Friday, May 31, 2019

Heidi Moss Erickson to Present All-Strauss Program

Heidi Moss Erickson and John Parr (from the Eventbrite event page)

Even those who did not attend may recall that the music performed at this year’s annual fundraising gala for LIEDER ALIVE! included the concert portion of the event included a collection (Opus 29) of songs composed by Richard Strauss performed by soprano Heidi Moss Erickson. On that occasion she was accompanied at the piano by LIEDER ALIVE! artist-in-residence Peter Grünberg. At the end of next month, Erickson will close out the 2018–19 season with a program consisting entirely of Strauss songs. Her accompanist at this recital will be John Parr.

In all likelihood the program will be structured as a chronological traversal. The earliest song will be the WoO 3 setting of Johann Ludwig Uhland’s “Einkehr” (stopping at an inn), followed by the setting of the same text in the Opus 47 collection, composed in 1900. These will be followed by two of the six songs in the Opus 68 collection of settings of poems by Clemens Brentano. Finally, Moss concluded her gala performance with “Beim Schlafengehen” (when falling asleep) from the posthumously published Four Last Songs; and, at this recital, she will sing all four of the songs.

This performance will begin at 5 p.m. on Sunday, June 30. 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. These may also be purchased in advance through Eventbrite. Tickets at the door will be $40 with a $20 discount for students, seniors, and working artists.

Jazz Festival Celebrates 50 Years with 50 Tracks

courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Three weeks ago, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings celebrated the 50th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival by releasing a five-CD box set entitled Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The album consists of 50 tracks of live performances. These do not constitute a year-by-year account of Festival offerings. Instead, the intention seems to have been to provide a fair account of the wide diversity of genres presented over the course of those fifty years; and the earliest recordings date back only as far as 1974.

Going for such breadth was an ambitious undertaking. I suppose I should begin by confessing that my appreciation of it came relatively late in my life, when my wife and I religiously watched the episodes of David Simon’s Treme series on HBO. Needless to say, given that the focus was on narrative, the episodes that presented the different aspects of music-making in New Orleans were far from comprehensive. However, it got me thinking more about many performers whose names I recognized but whose music had not drawn much, if any, of my attention.

Indeed, in at least one case, my initial knowledge of one of the performing groups had nothing to do with New Orleans. I first encountered the Dirty Dozen Brass Band because they performed the music that David Byrne composed for the “Knee Plays” that Robert Wilson had created for his epic production the CIVIL warS. Fortunately, once I was aware of the group, I was able to attend a concert they gave in Royce Hall at the University of California at Los Angeles; and that gave me a better take on their contribution to the musical traditions of New Orleans.

This all amounts to my polite way of saying that, taken in its five-CD entirety, the whole of this collection served up a journey of discovery that, for me at least, was as adventurous as it was diverse. Where there were familiar compositions, such as the “Royal Garden Blues,” they involved performers I not previously associated with the music (the Kermit Ruffins Big Band). Indeed, I think that the only track that involved a combination of music and performer that I had previously encountered was Terence Blanchard’s take on “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Normally, I prefer “going deep” to the breadth of a larger “sampler” collection. However, this Jazz Fest album reminded me that I have a lot to learn. As I used to do with music dating back to the origins of notation, I can use this release to establish my initial “map of the territory.” I can then use that map to plan my visits to other more focused releases.

Darkness Audible in Shostakovich’s Eighth

Visiting conductor Juraj Valčuha (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night Davies Symphony Hall saw the return of Juraj Valčuha to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to present the first of the three performances of this week’s subscription offering. Valčuha last visited SFS a little over a year ago in a program that included Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 44 (third) symphony in C minor. This time Valčuha shifted from Prokofiev to Dmitri Shostakovich but remained in the key of C minor. His selection was the Opus 65 (eighth) symphony, described by Shostakovich’s friend Isaak Glikman as the composers “most tragic work.”

Ironically, Shostakovich wrote this symphony in the summer of 1943 at a time when the fight against the invading Nazi forces was finally beginning to turn in favoring the Soviets. The preceding symphony, Opus 60 in C major, was named after the city of Leningrad, since it was composed around the mid-point of the 900-day Siege of Leningrad. (Obviously, Shostakovich had no idea how much longer the siege would last; but he felt a need to recognize Soviet persistence against Adolf Hitler’s forces.) Perhaps it was in recognition of the turning of the tide that Soviet authorities chose to call Opus 65 the “Stalingrad Symphony.”

Nevertheless, as Glikman had observed, there are few signs in Shostakovich’s score that things were getting better. After all, the Siege of Leningrad would not wind down until January of 1944; and, even though Shostakovich and his family finally moved from Leningrad to Moscow in the spring of 1943, Opus 65 is probably taken as the clearest evidence that World War II had finally worn him down into a depressing state of weariness. Thus, there are extended passages in slow tempo drawn out to the same soul-searching lengths that one encounters in many of Gustav Mahler’s later compositions; and, when the tempo does accelerate, the prevailing emotion is one of a futile cri de cœur.

As might be expected, what ever the tempo might be, the underlying rhetoric is established through meticulous attention to dissonance at its most intense. Valčuha clearly appreciated the role that dissonance played in establishing the symphony’s rhetorical infrastructure; and he was keenly aware of how each of the abundant number of lines in the score had its own way of establishing uniquely colored dissonant intervals. Nevertheless, as might be guessed, the first performance of all of that dissonance did not go down well with Soviet authorities.

Once peace had returned to the Soviet Union, Central Committee secretary Andrei Zhdanov was responsible for defining a “cultural doctrine” consistent with the restoration of pre-War Soviet life. Known as the Zhdanov Doctrine, many significant works by Soviet composers were mercilessly banned for being anti-Soviet (i.e. having the “wrong attitude”); and Opus 65 remained banned for eight years. These days the score is more admired than performed. Since it involves over an hour’s worth of evocations of bleak dispositions, one can understand why ensembles are reluctant to bring it to the attention of their declining audiences. Nevertheless, there was something invigorating about Valčuha’s interpretation of this score, a welcome reminder of how much sophisticated detail lurks in all of that prevailing darkness.

Fortunately, the “overture” for the evening clearly established a far sunnier disposition. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik performed as soloist in Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1042 violin concerto in E major. This is the sort of piece that can easily be conducted by the soloist, but it provided an opportunity to experience Valčuha’s approach to early eighteenth-century repertoire.

Most importantly, he appreciated the need to scale down his string resources. Thus, there were only six first violinists (with Wyatt Underhill in the Concertmaster’s chair), six second violists, four violists, three cellists, and two basses. While I am used to ensembles that are even smaller, I would say that Valčuha made the right decision for the size of Davies. Both soloist and accompanists performed with crystalline clarity, and Valčuha knew just how to establish the significant roles played by the inner voices without ever trying to bring them into a foreground that was otherwise engaged.

There was a certain lack of balance in having a very short concerto introduce a very long symphony. Nevertheless, there was much to be said for programming that would allow a generous share of light before the rhetoric became one of “darkness audible” (to warp one of the best-known phrases from John Milton’s Paradise Lost). Fortunately, the audience that returned from the intermission seemed to know what was in store for the rest of the evening; and Shostakovich’s rhetoric had no trouble establishing its impact on all those fortunate enough to have experienced Valčuha’s perceptive interpretation of this seldom-performed symphony.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Tenney’s Effort to Move from Theory to Practice

The ninth chapter of From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory, the University of Illinois Press collection of articles by music theorist and composer James Tenney, seems to be the second-longest in the book: “Hierarchical Temporal Gestalt Perception in Music: A Metric Space Model (with Larry Polansky).” This was written in 1978 and was subsequently published by the Journal of Music Theory in 1980. It basically involves first distilling a hypothesis out of the theoretical speculations that first emerged in Tenney’s “Meta + Hodos” Master’s thesis and then testing the hypothesis by implementing its content in a computer analysis program, which was written by Polansky and executed on input from three scores of twentieth-century music compositions.

