Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Grieg’s Vocal Works on Warner Classics

Photographic (and autographed) portrait of Edvard Grieg and his wife (and first cousin) Nina Hagerup, inspiration for almost all of the songs he composed (photograph by Ludwik Szaciński, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

It will not take long for anyone consulting the Wikipedia page listing the compositions by Edvard Grieg to discover that, as a composer of vocal works, Grieg was prodigiously prolific. His earliest efforts date back to the age of fifteen, which was the year of his encounter with Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, who persuaded his parents to send him to the Leipzig Conservatory, where he studied piano with Ignaz Moscheles. The latest date in the Wikipedia list is 1905, about two years before his death, by which time he had composed about 170 songs.

Given the extent of that repertoire, it seems more than a little unfair that the Warner Classics’ 13-CD collection entitled Grieg: Piano, Orchestral & Vocal Works, Chamber Music should devote only two CDs to the “vocal works” part of the title. Furthermore, only one of his publications, the Opus 67 Haugtussa (the mountain maid) song cycle, is represented in its entirety. Sadly, Warner did not make any arrangements to provide either texts or translations for any of the songs on the two CDs. Fortunately, Haugtussa has its own Web page on the Web site for The LiederNet Archive. The bad news is that translations are available only in French and German!

Fortunately, the attentive listener should be able to pick up any number of expressive cues from the performances by soprano Siv Wennberg. She is accompanied by Geoffrey Parsons, regarded by many as the worthiest successor to Gerald Moore after Moore’s retirement. However, it would appear that Warner was more interested in singers from a more distant past. Thus, the featured sopranos are Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Kirsten Flagstad; and the only baritone is Dietrich Fischer-Diskau. Among these three (as might be guessed) only Flagstad sings in Norwegian.

Sadly, it appears that the search engine for Amazon.com is not particularly kind to those seeking out more thorough and/or more recent accounts of Grieg songs. Nevertheless, there is a seven-CD box that Brilliant Classics released at the beginning of 2009. Its Amazon.com Web page claims that “this is the first-ever complete collection of Grieg’s ingenious folk-based songs.” Many might reject this as being too much of a good thing; but it is likely to provide a better account of the full breadth of this portion of the Grieg catalog than Warner Classics was able to muster!

Another Concert for Refugees at Zion Lutheran

Soo Yeon Lyuh with her haegeum (from the photos Web page on her Web site)

Readers may recall that, this past November, Kyle Hovatter, Director of Music at Zion Lutheran Church, organized a recital by soprano Winnie Nieh to assist in funding Sea of Solidarity, created to help refugees on the coast of Greece. He has planned another refugee benefit concert for this coming Friday with an entirely different repertoire. Ensemble Ari performs music composed for both Korean and classical instruments. Its members are Korean-American musicians seeking to bridge their culture with other communities while honoring their own legacy of history, music, and culture.

This group will be joined by Soo Yeon Lyuh performing on haegeum, a two-stringed bowed instrument that is basically a Korean fiddle. Lyuh is similarly dedicated to exploring that shared space between the Korean and classical repertoires. In response to a commission from the Kronos Quartet, she composed “Yessori” for string quartet and haegeum. She played with Kronos at the world premiere performance, which took place in March of 2017.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. this coming Friday, May 3. General admission will be $15, and a family will be admitted for $25. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an Eventbrite event page. That page also allows for an addition of any amount as a donation. Zion Lutheran Church is located at 495 9th Avenue near the northwest corner of Anza Street.

Shafer Offers Delightful Gift Concert for SFP

 Soprano Sarah Shafer (photograph by Vanessa Briceño, from the SFP program for this performance)

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented its annual free Gift Concert for subscribers and donors. This season the recitalist was soprano Sarah Shafer, accompanied at the piano by her father, Timothy Shafer. As has already been observed, Shafer is no stranger to this city, having taken major roles in four San Francisco Opera productions. However, last night marked her San Francisco recital debut; and it was definitely an occasion to remember.

The first half of the program surveyed three eras of German vocal music. Proceeding chronologically, Shafer began with an aria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 245 setting of the Passion text taken from the eighteenth and nineteenth chapters of the Gospel According to Saint John. The attribution of the aria text to Scripture in the program book was incorrect; the sources for the reflective poems in BWV 245 are unknown.

Bach scored this aria for soprano, continuo, and two flutes playing in unison. In other words, for all intents and purposes, the aria is a three-part invention, with the vocal line engaging with single lines for the right and left hands at the keyboard. This may not have been a “historically-informed” performance; but it still presented a keen understanding of the composer’s skills through an engagingly expressive interpretation.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart followed Bach with four of his songs for voice and piano. These were K. 476 (“Das Veilchen,” the little violet), K. 531 (“Die kleine Spinnerin,” the spinning girl), K. 520 (“Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannt,” when Luise burned the letters of her unfaithful lover), and K. 523 (“Abendempfindung,” evening sensation). The first three of these are all basically narratives in miniature; and, with her opera experience, Shafer knew just how to color her account of the narrative with both bodily comportment and facial expression. K. 523, on the other hand, is a “mood piece” that reflects on an unstated narrative; and here, too, Shafer commanded just the right level of “stage magic” to allow that mood to resonate.

The first half concluded with seven of the 53 settings of poems by Eduard Mörike collected by Hugo Wolf as his Mörike-Lieder. These are intensely personal texts; and, as was recently observed, Wolf enhanced that intensity through highly sophisticated compositional techniques. These often involved thick fabrics of polyphony in which the vocal line is intertwined with the other contrapuntal voices. There are also many virtuoso passages for solo piano, which usually serve as afterthoughts after the text has been completed.

As a result, this was an account in which both vocalist and pianist could shine in equal measure. Soprano always knew how to fit her line into the contrapuntal fabric, while pianist always maintained that fabric to make sure that the words would register with utmost clarity. There may also have been a warm gesture of homage in the final selection, “Im Frühling” (springtime). Those most serious about collecting recordings of performances of Wolf’s songs are sure to have the album of a recital given on August 12, 1953 at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. The vocalist was soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and her pianist was Wilhelm Furtwängler. The program consisted entirely of Wolf songs and began with “Im Frühling.”

The second half of the program shifted mood by coupling Francis Poulenc and Samuel Barber. It began with the six songs based on texts by Louise de Vilmorin that Poulenc collected under the title Fiançailles pour rire (betrothal for laughs). They were composed in September and October 1939, virtually immediately after the German invasion of Poland that marked the beginning of World War II. In contrast to the collection’s title, there is considerable darkness in the text; and there are any number of passages in which the text seems to abandon any need for meaning in the interest of making a good rhyme. Last night’s performance responded to the underlying absurdity and surrealism by letting both music and words speak for themselves, which was all that was really necessary to maintain the attention of the serious listener.

The program then concluded with the second performance of Barber’s Opus 29 Hermit Songs to take place in less than a week’s time. This time, in contrast to last week’s presentation, all of the songs were presented by a single vocalist (which is probably what Barber intended). Both soprano and pianist gave a rich account of the wide spectrum of emotions captured in the marginalia that Barber set to music. Individual songs again benefitted from Shafer’s command of stage presence, particularly in her approach to the extreme brevity of “Promiscuity.” As usual, Pangur took his stroll up the keyboard during “The Monk and his Cat.”

