Thursday, April 2, 2020

Watch Party Scheduled for new Benavides Opera

Composer Nicolas Lell Benavides and librettist Marella Martin Koch have arranged a “watch party in cyberspace” to showcase their first collaboration of an opera. “Pepito,” described as a “comedic opera in one act,” was commissioned by the Washington National Opera through its American Opera Initiative, providing sponsorship for new repertoire. Through that initiative Benavides and Martin Koch were first introduced; and “Pepito” was the first opera to emerge from their partnership. (Those that attended this year’s Snapshot program presented by West Edge Opera had the chance to see subsequent results from Benavides and Martin Koch with the showcasing of excerpts from Gilberto.)

The title character of “Pepito” is a shelter dog; and the libretto is basically a narrative of adoption. Camila and David are visiting an animal shelter while going through a difficult period in their marriage. Camila is drawn to Pepito through his fluency in Spanish (an amusing instance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s suspension of disbelief). However, Angie, the shelter manager, is strict about screening anyone interested in adoption; and David is not as enthusiastic as Camila. Nevertheless (spoiler alert) all turns out well; and Pepito finally gets adopted.

Vocalists Alexandra Christoforakis Dixon, Samuel Weiser, Alexandra Nowakowski, and Joshua Blue (courtesy of Nicolas Lell Benavides)

“Pepito” was given its premiere by the Washington National Opera. Pepito was sung by bass Samuel Weiser. The roles of Camila and David were taken by soprano Alexandra Nowakowski and tenor Joshua Blue, and mezzo Alexandra Christoforakis Dixon sang the role of the shelter manager. Following the premiere, Benavides arranged for a recording session with those vocalists. This took place at the Alice and Elenore Schoenfeld Symphonic Hall at the University of Southern California. Filmmaker Maggie Beidelman made a video document of that recording session, working with audio engineer Zach Miley. The performance was conducted by Benavides.

Even without costumes (shown in the above photograph), this studio performance is a convincing one. Some may be concerned about the lack of titles. However, Benavides’ understanding of diction almost always prevails in such a way that one has little trouble following the overall narrative. In addition, Beidelman’s camera work is as attentive to the musicians as it is to the vocalists, allowing the viewer to appreciate the imaginative approaches to instrumentation that enhance the rhetoric of the narrative.

The watch party for Beidelman’s video document will take place this Friday, April 3 (tomorrow), at 6 p.m. (Pacific time). The stream will be launched the Benavides’ official artist page on Facebook. That will link through a Facebook event page. This will also serve to preview the release of the album based on the recording session. That digital album will be available for pre-order from a bandcamp product page.

Dizzy Gillespie at Treffpunkt Jazz in 1961

courtesy of Naxos of America

In 2011 South-Western Broadcasting (SWR) in Germany launched the SWR JAZZHAUS record label. SWR began broadcasting jazz recordings and performances in 1957. It now boasts an archive of one of the biggest unpublished collections of live jazz worldwide with more than 3000 hours of radio recordings and 500 taken from television. The SWR JAZZHAUS record label is gradually making this material available with CDs distributed in the United States by Naxos.

A little less than two weeks ago, the label released an album of performances given by the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet at the 1961 Treffpunkt Jazz Festival. The first five tracks were recorded in Stuttgart, and the remaining two were recorded in Frankfurt. The performances are almost entirely instrumental with Gillespie leading on trumpet. The other members of this particular quintet are Leo Wright on both alto saxophone and flute, Lalo Schifrin on piano, Bob Cunningham on bass, and Mel Lewis on drums.

Gillespie’s “Con Alma” was recorded in both Stuttgart and Frankfurt. The other track from Frankfurt is his “Kush.” The remaining Stuttgart tracks include Gillespie’s “Oops-Shoo-Be-Doo-Be” (the only track with vocals), his arrangement of Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started,” Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche,” and “Willow Weep for Me” by Ann Ronell. Four of the tracks are over ten minutes in duration, allowing all of the members of the quintet generous slots for improvisation, often with playful references to other jazz standards.

By 1961 Gillespie was a “seasoned veteran” of an impressive sequence of phases in which modern jazz kept coming up with new ways to be modern. Those innovations would continue after his Treffpunkt appearance, particularly with his shift from Verve to Philips and his partnership with Les Double Six de Paris. Ward Swingle was a member of that group, and its imaginative approach to singing and improvising scat would evolve into the repertoire of The Swingle Singers. Within that historical framework the Treffpunkt selections can almost be classified as “traditional.” Nevertheless, there is no shortage of innovative imagination on any of the tracks (including the shorter ones), making this new release a valuable resource for those interested in the development of Gillespie’s ever-growing capacity for invention.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Imaginative Chamber Music Programming

For this morning’s “concert in cyberspace,” I shifted my attention to a recital featuring students in the Conservatory of Music division of the Colburn School, located in downtown Los Angeles, directly across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. The entire program was devoted to performances coached by visiting pianist Orli Shaham; and, even before the first notes sounded, it was clear that this would be an impressive journey. The first half of the program was devoted to two radically different approaches to modernism. The opening selection was a four-movement concertino, which Leoš Janáček composed in 1925. Scoring was imaginatively conceived piano, two violins, viola, clarinet, horn and bassoon; and the first two movements were actually duos for piano and, respectively, horn and E-flat clarinet. This was followed by a leap of a little less than 90 years into the future with a composition for two vibraphones and two pianos that Steve Reich entitled simply “Quartet.” The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 15 (first) piano quartet in the key of C minor.

