects Mission Street to Market Street. The performance will be free for those admitted to the Museum. The admission charge is $12 for adults, seniors, and students with identification. Children aged eighteen and younger and CJM members will be admitted without charge.

Thursday, September 19, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): This week the LSG Creative Music Series will present a full-length single-set offering. Unpopular Electronics is a project by Gino Robair. Multi-talented musician Tom Djll will join him for a series of improvisational electronic sets on modular devices and otherworldly analog sound devices. They, in turn, will be joined by Lori Varga, who will be projecting her hand-made sixteen-millimeter films and 35-millimeter slides, while adding her own noise contributions to the Robair-Djll mix. 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.

Sunday, September 22, 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., SFJAZZ Center: This week’s Saxophone Innovators series of concerts will conclude with two performances of the program Broken Shadows. That title is taken from one of Ornette Coleman’s compositions, and the program was inspired by both Coleman and Dewey Redman. These two “bleeding edge” jazz composers will be honored with performances by two of today’s most adventurous saxophonists, Tim Berne and Chris Speed. They will perform with Bad Plus rhythm players Reid Anderson on bass and Dave King on drums.

This performance will take place in the Joe Henderson Lab. The SFJAZZ Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street. Admission for both concerts will be $30. Tickets may be purchased online at separate Web pages for the 6 p.m. and the 7:30 p.m. performances.

Benjamin Britten in his Opera’s Orchestra Pit

Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for a second opportunity to experience the performance of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 50 opera, Billy Budd, by the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Regular readers should know by now that my wife and I have subscription tickets that afford an excellent view of the orchestra pit, presided over, for this production, by Lawrence Renes. For most opera composers the “action in the pit” is a sometime thing. However, Britten’s ear for achieving just the right sonorities was so keen and reliable that, for someone like myself, the question of what he is doing with his instruments is almost impossible to avoid asking.

Of course some of those sonorities are easily detected without visual assistance. The sound of the saxophone is so unique (regardless of the genre of the music) that the rhetorical message it delivers throughout the course of Billy Budd is unmistakeable. The same can be said of the piccolo solo (played by Stephanie McNab) that pervades Billy’s final aria (given an unforgettable account by baritone John Chest), “Look! Through the port comes the moon-shine astray!” That piccolo solo is basically a “sound effect” of a sailor piping a tune up on deck (perhaps rehearsing for the solemn event that will come in the morning), while, down below, Billy is reflecting on his final hours of life.

However, there are also abundant sonorities whose comprehension tends to involve recognizing which instruments are “in play” as they resound. There are homophonic passages for a pair of bass clarinets that yield a sonority even eerier than that of a solo instrument. Similarly, doubling the piccolos adds yet another barb of tension of the execution scene.

None of this, of course, is intended to disparage Britten’s mastery of the string section. In the opening measures the string have an in media res quality, suggesting that they had been playing very softly before their sounds actually became audible. The very opening measures establish the libretto’s motif of “lost in the infinite sea” even before the stage becomes visible. Then, of course, toward the ending of the opera one encounters a thoroughly ravishing cello solo, given all of its best expressive qualities by Principal Cello David Kadarauch.

Similarly, there is no end of astonishing blending of winds and brass. Different combinations of these instruments are enlisted for a variety of chorale passages. Some of those combinations bear an uncanny resemblance to the chorale that opens the third movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (“Leningrad”) symphony. (Britten would not meet Shostakovich until 1960, when he was just beginning to work on revisions to Billy Budd that would result in the version currently being performed by SFO.) The sonorities are unmistakably Britten, but I would be surprised if he had been totally unaware of the Shostakovich repertoire.

Chorale writing also figures in the musical interlude that precedes Billy’s final aria. This is a straightforward sequence of chords with no rhythmic embellishment. However, each chord is played by a different combination of instruments. Thus, the brutally objective conviction of the sentence passed on Billy churns with the uncertainty of sonorities that will not settle into a single consistent pattern.

John Chest as Billy Budd, front and center, with the crew of the HMS Indomitable (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

Finally, looking up from the orchestra pit, so to speak, it would be unfair to overlook the rich sonorities of the male choral writing. These passages extend over a wide gamut of rhetorical dispositions, with folk tunes at one extreme and the wordless grumbling of the crew after Billy’s death at the other. The preparatory work of Chorus Director Ian Robertson establishes context across the entirety of the opera’s narrative. The program sheet must account for a prodigious number of solo voices, but the choral writing is the foundation upon which that plethora of individual character types are developed.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Revisiting George Szell on Profil

courtesy of Naxos of America

Towards the end of last month, Profil expanded their catalog of significant archival recordings with a ten-CD album of orchestral music conducted by George Szell. During my student days, Szell was somewhat of a lightning rod during bull sessions about the performance of music. The running joke was to talk about how impressed you were with the way that Szell played the Cleveland Orchestra, suggesting that even the slightest gesture by any member of that ensemble could be attributed to Szell’s input. The conductor of the student orchestra at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was a Szell student, and we would hear about that in just about any course in analysis or theory that anyone took with him.

However, by the time Szell died, admiration for his meticulous precision was beginning to go stale, coming under attack for being too sterile. 2020 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Szell’s death, so this new Profil release provides an opportunity to set aside the extreme swings of the pendulum of opinion in favor of a less partisan assessment of both precision and expressiveness in his technique. Where repertoire is concerned, the lion’s share of the collection serves up familiar works by Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. However, what interested me more than the familiarity of the selections was the significant presence of two major twentieth-century pianists, Robert Casadesus (who died in 1972) and Leon Fleisher, now 91 years old and honored by San Francisco Performances this past February.

While I never met Fleisher, his was a formative influence in my approach to listening. For all of the efforts of my “official” teachers, one of my strongest memories involves a radio interview that allowed Fleisher to talk about the experience of performing under Szell’s baton. It remains one of the clearest accounts I have encountered that breaks down the many aspects of interaction among conductor, soloist, and ensemble and reassembles them in a manner that makes all the sense in the world. To this day Fleisher’s thoughts trigger my “little grey cells” (that “signature expression” favored by Hercule Poirot) whenever I am listening to a concerto performance.

Fleisher figures in five concerto performances in Profil’s Szell anthology. In “order of appearance” these are Mozart’s K. 503 in C major, Beethoven’s Opus 58 (fourth) in G major, Brahms’ Opus 15 (first) in D minor, Schumann’s Opus 54 in A minor, and Edvard Grieg’s Opus 16 in A minor. These are all meticulously disciplined interpretations, but there is nothing sterile about any of them. Whatever rumors may have prevailed during his lifetime, any accusations of Szell being dispassionate were woefully misplaced. Granted, there may have been moments in the four Mozart selections in this collection that could have been a bit more vibrant, perhaps enjoying the benefit of smaller string ensembles; but there was no shortage of subtlety when Szell put his heart into conducting Mozart. (George Cleve, co-founder of our own Midsummer Mozart Festival, was, like one of my own teachers, significantly influenced by Szell.)