The evening was then wrapped up with a single encore. Shafer returned to Wolf with a performance of the very first song from his Italienisches Liederbuch (Italian songbook) collection, “Auch kleine Dinge” (little things, too). This presented Wolf’s skill at brevity at its best, providing just the right punctuation mark at the conclusion of a richly satisfying evening.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Bleeding Edge: 4/29/2019

Once again, most of the relevant events for this week have already been taken into account; and the Center for New Music remains as “leader of the pack.” Here is the hyperlinked summary of all events currently accounted for by previous articles:
  • Concerts at the Center for New Music will be taking place on May 2, 4, and 5
  • This will be a week in which Outsound Presents will offer both an LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series concert on May 2 and a Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series concert on May 5
  • Sunset Music and Arts will present the Argentine Tango performance by Cuarteto Puentes on May 4
  • The San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra will present their Under Deconstruction program as one of the options for the coming busy weekend
That leaves three more options, all of which will add to the choices that will need to be made for that busy weekend:

Saturday, May 4, 2:30 p.m., Castro Theatre: Once again the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present a film with musical accompaniment performed during the screening. Goona Goona was made by André Roosevelt and Armand Denis in 1932 and involves a Western reflection on a Balinese legend. Music will be provided by the Club Foot Gamelan, which will be a collaboration of Gamelan Sekar Jaya with members of the Club Foot Orchestra. Gamelan Sekar Jaya is a local ensemble that presents both music and dance based on both the traditional Balinese repertoire and recent cutting-edge compositions. For this occasion all the performers will be musicians: I Nyoman Windha (gamelan, voice), I Dewa Berata (gamelan, voice), Marianna Cherry (gamelan), Carla Fabrizio (gamelan, cello), Samuel Wantman (gamelan), and Sarah Willner (gamelan, viola). The Club Foot Orchestra members that will join them will be Alisa Rose (violin), Beth Custer (clarinet), Chris Grady (trumpet), and Richard Marriott (winds). Marriott has prepared the score for this performance and will conduct. Tickets may be purchased through a Festival event page. The Castro Theatre is located at 429 Castro Street, a short walk from the Castro Muni station.

Sunday, May 5, 4:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: The next event in the Sunday concert series will bring wind players Heikki Koskinen together with the Steve Heckman Duo. The title of the program will be which way west? No information about an admission charge has been given, but donations are always appreciated. Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART.

Sunday, May 5, 7:30 p.m., Canessa Gallery: Surprisingly, like last weekend, this weekend will include another concert in the Composers in Performance Series, curated by the Meridian Gallery but held at the Canessa Gallery. This will again be a three-set program. The Seeded Plain duo of Jay Kreimer and Bryan Day will join forces with Sudhu Tewari for an electronic trio set. The Monopiece trio of Nathan Corder, Timothy Russell, and Matt Robidoux will perform with vocalist Danishta Rivero for a quartet improvisation. The remaining set will be taken by the Virtual Balboa trio of guitarist Zach Darrup, bassist Evan Lipson, and percussionist Ben Bennett. The Canessa Gallery is located at 708 Montgomery Street, right on the “border” between the Financial District and North Beach. Admission is between $5 and $20, payable at the door and/or collected between sets.

Early and Late Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music

Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall the members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the latest installment in their Chamber Music Series. Over the years that I have been attending concerts in this series, I have been struck by the prodigiously imaginative sense of repertoire; and last month’s program went as far as to include the world premiere of a composition by SFS Principal Trombone Timothy Higgins. Yesterday afternoon’s program was solidly rooted in the nineteenth century, but the perspective was from the two extremes of the period.

The second half was devoted entirely to Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 15 (first) piano quartet in C minor. This was one of Fauré’s earliest ventures into chamber music; and, as James M. Keller put it in his notes for the program book, the score “underwent a lengthy gestation.” Indeed, that gestation continued after the work was first performed in 1880; and the final movement was replaced entirely in 1883, resulting in the version that was published in 1884.

Fauré was a significant “transitional” composer. Indeed, his leadership of the Conservatoire de Paris was viewed by many as notorious when he decided that the music of Claude Debussy be added to the curriculum; and one can detect signs of Debussy’s influence in Fauré’s late works. (Fauré outlived Debussy by over half a decade.) However, the Opus 15 quartet dates from a time when nineteenth-century traditions were still strong.

Nevertheless, there is a freshness to this music that seizes the attentive ear with the churning rhythms that begin the opening movement. In addition, Fauré was clearly interested in exploring new approaches to sonority. The third (Adagio) movement has a passage that builds to a unison performance by all three of the string instruments. The first phrase is stated by the cello (Sébastien Gingras). It is then joined by the viola (Matthew Young) in the second phrase, thus “recoloring” the cello’s sonorities. Then the violin (Helen Kim) adds to the unison statement with yet another shift in coloration. The effect is subtle, but the impact is intense.

The opening measures of the third movement of Fauré’s Opus 15 piano quartet (first edition, from IMSLP, public domain)

In the midst of subtlety, it is also necessary to call out the superb piano work by Sayaka Tanikawa. The lid was raised to full-stick height, probably because the sonorities in the piano part are just as engagingly subtle as the passages written for the strings. However, Tanikawa’s sense of balance was impeccable. There was never the slightest sign that the piano might be overpowering the strings; and, as a result, the extent of Fauré’s command of instrumental coloration could be enjoyed to the fullest.

The intermission was preceded by the second (in A minor) of the two string quartets that Johannes Brahms published as his Opus 51. There is a restlessness that pervades all four of this quartet’s movements. By 1873 Brahms had established a rich foundation of chamber music composition, but he had not yet taken on the string quartet genre. Both of the Opus 51 quartets show clear signs that he was still finding his way.

Sadly, yesterday afternoon’s players, violinists Yun Chu and Polina Sedukh, violist Wayne Roden, and cellist David Goldblatt, seemed to reflect any of Brahms’ signs of disorientation, rather than overcome them. I have attended enough performances of the A minor quartet to know that it can be played with a stronger sense of direction. However, those performances were by string quartet players that had worked together for considerable time, rather than four musicians who came together through a shared interest in the composition.

The program began on a much stronger note with what might be taken as a “novelty” item by Louis Spohr. His Opus 31 nonet in F major, composed in 1813, brought a wind quintet together with the four instruments from the string family. Yesterday afternoon the quintet consisted of Catherine Payne (flute), James Button (oboe), Jerome Simas (clarinet), Chris Cooper (horn), and Rob Weir (bassoon), joined by Dan Carson on violin, Gina Cooper on viola, Amos Yang on cello, and Scott Pingel on bass. Thematically, the music could not have been more good-natured. However, as was the case in that Fauré Adagio movement, the real joy in listening came from the many imaginative ways in which Spohr blended the instrumental sonorities.

As might be guessed, this music does not get very much exposure. The fact that SFS has a Chamber Music Series at all provides an opportunity for musicians to direct their attentions to such compositions that are rare simply because of the resources they require. Every program presented in this Series has the potential to offer a journey of discovery; and, over the many years I have devoted to attending this Series, most of those journeys have been delightfully memorable. Yesterday’s “Spohr journey” was yet another example of what makes those experiences so enduring.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Choices for May 11–12, 2019 (and beyond)

Choices for the first weekend in next month were relatively moderate. The following weekend, however, will be much busier. Furthermore, it will mark the beginning of the return of a free music series held every summer in Union Square. So this will be another one of those long articles. Specifics are as follows:

Saturday, May 11, 6 p.m., Ansel Adams house: Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) will be holding its Spring Gala. As is usually the case with such events, music will be part of the evening’s offering. Cellist Leighton Fong will give a performance of Franz Schubert’s D. 821 sonata in A minor, which he composed for piano and arpeggione. The score was not published until 1871, long after Schubert’s death; and it included parts for both cello and violin as alternatives for the arpeggione. Fong will be accompanied by guest pianist Ron Valentino. The social side of the occasion will include wine, a light supper, and dessert. In addition, there will be a brief live auction and Fund-A-Need in support of both the offerings for the concert season and education initiatives.