Before discussing the model, the hypothesis behind the model, and the testing of the hypothesis, however, I want to call attention to a published review of “Meta + Hodos.” This took place after “Meta + Hodos” itself was published as a monograph by the Inter-American Institute for Musical Research in 1964. The Spring 1966 issue of the Journal of Music Theory published a review of the monograph by A. Wayne Slawson, which was pretty devastating.

Slawson provided the reader with a paragraph explaining the the “birth” of Gestalt psychology as a result of observations made by Max Wertheimer in 1912. However, Slawson then accused Wertheimer and his colleagues of oversimplifying the theory they developed, concluding that “the Gestalt movement failed to go beyond a particularly apt and persuasive presentation of new questions.” This was the stick he used to subject “Meta + Hodos” to a rather merciless beating.

Thus Tenney’s effort to develop a model that could then be realized through software-based testing amounts to a response to Slawson’s review. The fact is that this was a time when painfully little was known about the “wetware” of a brain embedded in the larger complex system of the human body. Thus, even a precept as straightforward as Donald O. Hebb’s famous postulate that “neurons that fire together wire together” could not be tested in the absence of technology for observing the “wiring.” One of the reason’s that I have been citing the work of Gerald Edelman is that he recognized that his own theory of perceptual categorization could not be tested through direct observation; so, as an alternative, his team developed a computer-based simulation model of Hebb’s “wiring” process. Tenney’s model, on the other hand, was based on an attempt to turn the theoretical speculations of “Meta + Hodos” (a product of the theoretical speculations of Gestalt psychology) into practice.

At this point I feel it is important to note that the term “metric space” that appears in the title is never explicitly invoked in the article’s text. Nevertheless, there is an implicit sense of “distance” that Tenney seeks to apply to his “temporal gestalt-units” (TGs), focusing primarily on those constructs captured by the terms “element,” “clang,” and “sequence.” The model requires a quantitative representation of the amount of difference that distinguishes two TGs. A metric space is a topological construct that defines the concept of distance in terms of four criteria:
  1. The distance from a point to itself is zero.
  2. The distance between two distinct points is a positive number.
  3. The distance from point A to point B is the same as the distance from point B to point A.
  4. For any point C, the distance from A to B is less than or equal to the sum of the distance from A to C plus the distance from C to B.
(That last criterion is sometimes called the “triangle rule” because the length of the hypotenuse is always shorter than the sum of the lengths of the other two sides of a triangle.)

As we liked to say as freshmen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, these properties were “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer.” However, those of us who went on to major in mathematics discovered that the most interesting insights were those involving counterexamples to the constraints of those criteria. Every math major knew about the book Counterexamples in Analysis by Bernard R. Gelbaum and John M. H. Olmsted and the critical role it played when trying to solve homework problems. So, in the interest of seeking out counterexamples, it is important to determine whether or not the concept of distance can actually be applied to comparing two TGs.

Let’s start with something simple. Imagine music as it is printed on score pages. Imagine, then, that you take a pencil and draw circles around groups of notes that you wish to identify as TGs. You can then take a ruler and measure distances between TGs on the score page. Even if those distances are somewhat rough (since a TG is not a simple point on the page), it is easy to see how the four distance criteria are satisfied.

However, as we all know, the marks on the score pages do not constitute the music. The music only exists through the experience of listening to a performance, even if that performance involves playing a recording. I would now suggest that the time-consciousness required for such listening involves awareness of differences that do not necessarily satisfy the distance criteria.

To make my point, I need to appeal to the reader’s imagination. Think of a flowing stream. Now, imagine that every point along that stream can be established as a fixed position (through a very precise measurement of latitude and longitude, for example). Suppose, now, that “distance” is not measured by difference in latitude and longitude but in the amount of time it takes a reference object, such as a fish, to swim from one point to another. By virtue of the flow of the river, the third property of a distance metric is violated because swimming “downstream” takes less time than swimming “upstream,” even though the beginning and ending points are fixed! I would argue that the passing of time is like the flowing of that stream and that Tenney’s model, while it looks good on paper (such as score pages), does not adequately capture the phenomenology of difference in a situation requiring the dynamic nature of time-consciousness.

After I first performed this exercise, I realized that I had been about as merciless in approaching Tenney’s work as Slawson had been. The reason is that the model that provided Tenney’s point of departure was required a quantitative foundation based on the topological properties of distance. Even the hypothesis being tested in his article, involving relationships among elements, clangs, and sequences, had been undermined in the absence of how those relationships could be represented quantitatively; and, if the hypothesis was no longer sound, then testing it was out of the question.

Once again I find myself thinking about the problems with Tenney being ahead of his time in terms of the tools available for his efforts. This particular paper predates the earliest efforts that would eventually lead to MIDI. For all of its shortcomings, MIDI provided a symbol representation that could capture not only marks on score pages but also the time-dependent factors inherent in any performance involving the interpretation of those marks. As a result of MIDI representations, it has been possible to investigate structural questions that go beyond music notation and enter the realm of time-dependent interpretations of the notation. It is in those interpretations that we need to seek out patterns and make sense of both what they are and why they are, and it is a pity that Tenney did not have such tools at his disposal when he first set off down his phenomenological path of inquiry.

Post:Ballet to Perform in Interactive Space

Poster design for the performance being described (from its event page on the Onedome Web site)

I have the Living Earth Show to thank for my first learning about Post:Ballet and its Artistic Director and choreographer Robert Dekkers. Do Be was structured as a cycle of five dances, each set to music commissioned by a different composer and performed by Living Earth. Dekkers’ latest project, entitled “Mirage” involves setting performance in a more interactive environment.

That environment will be provided by Onedome’s “LMNL,” an “immersive space” consisting of fourteen interactive rooms that can be adapted as settings for a diverse variety of performance experiences. “Mirage” basically involves live performance taking place in exhibits of immersive art situated in those interactive rooms. Dekker created the piece in partnership with Logan Scharadin, Director and choreographer of nomadMVMT. Once again original music will be performed as part of the experience, this time created by composer Daniel Berkman.

For members of the audience, “Mirage” will provide an opportunity to explore and play in this interactive space. The evening will be structured into half-hour “visiting sessions,” the first beginning at 7:30 p.m. and the last at 10:30 p.m. All visits will take place on Friday, June 21. The last visit will be followed by a dance party in Onedome’s Elixart’s Cafe, which will run until 2 a.m. General admission will be $50; but tickets will be sold at the “early bird” rate of $40 until June 7. Tickets are being sold online through a Onedome event page, which includes a menu from which one selects the half-hour slot that one wishes to attend. The dance party will include a variety of healthful hors d’oeuvres and drinks including kava, tea, and exotic elixirs. Onedome is located at 1025 Market Street on the southeast side of the street between 6th Street and 7th Street.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Bird & Beckett: through June, 2019

I suppose it was only a matter of time until I decided to try tracking the jazz activities at Bird & Beckett Books and Records on a monthly basis. The “bleeding edge” events held at this venue account for only a fraction of the opportunities to listen to well-performed jazz. Those opportunities deserve more thorough treatment. For those who do not already know Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. In general, there tends to be no admission charge; but anyone attending will be informed that donations are appreciated. Any exceptions to this basic rule of thumb will be indicated in the descriptions of specific events.

Thursday, May 30, 8 p.m.: This will be an opportunity to celebrate the Warriors with Latin Jazz. Percussionist Annette A. Aguilar will lead a quartet in which she, Murray Low on piano, and Greg Brown on bass will provide rhythm for flutist Chloe Scott. The music is expected to continue through 10:45 p.m. There will be a $15 cover charge, but it will be modulated by a sliding scale for those in need.

