Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Memorable Recordings in 2019

Writing this year’s article took me right down to the wire. However, readers may have observed that, ever since the middle of this month, much of my time has gone into catching up on the heavier-than-usual load of recordings that I either received or downloaded. Readers probably recall that reviewing this year’s GRAMMY nominations turned out to be a rather grim affair. Indeed, the only nomination that sparked much of a positive response turned out to be from a single track of a recording that I would have acknowledged from beginning to end. Furthermore, that recording was from the jazz genre, while pretty much anything I had valued from the classical side never seemed to register with the GRAMMY authorities.

Indeed, in taking stock of the full extent of my listening experiences throughout the year, only one classical recording rose to the top. That was Shostakovich Plays Shostakovich, a five-CD box of recordings of Dmitri Shostakovich playing his own music at the piano, released by the Russian Melodiya label this past October. The entire collection provided no end of insights regarding how Shostakovich-the-performer approached the music of Shostakovich-the-composer. Furthermore, like many, I have particular interest in the Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor for the intensity of its perspective on World War II; and the performance in this collection brings Shostakovich together with violinist David Oistrakh, along with cellist Miloš Sádlo, whose account of the opening measures is downright scary.

Listening to recorded jazz over the course of this year, on the other hand, was much more satisfying in a variety of different domains. The GRAMMY nomination cited in the first paragraph was in the Best Instrumental Composition; and the nominee was Fred Hersch for “Begin Again,” the title track for an album of Hersch performing with the seventeen members of the WDR (West German Broadcasting) Big Band. The fact is that the entire album surveys nine of Hersch’s compositions in big band settings, and every one of those tracks makes for a highly satisfying listening experience.

Furthermore, one of the most important reasons for the delay in this article is that I first wanted to account for another Hersch release that, like the Shostakovich album, also took place this past October. Readers probably know that I only got around to writing about The Fred Hersch Trio: 10 Years / 6 Discs yesterday; and, yet, I was determined to get it “under the wire” before taking the entire year into account. Ironically (but no surprise), the last CD in this collection Live in Europe was the first album I cited in last year’s account of memorable recordings! Even more ironically, this album did get a GRAMMY nomination, along with a Best Improvised Jazz Solo nomination for its track of Thelonious Monk’s “We See.”

Another jazz pianist that I follow conscientiously is Satoko Fujii. Three of her albums were released this year, following up on the twelve “Kanreki Cycle” albums she had released last year. The first of these was released in January. Imagine Meeting You Here is a suite of compositions by Alister Spence all of which involve improvisations for a large-scale ensemble, and the recording was made by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra Kobe. This was followed in May by the release of Confluence, a duo album marking the first time that Fujii performed with Spanish drummer Roman Lopez without any other musicians contributing. Finally Stone, whose title was inspired by the epithet “stone deaf,” was released in June. More specifically, Fujii’s grandmother was completely deaf during the final years of her life, communicating only through writing. One of the sentences she wrote was:
Now I can hear beautiful music the likes of which I never heard before.
The compositions on Stone amounted to a “response” to the “call” of that sentence.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge the leading role that Resonance Records took in the release of valuable archival material. The year began with the release of Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions, a “deluxe” three-CD album of recording sessions led by Eric Dolphy on July 1 and 3 of 1963. Then, on a much larger scale, last month Resonance released Hittin’ the Ramp: the Early Years (1936-1943), a seven-CD comprehensive collection of the recordings that Nat King Cole made prior to signing with Capitol Records. These two collections could not be more different in the styles of jazz and improvisation that they offer; but, for those that take listening to jazz seriously, neither of these offerings deserves to be neglected.

Last-Minute Option for New Year’s Eve

Trumpeter Darren Johnston (from the Bird & Beckett event page for tonight’s performance)

Readers may have noticed that the “bleeding edge” has been pretty quiet over the last couple of weeks. Nevertheless, for those who have not yet finalized their plans, there will be one option for adventurous content this evening, even if the event will conclude about two hours short of the stroke of midnight. The host venue will be Bird & Beckett Books and Records, which will host its second annual Locomotive Sunflower New Years Eve Blowout. Locomotive Sunflower is the local trio featuring Darren Johnston on trumpet joined by Wil Blades on organ and Jon Arkin on drums.

Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. The program will begin tonight, December 31, at 7:30 pm. Most likely it will be a two-set evening expected to conclude around 10 p.m. The cover charge will be $30; and it will “cover” not only the music but also chips and guacamole! Those willing to spend another $10 will get a bowl of chili (with a vegetarian option) and a glass of champagne (with a non-alcoholic option).

Monday, December 30, 2019

Palmetto Anthologizes Decade of Hersch’s Trio

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

I first became aware of jazz pianist Fred Hersch back when I was writing for Examiner.com. When he visited San Francisco Performances (SFP) as part of his My Coma Dreams tour, I was intrigued by the way in which he had channeled his capacity for making music into an autobiographical account of a coma that had debilitated him entirely for two months in 2008. Once he regained consciousness, the path to his being able to play piano again was long and arduous; and his decision to collaborate with director Herschel Garfein on a staged account of his recovery was nothing short of totally chilling.

Unfortunately, while I was easily drawn into writing a preview for this event, I was unable to attend the San Francisco performance due to having made a previous commitment. Nevertheless, I was curious about just what sort of musician Hersch was. The good news was that SFP came through again, and Hersch was one of the artists called upon to celebrate SFP’s return to Herbst Theatre for the 2015–16 season. This turned out to be not only my first experience of Hersch but also my first exposure to the trio he had formed back in 2010 with John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums.

That trio turned out to play a significant role in the development of Hersch’s innovative approaches to jazz. That role was acknowledged this past October, when Palmetto Records released a box set titled simply The Fred Hersch Trio: 10 Years / 6 Discs. This is basically a packaging of the five recordings released since the trio made its first album:
  1. Whirl (2010)
  2. Alive at the Vanguard (2012)
  3. Floating (2014)
  4. Sunday Night at the Vanguard (2016)
  5. Live in Europe (2018)
The total number of discs accounts for the fact that Alive at the Vanguard was a two-CD release. As the hyperlinks indicate, I have only written about the last two of those recordings; so this new box set gave me the incentive to catch up on the earlier recordings.

Hersch has been one of the better embodiments of my frustrations with “GRAMMY logic.” Last year Live in Europe made the cut for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, but it lost out to Wayne Shorter’s Emanon album. Mind you, Shorter’s album was impressive, amounting to a synthesis of music with a graphic novel; but, in the larger scheme of things, I am more inclined to straight-ahead jamming where the music itself is the only priority.

Hersch’s command of repertoire is extensive. One encounters his own compositions frequently, but he is equally imaginative in seeking out innovative improvisations on old standards that one would think are too stogy to hold up to that treatment. After all, “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” was composed by Sigmund Romberg back in 1928, when “musicals” were still being called “operettas;” and it carries all of the vestiges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which had been defunct for about a decade). Nevertheless, Hersch’s capacity for invention transcends all of those cobwebs, making for a thoroughly absorbing listening experience.

I also suspect that much of my admiration for Hersch reflects back on his admiration for Thelonious Monk. Ironically, I did not hear any Monk performed when the Hersch Trio visited SFP in 2016; and, for that matter, Monk’s presence on Whirl is never more than subtly implicit. However, Monk always has a place in the spotlight in the remaining albums and is given a solo encore in the final track of the Live in Europe album.

My only regret is that the length of my working queue prevented me from getting to this collection until the penultimate day of the year. As a result, I could not have a hand in getting it onto anyone’s Christmas shopping list. On the other hand anyone now trying to arrange some kind of exchange agreement over something purchased on Amazon would definitely be rewarded in selecting this box as an alternative for another gift!