Admission will be by donation with $150 as the minimum amount. The house is located in Sea Cliff at 129 24th Avenue. Donations may be given online through a Web page on the LCCE Web site. In addition, LCCE may be reached through electronic mail. Further information will be provided once the donation has been processed.

Saturday, May 11, 7:30 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM): The New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) and Music Director Daniel Hope will conclude the 2018–2019 season with a debut appearance by the Marcus Roberts Trio. The program will provide a showcase of music by American composers in different genres. NCCO will share the stage with Roberts’ trio to perform a selection of songs by George Gershwin arranged for violin, jazz trio, and orchestra by Paul Bateman. There will also be Bateman arrangements of music from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Aaron Copland’s settings of American folk songs. NCCO will begin the program with a performance of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” the ensemble version of his string quartet Adagio movement.

SFCM is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. Prices for single tickets are $29, $49, and $61. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page. Discounted single tickets will be available at the door, $15 for patrons under the age of 35 and $10 for students with valid identification.

As in the past, there will be an Open Rehearsal. It will be held on Wednesday, May 8, beginning at 10 a.m. The venue will be Trinity+St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, located at 1620 Gough Street on the northeast corner of Bush Street. Admission will be free and can be arranged by making a reservation through electronic mail.

Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m., Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church: In a similar vein, Clerestory will return to the Great American Songbook with a program entitled Songbook II. This will cast a wide web across genres including African American spirituals, barbershop, folk songs, jazz, and more. Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church is located in the Mission at 455 Fair Oaks Street. For those unfamiliar with the area, this is located between Guerrero Street and Dolores Street and between 25th and 26th Streets. That makes it convenient walking distance from both the BART 24th Street station and the Muni J line, which stops at the corner of 24th Street and Church Street. General admission will be $25 with a $15 rate for seniors and $5 for students. Tickets may be purchased in advance online from an Eventbrite event page.

Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m., SFJAZZ Center: This will be the second concert in the two-concert series Guerrilla Sounds: Julius Eastman’s Legacy, presented by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players; details were provided on this site this past Friday.

Sunday, May 12, 2 p.m., Union Square: This will be the first concert in this year’s series of free Union Square Live concerts. Once again the series will run through September. This is very much a something-for-everybody affair with the full series serving a wide diversity of genres. The opening concert will provide Americana performed by Mitch Polzak’s Royal Deuces. The best place to find further information is through the Events page created by Union Square Live for their Facebook site. Remaining events for May are as follows:
  • Wednesday, May 15, 6 p.m.: Stompy Jones (Swing/Blues)
  • Sunday, May 19, 2 p.m.: Matt Jaffe (Indie/Rock)
  • Sunday, May 26, 2 p.m.: The Nightcap Blues Band (Blues/Rock)
  • Wednesday, May 29, 6 p.m.: Afro-Cuban Ensemble of San Francisco State University (SFSU) (Latin/Jazz/Cuban)
Sunday, May 12, 3 p.m., McKenna Theatre: The 2018–2019 season of the Morrison Artists Series, presented by the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at SFSU will conclude with a concert by the JACK Quartet. This group is dedicated to the performance of contemporary classical music. Current members are violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell. They will present the Bay Area premiere of Zosha Di Castri’s first string quartet. The program will also include John Zorn’s “Necronomicon” and Elliott Carter’s third string quartet. In addition, Otto has prepared arrangements for the ensemble of music from both the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

The McKenna Theatre is in the Creative Arts Building at SFSU, a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. Tickets are free but advance registration is highly desirable. Reservations may be made through the event page for this concert. As usual, there will be a pre-concert lecture, which will begin 2 p.m. in Knuth Hall.

Sunday, May 12, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The San Francisco Early Music Society will present its final season concert to be performed in San Francisco. Antic Faces will present a program entitled Joyne Hands: Elizabethan Entertainments for Mixed Consort. The “mixture” will consist of Shira Kammen (violin and viol), David Morris (viol), John Lenti (lute and viol), Julie Jeffrey (viol and cittern), Peter Hallifax (viol and bandora), and Mindy Rosenfeld (flute).

Single ticket prices will range between $45 and $12. All information about ticketing options has been summarized on a single Web page. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 510-528-1725.

Sunday, May 12, 4 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: Noe Valley Chamber Music will close out its season with a program of chamber music from the Romantic period organized by Artistic Directors Meena Bhasin (viola) and Own Dalby (violin). The pianist will be Eric Zivian, playing on a Beethoven-era fortepiano. The other performers will be Tom Stone (violin) and Tanya Tomkins (cello). Tomkins and Zivian will play the first of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 102 sonatas, written in the key of D major. the program will begin with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 49 (first) piano trio in D minor and conclude with Robert Schumann’s Opus 44 piano quintet in E-flat major.

The Noe Valley Ministry is located at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. Ticket prices are $40 for general admission, $35 for seniors, and $15 for students thirteen and older. They may be purchased online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Tickets may also be purchased in advance by calling NVCM at 415-648-5236.

Sunday, May 12, 7:30 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: The Great Performers Series presented by the San Francisco Symphony will present an “all-star” piano trio recital. The performers will be Joshua Bell (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello), and Jeremy Denk (piano). They will present a program of four trios, beginning with the same Mendelssohn piano trio scheduled for earlier in the afternoon at the Noe Valley Ministry. This will be followed by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 67 trio in E minor (performed last night in Herbst Theatre). The intermission will be followed by the first of the two pieces that Sergei Rachmaninoff called “Trio élégiaque,” composed in the key of G minor and never assigned an opus number. The concluding work will be Maurice Ravel’s A minor trio.

Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue and fills an entire city block. The other boundaries are Grove Street (north), Hayes Street (south), and Franklin Street (west). The main entrance (which is also the entrance to the Box Office) is on Grove Street, roughly halfway down the block. All tickets for this recital will be sold for between $75 and $265. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Web page on the SFS Web site. Flash must be enabled for online ticket transactions. Tickets may also be purchased by visiting the Box Office or calling 415-864-6000. 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.

SFP Presents Three Centuries of Piano Trios

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) wrapped up its Great Artists and Ensembles Series with the second SFP appearance of the Tetzlaff-Tetzlaff-Vogt Trio, whose members are violinist Christian Tetzlaff, cellist (and Christian’s sister) Tanja Tetzlaff, and pianist Lars Vogt. These three musicians have been playing together at least since they recorded the three published piano trios of Johannes Brahms, an album that was released in the spring of 2015; and they first performed for SFP in February of 2016. The group was originally called the Tetzlaff Trio until critics started commenting that this nomenclature was unfair to Vogt!

The plan for the program reminded me of the major impact of the Beaux Arts Trio on my appreciation of piano trio music. Indeed, when Decca released Beaux Arts 60, a 60-CD box set covering all of the recordings that trio made on the Phillips label, in July of 2015 (shortly after the release of the Tetzlaff-Tetzlaff-Vogt Brahms album), the collection was rather neatly divided into three sections, which roughly corresponded to the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. Last night’s program similarly covered all three centuries (but not in chronological order); and (no surprise) all of the selections had previously been recorded by Beaux Arts.

Thus, from my personal point of view, last night was rather an experience of a torch being passed. It was also a reminder that there is no such thing as a “definitive” performance of a musical composition. For all the joy I had derived from Beaux Arts both in recital and on recording, there was a freshness that Tetzlaff-Tetzlaff-Vogt brought to the music of the representative composers for each of those three centuries: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 502 in B-flat major) for the eighteenth, Antonín Dvořák (Opus 65 in F minor) for the nineteenth, and Dmitri Shostakovich (Opus 67 in E minor) for the twentieth. Each of these selections had its own characteristic approach to expressiveness, and the only unifying factor came from the elegant precision and attentiveness that all three performers brought to their acts of making music.

