Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Gregory Taboloff to Showcase Work at Herbst

Composer and pianist Gregory Taboloff (photograph by Lara George Photography)

Gregory Taboloff will make his orchestral debut as both composer and pianist this coming September. For the second half of the program, he will serve as soloist in his own first piano concerto, which he has named “The Mystic.” The title was inspired by the eight-stanza poem “The Mystic Trumpeter,” which Walt Whitman included in his Leaves of Grass collection. The concerto was also influenced by The Mystic, a painting by Taboloff’s wife, Ann Marie Taboloff. It was given its world premiere under the title “The Russian” in 2000 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. “The Mystic” is the title of a revised version, also premiered at the Lesher Center in 2017. September will mark the work’s first performance in San Francisco.

In the first half of the program Taboloff will also serve as soloist, this time in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 37 (third) piano concerto in C minor. The accompanying ensemble, calling itself the Taboloff Philharmonic, will consist of professional musicians from across the Bay Area. It will also begin the program with the overture to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute.

This performance will take place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, September 8, in Herbst Theatre. The entrance to Herbst is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Tickets are on sale for $75 for premium seating, $60, and $45. They may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page, which includes information about the locations associated with each of the price levels. Orders may also be placed by calling 415-392-4400.

Mahler’s First is Vänskä’s Fourth Release

courtesy of Naxos of America

Those who have been following this site for at least a couple of years probably know by now that, even though he has announced his retirement from the Minnesota Orchestra, Music Director Osmo Vänskä has been pursuing a major project with BIS Records to record the music of Gustav Mahler with that ensemble. To review the “state of play,” the project began with the release of a recording of the fifth symphony in C-sharp minor in August of 2017, followed by the recording of the sixth symphony in A minor in April of 2018 and that of the second (“Resurrection”) symphony this past February. This Friday will see the release of the fourth recording, devoted entirely to the first symphony in D major; and, as expected, Amazon.com is currently processing pre-orders. Recordings of the fourth symphony in G major, the seventh symphony in E minor, and the tenth symphony in F-sharp major have been completed; but release dates have not yet been announced. The ninth symphony in D major will be recorded in June of next year.

My memory may not be entirely sharp on this matter; but I think it is highly likely that, taking into account both concert performances and recordings, the first symphony is the Mahler composition I have listened to the most. That includes two performances by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra led by two different conductors, along with a recording made when Donato Cabrera took the ensemble to perform at the Berliner Philharmonie in July of 2012. (I have lost count of the number of San Francisco Symphony performances, most, if not all, of which were conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.) For those curious about such matters, I am pretty sure that second place would go to the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer) collection; and any guess about third place would be a shot in the dark!

In such a context readers might expect that my reaction to this latest release of the first would be a jaded here-we-go-again impression not that different from yesterday’s approach to Jae-Hyuck Cho’s new album of the three most familiar piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven. Fortunately, this is not the case. Yes, in the perspective of the entire Mahler canon, the first symphony is clearly a youthful endeavor; and it practical bursts at the seams with its extensive diversity of thematic sources and rhetorical stances, not to mention intense climaxes. Nevertheless, it is the broad scope of the content that lends this symphony to an equally broad scope of dispositions that the conductor may bring to his/her interpretation of the score.

The good news is that, unlike at least one conductor I have been forced to endure (name withheld out of politeness), Vänskä takes the score very seriously. However, this does not entail sacrificing rhetoric for the sake of “fidelity to the text.” Rather, that fidelity provides the foundation upon which Vänskä develops his own rhetorical perspective, which is compelling enough to sustain the attention of the serious listener from the very first to the very last measure.

Regular readers probably know by now my opinion that every large-scale Mahler composition needs to be “parsed” as a landscape of climaxes requiring the conductor, as Pierre Boulez put it, “to sort out the [highest] climaxes from the lesser peaks, so that the real ones stand out.” When that serious listener encounters Vänskä’s rhetorical strategies, particularly in the first and fourth movements (both significantly longer than the other two), (s)he is unlikely to have much difficulty recognizing those moments that rise above “the lesser peaks.” This is not to suggest that Vänskä’s perspective is “better” (whatever that might mean) than that of other conductors (past, as well as present). Rather, it is just a matter of recognizing that Vänskä has his own clearly-defined impressions of the overall landscape; and, through his conducting technique, he conveys those impressions to the attentive listener.

Will this new release bump any of my past favorite recordings off of my list of preferences? I doubt it. To the contrary, I enjoy the diversity of readings that can be brought to this score to the extent that I pretty much revel them. From that point of view, I am more than delighted to bring Vänskä’s interpretation “into the fold” and seriously doubt that this new addition to my collection will get lost in the shuffle!

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Jae-Hyuck Cho’s Beethoven Sonata Album

from Jae-Hyuck Cho’s Media & Recordings Web page

According to Amazon.com, Sony Classical released the latest solo album by Korean pianist Jae-Hyuck Cho, entitled Beethoven: Sonatas for Piano, at the beginning of November last year. However, as of this writing, it appears to be available only through MP3 download. I can usually count on Google to point me to overseas Amazon listings to see if a physical copy was included on one of those sites, but this was not the case. For that matter, Cho’s own Web site seems to have little more than the cover photograph and an audio clip for this album (and the photograph is attached to the playlist for another album).

Personally, I do not feel as if this is a great loss for the (probably sizable) community of those taking the act of listening to performances of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven seriously. By this time I have lost count of the number of recordings in my collection of pianists, both living and dead, performing one or more of the piano sonatas. All the more impressive is the impressive degree of diversity across the interpretations of even the most familiar of those sonatas.

For his own album, Cho could not have chosen more familiar ground: Opus 13 (“Pathétique”) in C minor, Opus 57 (“Appassionata”) in F minor, and Opus 53 (“Waldstein”) in C major. The mere mention of any of the titles attached to those sonatas tends to elicit a hear-we-go-again response from even the most passionate admirers of Beethoven; but, in spite of such jaded first impressions, there always seem to be pianists capable of shining new light on these old chestnuts. Unfortunately, Cho is not one of those pianists. His technical fidelity is unquestionably solid, but he plays as if the very concept of rhetoric was an alien one.

Nevertheless, it is somewhat interesting to see that the Amazon download page includes a “bonus track” for the album. This is Franz Liszt’s S. 566 transcription of “Widmung,” the first song in Robert Schumann’s Opus 25 Myrthen cycle. This is a case in which technique rises above all other elements, and Cho’s technique could not be better. He even knows how to respect Schumann’s passing reference to Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” theme without worrying about whether Schumann or Liszt was trying to be ironic.

Monday Make-Out: August, 2019

Now that the Make Out Room appears to be offering two Monday Make-Out concerts every month, I suspect that the best way to avoid overlooking one (or both) of them is to account for the two events in a single preview article. For those not familiar with the venue, 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 open at 8 p.m.

August 5: The opening set will be modern jazz improvisations by the trio called The Holly Martins. The group consists of vocalist Lorin Benedict, known for his particularly advanced approach to scat singing, performing with Kasey Knudsen on saxophone and Eric Vogler on guitar. They will be followed by the Jason Levis Septet, led by Levis on drums. He also provides the compositions. The front line consists of Rob Ewing on trombone, Max Miller-Loran on trumpet, Beth Schenck on alto saxophone, and Cory Wright on both tenor saxophone and clarinet. Rhythm also includes Safa Shokrai on bass and Mark Clifford on vibraphone. The evening will conclude with free improvisation by Feral Luggage. This is a sextet with Kersti Abrams playing both alto saxophone and mbira, Mika Pontecorvo on both guitar and electronics, Colleen Kelly T on cello, Elijah Pontecorvo on bass, and both Mark Pino and Lorenzo Arreguin on drums.

