Sunday, July 12, 2020

Mahanthappa Reflects on his Jazz Influences

“Heroes” Rudy Royston, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and François Moutin (courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications)

This coming Friday Whirlwind Recordings will release the latest album from jazz alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Entitled Hero Trio, Mahanthappa’s note for the accompanying booklet explains his motives in the very first sentence:
After having released 15 albums of original music as a leader/co-leader, it is an immense pleasure to record music that is not my own.
In other words the album is a nod to those “heroes” behind Mahanthappa’s own prodigious capacity for invention. He achieves his goal by leading a trio, whose other members are François Moutin on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. As usual, Amazon.com has created a Web page to process pre-orders of this new album.

As one scans the track list, it becomes quickly clear that one “hero” stands out above all the others: Charlie Parker. Other tracks are devoted to Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett, “standards” composers Vernon Duke and Gene de Paul, and, more recently, Stevie Wonder and the partnership of June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. There is also a single track that combines Parker’s “Barbados” with John Coltrane’s “26-2” (which, in turn, is a contrafact of Parker’s “Confirmation”). Almost all of the tracks are subjected to Mahanthappa’s imaginative approaches to arrangement. Adding rhythmic eccentricity to the Cash-Kilgore “Ring of Fire” is a particularly apposite case in point. The only tracks that do not acknowledge arrangement are Coleman’s “Sadness” and Jarrett’s “The Windup.” The Wonder track, “Overjoyed,” uses an arrangement by Danilo Perez.

As trios go, this is one in which Mahanthappa is almost always in the spotlight. Nevertheless, Royston brings a refreshing eccentricity to the beat behind Mahanthappa’s solos. Moutin also gets several opportunities for solo bass work, most of which involve plucking. However, there is some highly imaginative bowed work before Mahanthappa introduces the theme of Coleman’s “Sadness.” As a result, each track emerges with its own way of drawing in the attentive listener, and there is much to be mined from attentive listening to this trio’s takes on jazz history.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Re-encountering a Delightful Past on YouTube

Back in the Seventies, when I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, I happened to see on television one of the most memorable broadcasts of a performance of Die Fledermaus, probably the most popular of the operettas composed by Johann Strauss II. It was a video document of a performance at the Royal Opera House on New Year’s Eve of 1977. The production was staged by Leopold Lintberg, and the conductor was Zubin Mehta. All of the music was sung in German; but, in what was apparently a Royal Opera tradition, each performer delivered the spoken text in the language of his/her own choice.

When commercial videos began to go on sale, I eagerly searched for a copy of this recording. Unfortunately, the best I could find was a subsequent performance of the production, this time from New Year’s Eve of 1983. Many of the key cast members remained the same, particularly soprano Kiri Te Kanawa as Rosalinde, baritone Hermann Prey as her husband, Gabriel von Eisenstein, and baritone Benjamin Luxon as Dr Falke. While this made for pleasant viewing, it lacked the spontaneous freshness of the 1977 broadcast. The latter was probably an opening-night performance, since one of the “guest appearances” in the second act was announced as the world premiere of a new ballet by Frederic Ashton.

This afternoon I discovered that, through YouTube, I could return to that more memorable performance. The video looks as if the source was a videotape recorded from a television broadcast, which was subsequently digitized. Aside from the fact that the first half of the overture is missing, everything else seems to have been captured in its entirety.

What made the production so memorable was its heady blend of sight gags, no end of verbal connotations in the text, and shameless appropriations of music from other sources. Of course it is taken for granted that the tenor Alfred (Ryszard Karczykowski), who is trying to lure Rosalinde away from her husband, should add no end of operatic solos into his part of the libretto. However, my favorite moment comes in the first act, when Eisenstein takes his leave of Rosalinde (who thinks he is departing to serve his prison sentence). Prey spiced up the scene by weaving “Wotan’s Farewell” from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre into his part.

Notice that I wrote “operatic moment.” Just as impressive, if not more so, was the Ashton ballet being premiered by Merle Park and Wayne Eagling. The choreography was set to the music of Strauss’ Opus 410 “Frühlingsstimmen” (voices of spring) waltz. Those that know their ballet history are likely to hypothesize that Ashton had decided to poke fun at the outrageous acrobatics of the Soviet ballet “Spring Waters.” (I doubt that anyone was surprised when Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo decided to add “Spring Waters” to the repertoire.) There is more than a fair share of bodies hurling each other around, not to mention and endless number of flower petals that Park drops on the stage while perched on Eagling’s shoulder.

The 1977 recording is somewhat longer than the 1983 release. This is because there are far more “guests invited to perform” at Prince Orlofsky’s party. Both Daniel Barenboim and Isaac Stern gave lengthier performances than are usually expected, Chopin’s Opus 23 ballade in G minor and the final movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 violin concerto in E minor, respectively. Still, this was a New Year’s Eve event, meaning that, for most of the audience, the occasion was a “pre-party party.” The “visiting talent” simply made the occasion more festive.

As might be expected, the video quality is far from the best possible. Nevertheless, none of the humor of the occasion has been impeded. This is one of those opportunities to see what some of the best musical talents of that time could do to serve up the perfect blend of the outrageously comic with the joyously festive.

Old First Concerts: August 2020

According to the latest announcement from Old First Concerts (O1C) earlier this week, the organization is planning to continue live-streaming its programs through YouTube. August has shaped up to be a busy month, so this may prove to be an ambitious undertaking. As of this writing, there are plans to offer five concerts as follows:

Friday, August 7, 8 p.m.: The Bow & Mallet Quintet seems to have been named after the partnership of Jennifer Kloetzel (former cellist of the Cypress String Quartet) and Jack van Geem (former Principal Percussionist of the San Francisco Symphony). They provide the “front line” for a jazz combo, whose rhythm section consists of Brian Cooke on piano, Rob Wright on bass, and Brian Simpson on drums. The repertoire has been built around jazz tunes and instrumental approaches to ballads from the American Songbook.

Sunday, August 16, 4 p.m.: Mallets will also be in play (so to speak), this time in the hands of Sebastian Alexander Johnson. He will give a duo performance with pianist Henry Plotnick. Both of them are students at the School of Jazz, the second conservatory of The New School in New York. They are both composers, so the program will combine their originals with the standard jazz repertoire as a context for rich improvisation.

Friday, August 21, 8 p.m.: XBOOM calls itself a “creative music project that brings in electronic artistry to traditional jazz improvisation.” The group is a trio led by drummer Charles Xavier, who also oversees synthesizer technology. Clifford Brown III is the trumpeter, and the trio is completed with Matt Montgomery, who alternates between electric guitar and violin. However, all sound sources are subjected to electronic processing, building up what the group calls “layers of sonic exploration.”

Sunday, August 23, 4 p.m.: The Jupiter Chamber Ensemble will host the Eighth California Andriasov Festival. This is the string quartet led by Victor Romasevich with Michael Jones on second violin, Stephen Levintow on viola, and Paul Rhodes on cello. For as long as I have been listening to Romasevich in recital and chamber music settings, he has been championing the music of Iosif Andriasov and his son Arshak Andriasov. He has prepared a program with an extensive survey of the music of both of these composers. The quartet musicians will be joined by clarinetist Lawrence London, trumpeter Scott Macomber, trombonist Gabral Cruz, and pianists Marilyn Thompson and Lena Lubotsky. In addition to the extensive Andriasov repertoire, Macomber will play Arthur Honneger’s “Intrada” for trumpet and piano.