Shaham provided the audience with a frame of reference by giving each performance a brief but informative introduction. However, what was particularly impressive was that, while all of these pieces involved a demanding piano part (two in the case of the Reich), Shaham clearly wanted the audience to know that the concert was all about the students. Even when the piano part was clearly in the foreground, she knew how to encourage the listeners to pay attention to what the students were doing. The fact that she could do this with three compositions, each radically different from the other two, was highly impressive and made the act of listening (even when mediated through cyberspace) thoroughly compelling.

Back when it was still fun to go to student recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the heart of that “fun factor” always resided in the chamber music repertoire. It was as if the entire institution had dedicated itself to the cultivation of strong personal ties that are vital to delivering engaging accounts of the compositions in that repertoire. If the program that emerged through Shaham’s coaching was representative of the overall student experience at Colburn, then this is a source of future performers that deserves considerable attention.

I have only one bone to pick with Shaham. Before beginning the final selection, she noted that those in the audience might never again encounter Reich sharing a program with both Janáček and Fauré. With all due respect, I would suggest that Shaham is unaware of the sort of programming one often encounters in the chamber music recitals performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall. If the journeys at SFCM are no longer as exciting as they were during the last decade, the chamber music repertoire one now encounters at Davies frequently involves highly imaginative juxtapositions of the individual selections, frequently leaving the audience with an energizing sense of discovery, even when an “old favorite” may be on the program.

However, in spite of any “rooting for the home team,” this chamber music from Colburn was definitely inspired in both repertoire and execution. Sadly, I did not succeed in finding any further Colburn chamber music recitals on YouTube. I can only hope that this will change through initiatives by both faculty and visitors.

Meredith Monk Retrospective on Cantaloupe

Meredith Monk (photograph by John Edward Mason, courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Three of the founders of the Cantaloupe Music record label in 2001, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, were also founders of Bang on a Can in 1987. Thus, while the label now has an extensive repertoire of performers, it has also served as the “house label” for Bang on a Can. This past Friday, the label released MEMORY GAME, a retrospective of the music of Meredith Monk bringing together Meredith Monk & Vocal Ensemble with the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe all contributed arrangements of Monk originals. The selections on the album cover works composed by Monk between 1983 and 2006.

Unless I am mistaken, I had my first encountered with Monk in the summer of 1971 at the American Dance Festival, held at Connecticut College in New London. We all sat on the grass to listen to her give a recital of her songs, accompanying herself on a small electronic keyboard. The audio conditions were not ideal, but this was my first exposure to texts that deliberately explored the ambiguity between phonemes and the words that emerge when phonemes are juxtaposed. The music itself was minimal, working with a paucity of motifs and accompanying riffs. The delivery was dead serious, and most of us on audience side responded with respectful concentration.

However, much of Monk’s work had theatrical elements. In a major partnership with Ping Chong, she composed the music for the “science fiction opera” The Games. Unless I am mistaken, I saw at least excerpts from this work in performance when I was working in Connecticut and taking the train into Manhattan to attend performances almost every night. As I recall, the performance I saw involved the intense education of some alien (as in outer space) culture to prepare them to assimilate with the population of planet Earth. (This included teaching the aliens about dogs, and a dog sat obediently on a surgical table as its properties were described.)

Five of the tracks on MEMORY GAME are taken from The Games. However, only “Memory Game” resonated in recall, not because of what I had seen in New York but because it was included on Monk’s ECM album Do You Be. In fact all of MEMORY GAME seems to involve music that had been performed in some form of theatrical setting. Nevertheless, there is enough diversity in the tracks to engage the attentive listener even without any dramatic context. The instrumental arrangements for the Bang on a Can All-Stars offer a wider gamut of sonorities than one encounters in Monk’s performances with her own group, but that diversity does not detract from the composer’s unique approach to vocalization.

That said, it is worth noting that Monk’s music is very much an acquired taste. Due to the rich context of music I was experiencing during the last 30 years of the last century, I have almost always approached Monk’s music with a positive attitude. On the other hand I know many that are annoyed, rather than intrigued. Those without past experience of her work might do well to read the background text she has provided for the booklet that accompanies MEMORY GAME. It is likely to provide some useful “signposts” to guide the attentive ear through the journey plotted out in this new album.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Patrice Bart’s Brutal Beating of a Favorite Ballet

Yesterday afternoon I learned that the Berlin State Opera is taking somewhat unique approach to providing streaming content to those currently sheltering in place as a precaution against COVID-19. Every day a video of a past production is streamed through YouTube and is available at no charge for a period of 24 hours. Because that interval of time begins at noon on Central European Time, it means that access in the United States is a bit limited during normal waking hours. Nevertheless, I was able to check out the service early this afternoon.

The offering was a performance of the ballet The Nutcracker set to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The choreography was by Patrice Bart and almost immediately established itself as a radical departure from the narrative conceived by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The music was performed by the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The performance took place in 1999.