Indeed, the Mozart selection was memorable on several accounts that were somewhat extra-musical ones. Unless I am mistaken, this was the first time I ever saw Vogt smile from his position behind the keyboard; and, by the time the three-movement trio had completed, those smiles had erupted into more overt expressions of enthusiastic joy. In that context I was reminded of the elegant wit that Tetzlaff had brought to Mozart’s K. 216 (third) violin concerto in G major when he played the solo part with the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall a little over a month ago.

Finally, there was the prevailing rhetorical mood. It is one of those truths “universally acknowledged” (thank you, Jane Austen) that anything Mozart ever wrote for keyboard was all about Mozart showing off his prodigious technical skills. Those smiles suggested that Vogt was taking a good-humored approach to Mozart’s “show-off kid” attitude, almost treating the trio as a concerto for piano and very small orchestra. In that spirit the Tetzlaff siblings played along with the game, injecting their own thematic comments when appropriate and establishing the significance of their contributions without every trying to upstage the keyboard action. This led off the evening with a good-natured start, which happened to be the only major-key composition on the program.

The entire second half was devoted to the nineteenth century with the third of Dvořák’s four piano trios. Readers may recall that the prevailing affective characteristics for the key of F minor are “Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave;” but those characteristics will not be found in Dvořák’s Opus 65 trio. Instead, Dvořák uses the minor mode to realize intensely churning energy, a far more positive sense of vigor whose minor thirds have more do to with modal folk qualities than with any depressive nature.

That nature, instead, provided the foundation for the Shostakovich E minor trio, which preceded the intermission break. Opus 67 is one of his most depressing compositions, embodying a weariness with the duration of World War II that was bringing him to the brink of despair. Thus, even with its minor key, the Dvořák trio enabled the audience to get out from under Shostakovich’s dark clouds and recover a more positive outlook on the world.

Nevertheless, the Shostakovich trio was the centerpiece of the evening, as much in spirit as in the ordering of the program. From the very first sonorities of eerie upper harmonics (realized by barely touching the string at critical nodal points), thick clouds of darkness settled over the entire Herbst interior. There were occasional efforts to seek out a livelier and more positive rhetoric, but each attempt was beaten back into the darkness. Even Shostakovich’s familiar use of chorale rhetoric in the third (Largo) movement seemed to have more to do with reminders of the grave rather than with praise of the heavenly.

Indeed, that chorale amounts to an “overture” that leads to the dark despair of the final movement. The Allegretto theme (which could easily have had its roots in klezmer) was (as the program book observes) supposedly “inspired by accounts that the Nazis had forced Jews to dance on their graves [which the Jews themselves had dug] before execution.” As the movement progresses, the theme becomes more obsessive; and each return statement is more agonizing than its predecessor. In other words, this was music that was clearly “about” one of the darkest truths of World War II; and Shostakovich’s ability to convey that “aboutness” without shortchanging his fundamental compositional skills puts Opus 67 in the running for those who like to single out “the greatest chamber music of the twentieth century.”

It is therefore understandable that, when it came to taking an encore for the evening, violinist Tetzlaff announced that the music would be dedicated to the victims of the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in San Diego County yesterday morning. That selection was the third of the six Dumka movements that constitute Dvořák’s Opus 90 (“Dumky”) trio. Dvořák was drawn to this form for the depicting of sharply contrasting emotional dispositions, and the contrasts of this music took on particular poignancy in its association with yesterday’s tragic event and the extent to which that event is yet another “brick in the wall” of a much broader and sinister context.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Grieg’s Orchestral Music on Warner Classics

As I promised about a week ago, my piecemeal approach to Warner Classics’ 13-CD collection entitled Grieg: Piano, Orchestral & Vocal Works, Chamber Music will follow the discussion of the piano selections with the orchestral section. This seems appropriate since Edvard Grieg “crossed the fence” in both directions, so to speak. Music composed for piano would be subsequently orchestrated, and piano editions were composed for pieces written for orchestra. The best example of the latter involves the Opus 23 incidental music that Grieg composed for the premiere performance of Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt.

Arthur Rackham’s illustration of Peer Gynt among the trolls from a 1936 edition of Ibsen’s play (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This music is best known through the two orchestral suites (particularly the first) that Grieg extracted from the 33 individual selections that Grieg composed for Ibsen. Grieg himself subsequently arranged both of those suites for solo piano, and those solo piano versions were included in the recordings of the complete piano music that Norwegian pianist Eva Knardahl made for BIS Records.

The Wikipedia page for the entire Opus 23 observes that the full score clocks in at about 90 minutes. It also notes that the score itself was not published until 1908, about a year after Grieg’s death. The publication was supervised by Johan Halvorsen.

The Warner collection allocates a single CD for the Peer Gynt music, a little over one hour in duration. It also claims to present the original version. That claim is wrong in several ways, duration being only one of them. Most important to me is that the order of the selections has been shuffled in a way that adds nothing to the listening experience. Furthermore, the two folk dances that serve as entertainment for the wedding scene in Act I should, by all rights, be played on the Hardanger fiddle, the appropriate instrument for the occasion. The Warner recording was made with Paavo Järvi conducting the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, which, apparently did not have this instrument at its disposal. So the first dance is played by violist Rain Vilu and the second by violinist Arvo Leibur. My own listening preference continues the be the two-CD Unicorn-Kanchana release with Per Dreier conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. This exceeds the 90-minute duration by inserting three of the four Opus 35 Norwegian dance arrangements into Act II, the one set in the hall of the Mountain King.

The fact is that Järvi and his Estonians are on much sounder ground when it comes to orchestral composition for its own sake. The accounts of both the Opus 35 Norwegian dances and the Opus 40 “Holberg” suite are downright refreshing, as are the four symphonic dances in the Opus 64 collection. The two Opus 34 “Elegiac” melodies are a bit on the syrupy side; but they are arrangements for string orchestra of two of the songs in the Opus 33 collection. It is a bit hard for them not to be syrupy; and the layout of the recording was kind enough to separate them with all four of the Opus 35 dances.

The other “great hit” in the collection is, of course, the Opus 16 piano concerto in A minor. Dmitri Kitayenko conducts the Bergen Philharmonic and soloist Leif Ove Andsnes. This is a perfectly satisfactory account of a concerto that all of us have heard too many times but obviously could not have been dropped from this collection! Curiously, it is coupled with an early four-movement symphony that was never assigned an opus number. (The second and third movements were arranged for four hands on one piano keyboard and became Grieg’s Opus 14 “Symphonic Pieces.”) Presumably, the symphony was included in this collection “because it’s there.”

As a lover of history, I also must note that I appreciate the presence of the late John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra in this collection. The recording includes the Lyric Suite, consisting of orchestrations of four of the compositions in the fifth book of Lyric Pieces (Opus 54), as well as the “Homage” march from the Opus 56 set of orchestral excerpts of incidental music for Sigurd Jorsalfar, the play by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.

I must confess that I have not previously engaged in “deep-end” listening to Grieg’s orchestral writing. In general I was impressed by what I heard, which means that I was satisfied by most of the contributing conductors. Nevertheless, my listening preferences still incline towards the solo piano music; and nothing in this collection persuaded me to shift my attention.

Specifics for Notre-Dame Solidarity Concert

Fighting the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris with a deluge gun (photograph by Cangadoba, edited by Philip Terry Graham, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).

This coming Monday evening, Grace Cathedral will host a free Public Solidarity Concert for Notre-Dame de Paris. The program will present a wide diversity of soloists and ensembles. The best way to review this program will be according to its participants as follows:

The program will begin with a performance by the Grace Cathedral Men and Boys. They will give an a cappella performance of Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere mei Deus.” They will then be accompanied by organist Johann Vexo in a performance of the “Sanctus” and “Benedictus” movements from Louis Vierne’s Opus 16 Messe solennelle. Later in the program Vexo will give a solo performance of the opening Allegro movement from Vierne’s Opus 20 (second) organ symphony in E minor.