Friday, August 28, 8 p.m.: As of this writing, it appears the the New Piano Collective will go ahead with this year’s iteration of the San Francisco International Piano Festival, scheduled to take place between August 20 and August 30. As in the past O1C will host one of the programs, which, in honor of all the celebrations of the composer’s 250th birthday, will consist entirely of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. The participating pianists will be Gwendolyn Mok, Allegra Chapman, and Sarah Yuan. Mok will accompany cellist Stephen Harrison in a performance of the second, in the key of G minor, of Beethoven’s Opus 5 pair of cello sonatas. Chapman will accompany violinists Eunseo Oh in the third (in G major) of the three Opus 30 violin sonatas. The program will conclude with the Opus 16 quintet in E-flat major for piano (Sarah Yuan) and winds. The wind players will be four of the members of the Nomad Session wind octet: Jesse Barrett (oboe), Jonathan Szin (clarinet), Kristopher King (bassoon), and, Stephanie Stroud (horn).

Each of the above hyperlinks points to the O1C event page for that respective concert. Each event page will provide the necessary link to the YouTube site through which the concert will be streamed. As of this writing, those pages are still set up with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets. In the event that ticketed audience admission will be allowed for any of these events, the Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church.

SFS Media to Release Two MTT Song Cycles

courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) has announced that this coming Friday will see latest SFS Media release of recorded performances of the ensemble conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). The new album consists of two CDs, each presenting an orchestral song cycle. The first is taken from the performances of From the Diary of Anne Frank given in Davies Symphony Hall in November of 2018. The second documents the world premiere performances of Meditations on Rilke, performed in Davies this past January. As is usually the case, Amazon.com has already created a Web page to process pre-orders of this new offering.

Due to scheduling constraints, I was only able to attend the first performance of the Rilke cycle. So From the Diary of Anne Frank was a “first contact” experience. As the title implies, Mediations on Rilke is not so much a “song cycle” based on six of Rilke’s poems (translated into English by Robert Bly in the accompanying booklet) as it is true to the composition’s title, using music the reflect on the composer’s reactions to what the poet had expressed through words. As I had previously observed, this makes for a challenging task.

Most important is whether or not the poet had intended his texts for oral delivery. As I put it when I wrote about the premiere performance:
While the poetry may have been conceived for recitation, these are texts that hold up to the luxury of solitary reading.
Thus, the reader can easily be absorbed into the pages of the booklet, perhaps to such an extent that mind is distracted from the music. In this context, if MTT had any meditations to bring to the listener that extended beyond the poet’s choices of words and rhetoric, those meditations failed to contend effectively with Rilke’s own intense expressiveness. Neither the instrumental context nor the skilled vocal interpretations of mezzo Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny could escalate the listening experience above the intensity of the reading experience.

From the Diary of Anne Frank, on the other hand, is quite another matter. Most important is that the text is not “literature,” nor was a meant to be. (Indeed, it was never meant to be read by anyone other than the writer.) As a result, MTT made the judicious decision not to set the words to music but to assign them to a narrator (Isabel Leonard on this recording). That said, however, the music itself emerges as “meditations” on the text delivered by that narrator; and, sadly, there are too many situations in which the expressiveness of the music is so intense that it all but drowns out the intimacy of the words themselves.

That said, there is a fascinating twist to the content when considered in our current context. In the early days of the shelter-in-place reaction to the outbreak of COVID-19, The New York Review used its Web site to revisit a previously-published article about Albert Camus’ The Plague. Listening to Leonard reading Frank’s texts, there were any number of turns of phrase that associated hiding from the Nazis in an attic with those “practices of isolation” that Camus depicted in his novel and we were now experiencing through shelter-in-place.

In other words Frank’s diary speaks to the trials we must endure in the immediate present as much as Camus’ novel did. What was once only a teenager’s reflection in excruciatingly trying times can now serve as a guiding light for dealing with the present. Nevertheless, as was the case with Rilke, the real power lies in the words. MTT had as little to add to Frank’s words has he had to Rilke’s, but there is still much to be gained in listening to Leonard deliver those words.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Nicholas Phan’s “Sanctuary” Recital for SFP

Tenor Nicholas Phan accompanied at the piano by Jake Heggie (from the SFP Front Row Web page)

Yesterday San Francisco Performances (SFP) released the third of its Sanctuary Series concerts for streaming through its Front Row Web page. Readers may recall that this was originally announced as a series of audio offerings, but this particular recital was documented as a video. This recital was prepared by tenor Nicholas Phan and entitled simply Time. The program book for this concert elaborated with the following text:
Songs which touch on the subject of time—how it can be fleeting, feel suspended, how finite our time is, etc. Also a meditation on this moment of paused performances.
In other words the broad perspective of the nature of time has homed in on the extent to which shelter-in-place has impacted our very perspective of time itself and how we experience it.

Phan’s selections covered a broad scope of music history with “Time Stands Still” by John Dowland in the distant past and a far more recent pairing of songs by Jake Heggie. Heggie also served as Phan’s accompanist. Phan introduced most of the songs with brief but apposite descriptions, but Heggie provided the introduction for his own music. For those that follow Phan’s recording career, three of the songs he presented can be found on his Clairières album, devoted entirely to songs by Lili and Nadia Boulanger, which was released by Avie Records at the beginning of this year.

I wanted to call out the Clairières selections because Phan is one of the few contemporary advocates for the Boulanger sisters that I have encountered. Listening to his recording was enlightening for any number of reasons, but watching the ways in which he brought expressive awareness of both text and music to the spontaneity of performance deepened my appreciation of these two composers, particularly with the benefit of a program book (PDF download) that provided both the French texts and useful translations into English. With such resources one could appreciate not only Phan’s shaping of the musical phrases but also the phonemic impact of the words themselves.

The same can be said of his approach to the English texts of three poems by Thomas Hardy, two set by Benjamin Britten and one by Gerald Finzi. Heggie’s selections, on the other hand, were drawn from the American poets Vachel Lindsay and Emily Dickinson. The latter was particularly interesting, since Dickinson had very clear thoughts about phrasing and breath, which she indicated by imposing long dashes into the text. Heggie clearly appreciated what she was doing and developed a setting that honored her phrasing without allowing it to overwhelm the musical setting. The Lindsay text was somewhat more straightforward, offering a slightly better fit to Heggie’s thematic contours.

Ultimately, however, the overall impact of the program was sustained by providing the lighter selections as “bookends” for the entire program. That meant Charles Ives’ “mini-cycle” of two songs, Memories, and the beginning and “Some Other Time” from Leonard Bernstein’s score for the musical On the Town at the end. The two songs in Memories are entitled “Very Pleasant” and “Rather Sad;” and both set texts by Ives himself. Thus, there is good reason to believe that both of them are tongue-in-cheek, each in its own way. The first is a spot-on account of audience members at a formal concert paying attention to everything but the performance. The second is, in all probability, deliberately sappy; and I have encountered at least one vocalist happy to deploy portamento to make the sap even thicker. Phan was less inclined to such exaggeration, but one could still chuckle at his delivery.

I probably go against much of the flow in declaring that Bernstein’s music for On the Town, particularly where the songs are concerned, should be counted among his finest efforts. (In other words I value On the Town far more than West Side Story.) One of my strongest reasons is that Betty Comden and Adolph Green came up with lyrics that covered a wide swath of highly varying emotions, none of which were anything less that spot-on sincere. Much as I have always respected Stephen Sondheim’s ways with words, I do not think he was comfortable with West Side Story’s intimations of opera; and he only found his “sweet spot” when he took responsibility for both the music and the lyrics of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. All this is my saying that Phan could not have picked a better selection than “Some Other time” when it came to “signing off” his recital.

Music at Manny’s

Manny’s describes itself as a “people powered and community focused meeting and learning place in the heart of San Francisco that combines a restaurant, political bookshop, and civic events space.” It is located at 3092 16th Street on the northeast corner of Valencia Street. As can probably be guessed, the venue is currently not open to the public.