August, 26: Keyboardist Steve Blum will open with an ambient set. He will be followed by modern jazz improvisations by the Tim Buckley Trio. Buckley leads from the drums. He is joined by Justin Purtrill on guitar and Daveed Behroozi on piano. The evening will conclude with jazz piano by Omree Gal-oz. He will lead a trio, whose other members are Tyler Harlow on bass and Marcelo Perez on drums.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Satoko Fujii’s Duo Session with Ramon Lopez

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

According to the Libra Records product page, Confluence, the latest album of jazz pianist Satoko Fujii, was released this past May 11. Apparently, it took some time for word of the release to cross the Pacific Ocean; and, as a result, I only learned about it at the end of last month. It goes without saying that the on-again-off-again relationship that Amazon.com has with Libra is back in “off” mode; but, as always, the new album is available through the CD Store Web page on the Libra Records Web site. As that Web page indicates, the album is also available for download from the iTunes Store, which, apparently, will still exist after iTunes as we know it is transformed into Apple Music.

Confluence is a duo album recorded when Fujii had a chance to work with Spanish drummer Roman Lopez. The two of them had previously played together only once, and that was in a trio. All tracks for the album were recorded in a single session, which took place at the Samurai Hotel in New York on December 12, 2018. Two of the eight tracks were composed by Fujii, and the other six tracks were jointly composed.

Some readers may recall that yesterday I wrote about the rhetoric of transparency that I had encountered in the percussion work that Nava Dunkelman brought to Rent Romus’ Deciduous project. Such transparency is also evident in Lopez’ playing, particularly during Fujii’s quieter moments during which every single sound carries a significance of its own. This is particularly evident in “Tick Down,” for which Fujii prepared her piano; and there is something compelling about the ways in which Lopez follows her keystrokes instant by instant. This is just as evident when she is plucking the (unprepared) piano strings in “Road Salt.” “Winter Sky," on the other hand, almost sounds as if each player was filling in gaps left by the other.

Nevertheless, not all of the tracks provide a view through the microscope, so to speak. “Run!” is a bit like a wild madcap cadenza that lost the “source” it was supposed to be embellishing. Both players cut loose on this one, often conveying the impression that each is accompanying the other.

As seems consistently to be the case, this new album seized my attention from the opening gesture of the first track (Fujii’s composition”Asatsuyu”); and attention would not be released until the final gesture of the eighth track. Indeed, given that the title of that last track was also the title of the album, there is a sense that both performers realized that it provided a summing-up of their entire session. Once again, listening to Fujii at work has been a journey of discovery, as compelling as it is delightful.

The Bleeding Edge: 7/29/2019

Given how much was happening last week at the Outsound Presents New Music Summit, it should not be a surprise that this is a very quiet week. The fact is that there are only three events in San Francisco listed on the BayImproviser Calendar, two of which have already been acknowledged on this site. Ironically, both of those events take place on the same day, this coming Thursday, August 1: the first concerts of the month at, respectively, the Center for New Music and the Outsound Presents LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series.

The remaining event of the week is the latest live music performance to be hosted by Adobe Books. As usual, the Adobe site provides relatively little information, letting the hyperlinks do the talking. The first of the two sets will see the return of Christine Shields, who was trained in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and played her first band gig as a drummer. Since that time her music skills have extended to other instruments, vocal performance, and a synthesis of music and storytelling. She will be followed by San Kazakgascar, which calls itself “a free-flowing collective of players.” Led by Jed Brewer, the performers in the group will be Rachel Freund, Amy Reed, Sheila Bosco, and Colleen Kelly.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 3. Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street. The gig is free. However, donations will go directly to the performing artists and are strongly encouraged. At past events Adobe has provided free refreshments to those who make a book purchase of $6 or more, and it is likely that the managers of the book store will maintain this effort to encourage reading their offerings.

ABS Evokes “Nature’s Voice” to Begin Festival

Yesterday afternoon in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Festival portion of the tenth annual Festival & Academy presented by American Bach Soloists (ABS) got under way with a program entitled ’Tis Nature’s Voice. Those who know their early music probably recognize this as the opening line of the countertenor air that is the fourth movement of Henry Purcell’s Hail! Bright Cecilia, setting a text by Nicholas Brady. Yesterday’s program, however, was all instrumental, allowing “nature’s voice” to “speak” through four eighteenth-century instrumental selections.

The most familiar of these filled the second half of the program. These were the first four of the twelve concertos in Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 8 collection, Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (the contest between harmony and invention). Those four concertos are better known under the title The Four Seasons, depicting, in calendar order, spring, summer, autumn, and winter. This is meticulously conceived program music; and Vivaldi provided a thorough “program” for each concerto in the form of a sonnet. (English translations of the sonnets were included in the program book.)

This particular performance was distinguished by featuring a different violin soloist for each concerto. Leader and ABS Academy Faculty member Elizabeth Blumenstock performed the autumn concerto. The other three soloists were Academy alumni: Noah Strick (spring), Tatiana Chulochnikova (summer), and Rachell Ellen Wong (winter). Chulochnikova was also a recipient of the annual Jeffrey Thomas Award.

The result was that each concerto was endowed with its own distinctive personality. Indeed, none of the soloists played “by the book,” adding a rich diversity of improvised embellishments, imaginative approaches to tempo, diverse approaches to phrasing, and, in the case of the winter concerto, an improvised introduction to the middle movement. This was a distinctive approach to making music, rather than just “rendering” it from the “marks on paper.” In other words it was a “historically informed” set of four performances, all consistent with how music was played in the eighteenth century. Thus, while the thematic content was probably familiar to just about everyone in the audience, the music emerging from those performances could not have been more fresh and original. 

The overall title of Opus 8 suggests that Vivaldi may have intended these concertos for pedagogical purposes, and we know little about if and how they were received by audiences. The two concertos by Georg Phillipp Telemann that began yesterday’s program were another matter. After moving to Hamburg in 1721, Telemann was basically accountable to “city government,” those who were (at least in name) “servants of the public.” Music was for the residents of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg (to give the place its full official name), rather than any elite nobility of either state or church.

An eighteenth-century chalumeau, without its single reed (photograph by Sofi Sykfont, from Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

Yesterday’s selections made it clear that Telemann knew how to go for “public appeal.” These were concertos written to evoke the sounds of frogs and crickets, respectively. For the record, they were not accompanied by explanatory sonnets. In each case Telemann singled out a few characteristic sounds and let listener imagination take care of the rest. The frog sounds were handled entirely by strings, featuring solo violin work by Academy alumnus Toma Iliev, whose solo chirps were quickly picked up by the rest of the string section.. The crickets, on the other hand, were represented by three winds, piccolo (Sandra Miller), oboe (Debra Nagy), and chalumeau (a single-reed predecessor of the clarinet played by Thomas Carroll). There were also extensive solo passages for a pair of bass players (faculty member Steven Lehning and alumnus Daniel Turkos), perhaps representing the rustling in the woods were the crickets were chirping.