The 20/20 Salon: January, 2020

Next month will see the launch of a new concert series initiated by pianist Peter Grunberg. Many readers probably know Grunberg for the many insights he has offered in the pre-concert talks he has given for the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). He is also artist-in-residence for the LIEDER ALIVE! concert series, for which his home served as the venue for the annual fundraising gala this past April. For this new series of recital offerings, entitled The 20/20 Salon, Grunberg will again open the house that he shares with his husband Wyatt Nelson.

Grunberg will serve as pianist for this series of twenty intimate gatherings. He will be joined by both local and visiting guest artists. All concerts will be held on Monday evenings, except for the very first, which will take place on a Tuesday. Each program will trace a parallel path to the SFS program that will be performed later in the week. In addition every program will feature music by Ludwig van Beethoven to mark the 250th year of his birth. Drinks and canapés (prepared by Nelson) will be offered after the performance, providing an opportunity for further discussion. Each event will start at 6:30 p.m. with the music beginning at 7 p.m. Specifics for the three programs to be presented next month are as follows:

Tuesday, January 7, Wise Words and Wienerwalzer: The guest artists will be tenor Christopher Colmenero and baritone Mitchell Jones. Each will perform one of the songs from Poems of Emily Dickinson by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), originally composed for soprano Renée Fleming. The Beethoven selection will be the Opus 79 piano sonata in G major. The SFS concert for the week will begin with the overture to Hector Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini; and Grunberg will play Franz Liszt’s “Bénédiction et serment” (blessing and oath), based on two of the motifs from the opera. The SFS program will also include a selection of Gustav Mahler’s settings of texts collected in the Des Knaben Wunderhorn anthology of German folk poetry. The music for the setting of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (St. Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fish) was reconceived as instrumental music in the third (scherzo) movement of Mahler’s second (“Resurrection”) symphony; and Grunberg will play a piano arrangement of that movement. The program will conclude with a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 39 collection of sixteen waltzes.

Monday, January 13, Youth: The guest artist will be pianist Jeffrey LaDeur, who will join Grunberg in a four-hand transcription of Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll,” which MTT will conduct that week. In addition they will play Julia Wolfe’s “East Broadway,” scored for toy piano and boombox. Grunberg will also play Wolfe’s “Earring” for solo piano. The program will begin with two sonatas both composed early in the lives of their respective composers, the second of Beethoven’s Opus 2 sonatas in A major and Alban Berg’s Opus 1 sonata.

Monday, January 20, Spirit: The guest artist will be violinist Helen Kim. Grunberg will accompany her in a performance of Jean Sibelius’ Opus 106, a set of five country dances. The contemporary perspective will be Jörg Widmann’s “Sonatina facile,” an extravagant take on one of Mozart’s simplest compositions for solo piano. This program will be framed by two consecutive Beethoven piano sonatas, beginning with Opus 81a (“Les Adieux”) in E-flat major and concluding with Opus 90 in E minor.

The Grünberg-Nelson residence is located in the Forest Hill Extension at 16 Edgehill Way. All tickets are being sold for $45. There is a single Eventbrite event page, which enables the purchase of tickets for any combination of the January performances.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Atom String Quartet Returning to San Francisco

Atom String Quartet players Dawid Lubowicz, Mateusz Smoczyński, Michał Zaborski, and Krzysztof Lenczowski (from their Eventbrite event page)

The Atom String Quartet is a Polish group that seems to be equally at home with the string quartet repertoire and in the domain of jazz. This past August they released an album of the music of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki; but an Amazon.com search reveals a rich collection of jazz albums, as well as contribution to a tribute album for Nat King Cole (for those who read yesterday’s article) produced by Polish guitarists Maciej Miecznikowski and Krzysia Górniak. The quartet’s performers are violinists Dawid Lubowicz and Mateusz Smoczyński, violist Michał Zaborski, and cellist Krzysztof Lenczowski, who came together to form the group in Warsaw in 2010. They made their first American tour early this past year, following a performance at the Seventh Liverpool International Jazz Festival at the end of February, which included a visit to San Francisco. Their approaches to improvisation draw upon Polish folk music, indigenous music from other regions of the world, classical music, and the most recent contemporary styles.

Next month the group will return to San Francisco. They will give a performance beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 10. The venue will be the Diane and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. General admission tickets are being sold for $35. There will also be a VIP rate of $55, which provides reserved center orchestra seating and a reception with the musicians. All tickets may be purchased in advance online from an Eventbrite event page. The concert is being supported by Tad Taube Philanthropies, and The Rotary Club will be funding visits to high schools in South San Francisco for the presentation of lecture-demonstration programs.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Nat King Cole Before Capitol Records

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications

Nat King Cole may be one of the best examples of a jazz artist that successfully migrated into the pop domain, where he became better known for his “hit parade” presence than for his inventive capacities for jazz improvisation. After dropping out of high school at the age of fifteen, he joined forces with his brother Eddie, who played bass, to form a sextet, whose other members were Tommy Thompson (alto saxophone), Bill Wright (tenor saxophone), Kenneth Roane (trumpet), and Jimmy Adams (drums). By July 28, 1936, they were ready to record for Decca, which released four songs on two single discs. The first of these paired “Honey Hush” with “Stompin’ at the Panama (Skoller’s Shuffle);” and the second coupled “Bedtime (Sleepy Moan)” with “Thunder.” All four of these pieces were composed by Nat.

Last month Resonance Records released a seven-CD comprehensive collection of the recordings that Cole made prior to signing with Capitol Records, when he began to venture out of the domain of “straight jazz.” The title of the collection is Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936-1943). By way of historical context, it is worth observing that Fats Waller died on December 15, 1943. Waller was most at home as a piano soloist and playing in small groups, consistently with high-spirited rhetoric. Similarly, the Resonance anthology tracks Cole through a variety of different small groups with an equally lively rhetoric that suggests Waller as a source of inspiration. (The recording of “Honeysuckle Rose” makes it clear that Waller inspired Cole with repertoire as well as rhetoric.)

By 1938 Cole had formed his first trio with bassist Wesley Prince and guitarist Oscar Moore. They originally called themselves the King Cole Swingsters as a play on the nursery rhyme. By the time they made their first recording, they had shortened the name to the King Cole Trio; and “King” began to take its place as Cole’s middle name. Much of the Resonance collection follows the evolution of this trio through personnel changes, but it also highlights ways in which Cole was both honoring Waller and exploring territory beyond Waller’s scope. One of the more stunning examples involved all three members of the trio singing in unison, not just in the tune itself but in any number of intricate scat riffs on that tune. I am not sure that any subsequent trio has ever pulled off such a high-wire act with such success.

Then there are some of the significant “guest artists” that played with Cole during this period. The fact is that I first became aware of this side of Cole’s career after I had purchased The Complete Lester Young Studio Sessions on Verve. The first nine tracks of the first CD in this anthology has Young leading a trio with Cole on piano and Buddy Rich on drums in sessions that took place in March and April of 1946. The Resonance collection serves up four tracks from July 15, 1942 with Cole and Young joined by Red Callender on bass. These are all interpretations of popular songs, but the inventiveness of the trio is not to be missed. Callender was also on hand for a Mercury session in the summer of 1943 that saw Cole playing with both Dexter Gordon on tenor saxophone and Harry (“Sweets”) Edison on trumpet. There were the very first recordings that Gordon made.

The entire package has been structured in such a way that all of the released tracks are on the first six CDs. The final CD is devoted to alternate takes. Most likely none of them have been previously released. Most interesting is that five of these tracks are air checks from radio broadcasts by the American Forces Network (AFN). Ironically, this CD also includes three different recordings of “Gone With the Draft.” Cole wrote the words for this witty account of the advantages of having been classified physically unfit for military service. The music was composed jointly with Prince (who again sang along with Cole) and Earl Dramin. As might be guessed, this tune was classified unfit for AFN broadcast!