Instead, Manny's is providing physical space for musicians who have been affected by the cancellation of events and the closure of venues following the COVID-19 pandemic. The result is the Manny’s Musical Sundays concert series, which provides Facebook Live broadcasts every Sunday at 5 p.m., featuring local musicians. There is no charge for attending these events, but each one has its own Eventbrite page through which donations may be made in multiples of $10. 100% of those proceeds will go to the participating musicians. For those that wish to be informed of the performers for these events, the best option is to follow Manny’s Facebook site.

Guitarist Lyle Sheffler (from his Eventbrite event page)

This coming Sunday will see a solo recital by classical guitarist Lyle Sheffler. After earning his Bachelor of Music degree from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, Sheffler matriculated at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, pursuing a Masters of Music degree through studies with Marc Teicholz and David Tanenbaum. Locally he has performed at The Freight and Salvage; but his touring schedule has taken him to Carnegie Hall, the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts at Long Island University, and the Hanoi Opera House.

(That last venue deserves a sidebar. Yes, Virginia, Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, has its own opera house. In was built between 1901 and 1911 when Vietnam was under French colonial administration. The French influence could not be more blatant, since the structure was modeled on the best-known opera house in Paris, the Palais Garnier:

2015 photograph of the Hanoi Opera House (by Nicolas Lannuzel, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

After Vietnam was divided, the opera house became the venue for plenary sessions of the Communist Party of Vietnam. By the time I began work in Singapore in 1991, Vietnam had been reunified; and my wife and I were fortunate enough to be in that part of the world when Vietnam was beginning to open up to tourism. During a visit to Hanoi in the early nineties, the site of the opera house hit me like a ton of bricks! Fortunately, a colleague of mine had arranged for me to meet the Director of the Hanoi Conservatory. We learned that there would be a fund-raising concert for the renovation of the Opera House, which we were able to attend. As a result, I had a chance to see the interior before renovation began but never had the occasion to return to Hanoi after that.)

Sheffler has not yet announced his program. However, the Apple Music Web site for his solo album Classical Guitar suggests that his repertoire is a broad one. It includes early works by John Dowland and Alonso Mudarra, as well as an arrangement by David Russell of a keyboard passacaglia by George Frideric Handel. There is also an arrangement by Andres Segovia of keyboard music by Isaac Albéniz; and the three-movement suite by Agustín Barrios, La Catedral (the cathedral), is performed in its entirety. The performance will begin this Sunday, July 12, at 5 p.m. and is expected to run for about 90 minutes. Eventbrite has created an event page through which donations may be made. The best way to find the streaming video will be through the Videos section of Manny’s Facebook Home Web page.

Mark Kroll’s Couperin Project: Volume Seven

courtesy of Naxos of America

Last month Centaur Records released Volume 7 in Mark Kroll’s project to record the complete keyboard works of François Couperin. The project seems to be building up steam as it approaches completion. According to the Discography Web page on Kroll’s Web site, Centaur has assigned consecutive catalog numbers for the eighth and ninth volumes; but, at the present time, there is no information about when either of these recordings will actually be released. According to my records, with the completion of Volume 7, eight of the ordres remain to be recorded. I do not know whether Kroll is planning to add the compositions that are included in Couperin’s treatise L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin (the art of playing the harpsichord); but my “educated guess” is that the project will conclude with the release of the tenth volume (assuming that, as in the past, each volume is a single CD).

In some respects Volume 7 serves as a companion to Volume 6, which included the very first ordre in the collection in the key of G (“major-minor”). That ordre has a particularly large number (twenty) of selections of both dance movements and “character” pieces. Volume 7 begins with the second ordre, which is even lengthier, consisting of 23 pieces in the key of D (“major-minor”). In addition, as the first ordre was coupled with the ninth in Volume 6, Volume 7 couples the second ordre with the tenth, also a D “major-minor” collection. (The ordres with the largest number of pieces are to be found in the first book in the series. Published in 1713, this consists of the first five ordres.) Furthermore, all four of these ordres  in the two most recent volumes were recorded in 2018 at the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio in Boston; and all the recordings were made with a harpsichord completed by William Dowd in 1974 based on a design by Pascal Taskin.

Considering the prodigious number of pieces that have been collected in Couperin’s 27 ordres, one might think that there would be a risk of identifying some of the later pieces as “more of the same” with respect to the earlier ones. However, these pieces were not written for a concert audience that was expected to “sit still and listen” as a keyboardist displayed his/her skills at his/her instrument. During the first half of the eighteenth century, entertainment was more likely to be found in the act of playing (or even just trying to play) the music, rather than listening dutifully do someone else do the playing. I suppose that is why Kroll’s recordings have encouraged me to sit down with the scores and not only try to get my hands around the polyphonic intricacies of the music but also try to capture some sense of the “character” of the pieces with imaginative titles.

Nevertheless, there is still much joy to be derived from listening to Kroll play these pieces. The fact is that one can appreciate approaching any one of these ordres as a listening experience unto itself. It provides the listener with a stimulating journey that interleaves familiar dance forms with intriguing descriptive titles to tweak the imagination. As a result, I find myself easily wrapped up in each of Kroll’s performances that have progressed with the release his these recordings; but that disposition then becomes further incentive for me to spend time at my own keyboard!

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Richter’s Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev on Profil

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past February Profil released its latest collection of performances by Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. The last two of these have been organized around “composer pairings,” somewhat in the spirit (pun intended) of wine pairings. The first coupled compositions by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms in an album of twelve CDs. This was followed by another twelve-CD coupling of Franz Liszt and Frédéric Chopin (but with a “departure” on the final CD into six tracks of the music of Karol Szymanowski). The new release consists of only eleven CDs, the first four for Sergei Rachmaninoff and the remainder for Sergei Prokofiev (again with a “departure” of five tracks of Nikolai Myaskovsky on the final CD).

There are a variety of reasons why this new album is not quite as satisfying as its predecessors. One of those reasons has nothing to do with the performances themselves, but I shall hold off on that one until the end of this examination. Nevertheless, where Rachmaninoff is concerned, there was at least one unexpected feature, which I thought I would never encounter in any collection of recordings of Rachmaninoff’s keyboard music. To my surprise, none of the five pieces from the Opus 3 Morceaux de fantaisie (fantasy pieces) were included, including the second of those pieces, the C-sharp minor prelude, which has been played to death by so many pianists (including Rachmaninoff himself for his RCA Victor recordings) that it will probably resonate forever in the afterlife.

As was the case with the Chopin recordings, Richter tends to avoid “comprehensive” approaches to published collections. Thus, just as Richter prepared his own “suite” of selections from Chopin’s Opus 28 set of preludes, there are three such “suites” drawn from Rachmaninoff sources. This first of these consists of eight pieces extracted from the Opus 33 and Opus 39 Études-Tableaux collections. This is followed by two “suites” of preludes, both of which involve selections from the Opus 23 and Opus 32 collections. Since I have other sources for these collections played in their entirety as originally published, I could enjoy Richter’s perspective without feeling that I was missing anything.

Somewhat more disappointing is that only the first two of the four piano concertos (Opus 1 in F-sharp minor and Opus 18 in C minor) are included in the collection, each given recordings of two performances. (I found it a bit interesting that the same two conductors were involved in the multiple recordings of the two concertos, Oleg Agarkov and Kurt Sanderling). A more pleasant surprise was found in two tracks of songs from the Opus 21 collection with Richter accompanying his wife Nina Dorliak.