Friday, May 31, 5:30 p.m.: Bird & Beckett has arranged several series that are usually scheduled at the same time on the same day of the week. Friday is the day for the jazz in the bookshop series. This particular event in the series will be led by flutist John Calloway leading a group he calls the Hired Guns. Those players include rhythm provided by Ken Cook on piano and Alan Hall of drums, along with vocalist Angie Doctor. This particular gig will feature a special bass player joining the rhythm section, Marcus Shelby.

Friday, May 31, 9 p.m.: That same evening will feature a separate late show featuring vocalist Judy Butterfield. She leads a group called Mean to Me, whose other members are trumpeter Dave Shaff and pianist Ben Slater. For this particular gig, rhythm will be fleshed out by Scott Foster on guitar, Sam Heminger on bass, and Cairo McCockran on drums. The group is named after the popular song composed by Fred E. Ahlert with lyrics by Roy Turk. Billie Holiday is probably the vocalist best associated with song. On her 1937 recording she was accompanied by tenor saxophonist Lester Young and Teddy Wilson on drums; and Young would later record an instrumental version with his trio of Nat King Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums. However, the inspirations for the Mean to Me combo come from later artists, such as pianists Thelonious Monk and Ahmad Jamal and bassist Charles Mingus.

Saturday, June 1, 7:30 p.m.: The jazz club! series on Saturday nights will feature tenor saxophonist Patrick Wolff leading two different groups. The first set will be taken by a quartet in which Wolff has rhythm backing from Richard Sears on piano, Josh Thurston Milgrom on bass, and Hamir Atwal on drums. For the second set the front line will be extended to include Matt Renzi on reeds and Erik Jekabson on trumpet.

Sunday, June 2, 4:30 p.m.: The Sunday afternoon performances are known simply as the “Sunday concert series.” Tenor saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer, currently based in Brooklyn, will lead a “transcontinental” trio, whose other two members are based in San Francisco. These will be Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Kjell Nordeson on percussion. There will be a $20 cover charge, but it will be modulated by a sliding scale for those in need.

Tuesday, June 4, 7:30 p.m.: Tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser will lead his New York Quintet. In this case all of the players are from New York. Fowser will share the front line with trumpeter Josh Bruneau. Rhythm will be provided by Peter Zak on piano, Vince Dupont on bass, and James Gallagher on drums. Cover charge will be $25.

Friday, June 7, 5:30 p.m.: jazz in the bookshop will present the Locomotive Sunflower trio of Darren Johnston on trumpet, Wil Blades on organ, and Jon Arkin on drums.

Saturday, June 8, 7:30 p.m.: jazz club! will present a septet led by pianist Adam Shulman. Shulman tends to bring a historical perspective to his programming. He will perform some new original tunes; but the prevailing style will be that of Fifties jazz in Los Angeles, as represented by musicians such as saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. The other members of the septet have not yet been announced.

Friday, June 14, 5:30 p.m.: jazz in the bookshop will present the Reunion Quartet led by saxophonist Jerry Logas with rhythm provided by Alan Steger on piano, Paul Breslin on bass, and Bob Blankenship on drums.

Saturday, June 15, 7:30 p.m.: Renzi will return, this time leading his Shoebox Orchestra Trio, with which he made his Bird & Beckett debut in December of 2016. For this jazz club! event he will share the front line with guest artist Jekabson. The other members of the trio are drummer Atwal and Peter Barshay on bass.

[added 6/17, 11:55 a.m.:

Thursday, June 20, 7 p.m.: J.Lee (who performs as captjrab) and Kevin Van Yyserloo will be performing a full-evening piece entitled Motor Skills using external found sound sources and homemade sculptures processed through modular synthesizers to create light industrial ambient soundscapes.

Friday, June 21, 5:30 p.m.: jazz in the bookshop will present the Scott Foster Quartet, led by guitarist Foster. The other members will be Ben Stolorow on piano, Adam Gay on bass, and Omar Aran on percussion. Aran’s arrangements will be featured, and the program will include vocals by Sandra Aran.

Saturday, June 22, 7:30 p.m.: jazz club! will present a somewhat unconventional trio led by bassist Frank Tusa. What he calls the Passing Dreams trio includes guitaist Randy Vincent; but what makes the trio unconventiona is that percussion will be provided by tabla player William Rossel. Rossel is disciple of tabla master Swapan Chaudhuri.]

[added 6/17, 12:55 p.m.:

Sunday, June 23, 4:30 p.m.: Composer and guitarist Karl Evangelista will lead a quintet of through Labas, an avant-garde composition. This project grew out of his effort to examine his own “Filipinoness” in the abstract by drawing upon both African and Western musical concepts. The other members of the quintet will be Corey Wright (alto saxophone), Crystal Pascucci (cello), Rei Scampavia (keyboards), and Jordan Glenn (drums).

Thursday, June 27, 8 p.m.: This will be another quartet performance. Once again, the leader will be a bassist, this time Giulio Xavier Cetto. The other members of the quartet will be Remy Le Boeuf on saxophone, Javier Santiago on piano, and Malachi Whitson on drums.]

Saturday, June 29, 7:30 p.m.: The Jazz Philanthropists Union will present a special performance by the Rova Saxophone Quartet: Bruce Ackley (soprano), Larry Ochs (tenor), Steve Adams (alto), and Jon Raskin (baritone).

Katarzyna Musiał Surveys Five Spanish Composers

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

According to my records, it has been almost five years since I last wrote about Polish-Canadian pianist Katarzyna Musiał. That would have been back when I was writing for Examiner.com, producing an account that now “belongs to the ages.” At the beginning of this year, the Polish Dux label released a new recording of her solo performances; and I feel more than a little sheepish about another uncalled-for lapse of time. The title of the new album is My Spanish Heart; and, like the last album I discussed, Come Dance With Me, it is a survey of offerings all organized around a common theme.

My Spanish Heart focuses on music composed during the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth. It is structured around selections by five composers. In “order of appearance” these are Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, Joaquín Turina, Federico Mompou, and Manuel de Falla.

The Falla selections are taken from two of his ballet scores, “The Three-Cornered Hat” and “El amor brujo” (love, the magician); but the piano versions of these pieces were all prepared by Falla himself. In the current political climate, I suspect there are many who would prefer to describe Mompou as Catalan; and, to be fair, I am one of them. Nevertheless, I welcomed his appearance on this recording, even if he is not, strictly speaking, Spanish.

To be fair, I approached My Spanish Heart with much more familiarity of the repertoire than I had done with Come Dance With Me. Indeed, one of the things that drew me to the earlier recording was the presence of two of Mompou’s “Cançó i dansa” (song and dance) compositions. These were the first and sixth from a collection of fifteen (the last being written for organ, rather than piano); and I was delighted to encounter them again on My Spanish Heart, this time in the company of the second and fifth of the pieces. I was equally pleased to see that the track listing took the trouble to identify the original sources for the first two pairings in the collection, information that had not been included on my sheet music copies but which can easily be found on the Wikipedia page for this collection.

I also welcomed the fact that the booklet notes by Agnieszka Jeż shared one of my favorite Falla anecdotes. This concerned the “Danza ritual del fuego” (ritual fire dance) from “El amor brujo.” Apparently, after seeing the ballet, Arthur Rubinstein was so impressed with this episode that he asked Falla for a piano version. Falla provided one but doubted that a piano solo could have the same impact as the orchestral score. The selection turned out to be one of Rubinstein’s favorite encore choices, always greeted with enthusiastic audience applause!