Nevertheless, my own favorites tend to be found on the Haydn disc, which offers three symphonies: Hoboken I/88 in G major, Hoboken I/97 in C major, and Hoboken I/104 In D major. The booklet calls this last item “Salomon,” which is more than a little useless, given how many symphonies were written to support the promotional efforts of Joann Peter Salomon. Most of us probably refer to Hoboken I/104 as the “London” symphony, which is also rather inaccurate, but not as much! I also took great satisfaction in Szell’s approach to the two best-known symphonies by Antonín Dvořák, Opus 88 (eighth) in G major and Opus 95 (“From the New World”) in E minor.

As an overall assessment, I would say that these ten CDs are likely to get far more attention in subsequent listening experiences than any of my many recordings of Herbert von Karajan!

Cal Bach to Begin Season with Bach and Zelenka

Fall, 2017 photograph of the California Bach Society vocalists (photograph by Will Toft, courtesy of Cal Bach)

At the beginning of next month, the California Bach Society (Cal Bach) will begin its new season with a full Baroque orchestra joining its singers. Artistic Director Paul Flight has prepared a program focused on rich instrumental coloration of both choral and vocal solo performances. The more familiar of these compositions will be Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 243.2 (previously cataloged as BWV 243) setting of the Magnificat canticle, which will constitute the first half of the program. The second half of the program will be devoted to a Mass setting by Jan Dismas Zelenka, his ZWV 12 Missa Divi Xaverii.

The vocal soloists for this program will be soprano Morgan Balfour, mezzo Gabriela Estephanie Solis, tenor James Hogan, and baritone Christòpheren Nomura. Four trumpeters will participate: Dominic Favia, Bill Harvey, Lenny Ott, and Steve Escher. They will be joined by timpanist Kevin Neuhoff. The other instrumentalists will include Lars Johannesson and Alissa Roedig, flute; Marc Schachman and Aki Mishiguchi, oboe; Daniel Deitch, bassoon; Rachel Hurwitz, Noah Strick, Christine Meals, Aaron Westman, Anna Washburn, and Tyler Lewis, violin; Katherine Hagen and Marieke Furnee, viola; Amy Brodo, cello; Kristen Zoernig, bass; and Yuko Tanaka, organ.

This performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 4. The venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. Tickets are on sale for $35, $30 (seniors), and $10 (those under the age of 30), respectively. A Brown Paper Tickets event page has been created for all online purchase. There is a $5 discount for both general admission and the senior rate when tickets are purchased in advance.

In addition, because this is the first concert of the season, subscriptions are still on sale. The San Francisco dates for the other three concerts, all on Friday evenings at St. Mark’s, and their respective titles are as follows:
  • December 13: Christmas in the Americas
  • February 28: 20th Century British Masters
  • May 1: Venetian Splendors
Subscription prices are $95 with an $80 rate for seniors and $35 for those under 30. Subscriptions may also be purchased through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

A Wide Span of Haydn Quartets from NEQ

Yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ) presented the opening of the San Francisco stage of their thirteenth season of four concerts. The two violinists, Kati Kyme and Lisa Weiss, share leadership of this ensemble. Yesterday afternoon Weiss played first violin in the two quartets that preceded the intermission, and Kyme took over the lead for the remaining two. Anthony Martin was the violist, and William Skeen played cello.

NEQ was formed in June of 2007 with the objective of performing and recording historically-informed performances of the complete string quartets of Joseph Haydn. They are now in the process of revisiting that cycle, and the title of yesterday’s program was A Haydn Bouquet. With the performance of the four Haydn quartets on that program, the group has now accounted for 51 of the 68 quartets in their second cycle.

In reviewing my own material, I discovered that yesterday’s concert was originally announced with a lengthier, but more informative, title: A Haydn Bouquet — Four Quartets from Two Decades of Genius. Rather than taking a lock-step march through the numerical ordering of Anthony van Hoboken’s Haydn catalogue, NEQ organized their first cycle around topical themes that related different quartets from different periods in Haydn’s career. This full title reflects the same strategy applying to the second cycle.

The decades cited in the title are the first and last of the ten-year periods that Haydn spent as Kapellmeister for the Esterházy family. The latter decade was represented by the first and last quartets on the program, while the two early quartets flanked the intermission. In spite of this temporal diversity, it was delightful to recognize that Haydn could be just as inventive (often playfully so) early in his tenure as he was a quarter century later.

Thus, the earliest of the quartets, Hoboken III/23 in B-flat major (the fifth of the Opus 9 publication of quartets), begins with a set of four variations on a theme that seems almost satirically naive. The third movement, on the other hand, is a Largo cantabile that is positivity heavenly in its serene rhetoric. This quartet was also one of three on the program to conclude with a Presto movement that finishes by fading off into quietude, a cloying rhetorical trope that I recently cited in the tango performances by Tangonero in their Old First Concerts performance at the beginning of this month.

The quartet that did not conclude in this manner was the final selection on the program, Hoboken III/47 in F-sharp minor, the only quartet written in that unconventional key. This quartet was the fourth in the 1787 Opus 50 collection known as the “Prussian” quartets. The date also suggests that this was probably a quartet that Haydn himself played on a visit to Vienna that gave him the opportunity to play with violinist Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (who played first violin to Haydn’s second), violist Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and cellist Johann Baptist Wanhal. Mozart probably had a good laugh when Haydn shifted the key signature from F-sharp minor to F-sharp major (described in the Program Notes prepared by Martin as “an alarming forest of hashtags”). This quartet concludes with a fugue, and one can easily imagine the gusto that Haydn and his three colleagues put into playing it during their gathering.

F-sharp minor to F-sharp major in Haydn’s Hoboken III/47 (edited by Wilhelm Altmann for Ernst Eulenburg publication, from IMSLP, public domain)

Taken as a whole, yesterday afternoon was particularly engaging for the breadth of styles and rhetorical stances that emerged from the pen of this one composer. Yes, there are definitely ways in which one can appreciate subtleties and sophistication in the “later works.” Nevertheless, there was clearly no shortage of imagination and invention in the earlier offerings, which is why just about any experience of listening to Haydn is a simulating one, as long as the execution is as well-played as groups like NEQ can offer.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Eugene Villanueva to be 2nd Liederabend Vocalist

Baritone Eugene Villanueva and pianist Peter Grünberg (from the Eventbrite event page for this recital)

The next recital in this season’s Liederabend (evening of songs) Series presented by LIEDER ALIVE! will be the second of three concerts featuring alumni of the Merola Opera Program. The vocalist will be baritone Eugene Villanueva, last heard at a Liederabend recital this past March. As was the case in March, Villanueva will be accompanied by LIEDER ALIVE! Artist-in-Residence pianist Peter Grünberg. He will also reflect on his last recital by again performing a collection of songs by Paolo Tosti.