Members of the San Francisco Symphony will perform two chamber music selections. The third (Andantino) movement from Claude Debussy’s Opus 10 string quartet in G minor will be played by violinists Wyatt Underhill and Jessie Fellows, violist Matthew Young, and cellist Barbara Bogatin. Later in the program members of the brass section will perform a quintet by Michael Kamen. Those players will be Aaron Schuman and Jeff Biancalana on trumpet, Robert Ward on horn, Timothy Higgins on trombone, and John Engelkes on bass trombone.

San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad will be pianist accompanying two sets by vocal soloists. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (also an Adler Fellow) will present two songs by Henri Duparc, “Chanson triste” and “L’invitation au voyage.” He will be followed by mezzo Frederica von Stade’s offering of two selections by Francis Poulenc, “Les Anges musiciens” from La Courte Paille and “Priez pour paix.”

American Bach Soloists will then conclude with both instrumental and vocal selections. The instrumentalists will perform the G major sonata by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault that he entitled “La Félicité.” The American Bach Choir will then join the full ensemble for selections from Cantate Domino a grand motet by Jean-Joseph de Mondonville. Vocal soloists will be Steven Brennfleck (haute-contre) and Constantine Novotny (basse-taille). Jeffery Thomas will conduct. The program will then conclude with Eric Choate’s setting of the “Ave Maria” plainchant.

This concert will begin at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 29. Grace Cathedral is located at the top of Nob Hill at 1100 California Street. This will be a free concert. Admission will be first-come first-served, and the doors will open at 5:15 p.m. Registration is advised but will not guarantee entry. Registration may be made online through an Eventbrite event page.

A Promising Young Trio at the Joe Henderson Lab

Last night the Joe Henderson Lab on the ground floor of the SFJAZZ Center presented a program in a series called Artists on the Rise, launched by SFJAZZ Education. The “mission statement” for this program describes is objective “to showcase a new generation of cutting-edge talent, from undiscovered Bay Area treasures to young artists on the national scene.” Last night’s program included a jazz piano trio whose progress definitely deserves to be followed.

Pianist Chris McCarthy clearly commands a wide diversity of styles and a highly imaginative capacity for inventive improvisation. He also knows how to let his fellow trio members have more than a fair say in the matter. Drummer Jongkuk Kim has a solid command of polyrhythmic disciplines, as well as a keen sense of how each of his instruments can contribute patterns of pitch. This makes him just as inventive as McCarthy, seeking out his inventions on his own unique plane of discourse. Finally, there is the bass work of Kanoa Mendenhall. While, for the most part, she provided “continuo duty” last night, she had a couple of occasions to unfold and elaborate a few melodic lines of her own. My guess is that she has enough in her knapsack to sustain a full solo set of her own invention.

The only bad news about this situation is that the trio was there for backup, rather than as the “main attraction.” They were performing behind Sasha Berliner in vibraphone; and, as might be assumed, Berliner had “top billing” for the evening. All the pieces were her original compositions, some from her debut album Gold and the rest from Azalea, which has been scheduled for release this coming September.

Sadly, Berliner’s capacity for invention came across as rather pale in the context of the rich colors unfolding in the trio behind her. She also explored the use of “concrete” sounds controlled through her laptop, which gave little indication of any connection to the music. (Since no titles were announced, there may have been a connection to the words in the title.) Technically, Berliner had a solid command of her instrument, but her improvisations tended to orbit around a rather limited set of tropes. As a result, by the time her one-hour set had hit the halfway mark, there was an uneasy sense that what would subsequently come from her would be “more of the same.”

When it comes to tracking “cutting-edge talent,” my own preferences will tend towards McCarthy, Kim, and Mendenhall, each of whom has the potential to put out a thoroughly satisfying solo set and each of whom knows how to contribute to a dynamite trio.

Friday, April 26, 2019

SFCMP Will Again Conclude Season with Weekend

Poster design for this concert showing Julius Eastman, Myra Melford, and Sidney Corbett (from the SFCMP event page for this concert series)

About a year ago San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) concluded its 2017–18 season with an at the CROSSROADS event consisting of four concerts over the course of a single weekend (two concerts on Friday and two on Saturday). Next month the current season will again conclude with an at the CROSSROADS offering that will span both Friday and Saturday. This time, however, there will be only two different programs, one on each of the two evenings.

The title of the entire event will be Guerrilla Sounds: Julius Eastman’s Legacy. Each program will present an Eastman composition representative of his impact on future generations of composers. The Friday offering will be “Stay on It,” while Saturday will serve up Eastman’s taste for provocative titles with “Gay Guerrilla.” The remainder of each concert will involve world premiere performances, and each evening will present a work written on commission. The composer for the first evening will be Sidney Corbett, and Myra Melford will perform as soloist on Saturday as part of her own commissioned work. Composers of the other premiere performances on Friday will be Fernanda Aoki Navarro and LJ White; and those for Saturday will be Adam Strawbridge and Wyatt Cannon. Both Cannon and Strawbridge are winners of the 2019 SF Search for Scores program, and both composers were inspired by Eastman’s life and legacy.

These two concerts will take place on Friday, May 10, and Saturday, May 11. On both evenings the concert will begin at 8 p.m. The venue will be the SFJAZZ Center, located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street. Tickets for a single concert will be $35 with a $15 rate for students, teachers, and arts employees. A pass for the entire weekend will be $60 with the reduced rate of $25.

Tickets will also provide admission to the post-concert party, which will begin at 9:30 p.m. In addition each concert will be preceded by a How Music is Made event. This will involve the participation of one or more of the composers, along with music demonstrations. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. when grilled sandwiches will be available, along with full bar service. SFCMP has created a single event page for all advance purchase of tickets online.

James Tenney Encounters Computers: 1961–1966

My last report on the essays of music theorist and composer James Tenney, compiled by the University of Illinois Press in the book From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory, concerned his pursuit of, in his words, “A Phenomenology of Twentieth-Century Musical Materials.” That quotation comes from the title of his Master’s thesis at the University of Illinois, which he completed in 1961. The University of Illinois also provided him with his first serious encounter with digital computers and the technical skill of programming those devices. The three essays that follow his Master’s thesis in From Scratch document his experiences in working with computers and the impact of those experiences on this thinking about music and “musical materials.” The titles of those essays are “Computer Music Experiences, 1961–1964” (completed in 1964), “On the Physical Correlates of Timbre (1965), and “Excerpts from ‘An Experimental Investigation of Timbre—the Violin’” (1966). (The excerpted document was a grant proposal.)

Once again, I appeal to the reader to allow me to put these dates in a personal context. My freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) began in September of 1963. My very first elective during that first semester was a course on computer programming, almost all of which was focused on working with machine code. I hated it. Programs had to be given as input to the computer as decks of punched cards, and the slightest error meant that the deck would be ejected without yielding any results. Since we were allowed only four attempts for each assignment, the pressure was maddening; and I came away with little more than the ability to decipher the “Principles of Operations” manual for an IBM computer.

Fortunately, that was enough to get me a summer job at the University of Pennsylvania. Initially, I was simply assisting a graduate student with data entry for a long program written in a long-forgotten programming language (IPL-V). After I had been there for about a week, another graduate student asked me to help him with writing the code for the system he was developing as part of his thesis research. Free of the constraint of getting everything right within four attempts, it did not take me long to get into a comfortable groove of implementing useful code.