Indeed, Rubinstein’s interest in Spanish composers whose music was popular in his own time can be found in the impact of that interest on his recording sessions with RCA. The limited edition Rubinstein Collection, which documents all of his RCA recording sessions, has a Music of Spain CD, which accounts for all of the composers surveyed by Musiał except for Turina. Indeed, one will find Rubinstein’s interpretations of two of the Albéniz selections, one of the Granados pieces, two of the Mompou “Cançó i dansa” compositions, and all of the Falla selections. This is not to suggest that Musiał was trying to compete with Rubinstein. Instead, I view this new recording as her effort to demonstrate that works that enjoyed considerable popularity during the last century still deserve it during this one.

Nevertheless, I do not think My Spanish Heart should be dismissed as a selection on “encore hits.” Indeed, assuming that Musiał was not trying explicitly to follow in Rubinstein’s footsteps (which I fell is a legitimate assumption), preparing the overall “program” must have been a bit of a challenge, since all of the composers were so prolific in their output. As a result the greatest virtue of the album is the balanced fairness that guided Musiał’s overall programming. No composer overstays his respective welcome, and Musiał’s interpretations go a long way to finding the appropriate “voice” behind each composer’s rhetorical strategies. Those who have followed my writing for some time probably know that, where recordings are concerned, I tend to prefer “deep dives” into the works of a single composer. Nevertheless, Musiał’s “programming skills” are sufficiently perceptive that I am likely to return to this new recording many times.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Outsound Presents: June, 2019

Once again, I feel it will be a good idea to devote a single Web page to the Outsound Presents concerts that will be given next month. Mind you, the only concert planned in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series will be taking place this coming Sunday and was therefore included in yesterday’s Bleeding Edge dispatch. This will be cited in this article for the sake of completeness, but will rely on a hyperlink to information already provided.

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.

To repeat, for the sake of convenient reference, information from yesterday’s Bleeding Edge, this month’s SIMM Series concert will follow the usual two-set format. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. on this coming Sunday evening. 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.

Sunday, June 2: That SIMM Series concert will be devoted entirely to solo and ensemble compositions by Bill Noertker.

Thursday, June 6: This will be a two-set evening organized around the return to the Bay Area of Australian improviser Stevie Richards, performing on both modular synthesizer and alto saxophone. In the first set he will perform with Doug Lynner, who will play the Mystery Serge synthesizer. In the second set Richards will be joined by Robert Lopez on drums and Shanna Sordahl on cello.

Thursday, June 13: The first of the two sets of the evening will be a solo performance by David Leikam playing an NS Design CR six-string electric cello enhanced with electronic pedal controls. He will be followed by the Austrian duo of Thomas Antonic and Michael Fischer. They have described their set as a “morphological text- and soundscape, richly allusive, drawn, sculpture-like, filmic, cross-linking, floating. Whirring visions form a coup of poetic escalation.” Fischer will be responsible for the soundscaping that will accompany recitations by Antonic.

Thursday, June 20: This will be a showcase evening for VauxFlores, an audio electronics company that specializes in the design and manufacture of unique guitar effects and other unusual sound-makers. These devices are the creations of Travis Johns, who will be the featured performer at this concert. He will be joined by the Usufruct duo of Polly Moller and Tim Walters, [ruidobello] (Jorge Bachmann), and Oa, the collaboration of electronic musician Matt Davignon with writer Hugh Behm-Steinberg.

[added 6/17, 11:35 a.m.:

Sunday, June 23: A second SIMM Series concert has been announced. The first set will be a solo piano performance by Andrew Jamieson. He will be followed by Scott Stobbe + 2, the trio let by guitarist Stobbe. The other two members will be Herbert Diamant on reeds and keyboardist Scott Braziel.

Thursday, June 27: The first of the two sets of the evening will be a Skullkrusher performance by Phillip Everett working with his electronic gear to create percussive noise; he will be followed by a trio performance bringing together Alex Cohen on guitar, Josh Allen on tenor saxophone, and Mark Pino on drums.

Sony Maintains Columbia’s Middle-Brow Spirit

Adrien Perruchon and Jae-Hyuck Cho on the cover of their new recording (from the Amazon.com Web page for this album)

I cannot remember where I was living (or visiting) when I encountered a classical music radio station whose motto was, “Music that gives your minds a rest.” I suspect this happened sometime around the turn of the century, a time when both the performance and recording of the “serious music” repertoire was beginning to enjoy the fruits of scholarship (frequently historically-informed) and argumentation, rather than just cranking out the same-old-same-old that had been stock-in-trade for both classical and jazz labels during the second half of the twentieth century. The Cassandra of those bad old days was Amiri Baraka, then writing regularly for Down Beat under the name LeRoi Jones.

In an article entitled “Jazz and the White Critic,” Jones sounded the warning tocsin against the dangers of the influence of (mostly white) middle-brow writers trying to shape the tastes of those visiting jazz clubs and listening to jazz recordings. Indeed, in the latter category, middle-brow thinking had “infected” production operations at many of the major record labels; and one of the most notorious of those labels was Columbia Records through its (mis)treatment of such jazz masters as Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. (Miles Davis was also a Columbia artist; but he enjoyed defense through assertive colleagues, such as Gil Evans, and would eventually develop a backbone of his own.)

Furthermore, Columbia “production values” were no kinder to the classical genre than they were to jazz. Both composers like Igor Stravinsky and performers such as pianist Oscar Levant and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky suffered the strains of decision makers more concerned with “product” than with performance. The Columbia Records catalog would eventually become the property of Sony in the Sony Music Entertainment division, which has become responsible for keeping legacy content in circulation, primarily through compact disc releases. Meanwhile, Sony Classical Records now has its own production department; and I am happy to say that, every now and then, I encounter a release that clearly goes beyond the boundaries of middle-brow thinking. On this site, my most recent encounter actually took place almost exactly two months ago, when I wrote about the world premiere recording of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s cello concerto. However, in the immortal words of Aristotle, “one swallow does not make a summer.” Middle-brow thinking is still alive and well where recorded music is concerned; and Sony Classical Records is as likely a place to find it as any.

This brings us to the debut concerto recording made by South Korean pianist Jae-Hyuck Cho. This is a Sony Classical Records release that couples Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 15 (first) concerto in C major with Franz Liszt’s first concerto in E-flat major. As a sign of our prevailing “digital age,” Amazon.com is currently selling this album only as an MP3 download; and even Google is not particularly disposed to provide information about physical CD releases. Perhaps this is a harbinger of the extinction of the physical release as we used to know it.

The album also marks the debut of the young French conductor Adrien Perruchon, who leads the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Recordings were made in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, but there is no indication that they were made during concert performances. Bearing in mind that it is difficult to identify the impact of editing, the chemistry between soloist and conductor appears to be a good one; and, for the most part, the sense of balance provides a clear account of details in the orchestral contributions, as well as the virtuosity of the soloist.

Nevertheless, for all of that clarity, the performances emerge as rather disquieting reminders of the “bad old days” of my youth. This is particularly the case where Beethoven is concerned. Perruchon did not seem to show much interest in reducing his string section to numbers consistent with those that would have accompanied Beethoven when he first played this concerto in 1795. (The Grove Music Online entry written by Joseph Kerman, Alan Tyson, and Scott G. Burnham suggests that Joseph Haydn may have been the conductor at this concert.)

On the other hand the Liszt concerto holds up very well with the combination of Cho’s aggressive virtuosity (worthy of the adjective “Lisztian” regardless of the connotations the reader might infer), which could not have been better matched to Perruchon’s full-throated orchestral work. For that matter, by the time we get to the “scherzo movement” (scare quotes because the concerto was written as a single uninterrupted movement), there is a delightful sense of humor in the way the triangle fills in gaps of silence. (Having attended concert performances of this concerto, I have always enjoyed the percussionist who knows how to relish this triangle part.)

The bottom line, then, is that, while this may be an unabashedly middle-brow product; it is, at least, a well-crafted one. I doubt that I shall listen to this recording very much in the future; but there is some chance that I shall consult pieces of it from time to time, particularly when they involve how Beethoven is interpreted when the orchestral resources are much larger than what the composer would have expected. Besides, who knows where the “historically-informed pendulum” will swing over the course of this decade?