As might be expected, the camera spent little time in the orchestra pit. Nevertheless, the few shots of the podium suggested that Barenboim’s approach to this music was about as minimal as one could imagine. It was almost as it he decided that the orchestra had already synchronized its clock to the choreography, and the Concertmaster could take care of maintaining that synchronization. This proved to be more than a little disappointing, since Bart’s revisionist approach ran the full gamut from the muddled to the patently absurd. Any resemblance to the original narrative (or any other narrative, for that matter) was purely coincidental; and the primary objective seemed to be “the shock of the new.” Since many of Bart’s ideas did not align with the score as Tchaikovsky had composed it, there was a generous amount of reordering of the musical numbers.

The curious may wish to check out the You Tube Web page, if the 24-hour time limit has not yet expired. To be clear, I have experienced a fair number of different choreographic interpretations of this ballet. However, all of them have tended to honor the music the way Tchaikovsky wrote it, as well as the basic idea of a toy nutcracker coming to life and marrying its owner in a fairytale land replete with no end of sweet victuals. Also, to be fair, the audience response at the end of this video seemed to be enthusiastic; but I fear that this production will rub many ballet aficionados the wrong way.

No-Nonsense Jazz on Oxman’s 11th Album

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz

A little over a week ago, tenor saxophonist Keith Oxman released his eleventh album as a leader for Capri Records. The title of the album is Two Cigarettes in the Dark, which is probably a metaphorical acknowledgement that six of the ten tracks involve a partnership with another tenor saxophonist, the esteemed veteran Houston Person. Out of respect for listeners that want to know “who’s on first,” the back cover of the album specifies that Person will be coming out of the right speaker with Oxman on the left. Rhythm is provided by Jeff Jenkins on piano, Ken Walker on bass, and Paul Romaine on drums. Two of the tracks also include vocalist Annette Murrell.

The vocals are familiar standards, “Everything Happens to Me” and “Crazy He Calls Me.” Three of the tracks are Oxman originals, “Voss is Boss,” “Murphy’s Law Impacts L. E. A. P.,” and “Murrellancholy.” Most interesting, however, is that two of the tracks were composed by two other tenor giants that are no longer with us. Hank Mobley died on May 30, 1986; and he is honored with a performance of his “Bossa For Baby.” Johnny Griffin was of the same generation but lived until July 25, 2008. HIs selection on the album is “Sweet Sucker.”

The album reinforces my long-standing conviction that the only thing better than a master tenor saxophonist getting the most out of his instrument is a performance by two such masters. Oxman is about a quarter-century younger than Person. However, when one listens to the two of them jamming as a duo, it is clear that Oxman is sharply attentive to Person’s every move and knows exactly how to respond in kind.

Nevertheless, the overall package has a few disappointments. Murrell’s vocal work is not up to the same snuff as the instrumentalists. Her sense of pitch wavers more than is suitable for traditional songs, and her overall tone is too far on the rough side.

My real quibble, however, comes with the production of the album itself. As can be seen above, each of the Oxman titles clearly has a backstory. However, the liner notes, written by Charles McPherson, which occupies only a single page in the accompanying booklet, says nothing about the background and does not even mention “Murrellancholy.” I would like to believe that Oxman’s imagination behind these titles is as vivid as his improvisations, but the packaging of this recording can neither confirm nor deny that conjecture!

Monday, March 30, 2020

First Impressions of Jader Bignamini in Detroit

Conductor Jader Bignamini (courtesy of Opus 3 Artists)

As I wrote yesterday, Jader Bignamini will begin serving as Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) by launching the ensemble’s 2020–2021 season. Having had a highly positive encounter with DSO in cyberspace through their Live from Orchestra Hall archive of online performances, I decided that this would be a good time to experience one of Bignamini’s visits to the podium during the current season. There seemed to be two options at my disposal, and I decided to go with the one recorded earlier this season on October 18.

This was a straightforward overture-concerto-symphony program. The concerto soloist was Yooshin Song playing Max Bruch’s Opus 26 (first) violin concerto in G minor. The overture was the one composed by Mikhail Glinka for his Ruslan and Lyudmila opera. The symphony was Gustav Mahler’s fourth in G major, which can be classified as concertante, since the fourth movement is a setting of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn poem “Das himmlische Leben” (the heavenly life), scored for soprano voice. The soprano for this performance was the American lyric soprano Janai Brugger.

Bruch’s concerto is a familiar warhorse, but it still demands focused attention from the very beginning. Following five measures of introduction (primarily from the winds), the soloist must sustain the lowest note on the instrument, playing an open G string. Bruch’s score gives this note forte dynamics in contrast with the piano passage played by the winds, but it is clear that the expression of that note should not sound like an enormous boot stamping in a mud puddle. Song knew how to allow this note to insinuate itself, taking its time (“ad libitum” in the score) to come up to strength, after which she could let the following mini-cadenza unfold.