The Prokofiev offerings are somewhat more satisfying. As would probably be expected, all three of the “war” sonatas are included, Opus 82 in A major, Opus 83 in B-flat major, and Opus 84 in B-flat major. There are also two “before” and “after” sonatas, Opus 14 in D minor and Opus 103 in C major. I was a bit disappointed that none of the Opus 75 arrangements for solo piano of music from the Opus 64 Romeo and Juliet were included. However, once again there are two of Richter’s own “suites,” one consisting of eleven of the movements from the Opus 22 Visions fugitives and the other drawn from the Opus 95, Opus 97, and Opus 102 collections of excerpts from the Opus 87 Cinderella ballet.

Of particular interest, however, are the “plays well with others” offerings. The tenth CD is devoted entirely to cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, coupling the Opus 119 sonata in C major with the Opus 125 “Symphony-Concerto.” The latter is particularly distinguished because it is a previously unreleased recording of the world premiere performance. Most readers are probably raising eyebrows at this point, knowing full well that Opus 125 does not have a piano part. Indeed, that world premiere was conducted by Richter, leading the Moscow Youth Orchestra (which would subsequently be called the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, beginning in 1953).

There is also a recording of the Opus 34 “Overture on Hebrew Themes” in the version that Prokofiev originally composed in 1919 during a visit to the United States. That version was scored for clarinet, string quartet, and piano. (An orchestral version would be composed in 1934.) The quartet players on this recording, taken from a concert performance in Moscow in 1951, were the members of the Borodin Quartet: violinists Rostislav Dubinsky and Nina Barshai, violist Rudolf Barshai, and cellist Valentin Berlinsky. The clarinetist was Ivan Mozgovenko. This performance is on the final CD, followed by Dorliak presenting a satisfying selection of songs and the Myaskovsky tracks, including his Opus 81 cello sonata in A minor with Rostropovich as soloist.

The last three paragraphs were all drawn from the track listing in the accompanying booklet, which is the usual way in which do my best to account for the necessary details. Unfortunately, my listening experiences were based on MP3 downloads of the eleven CDs; and I regret to report that two of those CDs were seriously defective, meaning, for example, that I was unable to listen to either the Opus 82 “War” sonata or the Opus 103 sonata. The Amazon Web page for the physical release includes a copy of the review that Henry Fogel wrote for Fanfare; and it reads as if Fogel did, indeed, listen to the content of the defective discs (the sixth and eighth). (The seventh disc is also defective, but I was able to reconstruct it with tracks from the sixth disc.) Thus, this appears to be a problem with preparing the files for downloads. Reviewing the appropriate Web pages, I found that the time codes for these CDs did not align with those in the booklet on the sites for both Amazon and Presto Classical.

Needless to say, I communicated this problem to both Naxos of America, which was my download source, and Edition Günter Hänssler, which distributes the Profil releases. A “decent interval” of several months has elapsed; and, as far as I can tell, the problem has yet to be resolved. However, given the current conditions, I appreciate that it may take some time before we encounter any signs of improvement. I may yet capitulate and purchase the physical version, since I tend to regard Fanfare as a credible source; but, given how many recordings are on my “listening queue” as I write this, I am not in any great hurry!

C4NM Ends Month with Another Live-Stream

Poster design for the program begin announced (from the C4NM event page)

Having just announced the streaming of a one-hour solo piano recital at the Center for New Music (C4NM) yesterday, I have now learned that there will be a second streamed recital only three days later. This will be a chamber music offering by the Sierra Ensemble, a horn trio with hornist Janis Lieberman joined by Matthew Vincent on violin and Marc Steiner on piano. The program will feature the San Francisco premiere of two short pieces by Andrés Carrizo, “Like a Frozen Silver Shimmer” and “Of Frozen Resonance.” Both of these pieces explore each instrument’s capacity for extended techniques, including horn multiphonics, a variety of bowings for the violin, and muting or plucking of strings for the piano.

The program will include two other recent horn trios, both of which were composed in 2012. Eric Ewazen’s trio was inspired by Johannes Brahms’ Opus 40 trio in E-flat major and is similarly organized into four movements. Brian Wilson’s trio is a single-movement composition entitled “And Ezra the Scribe Stood Upon a Pulpit.” Wilson was influenced by not only traditional Hebraic music but also American jazz, with specific intimations of Duke Ellington.

There will also be two duo compositions on the program, neither of which can be considered “new music.” The nineteenth century will be represented by Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 36, “Romance” in F major, which was originally scored for horn and orchestra. From the eighteenth century Vincent will join Steiner in a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 454 violin sonata in B-flat major.

This performance will take place on Wednesday, July 29, beginning at 7:30 p.m. The video will be streamed through both Facebook and YouTube. The C4NM event page for this concert will include hyperlinks to these Web pages shortly before the performance is scheduled to begin. Hyperlinks will also be added to the C4NM home pages on both Facebook and YouTube.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Korngold’s Eternal-Triangle Opera

This past April I had the opportunity to write about Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Opus 16 one-act opera “Eine florentinische Tragödie” (a Florentine tragedy), an “eternal triangle” opera based on a fragment of a play that Oscar Wilde never completed, thanks to a video of a performance by the Livermore Valley Opera. My first encounter with this music took place in the late Eighties at the Santa Fe Opera, where it was coupled with another “eternal triangle” narrative, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opus 8 “Violanta,” his second opera, written at the age of seventeen. Like “Eine florentinische Tragödie,” “Violanta” was given its first performance in 1916. Furthermore, it is also set in Italy, this time during the Venice Carnival in the fifteenth-century, rather than the home of a sixteenth-century merchant. Finally, the “triangle” itself is realized by a soprano, a tenor, and a baritone (tempting me to make up a walk-into-a-bar joke); but the relationships could not be more different.

Zemlinsky’s opera begins with tenor Guido Bardi, the Prince of Florence, making passionate love (think of the music at the beginning of Richard Strauss’ Opus 59 opera Der Rosenkavalier) to soprano Bianca, wife of the merchant Simone (baritone) in Simone’s own house; and it ends with Simone killing Bardi, only to be given a passionate embrace by his wife. In “Violanta” the tenor is also noble; he is Alfonso, the illegitimate son of the King of Naples. The soprano is (of course) the title role; and the baritone is again her husband, Simone Troval, military commander of the Venetian republic. In this case, however, the relationship is more complex. Alfonso had seduced Violanta’s sister Nerina, who was then driven to suicide. When we first encounter Violanta, she is bent on vengeance and works out a scheme in which Simone will kill him. However, before the opera is over, Violanta has succumbed to Alfonso’s charms and shields his body when Simone draws his sword. As a result, she is the one that is stabbed. She realizes that Simone was her true love while she is dying in his arms.

Michael Kupfer-Radecky as Simone and Annemarie Kremer as Violanta (screen shot from the trailer of the video being discussed)

Santa Fe Opera clearly appreciated how these two bizarrely warped narratives could complement each other. Seeing them performed together made for one of the more memorable roller coaster rides in my opera-going experience. Thus, when Dynamic released a video of “Violanta” around the middle of last month (in both Blu-ray and DVD formats), I could not resist the opportunity to revisit this opera so soon after my Zemlinsky encounter.

The video was compiled from two performances at the Teatro Regio in Turin, which, ironically, was hosting the first presentation of this opera in Italy. The staging for this occasion was directed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, and the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Regio were conducted by Pinchas Steinberg. The title role was sung by Annemarie Kremer, that of Simone by Michael Kupfer-Radecky, and Alfonso by Norman Reinhardt. As in the Livermore production of Zemlinsky’s Opus 16, the costume and set designs, also by Pizzi, were more contemporary than faithful to the period; but Pizzi’s were far more abstract, particularly with an enormous circular window through which one could see a gondolier guiding his craft down one of the canals.