Monday, May 27, 2019

Fazil Say: Composer Less Impressive than Pianist

from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording

According to my records, Fazil Say has been off my radar since October of 2016, which is when I wrote an article about his Warner Classics release of all of the piano sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. On that occasion, drawing upon the background material at my disposal, I referred to him as “pianist and composer.” About two months ago, Warner released his latest album, which consists entirely of the pianist playing works by the composer. The title of the new release is Troy Sonata, which is also the title of the longest composition to be performed.

That composition, which is Opus 78 in Say’s catalog, is not so much a sonata as it is a ten-movement suite that reflects on not only the Iliad, the ancient Greek epic poem attributed to Homer, but also a context that draws heavily on Say’s personal knowledge of the territory (“you gotta know the territory”). I have to say that, even if I do not personally “know the territory,” I found this music distressingly bland and tedious in the context of the many perspectives I have on Troy, thanks not only to the Homeric bards but also to Virgil and any number of later perspectives found in literature (including translations of source texts into English), drama, opera, and cinema. If composer Say wants to undertake works on this scale, he might want to learn a thing or two about how time passes and how that passing is rhetorically shaped from someone like Keith Jarrett.

The album also includes a four-part “concert rhapsody” entitled “The Moving Mansion” (Opus 72a). It then concludes with two short pieces from an ongoing project (cataloged as Opus 66) entitled Art of Piano. Taken in conjunction with Troy Sonata, listening to this album from beginning to end feels too much like an unnecessary slog. I have to say that I found this more than a little disconcerting given the positive impression that Say’s interpretation of Mozart made. The Troy Sonata left me wondering what composers other than Mozart Say tends to find significant.

The Bleeding Edge: 5/27/2019

After several weeks of “quiet time” (since all events of note had already been announced through other articles), this column is “back in business.” This will be a relatively quiet week, but only two of the five events to consider have already been accounted for by earlier articles. Those two events are the follows:
  1. The recital by the Black Cedar Trio at the Center for New Music on May 30
  2. The weekly LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series concert, also on May 30
That leaves the following three events:

Monday, May 27, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: For some reason (for which I have no excuse), the Monday Make-Out held on the first Monday of every month managed to slip off of this site’s radar. However, this will again be a month offering a second Monday Make-Out, which will take place tonight. As usual, the evening will offer three sets of cutting-edge Bay Area jazz and improvisation. The first set will be a duo improvisation by Jonathan Kay on saxophone and Jordan Glenn on drums. This will be followed by a modern jazz set by the Ruthie Dineen Group. Personnel details have not yet been announced. The final set will merge modern jazz with rock as performed by Dave Slusser’s Lost Plant. Slusser leads from both winds and keyboards. Rhythm will be provided by guitarists Len Paterson and Steve Clarke and drummer Thomas Scandura.

The Make Out Room is located at 3225 22nd Street in the Mission, near the southwest corner of Mission Street. The Make Out Room is a bar. That means that tickets are not sold, nor is there a cover charge. Nevertheless, a metaphorical hat is passed between sets; and all donations are accepted, not to mention welcome! Doors will open at 8 p.m.

Thursday, May 30, 8:30 p.m., Fort Mason: The San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF), which is currently being hosted by the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, will present the latest performance by Edward Schocker’s Crossing Ensemble. The Crossing is an improvisation group that seeks to combine traditional Eastern sensibilities with modern American performance practices. Including Schocker, there are eight performers that assemble in different combinations. The piece to be presented for SFIAF is entitled Self_Less, and the combination for this particular event will consist of Schocker, Yun Kyong Jin, and Hwan-Yeong Park.

The performance will take place in Gallery 308, which is located in Building A. Ticket prices are listed as running between $25 and $28. Unfortunately, the TICKETS hyperlink on the event page connects to a list of shows which does not include Self_Less. (This is not the first time that I have encountered disorganization on the SFIAF Web site.) Those wishing to attend should be prepared to pay at the door.

Sunday, June 2, 7:30 p.m., Musicians Union Hall: The only (at least as of this writing) June concert in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series to be offered by Outsound Presents will follow the usual two-set format. On this particular occasion, however, both sets will feature bassist Bill Noertker. He will begin with the performance of three solo bass compositions. Then in the second set Noertker’s Moxie will perform selections from his latest large-scale work, Tricycle. He will be joined by Annelise Zamula alternating between alto saxophone and flute, Beth Schenck on alto saxophone, and Jason Levis on drums. 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.

Delightful Discoveries at the Mishkan

Yesterday afternoon at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, Music in the Mishkan wrapped up its twentieth anniversary season with a performance by three members of The Bridge Players, violinist Randall Weiss, Music Director of the series, cellist Victoria Ehrlich, and pianist Marilyn Thompson. The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 66 (second) piano trio in C minor. The first half, on the other hand, offered of journey of discovery through seldom-performed compositions by Paul Juon, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Maurice Ravel.

The Ravel offering was the only one that was not a trio. Weiss and Ehrlich played his sonata for violin and cello, composed between 1920 and 1922. In his introductory remarks Weiss made note of the amount of time it took Ravel to complete this project. However, Ravel’s productivity declined significantly in the wake of World War I. It is worth noting that 1920 is the year in which he composed “La Valse,” which, in spite of anything Ravel may has said about the music’s abstract qualities, can easily be taken as the composer’s efforts to deal with his own shell-shocked condition.

Ravel was an ambulance driver during that war, which means that he would have encountered no end of gruesome experiences. Those memories may well have been deeply enough etched to impede his creative abilities as a composer. Indeed, as Ehrlich demonstrated before the performance began, there is even a cello passage that strongly suggests the wail of an ambulance siren. Perhaps the prolonged effort was one of trying to maintain the abstract stance Ravel established behind “La Valse” while contending with the indelibility of horrific memories.

There are no end of passages in the sonata that are as spooky as those in “La Valse.” Indeed, by the virtue of the transparency afforded by only two instruments, those passages tend to be even spookier. There are also obsessive ostinato tropes that suggest the incessant persistence of some horrifying war machine. Furthermore, Ravel’s use of ostinato often seems to impede the “normal course” of more conventional harmonic progressions. Perhaps it is not surprising that it would have taken Ravel so long to come to grips with what he was really trying to write and then follow through with enough conviction to commit it all to paper. Whatever the case may be, both Weiss and Ehrlich brought a rich rhetorical interpretation to music that Ravel may have tried to approach only through abstraction; and the result could not have been more chilling.

There was also a dark side to the Rachmaninoff selection, the first (in G minor) of the two composition given the title “Trio élégiaque.” This is a very early effort, written in January of 1892, the year in which he would later graduate from Moscow Conservatory. The richness of Rachmaninoff’s piano rhetoric is always in clear view, but the piano never overshadows the two string parts. Indeed, those who know Rachmaninoff only for the flamboyant qualities of his writing for both piano and orchestra would probably be surprised at the intimacy of this trio. Rhetorically, the piece is true to its name; but it never wallows in its melancholy. Rather, the clarity of all three of the instrumental parts suggests a heartfelt sincerity; and that quality was easily apprehended through yesterday’s performance.

The program began with a short Juon suite entitled Trio Miniatures. Like Rachmaninoff, Juon was Russian, born in 1872, the year before that of Rachmaninoff’s birth. Trio Miniatures is Juon’s music; but, strictly speaking, the suite itself was not his composition. It was arranged and published by Mikhail Press. The sources for the first three movements came from Juon’s Opus 18 collection of solo piano compositions, Satyre und Nymphen. The final movement “Danse phantastique” was the second piece in Juon’s Opus 24 set of music for piano four-hands. Each of the four pieces that Press collected was short and sweet, and The Bridge Players delivered them all with playful rhetoric. For my part they prompted a fair amount of curiosity about the original piano sources.

