Thursday, October 31, 2019

SFS Visiting Conductors: November, 2019

Next month will see the second round of guest conductors visiting the podium of Davies Symphony Hall to lead San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription concerts. All three of those conductors will be making return visits, and the repertoire across the three programs could not be more diverse. Each program will be given only three performances. Specifics are as follows:

November 7–9: The month will begin with the return of Ton Koopman, who has prepared a program of music from both the Baroque and Classical periods. Koopman specializes in historically-informed performances. Nevertheless, he has consistently arranged SFS resources to provide suitably authentic accounts of the compositions being performed. One of those works will be presented by SFS for the first time, the “Chaos” prologue to Les Élémens, a ballet score composed by Jean-Féry Rebel in 1737. This forward-looking composition will be followed by two works of Johann Sebastian Bach, the BWV 1041 violin concerto in A minor, with SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik as soloist, and the BWV 1069 orchestral suite in D major. The Classical portion of the program will be devoted to Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/100 “Military” symphony in G major.

The three performances of this concert will take place at 2 p.m. on Thursday, November 7, and at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 8, and Saturday, November 9. The Inside Music talk will be given by James M. Keller one hour prior to each concert. Ticket prices range from $20 to $160, and an event page has been created for online purchase. They may also be purchased by calling 415-864-6000 or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. KDFC’s Rik Malone’s podcast about the Bach suite will be posted to the Program Note Podcasts Web page prior to the first performance of this program. In addition the event page has embedded sound file clips from past performances of that suite. Flash must be enabled for both streamed content and online ticket purchases. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours prior to Sunday performances.

November 14–16: Simone Young will return to Davies to replace Antonio Pappano, who had to withdraw as conductor due to commitments at the Royal Opera House. Fortunately, the program will not change and will still be operatic. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to the first act of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second of the four operas in his epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung). This act is devoted to the initial encounter between Siegmund (tenor Stuart Skelton) and Sieglinde (soprano Emily Magee, making her SFS debut), culminating in an incestuous relationship that will lead to the birth of Siegfried (the central character in the remaining two operas of the cycle). Bass Ain Anger will sing the role of Hunding, Sieglinde’s husband, who will kill Siegmund in the second act of the opera. The program will begin with “Metamorphosen,” which Richard Strauss composed for 23 solo string parts: ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three basses.

All three performances of this program will take place at 8 p.m. on Thursday, November 14, Friday, November 15, and Saturday, November 16. The Inside Music talk will be given by Peter Grunberg. Ticket prices range from $20 to $160, and an event page has been created for online purchase. Malone’s podcast about “Metamorphosen” will be posted to the Program Note Podcasts Web page prior to the first performance of this program.

November 22–24: The final subscription concert of the month will be conducted by Manfred Honeck. Honeck specializes in performing the music of Anton Bruckner; but, unless I am mistaken, this will be the first time he will bring that expertise to the SFS podium. The second half of the program will be devoted to Bruckner’s fourth (“Romantic”) symphony in E-flat major. The soloist for the first half will be pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 482 concerto in E-flat major.

The three performances of this program will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 22, and Saturday, November 23, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 24. The Inside Music talk will be given by Scott Foglesong. Ticket prices range from $20 to $160, and an event page has been created for online purchase. Malone’s podcast about the Bruckner symphony will be posted to the Program Note Podcasts Web page prior to the first performance of this program. In addition the event page has embedded sound file clips from past performances of both the concerto and the symphony.

The Style and Substance of Gretje Angell

courtesy of Play MPE

Recently Grevlinto Records released the debut album of Los Angeles-based jazz singer Gretje Angell entitled …in any key. It is a relatively modest offering, a little over 35 minutes presenting nine standards from a variety of different eras and genres. However, if the album is a reflection on the past, it is a welcome one.

I like to remind classical fans that Antonio Vivaldi’s ever popular Four Seasons collection of four violin concerts is actually part of a larger collection of twelve concertos entitled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione. That first noun is taken to mean a “contest” between harmony and invention; but the usual connotation of “cimento” seems to be that, if a test is at stake, it is a hard one. This brings to mind what television has done to the idea of a song contest, turning it almost into a bare-knuckle street fight. As a result, a latter-day Vivaldi might find it appropriate to address an ongoing contest between style and substance at the heart of these televised competitions.

I suppose I take refuge in jazz singing because, for the most part, it rises above the silly fray provoked by television producers who could care less about the sorts of priorities I value, such as attentive listening and music that deserves such listening. From that point of view, Angell provides one of the safer harbors I have recently encountered. The diversity of the songs recorded on this album make it clear that she appreciates how each song deserves its own distinctive style. At the same time, however, she never short-changes the substance of the tune provided by the composer to fit the words of the lyricist. One might say that the singer is confident enough to deliver a substantive account that prioritizes the song itself.

I also think it is worth crediting Dori Amarilio for the arrangements he provided. He is a guitarist and the only instrumentalist to appear on all nine tracks of the album. He is also the only accompanist for the last three tracks, Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “One Note Samba” (which begins with a ravishing a cappella passage from Angell), Vincent Youmans’ “Tea For Two,” and “Them There Eyes,” the joint effort of Maceo Pinkard, Doris Tauber, and William Tracey. The remaining tracks involve different combinations of instruments (including the strings of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra for Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Deep in a Dream”); and that variety does much to enhance the stylistic diversity of Angell’s approaches to substance.

The overall duration of the album may be brief for a compact disc, but there are big things in this small package.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

SFO to Conclude Fall Season with Christmas Favorite

The final opera to be presented in the 2019 Fall Season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) will be Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Humperdinck was inspired to write this opera thanks to his sister, Adelheid Wette. She had written songs based on the “Hansel and Gretel” fairy tale (in the version documented by the Brothers Grimm) as a Christmas present for her children. She encouraged Humperdinck to extend those songs into a full-evening opera; and Hansel and Gretel was the result, with Wette providing additional text for the libretto.

The Sandman and the Dew Fairy watch over the sleeping Gretel and Hansel (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

Next month Hansel and Gretel will return to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House after an absence of almost two decades, and it will serve as a seasonal offering. Staging will be by Antony McDonald (making his SFO debut) for a co-production with The Royal Opera, resident at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The libretto will be sung in the English translation by David Pountney, who (unless I am mistaken) provided the English version for the last SFO Hansel and Gretel. The title characters will be sung, respectively, by mezzo Sasha Cooke and soprano Heidi Stober. The cast will also include two Adler Fellows, soprano Natalie Image as the Dew Fairy and mezzo Ashley Dixon as the Sandman. Christopher Franklin will conduct.

There will be eight performances of this production. These will take place at 7:30 p.m. on November 15, 21, and 23 and December 3 and 7 and at 2 p.m. on November 17 and 30 and December 1. All performances will be sung in English with English supertitles. Each performance will be preceded by a Pre-Opera Talk given by Peter Susskind, beginning 55 minutes prior to curtain.

Performances will take place at the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Single tickets are priced from $26 to $398. There is also a facility fee added to the price of the tickets: $2 for all Balcony sections and $3 for all other tickets. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFO Web site that provides hyperlinks for each performance. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office in the outer lobby of the Opera House. Standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance. They are sold for $10, cash only.

MacMillan Choreography Reconceived for Film

One of the most compelling sources for narrative ballet is William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet. The best known approach to this familiar story originated in the Soviet Union, utilizing a full-evening score composed by Sergei Prokofiev, which became his Opus 64. The choreography itself did not come quite so easily, primarily due to arguments among Soviet cultural officials and representatives of both the Kirov Ballet and the Bolshoi Theatre. (For example, the first scenario for the choreography had a happy ending, an idea that, fortunately, was rejected, but not without considerable argument.)