The remaining selection before the intermission was Francesco Geminiani’s The Enchanted Forest, composed for a staged pantomime based on excerpts from the epic poem by Torquato Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered. The title refers to a spell cast over a forest by the Muslim sorcerer Ismen to prevent the Christian knights from felling the trees to build siege engines. However, there is little sense of this (or any other) narrative in Geminiani’s score. Rather, the music is a collection of short pieces, all suitable for dancing, grouped into two sections, eleven parts in the first and twelve in the second. Brevity of the parts is the key to the overall plan, and Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas led the ABS ensemble at a brisk clip. (Neither frogs nor crickets emerged from this forest.)

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Wynton Marsalis Returns to the Classical Genre

Nicola Benedetti with Wynton Marsalis on the cover of her new album of his music (from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording)

Back in the Eighties, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis exercised his “rising talent” with albums in both the classical and jazz genres. At that time I remember watching a profile of him on television, probably on 60 Minutes. Among those interviewed to talk about Marsalis was conductor Raymond Leppard, who led the National Philharmonic Orchestra for the Marsalis recording of trumpet concertos by Joseph Haydn, Leopold Mozart, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel. Leppard was an affable interview subject, but he believed firmly that Marsalis could not thrive while dividing himself between classical and jazz. Sooner or later, preferably sooner, he would have to commit himself to one or the other.

I have no idea whether Leppard’s observation had an impact; but it is certainly the case that, over the course of the following decades, Marsalis established himself as a jazzman, frequently in the company of his relatives. While he is not my favorite in either the composer or performer categories, I certainly do not mind listening to his recordings; and I suspect that he chose the right fork in the road. More recently, however, he seems to have begun looking back at the classical “fork” and applying his hand to composing in that genre.

One of his inspirations appears to have been the British violinist Nicola Benedetti. A little over two weeks ago, Decca Classics released a new recording featuring her performing two Marsalis compositions, both of which were written for her. One is the Fiddle Dance Suite, scored for solo violin. The other is a four-movement concerto in D major, given its world premiere in November of 2015 by Benedetti, performing with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Gaffigan. On the Decca recording she plays the concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Măcelaru.

Bay Area readers probably know that Măcelaru is the current Music Director and Conductor of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and those thinking of attending probably already know that Marsalis will be making his first appearance there as composer in residence. Benedetti will be one of the performers, and the violin concerto will be played on the final program of the festival. Sadly, the new Benedetti recording has done little to pique my curiosity about this event.

Indeed, as the reader may guess from the structuring of this article, listening to the performances of both pieces triggered my memories of Leppard’s cautionary warning. In his notes for the accompanying booklet, Marsalis claims that the concerto was “written from the perspective of a jazz musician and a New Orleans bluesman.” While I would not dispute that statement, I would suggest that “perspective” amounts to a “point of view;” and, when it comes to the considerable context of performances that fall under the rubric of “jazz musicians and a New Orleans bluesman,” Marsalis’ point of view is disconcertingly myopic. At the end of the day, the attentive listener will encounter any number of familiar gestures and can even appreciate specific denotations and connotations. Nevertheless, all of that sampling does not add up to very much, particularly when the samples are almost entirely embedded in contextual settings that are little more than syrupy.

Fortunately, the syrup is not as thick in the solo violin suite as it is in the concerto.This may have something to do with Benedetti’s ability to capture the spirit behind the notes. Mind you, there are signs of that spirit in her solo work in the concerto. However, in the concerto she has to contend with out-of-place intrusions from the orchestra, while, in the suite, she has “complete rhetorical control.” Nevertheless, even when Benedetti is in complete control, it is hard for me to ignore hearing LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) muttering “middle-brow” in the back of my head.

SFAC to Present Pamela Z at The Lab

At the end of next month, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) will present a special performance of a work for solo voice, electronics, and projected image by composer Pamela Z. This concert will be held in conjunction with side by side/in the world, an exhibition featuring California artists reflecting on the current nature of immigration and the rise of sanctuary cities. The exhibition is currently on display in the SFAC Main Gallery, located on the first floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue; but The Lab will provide the venue for Z’s concert.

Her contribution to the exhibition is a mixed media installation entitled Suitcase. A suitcase provides the core of the installation, in which it serves as both a bag and a home for a video projection of a vulnerable and inconsolable female subject that occupies it. Suitcase is part of a larger work entitled Baggage Allowance, which has been structured around both the literal and the metaphorical denotations and connotations of the noun “baggage.”

The campus of the American Academy in Rome, where the winners of the Rome Prize stay and work (photograph by CenezoicEra, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

This past April the American Academy in Rome announced that Z was one of the winners of the 2019–20 Rome Prize. Specifically, she received the Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Prize for composition and performance work on the piece Simultaneous. The award includes a stipend, workspace, and room and board for a period of five to eleven months at the Academy’s eleven-acre campus in Rome. Z plans to leave for Rome not long after her performance at The Lab; so the event will have “last chance to see” connotations (at least in the short run)!

This performance will begin at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 29. The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street, which is a short walk to the east from the corner of Mission Street. This is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station. There will be no charge for admission; but, given that demand is likely to be high, registration is strongly recommended. Doors will open at 8 p.m., and it is usually the case that a long line has accumulated before then.

Outsound Summit Wraps with Free Improvisation

Last night at the Community Music Center in the Mission, the Outsound New Music Summit wrapped up its 18th annual offering with a program entitled Spontaneous. This time the clarifying phrase could not have been more apposite: “a celebration of firey expression and freedom.” Both sets served up free improvisation at its freest, featuring both local and visiting musicians.

Indeed, the opening set amounted to a synthesis of local and remote. Festival Director Rent Romus took that set to showcase his latest project, called Deciduous. This was conceived by pianist Gerard Cox, based in Columbus, Ohio, to be a multiregional effort; and Romus is serving as one of its curators. For last night’s performance he assembled local artists gabby fluke-mogul (violin), Heikki Koskinen (e-trumpet), Lisa Mezzacappa (bass), Tony Gennaro (vibraphone), and Nava Dunkelman (percussion), along with Keith Kelly visiting from Phoenix. Romus himself played several different sizes of saxophone and a bit of percussion.

The set consisted of five Romus compositions, each with a title beginning with the words “Ode to.” Instrumentation varied from one ode to the next, beginning with a duo improvisation with Romus on alto and Kelly alternating between tenor and flute and concluding with “all hands on deck” playing “Ode to the Stone that Became a Mountain.” This last selection was particularly extensive, using both dynamic range and diversity of rhythm to establish the contrast between stone and mountain. This was when the loudspeaker amplifying Mezzacappa’s bass work hit a frequency that resonated with the bench where I was sitting, leading me to wonder if the mountain might be coming up from under me.

What struck me most about the full cycle of odes was the transparency of sonorities from all of the performers. This may have grown out of that opening “intimate conversation” between Romus and Kelly; but that spirit was maintained as the other players contributed to the mix. For example, from where I was sitting I could not see fluke-mogul’s violin work; but I was always aware of her presence in the overall fabric. For that matter Dunkelman’s percussion rhetoric had a transparency of its own, allowing every individual sonority to establish itself through its own sound qualities. “Firey expression” may have been the order of the evening, but there was a seductive delicacy in the way that the flames of Deciduous flickered.

The second set was led by Vinny Golia visiting from Los Angeles with his current trio. The other players were Miller Wrenn on bass and Clint Dodson on drums. As was expected by those who know Golia’s work, the stage was filled with an abundance of saxophones and clarinets of different sizes, along with a contrabass flute added for good measure. While the set clearly consisted of a sequence of individual compositions, those pieces were linked through seamless transition passages, making for a unified overall “suite,” each of whose movements involved Golia on a different instrument.