The German-language side of his repertoire will be represented by Franz Schubert and Gustav Mahler. The Schubert offering will be a selection of songs from the D. 911 Winterreise (winter’s journey) cycle of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller. The Mahler selection will be “Urlicht” (primeval light), composed in 1893 as part of a collection of twelve songs based on texts from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection of German folk poetry. This song would subsequently find its way to an orchestra version, which became the fourth movement of Mahler’s second (“Resurrection”) symphony, completed in 1894.

This performance will begin at 5 p.m. on Sunday, September 29. The venue will be the Noe Valley Ministry, which is located at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. Single tickets for all concerts in this series are $75 for reserved seating and $35 for general admission and a $20 rate for students, seniors, and working artists. These may also be purchased in advance through Eventbrite. Tickets at the door will be $40.

SFO’s Perceptive Account of Gounod’s Shakespeare

Pene Pati as Roméo and Nadine Sierra as Juliette on Jean-Louis Grinda’s staging of the balcony scene (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) presented the second of its seven scheduled performances of Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. As he had done with his successful predecessor Faust, Gounod composed this opera based on a major literary drama, this time the Romeo and Juliet play by William Shakespeare working with a French libretto written by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Indeed, it was because of the great success of Faust at the Théâtre Lyrique that the theater’s director, Léon Carvalho, commissioned Gounod to write a new opera.

Roméo et Juliette was first performed on April 27, 1867, and it was far from the first time that Parisian audiences had encountered the work of William Shakespeare. Probably the best known predecessors came from Harriet Smithson’s productions in Paris, which date back to 1827; and her performance of Juliet most likely figured in Hector Berlioz’ conception of Shakespeare’s play as a “dramatic symphony.” In that context it is worth noting that Berlioz also composed a large-scale musical treatment of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, which he called a “dramatic legend” and entitled La damnation de Faust (the damnation of Faust).

While Berlioz used Shakespeare and Goethe only as points of departure for his creations, Barbier and Carré’s libretto for Roméo et Juliette does much to honor both the letter and the spirit of Shakespeare’s text. (Personally, I would go so far as to say that their appreciation of Shakespeare surpassed their basic knowledge of Goethe by a significant distance.) Given how familiar Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is to just about every generation of audience, one barely needs to consult the supertitles for Gounod’s opera to grasp what the story is and how the plot advances. Thus, while there is only one aria that tends to enjoy popular familiarity, there is much in the overall letter and spirit of Roméo et Juliette that makes for a more satisfying experience than one tends to encounter in Faust.

That aria is “Je veux vivre” (I wish to live), sung as a waltz by Juliette before romance gets the better of her. In the SFO performances that role is sung by soprano and Adler alumna Nadine Sierra, and her return to the War Memorial Opera House could not have been more welcome. The popularity of the aria derives from its rapid-fire embellishments and top-register climax, all of which flowed out of Sierra like an energetically bubbling spring, framed in staging by Jean-Louis Grinda (making his SFO debut) that discloses the many appropriate subtleties that trace the development of Juliet’s character.

Sierra’s Roméo was another Adler alumnus, tenor Pene Pati; and the two of them could not have been better matched. Like Sierra, Pati was sensitive to all of the subtle character traits endowed to him through Grinda’s staging of Roméo’s character. His command of Gounod’s score was consistently solid, and he always knew how to bring just the right expressive rhetoric to every phrase he had to sing.

If there is any criticism of this opera, is that Barbier and Carré never lavish much attention on the presence or development of the many other characters that figure in Shakespeare’s script. For example Pâris, sung by baritone Hadleigh Adams (another Adler alumnus), seems to be there only because his friend Tybalt (tenor Daniel Montenegro) wants to introduce him to his sister Juliet. Even the Duke of Verona (bass-baritone Philip Skinner) only puts in an appearance after the killings of Mercutio (baritone Lucas Meachem) and Tybalt, rather than serving as the stabilizing voice of reason that permeates the entire Shakespeare script. However, it is clear that the Parisian audience wanted primarily to indulge in the solo and duet work sung by Roméo and Juliet. Gounod delivered what they desired, and both Patti and Sierra served up thoroughly engaging accounts of the music that Gounod provided.

Of course credit must be shared with conductor Yves Abel and Ian Robertson, who prepared all of the richly splendid choral writing. It has been 32 years since Abel conducted an SFO performance, and it is more than a little unfortunate that we had to wait so long. His balance of the rich instrumental diversity coming from the orchestra pit could not have been better, and he knew exactly how to pace both the overall flow of the narrative and the extended vocal solo work during which the narrative, for the most part, is “put on hold.”

Readers may have observed above that my enthusiasm for Gounod’s Faust has been more than a little muted. I was downright disappointed by the last SFO production in the summer of 2010 directed by Jose Maria Condemi, preferring, instead the fall of 2013 production of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele with staging by Robert Carsen. As a result, last night performance of Roméo et Juliette was a real eye-opener for me, leaving me not only with a highly-satisfying stage experience but also a better appreciation for Gounod’s talents as a composer.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Post:Ballet Fundraiser to Feature Performances

Post:Ballet dancer and costume designer Christian Squires (left) with artwork by Hybycozo (from the Eventbrite event page)

Regular readers should know by now that I have been particularly interested in Post:Ballet because of the attention that Artistic Director and choreographer Robert Dekkers pays to the performance of “live” music as part of the setting for choreography. At the end of this month, Post:Ballet will hold a fundraiser; and the event will include musical performances worth noting. Most important will be the presentation of an excerpt from “Lyra,” the latest co-production for which The Living Earth Show (TLES) is providing the music. That music will be composed by Samuel Adams, who has written works for TLES dating back to when the duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson were offering their first public concerts. The choreography for “Lyra” is being created by Vanessa Thiessen.

In addition, there will be a recorded encore performance of an excerpt from Star Amerasu’s “Incandescent Body,” a project that included music by TLES and choreography by both Thiessen and Dekkers. (Unfortunately, Amerasu will be out of town, so she will be present only by way of recording.) Music offerings will also include the performances of another composer that has collaborated with Post:Ballet, Daniel Berkman. Finally, after all those performances have taken place, there will be a Post:Party with music provided by DJ Jacqueen.

This fundraising event will begin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, September 26, at the SOMArts Cultural Center. The address is 934 Brannan Street, located (as might be expected) in SOMA. Tickets are being handled by Eventbrite, which has created a Web page for purchase that provides additional information about the fundraiser. General admission will be $50. However, those willing to volunteer to assist in the many support operations for the occasion will be admitted at no charge. The Eventbrite Web page has a special entry for those willing to commit as volunteers. The entire event is expected to run until 10 p.m.

Mahler at his Darkest Opens SFS Subscription Season

The hut on the shores of the Wörthersee in Carinthia, where Mahler composed during his “summer breaks” from his conducting duties (photograph by OboeCrack, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) began its 108th subscription season, which is celebrating the 25th season of Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) serving as Music Director, with MTT conducting a single symphony by one of his favorite composers. The entire program was devoted to Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony in A minor, taken by many to be his darkest symphony. (By way of balance, the season will conclude with what is basically Mahler’s “largest” symphony, accounting for not only duration but the massive number of resources required.)