Friday, December 27, 2019

Paul Merkelo’s “Enlightened” Trumpet Album

from the Bandcamp Web page for this recording

As I do my best to catch up on the queue of recent recordings that I have accumulated, one of the more appealing that I have encountered has the title The Enlightened Trumpet. The album features Paul Merkelo, Principal Trumpet with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, performing concertos by (in “order of appearance”) Joseph Haydn (Hoboken VII3/1 in E-flat major), Georg Philipp Telemann (TWV 51:D7 in D major), Leopold Mozart (in D major), and Johann Nepomuk Hummel (WoO 1 in E major). The album title reflects the fact that all four of these composers are associated with the eighteenth-century Age of Enlightenment. Merkelo performs with the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Marios Papadopoulos. This seems to be one of those albums that Amazon.com decided to distribute only in digital form, but Bandcamp has created a Web page for purchase in both physical and digital media.

I have a somewhat personal connection to this repertoire. Unless I am mistaken, Wynton Marsalis’ first classical album, a vinyl recording released by what was then Columbia Records, consisted of three of these four concertos (all by the Telemann selection). At the time I was delighted to add this to my collection, but I gradually grew disenchanted as Marsalis shifted his priorities over to jazz and I became more sensitive to eighteenth-century performance practices and rhetorical devices. Merkelo’s allegiances may extend beyond the Age of Enlightenment; and neither his instrument nor the accompanying ensemble honor “period practices.” Nevertheless, he gives clear accounts of all four concertos on the album, seeks out approaches to both dynamics and phrasing through which he supplies his own personal stamp, and establishes a relationship with the Oxford ensemble that captures the intimacy of the period, even if the sonorities are all very much in the immediate present.

None of these concertos get consistent attention in concert programming. Of the four the Haydn is the one most listeners are likely to encounter, usually when an ensemble decides that the Principal Trumpet is due for a turn in the spotlight. However, Merkelo provided his own cadenza for the Haydn concerto; so even that portion of the album has its own share of uniqueness. As to the rest of the album, all three of the composers deserve more attention than they tend to get!

What are the Percepts When we Listen to Music?

As a result of some exchanges with Stephen Malinowski that followed up on my piece last Sunday about his visualizations of two of the “Razumovsky” quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, I realized that I was scratching the surface of a landscape of far deeper issues pertaining to the acts of listening to music. However, this also revived earlier thoughts suggesting that the landscape itself could be divided into different regions, each of which could then be “mined” in efforts to understand the nature of listening. As I had mentioned this past July, when I was discussing the writings of James Tenney, one possible way to organize those regions was to appeal to the medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric to serve as a foundation of “first principles.”

That said, however, there was a potential shortcoming to such a foundation. One might say that all three of the trivium disciplines are concerned with utterances. More often than not, those utterances are conveyed through text; but, even when they arise through viva voce delivery, those disciplines still treat what has been uttered as static objects. In other words those disciplines are concerned with what, for some time, I was calling “noun-based thinking.” On the other hand one of the key points I tried to make in my critique of Tenney’s efforts was that “the experience of listening to the ‘music-in-itself,’ [is] an experience that must, of necessity be verb-based.” (Tenney had been using Immanuel Kant as his point of departure!) Thus, there may be a fallacy residing in my choice of headline, because the very concept of a percept is noun-based. Making music, on the other hand, entails in-the-moment verb-based activities; and the listener’s response to those activities is just as verb-based.

If we are to think about how a specific performance of a specific piece of music can be realized as a “real-time” animation for which the performance itself provides the sound-track, then I think a case can be made that logic, grammar, and rhetoric provide “first principles” for the real-time visual experience as much as they do for the experience of listening just to the music being performed. Being able to identify those principles, on the other hand, is no easy matter. In the first place the very concept of a “sentential utterance,” which provides the foundation for all three trivium disciplines, is no longer “noun-based.” Nevertheless, there are clearly structural aspects to just about any “musical utterance,” which suggests that we should be able to appeal to basic principles of grammar (without deep-ending on parts of speech and sentence diagrams) to provide a foundation for identifying both the structures themselves and how they are used.

From this point of view, I continue to believe, as I first speculated back in 2007, that the very idea of structure allows us to sort out the embellishing from the embellished. Those who are more experienced in music theory and analysis probably recognize that this approach to sorting can be found in the theoretic writings of Heinrich Schenker, and those that are serious in their Schenker studies will probably be quick to point out that Schenkerian analysis owes much to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, whose Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen (an essay on the true art of playing keyboard instruments) provides a systematic and extensive study of ornamentation. In other words, principles of grammar serve to sort out the embellishing from the embellished (sometimes taking into account the possibility that an embellishment may, itself, be embellished) just as the syntax of a language allows us to sort out the basic nouns and verbs from the adjectives and adverbs that modify them.

If grammar provides the tools for sorting out the embellishments from what they are embellishing, it may be fair to say that logic serves to identify what it is that is being embellished in the first place. Schenker did not seem to regard this issue as relevant. As far as he was concerned, the only construct “worthy” of embellishment in the first place was a basic I-V-I (tonic-dominant-tonic) cadence. Needless to say, this was far too restrictive an ideology, even before the first rumblings of atonality began to emerge from Vienna. My favorite example from one of the composers that Schenker favored comes from the orchestral introduction to Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken XXI/2 oratorio The Creation, which is “faithful” to the key signature of C minor but manages to undermine any attempt to suggest a dominant-to-tonic cadence.

The point is that there are any number of constructs that can be applied to embellishment. Indeed, the final act of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck opera was described as a set of “variations.” What is varied changes from one scene to the next. The act begins with the conventional approach to variations on a theme, but this is followed by a set of variations on a single note. There is then a set of variations on a rhythm. The fourth scene consists of variations on a single chord, and it is followed by an instrumental interlude of variations on the key of D minor. The final scene is then organized as variations of a rhythm consisting only of quavers (eighth notes). Thus, I would argue that it is through logic that one understands part-whole relationships, which may be based on a wide variety of different approaches to embellishment.

This brings us up to role of rhetoric. This is the discipline that it most closely linked to performance. One might say that, when composers like Haydn and Berg choose to go down a rabbit hole of complex grammatical structures, it is up to the performers to make the result accessible to attentive listeners. In Aristotle’s time rhetoric was all about suasion, getting those listening to a speech to accept what a speaker is saying, whether it is a compelling call to action or simply expressing a point of view to be shared. If there is any level of suasion in the performance of music, it probably comes down to just convincing the audience to pay attention to the music one is performing. That task of convincing is probably best appreciated in the performance of opera, where seizing and maintaining audience attention is usually shared by both the conductor and the stage director.

Note that, in the above paragraphs, one could approach matters of both grammar and logic using “noun-based” terminology. However, because rhetoric is more concerned with performing the results of grammar and logic, it is an activity, rather than a construct. This touches on the fallacy that lurks in how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe chose to dramatize the Faust narrative. The contract says that, when Faust declares that a moment is so wonderful that he wishes it to be suspended in time, Mephistopheles will them claim Faust’s soul. The fallacy is that, when a moment is suspended it time, it no longer exists!

Apparently, Goethe forgot any of his past studies of Augustine of Hippo. Anyone that wishes to think about the nature of time would do well to “go back to the basics” of Augustine’s Confessions. I refer specifically to the following passage (in the translation by Henry Chadwick):
What is by now evident and clear is that neither future nor past exists, and it is inexact language to speak of three times—past, present, and future.  Perhaps it would be exact to say:  there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come.
This clearly had an impact on Edmund Husserl, since his lectures on time-consciousness explicitly discussed that “present of things past” (which he called “retention”) and the “present of things to come” (which he called “protention”). I doubt that anyone would disagree that both retention and protention are actively “in play” when one engages in attentive listening; but just as important is how those engaged in the act of performance can impact awareness of retention and protention among those listeners.

This allows me now to loop back to my thoughts about the strategies Malinowski engages in creating his visualizations. The mere fact that a visualization is conceived as what amounts to a horizontally-scrolling pattern implies that the viewer always has on the screen representations of not only “things present” but also “things past” and “things to come.” For that matter, as one becomes acquainted with the patterns of the visualization, one may recognize connections between “things to come” and “things past” more readily than if one is only aware of the sounds themselves.