Song’s management of both subtlety and strength in this single measure set the tone for both her solo work and her engagement with Bignamini throughout all three movements of the concerto. It is worth bearing in mind that Bruch was not as imaginative in the domain of thematic development when compared with the technical virtuosity that could be evoked by Johannes Brahms. However, both Bruch and Brahms enjoyed the influence of violinist Joseph Joachim, who admired the Brahms concerto for its seriousness but found the Bruch to be “the most seductive” (in Joachim’s own words).

However, those seductive qualities owe more to the expressiveness of the performer than to the marks on the score pages. We can only imagine what those qualities were when Joachim played Opus 26. Song’s performance tended to keep both bodily motion and facial expressions to a minimum. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that both she and Bignamini jointly knew how to make sure that every repetition of a theme was cast in its own unique dispositional attitude, making the entire performance one of the most expressively rich interpretation that I have encountered. By all rights, that should count as sufficiently seductive!

Bignamini’s approach to Glinka’s overture made it clear that he knew how to seize listener attention at the very beginning of a concert performance. His tempo was briskly energetic without ever coming across like a sprinter determined to win a hundred-yard dash. As was the case with the DSO recording discussed yesterday, the camera work provided a much better view of Bignamini’s technique than would be afforded by seeing only his back. Unlike Song he was not shy about communicating with the ensemble through both bodily motion and facial expressions. There was also a clear sense of joyousness in his body language, suggesting that he would establish an adventurous disposition that would permeate the entire program.

My guess is that many readers will assume that I chose this particular program because it would give me an opportunity to assess Bignamini’s talents in taking on a Mahler selection. Sadly, this was the one selection in which my reactions were mixed. Bignamini certainly exhibited clear ideas about how he wanted to approach this symphony, and during the first three movements DSO clearly grasped what he had in mind and delivered accordingly. That included the “real peak” climax (as Pierre Boulez would have put it) at the coda of the third movement, not so much a coda as a prolonged introduction to the imagery of the Wunderhorn poem that is sung in the final movement.

Unfortunately, the delivery of the poem itself did not live up to that introduction. My conjecture is that Brugger was not properly prepared for her performance, spending more time with her eyes glued to her part than in giving off any sense of the relationship between what she was singing and what everyone else (conductor and musicians alike) was doing. This was more than a little disappointing, given the richness of context that Mahler’s instrumental writing provided to reinforce the vocalist’s delivery.

In many respects the fourth is Mahler’s finest effort in compositing a “conventional” symphony, even if the fourth movement is a song setting. Bignamini’s conducting made it clear that he appreciated both Mahler’s respect for convention in the symphony and the devices he invoked to “push the envelope” into less conventional territory. From that point of view, the final movement is as much a “farewell” to past conventions as the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde is a “farewell” to life itself. The words of the Wunderhorn text (which deserved to have subtitles) thus play as much of a role in Mahler’s biography as they do in the overall catalog of his compositions. One can only hope that, in the near future, Bignamini can return to this symphony with a vocalist better attuned to the contextual significance of what she is singing.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Mena Visits the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

The first and second flutists in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (from the Web page for the current DSO concert season)

Once again I decided to follow up on Alex Ross’ Web page of video streams of concert performances maintained on his The Rest Is Noise blog. This time my curiosity took me to Live from Orchestra Hall, the archive of online performances by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). This was not my first Internet-based visit to DSO. In September of 2012 I was able to view a performance of David Del Tredici’s “Final Alice” conducted by Leonard Slatkin, writing an article that (probably due to “technical difficulties”) I seem to have been unable to archive. At that time I was familiar with both the music and the conductor and was as satisfied with the video work as I was with the performance.

Slatkin is now the ensemble’s Music Director Laureate, and DSO is awaiting the arrival of conductor Jader Bignamini to begin serving as Music Director by launching the 2020–2021 season. This morning, rather than view one of the archived performances of Bignamini, I decided to go with familiar music, a familiar soloist, and a conductor about whom I knew absolutely nothing. That conductor is Juanjo Mena, who has an extensive track record in both Europe and the United States and is currently Principal Conductor of the Cincinnati May Festival. The soloist was James Ehnes playing Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 violin concerto in E minor. That concerto was framed by two symphonies, Haydn’s Hoboken I/44 in E minor (mourning symphony) and Franz Schubert’s D. 944 (“Great”) symphony in C major.

My guess is that Ehnes has given so many concert performances of the Mendelssohn concerto that he could probably play it in his sleep. Nevertheless, the attentive interplay of soloist and conductor could not have been better. Mena clearly understood how Ehnes would phrase his thematic material in his cadenza performance, and he know how to make that phrasing consistent with the interactions between soloist and ensemble.

While Ehnes brings a down-to-earth personality to his expressive interpretation, Mena could not be more overt in his expressiveness, particularly through his face. As a result, the video document of this performance had a decided advantage over the audience in Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, who could only see the conductor’s back! Judicious camera work similarly revealed a strong dispositional bond between the conductor and every member of the ensemble. In many respects this was a video document that augmented any impressions one may have had from a physical experience of this concert.

Mena’s engagement with the ensemble was just as compelling in the performance of D. 944. In the wrong hands this can be a very unwieldy beast with prodigiously extensive expositions and even lengthier developments. Mena chose not to take the repeats of any of the long sections, and this was definitely to the benefit of those having to sit still in the concert hall chairs.