Vinny Golia and Miller Wrenn (photograph by Stephen Smoliar)

As might be guessed, the contrabass flute was the show stealer. During the composition for that instrument, Golia displayed a variety of conventional and “extended” techniques, allowing the attentive listener to appreciate the full diversity of sonorities. As might be expected (and suggested by the above photograph), watching was as engaging as listening.

For that matter, listening was key to all of the activity taking place on stage. There was never a moment that suggested that any one member of the trio was not aware of what the other two were doing. This was as much an exploration of the full capacity for expression in a trio setting as it was a showcase of the diverse sonorities of Golia’s collection of instruments.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Organ Trio Alive and Well on Capri Records

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Last month Capri Records released Equal Time, a new organ trio album that brings rising stars Akiko Tsuruga on organ and Graham Dechter on guitar together with veteran drummer Jeff Hamilton. I have to say that it took me some time to adjust to the role of the organ trio in jazz; but, in light of yesterday’s rant over Giovanni Russonello’s recent articles in The New York Times, I feel it important to observe that I have Blue Note Records to thank for enabling that adjustment. Back when I was building my library of jazz recordings through mail orders from Blue Note and Mosaic catalogs, I responded to one of Blue Note’s “must have” lists by ordering their Jimmy Smith album The Sermon. To be honest, I feel I still have a lot to learn before I can claim to have gotten my head around the title track, which runs over twenty minutes in duration; but listening to Smith had a significant impact on my listening to other organists. (For the record, so to speak, The Sermon did not “make the cut” for Russonello’s article “A History of Blue Note Records in 15 Albums.”) These days, my Saturday morning schedule is such that, more often than not, I have breakfast while listening to the Sirius XM Satellite Radio program Organized, hosted by Joey DeFrancesco and featuring performances on the Hammond B-3 organ.

One of the things that impressed me about Smith was his awareness that, with a B-3, he did not need a bass player. Between the pedal keyboard and the two manuals, he always that the resources to provide his own bass line. As a result, the instrumentation for a trio shifted to bringing in a guitar along with keyboard and drums; and it is clear from DeFrancesco’s program that this approach to a jazz trio is alive and well (even if a text search reveals that the word “organ” never appears in either of the Russonello articles I took to task yesterday).

More importantly, it is clear that those playing in organ trios have much to offer the attentive jazz listener. Equal Time provides any number of tracks to warrant that proposition. Indeed, three of those tracks are Tsuruga originals, along with one composition by Dechter. At the same time, my ongoing interest in looking at history through new lenses is generously satisfied with two major Blue Note tracks, John Coltrane’s “Moments Notice” (Blue Train) and Hank Mobley’s “A Baptist Beat” (Roll Call). (At least Blue Train made it onto Russonello’s list!) Finally, the album closes out with instrumental accounts of two favorite vocals, “I Remember You” (Victor Schertzinger’s setting of words by Johnny Mercer) and “This Could Be the Start of Something Big (Steve Allen setting his own words).

From a rhetorical point of view, Tsuruga easily shifts her mood to accommodate the respective spirits of each of the eight tracks on this album. Her flexibility of style matters as much to the attentive listener as the diversity of her selections. Those who mistake her more soulful qualities for comforting “background music” will not know what they are missing!

Springhorn’s Exploratory Composition for Outsound

The adjective “exploratory” was again put into play last night at the Community Music Center (CMC) in the Mission with the fourth concert in the 18th annual offering of the Outsound New Music Summit. The title of the concert was Expanding the Rift with the clarifying phrase “a night of exploratory composition and improvisation.” Personally, I have never felt that the separation of composition and improvisation needed to be expanded or contracted, enjoying, instead, a “Goldilocks” relation of being “just right.” Nevertheless, the opening selection by Polly Moller Springhorn definitely established new ways of thinking about both composition and improvisation.

Her “Tomography Fortunae” involved a three-movement graphic score. Each movement consisted of a single page that provided the seven performers with a road map of sorts. Their initial positions in a rectangular space were represented by Roman numbers. The first three formed a row in the center of the rectangle, and these represented performers that took fixed positions. Last night drummer Tom Scandura was the center of the three, with Tom DiMuzio working with a control panel of electronic sounds on one side and Tom Nunn playing one of his invented instruments on the other.

The remaining four players began each movement at respective corners of the rectangle. Last night they were Tom Djll (for whom the piece was written) on trumpet, Tom Dambly on a variety of different trumpet-family instruments (including the slide version), Tom Weeks on alto saxophone, and Tom Duff on computer-processes ukulele. At this point the reader should begin to recognize why the first word of the composition’s title is “tomography.” Springhorn’s instructions are as follows:
Musicians must go by the name Tom, either officially on their birth certificate, informally as a nickname, or temporarily for the duration of the performance.
The initial locations of all seven performers are designated by cards with Roman numerals placed on the floor. The paths to be followed from the corners are indicated in two ways. First, they are represented as lines on the three pages of the graphic score, one for each movement. Those pages were projected on the wall of the CMC auditorium in such a way that all the players could see them. When the paths got more elaborate in the later movements, they were also designated by cards on the floor, this time bearing the first six “Fortunate numbers,” integers derived from prime numbers by a rather idiosyncratic method invented by Reo Fortune (the reason for the second word in the composition’s title).

The cards for last night’s performance with both Roman numerals and Fortunate numbers (from the “Roman Numerals and Fortunate Numbers” Web page on Springhorn’s blog)

This was a night when I found it advantageous to take one of the few seats available in the auditorium’s rather modest balcony. I had no trouble aligning the movements of the performers with the maps projected on the wall. However, as Duff observed, performance was not so much about who was going where as it was about who encountered whom over those course of those movements. Whenever two players met along one of the paths, their individual improvisations would merge into duo improvisations. As a result, the impact of the listening experience had less to do with the inventions of any individual as with the ways those inventions would accommodate player-to-player interactions.

Thus, what seemed to matter the most (at least from my own point of view) was how Springhorn found a sweet spot between solo and duo improvisation. That significance of encounter, along with the playful spirit behind the overall plan, made “Tomography Fortunae” a pleasantly engaging perspective on acts of improvisation. It emerged as one of the more effective realizations of what John Cage liked to call his “sunny disposition.”

Friday, July 26, 2019

Date for SF Music Day 2019 Announced

Today InterMusic SF announced the date for the twelfth edition of its free annual music festival. SF Music Day will be seven and one-half hours of music performances held in the Veterans Building. As was the case last year, performances will be going on, usually simultaneously, across four stages. The major venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor. Performances will also take place in The Green Room on the second floor and at two sites in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera on the fourth floor, the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater and the John M. Bryan Education Studio. The genres performed will include early music, classical music, new music, jazz, and improvised music, as well as music drawn from global classical and folk traditions.