Pizzi’s major challenge, however, was to negotiate the less-than-logical twists and turns of the libretto Hans Müller had written for Korngold’s opera. Personally, I felt that this 90-minute performance got off to a somewhat slow start, developing context through an excessive number of secondary characters. However, once that action homed in on Violanta, Simone, and Alfonso, Pizzi’s direction deftly negotiated every twist and turn, finding just the right way to capture Violanta’s changing sympathies. Of these two operas that were contemporary with each other, Zemlinsky’s remains my favorite; but I would definitely appreciate the opportunity to see “Violanta” in performance again.

C4NM’s Riley Nicholson to Live-Stream Recital

Poster design for the program begin announced (from the C4NM event page)

I seem to be moving into a “new normal” of announcing free live-streamed performances. Yesterday saw the announcement that Fred Hersch’s jazz theater piece My Coma Dreams will be coming to YouTube at the end of next week. Of more local interest, the Center for New Music (C4NM) will host the streaming of a one-hour solo piano recital towards the end of this month.

The recitalist will be C4NM Project Manager D. Riley Nicholson, composer, percussionist, pianist, and arts management professional. The title of his program will be Influences. His recital will survey his past influences through four key composers: Erik Satie (“Prélude du Nazaréen), Francis Poulenc (“À pied,” the first piece in his Promenades collection), Meredith Monk (“Railroad (Travel Song)”), and selections from Hans Otte’s Das Buch der Klänge (the book of sounds). The program will then conclude with the world premiere of Nicholson’s recent solo composition, “Without.”

This performance will take place on Sunday, July 26, beginning at 2:30 p.m. The video will be streamed through both Facebook and YouTube. The C4NM event page for this concert will include hyperlinks to these Web pages shortly before the performance is scheduled to begin. Hyperlinks will also be added to the C4NM home pages on both Facebook and YouTube.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Fred Hersch to Video Stream his Theater Piece

Fred Hersch (photograph by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

Readers may recall that last March I wrote about The Ballad of Fred Hersch, a documentary made by Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano in 2016, which had been released for free video streaming. I appreciated the amount of time the film devoted to My Coma Dreams, which I had regarded as Hersch’s most ambitious effort. The title referred to a medically induced coma that Hersch sustained in 2008 and his retrospective impressions after regaining consciousness.

The work itself could best be called a jazz theater piece. Hersch composed a score that was organized around a script written by Herschel Garfein, who directed what amounted to an amalgam of a monodrama for a narrator embedded in an instrumental ensemble augmenting a jazz combo with a string quartet. Following the premiere performance in New York, Hersch and Garfein took the show on tour; and it was hosted by San Francisco Performances at the end of October of 2011.

A video of the entire production was made; and, as a follow-up to the streaming of The Ballad of Fred Hersch, that video will be made available for free streaming, beginning of Friday, July 17. The URL for this video has not yet been created; but it should be sufficient to search YouTube for “My Coma Dreams” and “Fred Hersch.” As might be anticipated, this video will be best experienced with stereo audio from either headphones or speakers.

Michael Winter will present Garfein’s text, serving as both actor and singer. Hersch will play piano, and the string quartet will consist of violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Ron Lawrence, and cellist  Dave Eggar. Hersch’s extended combo will include Ralph Alessi on trumpet and flugelhorn, Mike Christianson on trombone, Steven Lugerner on oboe and clarinet, Adam Kolker on flute, clarinet and tenor saxophone, John Hébert on bass, and John Hollenbeck on percussion.

“Short Stories” Told by the Bartosz Hadala Group

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

This past April Canadian keyboardist Bartosz Hadala released his latest album, Three Short Stories. As of this writing, it appears that the album is only available for digital download from either its Amazon.com Web page or from Hadala’s own home page. Hadala is a keyboardist, alternating between an acoustic piano and the electric Rhodes piano. The Bartosz Hadala Group includes two saxophonists (Kelly Jefferson on soprano and Luis Deniz on alto), Eric St-Laurent on guitar, two bass guitarists (Brad Cheeseman and Michael Manring), percussionist Marito Marques, and, in the final (“Epilogue”) track, João Frade on accordion. All twelve tracks are original Hadala compositions.

Hadala seems to have a knack for spinning out eccentric, frequently angular, tunes. Were it not for the bass guitar, which usually carries the weight of defining and maintaining tonal center, those tunes could almost be taken as latter-day reflections on atonal practices during the twentieth century. In other words all of the players of the surface structure have the liberty to head off into terra incognita, but there is always a solid bass line in the background that will allow them to find their way back home.

Nevertheless, in the midst of all of that diversity, there tends to be a sameness of rhetoric in the delivery by all members of the Group. I find that, at the end of a hard day, one of the best ways for me to unwind is to listen attentively to elaborately adventurous jazz solos. However, most of those solos come from recordings that were released prior to the Seventies and can reach back as far as the early brewing of bebop in the wildly inventive solos of the likes of Coleman Hawkins. In that context listening to the Hadala Group tracks felt more like skimming the surface than diving deep and boldly into the previously unknown.

Mind you, these impressions come from listening to this album only twice. This would not be the first occasion in which greater familiarity leads to more adventurous discovery. For now, however, I suspect that I shall retreat back to some of my “old reliable” sources.

The Theresienstadt Children’s Opera

screen shot from the video being discussed

This week (through July 12) Music of Remembrance (MOR) is presenting a streamed video of Hans Krása’s one-act children’s opera “Brundibár.” MOR is an organization with the mission of remembering the Holocaust through music with concert performances, educational programs, recordings, and commissions of new works. Krása originally composed “Brundibár” in 1938; but he took the score with him when he was interned at the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The opera had been written explicitly to be performed by children, and the authorities allowed Krása to teach the music to the children held at that camp. Through this medium he was able to present an allegorical tale of a town in which the children are bullied by Brundibár, who is the local organ grinder. They succeed with assistance from a dog, a cat, and a bird (all vocal roles). It would have been clear to everyone in the camp that Brundibár was basically a thinly-veiled evocation of Adolf Hitler, who was actively extending the German borders when “Brundibár” was composed.

The opera was performed 55 times at Theresienstadt. The bitter irony behind this number is that the production kept needing recasting. Theresienstadt was a “transit center,” where Jews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria were held temporarily until they were delivered to the so-called “death camps.” Those assignments involved children, as well as their parents; so, as a result, there was an ongoing need to change the cast, bringing “children coming in” to replace “children going out.”

MOR first performed “Brundibár” in 2006, using an English-language libretto written by Tony Kushner. Kushner had originally provided the text for a children’s picture book based on the opera. The illustrations were provided by Maurice Sendak, and it was recognized by the Book Review section of The New York Times as one of the best illustrated books of 2003. That same year the Chicago Opera Theater performed the opera with Kushner’s libretto and staging and set designs by Sendak.

MOR revived its 2006 performance in 2014 with the Seattle Children’s Theater. That production was captured on the video that is currently being streamed through its own Web page. This occasion was particularly distinguished since, during the final chorus, the cast was joined by Ela Stein Weissberger, who sang the original role of the cat in Theresienstadt, participating in all 55 performances at the age of eleven. (Weissberger died in 2018 at the age of 87.)

This all made for a historically significant occasion, which could not have better served MOR intentions. Sadly, that old saw about good intentions applies to the finished product. By all rights Kushner’s English should have been able to manage more than satisfactorily without the aid of subtitles. However, between diction and vocal quality, many of the more critical lines in the plot development were garbled by either the soloists or the chorus. Similarly, there were too many incidents in the staging that tended to confuse, rather than advance, the overall flow of the narrative.