Nevertheless, neither the overall sense of expanse or the intensity of the rhetoric was short-changed. Mena conducted as if this was his number-one favorite in his personal repertoire. The members of the ensemble caught that bug and willingly reinforced it. Schubert deserves such attentive execution more often.

The Haydn symphony has its own repertoire of twists and turns. The most interesting of these is probably the minuet movement, which is structured as a canon. Any sense of mourning is confined to the minor-key rhetoric of the first movement, after which Haydn goes back to his more familiar jovial self. Mena found an appropriate way to reduce the string section that would balance well against the remaining instruments. Slatkin was fond of saying that there was no such thing as “too much Haydn;” and Mena’s reading of this particular score suggested that he was of the same opinion.

As might be guessed, Ehnes took an encore after his concerto performance. His selection was the D minor sonata, the third in Eugène Ysaÿe’s Opus 27 collection of six sonatas for solo violin. The only one of the six to be given a title (“Ballade”), it was written for George Enescu and is virtually a devil’s brew of near-impossible technical challenges. Ehnes has clearly internalized every detail in the score along with having worked out the most effective ways in which to finger them all. His command of the resulting execution was so compelling that I was not surprised to see one of the second violinists staring with rapt attention to his every physical movement.

On the technical side the Web site for this concert leaves a few things to be desired. As one may deduce from the above hyperlinks, there is no single Web site for the entire concert. Nevertheless, there is an automatic linking process that will change the Web site for the Haydn symphony to that for the Mendelssohn concerto. However, this automation of the ordering has a major flaw in that the concerto is followed by D. 944, with Ehnes’ encore at the tail end of the sequence. Anyone that has been to enough concerts knows that the encore follows the concerto, which is then followed by an intermission!

However, that is almost my only quibble. There were a few moments when the camera was pointing in the wrong place, but they are almost too insignificant to mention. I got the impression that the video crew was working with a fixed array of cameras with zoom being the only variable on any individual camera. My guess is that the cameras had to be repositioned when the seating pattern changed; but the crew seemed to work perfectly well without horizontal (or vertical) planning at their disposal during the performance. The only other shortcoming was the absence of a hyperlink to program notes. However, I assume it was taken as axiomatic that those interested in further information would probably be able to find it with Google!

A Musical Autobiography from Aruán Ortiz

Aruán Ortiz, Andrew Cyrille, and Mauricio Herrera (photograph by Holger Thoss, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

Those that have followed my writing for some time, perhaps reaching back to my tenure at, probably know that I have had a long-standing interest in the jazz offerings of the Zürich-based Intakt Records label. I was drawn to this label by the pianist Aki Takase; but, more recently, I wrote about alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s move from ECM over to Intakt. As a result, when I learned that Intakt was releasing an Afro-Cuban-inspired album, my curiosity was easily piqued, particularly when the combo included Andrew Cyrille, a drummer I had known best through his work with Cecil Taylor.

The title of the album is Inside Rhythmic Falls, and it amounts to a unified suite of compositions by Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Aruán Ortiz leading a trio with two percussionists, Cyrille on the usual drum kit and Mauricio Herrera playing Afro-Cuban rhythm instruments. Ortiz was born in 1973 and grew up in Santiago de Cuba, located in the southeastern province of Oriente. He spent the first 23 years of his life in Cuba, amalgamating what he called the “vortex of rhythm” based in Afro-Cuban music with a diversity of more “formal” sources.

Through his conservatory education he became familiar with twentieth-century modernists that had also been inspired by indigenous sources. These included Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, and György Ligeti. He also came to know the work of Cuban pianists such as Manuel Saumeil and Ignacio Cervantes, both of whom had studied with Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and Ernesto Lecuona, who had been a protégé of Maurice Ravel.

The influences behind Inside Rhythmic Falls, however, are far more recent. Beyond Cuba Ortiz’ most influential teacher was probably Muhal Richard Abrams, the first President of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who worked with both Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Ortiz was also drawn to influences from Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, and, as might be guessed, Taylor.

Ortiz explained the title of this album in terms of wanting to make music that would evoke “a cascade of rhythms going over me, almost dragging me to fall.” That sense of cascade is very much evident across all ten tracks of the album. Over the course of those ten tracks, the attentive listener quickly realizes that any roots in Afro-Cuban tradition are just that, a foundation out of which new styles and performance technique would grow in rich proliferation. To put this in a local context, this is music that one would be more likely to encounter under the auspices of Other Minds or at the Center for New Music, rather than among the cheerleaders in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center.

The recording is packaged with a rich set of liner notes by Adam Shatz. However, the listening experience is probably best enjoyed simply by letting the movements of this suite unfold at their own pace. One quickly grasps how Herrera and Cyrille each contribute to that “cascade of rhythms,” each in his own highly personalized way. Ortiz’ piano work, on the other hand, tends to reflect the role of an observer encountering this rich panoply of rhythmic patterns. It is almost as if the piano’s harmonic progressions serve as the canvas on which that diversity of rhythms emerges as a series of brushstrokes until one encounters the completed painting in which final track is not one of Ortiz’ compositions but is, instead, the popular Cuban love song “Para ti Nengón.”