In contrast the Mendelssohn trio abounded with extroverted enthusiasm on all fronts. The intensity of energy recalls Bonnie Hampton’s remark at a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music about Mendelssohn’s reputation for burning his candle at both ends. Anyone who likes the “too many notes” joke from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus clearly has not experienced the rapidity of notes flowing out of Mendelssohn’s Opus 66 as if they were coming out of a fire hose. It is only when the composer decides to head into the chorale territory of Johann Sebastian Bach, using a sixteenth-century hymn that became the basis for the BWV 130 cantata, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (Lord, God, we all praise you), that both performers and listeners get a chance to catch their respective breaths.

Yesterday’s spirits in the execution of this trio could not have been higher or a more appropriate farewell gesture for this anniversary season.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

A Debut Album from a Free Jazz Quartet

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

I first became aware of saxophonist Oliver Lake when I was writing for Examiner.com. Thanks to distribution by Naxos of America, I came to know the Intakt recordings of Trio 3, in which Lake performed with Reggie Workman on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Through my adventurous tastes in listening to jazz, I was familiar with the two rhythm players; but Lake was new to me. The Trio 3 recordings led me to discover not only that free jazz practices, which could be traced back to musicians like Ornette Coleman and groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, were still alive and well but also, through working with “guest artists,” such as Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran, their practices were being passed on to a new generation of players.

Lake’s latest work has involved the formation of a “collaborative group,” so called because all four members are both strong composers and leaders in their own right. He recruited cornetist Graham Haynes, bassist Joe Fonda, and percussionist Barry Altschul. The group called itself the OGJB Quartet, taking only the initials of the members’ first names. It gave its first performance in 2016 at the Winter Jazz Festival; and, a little over a week ago, TUM Records Oy, which is based in Pohjankuru, Finland, released the quartet’s first album, Bamako.

Each of the members of the quartet is credited with the composition of at least one of the tracks. The title track is by Haynes, but it is basically music to accompany Lake reciting a poem of his own composition. Those who take the study of geography seriously know that Bamako is the capital of Mali, the country that is home to a region that had been established as a settlement in prehistoric times, Timbuktu. For this particular track both Haynes and Altschul switch over to pitched African instruments, the dousn’gouni and mbira, respectively, providing just the right “cultural context” for Lake’s recitation.

Altschul’s contribution as composer is “Just A Simple Song.” Fonda contributes two compositions, “Listen to Dr. Cornel West” (at about fifteen minutes, the longest track on the album) and “GS #2,” so named because it is dedicated to drummer George Schuller. Lake is the composer on three tracks, “Stick,” “Is It Alright?,” and “3 Phrase 09.” Finally, the last two tracks consist of spontaneous collective improvisations, both given simply the title of the group followed by a number. The second of these improvisations precedes the first.

I had the good fortune to be working with musicians interested in free improvisation during the summer before my freshman year. However, it was the sort of thing that I enjoyed doing without giving much thought to what others were doing. All that changed during my junior year with the release of John Coltrane’s Ascension album. That kind of jamming was so far out of my league that I realized that I had to take listening far more seriously than I had done previously. My efforts were rewarded with opportunities to listen to performances by the groups led by both Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, both of which visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while I was a student there.

Such background should explain why I tend to approach releases like Bamako with more than a little nostalgia. (I had similar feelings when ECM released its 21-CD box set The Art Ensemble of Chicago and associated ensembles.) There is something free-floating about jam sessions in which dissonance is not distinguished from consonance, superposed intervals take priority over harmonic progressions, and rhythms are more inclined to follow patterns of speech than evenly-measured segmentation. Many dismiss this as noise that overwhelms any vestige of signal. For my part, it is the epitome of an ambiguity that can be interpreted in a prodigious number of ways, making the attentive listener as active a “player” in the experience as the performers are. Listening to Bamako left me looking forward to what the OGJB Quartet would do for their next recording project.

Free Concerts in Union Square: July, 2019

June is shaping up to be a very busy month, so it may be that many will not have time to check out any of the free Union Square Live concerts for that month. In the interest of advance planning, it seems desirable to lay out the plans for July, which seem to have been finalized by now. (If not, updates will be notified through my Facebook shadow site, as they were this morning for the month of June.) As usual, this site will just provide the basic information about the general genre and specific performers for each event as follows:

Wednesday, July 3, noon: Michelle Lambert (folk/pop)

Wednesday, July 3 6 p.m.: Moonalice (American roots and folk)

Sunday, July 7, 2 p.m.: Tango in the Square: Orquesta Z

Wednesday, July 10, 6 p.m.: The Nitecaps Blues Band (blues and rock)

Sunday, July 14, 2 p.m.: House of Mary (alt rock and indie)

Wednesday, July 17, 6 p.m.: Doobie Decibel System (folk and psychedelic jamming)

Sunday, July 21, 2 p.m.: HowellDevine (vintage blues)

Wednesday, July 24, 6 p.m.: The Fito Reinoso Cuban Quartet (Latin and Cuban)

Wednesday, July 31, 6 p.m.: Fil Lorenz Little Big Band (swing and jazz)

Further information, when it is available, can be found through the Events page created by Union Square Live for their Facebook site.

Citizens Jazz Plays Tribute to Billy Strayhorn

Citizens Jazz leader Caroline Chung (from the event page for last night’s concert)

Citizens Jazz is a collective that forms jazz combos that provide an opportunity for rising talents in the Bay Area to perform with seasoned veterans. The group is led by bassist Caroline Chung, who brought the latest version of those combos to the Red Poppy Art House last night. The “senior members” of the group were the two saxophonists, Riley Bandy on alto and James Mahone on tenor. In the rhythm section Chung was joined by Grant Levin on piano and Hamir Atwal on drums. The program consisted primarily of music that Billy Strayhorn composed during his productive relationship with Duke Ellington, which got under way in 1939, when Strayhorn was twenty-three and continued until 1964, when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

The Ellington-Strayhorn partnership was so close that if is often difficult to tease out who composed what. Publication credits almost always single out only one name, but it is hard to imagine that the other one did not exercise influence in one way or another. One possible exception came at the end of the first half of last night’s concert. Ellington is listed as the composer of “C Jam Blues,” which originated in a 1942 black-and-white film entitled “Jam Session.” The tune, as such, is all rhythm, alternating between G and C; and, to the extent that it requires a “composer,” it supposedly originated with Ellington’s clarinetist Barney Bigard; and the film presents a series of solo improvisations by many of the members of Ellington’s band. Last night’s performance reflected the spirit of that film, giving everyone a chance to serve up their own take on a tune that contemporary listeners might call “minimalist.”

The other name that figures significantly in the “Ellington sound” was his lead alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges. Bandy, who had studied in New York with tenor saxophonist Frank Wess (best known for his work with Count Basie), shared some reflections on Hodges with the audience based on what he had learned from Wess. For me that was a somewhat poignant reminder of how many generations now cover the period between Strayhorn’s productivity and the present day. Hodges also figured in last night’s program because his band, rather than Ellington’s, gave the first performance of the opening selection, “Day Dream,” one of the better examples in which Strayhorn worked on his own (at least initially), rather than with Ellington.

All of last night’s selections tended to provide an opportunity for each player to explore some solo work. Chung herself has a solid command of her instrument. Nevertheless, I found myself wishing that she would explore styles other than the traditional walking bass. However, it may just be the case that she ventures into alternative sonorities when playing the music of composers from late in the twentieth century or those currently active.