I suspect that some readers may accuse me of being a sourpuss unwilling to cut the kids some slack. I would direct those readers to my account of the opening of Chris Pratorius’ one-act opera “Xochitl and the Flowers,” which took place in November of 2016. Produced by Opera Parallèle through their Hands on Opera project with third graders in the Alvarado Elementary School Spanish Immersion Program, this was the perfect example of children’s opera as it was meant to be. Between just the right amount of staging by Brendan Hartnett and serious vocal preparation, no one in the audience had any trouble figuring out what was happening and what words were being sung by both the chorus and the soloists.

If MOR is to pursue its “mission of remembering the Holocaust through music,” it owe it to audiences to bring more attentive discipline to the music being performed.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Sviatoslav Richter at 70 on Video

1966 photograph of Sviatoslav Richter (photograph by Yury Sctherbinin, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Given my ongoing interest in the performances of the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that this was the first morning in which I prowled around YouTube in search of video documents of his recitals. What I found turned out to be a fascinating account of an aspect of his repertoire that particularly interested me, the music of Robert Schumann. Those with long memories may recall that I wrote about the Profil anthology Sviatoslav Richter Plays Schumann & Brahms in April of 2018; but, between the ventures into new repertoire beyond the pieces included in that anthology and the ability to watch Richter in action, there was much to draw my attention to this video.

The video itself was recorded on December 13, 1985 at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Richter had turned 70 at the previous March 20. The performance was one of the offerings scheduled for the December Nights festival. Microphone placement appeared to be minimal but was still effective. For one of the selections Richter was joined by Ludmila Valentinovna Berlinskaya, for whom Richter served as “spiritual father.” They played the fourth and fifth movements (in reverse order) from the Opus 66 set of six impromptus for four-hand piano “Bilder aus Osten” (pictures from the East). This was preceded by Richter’s solo performance of the Opus 19 “Blumenstück” (flower piece) in D-flat major and followed by the last three of the Opus 10 set of six concert studies, all based on the caprices from Niccolò Paganini’s Opus 1. The second half was devoted to a composition I have yet to experience through the physical presence of a recital, the Opus 72 collection of four fugues. For his encore selection Richter returned to more familiar ground, the Opus 7 toccata in C major.

The fugues offer a fascinating perspective on the extent to which Schumann appreciated the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Their respective subjects would not have been out of place in either of the two books of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (BWV 846–893); and, among all of the many Richter recordings now in my collection, his account of those 24 preludes and fugues remains high on my list. Nevertheless, the polyphonic unfolding of those subjects is decidedly more Schumann than Bach. Richter clearly knew how to capture Schumann’s spirit in these pieces. Nevertheless, on a few occasions I was uneasy that his phrasing of the subject tended to obscure where Schumann intended the downbeat to be. From that point of view, Richter seemed more at home with the Paganini source themes for the Opus 10 caprices.

On the more positive side I was particularly drawn to the Opus 19 performances. This is one of the better balances of Eusebius and Florestan, Schumann’s fictionalized characters representing the influences of head and heart, respectively; and Richter clearly knew how to give each of those personality types its due. Most importantly, he gave each thematic element is own due expression, in such a way that the listener can appreciate the overall restlessness of the score, juxtaposing pairs of themes in different combinations. Schumann found just the right way to present a deceptively simple surface structure beneath which churned complex elaborations, and Richter was not shy about diving below that surface.

The encore, on the other hand, was more disappointing. Too many times during the performance there was a sense that the intense energy of Schumann’s score for Opus 7 had devolved into mere hammering. There was an overall impression that Richter really did not want to take this encore. It would be unfair to say that he was trying to scold his audience for pushing him into this corner; but, sadly, the prevailing rhetoric of the encore came across as let’s-get-it-over-with.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Watching Karajan Conduct Richard Strauss

I decided to jump the gun a bit in continuing to address Herbert von Karajan’s career as an opera conductor. With this objective in mind, I was pleased to see that there was a YouTube video of a performance of Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier when it was performed at the 1962 Salzburg Festival with Karajan in the orchestra pit and staging by Rudolf Hartmann. This was a digitization of a film made for television by Paul Czinner, the British film director born in Hungary on May 30, 1890. In the mid-Fifties Czinner began to focus his attention on making film documents of performances of opera and ballet, and his Rosenkavalier film was one of his last efforts.

This film allows one to see the role of the Marschallin sung by soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. There is an interesting “local connection” here, because on September 20, 1955 Schwarzkopf made her United States opera debut, singing this role with the San Francisco Opera. Furthermore, the role of Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau was sung in Salzburg by bass Otto Edelman, who sang the same role during Schwarzkopf’s San Francisco debut. The other major Salzburg roles were taken by mezzo Sena Jurinac as Octavian and Anneliese Rothenberger as Sophie von Faninal.

In spite of these impressive resources, the film leaves much to be desired. Compared to current productions, Hartmann’s staging is frustratingly static, making for more stand-there-and-sing moments than most of today’s audiences would willingly tolerate. Sadly (or consequently), Czinner’s talents as a director leave much to be desired. This may be because Hartmann provided him with inadequate source material, but even the camera angles tend to be awkward more often than not.

Anneliese Rothenberger, Sena Jurinac, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing the trio near the end of Act 3 (screen shot from the video being discussed)

As a result, it is up to Karajan to save the day, for Czinner as well as the viewer. The best viewing is to be found during the orchestral introduction to Act 3. Karajan conducts this at a breakneck pace, which could not be more appropriate for the abundance of low comedy that is about to unfold (at least in the scenario text). What impressed me the most was the way in which he managed turn-on-a-dime shifts in dynamic levels from one extreme to the other. This made for edge-of-your-seat listening of the best kind; and, in this case, Czinner definitely deserves praise for not only the views of Karajan himself but also the ways in which the camera-work accounts for the many different centers of activity in the pit.

For those that have been discouraged by my account of the overall production, the time code for the beginning of the third act is 2:07:48.

Karajan on Decca: 19th-Century Instrumental

Herbert von Karajan (from the booklet accompanying the collection being discussed)

The lion’s share of repertoire in The Complete Decca Recordings, a 33-CD box of recordings by conductor Herbert von Karajan, is focused on the nineteenth century. Indeed, in contrast to the collection of recordings of pianist Peter Serkin, which I have been following in parallel to the Karajan collection, there are so many nineteenth-century CDs that they are best divided into two subcategories. For want of better terminology, I shall these subcategories “Instrumental” and “Opera;” and this article will examine the first of those subcategories.

Readers may recall that, when writing about Karajan’s recordings of First Viennese School composers, I drew the most satisfaction from his interpretation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492, The Marriage of Figaro. In this case it would be fair to say that the instrumental CDs did little more than pique my curiosity about the operatic offerings. For the most part the instrumental selections are “the usual suspects,” not only according to Karajan but also as approached by just about any conductor with a viable recording career.

As expected, there is a CD devoted to two members of the Strauss family, with five selections by Johann Strauss II and one, the Opus 212 “Delirien” (deliriums) waltz, by his brother Josef Strauss. The composer that receives the most attention is Richard Strauss, with the “dance of the seven veils” music from the Opus 54 opera “Salome” providing a “punch line” for four tone poems. This accounts for two CDs, the first devoted entirely to the Opus 30 “Also sprach Zarathustra” (thus spoke Zarathustra), while the second covers its three best-known predecessors, “Don Juan” (Opus 20), “Death and Transfiguration” (Opus 24), and “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” (Opus 28). These are all given perfectly satisfactory accounts, none of which rise significantly above the many other recorded interpretations of these pieces.

There are only three symphonies in this collection. Two are by Johannes Brahms, Opus 68 (first) in C minor and Opus 90 (third) in F major. The other is by Antonín Dvořák, Opus 88 in G major, a perfect complement to the spirit of Brahms; and Brahms himself is also represented by his Opus 81 “Tragic” concert overture.