That same graduate student then told me that I could use the computer for any other project that interested me. I told him that, having been instructed in the rules of counterpoint, I was curious to see if those rules could be translated into software. He encouraged me to go ahead with the idea and directed me to the book Experimental music: composition with an electronic computer by Lejaren Hiller and Leonard Isaacson. (Hiller had founded the Experimental Music Studios at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by the time Tenney was beginning to work on this thesis.) Thus, I made my first steps down the rabbit hole in the summer of 1964.

This was a good time to be at MIT. The Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS) had first been demonstrated in 1961; and it provided ways to program a computer through a keyboard (basically a repurposed teletype, some models of which could both read and write punched paper tape). It also supported a programming language called LISP (LISt Processor) that allowed you to type in programs as symbolic expressions and run them from the keyboard. There were also computers with interactive systems to support writing long programs (text editors) and testing them in “debugging” environments. By the time I had reached my senior year, I was enjoying the facilities available at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, whose Director, Marvin Minsky, supervised my senior thesis work around developing software for playing music.

That last paragraph is important, because Tenney does not seem to have had the luxury of working with such interactive systems for writing, testing, and running computer programs. Wherever he was based, he had to live in a world of “batch processing,” which seriously impeded the whole nature of research as an ongoing process of the interaction of ideas and their implementation. The present-day reader of the essays Tenney wrote between 1964 and 1966 will probably be inclined to ask, “Why didn’t he just …?” The answer is, “Because he worked in an environment that would not support his doing that sort of thing!”

Each of those three essays presents an admirable account of finely disciplined hypothesis-and-test thinking. Unfortunately, that discipline was seriously impeded by work habits that had to be developed to accommodate computer systems that had not been designed for “user interaction.” The most significant consequence of those work habits was a need to limit the hypotheses one could pose on the basis of which ones could be realistically tested. As a result, when Tenney sought to investigate timbre, he tended to focus on data consisting of individual tones, whose analog recording could then be transformed into digital data. His working environment was simply not up to “capturing” an actual performance of music as digital data; and, as a result, his hypotheses never tried to address the dynamic interactive relationship between an instrument’s timbre and what the player of that instrument is actually doing.

In other words we have come a very long way since Tenney wrote those essays. Indeed, the distance is so long that it is unclear that there is much value in these texts. The one thing that interested me was that his account of his work at Bell Labs probably had some connection to a piece by Princeton composer James K. Randall entitled “Lyric Variations for Violin and Computer.” As I recall, Randall wrote an article for Perspectives of New Music in which he chronicled the tortuous path he had to follow to get the computer at Bell Labs to make even the slightest peep of a sound. My guess is that this was a serious cri de cœur; but, to his benefit, he managed to maintain a sense of humor in documenting his experiences. Tenney was a much more serious writer; and, considering what he had to endure, I wish he had cultivated a better sense of humor.

Gaffigan Returns to SFS with Mixed Results

Conductor James Gaffigan (photograph by David Künzler and Melchior Bürgi, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

From 2006 to 2009 James Gaffigan was Associate Conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), a position created for him by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Now he is Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. This coming June he will be in the orchestra pit of the War Memorial Opera House, serving as conductor for Francesca Zambello’s staging of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Yesterday afternoon he returned to Davies Symphony Hall as guest conductor to present this week’s SFS subscription concerts.

The program turned out to be an interesting variation on the familiar format. One might say that it was an overture-concerto-symphony2 concert, since the second half of the program was devoted to two short symphonies, rather than one long one. The concerto soloist was Hélène Grimaud in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major. However, the best way to account for the performance will be in the chronological order of the selections, since the high points of the afternoon took place at the beginning and ending of that chronology.

The earliest work on the program was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 297 (“Paris”) symphony in D major. This work was composed in 1778 when Mozart was 22 years old. He was in Paris on a job-hunting trip. The music was first performed on June 12, 1778 at the home of Count Karl Heinrich Joseph von Sickingen, the ambassador of the Electorate of the Palatinate. It was then given its first public performance six days later at the Concert Spirituel. The symphony was well received, but the trip did not lead to Mozart finding employment in Paris.

K. 297 is only in three movements with a modest Andantino separating two vigorous Allegro movements. Gaffigan’s account did not stint on the vigor, but he was also sensitive to the intimate rhetoric of the Andantino, making sure that its quiet grace was not overshadowed by the outer movements. James Lee Wyatt III played period timpani with wooden sticks that crisply punctuated the rapid-fire string passages. It also appeared that the horns for the performance had no valves, but the rest of the ensemble involved contemporary instruments. One got the impression that Gaffigan was going for sonorities suitable for the Davies space, rather than in putting all of his eggs in one historically-informed basket.

As a result, K. 297 was a refreshing breath air following the intermission after the rather stale treatment of Beethoven that preceded it. Wyatt was again playing the period instruments but with softer sticks, resulting in sounds that were more muted, rather than crisp. Indeed, nothing was crisp about this performance, whether if involve Grimaud rushing through rapid-fire passages with the dampers raised, blending all of the notes in those passages into a single inchoate blob of mush. Similarly, Gaffigan showed few signs of bringing clarity to the orchestral side of the balance. Indeed, the clearest sonorities from the ensemble came from Associate Principal Cello Peter Wyrick providing the solo “continuo” passages for the final movement. (That was the second program this month in which Wyrick’s supporting solo work outshone the piano concerto soloist.)

Somewhat more satisfying was the Wagner section that preceded the concerto. The “overture” for the program was the orchestral extract from the first scene of the final act of Parsifal. This is neither a prelude nor an interlude in the opera itself. Rather, it provides a melodic context while Gurnemanz explains the significance of Good Friday to Parsifal (a week late on our calendar). This section was subsequently separated from the vocal part and published separately under the title “Karfreitagszauber” (Good Friday spell).

Gaffigan clearly knows his Wagner. The balance of the wide diversity of instrumental voices could not have been more on the mark. Overall, his rhetoric captured the quiet solemnity the music was supposed to establish in its original role as “background.” Compared to other accounts of this instrumental selection I have encountered, I felt as if the overall pace was a bit too sluggish; but I am not inclined to fault Gaffigan on this matter. After all, Gurnemanz did not rush through his explanation; and Gaffigan may well have sought to capture the original spiritual mood of the opera itself.

This opening selection was strikingly contrasted with the second symphony on the program, Samuel Barber’s Opus 9 (first). This is a four-movement symphony in which all four movements are conjoined into a single uninterrupted flow. Barber was 25 when he composed the piece. (Compare this with the 22-year-old Mozart in Paris.) The composition opens with the entire brass section at its brassiest; and, even when the brass are out of the picture, the music churns away with vigorous energy, catching its breath only during the relatively brief Andante tranquillo section.

Since so much of my music education took place at a time when it was almost unthinkable to worship at any temple other than than of Anton Webern, just about every educator I encountered viewed Barber as a bête noir. Indeed, mention of his name rarely arose in any setting other than that of vocal students. It was only with the rise of composers such as John Adams, willing to remind us that having fun with music was quite all right, that the dust was blown off of many Barber scores.

“Fun” was definitely the operative concept in Gaffigan’s reading of this symphony yesterday afternoon. Nevertheless, he never lost touch with the symphonic form around which all of that fun has been organized. Furthermore, he always knew just how to keep Barber’s myriad resources in balance. As a result the music romped its way at an energetic pace that was guaranteed to bring a smile to just about any sensitive face in the hall. Gaffigan definitely knows how to inspire an audience with good feelings before they leave the hall.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Outsound Presents: May, 2019

Outsound Presents plans for next month have almost been entirely finalized. Once again, there will be two concerts in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series in addition to the weekly LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series on Thursday evenings. Details have not yet been provided for one of the LSG events, but this page will be updated once that information becomes available. (As usual, notification of the update will appear on the Facebook shadow site.)