Saturday, March 28, 2020

In Cyberspace with BAE and Shostakovich

Thanks to Alex Ross’ daily maintenance of the COVID-19 live streams post on his The Rest Is Noise blog, I was able to enjoy a thoroughly riveting account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 110 (eighth) string quartet in C minor by the Boston Artists Ensemble (BAE). The Web page on which the video recording of this performance has been embedded does not provide much by way of background material about either the music or the musicians, but there is no questioning the intense expressiveness of the performance. (There is a hyperlink to a PDF file of program notes, but it is a rather modest affair for music so rich in content.) The only downside is that Ross claims the Web page will be active for only 24 hours, but he failed to mention when the clock started ticking! (As it write this, it has been about two hours since I saw his post.)

It is important to observe that the entire video was made with a single camera. Someone (not cited) found the best way to frame the entire quartet of players, after which it was just a matter of turning the camera on and off at the right times. Personally, I do not think there is a good way to improve on such a straightforward approach. When one tries to sort Shostakovich’s score into foreground and background, one quickly realizes that this is a futile task. This is very much an intimate conversation among equals in which very little of the content ever recedes into any sort of background. As at a concert performance, every listener/viewer should have the liberty of choosing where to direct his/her attention at any time; and the video that is being streamed never infringes on that liberty.

Where content is concerned, I believe that Opus 110 is the one from the entire collection of fifteen quartets that I have heard in performance most often. It was composed over the course of only three days, July 12–14, 1960. Shostakovich was in Dresden at the time, working on music for a film about the bombing of Dresden during World War II, produced jointly by Soviet and East German filmmakers. That war had taken a heavy toll on Shostakovich’s psyche, and that impact was evident from the symphonies he composed during the siege of Leningrad, where Shostakovich was living, as well as his Opus 67 (second) piano trio in E minor.

The film project thus confronted him with dealing with many horrifying ghosts from the past, and the Opus 110 quartet may have been written to prepare him for that confrontation. There is certainly no shortage of “autobiographical” content in his thematic material, which includes his own “signature,” the four-note DSCH motif, and many other references to past work, including the Opus 67.

The four BAE members giving the performance on this video recording are Bayla Keyes and Daniel Chong on violin, Jessica Bodner on viola, and Jonathan Miller on cello. All four of them could not have done a better job in presenting Shostakovich’s score as that intimate conversation among equals. Even those not familiar with the score itself should have no trouble following the rhetorical journey that the composer plotted for this composition. The fact that three of the five movements (first, fourth, and fifth) are in Largo tempo does not bog down the quartet’s account of an expressive journey from beginning to end. The darkness of both present circumstances in Dresden and harrowing recollections of the past almost drove Shostakovich to suicide. However, it may be that channeling his despair into this music served to reinforce his motivation to live.

It is worth noting in conclusion that there is no evidence of any audience noise on this recording. One sees members of the audience sitting attentively. However, there is no sign of any nervous shuffling or the fatigue of boredom. The BAE players knew how to hold the attention of their audience. My guess is that anyone joining that audience through cyberspace will be equally riveted to every gesture by every member of the quartet.

“Switched-On” Jazz Switches Off Listening

courtesy of Jazzzdog Promotions

The “Editorial Reviews” background material on the Web page for Sam Gendel’s Satin Doll album describes the recording as “a futuristic homage to historical jazz.” For those of my generation, this may well evoke memories of Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’ “futuristic homage” to Johann Sebastian Bach through a series of studio albums beginning with Switched-On Bach. That first album consisted of twelve tracks through which a variety of Bach genres were realized through Moog synthesizer technology. As the Wikipedia page for this album observes, the album “played a key role in bringing synthesizers to popular music, which had until then been mostly used in experimental music.”

That album was released in October of 1968. Half a century later, there is little that is still “experimental” in the use of electronic gear. To the contrary, electronics now play a significant role in “real-time” performance in any number of widely different genres. Those genres include some of the more “avant-garde” approaches to the composition and performance of jazz. Gendel’s album, on the other hand, tries to take the same “historical” perspective that gave Carlos a point of departure. That perspective reaches back to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and advances forward all the way to Charles Mingus.

Gendel is a saxophonist; and on this album he leads a trio whose other members are Gabe Noel on bass and percussionist Philippe Melanson. Melanson’s gear is all electronic, and that may well include the processing of the the signals picked up by Gendel’s microphone(s). The result amounts to Carlos’ studio-based “switched-on” techniques being applied to a wide variety of jazz standards and a few Gendel originals. The significant difference, however, is that Gendel’s trio was giving a “real-time” performance by virtue of electronic technology that could only be imagined in 1968.

By all rights this could have been a fascinating album of “jamming in the electronic domain.” Unfortunately, this was not the case. There is a bland uniformity of performance style and rhetoric that cuts across all thirteen of the album’s tracks. The result never rises to the compelling diversity of both content and style that could be found in Switched-On Bach.

Mind you, anyone that takes Bach seriously, would observe that much of that diversity could be found Bach’s own music: All Carlos did was follow up on the likes of Edward Elgar and Leopold Stokowski, inventing new approaches to instrumentation. However, tunes like “Stardust,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” and “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” have similarly lent themselves to the stylistic inventiveness of both instrumentalists and vocalists. In that historical perspective, the sonorities of the Gendel trio may have a few new elements; but they lack the rich diversity already afforded by jazz history.