Mind you, it is difficult to find a composition by Mahler in which darkness does not prevail at some time or another. The sixth was composed during the summers of 1903 and 1904. By that time Mahler had completed the first three settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert that would eventually be published under the title Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children); and the last two songs were also composed in 1904. Death was always on Mahler’s mind; but the obsession that led to the Kindertotenlieder would emerge with even sharper edges as Mahler worked his way through the four movements of his sixth symphony.

This culminated in a final movement, which he structured around “three hammer-blows of fate,” the last of which would be fatal. Ironically, that vision would return to haunt him in the summer of 1907. The first blow came with the death of his eldest daughter Maria by diphtheria. This was followed by a diagnosis revealing Mahler’s heart disease. Then came the termination of his directorship of the Vienna Court Opera. Mahler was so shaken by this coincidence that he excised the final hammer-blow from his score, fearing that it would forecast his own death.

For all of its dark connotations, the first three movements of the sixth tend to follow conventional formal structure: a sonata-allegro opening, followed by a scherzo and an Andante moderato. (There are different schools of thought regarding the ordering of the second and third movements. Last night MTT played the scherzo as the second movement.) In the final movement, on the other hand, disciplined structure gives way to rampant expressionism. Yes, there are still themes; and there is even some sense of recapitulation. However, the hammer-blows are the structural pillars; and the logic of the movement involves how they are approached and then recede.

At past performances the sounds of those blows came from the percussion section. The attentive listener could catch site of a massive hammer being raised, but there were no visual cues as to what provided the deadening thud that would follow. Last night the source of that thud was mounted on a tower that required Jacob Nissly to strike it while standing at the front of the Center Terrace. Thus, what one saw was as scary as what one heard, scary enough to allow one to appreciate Mahler’s superstitious feelings about the third of the blows. (Nissly only struck his hammer twice.)

Nevertheless, all this poses a broader question of how to prioritize climaxes. Mahler’s scores abound in “full-out” gestures, which can make it difficult to establish one of them as the ultimate climax. Over the course of the symphony, there is a series of gestures involving a major triad in which the middle note drops down a semitone to transform major to minor, while the timpani thuds out an ominous rhythmic motif. Many would say that the “ultimate climax” of the symphony comes at the very end when that same sinister rhythm presents a “primal scream” minor triad that is not approached through its major complement.

The problem, of course, is to make sure that this final gesture is clearly established as the “highest peak” in the “landscape of climaxes.” The one difficulty in MTT’s otherwise compelling account given last night is that he invested too much energy in all of those “lesser peaks,” as Pierre Boulez called them. Thus, by the time the performance had progressed to “the climax that mattered” in the final gesture, it seemed as if both players and listeners were too worn down for that moment to have its full bone-chilling effect. As a result, many of those that have frequented MTT’s past Mahler offerings in Davies may well have come away feeling as if last night’s account did not take one into depths as harrowing as those of past performances.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

A Benefit for the San Francisco Musical Fund Society

Once again the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist will be hosting a benefit concert. This time the beneficiary will be the San Francisco Musical Fund Society. Proceeds will support a grant program that aids young musicians in the Bay Area in their educational pursuits. This year has seen a record number of grants distributed to both young individuals and music education institutions. In these times of cutbacks in funding for the arts, such benefit events become more and more crucial. The concert will be given by the three string players in the iO Piano Quartet, violinist Virginia Price, violist Thomas Elliott, and cellist Victoria Ehrlich. They will play Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 “Goldberg” variations in the arrangement for string trio prepared by Dmitry Sitkovetsky in 1984.

The performance will take place this Monday, September 16, at 7 p.m. The church is located in the Mission at 1661 16th Street at the corner of Julian Street, between Mission Street and Valencia Street. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. The recommend donation will be $20, with a $10 amount for seniors and students. Reservations will be made through an RSVP to an electronic mail address, with a reply sent as confirmation.

In Memoriam: Timothy Leigh Evans

Tenor Timothy Leigh Evans preparing for performance (from a Boston Camerata Web page)

Readers may recall that, this past Tuesday, I discussed the most recent recording of the Boston Camerata, led by Music Director Anne Azéma, entitled FREE AMERICA! Early songs of Resistance & Rebellion, scheduled for release tomorrow. The tenor vocalist on this album was Timothy Leigh Evans. Yesterday I was saddened to learn that, about a week and a half ago, Evans died from a sudden and massive heart attack. Evans had been singing with the Camerata since 1998, a tenure of over twenty years. Trained at the Huddersfield School of Music in Great Britain, he also sang with the Waverly Consort, the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, and the ARTEK early music ensemble, based in New York City.

Evans is survived by his family in Germany: his wife Suse, and his two children, Emily and Benjamin.

Miles Davis Gets the Movie He Deserves

1947 photograph of trumpeter Miles Davis playing with saxophonist Charlie Parker, pianist Duke Jordan (back to the camera), Tommy Potter on bass, and drummer Max Roach, barely visible behind Parker (photograph by William Gottlieb, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain from the William P. Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress)

Last night I took a break from the concert venues I usually haunt to go over to the Roxie to see the new Stanley Nelson documentary Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. Back when I was writing for, I wrote about Don Cheadle’s film Miles Ahead under a headline that referred to the “uncompromising dissonance” of the content. To call Davis a “difficult character” (as I did in my article) would be the height of understatement. From a musical point of view, however, there is no doubting that he was one of a kind; and Nelson’s treatment makes it clear that such a description is more than an overused cliché.

To be fair, however, the title of the film is a bit deceptive. Birth of the Cool is, indeed, the name of one of Davis’ albums; but that album accounts for one episode in a career narrative that unfolds with almost as much breadth of scope as does Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Indeed, I do not think that there was more than fifteen seconds of music from the Birth of the Cool album in the soundtrack; and the narration dwelled on little more than the fact that the music was performed by a nonet.

That said, I must confess that, after many years, I finally am beginning to come to a listening experience with Birth of the Cool in which I do not always feel as if I am starting from scratch. Thus, while I was able to recognize those fifteen seconds as coming from Birth of the Cool, I would be hard pressed to identify the track from which they had been extracted! From my own point of view, the Birth of the Cool album documents a transitional series of sessions, coming between Davis playing in Charlie Parker’s quintet and the beginning of his recording sessions with Prestige Records.

Thus, what matters far more is the way in which Nelson was able to map out his entire documentary as a serious of significant milestones (pun definitely intended) that provide a roadmap of Davis’ entire career. I have to confess that I took a personal satisfaction in how much of that music was familiar to me, even the many tracks that I have found difficult in past experiences. Through Nelson’s treatment (and the comments interjected by colleagues) I finally found myself getting my head around “Bitches Brew” as something more than a trendy indulgence. I even caught myself nodding sympathetically to his treatment of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” during his visits to the Montreux Jazz Festival, the venue where, near the end of his life, he reflected back on his three major collaborations with Gil Evans, Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain.