This year the theme for the entire marathon will be entitled Rebels & Renegades. Specific names associated with that overall classification will include John Coltrane, Melba Liston, Terry Riley, and Lou Harrison, along with large-ensemble improvisation by the duo B. Experimental Band. While the schedule is not usually finalized until September, the list of participating ensembles is as follows:

Classical & Early Music
Fervida Trio
The Meráki Quartet
Brass Over Bridges
Sylvestris Quartet
Telegraph Quartet

Contemporary Music
Chordless: Sara LeMesh and Allegra Chapman
Stenberg / Cahill Duo
Patrick Galvin and Jung-eun Kim
Ensemble for These Times
Astraeus String Quartet
Friction Quartet
StringQuake
Keyed Kontraptions
The Dresher/Davel Invented Instrument Duo
The Living Earth Show

Contemporary & Global Music
Quinteto Latino
Melody of China
The Alaya Project
Cornelius Boots & the Heavy Roots Shakuhachi Ensemble

Jazz & Improvised Music
Ila Cantor's Encanto
Myra Melford / Fay Victor / Lisa Mezzacappa
Dee Spencer: The Smile Orange Project
Terrence Brewer Acoustic Jazz Quartet
Richard Howell Quartet
Trance Mission
Destiny Muhammad Trio
Howard Wiley & Extra Nappy
Hristo Vitchev Trio
Nathan Bickart Trio
duo B. Experimental Band

The Veterans Building is located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street, a corner with bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. The event will take place on Sunday, October 6. The concerts will begin promptly at noon, and the doors will open at 11:30 a.m. Opera lovers may be relived to know that there will not be an opera performance taking place that afternoon in the adjacent War Memorial Opera House! As always, admission will be free; neither tickets nor reservations will be required.

Does Jazz Have a Future?

I just finished an article in The New York Times entitled “Blue Note Records at 80: Can a Symbol of Jazz’s Past Help Shape Its Future?,” written by Giovanni Russonello. The online version of this article gave no indication of who the author is or what credentials he brought to writing what turned out to be an impressively lengthy essay. Between my own personal listening experiences and the recordings I have accumulated, I came away with the impression that Russonello did not know that all much about what was going on half a century ago or what role Blue Note played in those activities. However, when it came to writing about those who currently call what they are doing “jazz,” his article turned out to be more informative; and I was glad I had taken the trouble to wade through the muddle of the author’s initial thoughts.

I suppose that my tolerance of Russonello and a lot to do with my grudging acceptance of living in a culture that is “ignorant of history and proud of that ignorance.” Mind you, there are any number of jazz performers here in the Bay Area that are well aware of the giants of the past and impressively capable of standing on the shoulders of those giants. For that matter, this has been the case in general for much of the past, certainly among those recording with Blue Note in its prime. Thelonious Monk had a prodigious appreciation of his predecessors; and his first recording session with Riverside consisted entirely of selections from Duke Ellington’s “book.” (Charles Mingus similarly admired Ellington, even if that admiration resulted in the notorious Money Jungle recording session, which, for the record, eventually found its way to a Blue Note recording.)

The cover of the Money Jungle album, showing Duke Ellington at the piano, Charles Mingus at his bass, and drummer Max Roach (from the Amazon.com Web page for the remastered release of the recording)

So it is not the performers that trouble me. My real concern is with the audiences and my belief that, however wedded to Internet sources everyone may be, earbuds and Internet connectivity will never be an adequate substitute for being in the presence of music being made in-the-moment by skilled musicians. Thus, I am less interested in all the names that Russonello drops at the end of the article in conjunction with recent Blue Note projects and more concerned about how many of those names have followers listening to them in “real-time” performance settings.

When I go over to the SFJAZZ Center, I occasionally encounter someone whose past experiences overlap my own; but, mostly, I find myself among people who happen to be there just because they happen to be there. (I also have to confess that I have had little satisfaction from my few encounters with what SFJAZZ purports to do in the name of “education.” I am all for education; but, to be blunt, those responsible for it at SFJAZZ strike me as having a lot to learn and showing few signs of being motivated to do so!)

The bottom line is that whatever it is that we choose to call “jazz” will only have a future if there are audience bases that allow it to do so. Going to places like the Red Poppy Art House (and, for that matter, Union Square during the summer) indicates that such audience bases can be found in San Francisco. From a more “mainstream” point of view, I have been impressed by what San Francisco Performances has done in offering jazz in a variety of different settings. Whether such efforts are sufficient to build audience interest and support to a “critical mass” remains to be seen. Nevertheless, when I see many of the results of efforts by both the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera to strike a healthy balance between past and present, I feel as if I am in the right place to see if that critical mass will emerge.

Post Script: Tomorrow’s print edition of The New York Times will run another article by Russonello entitled “A History of Blue Note Records in 15 Albums.” (As the hyperlink indicates, this article is now available online.) I decided to see how many of those albums were in my collection (whose growth depended heavily of mailings I would receive announcing new Mosaic albums). Only four of Russonello’s selections are in my collection; but my own view of jazz does not give as much attention to the recent past as Russonello does! Indeed, four of the items on his list did not exist when I was building my collection.

Uneven SFS Summer Beethoven at Davies

Conductor Nimrod David Pfeffer (from the SFS event page for this concert)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the second of the two “serious” concerts in the annual Summer with the Symphony series of events. This was the traditional program devoted entirely to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. As was announced a week ago, pianist Rodolfo Leone, who had been scheduled to make his SFS debut playing the Opus 73 (“Emperor”) concerto, was unable to appear. He was replaced by Andrew von Oeyen, playing the Opus 37 (third) concerto in C minor. Oeyen was last seen here as a Summer with the Symphony soloist about a year ago playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Conductor Nimrod David Pfeffer made his debut on the SFS podium.

Summer with the Symphony offerings tend to go for Beethoven at his most dramatic, and C minor was definitely one of Beethoven’s most emotionally intense key signatures. Von Oeyen had no trouble unleashing the composer’s dramatic qualities at their most expressive. However, that expressiveness was best conveyed by his ability to bring intensity to the soft dynamics as capably as he could deliver the loud. Thus, even with familiarity with the score, one could follow his solo work with some degree of suspense, always wondering when the next mood shift would arise and where it would lead. Opus 37 may not get performed as frequently as Opus 73, but von Oeyen clearly appreciated the abundant qualities of the score and knew how to convey the full extent of those qualities to the attentive listener.

On the podium Pfeffer seemed to appreciate all that von Oeyen was determined to express in this concerto, and Pfeffer was a conductor that allowed his soloist as much rein as the situation required. Nevertheless, when it was the orchestra’s turn to take over the dramatic rhetoric, Pfeffer made sure that the listeners were not short-changed. As a result, at least where this particular concerto is concerned, the soloist-conductor relationship could not have been more effective.

Equally effective was von Oeyen’s choice of an encore, which reflected back on his having played Gershwin last summer. However, this was not just “any old Gershwin tune.” Rather, von Oeyen turned to the collection of seven Virtuoso Etudes composed by Earl Wild, each structured around a familiar Gershwin song. Von Oeyen played the third of these études based on “The Man I Love;” and it was a real treat listening to one of Gershwin’s most affectionate songs refracted through stunning embellishments that reminded the attentive listener of just how much Wild knew about Franz Liszt. (The “Embraceable You” étude comes close to actually quoting one of Liszt’s own études.)

Left to his own devices, Pfeffer was less convincing. His overture-concerto-symphony program began with the overture from the Opus 84 incidental music composed for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Egmont. Pfeffer took a rich broad-strokes approach to the score’s dramatic rhetoric. It was a performance that appealed to audience familiarity; and, for the most part, it worked. My only quibble is a wish that the timpanist had used sticks with harder heads, not because they would have been more “historically informed” (since the overall approach to resources was definitely not historically-informed) but because there are so many elegant turns of rhythm for the timpani that they deserve to be heard with crisp precision.