The only other composer to be represented by multiple compositions is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Three of the four compositions are suites from his best-known ballets: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty. The “overture-fantasy” “Romeo and Juliet” is also included. In addition an entire CD is devoted to the French ballet that is the most significant predecessor of the three Russian ballets with Tchaikovsky’s music. That ballet is Giselle, whose music was composed by Adolphe Adam. This is not quite a “complete score” recording (as can be seen from the sequence of Roman numerals in the accompanying booklet); but those that like Adam’s music may well find it the most satisfying of the the offerings in this subcategory. I happen to be one of those that likes the music, but I much prefer listening to it while watching the ballet. (In all fairness, I am inclined to say the same about the Tchaikovsky suites!)

The only other nineteenth-century instrumental composer included is Edvard Grieg, represented only by selections from the incidental music he composed for Peer Gynt. The pieces include all four of the movements in the first suite and two from the second. Curiously, these are presented as an “afterword” to Gustav Holst’s Opus 32 suite The Planets. Holst composed his suite’s seven movements between 1914 and 1916; but, considering what more adventurous composers were doing at that time, it would be fair to say that Holst’s heart was very much in the nineteenth century. As a result, this is probably the most satisfying recording in the category. Those that know the piece know that its dynamic range is extraordinarily wide. Karajan may be at his most admirable when he “pulls out all the stops;” but his command of a hushed rhetoric, particularly in the final movement, is just as impressive.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

A Welcome Return to Carlisle Floyd

Carlisle Floyd is one of the most prolific American opera composers. He has a prodigious catalog of operas written as early as 1949 (Slow Dusk); and his most recent is Prince of Players, which was first performed on March 5, 2016. It is therefore more than a little disappointing that only two of those operas can be found in the Performance Archive of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). Furthermore, both of them, Susannah and Of Mice and Men, were first given limited presentations as part of the SPring Opera Theater (SPOT), which presented more limited performances than the primary subscription series and ran from 1961 to 1982. (For the record, Susannah was first performed in Florida in February of 1955.)

Patricia Racette at the beginning of Susannah (photography by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

It took until the opening weekend of the 2014–2015 season for Susannah to enter full subscription series status. Produced by SFO, the opera was given five performances between September 6 and September 21. Having seen several other performance of the opera by that time, I could not have been more delighted to see the treatment it received on this occasion. The title role was sung by soprano Patricia Racette; and the two principal male roles were sung by bass Raymond Aceto (Reverend Olin Blitch) and tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Sam Polk, Susannah’s brother). The production was staged by Michael Cavanagh, and Karen Kamensek made her debut as conductor.

Those who missed those five performances should take advantage of the fact that Frank Zamacona prepared another first-rate video document of this SFO production. This is the video that will be available for streaming through the Opera is ON service for the remainder of this weekend. As was the case with Zamacona’s approach to Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” this is a video account that allows the viewer to appreciate many subtleties unlikely to be seen from even the best seat in the War Memorial Opera House.

The reason that this is the case is that this is a production in which details matter. The basic scenario involves whether or not the title character, an attractive young women living in the remote hills of New Hope Valley in Tennessee, has committed sins of the flesh. Her potential for guilt is amplified by the fact that her brother is a known drunk, although, in the scenes in which we encounter him, he comes across as relatively affable and a good brother that cares for his sister. Nevertheless, the four elders of New Hope Valley and their respective wives are convinced that Susannah is a sinner; and they seek the assistance of the itinerant Blitch when he comes to town.

Cavanagh’s pays particular attention to endowing each of those elders and wives with unique character traits; and this is where that phrase “details matter” comes into play. Among the performers of those eight roles, the one with the most impressive acting chops is mezzo Catherine Cook. While she is more frequently associated with some of the most impressive interpretations of comic roles in SFO season offerings, in Susannah she embodies righteousness at its most wrathful. Her every gesture is a sinister warning to fear the release of that wrath. Without ever overplaying her part, Cook plays a key role in capturing the full force of the danger that Susannah encounters when under the suspicions of the God-fearing citizens of New Hope Valley.

I suppose a passing reference to “the devil is in the details” would apply here. Nevertheless, when confronted with a narrative about a remote small town, it is through those details that the acute observer comes to appreciate not only what is going on but also why things proceed the way they do. While the “surface structure” of this opera has a decidedly folksy feel to both the music and the dispositions of the characters, Zamacona’s eye for detail will allow the viewer of this video to appreciate just how many undercurrents there are and how deep they run.

To be fair, there is something prototypical about woman-as-outcast narratives. One of the more interesting elements of Cavanagh’s staging is that we first see a much older Susannah sitting in front of her house with a rifle in her lap. The opera then begins; and, when we come to the end, there she is in her chair with the rifle. Those that particularly appreciate American opera composers probably know that The Ballad of Baby Doe, composed by Douglas Moore in 1956, is another woman-as-outcast narrative; and it ends exactly the same way. This is basically an Ur-motif of the genre, and I appreciated how Cavanagh chose to give it proper attention.

Thoughts About a Rothko-Feldman Connection

This morning I decided to watch the recording I had made of John Logan’s play Red, which seems to have been conceived as a dramatized study of the painter Mark Rothko and the (perhaps hypothesized) ideas behind the creation of at least some of his paintings. The play was first performed at the Donmar Warehouse in London, opening on December 8, 2009. The role of Rothko was taken by Alfred Molina, and the director was Michael Grandage.

Rothko (Alfred Molina) and his assistant (Alfred Enoch) preparing a canvas (screen shot from the preview video on the Great Performances Web page for Red)

On March 11, 2010, that production was given a limited run on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre. That run lasted for a little more than three months, but it was enough to earn that year’s Tony Award for Best Play. In 2018 the play was revived in London on the West End, again with Grandage directing Molina, joined by Alfred Enoch in the role of Rothko’s assistant. A video recording of that production was first aired in the United States on November 15, 2019 as part of the PBS Great Performances series. This morning I viewed a rebroadcast of that program.

My awareness of Rothko owes much to the influence of the composer Morton Feldman, initially through a recording of “Rothko Chapel” released by New Albion Records. That influence was reinforced in April of last year, when the “ONLINE series” of programming by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players presented a performance of Feldman’s “For Samuel Beckett.” The video recording of that performance was introduced by local composer Amadeus Regucera, who chose to dwell on the “Rothko connection.” He observed that Rothko created vast canvases; but, when one stood close to one of these paintings, one no longer saw large masses of color but could, instead, attend to the intricacies of texture emerging from evidence of the brushstrokes.

Regucera’s perspective never arises in Logan’s play. Indeed, the Rothko character seems only interested in having his vast spaces viewed from a distance. However, he is also interested in talking at great length to his assistant about what he does, why he does it, and what he thinks about the artists that preceded and followed him. In the former category his primary focus is on Jackson Pollock, while there is an extended salvo at the prevailing Pop Art movement in the latter category. (For the record, Feldman does not appear ever to have met Rothko; but he did come to know Pollock during his time working with John Cage.)

The Rothko conceived by Logan and Grandage and realized by Molina has his own connection to music. A record player is a significant element of the set design; and, when he is not talking at length, much of Rothko’s activity takes place with accompaniment from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (primarily symphonic but with one operatic extract). This is complemented by the tastes of his assistant, who is preparing a frame while listening to his own recording of Chet Baker. Rothko is not shy in venting his displeasure.

Perhaps I am just being contentious, but I tend not to enjoy plays that consist almost entirely of stentorian lectures. If Rothko was really the sort of person to fire off one of those lectures at the drop of a hat, then I have to credit Molina for nailing that personality trait. Nevertheless, I am not quite sure about all the verbiage aimed at either the act of looking at a Rothko canvas or the philosophical perspectives on the canvas itself. As a result of listening to Feldman, I find that, when I encounter a Rothko on exhibit, my own impressions begin simply with an awareness of being in its presence, almost as if the painting is a portal to some other-worldly space that I shall never be able to experience directly.