Nelson’s documentary is almost two hours in duration. There is no “top-level” narrator; but there is a rich variety of interviewees commenting on both musical and personal aspects of Davis’ life. In addition, Carl Lumbly provides accounts of Davis’ own words with an acceptable, if not faithful, rendering of the original speaker’s hoarseness. (How Davis’ voice went hoarse is one of the topics that Nelson covers.)

As a result, the pendulum of Cheadle’s “semi-fictional” perspective has now swung to the other side with just the right blend of biography, music, and character insights. From my own personal perspective, I felt that I came out of the screening feeling as if I were a better-equipped listener. Davis accounts for a more than generous proportion of my jazz recordings. However, in the face of all of that quantity, I feel as if Nelson has equipped me to bring more quality to my own listening experiences.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Latin Music Coming to Concerts at the Cadillac

This week’s performers at the Cadillac: Jeff McNish, Dave Casini, Al Standford, and Lena Johnson (courtesy of Concerts at the Cadillac)

This month’s offering in the Concerts at the Cadillac series at the Cadillac Hotel in the Tenderloin will offer a blend of Afro-Cuban rhythms, Brazilian samba, and American jazz classics. Dave Casini will bring his vibraphone to perform with three of the members of the Primavera Latin Jazz Band, which is based in the East Bay. Those players will be leader Lena Johnson at the piano, Jeff McNish on bass, and Al Standford on percussion (including congas).

Like all Concerts at the Cadillac events, this recital will begin at 12:30 p.m. and will take place this coming Friday, September 13. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street. The lobby features the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, which will be Johnson’s instrument. It is a meticulously restored 1884 Model D Steinway concert grand, whose original soundboard is still intact. All Concerts at the Cadillac events are presented without charge. The purpose of the series is to provide high-quality music to the residents of the hotel and the Tenderloin District; but all are invited to visit the venue that calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907.”

Decca Gold Releases Wei Luo’s Debut Album

Emerging young pianist Wei Luo (from the Web page for her debut album)

At the end of last month, Decca Gold released the debut album of the young Chinese pianist Wei Luo. Luo is currently studying with Gary Graffman at the Curtis Institute of Music, and last year she was granted the 2018 Gilmore Young Artist Award. Prior awards include first prizes in both the eleventh Chopin International Competition for Young Pianists and the second Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition for Young Pianists. Here in San Francisco she made her debut with San Francisco Performances (SFP) at the annual Gift Concert recital held on April 2, 2017.

As might be expected, her debut album showcases many facets of the diversity of her repertoire. She bursts out of the gate, so to speak, with Maurice Ravel’s solo piano transcription of his “choreographic poem” composed for full orchestra, “La Valse.” The Wikipedia page for this composition cites the transcription as “infrequently performed due to its difficulty;” but my own library includes a performance of that transcription played by HJ Lim.

The majority of the album, however, is devoted to Russian composers. In “order of appearance” they are Dmitri Shostakovich (two of the prelude-fugue couplings from his Opus 87 set of 24, those in D major and D minor), Sergei Prokofiev (his Opus 83 sonata in B-flat major, the second of his three “war” sonatas), and Rodion Shchedrin (the first two of the 25 preludes in his Polyphonic Notebook). However, Joseph Haydn “intervenes” between Shostakovich and Prokofiev with a performance of his Hoboken XVI/52 sonata in E-flat major.

Wei’s performance of “La valse” definitely grasps the attention of the serious listener. She clearly has the discipline to take on Ravel’s challenges and is not afraid to reveal the connotations of this music as the disquieting reflections of a mind seriously impacted by the horrors of World War I. In a similar vein, while Shostakovich composed his preludes and fugues in 1950 and 1951, the D minor fugue suggests that World War II continued to haunt him. This is the most monumental of the fugues in the overall collection; and Wei clearly appreciates that the rhetorical side of this music is as important as a command of the composer’s polyphony, if not more so.

On the other hand the weight of her intensity does not serve her particularly well in her approach to Haydn. It is not that she does not appreciate the need for a light touch when approaching Haydn. However, her pendulum swings between thematic material that clearly needs that touch to overdoing the sections that call for louder dynamics. Clearly, Haydn did not write this sonata for a modern grand piano; but there are any number of pianists who know how to keep from going overboard when Haydn calls for fortissimo. On this particular recording Wei has not yet established herself as one of them.

Ironically, that pendulum swings to the other extreme in her approach to Prokofiev. The tempo specification of the first movement may be Allegro inquieto, but Wei’s reading almost feels as if she wants it to be jolly. Similarly, the lifting of tensions in the second movement comes across as more syrupy than other Prokofiev pianists deliver. Only in the third movement does Wei arrive at a rhetorical stance consistent with the context of this “war” sonata; and it is a bit too late for most listeners by then. Still, her capacity for lighter spirits servers her well with the Shchedrin pieces that close out the album.

Sadly, I have not been able to find an account of Wei’s SFP recital. I know that her program included both the same two Shostakovich prelude-fugue couplings and the same Prokofiev sonata. Unfortunately, however, my schedule did not allow me to attend that particular event. The actual recording sessions for her debut album took place over a year after that recital, so I am not even sure that her frame of mind at that time would have been consistent with they way in which she approached those two composers when playing in Herbst Theatre. As a result, the best I can say about her debut album is that it has piqued my curiosity; but my curiosity about her second album may be more guarded.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

More Live Music Coming to Balboa Theatre

Poster for this week’s silent film with live music at the Balboa (from the Balboa Web site)

Once again, the Balboa Theatre will present an evening that brings the performance of live music together with cinema. Last month the occasion involved the screening of four short films from Kerry Laitala’s City Luminous Series. This week there will be a one-night only screening of a classic silent film with live music accompanied by a sextet, all of whose members are skilled improvisers. Appropriately enough, the film itself is about a musician.

The Hands of Orlac is a story about a world-famous pianist, named Paul Orlac, who loses his hands in a railway accident. His wife Yvonne then pleads with a surgeon to provide him with transplanted hands. The surgeon find a suitable pair of hands as a result of the recent execution of a murderer named Vasseur. Orlac learns of the hands’ origin only after the surgery has taken place, and they prove to be his undoing. Not only can he not play the piano, but also Vasseur had committed other murders that had not yet been discovered by the police. The rest of the narrative follows the downward spiral of Orlac’s life.

The film was made in Austria by Robert Wiene in 1924. Wiene is probably best known for having made The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920. In that film Conrad Veidt played the murderous somnambulist, and he worked again with Wiene to play the role of Orlac. The running time of the film is 90 minutes.

The sextet will provide accompaniment with a diverse assortment of instruments suiting the different moods of the images. Only bassist Lisa Mezzacappa will play a single instrument. Allison Lovejoy will play a variety of keyboard instruments (including an accordion). Charith Premawardhana will alternate between violin and viola. David Boyce will play reeds, different sizes of saxophone and bass clarinet, as well as electronics. Eric Moffat will play Fender Jaguar and provide real-time control of sound sources and soundscapes. Finally, David Mihaly will divide his time between percussion and a Foley array of devices for sound effects.