This then raises a challenging question: How do performers deal with those matters of listener awareness in the absence of such “visual aids?”

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Another Rachmaninoff Opus 18 Recording?

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

This past fall Warner Classics released its latest recording of the piano music of Sergei Rachmaninoff featuring a performance of his Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor. The soloist is South Korean pianist Dong-Hyek Lim, performing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alexander Vedernikov. The remainder of the album is devoted to Rachmaninoff’s own two-piano arrangement of his Opus 45 “Symphony Dances,” which Lim performs with Martha Argerich.

My choice of priorities in that preceding paragraph are the result of my having written a previous account of a Warner Classics album of Rachmaninoff’s piano music. That article was written in November of 2016; and, in many respects, its observations about Opus 18 ring as true today as they did over three years ago, even though the earlier article was about an entirely different pianist with an entirely different background. Most relevant is the following passage from that article:
Nevertheless, I should say in all fairness that my satisfaction with Rachmaninoff performances still tends to outweigh my feelings about recordings. The fact is that Rachmaninoff could command a impressive rhetorical toolbox of nuances and subtleties; but the intricacies of such tool-work tend, more often than not, to get pushed into an almost inaudible background in the making of recordings intended to appeal to listeners only interested in the grandest of gestures. Once the repertoire departs from chamber music and songs, it is difficult to find recording projects interested in anything other than a “wow-factor.”
I believe I can say with some confidence that, since I wrote that passage, I have yet to encounter a recording of Opus 18 that comes anywhere near to getting me to sit up and listen the way any of the recent performances of this concerto that I have experienced have done. This is probably more a reflection on studio practices than it is on Lim. Furthermore, to be fair, I can grant without difficulty that, on a global scale, there are not that many locations where music lovers have frequent opportunities to hear this concerto (or any other composition) in a concert performance. Thus, recordings definitely have value; but I appreciate that there is a growing trend of basing recordings on performances taking place before an audience, rather than in the sterility of a recording studio. I appreciate the value of that trend, and every now and then to let loose a cheer for it.

The point is that, if this recording left me jaded, it probably has nothing to do with the performers and everything to do with the process. Most likely the same can be said of the approach to Opus 45. I still remember my first serious encounter with a two-piano performance in the early Seventies; and, believe me, the visuals were as absorbing as the audibles without ever detracting attention from the music itself. However, when such a performance is subjected to recording technology, unless one has a relatively intimate knowledge of the score itself, the result is likely to sound like a jumble of notes spanning a wide variety of registers.

That said, the note in the booklet by Scott Davie offers an interesting sidebar about Opus 45. The original score was written in 1940 when Rachmaninoff was living in an estate overlooking Long Island Sound. It was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy, on January 3, 1941. The two-piano version was first performed in August of 1942 at a private party in Beverly Hills. Rachmaninoff himself played one part with Vladimir Horowitz played the other.

Davie takes RCA to task for not recording this partnership. However, Rachmaninoff had moved to California for health reasons. (The author of his Wikipedia page claims he had been “suffering from sclerosis, lumbago, neuralgia, high blood pressure, and headaches.”) One can appreciate Rachmaninoff accepting an invitation to perform at a Beverly Hills party, but it is hard to imagine that he would have been up to the strain of studio recording sessions. When it comes to valuable recordings, we should appreciate what RCA did provide, rather than grouse about what they didn’t!

SFCM: January, 2020

Most of the plans for the major concerts to be presented at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) are now in place and may be summarized as follows:

Saturday, January 4, 5 p.m., Recital Hall: Pre-College staff pianist and chamber coach Yi-Fang Wu will give a duo piano recital with Miles Graber. The program will begin with Robert Schumann’s Opus 46 variations on an Andante theme in the two-piano version. (The music was originally composed for horn, two cellos, and two pianos.) This will be followed by Samuel Barber’s Opus 28 ballet suite Souvenirs, composed for four hands on one keyboard. The remainder of the program will be devoted to French composers, beginning with Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 56 Dolly suite, which will be followed by Darius Milhaud’s Opus 165b suite Scaramouche.

Friday, January 17, 8 p.m., Concert Hall: SFCM musicians will join forces with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players for the performance of their Kinetic Transformations, previously announced on this site with program and ticket information.

Saturday, January 18, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall: Martin West will conduct the Berkeley Symphony in a program that will feature three SFCM competition winners. The program will begin with the second (of two) winning compositions in the 2019 SFCM Highsmith Competition. (The first was performed earlier this month.) The second winner was “Eclipse,” composed by Collin Whitfield (class of ’16). This will be followed by the winner of the Voice Concerto Competition, Bryana Marrero (class of ’19). She will sing the seven “early” songs that Alban Berg composed during his studies with Arnold Schoenberg. The program will conclude with the winner of the Viola Concerto Competition, Chuxuejie Zhang (undergraduate class of ’19 and graduate class of ’21), who will perform Béla Bartók’s viola concerto, one of his last compositions.

Monday, January 20, 7:30 p.m., Recital Hall: Mezzo Susanne Mentzer will give her Faculty Artist Series, for which program specifics have not yet been announced.

Friday, January 31, 7:30 pm., Concert Hall: The next performance by the SFCM Orchestra will be conducted by Lina Gonzalez-Granados. She will present Alan Holcomb (class of ’19) as guitar soloist in a performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Holcomb was the winner of the Guitar Concerto Competition. The program will also include Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 26 concert overture “The Hebrides” and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 68 (“Pastoral”) symphony in F major.

When any 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.) 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. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

A Culinary Anniversary Gala from Opera Parallèle

As was observed last summer, Opera Parallèle is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary season. Celebration began with a festive “legacy” recital in September and the annual Benefit Gala the following month. However, February will see yet another benefit event, which, due to the setting, must be presented to a relatively limited audience. Since tickets are still available, it seemed appropriate to get out the word sooner rather than later.

The event is organized around a performance of Lee Hoiby’s one-woman one-act opera “Bon Appétit!” Mark Shulgasser prepared the libretto by drawing upon two of the broadcasts of Julia Child’s television series of the same name. Over the course of the performance, the audience will learn Child’s special recipe for making a classic French chocolate cake, Le Gateau au Chocolat “Eminence Brune.” The performance will take place in a “culinary setting," the Hayes Street Grill; and the result of Child’s recipe will be served to all members of the audience as dessert.

In fact, the entire evening will be based on the interleaving of dining and music. The evening will commence with cocktails, followed by a multi-course seasonal dinner. Soprano Taylor See will present vocal offerings between the courses, accompanied at the piano by Keisuke Nakagoshi. The dinner will be followed by the performance of “Bon Appétit!” with mezzo Catherine Cook taking Child’s role; and, as already mentioned, the result of the recipe she will present will then be served as the dessert course. The role was originally performed in 1989 by Jean Stapleton, who had previously performed Hoiby’s “The Italian Lesson” in 1981. (When I was living in Los Angeles, I often saw Stapleton, better known as Edith Bunker, at Los Angeles Opera performances.)

This production will be given two performances, at 5 p.m. on Sunday, February 16, and at 6 p.m. on Monday, February 17. Seating will be limited to 75 at shared tables. All tickets will be sold for $300 and may be purchased online through a Brown Paper Tickets event page with a pulldown menu for selecting the date. (There will be a service fee of $15.99 for each ticket.) Tickets may also be purchased by calling Opera Parallèle at 415-626-6279. The Hayes Street Grill is located at 320 Hayes Street, on the north side of the street between Franklin Street and Gough Street.