While Prokofiev composed his score in 1935, the first full performance (with fidelity to Shakespeare honored) took place in Leningrad on January 10, 1940 at the Kirov Theatre (which is now called that Mariinsky Theatre). The choreography was by Leonid Lavrovsky, who imposed significant changes to Prokofiev’s score but maintained the overall framework. Since then there are been a variety of different choreographic settings of Prokofiev’s music (with a variety of degrees of fidelity to the way he wrote it).

The best-known of those settings enjoyed the benefit of historical significance. In 1965 Kenneth MacMillan created a version for the Royal Ballet that was about as faithful to Prokofiev as one might expect. The role of Romeo was created for Rudolf Nureyev, who had defected from the Soviet Union in 1961. His partner would be Margot Fonteyn. Many thought that Fonteyn was ready for retirement, but her work with Nureyev seemed to rejuvenate her. The two would go on to dance together in other ballets. There have been any number of subsequent choreographic interpretations of Shakespeare’s play since then. I was particularly intrigued when John Neumeier (I think) decided to present the entire narrative from Friar Laurence’s point of view.

However, many (including myself) still tend to view the MacMillan version as the “gold standard” of choreographic settings of Romeo and Juliet. This is due, in part, to the excellent film made by Paul Czinner that documents the Royal Ballet performance with Fonteyn and Nureyev, which is still available in DVD format. This year Michael Nunn and William Trevitt created a film based on MacMillan’s choreography, conceived cinematically, rather than as a “document” of a staged performance. Both Nunn and Trevitt previously danced with the Royal Ballet and then went on to found their own company (presumably named after themselves), BalletBoyz.

The outcome, which will be presented as part of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival (SFDFF), is definitely a significant achievement in film-making. Nevertheless, from the perspective of one that has seen the MacMillan version performed by the Royal Ballet on stage (as well as in Czinner’s film), the result has both assets and liabilities. On the basis of my first encounter with this film, I have to say that I am not yet sure which of the two balance pans will ultimately prevail.

William Bracewell’s Romeo bids his final farewell to Francesca Hayward’s Juliet in the Romeo and Juliet film by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt (from the SFDFF film description Web page)

Let us begin with the most obvious asset. Even the most passionate admirers of Fonteyn (and I like to think that I am one of them) had to admit that seeing her as the thirteen-year-old Juliet Capulet was a real test of the willing suspension of disbelief. In the Nunn-Trevitt film Francesca Hayward is a much better fit for Juliet’s youthful character. (Mind you, Hayward has ascended to the level of Principal Ballerina, which is not a height achieved by teenagers!) Her character also makes for a much better fit for William Bracewell’s equally youthful Romeo. I would like nothing better than to see them dance MacMillan’s choreography on the stage.

I would also say that Nunn and Trevitt fine-tuned some of MacMillan’s choreography to lend a bit more dramatic insight into some of the other characters. Tybalt is particularly more “three-dimensional” than he tends to be portrayed, even in stagings of Shakespeare’s play. The suggestion that he is drunk when he goes into the public square at the end of the second act itching to fight with Montagues may have been a bit of a stretch (particularly in light of the quality of his swordsmanship); but it provides a bit more motivation than we usually get. Similarly, there is more of a sense of Paris’ failure to grasp that he has been thrust into a situation behind his control.

On the other hand I have to say that I still have a lot of trouble with Lady Capulet’s tantrum over Tybalt’s body. The decision for Nunn and Trevitt to set this in a downpour tends to cheapen that moment, rather than trying to endow it with any depth. However, while I appreciate efforts to open up the action beyond the confines of the stage, I have to say that I take issue with the menagerie that this broader view affords.

This begins with the chickens in the opening scene; but, ultimately, it is the dog(s) that steal the show. (In explanation of that parenthesis, I am sure I saw two of them in one transitional scene.) Unfortunately, they make for some rather overt inconsistencies in the final edit. From one angle the dog is lying quietly under the table. In the next shot it is standing on all fours; and these spontaneous alternations continue (and distract) throughout most of the Capulet ball scene. The handling of Cerberus in the Seal Team television series is much better conceived and executed when it comes to maintaining focus on the narrative!

To be fair, my memories of the “original version” MacMillan (on both stage and screen) are so strong that it is hard for me to avoid picking nits. What Nunn and Trevitt have created is very much their own object, taking MacMillan as a point of departure. At the end of the day, however, my personal preference goes for past memories rather than a new Interpretative point of view.

The screening of the Nunn-Trevitt film will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, November 6. The program will begin with two short films featuring Principal Dancers from the Royal Ballet, “In Her Hands” and “Nela.” It will be held at the Lucasfilm Premiere Theater at 1110 Gorgas Avenue, a short walk into The Presidio from the Lombard Street entrance. Individual ticket prices will be $13 and $17. Both single tickets and festival passes may be purchased through hyperlinks on the event page for this film.

Goode Celebrates SFP Anniversary with Style

Last night as part of the gala celebration of its 40th season, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented a one-hour recital by pianist Richard Goode in Herbst Theatre, part of the Veterans Building where the rest of the gala festivities were taking place. Goode has been giving SFP recitals since 1985, and last night marked his thirteenth visit. Over the course of that hour, he devoted much of his program to traditional favorites, focusing on Frédéric Chopin and Claude Debussy; but he began the occasion on a more adventurous note (so to speak).

His opening selection was Leoš Janáček’s four-movement piano cycle In the Mists, composed at a dark time late in his life. The Wikipedia author for this composition notes that all of the movements are written in “misty” keys with five or six flats; and Eric Bromberger’s notes for the program book suggest that the composer himself may have felt “lost ‘in the mist.’” After considerable neglect, this composition has begun to make its mark in discographies. I have lost track of the number of recordings I now have; but I recently made note of its appearance in the release of the Columbia albums recorded by Rudolf Firkušný (who knew Janáček personally). Last night, however, was my first opportunity to listen to the music in recital.

Without having a score in hand to count accidentals, what emerged from watching Goode perform was a greater appreciation of structure, particularly at the fine-grained level. Much of the music is gestural, reducing themes to the briefest of passages. By observing Goode’s performance, the attentive listener could appreciate the transparency of the resulting texture, bringing clarity not only to each of those gestures but also to the delicate fabrics of interplay that the composer had woven. Strictly from the perspective of “content,” each of the four movements is modest in scope. However, in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, each movement has its own expressive way of saying more and more with less and less.

The closest Goode came to Janáček’s capacity for brevity during the remainder of his program could be found in his selections of Chopin mazurkas, the three collected in Opus 59 preceded by the second of the three Opus 56 mazurkas. While these pieces are relatively short, each one captures a contrast of emotional dispositions. Goode knew exactly how to evoke those mood shifts without ever overplaying them. Once again, brevity was the key to intensity of expression, particularly last night when the mazurkas were presented in contrast to the more expansive Chopin nocturne selection, the second (in the key of E-flat major) from Opus 55.