I also missed the duo practice of “trading fours. It was only at the end of the program, with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” that Bandy and Mahone got into such improvised exchanges. On the other hand, when either of them took on solo melody work, the other was almost always there improvising a contrapuntal accompaniment, more interested in developing a line with a complementary shape than in honoring any of the harmonies indicated on the charts. This put a decidedly contemporary spin on selections that are now well over half a century old.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Complete Piano Songs of Hemsi on Rondeau

courtesy of Naxos of America

Born in 1898 in Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire), composer Alberto Hemsi had roots that could be traced back to the Sephardic Jews that lived in the Iberian peninsula prior to their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496. His inquiries into his family origins led to an ethnomusicological study of Sephardic melodies that paralleled the research in Eastern Europe conducted by Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. The songs that Hemsi collected consisted only of words set to melodies. Much of his career as a composer involved writing piano accompaniments for these songs, which were collected in a series of ten volumes, each given the title Coplas Sefardies (Sephardic songs) and each collected from a different geographical region.

Both Bartók and Kodály would repurpose the tunes they had collected for their own stylistic purposes. However, probably because of the Iberian origins, the closest “family resemblance” to Hemsi’s accompaniments can probably be found in the vocal compositions of Manuel de Falla, the best known being his settings of seven Spanish folksongs, which he composed in 1914. Indeed, the use of augmented seconds in the last of the Falla songs, “Polo,” has definite “Eastern” sonorities; and I am sure that I am not the only one who hears the opening “¡Ay!” expletive as an unmistakably Yiddish “Oy!.” Nevertheless, like Falla, Hemsi seemed more interested in capturing the spirit of the text through contemporary rhetoric, rather than providing material for “historically informed” performances.

At the beginning of this month, Rondeau completed its project to release recordings of all of the Coplas Sefardies publications. The vocalist is Cantor Assaf Levitin (bass-baritone), accompanied at the piano by Naaman Wagner. Once again Amazon.com has not been on the ball; so the best source for the third and final volume in this collection is the Web page created by Presto Classical, which supports both physical and download purchases. For those interested in the complete set, Presto also has Web pages for Volume 1 and Volume 2.

All of the Coplas Sefardies texts are in Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino). The second and third volumes also include settings of texts in Hebrew. The track listing for Volume 2 concludes with Hemsi’s Opus 48 Visions Bibliques (Biblical visions); but, in spite of the French title, the texts themselves are in Hebrew.

Whether or not one accepts twentieth-century rhetoric to accompany songs that date back at least as far as the Middle Ages is a matter of taste. My own taste tends to approve of the choices Hemsi made for setting the Sephardic texts. He does not seem to be forcing a synthesis of Iberian and Jewish influences; and, as a result, any individual collection from the Coplas Sefardies series makes for satisfying listening. However, as is the case with the Lyric Pieces collections of Edvard Grieg, listening to one collection at a time is quite enough.

Where Hebrew sources are concerned, the results are more variable. I have to say that I preferred Hemsi’s Opus 12 “Kal Nidrey” setting to the incantation I had to endure back when I was a teenager preparing for a bar mitzvah. On the other hand, the Opus 25 includes a Talmudic text that, even with my current atheist convictions, I still take very seriously. The source is the fourteenth verse in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (ethics of the fathers), which quotes Hillel the Elder as follows:
If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am “I?” And if not now, when?
For me these words have transcended both religious and cultural origins, which is why I could appreciate Spike Lee incorporating them (without attribution) at the conclusion of BlacKkKlansman. Sadly (at least to me), Hemsi set these words to a jaunty little tune that could just as easily have been a child’s nursery rhyme. This struck me as an unpleasant jolt, and I was thankful its performance took less than two and a half minutes! However, in the overall context of the entire collection, this one setting is a mere pilpul!

Lost Church to Host Adventurous Improvisations

Poster for the performance being described with photographs of all the performers, Free Press (clockwise from upper left: David James, Christie Harbinski, Lisa Mezzacappa, Dave Mihaly) and Root Logic (Tom Lattanand and John Merrill), from the concert’s event page

The Lost Church is a community-based organization dedicated to creating, sustaining, and defending spaces for live performance. Their mission statement Web page elaborates on this objective as follows:
We are a group of Artists, Musicians and Industry Professionals dedicated
to the belief that people need beautiful, intimate performance spaces to share their ideas, stories and arts.

Our goal is to create a network of Performance Parlors that can host and nurture local and touring artists in a way that the larger spaces never can…for there are far more Artists who can fill a 49 seat theater, than can fill a 490 seat theater. Furthermore, there are already established business models to keep the larger spaces alive.
The fulfillment of this mission began with the opening of a 50-seat theatre with folding chairs in the Mission and booking and publicizing performances at that venue. An event at this venue first appeared on this site at the end of this past January as part of an itemization of choices for February 20. As of this writing, the Events Web page has announced performances running through the beginning of September. Plans are also under way to open a venue in Santa Rosa, which, like the theater in this Mission, will be called The Lost Church.

Towards the end of next month, the San Francisco venue will host an evening of adventurous improvisations that are likely to fit right into the “bleeding edge” aesthetic regularly promoted on this site. The program will present two different groups, each with its own set. Free Press is a local music collective whose improvisations draw upon jazz, soul, and blues. Vocalist Christie Harbinski is backed up by percussionist David Mihaly and guitarist David James. For this particular performance this trio will be joined by guest performer Lisa Mezzacappa on bass. (Both Mihaly and Mezzacappa performed, in separate sets, at that aforementioned concert on February 20.) The other set will be taken by Root Logic, the duo of guitarist Tom Lattanand (also responsible for composition and production) and percussionist John Merrill, who incorporates electronics.

The Lost Church is located at 65 Capp Street, north of the corner of 16th Street between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue. This show will start at 8:15 p.m. and run until 10:30 p.m. with a brief intermission between the sets. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. Because the venue is small, it is advisable to purchase tickets in advance. All tickets are being sold for $15 and are available through an event page on the venue’s Web site. On the day of the show, the price will go up to $20; but any remaining tickets will still be available online. Any tickets left will be sold at the door, where only cash will be accepted. Admission will be open for those aged ten and older.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Strings Collaborative Coming to Conservatory

A past performance by Strings Collaborative in the SFCM Sol Joseph Recital Hall (from the Eventbrite event page)

Those with a bit of knowledge about local history may know that Symphony Parnassus grew out of an ensemble called the Doctors’ Symphony, which was formed in 1965. This group met regularly to prepare and present concerts at what was then called UC (University of California) Hospital. As UC names changed; so did that of the ensemble, which became the UCSF (University of California at San Francisco) Orchestra. In 1999 UCSF cut its budget for this enterprise; and it reorganized into what it is today, the nonprofit Symphony Parnassus, named after the neighborhood of its origin.

In 2015 the UCSF community decided again to form a group for performing music. This time the result was Strings Collaborative, whose members are mostly members of the medical community: UCSF students, residents, staff, and friends. This is a chamber ensemble that performs without a conductor. The performers rotate their positions within the group, including responsibility for leadership.

At the end of this month, Strings Collaborative will take its act to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). They will present their spring concert, which will present early works by two of the leading composers of the twentieth century. They will begin with Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 4, “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night) in the arrangement for string orchestra that the composer prepared in 1917. (The piece was originally composed as a string sextet in 1899.) This will be followed by Benjamin Britten’s Opus 10, the set of variations he composed on a theme written by his teacher, Frank Bridge.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 31. The venue will be the Sol Joseph Recital Hall at SFCM. The entrance to SFCM is at 50 Oak Street, halfway between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Muni Van Ness station. There will be no charge for admission, but free registration through an Eventbrite event page is highly recommended. A limited number of tickets will be available at the door.