This screening and performance will begin at 8 p.m. tomorrow evening, September 11. The Balboa Theatre is located in the Outer Richmond District at 3630 Balboa Street, which is between 37th Avenue and 38th Avenue. It can be reached easily by the Muni 38 line. Admission will be $15, and the Balboa Theatre has created an event page for advance purchase of tickets online.

Boston Camerata’s Latest Take on “Early Music”

courtesy of PIAS

When we discuss the topic of “Early Music” in the “New World,” we tend to frame the topic with the Renaissance influences from Spain and Portugal in territories such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru. (Music from the first two of those territories was explored last month when San Francisco Renaissance Voices presented their program entitled The Music of Renaissance Portugal & the New World.) The framework for our own country, however, was probably best defined in the history book by Gilbert Chase entitled America’s music: from the pilgrims to the present, whose first chapter is entitled “Puritan psalm singers.” “Early music” in our country came later than in the rest of our continent, delayed, in any serious way, until the early eighteenth century.

This context must be held in mind when we examine the recording that the Boston Camerata has prepared for harmonia mundi as part of the celebration of its 65th anniversary. It was founded in 1954 by Narcissa Williamson at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, motivated by the precept that visitors to the museum would be more interested in listening to the musical instruments in the collection, rather than just looking at them in glass cases. When Joel Cohen became Music Director in 1969, interest in recordings of Renaissance music was on a rise; and my own “first contact” with Cohen came from the lute recitals he would give in the Chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (free of charge). Since that time, Boston Camerata has established itself as a top-tier performer of the pre-Classical repertoire; and, in 2008, Cohen passed leadership to Anne Azéma while remaining as Music Director Emeritus.

This Friday harmonia mundi will release that new “anniversary” album, whose full title is FREE AMERICA! Early songs of Resistance & Rebellion. Given where the ensemble based, it is about time that it provide a recording based on the opening chapters of Chase’s book! The twelve-member group consists of six vocalists and seven instrumentalists. Those questioning my arithmetic should note that Joel Frederiksen plays guitar in addition to serving as the bass vocalist. Azéma also does “double duty,” singing mezzo as well as leading the ensemble. The other vocalists are soprano Camila Parias, contralto Deborah Rentz-Moore, tenor Timothy Leigh Evans, and baritone John Taylor Ward. The other instrumentalists are Jesse Lepkoff (flutes and guitar), Eric Martin (violin), Reinmar Seidler (cello), Andrea Wirth (percussion), and both Sarah McConduibh and Paul Joseph playing fifes. As expected, has a Web page that is currently processing pre-orders for this album.

I should, perhaps, make the disclaimer that I have been curious about this repertoire ever since I read Chase’s book. I had encountered William Billings’ “Chester” in one of my folk song books; and, since my high school band had played William Schuman’s arrangement of that hymn, discovering its aggressive revolutionary text was a real find for me. My real delight, however, came during my tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, when one of my students told me about a group of Sacred Harp singers she had discovered. I had no trouble being the only Jew in an ensemble of Fundamentalists (after all, Schuman was also Jewish); and they seemed more interested in my baritone voice than in any professions of faith! We sang out of the 1971 edition of the Denson Revision of the Original Sacred Harp, whose setting of “Chester” has a more religious text that begins “Let the high heavn’s your songs invite.” (One evening our director confessed that he had just discovered the “revolutionary” version of the text, reading it to us with a tinge of horror in his voice!) The one selection we sang without music was the round “When Jesus wept,” whose text I wrote down on the front page of my Sacred Harp copy.

What I remember most about this experience was the colloquial approach we took to singing. This music was not intended as “art song;” and there was no good reason to sing it that way. For my own part, I had no trouble getting the spirit without embracing the faith, so to speak. From that point of view, I would say that many of the Camerata selections, particularly the a cappella part songs, sounded a bit too polished for my own tastes and memories. On the other hand the full repertoire that unfolds over the album is an impressive one and even occasionally amusing. Thus, if my former chorus leader had been shocked by the “political version” of “Chester,” I was tickeled with amusement to discover that “The British Grenadier” had been given a new set of words with the title “Free Americay!;” and “Rule Britannia!” was similarly transmogrified into “Rise Columbia!”

Most importantly, this period in the history of American music has long been a gap in my collection of recordings; and, taken as a whole, this new FREE AMERICA! recording is far more than merely satisfactory when it come to filling that gap.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Bleeding Edge: 9/9/2019

This is a major week for the adventurous. Admittedly, most of the impact will come from the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), which will get under way on Thursday. However, there are a couple of other events that have already been taken into account on this site. The summary of those events is as follows:
  • SFEMF will be presenting concerts every night from Thursday, September 12, through Sunday, September 15.
  • Pianist Omri Shimron will be playing compositions entitled “Metamorphosis” by both Philip Glass and Menachem Weisenberg at the Friday (September 13) Old First Concerts program (along with music by Johann Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert).
  • San Francisco Contemporary Music Players will launch its 2019–20 concert season on Saturday, September 14, with Michael Gordon’s evening-length, site-responsive piece Oceanic Migrations.
That leaves only one more event for the week to report. The Richmond Branch of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) will host a performance by composer and improviser Thomas Dimuzio. He will be playing a Buchla modular synthesizer. Dimuzio has integrated four FM radios into his control circuitry, allowing him to manipulate samples captured in real-time. Like most events presented by SFPL, there will be no charge for admission. The Richmond Branch is located at 351 9th Avenue, between Geary Boulevard and Clement Street. The performance will begin at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 14.

Shahin Novrasli: Ahmad Jamal Protégé

courtesy of PIAS

This past Friday I wrote a “heads-up” article about the latest album from jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal, Ballades, which will be released by Jazz Village this coming Friday. That date will also mark the release of a new album by Jamal’s latest protégé, Azerbaijani pianist Shahin Novrasli. Also released by Jazz Village, the album is entitled From Baku to New York City; and, like Ballades, it is currently available for pre-order through its Web page.

Listening to any album, particularly one of jazz piano, in the context of a Jamal album is a tall order; but it does not take long for the attentive listener to appreciate Jamal’s interest in this young pianist. He shares with his “protector” a clarity of touch in his approach to the keyboard; and, like Jamal, Novrasli is not afraid to explore the potential of high-density embellishing patterns. From a technical point of view, Novrasli brings a prodigious knapsack of skills and thematic tropes to the performance of all of the tracks on his new album; and these are skills that definitely cannot be ignored.