However, expansiveness really opened up in the Debussy offerings. Goode began with the three pieces collected in the second Images book. They were followed by the second of the three pieces in the Estampes (prints) collection, “La soirée dans Grenade” (evening in Granada), and the “stand-alone” “L’isle joyeuse” (the joyful island). This last selection was also “image-based,” inspired by Jean-Antoine Watteau’s painting The Embarkation for Cythera, depicting eighteenth-century French aristocrats about to leave for an island that provides the venue for a celebration of Venus. The painting itself does not depict the celebration on the island, preferring instead to show some of the couples getting an early start on the spirit of the occasion:

The Embarkation for Cythera (painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Each of Goode’s selections involved Debussy’s imaginative explorations of relations between the visual and the auditory, particularly when the latter is confined to a piano keyboard, rather than the diverse coloration afforded by an orchestral ensemble. Yet through his attentiveness to the details in Debussy’s “text” and his skill at endowing those details with expressiveness, one could readily detect the implications of a piece’s title in the music that was associated with that title. One might say that Goode gave a masterfully “explanatory” account of Debussy’s “images;” and those accounts made for highly absorbing listening experiences.

After that abundance of Debussy, Goode turned to the brevity of Franz Schubert for his encore selection. He played the third (in F minor) of the six Moments musicaux compositions (D. 780). This was given an account playful enough to recall the opening of a Marx Brothers movie in which Chico is teaching a roomful of kids (each at a separate piano) to play this piece (adding a “punch line” that is pure Chico). Festive occasions should always end on such an upbeat note!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Reconceived Choreography Echos Altered Music

Aurélie Dupont and Diana Vishneva rehearsing the reconstruction of “B/olero” (courtesy of SFDFF, from the film description Web page for “Répétition(s)”)

This past weekend I wrote about a film that will be presented during the San Francisco Dance Film Festival (SFDFF), which (as I put it) “entailed rethinking the music as much as rethinking the choreography.” The title of the film was Akram Khan’s Giselle; and this reflected the fact that Kahn created a dance that departed radically from the original nineteenth-century choreography danced to a score by Vincenzo Lamagna, whose resemblance to the original score by Adolphe Adam was as minimal as could be imagined. The premise behind Kahn’s creation can also be found in another much shorter film entitled “Répétition(s).”

Those who know a bit of French probably know that répétition is the noun for “rehearsal.” Over the course of about 45 minutes, the viewer observes Ohad Naharin reconstructing a dance he had originally made for his own Batsheva Dance Company. The project was initiated by Russian dancer Diana Vishneva, who wished to include it in her CONTEXT Festival in Moscow. The work is a duet in which Vishneva was joined by French dancer Aurélie Dupont. The title of the dance that Naharin taught them was “B/olero.” The film begins in the Naharin’s Tel Aviv studios and concludes in Moscow.

The slash sign should serve as a warning that Naharin’s choreography will bear no resemblance to any choreographic setting of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero.” For that matter the music made for a radical departure from what Ravel had composed, although not so extreme that one could not detect vestiges of Ravel’s efforts. The music was created with electronic synthesis gear by Isao Tomita, reworking Ravel’s score for a recording released as The Ravel Album in 1979. While, for the most part, Tomita used his electronics to invent new sonorities to replace Ravel’s orchestration, he would occasionally inject “special effects” that required synthesis technology and reconceived the coda as one last personal stamp on the process.

Nevertheless, the film is definitely more about making the dance than it is about the dance itself. What may be most interesting is the flexibility that went into this recreation. For the most part the rehearsals worked on both Naharin and four Batsheva assistants reconstructing the steps. However, there were passages in which freer rein was allowed to the dancers, providing more fidelity to the spirit than to the flesh. In directing the film, Catherine Ginier-Gillet and Luc Pagès developed a “narrative of creation” that never tries the patience of the viewer (or, for that matter, the listener wishing Naharin had used Ravel instead); and much of the effectiveness of that narrative probably owes much to Pagès’ editing skills.

It is also worth reflecting on the extent that Naharin’s choreography plays on the English noun “repetition.” It would be fair to say that the entire dance explores different ways in which that noun may be realized. Not only are there “echo effects” from one dancer to another; but also there are sequences in which a single dancer repeats a pattern, often with as little variation from one iteration to the next as is possible. I even toyed with the possibility that Naharin had read Hermann Weyl’s 1952 Symmetry monograph and then decided to realize in dance the diversity of forms of symmetry that Weyl had analyzed. (I concluded that Naharin probably had better things to do than wrestle with Weyl’s mathematics!)

The screening of “Répétition(s)” will take place at 4:30  p.m. on Tuesday, November 5. It will be held at the Delancey Street Screening Room, located at 600 The Embarcadero, just south of the intersection with Brannan Street. Individual ticket prices will be $13 and $15. Both single tickets and festival passes may be purchased through hyperlinks on the event page for this film.

Choices for November 1, 2019

It is turning out that Friday, November 1, will be about as busy as has already been reported for Saturday, November 2. It just took longer for the information about alternatives to accumulate. The good news is that enthusiastic readers should be able to plan for more than one of these events. Specifics are as follows:

12:30 p.m., Cadillac Hotel: The Primavera Latin Jazz group will return, following up on the performance they gave this past September. It would probably be fairer to say that leader and pianist Lena Johnson will be returning, since none of the members of the quintet she will be leading next month performed with her in September. Her front line will consist of Kalle Nemvalts, playing both trumpet and flugelhorn, and Rick Brown on trombone. Rhythm will be provided by David Pinto on bass and Bob Blankenship on drums. Once again, the program will feature American jazz classics, serving up Latin arrangements of music by Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Freddie Hubbard, and others.

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

6:30 p.m., Church of the Advent of Christ the King: Schola Adventus, the resident ensemble led by Director of Music Paul Ellison, will provide the music for the celebration of the Feast of All Saints. The service will consist of a Procession and High Mass. The Celebrant will be Father John Porter, and the Preacher will be Father Paul Allick. The Ordinary of the Mass will involve the singing of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s setting Missa O quam gloriosum. The service will also include music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Léon Boëllmann, and Healey Willan.

The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center. This is an inclusive parish of the Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition.

It should also be noted that there will be a High Mass of Requiem taking place the following evening, Saturday, November 2, beginning at 5 p.m. This will be for the celebration of the Solemnity of All Souls. The Dies Irae sequence will be sung by Schola Adventus. They will also sing Gregorian chants appropriate to the service.

7 p.m., Center for New Music: As previously announced, Mike Tamburo will present his Crown of Eternity sound experience.

8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Also as previously announced, the Helia Music Collective will present a program devoted entirely to music composed by American women.

Poncho Sanchez Honors John Coltrane’s Influence

courtesy of New World N Jazz Marketing

At the end of last month, conguero Poncho Sanchez released a new album to celebrate the life and music of saxophonist John Coltrane, who would have celebrated his 93rd birthday on September 23. The title of the album is Trane’s Delight; and it is Sanchez’ first new album in seven years, released on the Concord Picante label. It continues his 37-year relationship with Concord, marking his 27th album. Coltrane was one of Sanchez’ earliest interests, a primary source of his early knowledge about jazz. Sanchez thus felt it was time to pay tribute to those influences.

That said, it is important to note that only three of the eleven tracks on the album are Coltrane compositions. These are “Liberia,” “Giant Steps,” and “Blue Train.” The first of these serves as a reminder that, during his lifetime, Coltrane was more inclined to look east to Africa rather than south to its diversity of Latin sources. Thus, this album is basically the gesture of a master of one tradition honoring one rooted in other traditions.

This does not always make for as good a fit as the inquiring listener might expect. Writing as one that has been been following Coltrane since college days (which included a visit by a late Coltrane quartet to my campus), I have to day that, of those three selections, “Blue Train” is the one that fits least comfortably into Sanchez’ context. The tune is there and easily recognized, but the rhythm is another matter. That rhythm cannot be easily reduced to beats and off-beats. One might almost call it the melancholy side of swing; and Sanchez’ approach is just too upbeat to apprehend, let alone realize, that idiosyncratic kind of melancholia. (Mind you, Sanchez has his own rhetoric of melancholy; but it is more evident, and more effective, in his own music, rather than Coltrane’s!)