All LSG events will begin at (or close to) 8 p.m. on Thursday evenings. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission will be on the usual sliding scale between $8 and $15. In general, the LSG Series provides opportunities for the full diversity of approaches to improvisation.

SIMM Series concerts usually follow a two-set format. However, while LSG tends to focus on improvisation, SIMM usually involves composed works (which may, or may not, involve elements of indeterminacy in performance). They begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday evenings. The venue is the Musicians Union Hall, located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Here is an account of the events that have already been scheduled:

Thursday, May 2: This will be a two-set evening. The first set will see the return of Biggi Vinkeloe playing both alto saxophone and flute and joined by Donald Robinson on drums. The second set will be presented by Cellista, the performing name of an experimental performance artist and cellist. Performances often feature dance, film, and live looping and occasionally a modular chamber ensemble.

Sunday, May 5: The first SIMM Series concert will also consist of two sets. The opening set will be a solo guqin performance by Gabby Wen. This will be followed by the next performance organized by bassist Bill Noertker. This will be the 30th anniversary performance by the group he calls his After the End of the World Coretet. The other players will be Annelise Zamula on saxophones and flute and Dave Mihaly on drums “and whatnot.”

[updated 4/26, 11:25 a.m.:

Thursday, May 9: This will be a three-set evening. Cheryl Leonard, who has a particular interest in the sounds of natural environments will open. For this concert she will provide vocals and perform on both invented and natural instruments, drawing upon amplification equipment to created a surround-sound experience. She will be followed a trio called Citizen Fly 2. The members are Honor Monaco, Joel Nelson, and Dylan Burchett; and, as of this writing, no further details are available about this group. The final set will present a quintet led by drummer TJ Thompson. His front line brings violinist gabby fluke-mogul together with two saxophonists: Bruce Ackley and Kevin Robinson. They are all joined by Karl Evangelist on guitar.

Thursday, May 16: This will be another two-set evening. The first set will be a duo improvisation by Nathan Corder on guitar and Sean Hamilton on percussion. They will be followed by Dancin Baby, which calls its repertoire “free doom psychdelic euphonium noise jazz.” The group has two euphonium players, Brian Pedersen and Courtney Sexton. Jeffrey Lievers provides drums and electronics. Psychedelics are handled by the analog video feedback of Kit Young.]

Sunday, May 19: The second SIMM Series concert will again present two sets. The first set will present the trio of Yoni Kretzmer on tenor saxophone, Mark Clifford on vibraphone, and Jordan Glenn on drums. They will be followed by the Stone Raft quartet of Josh Allen on tenor saxophone, Tom Weeks on alto saxophone, Tim Duff on bass, and Aaron Levin on drums.

Thursday, May 23: Details are also forthcoming for this two-set LSG program. The first set will consists of dark ambient and industrial sounds (presumably electronic) provided by Infinexhuma. They will be followed by 99 HOOKER, which describes its music as “Kaoss Enhancer.”

Thursday, May 30: Josh Allen will return to Outsound. This time he will present a set of solo improvisations on his tenor saxophone. He will be followed by a similar set of solo improvisations taken by Josh Martin on electric bass.

Delos Releases Fourth Cappella SF Album

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past Friday Delos released its fourth recording of Cappella SF, the a cappella chamber choir based in San Francisco (as its name implies), conducted by Ragnar Bohlin. The full title of the new album is Mass Transmission: Choral Works by Mason Bates. As a resident of the Bay Area, Bates has had a long and impressive relationship with Bohlin, first involving the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Chorus and later Cappella SF.

The title of the album comes from a composition that SFS commissioned for performance during its centennial season. More specifically, it was written to be performed as part of the American Mavericks Festival held during March of 2012. The piece was scored for full chorus accompanied only by pipe organ (played by Paul Jacobs at the premiere) and electronica, which Bates himself performed at the keyboard of his laptop. The conductor at the premiere performance was Donato Cabrera.

By now Bates has established himself for his skill in integrating the “virtual” sonorities synthesized by his computer with the “physical” sounds of musical instruments sharing the stage with him. However, just as important has been the way in which he has built up a repertoire in a new and unlikely genre: the history of technology. The best example of this genre is probably “Alternative Energy,” which has been recorded by both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and SFS. “Mass Transmission” is basically about an elaborate wireless radio link that the Dutch built early in the twentieth century to enable communication between Dutch youth working as pages for government officials in Java and their parents back in the Netherlands. The libretto includes a transcript of one of those conversations, along with personal memories of that time and place.

Considering the technical infrastructure, the performance is expressively lush. However, it captures the spirit of nostalgia for those pioneering times with a clear-sighted account of how a new technology established the vanguard of a series of changes that have had (and continue to have) lasting effect. Bates never tries to romanticize, but he also knows how to tap into listening as an emotional experience.

The new album begins with a composition strictly for a cappella chorus without any electronic supplements. Sirens is a six-movement tone poem that presents reflections on those tempting figures from mythology drawn from five different sources. Homer’s Odyssey provides the framework with an excerpt sung in Homeric Greek at the beginning and in English at the end. Other sources come from literature (including the New Testament) and Quechua folklore. Bates is clearly comfortable setting texts in a variety of different languages, and Sirens makes for a fascinating mood piece. The album also concludes with a “bonus track” dedicated to Bohlin entitled “Rag of Ragnar.”

Schwabacher Series Concludes with Four Vocalists

Martin Katz, Christian Pursell, Zhengyi Bai, Patricia Westley, and Ashley Dixon (photograph by Matthew Washburn, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

Last night in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program jointly presented the final recital of the 2019 Schwabacher Recital Series. The program was prepared by pianist Martin Katz leading a quartet of vocalists, all of whom were Merola Alumni: soprano Patricia Westley, mezzo Ashley Dixon, tenor Zhengyi Bai, and bass-baritone Christian Pursell. Dixon, Bai, and Pursell are all currently San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows.

Katz has had a long (about four decades) and distinguished career of accompanying vocalists. (I have enjoyed his work on both coasts of this country.) He is also a perceptive coach, and many of the Merola participants have benefitted from master classes that he has conducted. He prepared a program that could almost be called a celebration of the vocal repertoire. The evening was framed by the opposing nineteenth-century Viennese aesthetics of Hugo Wolf and Johannes Brahms; and between them was situated the bold strokes of Samuel Barber from the middle of the twentieth century.

The concluding Brahms selection was the most delightful, particularly since it afforded the only opportunity to listen to the vocalists singing in groups, rather than as soloists. This portion of the program consisted of four songs from the WoO 33 collection of 49 German folksongs, concluding with “Vergebliches Ständchen” (futile serenade) from the Opus 84 collection of five “Romances and Songs,” scored for one or two voices. Three of the songs in this set had texts involving dialog between a man and a woman. In the score for “Vergebliches Ständchen,” those “roles” are explicitly labeled “He” and “She.” Last night it was sung by the full quartet to conclude the program with the men doubling the “He” texts and the women doing the same for “She.”

The other two dialog songs were sung as duets by Westley and Bai. The first, “Feinsliebchen, du sollst mir nicht barfuß gehn” (my little love, you should not go barefoot), was between a pair of lovers, while the second, “Schwesterlein” (sister dear), is between brother-and-sister siblings. Both of these were delivered with minimal but effective staging; and Westley knew how to engage just the right amount of character-acting to reinforce the presentation of a ring at the end of the first song. Pursell and Dixon each sang solo selections for the collection, both again involving just enough staging to reinforce the romantic tone of the texts.