The symphony was the Opus 67 (fifth), which allowed Pfeffer to stake out his own survey of emotional C minor territory. Unfortunately, the overall effect was one of self-indulgence, rather than letting Beethoven call the emotional shots. Mind you, SFS probably knows Opus 67 so well that they need little more than the Concertmaster (Wyatt Underhill last night) to keep everything in line. This allowed Pfeffer to indulge in his own choreographic excesses with little harm to the music itself.

Nevertheless, I feel a need to call out a particularly sore nerve in my own experience of this spectacle. Having seen the effect more times than I can enumerate, I must finally come down with the explicit assertion that a conductor’s baton is not a baseball bat. This whole business of grasping the baton with two hands and then leading it through a slow-motion swing is the perfect example of preferring to show off to the audience over leading the ensemble and doing justice to the composer. (Does anyone want to see Buster Posey on the Davies podium?) Since Pfeffer is currently Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, this may have just been a matter of reveling the opportunity to be in plain view, rather than being relegated to an orchestra pit; but this is a young conductor that has yet to learn that a concert experience is more about what the composer expresses rather than what the conductor displays.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

James Tenney: the Remaining Appendices

The collection of articles by music theorist and composer James Tenney published by the University of Illinois Press under the title From Scratch: Writings in Music Theory includes three appendices. The third of these has already been discussed in an account of the five-year period during which Tenney tried to develop a more “contemporary” theory of harmony. This article will examine the other two appendices and thus conclude the ongoing effort to account for the entire collection.

The first appendix was written in 1959; and, when this book was being planned, it was given the title “Pre—Meta + Hodos.” It amounts to a collection of initial thoughts that would eventually be refined into Tenney’s Master’s thesis, “Meta + Hodos: A Phenomenology of Twentieth-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form.” That means that the “big picture” of “Meta + Hodos” includes these initial preceding thoughts and well as the succeeding thoughts that were eventually published as “META Meta + Hodos.”

(I have to say that I am no stranger to this “evolutionary” approach to writing. Shortly after I began work in Santa Barbara in 1978, I was invited to a party where I got to meet several former graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that arrived after I had received my doctoral degree in 1971. One of them came up to me; and, as soon as I introduced myself, he said, “I have been trying to rewrite your thesis for the last several years!” I replied calmly, “I wish you had gotten in touch. I’ve done that many times already.” In retrospect I realize that I now regret that I did not keep the notebook in which I first set down those thoughts that would eventually become my thesis. Tenney was clearly more conscious about such things that I was!)

“Pre—Meta + Hodos” never mentions phenomenology. Indeed, I hope that Tenney’s spirit would not be disturbed if I described this document as a study in terminology. This effort at “coming to terms” (a phrase I have unabashedly appropriated from the title of a book by the late narrative theorist Seymour Chatman) was motivated by Tenney’s recognition that the vocabulary of music theory was, at the time he was writing this essay, still very much locked into semantics based on “common practice” traditions. Tenney appreciated that those semantics needed to evolve to keep up with how practices of making and listening to music had changed since 1900.

While I admire the project he set for himself, I have found myself wrestling with an alternative point of view that clearly had not yet entered Tenney mindset in 1959. This has to do with the extent to which the common practice lexicon is almost entirely rooted in nouns and noun phrases, thus holding off at considerable distance the extent to which both making and listening to music are actions (probably a combination of physical and mental activities). In other words, if we are to do justice to the “practice” side of “common practice,” we need to explore verb-based approaches to description, perhaps to the extent that we accept the breadth of verb grammar with constructs such as tense and mood.

Then, as a corollary, we must recognize that any verb-based strategy must be based on time-consciousness. I see this as the strategic shift that both Tenney and myself pursued to mine the resources of phenomenology in general and Edmund Husserl’s lectures on time-consciousness in particular. However, awareness of phenomenology is only part of the foundation. We also need to recognize that when we actually set about to write about either making or listening music, we draw upon the “text type” (a term I acquired through reading Chatman) of description.

The problem is that writing descriptions tends to be much more difficult than writing other text types, such as the logic of argumentation, narrative, or even general exposition. Writing a description in which time-consciousness is involved is even more difficult. During one of my past efforts to grasp the nature of verb-based thinking, I wrote the following:
The challenge of providing a textual account of “what is” is already, as has been previously discussed, formidable enough.  Where the performance of music is concerned, however, “what is” is secondary to “what is happening;”  but “what is happening” is already “in the moment.”  We cannot begin to describe it (and mind cannot try to deal with it in terms of categories and instances) until it has elapsed;  and then we have to worry about a “new moment!”  The act of description is not only formidable, it may also be theoretically impossible.  The best we can do is engage in an ongoing process of coming up with approximations;  and the beauty of the performance of music is that there will always be room for yet another approximation, which may or may not be a refinement of a previous one!
I think it would be fair to say that Tenney never really rose to this challenge. The two appendices that precede the one written as part of his theoretical approaches to harmony are solidly noun-based. “Pre—Meta + Hodos” is basically an effort to lay a terminological foundation; and, in that foundation, even time itself is treated as a noun. The second essay then explores “musical parameters,” which amounts to laying out the adjectives that can be summoned to modify the nouns. Both of these essays cover significant distances and can be valued for that; but they do not help us to approach the verb-based side of music. A systematic approach to coming up with useful descriptions of “what is happening” when we make or experience music still eludes us; and, when one considers From Scratch in its entirety, one can see how that approach also eluded Tenney.

Exploratory Rock at Outsound Summit

Vegan Butcher members Angela Coon, Wil Hendrick, Suki O’Kane, and John Shiurba (photograph by Stephen Smoliar)

Last night in the Mission, the Community Music Center (CMC) hosted the second concert in the 18th annual offering of the Outsound New Music Summit. The title for the evening was Rocket, clarified by the phrase “a night of exploratory rock.” Given that we are less than a month away from the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, described “officially” (i.e., on its poster) as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” I suppose it would be fair to say that last night was definitely not your grandfather’s rock music.

The more imaginative of the two groups that provided the sets for the program was Vegan Butcher (and not just for its name). Since the beginning of 2012, leader John Shiurba has limited himself to working with a nine-note scale, which he calls The January Scale (perhaps because it was conceived in the month of January). Regular readers are now probably wondering whether this was yet another approach to working with just intonation. However, the scale has nothing to do with the integer ratios of the overtone series; nor is it an unconventional approach to equal temperament. Rather, it is the equal-tempered chromatic scale with three notes missing: F-sharp, C-sharp, and A-sharp. (Think of it as chromatic orthodontia.)

As might be guessed, there is an interesting story behind the invention of The January Scale. Shiurba was inspired by the French novelist George Perec, who took some rather bizarre approaches to imposing constraints on his writing technique. He may be best know for La disparition (the disappearance), a 300-page novel in which the letter “e” does not appear in any of the words. (To appreciate the challenge, remember that the masculine form of “the” in French is “le,” meaning that Perec could not use this word. Those who cannot read French may be interested in the fact that Gilbert Adair prepared a translation entitled A Void in which the letter “e” is also absent.)

In a conversation I had with Shiurba before the concert, he told me that omitting a single pitch from the chromatic scale would probably not be noticed. After some experimentation, he decided that three provided the “critical mass’ of missing notes. As might be imagined, honoring this constraint while improvising is no mean feat; but the group as a whole seems to have settled into working with this gamut. Experienced listeners will probably recognize that they are dealing with a vocabulary that almost sounds as if it were modal but is definitely not modal.