Jaroussky’s Erato Album of Cavalli Arias

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

About two months ago Erato released its latest album featuring French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. (Yes, I know I have fallen behind schedule. When it comes to keeping up with releases of recordings, I tend to focus on running in place, knowing that, sooner or later, I will catch up with anything that has fallen behind by more than a month.) Jaroussky is one of those artists that I know best by finding him on annual lists of GRAMMY nominations involving recordings that I have not encountered. Indeed, my only “real” encounter with him goes all the way back to 2012, when Virgin Classics released a DVD of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Jaroussky in the role of Nero, working with William Christie conducting the musical resources of Les Arts Florissants, which quickly became one of my favorite ways to appreciate the “virtues of vice” in this decidedly non-standard opera.

Jaroussky’s latest album is entitled Ombra mai fu. The first thing the reader must be told is, “Not that ‘Ombra mai fu,’” to clarify that the album has nothing to do with the operas of George Frideric Handel. Rather, the entire album is devoted to the music of Francesco Cavalli, who, as a boy soprano at St Mark's Basilica in Venice, had the good fortune to be tutored by Monteverdi. Cavalli composed his own Xerse opera, which was first performed in January of 1654 and was based on exactly the same libretto by Nicolò Minato that Handel would subsequently use.

I have to say that I have been most fortunate in having many pleasant encounters with stagings of Cavalli’s operas, going all the way back to my “first contact” in the Eighties through a staged performance at Hunter College in Manhattan. Here in the Bay Area, Yefim Maizel had a particular fondness for presenting Cavalli operas in performances I saw given first by the Bay Area Summer Opera Theater Institute and subsequently by Maizel’s own Opera Academy of California. Many of these operas were composed for performance during the pre-Lenten Carnival in Venice (for which Poppea was also composed), under the principle that one should indulge in as much ribaldry as possible to “get it out of one’s system” prior to the deprivations of Lent. Such ribaldry was abundant in Cavalli offerings, even when they were based on presumably serious subjects.

Nevertheless, while I continue to be unabashedly “hooked” on Cavalli, I have to say that his arias have their greatest impact when they are not deprived of context. Yes, this new Erato release abounds with opportunities to enjoy Jaroussky’s solid and expressive technique; and the same can be said of the Artaserse chamber ensemble that provides instrumental accompaniment without any explicitly acknowledged conductor. Nevertheless, the stylistic structures of these arias tend to be limited; and, about halfway through this new album, the attentive listener may be forgiven for feeling as if (s)he has heard one too many arias in lament form. (To be fair, that structure is one of the best platforms for exploring diverse paths of invention, not only in the manuscript but also in the interpretation of the marks on paper.)

Consequently, I continue to believe that the best way to get to know Cavalli is through full-length accounts of his operas, in which the arias assume their rightful significance along the path of the narrative thread; having acquired familiarity with Cavalli in this broader context, the listener may then appreciate the opportunity to enjoy some of those arias in isolation.

Another Spirited SFS Program from Urbański

 
Violinist Vilde Frang (photograph by Marco Borggreve, courtesy of SFS)

When Polish conductor Krzysztof Urbański made his debut conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in October of 2017, my headline describe his program as one of “Spirited Freshness.” Yesterday afternoon he returned to Davies Symphony Hall. His conducting style was as spirited as it had been at his debut; and, once again, he brought stimulating freshness to the three decidedly different compositions on the program. In addition, as had been the case in 2017, his soloist was a violinist, this time the Norwegian Vilde Frang performing Edward Elgar’s Opus 61 concerto in B minor. This time is was Frang’s turn to be the debuting artist.

Elgar’s violin concerto tends to get less attention than his Opus 85 cello concerto in E minor, which he did not begin until almost a decade had elapsed since the completion of Opus 61. The violin concerto was written in response to a request from the violinist Fritz Kreisler. That request was made in 1907; but Kreisler had built his reputation on nineteenth-century aesthetics, which he sustained throughout all the changes that emerged during the first half of the twentieth century. If Kreisler was expecting a concerto that would pick up where Brahms left off, he got quite a surprise. Nevertheless, he probably still appreciated the vast extent of virtuoso demands that Elgar’s concerto provided and no doubt took great pleasure is rising to every one of the score’s challenges. At the same time, Kreisler probably enjoyed Elgar’s (prankish?) insertion of a motif from the first movement of Brahms’ concerto as a key element the third movement of his own concerto.

Yesterday afternoon Frang rose to all of Elgar’s challenges as deftly as Kreisler probably had done. However, her technical fireworks were perfectly balanced against the many moments of rich lyricism that decidedly differentiate Opus 61 from anything written by Brahms (or any other nineteenth-century composer). In was in those lyrical passages that one could best appreciate just how powerful the chemistry was between soloist and conductor. Both were attentive to even the slightest detail in equal measure. By virtue of their joining forces, the attentive listener could enjoy not only the extent of Elgar’s expressiveness but also its many subtleties, most of which tend to get lost in the process of editing source material for release as a recording. Frang had a solid command of the almost-inaudible pianissimo; and Urbański always knew how to keep his ensemble in check to make sure that every listener could appreciate that command.

His capacity for freshness also surfaced in the second half of the program, devoted entirely to Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 90 (“Italian”) symphony in A major. Readers may recall the delight I took in Christian Reif’s interpretation of Mendelssohn’s Opus 26 (“Hebrides”) concert overture with the SFS Youth Orchestra, highlighted by “the interleaving of ornate lines for the different string players, textures that are more readily associated with this composer’s chamber music.” The string textures of Opus 90 are just as rich and probably even more varied in both structure and the impressions registered by those structures. Mind you, there is no shortage of judicious work for both the winds and the brass; so the overall listening experience is one of constantly shifting foreground-background relationships. This was anything but a routine account of a familiar Mendelssohn symphony.

The program began with the SFS premiere performance of an overture by the Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz, whose title is only “Overture.” This piece required the largest number of performers for the program, including generous contributions for winds, brass, and percussion. Curiously, the rhetorical stance of the music was enigmatically upbeat. I say “enigmatically” because the overture was composed in 1943, a time when Poland was little more than a Nazi conquest and Bacewicz was living in a displaced-persons’ camp in Lublin. My personal conjecture was that the composer was determined to put on the face of optimism, no matter how pessimistic things had become. Urbański conducted as if he had a clear sense of not only the optimism but also the motivation behind it; and, as a result, he got the program off to a rousing start that could not fail to attract and hold the attention of anyone willing to listen.

His return to Davies was as high a point of this season as his debut had been last season.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Black Cedar Returning to SFPL Next Month

The Black Cedar trio of Isaac Pastor-Chermak, Steve Lin, and Kris Palmer (from the Black Cedar home page)

Once again, Black Cedar has announced its plan to give a free public concert at the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). For those unfamiliar with the group, it began as the duo of flutist Kris Palmer and guitarist Steve Lin in 2011. The name of the ensemble had to do with Palmer playing a flute made of black wood and Lin playing a guitar made of cedar. The duo is now a trio, joined by cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak (whose cello is neither black nor cedar).

Program specifics have not yet been announced. Usually the trio prepares a survey of the breadth of its repertoire, which includes Renaissance lute songs and dances, Baroque trio sonatas, Classical and Romantic-era salon pieces, Appalachian folk music, and modern works from living composers. However, readers may recall that the trio is schedule to perform at the Center for New Music at the end of this month. They will use that program to present the three winning compositions from a Commissioning Competition, funded with support from both InterMusic SF and the Zellerbach Family Foundation: “Tres Colores” by Chilean Javier Contreras, “In the Spring” by local (San Jose) Andre Gueziec, and “Out of Nothing” by Victoria Malawey, based in Minnesota. So they may use their SFPL program to showcase these recent additions to repertoire.

This concert will begin at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25. SFPL is located at 100 Larkin Street, on the northeast corner of Grove Street on the Civic Center Plaza. The performance will take place downstairs in the Koret Auditorium. Admission will be free. Those wishing further information from SFPL are invited to call 415-557-4277.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Naughton Twins’ “All-American” Album

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

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

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

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

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