Similarly, “The Feeling of Jazz” had its origin in the album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, the only meeting that brought together these two major icons. However “old school” Ellington may have been, he made it a point to keep up on the innovations of his successors. For his part, Coltrane clearly understood Ellington’s approach to making music, going back to the beginning of his career, when he played in a band led by Johnny Hodges, one of the strongest proponents of the Ellington aesthetic. Here, again, the album track is all Sanchez without the slightest hint of either Ellington or Coltrane.

The bottom line, then, is that this is an album for Sanchez fans wondering when his next album would be released. Well, it’s here; and it serves up delicious courses in a feast that those fans are likely to devour with gusto. Coltrane fans, on the other hand, may do well to approach this album a bit more cautiously.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Bleeding Edge: 10/28/2019

This will be another week in which almost all of the events have already been taken into account by “usual suspects” venues. They may be summarized as follows:
  • The Joe Henderson Lab at the SFJAZZ Center will bring together Scott Amendola, Wil Blades, Skerik, Jeff Parker, and Cyro Baptista for eight performances, two each on October 31 and November 1, 2, and 3.
  • The Center for New Music will host concerts on November 2, 3, and 4.
  • Outsound Presents will begin November with its next SIMM Series concert.
Specifics for the remaining events of the week are as follows:

Monday, October 28, 8:30 p.m., Make Out Room: The end-of-the-month Monday Make-Out will be the usual three-set offering. Andrew Jamieson will open with a keyboard solo that synthesizes spiritual jazz with new music rhetoric. He will be followed by Lost Planet, a jazz/rock quartet led by David Slusser on saxophone. He will be joined by Tom Scandura on drums and both Steve Clarke and Len Paterson alternating between guitar and electronic gear. The final set will be a free improvisation trio led by David Lechuga-Espadas on guitar. The other members have not yet been announced.

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!

Monday, November 4, 7 p.m., The Bindery: This venue will host the next San Francisco performance by animals & giraffes. This is the duo that brings together Phillip Greenlief on woodwinds with the spoken word artistry of Claudia La Rocco. This pair is always exploring the possibilities of improvising with multi-disciplinary artists. On this occasion they will be joined by visual artist Amy Trachtenberg, who will provide an installation in addition to performing with the duo.

The Bindery is located in Haight-Ashbury at 1727 Haight Street. Doors and the bar will open at 6:30 p.m. This event will be part of the Lone Glen series. Lone Glen is a writing, art, and performance series dedicated to community and the multi-genre experience. Soon entering its ninth year, the series lives in Oakland and San Francisco, hosting poets, prose writers, musicians, visual artists, and more. Lone Glen is a donation-based series. Ten to fifteen dollars is suggested for donation, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. 

Morrison on Symbolism in Opera: second edition

Death and the Grave Digger, a symbol-laden painting by Carlos Schwabe, completed at the end of the nineteenth century and used on the cover of the book being discussed (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last month the University of California Press released the second edition of Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement by Simon Morrison. I was first drawn to Morrison through his books about Sergei Prokofiev, so I was curious about the broader framework of this book. I had not seen the first edition; but, after reading the Acknowledgements, I was not worried about that matter. Morrison describes the second edition as the result of rewriting the first edition. He also refers to his “unhealthy obsession with the Russian ‘mystic’ Symbolists.” I sympathize, particularly where that first quoted word is concerned.

My own familiarity with Symbolism has to do with its French origins in an article in Le Figaro published in September 18, 1886 under the banner “Le Symbolisme.” The article was published by Jean Moréas and associated three poets with the movement, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine. Much of my knowledge of all three of these poets is through the music of Claude Debussy. He set texts by both Baudelaire and Verlaine. The poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” (the afternoon of a faun) was written by Mallarmé; and Debussy’s “prelude” was intended to introduce a reading of that poem.

It is worth establishing, for context, that Symbolism has nothing to do with the symbol-based thinking of semiotics. That word can be traced back to John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding; but the idea of making symbols an object of study probably originates, also late in the nineteenth century, with the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, later to be followed by the semiology of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. For both Peirce and Saussure, a symbol was an abstract construct that is capable of carrying meaning through a process called “signification.” The signification of a symbol can be anything in the phenomenal world of Immanuel Kant; but it can also be anything in the noumenal world of mental, rather than physical, objects.

I offer this background to clarify one of the key points about the Symbolists that Morrison makes in his Introduction:
To be a Symbolist, the composer must depart from fixed musical systems, which assign a grammar and syntax to music, placing a definable extramusical cover over its indefinable content. Hence the vagueness: scientific descriptions of musical expression avoided, or negated, the mysticism. The Symbolists cared about Music, the metaphysical experience, as opposed to music, the art or craft of composition, which put composers in a bind: How could the little m be joined to the big M? Might it be best, in this murky forest, merely to suggest such a connection?
One may draw a similar distinction between “Symbol” and “symbol.” The “little s” is an artifact that serves as a vehicle for meaning. The “big S,” on the other hand, is an object of “metaphysical experience” unto itself.

This then raises a problematic issue at the heart of this book. The world of the “little m” is one of artifice; and, as such, it fits comfortably into other worlds of artifice, such as the world in which operas are staged and performed. Where is there a meeting between the fundamental artifice of opera and the metaphysical experience of “the big M?” I would propose that it exists only in the mind of the individual experiencing the performance. That experience may be shared through conversations with others that have their own individual experiences. However, because it is a personal experience, it is noumenal, rather than phenomenal, and is connected to the phenomena of the performance itself only through the ideation of the individual.

Let’s go back to Mallarmé. Think of all the ways that his poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” undermines the effort of the reader to endow the text with semantics. Now think of what happens when the reader is replaced by a “real-time” listener attending a reading of that poem. In that context one can appreciate the ways in which Debussy’s music establishes a mindset for those about to experience listening to the poem being read.

Conceivably, one could approach the experience of opera in terms of first establishing a mindset. Having seen Einstein on the Beach, I think I can say one or two useful things about how to do this! Unfortunately, Morrison never really ventures into this territory; and, as a result, he never really gets beyond the world of that “little m.”

Ironically, the closest he gets to “the big M” is in his Scriabin chapter. My guess is that no one reading this has to be reminded that Scriabin never wrote an opera. This is consistent with the title of Morrison’s chapter, “Theurgy: Scriabin and the Impossible.”

The “impossible” is Scriabin’s final project, called the Mysterium. His description of this effort is quoted on its Wikipedia page as follows:
There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours.
He subsequently specified that the performance would take place in the foothills of the Himalayas, that it would last for a week, and that it would conclude with the end of the world and the human race. (I guess that means that no one will be left to write a review, let alone read one!)

Scriabin had sketched 72 pages of music for a prelude to the Mysterium by the time of his death. This was called the Prefatory Action, and Morrison discusses it at considerable length. In all of that length, however, he overlooks the 28 years that Alexander Nemtin spent turning those 72 pages into something that could be performed. The result was a three-hour composition in three parts entitled “Preparation for the Final Mystery.” A performance conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy was recorded in 1996, and it was included in the Decca anthology Scriabin: The Complete Works.

In the context of Morrison’s book, however, there is a punch line that sort of gets swept under the rug. Most likely the major influence behind the very idea of the Mysterium had less to do with that “big M” than with another source. That source was the Spiritualism of Helena Blavatsky. This was a world in which symbols were, at most, vehicles for ritual; and any distinction between upper-case and lower-case was irrelevant. Blavatsky’s world was one of esoteric experiences, and the Mysterium was one of those experiences magnified to incorporate the entire human race.