On the other hand, the album gives the impression that Novrasli is “trying on for size” a variety of different approaches to repertoire. There is an unmistakable fire in his take on Thelonious Monk’s “52nd Street Theme,” enough to leave me wondering how he would rethink what the most adventurous pianists were doing in the middle of the last century (Bud Powell coming to mind almost immediately). The other track that bears witness to that time is Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts,” supposedly written in partnership with Kenny Clarke. “Salt Peanuts” is a bebop “encoding” of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm;” but Novrasli keeps the source as meticulously encoded as Gillespie did.

Indeed, he approaches Gillespie’s theme with an extended introduction based on repetitive structures that could easily have been lifted out of one of the piano études composed by Philip Glass (but definitely was not appropriating any sense of Glass). However, once drummer Herlin Riley joins Novrasli, we know for sure that we are not in “Glass territory,” even though the “Salt Peanuts” tune has yet to emerge. (I did not take out a stopwatch while listening to this, but it is the sort of extended introduction to an exposition that can be found in the first symphonies of both Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler.)

A similar introduction is encountered on the “Stella by Starlight” track. Once that introduction has run its course, Novrasli seems more inclined to settle into the tune as Victor Young wrote it, rather than reflecting on some of the more memorable latter-day treatments, such as the one that became part of Miles Davis’ book. On the other hand, since I confess to being no great fan of Joni Mitchell, I would have preferred to find “Stella” on the opening track, while “Both Sides Now” (which begins the album and will always be more than a little too syrupy for my tastes) would have been better situated near the end!

Three of the tracks reflect on Novrasli’s roots in Azerbaijan, only one of which is composed by Novrasli himself. These selections are based on both classical and jazz Azerbaijani sources. However, when compared to other classical encounters with such sources that I have previously enjoyed, I cannot say that I was aware of any “cultural roots” behind Novrasli’s interpretations. There are the occasional augmented seconds; but they are a bit like Aristotle’s lone swallow that “does not make a summer.”

Personally, I am more than content to listen to From Baku to New York City as an “emerging talent” recording. I shall probably revisit it from time to time. However, I am more interested in the directions that Novrasli’s “further emergence” will take him.

Tango Without Dance at Old First Concerts

Yesterday afternoon  at the Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts presented the Tangonero quartet. Based in San Francisco, this ensemble is dedicated to preserving the musical tradition of the Argentine tango. Ironically, none of the performers are from anywhere near South America. The two Americans are violinist Yuri Kye and Jason Heath on bass. The pianist, Celeste Chiam, is Malaysian, while the bandoneon, the most characteristic instrument in a tango combo, is played by Russian Alex Roitman.

Nationalities aside, this was a group with a clear love of the tango repertoire and with the technical chops to do justice to both the substance and the style of the charts they played. Because this is music for the dance, there are elements of rigidity that would be out of place in jazz combos; but within that controlled framework, each player could still take opportunities to riff on the underlying structure.

Chiam’s piano work was perhaps the biggest surprise, always played with composure but frequently punctuated with glissando passages to keep the listener paying attention. Roitman was clearly comfortable with the intricacies of the bandoneon, with its button keyboards on both sides of the bellows. Indeed, his bellows work was smooth enough to capture consistently subtle twists in phrasing that accounted for the more sensuous connotations of the music. Kye’s contributions were a bit more modest and were most notable for interleaving among the passages played by Roitman and Chiam. Heath alternated between bowing and plucking to provide the necessary supporting bass line.

The program consisted of fifteen relatively short selections by a wide diversity of composers. I am sure I was not the only one in the audience to recognize only the name of Astor Piazzolla, who was the only composer represented by two pieces. Four of the selections were vocal, sung by Claudio Ortega. All were sung in Spanish. Translations were not provided and Ortega explained the background of only one of the songs, but it was clear that he was not comfortable with his English.

Nevertheless, this was music that could go a long way on style, even if underlying substance eluded many in the audience. The one trope that particularly appealed to me was the way in which each selection, no matter how energetic and regardless of dynamic level, would drop into near silence for the final cadence. It was almost as if the heart of the music was like boiling hot water, which would then evaporate into a fine mist at the conclusion. This was a stylistic approach I had not previously encountered, but it could not have been more delightful in the intimate setting of the Old First sanctuary.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Voices of Music Announces 2019–2020 Season

Once again, the early music ensemble Voices of Music has prepared a series of four stimulating concerts for its new (2019–2020) season. All San Francisco performances will take place at 8 p.m. Once again the venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street.

Subscriptions for the entire season will be $165 with a reduced rate of $145 for seniors and members of SFEMS, EMA, or ARS. The Voices of Music Web site does not appear to be set up for processing subscription orders; so those interested are invited to call 415-260-4687. General admission for individual concerts will be $50, and the reduced rate will be $45. A single Arts People event page has been created with hyperlinks for tickets to each of the four concerts in the season. Dates and program plans for the four concerts are as follows:
  1. Saturday, October 12: This concert will be part of an ongoing Voices of Music effort called the Women in Music Project. The program will present virtuoso Italian vocal music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. The female composer on that program will be Barbara Strozzi. The other composers to be included on the program will be Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Luca Marenzio, and Claudio Monteverdi. The vocalists will be sopranos Sophie Junker and Sherezade Panthaki. The violinists will be Elizabeth Blumenstock and Alana Youssefian, joined by Elisabeth Reed on gamba. Voices of Music co-director Hanneke van Proosdij will alternate among recorder, harpsichord, and organ. Her fellow co-director David Tayler will play archlute and baroque guitar.
  2. Saturday, December 21: The annual Holiday Celebration will again feature virtuoso concertos. Youssefian will play the final concerto in Pietro Locatelli’s Opus 3 collection of twelve concertos entitled L'arte del violino (the art of the violin). The first movement of the twelfth concerto is a capriccio with the inscription:
    Laberinto armonico: “Facilis aditus; difficilis exitus.”
    This translates as:
    Harmonic labyrinth: “Easy to enter; difficult to escape.”
    There will also be violin concerto music by Antonio Vivaldi and a cello concerto by Giovanni Benedetto Platti. The program will also feature the Voices of Music debut of violinist Rachell Wong. This season the program will also include dramatic arias by George Frideric Handel sung by countertenor Christopher Lowrey.
  3. Saturday, February 15: The title of the third program will be Stylus Phantasticus. The featured soloist will be Doron Sherwin on cornetto with further wind support from sackbut players Greg Ingles, Mack Ramsey, and Erik Schmalz. The program selections will explore seventeenth-century links between Italy and German in the virtuoso composition approach known as the “fantastic style.”
  4. Friday, April 3: This will be an evening of sacred German baroque music performed by the vocal quartet of soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani, alto Meg Bragle, tenor Brian Thorsett, and baritone Jesse Blumberg. They will present Johann Sebastian Bach’s rarely performed BWV 235 Mass setting in the key of G minor. They will also sing Dieterich Buxtehude’s BuxWV 63 cantata Jesu, meines Lebens Leben (Jesus, life of my life).