Friday, March 27, 2020

A Videoconferencing Orchestra Plays Mahler

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I have seen several examples of “remote education” enabled through multi-window video conferencing software. However, it never occurred to me that the technology would be powerful enough to provide individual windows for the members of a full orchestra or that they would all be able to coordinate in following a window for the conductor. However, the New York Youth Symphony (NYYS) seems to have taken to heart one of the fundamental precepts of invention: If you can imagine it and if you have the right tools, you can build it!

The result is a YouTube video that has to be seen to be believed. The project was launched when COVID-19 forced the cancellation of NYYS presenting its spring concert in Carnegie Hall. Through videoconferencing technology,  Music Director Michael Repper was able to conduct the members of NYYS in a highly abridged (about 90 seconds in duration) account of the second movement of Gustav Mahler’s first symphony in D major. As can be seen in this clip from the video:

courtesy of Jensen Artists

every player has his/her own window. The layout basically reflects how thy players would be seated during a concert performance; and the “front and center” window for the conductor is a bit larger, since all the performers are expected to direct their attention to that locus.

Now, for the sake of “getting real,” it is worth noting that this is an excerpt that can be realized with little more than a basic sense of beating time. To some extent Repper tips his hand at the very beginning by setting the pulse through clapping his hands. Nevertheless, the fact that all of the players could come together and sound like an integrated ensemble is impressive, almost as impressive as the post-editing executed by NYYS violinist Raina Tung to prepare the “final cut” display. (I was also informed by my source for this content that today is Tung’s eighteenth birthday. She definitely needs to be acknowledged for providing a “present” to the global listening community, rather than dwelling on what she might be receiving!)

Profil’s Anthology of Janigro on Cello

courtesy of Naxos of America

When I was growing up, my earliest awareness of the very idea of a chamber orchestra came from listening to Antonio Janigro and the Zagreb Soloists (called “I Solisti Zagreb” on their album jackets) on the radio. Janigro founded this group in 1953 under the auspices of Zagreb Radiotelevision and served as its conductor through 1968. I had no idea that he was a cellist until he performed as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Fritz Reiner’s recording of Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote.” I had pretty much forgotten about him until I received word that Profil would release a four-CD anthology of his performances entitled The Rare Cello Recordings.

This is one of those releases that seems to be recognizing only as a download product. The good news is that the product page includes the accompanying booklet; but that is only available if one purchases the entire collection, rather than selected tracks. Those interested in a physical copy will have to wait until a week from today, when it may be purchased through Presto Music, which is based in the United Kingdom but maintains dollar-based Web pages for American customers. The Web page for this recording supports purchase of the physical release and the download version.

The collection as a whole dwells heavily on the chamber orchestra repertoire featuring a solo cello part. Thus one encounters concertante music by Arcangelo Corelli, Antonio Vivaldi, Joseph Haydn, and Luigi Boccherini. However, the 1959 Reiner recording of “Don Quixote” is also included, along with a recording of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 cello concerto in B minor with Erich Kleiber conducting the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln.

More interesting are the chamber music offerings, particularly the performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 38 (first) sonata in E minor accompanied by Jörg Demus. Equally satisfying is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 97 (“Archduke”) trio, performed with Jean Fournier on violin and Paul Badura-Skoda on piano. Beethoven is also represented by two of his five sonatas, Opus 69 in A major and the first of the Opus 102 sonatas in C major. Both of these were recorded with pianist Jan Natermann. Ironically, while this collection is supposed to be focusing on Janigro the cellist, it includes a Zagreb Soloists recording of Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik (funeral music) suite, featuring viola soloist Stefano Passaggio.

Thus, taken as a whole, this is a collection of Janigro performances that is more than slightly less than modest. The recordings (at least most of them) may be rare; and they certainly present Janigro in a good light. Nevertheless, they are too sparse for serious listeners to appreciate his better qualities.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Petrenko’s Program of Mid-Century Modernism

Berlin Philharmonic Chief Conductor Kirill Petrenko (from the Digital Concert Hall Web page for this program)

This is the season in which Kirill Petrenko began his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, giving his first performance in that capacity this past August 19. While I have been familiar with his name for some time, I am not sure I have encountered any of his recordings; nor do I have any knowledge of his having performed in San Francisco (or, for that matter, anywhere else in the United States). Today I decided to draw upon the services of the Digital Concert Hall for my own “first contact” experience with this conductor.

I was particularly drawn to the approach he had taken in preparing his program, which did not include any guest soloists. The Web page for the concert described that program as consisting of “ three compositional masterworks, all of which were composed during the decade between 1940 and 1950 and explore entirely different avenues of musical modernism but are not based on Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique.” The program began with Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” composed in 1945. It then advanced to 1950 with a five-movement ballet suite by German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann entitled Alagoana (Caprichos Brasileiros). The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 45 “Symphonic Dances.” Completed in 1940 and written for Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, it was his last major composition.