Thus, at the end of the day (and the end of reading Morrison’s book), I had to agree with the author that the book was the product of an “unhealthy obsession.” Nevertheless, reading the book introduced me to a wide variety of operas about which I previously knew nothing. If I ever have the opportunity to see one of them staged, and least I know I can go the the performance with some useful background knowledge. On the other hand, given my current workload, I am in no rush to fill in any gaps in my past listening history!

A Birthday Celebration for Hyo-Shin Na at O1C

Thomas Schultz, Hyo-shin Na, and Shoko Hikage (with koto) (from a past event page on the InterMusic SF Web site)

It has been a while since my last encounter with the music of Korean composer Hyo-shin Na. She came to the United States for graduate studies. After receiving a doctoral degree at the University of Colorado, she moved to San Francisco in 1988, where her thoughts about music fell under influences from composers such as John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Frederic Rzewski. Exposure to her repertoire owes much to the Wooden Fish Ensemble and its pianist Thomas Schultz.

Yesterday was Na’s birthday. Old First Concerts (O1C) chose to celebrate it with a Wooden Fish program consisting entirely of her music, followed by a festive reception. Most of the program involved Schultz at the piano. The selections that did not were solo performances at the gayageum by Hyunchae Kim, one of which found her singing along with her playing. Four of the works on yesterday’s program received world premiere performances.

My last encounter with Na’s music was at an O1C recital by Schultz in April of 2014. On that occasion he played only two of her compositions, situating each performance in the context of the same two composers, Rzewski and Frédéric Chopin. This was an imaginative strategy. Na’s Korean context tends to be unfamiliar to those that are not Korean, so establishing an alternative context through Western composers turned out to be beneficial. Also, Na’s sense of time-consciousness definitely differs from a Western perspective, which tends to make for challenges when it comes to attentive listening.

Yesterday afternoon, in the absence of the context of other composers, those challenges verged on the insurmountable. There tends to be an opacity to Na’s logic and rhetoric that provides little by way of orientation for even the most attentive listener. Thus, most of Kim’s gayageum performances came across more as ritual than as any recognizable practice of music-making. However, even when Na’s sources are Western, establishing a referential connection is no easy matter.

One of yesterday’s premieres was “Great Noise,” named after Franz Kafka’s “Großer Lärm,” a text that is only one paragraph in duration. Kafka called it a “public flogging of my family;” and it amounts to a primal scream provoked by the confines of a small and crowded apartment. Yet the program notes said nothing about this source (other than its title and author), leaving those with extensive knowledge of Kafka’s less-familiar writings out in the cold. In retrospect, the music may well have been a sentence-by-sentence traversal of the source text; but I suspect that, even if the text had been available, the performance would still have felt like a tedious slog.

Ultimately, the most accessible offering was the one involving text sung in English. “To an Old Tune” was a setting of a very short Chinese poem about youth and old age translated into English by Kenneth Rexroth. Baritone John Smalley gave a clear account of both words and music, accompanied at the piano by Schultz. It amounted to a distillation of a single impression, and the performance could not have been more readily expressive. This was definitely the sweet spot in Na’s repertoire, and it is more than a little disappointing that it was not just as well represented by any other offerings on the program.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sony Classical Releases Firkušný Anthology

The Czech-born naturalized American pianist Rudolf Firkušný died at the age of 82 on July 19, 1994, meaning that this past summer marked the 25th anniversary of his passing. Sony Classical chose to mark that occasion with the release of Rudolf Firkušný: The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection. This consists of eighteen CDs that collect recording sessions that took place between 1949 and 1993.

Firkušný was, in many respects, an “old school” pianist. He studied with both Alfred Cortot and Artur Schnabel. Ironically, his earliest studies were in composition putting him in touch with the relatively traditional Josef Suk but also the less conventional Leoš Janáček. As a result, his repertoire had a special place for Czech composers; and his recording commitments made a special place for not only Janáček but also Bohuslav Martinů, who wrote several compositions for him.

The Sony Classical release is very much a “half and half” affair. Nine discs each are allotted to Columbia and RCA, roughly in that order (roughly because there was some overlap between the end of the Columbia sessions and the beginning of the RCA ones). To make my account of Firkušný a bit more “digestible,” I shall deal with the two labels in two separate pieces, beginning, chronologically, with the Columbia sides.

That said, it is worth noting that the earliest sessions (the ones in 1949) allowed Firkušný to introduce himself to discophiles with a bold opening. The very first session, on February 3, was devoted to the first and last of the three movements of Robert Schumann’s Opus 17 fantasia in C major. That session also include “Träumerei” (dreaming), the seventh piece in Schumann’s Opus 15 Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood) collection. (I find myself imagining that, after the workout of Opus 17, Firkušný had to play something to calm himself down a bit.) The remainder of Opus 17 was not recorded until June 20.

My impression with this “first taste” registered Firkušný as a disciplined pianist with solid attention to technical details. Nevertheless, he made sure that the depth of his technical understanding did not undermine the expressiveness of the music itself. That can be quite a balancing act when a composer like Schumann is concerned; but, regardless of the number of my past listening experiences, his account of Opus 17 definitely seized and held my attention. Thus, I was well disposed to listen to the CD of the two sets of four impromptus, D. 899 and D. 935, by Franz Schubert, not to mention Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 58 (third) piano sonata in B minor, which has a tendency to try my patience!

Curiously, that Chopin sonata shares a CD with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The sonata selection is K. 457 in C minor, preceded, as is often the case, by the K. 475 C minor fantasia. The CD also includes Maximilian Stadler’s completion of the K. 396 fantasia in C minor, which Mozart never finished.

Firkušný approaches Mozart with a clear sense that he is playing a modern grand piano. Nevertheless, he knows exactly how to manage dynamics and phrasing (not to mention the damper pedal) in such a way that every phrase registers with just the right combination of expressiveness and considered technique. This results in an account of K. 475 that suggests that it may have emerged from spontaneous improvisation but still makes it a point of proper interpretation to honor the letter of the text.

The cover of Firkušný’s Janáček album for Columbia (from the Discogs Web page for the vinyl version of this recording)

However, if there is a bias in this collection, it favors Czech composition. There is an entire CD of Janáček’s piano music, including the discovery (for me at least) of a concertino scored for piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. Unless I am mistaken, all of the other instrumental parts were played by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, perhaps by virtue of the relationship that the orchestra had with Columbia.

In addition there are three CDs of music by Antonín Dvořák, two of which involve the members of the Juilliard String Quartet. Those performances account for the two piano quartets (Opus 23 in D major and Opus 87 in E-flat major), the Opus 81 (second) piano quintet, and the Opus 47 set of bagatelles scored for two violins, cello, and harmonium. The remaining CD offers the Opus 33 piano concerto in G minor, performed with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.

Finally, it is important to note that an entire CD in this collection has been devoted to two twentieth-century American composers: Samuel Barber (his Opus 20 “Excursions”) and Howard Hanson (his Opus 36 concerto in G major). Unless I am mistaken, Firkušný gave the premiere performances of both of those pieces, meaning that the recording sessions were follow-ups to those premieres. Nevertheless, those two pieces do not go very far in filling up a CD.

As a result, the opening track is a performance of Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.” The recording session took place on November 7, 1950 with William Strickland conducting the Dumbarton Oaks Chamber Orchestra accompanying soprano Eleanor Steber. Steber had sung the premiere performance in 1948 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I have to confess that, while many are more likely to associate Leontyne Price with this composition, I much prefer Steber for both her diction and her phonetics. So, if this collection has to include a track that has nothing to do with Firkušný, I am very glad that it happened to be this one!