Supertrain Releases New Music Sung by SFGC

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

In my efforts to try to catch up on things before the end of the year, I realized that I had not yet written an account of a major recording project by the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC). This is an album released by Supertrain Records under the title My Outstretched Hand. This is also the title of the first of the three compositions that constitute the album’s “program.” The album begins with Lisa Bielawa’s fifteen-minute setting of an autobiographical text written in Butte, Montana in 1901 by Mary MacLane when she was only nineteen years old. The second work on the album, Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Remembering the Sea—Souvenir de la Mer,” is a three-movement setting of texts by Kai Hoffman-Krull both in the original English and in translations into French. The album then concludes with “If I Were Not Me,” Colin Jacobsen’s settings of two texts by Lydia Davis. Instrumental accompaniment is by The Knights, conducted by Eric Jacobsen; and the Trinity Youth Chorus joins SFGC in the performance of “My Outstretched Hand.”

My initial reaction to this offering was a bit jingoistic: What is SFGC doing with all these New Yorkers? The answer is that the album grew out of the period during which Bielawa was SFGC Artistic Director; and the recording sessions took place after she was succeeded in that position by the current Artistic Director, Valérie Sainte-Agathe. Many readers probably know that Bielawa was one of the first musicians (and, I believe, the first vocalist) to perform the music of Philip Glass; and SFGC figured significantly in a performance of Glass’ “Music with Changing Parts,” which was presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP) in February of 2018. Nevertheless, over the course of her tenure, I found it hard to shake the sense that SFGC seasons had become “all about Bielawa,” rather than “all about SFGC;” and I have taken more than a little pleasure in the ways in which Sainte-Agathe has restored this balance. Even her choice of repertoire for the annual seasonal concert at Davies Symphony Hall last week had an impressive breadth of scope that I had not encountered during the Bielawa years.

As a result, my primary reaction to the My Outstretched Hand album is that it revived many of my spirits of discontent with SFGC right around the time that I was getting over them. Yes, it is true that SFGC is a highly-disciplined organization in which discipline is gradually acquired as the members advance in age. There is also an academic side to the training through which the young vocalists acquire their first encounters with relations between theory and practice. Mostly, however, SFGC membership involves pursuing the rich breadth of approaches that a choral ensemble must command as part of the execution of practice; and that breadth needed to extend beyond the boundaries of the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The bottom line is that there is too much uniformity that cuts across the efforts of the three composers on this album. Much of that uniformity has to do with a tendency to treat words as if they are nothing more than sequences of syllables upon which notes can be hung. As a result, I would defy any of these three composers to give a convincing reading of any of the texts on this album. (I once attended one of the SFP Salon offerings at which Bielawa tried to do this with another text, and the result was profoundly disappointing.) When the words seem to mean so little to the composers, why do they even bother to set music for them?

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Robert Schumann’s Delightful Four-Hand Works

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

Last month Brilliant Classics released another of its “anthology” recordings. This one accounted for all of the compositions for four hands on a single piano keyboard composed by Robert Schumann. This is a relatively modest collection, filling only two compact discs. However, almost all of the music is upbeat in its rhetoric, suggesting that these were the efforts of Florestan in his sunniest disposition.

The two pianists are Roberto Plano and his wife Paola Del Negro Plano. Both were born in Italy, and the recordings were made in the Bartok Studio located in the Italian municipality of Bernareggio. However, the pianists now live in Bloomington, Indiana, where they are both affiliated with the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Roberto is an Associate Professor, and Paola is an Adjunct Lecturer. She is also Founder and Director of her own PDN Studio.

Listening to this music, it is easy to imagine Schumann playing these pieces with his wife Clara. Indeed, his Opus 66 Bilder aus Osten (pictures from the East) was written as a Christmas present for her. I can also admit to having the music for a generous share of this repertoire, resulting in many delightful hours of four-hand playing with both teachers and friends. Because the technical demands are not overly imposing, this is clearly a body of compositions meant to be played by friends for the sheer pleasure of making the music. Nevertheless, there is a freshness in the interpretations provided by the Planos that serves up a listening experience that is almost as much fun as playing these pieces.

Music in the Mishkan Announces 21st Season

This February will see the launch of the 21st season of the Music in the Mishkan chamber music series presented by Music Director and violinist Randall Weiss. Performances feature Weiss and regularly appearing colleagues, all performing under the collective name The Bridge Players. This season the first and last concerts will feature the piano trio in which Weiss is joined by cellist Victoria Ehrlich and pianist Marilyn Thompson. The second concert of the season will be presented by a string trio in which violist Patricia Whaley will join Weiss and Ehrlich. Program details are as follows:

February 9: The title of the first program will be Russian to the Concert. The major work will be Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 50 trio in A minor. This will be complemented by the Opus 70 (second) piano trio in G minor by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. While Castelnuovo-Tedesco was born in Italy, he was aware of Russian influences, not only in the concertos he composed for violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky but also in his extensive work for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a film composer. The program will open with Thompson accompanying Weiss in a performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 11a romance for violin and piano in F minor. (Opus 11 is the subsequent version for violin and orchestra.)

March 1: Readers may recall that the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) contribution to the two-month Violins of Hope project will be the February 23 installment of chamber music by SFS musicians, which will highlight the music of two Czech composers, both of whom were actively involved in cultural life in Theresienstadt concentration camp, Gideon Klein and Hans Krása. The selections of these composers will be given a second performance at the second Music in the Mishkan program, entitled Czech It Out. The program will begin with Klein’s string trio, followed by the two Krása selections, also composed for string trio, “Tanec” and a coupling of Passacaglia and Fugue movements, both composed shortly before his death in Auschwitz on October 17, 1944. The program will also include the 1939 duo for violin and viola by Hungarian composer László Weiner, who also was a victim of the Holocaust. The final work on the program predates not only World War II but also World War I. Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi’s Opus 10 serenade for string trio in C major was composed in 1902.

April 26: Once again the title of the final program will reflect the composition to be performed during the second half. If the Schumann Fits … will present Robert Schumann’s Opus 63 (first) piano trio in D minor. As in the first concert, this trio will be complemented by a trio from the twentieth century, Arthur Foote’s Opus 65 (second) piano trio in B-flat major. The opening selection will be Alexander Krein’s Opus 16 for piano trio, given the title “Elegy.”

All three of these concerts will take place on a Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. As in the past, the venue will be Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, located at 290 Dolores Street at the northwest corner of 16th Street. Tickets for the general public are $25, but members of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav will be admitted for $20. There is also a discounted rate for the three-concert series of $65 for general admission and $50 for members of the congregation. Tickets may be purchased in advance with a credit card by calling Congregation Sha’ar Zahav at 415-861-6932. They may also be acquired online through a Web page, which supports online purchase of both single tickets and subscriptions. This Web page also allows for additional donations to Sha'ar Zahav. A wine and cheese reception will follow each performance.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Memorable Concerts of 2019

Once again I had to wait beyond the halfway point of this month before taking fair stock of what emerged as particularly memorable during the last month of the year. (For the record I began taking stock of the other eleven months shortly after the beginning of this month. There was a lot on my plate this year; so I figured that I had better give my memory plenty of time to account for things, particularly those furthest in the past.) As I put it last year, there were “several vigorous contenders” for this month; and it was hard to shake the feeling that I was trying to make a choice between a very juicy orange and a delightfully tasty apple. Nevertheless, the results are now in and may be accounted for month-by-month as follows with the usual hyperlinks:

January: Ran Dank plays Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” This was the “opening night” concert in the 2019 PIVOT Series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). I have never been modest in my admiration for this set of 36 variations on a political anthem. As far as I am concerned, this was a twentieth-century approach to variations on a theme that would hold its own beside the nineteenth-century efforts of both Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. As might be guessed, there is no shortage of content for mind to discover, meaning that this is music that deserved more than one listening experience. In that context my iteration with Dank was particularly informative for discovering that Sergei Rachmaninoff was lurking in Rzewski’s score along with Beethoven and Brahms!