Britten Repertoire Returns in Triumph to SFO

The operas of Benjamin Britten have been sadly (and I would say unduly) neglected by San Francisco Opera (SFO) since it entered the 21st century. The last Britten performance took place in the fall of 2004 with Willy Decker’s staging of Billy Budd. Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, Billy Budd returned in a production by Michael Grandage that was first performed at Glyndebourne on May 20, 2010. Ironically, this was the first time Glyndebourne had presented the opera; but the production has sustained. It was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in recognition of Britten’s 100th birthday. The current revival has been staged by Ian Rutherford, and it marks the first SFO presentation of a Grandage production.

Given that the opera demands a large all-male cast of individual parts, as well as choral work for both men and boys, one can appreciate that it is not performed more frequently. However, given the intensity of the libretto, an adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella of the same name prepared jointly by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier, one can appreciate why it has not served as a more steady diet. Departing from Melville’s chronological account of the narrative, the libretto is framed as the “remembrance of things past” of Edward Fairfax Vere (tenor William Burden) reflecting on an incident that occurred when he captained the HMS Indomitable. In old age he still cannot reconcile the injustice of the incident and his own involvement in that injustice.

Except for Vere’s prologue and epilogue, all action takes place aboard the Indomitable, a British man-of-war deployed during the French Wars of 1797. Christopher Oram, also making his SFO debut, designed a unit set based on the overall structure of the ship, which can be repurposed for the scenes that take place in Vere’s quarters and the sleeping quarters for the crew. The massive size of the ship can be appreciated through the extensive diversity of the people on board, not only the naval crew and officers but also an army platoon and a small team of cabin boys. At the beginning of the second act, when the Indomitable prepares to attack a French ship, it seems as if everyone on board is now on deck, giving an overwhelming feeling of just how massive the vessel is.

“All hands on deck” as the Indomitable prepares to attack a French ship (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

However, the opera is not about the war. The title character (baritone John Chest, making his SFO debut) is a merchant seaman impressed from his ship, the Rights o’ Man, into naval service on the Indomitable. The name of the merchant ship is significant, since it captures the sort of republican spirits that had enabled the French Revolution, spirits taken as a threat to the British monarchy. Budd accepts his impressment and proves to be a first-rate sailor well-liked by the crew. However, he arouses the suspicion of Master-at-arms John Claggart (bass-baritone Christian Van Horn), most likely motivated by a homosexual lust for the young sailor.

Vere’s prologue text recognizes that, in the battle of good and evil, good always has to contend with some fatal flaw. In Budd’s case, that flaw is a stammer. When Claggart brings Budd before Vere to accuse him of inciting mutiny, Budd’s stammer prevents his denying the charges. Ultimately, his frustration gets the better of him; he lashes out with a blow to Claggart that immediately kills the Master-at-arms. As a result, Budd, himself, must face execution (hanging from the yardarm with the entire crew called out to witness). Yet his last words address Vere by the nickname the crew has given him, “Starry Vere, God bless you!” Even with that gesture of forgiveness, the hanging is followed by a sinister restlessness of the entire crew, which slowly disperses of its own accord.

Since the music is by Britten, one expects it to contribute to the telling of the narrative as much as the actions on stage and the words given to the cast of characters. Conductor Lawrence Renes, last seen conducting the revival of John Adams’ Nixon in China in June of 2012, clearly understood how to interpret Britten’s score, ranging all the way from the broad strokes of the narrative to the meticulous details behind every character portrayal. Particularly impressive were the ways in which Britten associated individual instruments, such as the saxophone, with personality traits. Also, is there any other composer that has written a virtuoso passage for bass drum (as part of the execution scene)?

Between the twists and turns of the plot and the intricacy of the musical score, there is more than enough to draw and sustain the attention of the serious opera-goer. Last night’s performance reflected the best of opera production, combining thoroughly compelling drama on stage with an impeccable account of the instrumental support in the orchestra pit. If anything the entire production stretches the limit of how much mind can grasp. For my part, I have already planned to return for a “second viewing.” I know better than to claim that I “took it all in” last night; and I feel a need for a second encounter to help me recall what I missed the first time!

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Schedule for SF Music Day 2019 Announced

The schedule for this year’s SF Music Day, presented by InterMusic SF, has now been announced. Readers may be recall that the list of participating performers was released at the end of this past July. However, the schedule itself, which involves coordinating simultaneous activities in four venues in the Veterans Building, had not yet been finalized. Those venues will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor, the Green Room on the second floor, and two sites in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera on the fourth floor, the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater and the John M. Bryan Education Studio.

There will be about seven and one-half hours of music performances beginning at noon, all of which have been organized around the theme Rebels & Renegades. Specific names associated with that overall classification will include John Coltrane, Melba Liston, Terry Riley, and Lou Harrison, along with large-ensemble improvisation by the duo B. Experimental Band. The genres performed will include early music, classical music, new music, jazz, and improvised music, as well as music drawn from global classical and folk traditions. The schedule of performances, sorted by venue, has been planned as follows:

Herbst Theatre

12:45 Dee Spencer: The Smile Orange Project (jazz)
1:30 Stenberg | Cahill Duo (contemporary)
2:30 The Dresher | Davel Invented Instrument Duo
3:30 Destiny Muhammad Trio (jazz)
4:30 Ila Cantor's Encanto (jazz)
5:30 Telegraph Quartet (classical)
6:30 Richard Howell Quartet (jazz: Coltrane’s A Love Supreme)

Green Room

12:00 Brass Over Bridges (classical)
12:45 Fervida Trio (classical)
1:30 Sylvestris Quartet (classical)
2:15 Cornelius Boots & the Heavy Roots Shakuhachi Ensemble (contemporary/global)
3:00 Chordless: Sara LeMesh and Allegra Chapman (contemporary)
3:45 Keyed Kontraptions (contemporary)
4:30 Patrick Galvin and Jung-eun Kim (contemporary)
5:15 Astraeus String Quartet (contemporary)
6:00 Friction Quartet (contemporary)
6:45 The Meráki Quartet (classical)

Education Studio

12:00 Hristo Vitchev Trio (jazz)
1:00 StringQuake (contemporary)
2:00 discussion panel
3:15 The Living Earth Show (contemporary)
4:15 Howard Wiley & Extra Nappy (jazz)
5:15 Terrence Brewer Acoustic Jazz Quartet (jazz)
6:15 The Alaya Project (jazz/global)

Atrium Theater

12:30 Quinteto Latino (contemporary/global)
1:30 Trance Mission (contemporary/improvised)
2:30 Ensemble for These Times (contemporary)
3:30 duo B. Experimental Band (jazz)
4:30 Myra Melford / Fay Victor / Lisa Mezzacappa (jazz)
5:30 Nathan Bickart Trio (jazz)
6:30 Melody of China (global)
7:15 Nash Baroque (early)

The Veterans Building is located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street, a corner with bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. The event will take place on Sunday, October 6. The doors will open at 11:30 a.m. Opera lovers may be relieved to know that there will not be an opera performance taking place that afternoon in the adjacent War Memorial Opera House! As always, admission will be free; but Eventbrite has created a registration page.