A little bit of staging also went a long way in the performance of Barber’s Opus 29 Hermit Songs cycle. When they were first performed in 1953 at the Library of Congress, soprano Leontyne Price sang the entire set, accompanied by Barber at the piano. Last night the songs were divided among the four vocalists in ways that made perfect sense. “St Ita’s Vision” is the one that most explicitly involves a female voice; and Wesley’s channeling of the words of Mary could not have been more effective. Similarly, the voice behind “The Monk and his Cat” is decidedly male; and Pursell portrayed the monk as more interesting in watching the cat at play than in copying his manuscripts. (As those familiar with this song know, the cat makes an appearance by walking across the piano keyboard.)

The first half of the program was devoted to sixteen of the songs from Hugo Wolf’s collection of 53 songs setting poems by Eduard Mörike. As suggested above, Wolf’s approach to composing songs differed significantly from that of Brahms. Wolf and Gustav Mahler were fellow classmates at the Vienna Conservatory (now the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna). Both found their own ways to depart from Brahms’ conventions in writing art song. However, while Mahler favored orchestral settings, all of Wolf’s songs involve piano accompaniment.

Nevertheless, he shares with Mahler a preference for thick fabrics of polyphony. Indeed, many of his songs (including those performed last night) frequently require that the voice weave its own way through the many voices of polyphony already in the piano part. This is no easily matter, particularly when it involves the rich harmonies of the late nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, all four of the vocalists often showed difficulty fitting their lines into the textures coming from the piano. This may have been at least partly a matter of the adverse acoustic properties of the Atrium Theater. As has been frequently observed, this space has no natural acoustics and depends, for all practical purposes, on the Constellation® technology developed by Meyer Sound. Controlling that system requires a skilled technician; and, to the best of my knowledge, such a technician has always been present for any performance involving the San Francisco Opera. (Readers may recall that at the Earplay concert this past February, one of the contributing composers took over those controls, since the technology contributed to the score he had created.)

Last night’s technical support clearly served the music of Barber and Brahms satisfactorily, but it would appear that the technician had not been prepared for the complexity of Wolf’s polyphony. As in the other selections, the dramatic skills of all four vocalists definitely facilitated listener attention. However, Wolf’s obsession with intricate detail, even when it involves only a piano and a vocalist, is as critical to his aesthetic stance as is Mahler’s focus on the detailed activity of individual instruments in his symphonic writing. Thus, while Katz clearly had good intentions in preparing an account of Wolf’s skills in working with particularly intense German texts, those intentions were sadly undermined by the “technical details” of the circumstances.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Pamela Z Provides Music for Flyaway Productions

Poster design for The Wait Room (photograph by RJ Muna, from the current home page of the Flyaway Productions Web site)

Among the performing arts groups in the Bay Area, Flyaway Productions has one of the more unique statements of the nature of performance:
PERFORM off-the-ground dances that expose the range and power of female physicality. We experiment with height, speed and gravity, and dancing on steel objects that are both architectural and fabricated. We dance at the intersection of social justice and acrobatic spectacle. We dance anywhere from two feet to one hundred feet off the ground. We offer performance as a medium for social commentary and choose projects that advance female empowerment in the public realm. At its core, our work explores the female body—its tumultuous expressions of strength and fragility.
The latest Flyaway offering is a full-evening work entitled The Wait Room. Created by Artistic Director Jo Kreiter through a partnership with Essie Justice Group, this piece is a performance installation that exposes the physical, psychic, and emotional burden of incarceration for women with imprisoned loved ones. Sean Riley has created a large, rolling set to evoke a prison visiting room; and the sound score for the performance has been created by Pamela Z.

The Wait Room has a run of eight performances, three of which have already taken place. The remaining performances will take place at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 24 (tonight), Thursday, April 25, Friday, April 26, and Saturday, April 27, as well as at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 27. All performances are free. They will take place outdoors at 1125 Market Street, across from the Civic Center and between 7th Street and 8th Street. Bear in mind, however, that seating is finite. 275 seats will be available for each performance, and they will be filled on a first-come first-served basis. The best chances for seating will probably be tonight and tomorrow night.

Christian Reif Visits Conservatory Orchestra

Last night in the Carolyn H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Christian Reif conducted the final Conservatory Orchestra concert of the season. Presumably several (if not more) of the SFCM students were familiar with Reif’s conducting as members of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO), where Reif just concluded his tenure as Music Director. However, when he was at his best, his command of communicating with the entire ensemble was as solid as it had consistently been in Davies Symphony Hall.

This was particularly true of the final selection on the program, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 36 (fourth) symphony in F minor. Noted (or notorious) for the intensity of its rhetoric, this symphony poses major challenges to even the most experienced conductors. It is so easy to overindulge the expressiveness of that rhetoric that it often seems that the best of conductors are prone to bathing in the lush sonorities, rather than leading those producing those sonorities.

There is no doubt that Reif conducted with broad expressive strokes. However, it was just as clear that he was using his body language to communicate with every member of the ensemble. He had well-defined ideas about how the four movements of this symphony should progress, and he could not have done a better job of bringing those ideas to realization. This was an account of Opus 36 that one could enjoy for the music itself, rather that wallowing in the intensity of its emotions.

Sadly, the first half of the program was not as compelling. The concerto selection was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 103 (“Egyptian”) piano concerto in F major. The soloist was Jinzhao Xu (class of ’20), winner of the SFCM Concerto Competition. He clearly had no trouble leaping through all of the hoops that the score demanded of him; and, for the most part, his technique was agile.

Nevertheless, his focused attention of dexterity seems to have distracted him from attending just as much to dynamics. While it may not have been exactly the case, the overall impression was that he thundered his way through the full extent of the concerto’s solo writing. Indeed, there were times that the thundering was so imposing that even the most attentive listener ran the risk of losing touch with the orchestra. The result was an overall reading of the score that lost touch with the instrumental sonorities of the ensemble, thus ignoring Saint-Saëns’ attention to coloration, which was almost always as strong as his challenging keyboard technique.

Lack of balance in the ensemble was equally problematic in the opening selection, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Setting aside the question of whether or not Rimsky-Korsakov’s arrangement undermined many, if not most, of Mussorgsky’s intentions, the case remains that, like Saint-Saëns, Rimsky-Korsakov had a keen ear for instrumental coloration. This was clearly evident last week in Davies when Simone Young conducted his Opus 35 Scheherazade; and it was just as true of this smaller-scale approach to someone else’s music.

It was therefore more than a little disconcerting that the overall balance of the ensemble fell out of whack during the early stages of this piece and never really recovered. This was more than a little disturbing, since Rimsky-Korsakov was particularly skilled at having the sounds come at the listener from every which way as his way of capturing the orgiastic qualities of the music. Unfortunately, there were too many instances of one set of striking colors getting overwhelmed by another set that had just had its say.

The overall result was that Reif’s encounter with the Conservatory Orchestra was less compelling than any of his past SFSYO concerts, leading one to wonder just how much time had been allotted for the preparation of last night’s presentation.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Bleeding Edge: 4/23/2019

This week’s installment was delayed by a day, simply because I felt that getting the word out about “Abraham in Flames” sooner rather than later seemed desirable. That decision was partly motivated by virtue of the fact that, once again, this is a week in which all but one of the relevant events have been taken into account. Furthermore, most of the action is again taking place at the Center for New Music. Here is the hyperlinked summary of those events currently on record:
What remains is the next concert in the Composers in Performance Series, curated by the Meridian Gallery but held at the Canessa Gallery. This will be the first event of the 2019 season. Guitarist Rob Noyes will be visiting from Boston to perform a solo set. The program will also present the Bay Area Usufruct duo of Polly Moller and Tim Walters. Finally, trumpeter Greg Kelley will be visiting from Seattle to jam with Jacob Felix Heule (percussion), Danishta Rivero (vocals), and Chris Cooper (guitar and electronics).

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 27. The Canessa Gallery is located at 708 Montgomery Street, right on the “border” between the Financial District and North Beach. Admission is between $5 and $20, payable at the door and/or collected between sets.