February: Little Roxie screens performance of Erling Wold’s “Rattensturm” opera. Sometimes the only option for seeing a new opera is by attending a screening of a video document of its performance. This was the case for Erling Wold’s opera “Rattensturm.” To the best of my knowledge, this has only been performed by the Klagenfurter Ensemble, named after the capital of Carinthia in Austria, in commemoration of the end of World War I. The plot concerned the sinking of the Austro-Hungarian Navy vessel SMS Szent István, which was presumed to be “unsinkable.” However, this had nothing to do with negligent disregard of icebergs. Rather, the vessel was brought down during its maiden voyage by an Italian torpedo boat led by a captain with a combination of knowledge and instinct for clever maneuvers. As the opera’s title suggests, a Greek chorus of five rats contributes to the telling of this tale; and both words and music were thoroughly riveting throughout the opera’s 90-minute duration.

March: Voices of Music concludes season with Bach and Handel. The final concert of the Voices of Music season featured an impressive variety of visiting instrumental and vocal soloists. The instrumentalists were flutist Emi Ferguson, oboist Marc Schachman, and bassoonist Anna Marsh. The vocalists were soprano Amanda Forsythe and tenor Thomas Cooley. Most of the selections were secular, although there was an opening Sinfonia from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 156 cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß in Grabe (I am standing with one foot in the grave) for which Schachman provided a ravishing oboe solo. However, he dazzled just as much as soloist in George Frideric Handel’s HWV 287 oboe concerto in G minor. Over the course of the entire program, Baroque music never sounded so refreshing.

April: Lamplighters presents G&S++. Lamplighters Music Theatre presented their latest approach to putting a twist on a well-known Gilbert and Sullivan (G&S) operetta with Arthur Sullivan’s setting of W. S. Gilbert’s clever rhymes. “Trial by Jury” is a one-act farce about the British legal system; and it is the shortest of all of the G&S collaborations. The Lamplighters’ production team decided it could do with a what-happened-next second act. All the music was by Sullivan, but new words were introduced to accommodate the new plot. Many of the jokes were directed at G&S specialists; but plenty (including a reference to the Rolling Stones) were accessible to the entire audience.

May: Juraj Valčuha brings dark Shostakovich to San Francisco Symphony (SFS). 2019 saw three SFS programs that “made the cut” for this list, two by returning visitors and one by a conductor making her debut. The familiar visitor was Valčuha, and he made the bold move of presenting Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 65 (eighth) symphony in C minor. Composed at a time when World War II had worn Shostakovich down into a depressing state of weariness, this symphony is regarded by many as the composer’s darkest creation. Valčuha summoned up that darkness with a clear appreciation of all the sophisticated detail that Shostakovich had invested in his score.

June: San Francisco Opera (SFO) presents Rusalka. Where opera was concerned, two SFO productions “made the cut.” The first of these was performed during the spring season, and it was a new production of Antonín Dvořák’s best known opera, his Opus 114 Rusalka. The music for this opera is thoroughly engaging, but the opera itself tends to get neglected because of its relatively convoluted plot in which darkness prevails. Fortunately, David McVicar’s staging made the narrative both clear and accessible. The production also marked the SFO debut of conductor Eun Sun Kim. (At the beginning of this month it was announced that Kim would be the new SFO Music Director, beginning her tenure on August 1, 2021.)

July: Merola Opera Program presents the annual Schwabacher Summer Concert. Many “showcase” opera offerings tend to overwhelm the audience with more unrelated episodes than mind can be expected to process. On the other hand the annual Schwabacher event is regularly structured around a more limited number of staged scenes of more extended length. This season the program had two generously extensive “bookends” with three briefer episodes between them. Staging was by Merola alumnus Jose Maria Condemi, and the attentive viewer was drawn into just the right blend of convincing dramatization and dramatically perceptive vocal deliveries of the music.

August: West Edge Opera presents Breaking the Waves. The high point of this summer’s West Edge Opera series of full-length opera productions was Missy Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves. The title comes from a 1996 film by Lars von Trier, whose pugnacious approach to matters of both religion and sex often succeeded in alienating his viewers. Mazzoli worked with a libretto by Royce Vavrek that did not blunt any of von Trier’s sharp edges. However, through her music (and perhaps through changes in social mores since von Trier’s film was first screened) one could appreciate the full scope of tensions in the narrative without feeling beaten by a sledge hammer. Viewing this opera was as intense an experience as one encounters in a well-directed production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck; but the mere fact that one can talk about Mazzoli’s opera in the same sentence as Berg’s should affirm the significance of her effort.

September: SFO presents a new production of Billy Budd. Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd is another opera that subjects the attentive viewer with almost non-stop tension from beginning to end. SFO presented a production by Michael Grandage that was first performed at Glyndebourne in May of 2010. The revival here was staged by Ian Rutherford, but there was no short-changing the intensity of either the narrative or the music through which that narrative is conveyed. Much of that intensity was due to how Christopher Oram, making his SFO debut, created a chillingly claustrophobic setting of the British man-of-war Indomitable. That atmosphere was reinforced by the extensive diversity of people on board, whose musical contributions were managed impeccably by Chorus Director Ian Robertson, consistently working effectively with conductor Lawrence Renes.

October: Karina Canellakis makes SFS debut. Like Valčuha, Canellakis prepared a program organized primarily around a symphony composed by Shostakovich during World War II. She selected the predecessor of Opus 65, the Opus 60 (seventh) symphony, dedicated “To the City of Leningrad.” While Shostakovich was working on the symphony, the Nazi forces began their siege of the city on September 8, 1941; and that siege would not conclude until January 17, 1944. Canellakis could not have not a better job in her command of the rhetoric of tension that Shostakovich packed into this symphony. Lesser conductors have reduced this score to little more than militarist clichés. However, Canellakis knew where the musical rhetoric resided and never wavered in conveying her knowledge to the attentive listener.

November: Simone Young brings operatic Wagner to Davies. The last of the SFS programs was a concert performance of the first act of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conducted by Simone Young. There is enough drama in this single act to fill an entire evening’s program; and the action in the libretto is sufficiently minimal that a concert performance is viable. (This was my own second encounter with a concert performance of this act.) There are only three vocalists for the roles of Siegmund (tenor Stuart Skelton), Sieglinde (soprano Emily Magee, making her SFS debut), and Hunding (bass Ain Anger). All three of them could not have worked with Young more effectively to convey the intense dramatic impact of this scene, while Young consistently reinforced that impact on the instrumental side of the balance.

December: Jamie Barton presents an “equal opportunity” SFP recital. I realize that I am not the first to observe that Barton prepared a project in which the time allocated to women composers was approximately the same as that allotted to the men. What matters, however, is that the music by the women was just as diverse and compelling as that encountered among the more familiar men. In other words there is a rich untapped repertoire out there just waiting for suitable performance platforms. It may not be as large as the catalogs of the male composers, but it is still significant. Barton gave a convincing account of every selection on her program, and her strategy should be followed by both male and female vocalists. This was an evening in which the social agenda was able to share the platform with the music agenda and inspire both performers and audiences to seek out similar situations.

Quatuor Arod’s Context for Schoenberg’s Music


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

This past October Erato released an album that seems to have been inspired by the social context in which some of the most fascinating works of the early twentieth century were composed. The performances are by Quatuor Arod, whose members are violinists Jordan Victoria and Alexander Vu, violist Tanguy Parisot, and cellist Samy Rachid. The title of the recording is The Mathilde Album; and readers may be forgiven for associating that name with Mathilde Wesendonck, one of the more influential characters in the biography of Richard Wagner. This would be a mistaken assumption, since the title refers to Mathilde Zemlinsky. Arnold Schoenberg had been studying with her brother, Alexander von Zemlinsky, since 1894; and he married Mathilde in October of 1901.

A more appropriate title might have been Of Teachers and Pupils, but that would have overlooked the social context of Schoenberg’s life. This would have included Mathilde’s brief affair with the young Austrian painter Richard Gerstl (who would commit suicide after she returned to Schoenberg) and Schoenberg’s intense reaction to her own death in October of 1923. (That intensity was short-lived; in less than a year he had married Gertrud Kolisch, sister of violinist Rudolf Kolisch, who was studying with Schoenberg at the time. However, those events took place much later than the time-frame of The Mathilde Album.)