Choices for November 10, 2019

This month began with an enumeration of choices that will have to be made for Saturday, November 2. The choices will become even more abundant the following weekend; but this time they will focus on Sunday, November 10. Two of those options have already been taken into account on this site. However, they will be folded into the following list with appropriate hyperlinks:

2 p.m., Herbst Theatre: The Golden Gate Symphony Orchestra & Chorus will begin its 2019–2020 season with a fascinating pairing of two symphonies. The program will present the world premiere performance of Richard Aldag’s first symphony. Completed in 2014, this composition was cast as a single movement structured loosely around the traditional “sonata form.” The other symphony in the pair will be Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor. The ensemble’s chorus will be joined by five soloists, soprano Chelsea Hollow, mezzo Silvie Jensen, tenor William Wiggins, and basses Igor Vieira and Ryan Bradford. The conductor will be Music Director Urs Leonhard Steiner. In addition the program will open with Hector Berlioz’ Opus 9 overture “Le carnaval romain” (the Roman carnival). Composed as a stand-alone overture, Opus 9 is based on themes from Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini. The conductor for this selection will be German M. Gonzalez.

Herbst Theatre occupies the lower floors of the Veterans Building, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Readers (and other avid concert-goers) probably know by now that this is an excellent location for public transportation with bus lines whose routes are both east-west and north-south. Ticket prices will be $45 for the side Boxes, $35 for the Orchestra, $30 for the Dress Circle, and $25 for the Balcony. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page, which includes a map of the Herbst seating plan with indication of where seats are available.

4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Old First Concerts (O1C) will present a program featuring the Arabic sources behind the Andalusian origins of flamenco music; specifics may be found in the November summary of O1C events.

4 p.m., ODC Theater: This is also the time for the PB&J program prepared by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the Juilliard415 period-instrument ensemble, specifics for which have already been reported.

5 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: The fourth recital in the Liederabend (evening of songs) Series presented by LIEDER ALIVE! will explore the Spanish repertoire. The vocalist will be soprano Esther Rayo, accompanied at the pianist by Peter Grünberg. The program will feature Spanish-language songs by Fernando Obradors, Manuel de Falla, Xavier Montsalvatge, and Enrique Granados. However, two German-speaking composers will also be included. Erich Wolfgang Korngold will be represented by “Alt-spanisch” (old Spanish song), the third of the five songs in his Opus 38 collection. Finally, it would not be a Liederabend without at least one selection from Hugo Wolf’s Spanisches Liederbuch (Spanish songbook), even if all of the texts are in German (as is also the case for Korngold)!

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

7:30 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: The San Francisco Symphony Great Performers Series will present a solo recital by pianist Chick Corea, who is as well-versed in the classical repertoire as he is in jazz. Indeed, the title of his program will be From Mozart to Monk, meaning that music by both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Thelonious Monk will be on the program. Full details have not yet been announced, but expect that at least one original by Bill Evans will be included. It would probably also be appropriate to note that Robin D. G. Kelley’s comprehensive book Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original begins with an episode in which Monk is playing from a collection of pieces by Frédéric Chopin. Kelley never mentions which of those pieces Monk played, but it would be fun if Corea speculated on that question!

Tickets are being sold for between $110 and $30. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Flash must be enabled for purchasing tickets online. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, and two hours prior to Sunday performances.

Vieaux Makes Solo Debut at Herbst with Diversity

Jason Vieaux on the cover of his solo Play album, which includes selections from last night’s concert (from the Web page for the album)

Last night guitarist Jason Vieaux returned to Herbst Theatre to present the second concert in the annual Guitar Series organized jointly by San Francisco Performances (SFP) and the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. He had made his debut at Herbst in October of 2017 in a duo recital with Julien Labro, who alternated between bandoneon and accordina. Last night was Vieaux’ solo debut.

The diversity of the program was as impressive as it was engaging. Original compositions by Mauro Giuliani, Frank Martin, Agustín Barrios, and José Luis Merlin alternated with arrangements prepared by Leo Brouwer, Roland Dyens, and Vieaux himself. Technically, the most impressive of those arrangements was probably the one Vieaux prepared of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1001 solo violin sonata in G minor.

This music has become familiar to those interested in the plucked string repertoire. When mandolinist Chris Thile gave a solo performance for SFP in April of 2012, BWV 1001 served as the “spinal cord” of his entire program, alternating its four movements with a generous offering of eclectic breadth. (Thile went on to his recording BWV 1001–3 for an album that was released in August of 2013. Recordings of BWV 1004–6 are still forthcoming.)

Vieaux brought a keen awareness of the rich polyphony served up by all four movements of BWV 1001, which is rich in both melodic sequences and progressions of simultaneities. (It is important to remember that the violins of Bach’s day were more conducive to bowing multiple strings, including all four of them, than more recently made violins are.) Vieaux’ technique was most evident in his ability to sort out the multiple voices engaged in the subject and countersubject of the second-movement fugue; but the agility of precision in presenting the gigue in the final Presto was equally impressive.

That Bach selection was preceded by Giuliani’s Opus 107 set of variations on a theme by George Frideric Handel. The theme was probably familiar to many of those that visit Herbst frequently, since it is also the theme that Johannes Brahms took on for his Opus 24 set of 25 variations followed by a fugue, composed for solo piano. Giuliani, on the other hand, composed prolifically for the guitar. He clearly understood the instrument’s capabilities and developed appropriate tropes to serve those capabilities. His variations may not have been as dazzlingly inventive as those Brahms would later compose, but they provided an excellent platform for Vieaux to present his technical skills.

Those variations were, in turn, preceded by Brouwer’s arrangement of Domenico Scarlatti’s K. 208 keyboard sonata in A major. Brouwer, who is still alive and active as both guitarist and composer, tended to play up his own contemporary idioms, using his Scarlatti source as a platform. However, like the Bach sonata, Scarlatti’s sonatas were probably composed for pedagogical purposes; and part of pedagogy involves exploring different approaches to interpretation. Brouwer’s approach may have been more “contemporary” than any Scarlatti might have imagined; but, through Vieaux’ interpretation, it made perfect sense as music in its own right.

The second half of the program was framed by two collections of miniatures. Martin’s 1933 set was his only composition for guitar, four short pieces originally intended for Andrés Segovia, who found them too difficult to prepare for performance. As a result the music eventually found its champion in Julian Bream, who gave it a prominent place in his recital repertoire. Merlin’s suite, on the other hand was, in his words, “an homage to memories,” recalling four distinctive traditional Argentinian forms framed by an “Evocación” movement, which occurs twice.

South America was also represented by two other composers. First came an engaging waltz by Barrios that reflected the rhetoric of Frédéric Chopin in a Brazilian mirror. This was complemented by the later bossa nova rhetoric in the form of Dyens arrangement of the Antônio Carlos Jobim standard “A Felicidade.” Jobim, in turn, was complemented by Vieaux’ own arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood,” providing a North American standard to balance the South American offerings.

North America was also the base for Vieaux’ encore selection. “What a Wonderful World” was composed by George David Weiss, working with record producer Bob Thiele, who wrote the words under the name “George Douglas.” The result became one of Louis Armstrong’s signature offerings. It may have leaned more to pop than to jazz; but it was right up “Pop’s” alley. Vieaux’ arrangement had a quietude that matched Armstrong’s delivery of the words, putting the cap on an evening of engagingly imaginative programming.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Outsound Presents: November, 2019

Once again it appears that Outsound Presents has filled out all the details for the following month, meaning that they can all be presented in a single summary before the month begins. As usual, that claim is subject to change; and, as always, notifications of updates will appear on the Facebook shadow site (which appears to be back “on the air” after a couple of days of down time during which new Posts could not be processed). As usual, November will include performances from both of the Outsound concert series.