That said, not all was well in last night’s garden. Most important was that Angela Coon, the vocal in the group, never held its own against the guitar (Shiurba), bass (Wil Hendricks), and drums (Suki O’Kane). She had a microphone (of course); but her diction was not up to the stream-of-consciousness flow of words she was supposed to deliver. The other shortcoming came from Shiurba’s own guitar work, which suggested that, while he had learned how to honor his self-imposed limitations, the result was more that a little too much sameness that cut across his selections.

The good news, however, was that thematic content, such as it was, could register with the attentive listener. The opening set, taken by a trio called Gentleman Surfer, was another matter. This was a trio led by drummer Jon Bafus joined by Barry McDaniel on guitar and Zack Bissell on synthesizers. As just about anyone knows, when the drummer is in charge, things get loud very quickly and stay that way very long. The onslaught of decibels was so overwhelming that any sense of thematic material from the other two instruments (or, for that matter, basic rhythm) could only really be apprehended by sitting in the patio outside the theater itself. Everything registered out there, even when the doors were closed; and one could recognize that there were actually some tunes hiding out behind the wall of sound. (Given that, sitting in the patio, one also heard two different CMC classes, one a women’s chorus and the other a Latin combo, the entire listening experience triggered fond memories of the music of Charles Ives!)

Gentleman Surfer may be the ultimate tribute band for Spinal Tap, and they even have amplifiers that go up to twelve!

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

SFCM: November, 2019

Ironically, when the Calendar for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) advances to November, events appear for which much, if not all, of the program details have been established. Presumably, this is because these concerts present the results of term-long projects that have been defined before classes begin. Given how many other performances will be taking place at other venues in November, it seems desirable to provide a heads-up on when the results of these projects will be ready for presentation before audiences. Here are the specifics for the two projects that have been planned:

Sunday, November 3, 2 p.m., Concert Hall: The SFCM Baroque Ensemble, co-directed by Corey Jamason and Elisabeth Reed, will present its annual Fall Baroque Concert. Appropriate to the season, they will play the third and fourth concertos from Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 8 collection, Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (the contest between harmony and invention), whose first four concertos are best known as The Four Seasons. The concertos that will be performed are those that represent autumn and winter. In a similar vein the program will begin with Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Ballet des Saisons, which includes arias setting texts by Isaac de Benserade. Somewhat in the same spirit, the program will also include selected movement from Jean-Féry Rebel’s score for the ballet Les Élémens (the elements). Additional vocal selections by Vivaldi and George Frideric Handel have not yet been finalized.

Thursday, November 21, and Friday, November 22, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: SFCM Opera will present an imaginative coupling of one-act offerings. The first will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 486 comic Singspiel “Der Schauspieldirektor” (the impresario). Mozart composed this comedy in 1786, by which time he had written enough operas to appreciate the problems in dealing with prima donnas. Managing self-important individuals is also at the heart of the Prologue for Richard Strauss’ Opus 60 opera Ariadne auf Naxos. As a result, the evening, taken as a whole, makes it clear that “arts management” had not changed very much over the course of 130 years. Curt Pajer, Musical and Managing Director of Opera, will conduct; and specifics regarding staging have not yet been announced.

In addition, there will be two concerts for which program details have not yet been announced:
As always, when further details become available, they will be found on the Performance Calendar Web page at the SFCM Web site closer to the scheduled dates. The above hyperlinks will lead to concert-specific Web pages. The individual event pages will specify whether a concert is free and/or whether a reservation is required. If there will be a charge for admission, there will be a hyperlink to a Web page for purchasing tickets. (There will also be hyperlinks for making reservations for free concerts.) Note that, because reservations are recommended, there are separate hyperlinks for the two dates of the opera program. For those who do not already know, the SFCM building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. 

Celebrations of Self-Indulgence from Shpachenko

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

This past March Reference Recordings released its latest album consisting entirely of world premiere performances by pianist Nadia Shpachenko.The title of the album is The Poetry of Places; and it consists of eight compositions, all of which were inspired by either architecture or some geographical location. The contributing composers are, in order of appearance, Andrew Norman, Harold Meltzer, Jack Van Zandt, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, James Matheson, Lewis Spratlan, and Nina C. Young. The accompany booklet provides a mini-essay by each composer identifying the place being depicted and his/her thoughts about that place.

When confronted with many negative impressions, I try to make it a point to begin by writing about something that appeals to me. Sadly, I find myself unable to do so with this album. There is a glib and self-indulgent superficiality in the ways in which the composers frame their texts, and that superficiality seems to translate directly into the music itself. To be fair, I was put off by the very first mini-essay in which Norman referred to a masterpiece of brevity by Johannes Brahms as “an old four-hands piano waltz.” I had hoped that, after his mash-up of that classic, there would be nowhere to go but up; but I was sadly mistaken.

I suspect the problem is that each of these composers locked into a surface feature or two, let “the spirit move” him/her to write something, and then turned that something over to Shpachenko. To be fair, she gives each of these pieces her best shot. However, by the end of the album, it is hard to resist the overall impression that “there is no ‘there’ there” (which happens to be a place-related text from Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography about her childhood home in California). Perhaps the most positive thing I can say is that Norman’s piece encouraged me to go back and listen to more Brahms.

Outsound Summit Begins on a Large Scale

duo B. players Jason Levis and Lisa Mezzacappa with band member Lee Hodel (photograph by Stephen Smoliar)

Last night at the Community Music Center in the Mission, the Outsound New Music Summit began its 18th annual offering of a week’s worth of concerts with a program entitled Free Flowing. The program book clarified that title with the phrase “a night of original comprovisation,” that last word suggesting a synthesis of “composition” and “improvisation.” The first set was taken by The duo B. Experimental Band. Regular readers may recognize duo B. as the partnership of Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jason Levis on drums. They began working on a larger scale in December of 2018 at the Temescal Art Center in Oakland, and Outsound selected their group to launch this week’s concert series.

The notes in the program book wrote about the exploration of boundaries. This included the ill-defined distinction between composition and improvisation captured in that subtitle. It also recognized that the territory of avant-garde jazz has been overlapping much of contemporary chamber music. From my vantage point, with its bias towards “bleeding edge” performances, neither genre seems to feel as if the other is stepping on its toes. Perhaps the only distinction of the genres would involve whether last night’s set should be described as two compositions or a single two-movement one.

Personally, I’ll go with saying that they played two distinct pieces, basically because the “group strategies” between them were decidedly different. The first piece depended significantly on the distribution of the performers throughout the Concert Hall space. That meant that some of the performers were beside, behind, or amidst the audience, while those in front were both on the stage and on the floor in front of the stage. During the second piece, all of the musicians were on stage; and there was also a “conductor’s podium” (not elevated), which Mezzacappa shared with violinist gabby fluke-mogul.

The two pieces were also distinguished by their approaches to performance. The first was not only spatial but also an exploration of what might be called “pre-sound.” Almost all of the performance by the wind and brass players involved different ways of realizing the sound of breath, while the string players worked with the bow without drawing it across any of the strings. A more poetic listener might have been inclined to described this piece as evoking “the birth of sound.” From my own more prosaic point of view, listening was more a fascinating journey through many ways of creating those “pre-sounds” than I could possibly have imagined.