To be fair, that frame of mind would probably not sell very many tickets in either London or on Broadway. However, by that same count, Feldman recordings are still not “best sellers.” As far as I can tell, the closest he has ever gotten to a GRAMMY award would have been by way of a performer or ensemble that received the award, not necessarily for the actual recording of his music. That said, I still would prefer listening to 90 minutes of music that reflects on reactions to looking at paintings to 90 minutes of lecturing by the artist that created one of those paintings!

Friday, July 3, 2020

When Galina Ulanova Danced for Elizabeth II

One of the most significant films of a full-length ballet was made in 1956. It documented a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet during a tour that took them to the stage of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The ballet was Giselle in Yuri Grigorovich’s adaptation of the original choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. The performance itself was significant because Queen Elizabeth II was in the audience.

Clearly, this was a performance at which diplomacy mattered as much as artistic excellence, if not more so. The subtext of the occasion was that shared artistic values might lead to a reconciliation of ideological values. In that context the very selection of Giselle was significant, since its origins were French, rather than Russian. Indeed, first performed in 1841, it is probably the second-oldest ballet currently in repertoire (the oldest being La fille mal gardée, also French, which was first performed in 1789). On the Russian side, however, was the performance by Galina Ulanova in the title role. Her career began at the Mariinsky Theatre, where she became so famous that Joseph Stalin had her transferred to the Bolshoi in 1944! Indeed, in 2000 her face found its way to a Russian postage stamp:

from Wikimedia Commons, not an object of copyright

(Ulanova had died in 1998.)

Like many balletomanes I have lost count of the number of Giselle performances I have experienced. However, the filmed account of that 1956 performance at the Royal Opera House was definitely the first of them. Indeed, by the time the film had been released and was screened in the Philadelphia area, I was probably in high school and barely had any idea of what I was experiencing. All I really knew was the music by Adolphe Adam, which I had on an Angel Records album of two LPs. Ironically, that album was was recorded by EMI during that same Bolshoi tour, with conductor Yuri Fayer leading the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, the same ensemble heard on the film’s soundtrack.

This morning I revisited my “first contact” experience through the YouTube Web page for the film. There are any number of disappointing features in this film. First of all, while Fayer recorded the complete score by Adam for EMI, there were extensive cuts in the filmed version. This may have been the result of creating an offering that could be presented on a one-hour television broadcast. Thus, those fond of the “Peasant Pas de Deux” will probably be disappointed by its absence. Those more attentive to the narrative will similarly miss the scene in which Giselle rises from the grave to join the Wilis. Thus, where Giselle itself is concerned, this is far from an “authoritative document.”

On the other hand Giselle herself gets the lion’s share of the choreography. The real virtue of this film is the opportunity to see just how skilled Ulanova was. There is a consistent other-worldly lightness to every step she executes, almost as if she had made some Faustian compact to disregard the laws of gravity. Furthermore, her chemistry with Fayer could not have been better. There are no end of episodes in which the music is shaped around Ulanova’s interpretative techniques, while the EMI recording gives a more consistent account of steady rhythms. (Gadfly Norman Lebrecht seemed feel that Fayer deserved his own circle in the Inferno, possibly because he thought that Fayer should be leading Ulanova, rather than following her.)

As a result, for all of its shortcomings, this is very much a “must see” YouTube offering. Too many audiences prefer to focus on the present, disregarding any value that the past might offer. Those aware of the many times in which I have invoked John Clifford’s uploads of New York City Ballet performances to YouTube should know by now that I often find the past preferable to the present. Ulanova’s talents may have since been equaled or even surpassed, but I still believe that anyone that takes watching a ballet seriously deserves to see her approach to bringing the character of Giselle to life.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Handel with Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol

Joyce DiDonato in the title role of Handel’s Agrippina (from the Live in HD Web page for this opera performance)

This past Sunday the recording facility on my xfinity cable box allowed me to save a copy of the latest Great Performances at the Met broadcast. The opera was George Frideric Handel’s HWV 6 Agrippina; and the recording was taken from the Live in HD offering that was presented at the end of this past February (making it, inadvertently, the last Live in HD program of the season). This was a new production of the Metropolitan Opera, staged by David McVicar. The conductor was Harry Bicket, a champion of the baroque repertoire, who played harpsichord for the recitativo passages.

I once attended a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, taught, I am pretty sure, by soprano Carolyn Sampson. Most memorable was her coaching of a soprano and an alto singing the duet “Pur ti miro, pur ti godo” (I gaze at you, I posses you) that concludes Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L'incoronazione di Poppea (the coronation of Poppea). Sampson’s first remark after the performance was, “These are not nice people!” Well, if Nero and Poppea were “not nice” in Monteverdi’s setting, they are downright nasty in Agrippina, matched only by Nero’s parents, Claudius and the title character herself, Agrippina. Indeed, there are only nine characters; and eight of them are equally offensive. The only other character is the goddess Juno, who is supposed to bless everyone else; and her part was cut from the Met performance!

To be fair, she would have been out of place, since McVicar chose to set the opera in a contemporary metropolitan setting, which could easily have been New York. According to its Performance Archive, the San Francisco Opera has presented six McVicar productions, the earliest in 2006 and the most recent in June of 2019. That most recent offering was Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 114 opera Rusalka, and I was so positively impressed that I selected it as the June entry for my month-by-month list of the most memorable performances of that year. The other five were spaced out along an interval from non-particularly-interesting to downright infuriating. (The best example of the latter was the use of a chorus-line-kick in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which had nothing to do with anything other than self-indulgence!)

The bottom line is that just about everything that happens on stage amounts to a product of McVicar’s capacity for self-indulgence. The frequency of sexual encounters goes beyond anything one might find in Henry Miller and will be sure to “frighten the horses” (as Katherine Hepburn liked to put it). As to the other indulgences, one viable subtitle for the production might be “Little Nero has a Drug Problem.” In one scene he covers a tabletop with cocaine, shaking it out like a can of talcum powder. After his first snort or two, he starts rubbing the stuff all over his face. My guess is that such behavior would have scared the bejesus out of all the the Roman rulers documented by Suetonius in The Twelve Caesars. (At the beginning and end of the production, one of the lesser characters in the cast is off to the side reading that book.) Finally, an entire scene is set in a cocktail lounge, which makes for great visuals (including a second harpsichordist playing the role of lounge-lizard pianist) but manages to muddle most of the key leading characters.

The good news is that, with the benefit of Bicket’s interpretations of the score, all eight of the vocalists more than did justice to all of the heavenly music that Handel wrote. This was my first encounter with mezzo Joyce DiDonato going over to the dark side for the title role. Bass Matthew Rose perfectly complemented her in his performance of Claudius; and, when it came to sins of the flesh, the shape of his beard faintly recalled another powerful figure with a weakness for sexual abuse. The role of Nero was originally sung by a soprano castrato; and the part was taken by mezzo Kate Lindsey, who was never shy about depicting all of the acts of self-indulgence that McVicar had conceived. Poppea was sung by soprano Brenda Rae, who was particularly effective in the cocktail lounge scene. The man that is eventually paired with Poppea at the end of the opera is Otho, originally sung by a contralto but given an outstanding countertenor account by Iestyn Davies. Finally, Agrippina has two “fixers” with elevated positions, Pallas from the military (bass Duncan Rock) and Narcissus from the Senate (originally alto castrato, sung by countertenor Nicholas Tamagna).

This is a performance that will make for highly satisfying listening, particularly if one chooses to ignore the video signal.