Two of those offerings will be in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series. These concerts tend to focus on composition, rather than improvisation. They usually begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday evenings. The venue is the Musicians Union Hall, located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

The other series is the LSG Creative Music Series, which takes place at the Luggage Store Gallery (LSG) on Thursday evenings beginning at (or close to) 8 p.m. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is usually on the sliding scale between $8 and $15. In general, the LSG Series provides opportunities for the full diversity of approaches to improvisation. Specific details for the month will be given in chronological order as follows:

Sunday, November 3: The evening will follow the usual two-set format. The program will open with the Echo’s Bones wind trio, whose members cover the different instrument types in the wind family. Amber Lamprecht plays oboe and English horn, Sheldon Brown plays clarinet and bass clarinet, and Joseph Noble plays, flute, alto flute, and bass flute. The second set will present the latest installment of original compositions by Noertker’s Moxie, led by composer Bill Noertker on bass. He will be joined by Annelise Zamula on alto saxophone and flute, Joshua Marshall on tenor saxophone, and Dave Mihaly on drums.

Thursday, November 7: This will be a two-set evening that will depart from usual programming. Stephen Loof will open with an electronic guitar set enhanced with looping technology. He will be followed by GAMA :: Ygara Bissu. This will be a performance that is based on anthropological field recordings, which are enhanced by synthesizers. There will also be a vocal performance of chants and poems connected to post-gender concepts.

Thursday, November 14: The following LSG Creative Music Series will return to more familiar ground. The opening set will be taken by the Beam Splitter duo that subjects both amplified voice and trombone and the transformations of analog electronics. They will be followed by the Ghost in the House quartet, in which Tom Nunn will perform on a variety of his invented instruments. He will be joined by David Michalak, who will divide his attention between an electric harp and a box of junk, Cindy Webster on saw, and John Ingle on baritone saxophone.

Sunday, November 17: The second SIMM Series concert of the month will again follow the two-set format. The opening set will be taken by the Ric Louchard Quartet. Louchard will supplement his piano work with storytelling. Marshall will return to join him on tenor saxophone, along with Lisa Mezzacappa on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums. The second set will present Rent Romus’ Lords of Outland playing a set entitled 25 years under the mountain. Romus will play a variety of wind instruments, as well as the kantele, the Finnish version of a zither. Pianist Scott R. Looney will appear as a special guest, joined by Philip Everett (drums and autoharp), Ray Schaeffer (bass), and Alex Cohen (guitar and gamba).

Thursday, November 21: This will again be a two-set program. The opening set will be taken by Alexander Dubovoy on piano and Katherine Whately on koto, playing free improvisations based on Japanese music, found sounds, and sound art. They will be followed by the second San Francisco appearance of Birgit Ulher, following her trio performance at the Center for New Music on November 19. This will be a set of improvisations for two trumpets and double percussion. Ulher will be joined on trumpet by Tom Djll, and the percussionists will be Jacob Felix Heule and Kevin Corcoran.

Not Much Tempting in New Chamberland Album

courtesy of Play MPE

A little over a month ago, Evosound released the latest album of Canadian vocalist Chantal Chamberland. The advance material I received described Temptation as the result of “a rigorous search for new and oft-unconventional material.” I am not sure whether or not “I Put a Spell on You” and “I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl” count as “unconventional” (oft or otherwise); but I am willing to grant that I do not encounter them very often.

One of the reasons is that these are songs that have more to do with the singer than with what is being sung. “I Put a Spell on You” was the product of Screamin' Jay Hawkins. It was all the rage at my campus radio station and would regularly get aired during the weekend request programs. However, its popularity had more to do with Hawkins’ outrageous vocalizing, particularly when “screamin’” out “I don’t care if you don’t want me, I’m yours!” For a long time I felt it was sacrilegious for anyone else to try to sing this song; but Nina Simone boldly went were angels would fear to tread. Her delivery had almost none of the Hawkins style, but it turned out to be compelling in just about every other way.

Ironically, Simone also put her own spin on another song that I felt was “owned” by its creator. “Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl” is one of the songs that Bessie Smith recorded for Columbia, accompanied only by Clarence Williams on piano. Williams wrote the song in conjunction with Tim Brymn and Danny C. Small. Simone picked it up for her Nina Simone Sings the Blues album, reworking it as “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl;” and, again, her version is right up there beside Smith’s.

I single out these two songs because they are bold choices. Sadly, there is little boldness in Chamberland’s treatment. Indeed, over the course of the entire album, the selections all come off as disappointingly bland.

I also have to confess annoyance with an advance team that comes up with a phrase like “stellar accompaniment of her carefully chosen cast of A-list players” and never bothers to identify those players. Perhaps they preferred to remain anonymous. The bland qualities of the vocal work seem to have invaded the instrumental accompaniment as well.

SFDFF to Screen Khan’s Radical Ballet Revision

The San Francisco Dance Film Festival (SFDFF) will get under way at the beginning of next month. Having written frequently about music composed for dance purposes, I decided to examine some of the offerings that have distinctive perspectives on music and how it is used in a production. One of the earliest films to be screened at the Festival is practically a case study of revisionism at its most extreme, which entailed rethinking the music as much as rethinking the choreography.

Myrtha (Stina Quagebeur), Giselle (Alina Cojocaru), and Albrecht (Isaac Hernandez) in an English National Ballet performance of Akram Khan’s staging of Giselle (from an English National Ballet Web page)

The title of the film is Akram Khan’s Giselle, and it is a document of a performance before an audience by the English National Ballet. Articles I have read about this project refer to the ballet simply as Giselle; but I appreciate the clarification of the film title as an effort to avoid confusion. The music for the original Giselle by Adolphe Adam has been replaced by a full-length score by Vincenzo Lamagna, whose appropriations from the Adam source are so minimal as to be barely recognizable. The same can be said for the sets and costumes by Tim Yip, best known for his work on the film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

Khan himself is not a ballet choreographer. A British dancer of Bangladeshi descent, his training was in Kathak. Reading Jennifer Homans’ New Yorker account of a performance of this interpretation of Giselle performed in Chicago this past March, I realized that I had encountered Khan in my own distant past. He had been in the cast of The Mahabharata, Peter Brook’s staging of the nine-hour play by Jean-Claude Carrière, which was first performed at the Avignon Festival and then moved on to the Los Angeles Festival, which is where I saw it on three consecutive nights.

Brook’s achievements have consistently involved imaginative and engaging relationships between text and context. Similarly, Khan chose to work with a “text” familiar to just about any serious lover of classical ballet. He then conceived an “alternative context” so elaborate that the “text” would probably register only with those that already knew it. One result is that the fairy-tale narrative of a peasant girl (Giselle) deceived by a nobleman (Albrecht) never emerges very far from a deep background.

Nevertheless, those who know the original will probably have no trouble identifying Giselle and Albrecht, as well as Hilarion and Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis. The context is another matter. The first act, which concludes with Giselle dying of a broken heart after having been deceived by Albrecht, is more of an extended tract on class struggle. Almost all of the dancing establishes the interpersonal relations of Giselle’s “proletarian” community and its shared detestation of nobility. Lamagna’s score frequently highlights the rough edges of this conflict, often with harsh sounds likely based on instruments enhanced with electronica.