The second piece was more “orchestral” in nature, even if that suggestion was triggered by little more than including the role of a conductor. There was also very much a “big band” rhetoric with individual players taking extended solos while the full ensemble introduced encouraging interjections. Furthermore, there was some sense that the conductor was more of a referee than a leader. There was clearly a language of symbols conveyed through the conductor’s actions; and, as the performance progressed, the attentive listener could begin to grasp at least some of the semantic content of those symbols. I seem to recall that at least some of the composers that attended the early sessions at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt (international summer schools for new music at Darmstadt) explored some of these techniques applied to group indeterminacy. However, the Darmstadt crowd always had a reputation for being deadly serious, while the duo B. band seemed to be there for the fun of it (for both players and listeners).

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The SFP 2019–2020 The Art of Song Series

Last year marked the transformation of the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Vocal Series into The Art of Song Series. The objective behind the change was to include more than traditional “art song” in the repertoire. Last year that resulted in both jazz performed by vocalist Luciana Souza and the decision by English baritone Christopher Maltman to conclude his recital with a “comic relief” selection of the “bestiary” songs composed by Donald Swann setting the witty English texts of Michael Flanders. Nevertheless, all four of the coming season’s recitals in this series will follow the art song tradition; but there will still be several imaginative twists in approaches to repertoire.

As usual, all of the concerts will take place in Herbst Theatre. The entrance to Herbst is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. All performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. The specific dates and their related performers are as follows:

Tuesday, October 22: Two of the recitals in this series will be devoted to a single composer. The first of these will be the program that baritone Christian Gerhaher has prepared drawing entirely on the works of Gustav Mahler. Accompanied at the piano by Gerold Huber, he will sing the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer) cycle of four songs in its entirety. He will also perform selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (the boy’s miraculous horn), Mahler’s settings of folk poetry from the anthology compiled by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, as well as some of the settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert selected for the Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children) cycle.

Wednesday, December 11: Mezzo Jamie Barton will be the recitalist, and her program will take place almost exactly four years after she made her San Francisco recital debut performing in an SFP Young Masters Series concert. For her return to SFP, she has prepared a program with a feminist perspective in which she will situate women composers in contexts alongside their male peers. All five of the females are associated with the twentieth century: Elinor Remick Warren, Amy Beach, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, and Libby Larsen. (Beach began composing at the end of the nineteenth century, but most of her work took place in the twentieth.) The “context providing males” will be Joseph Haydn, Maurice Ravel, and Richard Strauss. Barton will be accompanied at the piano by Kathleen Kelly.

Monday, April 27: The second single-composer recital will be devoted to Franz Schubert. Tenor Mark Padmore will be accompanied by pianist Marc-André Hamelin in a performance of the D. 911 Winterreise cycle. Schubert composed this collection of settings of 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller between February and October of 1827, and it is his most extensive effort in vocal composition.

Wednesday, May 6: The series will conclude with the debut recital to be given by baritone Benjamin Appl. His accompanist will be pianist James Baillieu. Program details have not yet been announced, but the scope of the plan for the program will run from Schubert at one end to Arnold Schoenberg at the other.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $235 for premium seating, $190, and $160. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through a City Box Office event page, which includes information about the locations associated with each of the price levels. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets will go on sale on Monday, August 19 and will also be sold by City Box Office. Once available, they may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to each of the above dates.

A Little-Known Cellist Finally Debuts on Sony

from the Amazon.com Web page for the recording begin discussed

A little over a month ago, Sony Classical released an album of two concertos for cello and orchestra featuring cellist Bion Tsang performing with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Scott Yoo. As of this writing and on the basis of a Google search, this recording is currently only available for download with Amazon.com as its best-known source. (That limitation may be due to the album being distributed by the Korean division of Sony Music Entertainment.) The two selections are by Antonín Dvořák, the Opus 104 concerto in B minor, and George Enescu, the Opus 8 symphonie concertante.

According to his Web page, Tsang has a relatively modest discography. The best known of the labels is Harmonia Mundi by virtue of his participating in the instrumental accompaniment on a Conspirare recording. This is more than a little ironic, since Tsang was the cellist responsible for the United States premiere of Enescu’s Opus 8, which he performed with the American Symphony Orchestra in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 2000. (Enescu completed this composition in Paris in 1901.) For the record (so to speak), an Amazon search for “Enescu Symphonie Concertante” reveals that there is no shortage of recordings of this composition; but they all involve European soloists and orchestras. Curiously, while Tsang is American, this recording was made in the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow.

The bottom line is that, for all of his imaginative creativity, Enescu continues to receive minimal attention. Looking over my accounts of performances here in San Francisco, Enescu seems to be represented (almost?) entirely by his Opus 25 (third) violin sonata in A minor, which evokes traditional Romanian idioms. (When I lived in Philadelphia prior to beginning my college education, Enescu was known pretty much only for the first of his two Opus 11 Romanian rhapsodies.)

All this means that I have little by way of a baseline for evaluating performances of Enescu’s music. However, on the basis of my own serious listening experiences, I would say that there is more potential for passion in that music than Tsang and Yoo disclosed in their reading of Opus 8. I found this more than a little disappointing, since the performance of the Dvořák concerto tended to short-change the passionate rhetoric that I have encountered through any number of cellists both in performance and over the course of a considerable time-span of recordings. Serious listeners deserve better.

Monday, July 22, 2019

New Azica Album of Guitar and String Quartet

from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording

Guitarist Jason Vieaux seems to have a particular interest in forming partnerships. I first encountered him in the summer of 2015, when I listened to Together his duo album with harpist Yolanda Kondonassis released by Azica Records. As a Guitar Series recitalist for San Francisco Performances (SFP) in October of 2017, he shared the stage of Herbst Theatre with Julien Labro playing both bandoneon and accordina (a variant of the melodica using accordion buttons, rather than the usual piano-like keyboard). (The two of them had previously recorded an album of the music of Astor Piazzolla joined by the A Far Cry chamber orchestra.) As a result, when Vieaux returns to the SFP Guitar Series this coming October, it will be my first encounter with his giving a solo recital!

I was therefore not surprised to see that his latest Azica release involved another partnership, this time with the Escher Quartet of violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre Lapointe, and cellist Brook Speitz. The title of the album is Dance; and it presents compositions by (in order of appearance) Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Aaron Jay Kernis, and Luigi Boccherini. That title seems to have been motivated primarily by the Kernis selection, “100 Greatest Dance Hits.”

Kernis was born in 1960, and his title was apparently inspired by the sorts of record advertisements found on late-night television during the Seventies. The piece was composed in 1993, by which time his reputation as a composer had been established. He clearly wanted to have fun in making this piece; but, considering the annoyingly raucous content that served as inspiration, the result was pretty bland. The only other reference to dance on the album resides in the final movement of the fourth (in the key of D major) of Boccherini’s nine guitar quintets, which is a fandango.

The Castelnuovo-Tedesco quintet, on the other hand, was written at the request of the virtuoso Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia and become the composer’s Opus 143. Castelnuovo-Tedesco first met Segovia in 1932 and was inspired to write his first composition for solo guitar shortly thereafter. His relationship with Segovia flourished, resulting in almost one hundred compositions for guitar. Opus 143 was composed in 1950. It is part of the Segovia discography, and he recorded it with members of the Italian Quintetto Chigiano.

I have to say that, as had been the case with the Together album, I did not find this new release particularly stimulating. Vieaux seems much more in his element when he is establishing chemistry with an audience. My first encounter with him at Herbst I found to be both absorbing and compelling, and I am looking forward to listening to him there again in the coming season. This new album, on the other hand, presents performances that are capable but little more, leading me to wonder what were the motives behind this project in the first place.