The music on The Mathilde Album was composed between 1905 and 1915, and the three selections are ordered chronologically. The centerpiece (so to speak) is Schoenberg’s Opus 10 (second) string quartet in F-sharp minor), which was composed in 1908. It was dedicated “to my wife,” even though it was written at the time of Mathilde’s affair with Gerstl. It is not, strictly speaking, a string quartet because the last two of the four movements include an obbligato part for a soprano (Elsa Dreisig on this album), who sings the texts of two poems by Stefan George, “Litanei” (litany) and “Entrückung” (rapture). The ordering of those texts can be interpreted as a reflection on Matilde’s infidelity, but I am not sure there is any hard evidence that Schoenberg had that connotation in mind.

The Schoenberg quartet is preceded by one of the first compositions written by Anton Webern at the beginning of his studies with Schoenberg in 1905. This was a single-movement composition for string quartet, which was only published after Webern’s death with the title “Langsamer Satz” (slow piece). The final selection on the album is by Zemlinsky himself, his Opus 15 (second) string quartet, composed between 1913 and 1915. There is much to be gained from listening to this piece juxtaposed with with Schoenberg’s Opus 10. Not only do the two quartets share the same rhetorical context, but also the appearance of a few of Schoenberg’s motifs is almost certainly more than coincidence.

This album provided my “first contact” with Quatuor Arod; and it left me hoping that one of our local impresarios would make arrangements for them to give a recital here in San Francisco. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that this is far from a sit-back-and-listen album. Considerable attention went into the creation of each of the three pieces on the album, and it is clear that the same level of attention was engaged in the acts of performance. However, that sort of attention matters. Any account that does not get beyond providing a dutiful account of the notation will miss out on the full extent of rich rhetoric, even in Webern’s earliest efforts as a composer. Still, recognizing and appreciating that rhetoric calls for focused listening; but those willing to make that effort will definitely be rewarded for doing so.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Visualizing the First Two “Razumovsky” Quartets

Having spent this past Friday writing about how Quatuor Ébène approached the performing (and recording) of the first two of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 59 (“Razumovsky”) quartets, I decided to revisit Stephen Malinowski’s YouTube playlist of his visualizations of the Beethoven quartets to take a look at how he approached both of these quartets. Since this involved material with which I was familiar through both recordings and concert performances, I was curious as to how his videos would have an impact after one set of recorded performances was still fresh in memory. Once again, the experience had assets and liabilities.

Perhaps highest among the assets is the extent to which these visualizations provide a representation of one way in which the marks on the score pages may be parsed. It is important to bear in mind that there is no reason why any composition by Beethoven (or any other composer) should be parsed in a single way. Indeed, from a grammatical point of view, performance itself is a means of expressing a particular approach to parsing. In that sense Malinowski’s video interpretations take a syntactic structure arising from a recorded performance and add a second layer of parsing in the visual domain to the one that performance has established in the auditory domain. If nothing else, this is a highly inventive approach to how, with the proper tools, one might be able to document a listening experience by working in the same time-based domain that provides the foundation for listening itself.

This suggests that each of these videos reflects a highly personal interpretation. This is not meant as a criticism. Rather, it suggests that it identifies strategies that others might consider when trying to account for their own respective listening experiences, not necessarily by creating their own visualizations but, rather, by coming to appreciate what those visualizations express and then finding other means to express them.

Nevertheless, there are certain aspects that concern me because they might distract when they should be indicating. From a personal point of view, I find the frequent use of blurred images to be an almost painful distraction, even though I realize that, from Malinowski’s point of view, it is simply one of several means to express the variety of different approaches to performance. On the other hand I appreciate that Malinowski’s approach to “scrolling through time” does not always provide all “future information.” Every now and then events simply “spring out of the void;” and, from a rhetorical point of view, they tend to have the same effect as that of certain abrupt introductions of thematic material in the score itself.

Still, from an information theoretic point of view, there is an almost overwhelming abundance of content in both of the quartets being visualized, meaning that every movement, even when taken on its own, serves up considerable “bandwidth,” which then requires equally considerable “processing effort” on the part of the viewer. I would postulate that such effort is far greater than what is engaged when one watches the members of a string quartet perform these pieces. My explanation would be that the visual experience of performance reveals cues about how the performers are taking their “parsing of the score” and realizing it as a listening experience. They are not providing a blueprint. They are providing their impressions of that blueprint, and it is through those impressions that those of us on the audience side come away with an absorbing listening experience.

Thus, to return to the issue of a “fatigue factor” that continues to occupy my appreciation of Malinowski’s visualizations, I would say that the bandwidth of a concert experience is more manageable that that of watching those visualizations, particularly if one wishes to experience a single quartet from start to finish (as it would be performed). Mind you, the same issue arises when one is trying to follow the score. There are just too many bits on the printed page for mind to keep up with the steady flow coming in through auditory sensation. Thus, when we follow a score during a performance, we tend to select where we look because we want to look for certain features for the sake of understanding how they are interpreted. One cannot be that selective when viewing one of Malinowski’s visualizations; and, to be fair, I do not think he expects his viewers to approach his work that way.

Still, I have to grant that any one of those visualizations almost always calls my attention to a variety of features that have always registered with listening but may not have been appreciated for the full worth of their contributions to the overall design. There is no doubt that, for any of the Beethoven quartets, there is always likely to be more than “meets the ear,” whether the ear is in the concert hall or listening to a recording. Malinowski consistently provides insights into what that “more” may be. Sometimes, however, those insights tend to overwhelm the viewer, tempting him/her to close his/her eyes and just get “back to the Beethoven.”

A New Recording of a Major Feldman Composition

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

Back in my student days, one of my music professors used to delight, every now and then, in citing his list of the major “non-composers” of our day. The list might change from time to time, but Morton Feldman was always on it. I do not know whether he really meant to dismiss Feldman so abruptly or if this was a “cunning plan” on his part to get his students to listen to recordings of Feldman’s music (which were pretty sparse back in the Sixties when I was in that professor’s classroom).

The other way I learned about Feldman was through John Cage, with whom I went on mushroom hunts in the summer of 1968 and then would encounter as often as circumstances would allow. Feldman had been Cage’s colleague in what is now known as “The New York School;” and Cage continued to champion him after they had gone their separate ways. Unless I am mistaken, my first listening experience came from a vinyl Columbia album that divided its tracks between Cage and Feldman.

It did not take long for me to warm up to Feldman’s music. However, I quickly realized that he was very much an experimentalist, exploring different compositional techniques. His earlier efforts involved approaches to indeterminacy that were inspired by Cage’s interest in chance-based approaches to decision making but were far from following in Cage’s footsteps. However, Feldman gradually departed from scores consisting of rectangles on graph paper that allowed extensive opportunities for choice by the performer to a far more meticulous technique in which every individual note would be specified with respect to not only pitch but also dynamics and often articulation.

As Feldman’s scores became more precise, they also became much longer in duration. Unless I am mistaken, his demands on listener attention were pushed to the max with the completion of his second string quartet in 1983. The total duration of the recording of this quartet made by the FLUX Quartet is (as it says on the album cover) “6 hours 7 minutes and 7 seconds.” That recording requires five CDs.

To be honest I have never been interested in approaching an opportunity to listen to Feldman’s music as if it were an endurance test. As a result, I have tended to settle into those compositions whose performances fill a single CD without any interruptions. One such composition is “Patterns in a Chromatic Field,” a duo for cello and piano.