This is definitely an imaginative perspective, even if it occasionally devolves into heavy-handedness. However, it does not necessarily afford a useful transition into the second act, in which Giselle’s spirit joins the Wilis. One might almost say that the naturalism of Khan’s first act has such an intense impact that both the supernatural premise of the second act and Khan’s realization of that premise seem more than a little out of place. Nevertheless, Myrtha emerges as a far darker character that one finds in traditional Giselle productions. Perhaps Khan’s objective was to establish an opposition between Giselle and Myrtha that would reflect the opposition between peasants and nobles.

All this should establish that the SFDFF screening of Akram Khan’s Giselle is likely to have a strong impact on those with deep love and knowledge of early classical ballet, a tradition in which the original Giselle holds pride of place. The screening will take place at 4 p.m. on Sunday, November 3. It will be held at the Delancey Street Screening Room, located at 600 The Embarcadero, just south of the intersection with Brannan Street. Individual ticket prices will be $17 and $20. Both single tickets and festival passes may be purchased through hyperlinks on the event page for this film.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Cold Blue “Single” of New Harp Solo by Robert Carl

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

Back in the vinyl days of the early Eighties, Cold Blue Music launched a series of EP “singles” to focus on a single composition (or, as founder Jim Fox put it, a “one-course musical meal”). This approach has now migrated to CD releases, again with the objective of presenting only a single work. The most recent of these was released today, presenting the harp solo “Splectra,” composed in two sections by Robert Carl.

Presumably, the title is meant to address the exploration of the spectral qualities of plucked strings. The longer the string, the more likely it will be for the ear to apprehend those qualities. In this case that string is the lowest string on a pedal harp. Carl’s notes identify this as a low C, which is probably the case; but, to pick a minor (pun sort of intended) nit, the way the pedals work means that when this is plucked as an “open” string, the pitch is actually C-flat!

The overtones of that string are captured and enhanced electronically. All digital processing is realized through a Max software patch designed and implemented by Carl and Matt Sargent. The harp itself is played by Alison Bjorkedal, and the score involves more than just plucking that lowest string. Rather, her part involves the exploration of a variety of different arpeggio patterns, whose pitches then blend with the electronic enhancement of the overtones of that lowest string.

At the very least, this is an imaginative way to bring real-time software into an instrumental performance. Personally, I was drawn into the recording enough to hope that, at some time in the future, I might have the opportunity to listen to this composition in performance. (I think that my last solo harp encounter took place at an end-of-term recital given at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I am pretty sure there is sufficient digital gear to support a concert performance of “Splectra.”) The fact is that those electronic enhancements are subtle; and, at least in my case, it took a few listening experiences before I began to become aware of them (even with the advantage of a relatively solid command of the sounds of upper harmonics).

However, as one becomes more aware of those subtleties, one can also appreciate the role they play in bringing a unique rhetoric to what, on the surface, may mistakenly be dismissed as a mere technical exercise.

Stimulating Russian Program from Canellakis

Many readers probably know that I have been enthusiastically awaiting the visit of Karina Canellakis to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) ever since she made history this past July as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the BBC Proms series in London. Last night she made her SFS debut with an all-Russian program, which also featured the SFS debut of pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk. The evening began with Gavrylyuk playing Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 10 (first) piano concert in D-flat major. Following the intermission, the rest of the program was devoted to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (seventh) symphony, dedicated “To the City of Leningrad,” where Shostakovich was living, because, while he was working on the symphony, on September 8, 1941, Nazi forces surrounded the city, beginning a siege that would not conclude until January 17, 1944.

Prokofiev himself played the piano solo at the premiere of his Opus 10 on August 7, 1912. He was still a student at the time, and the performance took place in a suburb of Moscow. The orchestra was led by the Armenian conductor Konstantin Saradzhev, who had previously premiered compositions by both Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Modest Mussorgsky. The piece lasted only about a quarter of an hour, consisting of three movements played without interruption.

As might be expected, Prokofiev wrote this concerto as a platform for his own virtuosity. However, it also served up a heady dose of provocative modernism, particularly with the ostinato rhythm that hammers away incessantly at the keyboard (at least changing pitch from time to time) for over 25 measures before passing the baton to the orchestra. After the pianist has caught his breath, he then launches into a more diverse array of technical challenges, each one trickier than its predecessor.

All this made for quite an array of fireworks that must have provided Prokofiev with the sort of bully pulpit he had in mind. Gavrylyuk clearly had the necessary technical chops to light the fuse for each of the fireworks that Prokofiev had served. The intensity he brought to his solo work was perfectly matched by Canellakis’ management of instrumental accompaniment, much of which was there to provide the pianist with a context of richly and diversely colored sonorities. One could almost accuse Prokofiev of having fashioned an experience deliberately intended to make the listeners stand up and shout “Bravo!” after the definitive final cadence. Last night’s audience did, indeed, respond that way, almost as if they had been conditioned by Ivan Pavlov himself!

That audience would not let Gavrylyuk get away without taking an encore. Sensibly, he recognized that a bit of quietude was in order. He performed “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen” (of foreign lands and peoples), the first piece in Robert Schumann’s Opus 15 Kinderszenen (scenes from childhood) collection. (Russia was, after all, one of Schumann’s “foreign lands.”) However, this encore also served as the lull prior to the uneasy storms that would follow the intermission.

When Shostakovich began his work on Opus 60 on July 15, 1941, the storm had already begun. The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, initially targeting the Baltic territories, Moscow, and the Ukraine. Shostakovich could not serve in the army due to his poor eyesight. However, he volunteered to serve as a fireman. After the siege of Leningrad had begun, there is a famous photograph (that made it to the cover of Time magazine) showing him (on the right below) putting out a fire at the Leningrad Conservatory:

from a post by Anna Aslanyan on the London Review of Books blog

The symphony is probably best known for the extended repetition of a simple march theme that serves as the core of the first movement. Some have compared it to the gradual buildup of Nazi forces after the initial occupation of the Soviet Union. Shostakovich, himself, claimed that the music represented the way in which war gradually invaded the lives of public citizens, barely noticeable at first (a pianissimo snare drum tattoo, played with just the right underlying tension by Jacob Nissly) and ultimately taking over every instrument in the orchestra (including the brass resources of eight horns, six trumpets, six trombones, and tuba).

Structurally, this will probably remind most listeners of “Bolero.” I have yet to encounter any evidence that Shostakovich may have had Ravel in mind. On the other hand the theme that emerges above the snare drum seems to have provided Shostakovich with an opportunity for ironic prankishness. As I previously observed, the second half of the theme sounds like an unabashed quotation of “Da geh' ich zu Maxim” (you’ll find me at Maxim’s), sung by Count Danilo Danilovitsch in Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow! (Shostakovich’s son, whose name happens to be Maxim, has affirmed that “borrowing” from Lehár was, indeed, on Shostakovich’s mind.) Nevertheless, it is clear that irony served as a thick skin to desensitize the all-too-real agonies of the Nazi invasion.

Each of the four movements has its own set of rather straightforward themes, all of which benefit from the many imaginative approaches that Shostakovich could take to instrumentation. All of those techniques were clearly evident through Canellakis’ spot-on command of balanced resources across the entire ensemble. There was even a bit of dramatization when the final movement concludes by recalling the very opening theme. The entire brass section is given pride of place for this moment. They happened to be sitting in two rows, with three trumpets and three trombones in each row. During the final statement of the theme, the players in the rear row stood up, providing a sort of visual affirmation of Leningrad’s spirit of persistence in the face of austerity at its darkest. This may have been a bit of a cliché, but the visual experience simply reinforced the message delivered by the music.