This past October Wergo released a new recording of this piece performed by cellist Mathis Mayr and pianist Antonis Anissegos. Note the use of the article “a.” An Amazon.com search for “Morton Feldman patterns” turns up an impressive number of different performances. It almost seems as if any cello-piano duo that is interested in an ambitious challenge has turned to “Patterns in a Chromatic Field” and released a recording of their efforts. (Personally, I have only one other copy, the recorded performance made by cellist Christian Giger and pianist Steffen Schleiermacher. I was drawn to it because I knew of Schleiermacher’s project to record the complete piano music of John Cage.)

These days I am more interested in attending concert performances of Feldman’s music than in listening to recordings. Indeed, I can confess that, when I started listening to this recent Wergo recording, I no longer had any recollection of the Giger-Schleiermacher recording. Nevertheless, my past experiences in being able to identify motifs and then track the gradual transformations of those motifs kicked in with little difficulty. The fact is that it is not difficult to become aware of those transformations and to accept the principle that the “destination” of a transformation is secondary to the transformational process itself. That precept and a willingness to be patient are about all one needs to bring to a “CD scale” Feldman composition; and, on this new recording, that patience is definitely well rewarded.

Choices for February 9, 2020

As of this writing, it looks like Sunday, February 9, will be the busy day during the second weekend of February (compared with Saturday on the first weekend). In this case the emphasis will be on chamber music, but from a variety of different points of view. Specifics are as follows:

3 p.m., Knuth Hall: InterMusic SF is probably best known for SF Music Day, which amounts to a “four-ring circus,” which usually consists of over seven hours of music being played by local talent in four different venues in the Veterans Building. February will see a similar showcase on a much shorter scale when the Morrison Chamber Music Center of the College of Liberal & Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU) will join forces with InterMusic SF to showcase three local chamber music groups. This will be the third of the six concerts being presented in the 64th season of the Morrison Artists Series.

Two of the groups had performed in last October’s SF Music Day. Brass Over Bridges is a brass quintet whose members are trumpeters Matt Ebisuzaki and Ari Micich, trombonists Esther Armendariz and Lucas Jensen, and Margarite Waddell on horn. Their repertoire includes imaginative arrangements, as well as music explicitly composed for their combination of instruments. The Alaya Project, on the other hand, calls itself “the essential bridge between the intricate Carnatic style of Indian classical music and contemporary jazz and funk.” It was conceived by Rohan Krishnamurthy, who is equally skilled in Indian percussion and jazz drumming. He is joined by Prasant Radhakrishnan on saxophone and Colin Hogan on keyboards (including the accordion). The third group is the Curium Trio of violinist Agnieszka Peszko, cellist Carlyn Kessler, and pianist Rachel Kim. Taking its name from Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and the only person to win the Nobel prize in two different scientific fields, the trio’s mission is to present the works of female composers.

Knuth Hall is located in the Creative Arts Building. The performance will be preceded by a pre-concert talk beginning at 2 p.m. in the same venue. The building is a short walk from the SFSU Muni stop at the corner of 19th Avenue and Holloway Avenue. There is no charge for admission. However, it is usually the case that, three weeks prior to the event, the Web page for the concert will have a hyperlink through which tickets may be reserved. Readers are encouraged to check for that hyperlink.

3 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Chamber Music San Francisco will begin its 2020 season with a recital by the Apollon Musagète Quartet. This is an ensemble of Polish musicians, all of whom studied with members of the Alban Berg Quartet. The group is distinguished by the decision of the violinists and violist to perform standing, rather than seated. They will honor Ludwig van Beethoven’s anniversary year with a performance of the third of his Opus 18 quartets in the key of D major. This will be coupled with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/63 quartet, also in D major, often known as the “Lark” quartet. The second half of the program will be devoted to Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 105 in A-flat major.

Herbst Theatre is located in the Veterans Building on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Single tickets will be $48, but they will not go on sale until January 1. Since this is the first concert of the season, subscriptions are still on sale for both the full series of ten concerts and the miniseries option of four or more concerts. The price for the full series is $360. A single Web page has been created for all online ticket sales. One may also purchase subscriptions by calling 415-759-1756, rather than ordering online.

5 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: LIEDER ALIVE! will present its 2020 gala benefit. This will be an early evening of food, wine, and music. The performers will be mezzo Kindra Scharich, pianist Jeff LaDeur, and the members of the Alexander String Quartet: violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. LaDeur will accompany Scharich in a performance of songs selected from Franz Schubert’s D. 911 Winterreise song cycle. He will then join the Alexander players in a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 34 quintet in F minor.

Following the concert, guests will be able to enjoy an enticing Alpine fondue prepared by LIEDER ALIVE! alumna Talia Trozzo. This will then be followed by the traditional winter galette provided by the Les Gourmands Bakery. In addition to the usual bubbly, guests may imbibe wine and/or schnapps.

The Noe Valley Ministry is located at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. All tickets are being sold for $75. They may be purchased in advance through an Eventbrite event page.

VoM Presents Soloists for the Solstice

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Voices of Music (VoM) presented its annual Holiday Celebration concert. This year, however, none of the selections were directly related to any of the religious holidays taking place this month. So, considering the date of the performance, the occasion was better suited to marking the solstice, the exactly moment of which happened to occur while the performance was taking place.

One might say that the change of season was honored by a “changing of the guard” of sorts. A generous selection of opera arias and concertos provided a platform in which a new generation of soloists were performing alongside founding members of VoM. Thus “veteran” violinist Carla Moore and cellist William Skeen were joined by two “rising talent” violinists, Alana Youssefian and Rachell Ellen Wong. The other soloist was countertenor Christopher Lowrey, who has begun to build an impressive résumé, particularly in Europe.

The one “meeting of the generations” took place at the conclusion of the concert with a performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s RV 565 concerto in D minor for two violins (Moore and Wong), cello (Skeen), and strings. This is the eleventh concerto on Vivaldi’s Opus 3 collection of twelve given the title L’estro armonico (the harmonic inspiration). This particular concerto has an opening movement with two tempo changes, followed by a thoroughly engaging Siciliano and a vigorous Allegro for the conclusion. The violin soloists engage in both exchanges of thematic material and blended duo settings of several of the passages. As in most Vivaldi concertos, the Allegro passages are brisk and light-footed; and Skeen’s account of them deftly matched the violin solo work. Skeen was also featured as soloist in the RV 407 cello concerto, also in D minor. Since the full ensemble consisted of only two cellos, Skeen’s solo offering left it to Adaiha MacAdam-Somer to give the cello account of the continuo, joined only by VoM harpsichordist (and co-founder) Hanneke van Proosdij and David Tayler (the other co-founder) on archlute.

These reduced resources served up crystal clarity in all of the ensemble work of the evening, consistently matched by intonation perfectly suited to the repertoire being performed. These virtues were evident from the very beginning of the evening, which opened with an instrumental arrangement of the Sarabande (fourth) movement from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 437 keyboard suite. They were then reinforced in providing the accompaniment for Lowrey’s selection of opera arias, three from the operas of Handel in the first half of the program and the other three from Vivaldi operas. The Handel selections were more familiar, since they were taken from operas whose music has been given at least moderate attention here in San Francisco, Rodelinda (HWV 19), Giulio Cesare (HWV 17), and Partenope (HWV 27). (That last will be given a revival performance by the San Francisco Opera this coming June.) The Vivaldi selections were equally engaging; but the sources were probably new to most of the audience: Farnace (RV 711), Teuzzone (RV 736), and La Silvia (RV 734).

Finally, the first half of the program featured solo work by Youssefian. She played the final concerto in Pietro Locatelli’s Opus 3 collection of twelve concertos entitled L'arte del violino (the art of the violin), featuring a capriccio known as the “Harmonic labyrinth.” This featured a barrage of devilish solo passages fraught with ambiguities of dissonance that challenge even the most attentive listener to avoid losing his/her way. Youssefian’s execution could not have been more solidly focused on rising to every challenge that Locatelli set before her; and the results certainly made for the most eyebrow-raising occasions of the evening. There was definitely nothing like such a stimulating assembly of compositions and their interpretations to make the shortest day of the year cause for celebration.