All three of these pieces have strong choreographic connotations. Admittedly, George Balanchine did not create his ballet based on this particular Stravinsky score until about a year after Stravinsky’s death. However, from a structural point of view, “Symphony in Three Movements” has less to do with the conventional forms of symphonic movements and more to do with an earlier score that Stravinsky composed for Balanchine’s one-act ballet “Jeu de cartes” (card game), which happens to be structured in three “deals.”

Stravinsky himself claimed that the symphony captured his personal impressions of World War II; and the rhythms in the first movement seem to suggest Morse code communications between headquarters and a battlefield. Far more interesting, however, is how the score as a whole can almost be taken as a musical approach to cubism. Rather than following “sonata form,” the score abounds with a diverse variety of thematic “blocks,” each of which almost seems to have its own characteristic geometry. As each movement progresses, those blocks are assembled and reassembled in different combinations. This results in a dazzling array of sonorities and rhythms in which any sense of a recapitulation seems almost coincidental. It is through the vigorous rhythms of such assembly that “Symphony in Three Movements” emerges as a “descendant” of the “Jeu de cartes” score, which is probably why Balanchine eventually turned to it for one of his more abstract ballets.

It was easy to assume that Petrenko conducted this piece with a clear sense of what those “blocks” were and the many different ways in which they assembled themselves. As a result, rather than evoking the horrors of World War II, his interpretation evolved as one of playful discovery. Indeed, there was hardly a moment when the camera was directed at him and he was not smiling. If this meant that his interpretation departed from any connotations of World War II, then one had to admit that it was still true to the marks on the score pages, deriving a richly expressive account of all of those marks.

That underlying sense of “auditory cubism” could also be found in the Zimmermann suite. While the title clearly suggested Brazilian connotations, none of those connotations crossed the line into the domain of denotation that can be found in most of the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos or some of the Latin American impressions of Darius Milhaud. Instead, there was again a sense of those thematic “blocks,” although in this case rhythm seemed to play a significantly different role than it had in the Stravinsky symphony. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of Petrenko’s interpretation was as joyous as it had been in his approach to Stravinsky.

Rachmaninoff’s Opus 45, on the other hand, endured a mercilessly hard rap for the better part of the second half of the twentieth century. In the context of World War II, listeners obsessed with all the new directions promised by atonality treated the piece as a battleship consigned to mothballs. The current century, fortunately, has produced several conductors willing to take the piece at face value and present its virtues to attentive audiences.

Here again there is rich instrumentation, but cubism is the last source of a metaphor one might evoke for Rachmaninoff’s management of sonorities. Instead, instrumentation is there to cast thematic material under lights of different colors. However, to draw upon another artistic metaphor, Rachmaninoff’s palette provided a diversity of those colors. Petrenko’s conducting could not have done better justice to all of that diversity; and, for a change, the camera work frequently guided the attentive eye to the sources of those different colors. Furthermore, when the camera was directed at the conductor, one could appreciate the broader scope of emotional dispositions conveyed by his physiognomy.

Taken as a whole, this was a highly satisfying “virtual concert” account leaving me curious as to how Petrenko would address other repertoire selections.

Alexis Cole Reissues her Japanese Disney Album

courtesy of MC Promotions

I have to confess that Mad magazine played a significant role in weaning me away from The Walt Disney Company and the plethora of products in just about any imaginable media sailing under that flag. No matter how enticing the world of the Mouse House might have appeared on the surface, it did not take much digging to discover that this was a Garden of Eden to which only White Anglo-Saxon Protestants would feel welcome. (Anyone else would be, at best, ignored and, at worst, turned into an object of ridicule in the name of “good fun.”) As a result, when MC Promotions sent me word that Alexis Cole’s all-Disney album, originally produced in Japan by Venus Records, was being reissued for release in the United States, my reflex was to respond with a Spock eyebrow raise.

Nevertheless, the release I received included a quote from Michael Feinstein directed at Cole that made a strong case for defense, rather than prosecution:
You managed to create a Disney CD without making me cringe once at the song selections, and your interpretations are fresh as can be. Such impeccable control and style.
This reminded me that the best musicians are the ones that can turn even the most insipid content into a compelling and engaging listening experience. In this “Beethoven 250” year, we need look no further for an example than Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 120 set of 33 variations on a little waltz theme by Anton Diabelli, which, taken on its own, remains an outstanding icon of triviality.

This is not to suggest that, as a song stylist, Cole deserves a place in the pantheon next to Beethoven; but her album, Someday My Prince Will Come, makes a solid case that how a musical idea is interpreted always trumps what that idea initially was. The above hyperlink indicates that is still marketing the original release of this album, which took place on December 21, 2010. However, Cole’s own Web site has a Web page that is now distributing that same album as both a CD and a digital download.

While Cole herself may not be rubbing shoulders with Beethoven, her pianist is Fred Hersch, who continues to be one of the jazz world’s most imaginative musicians, capable of weaving elaborate fabrics of embellishment and counterpoint from threads of the simplest of tunes. As might be expected, Hersch is part of a trio, whose other players are Steve LaSpina on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. A few of the tracks also include wind improvisations between Cole’s interpretations. Over the course of the album, Don Braden appears on tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, and flute; and there is also some ravishing harmonica work by Gregoire Maret. One might almost say that the instrumental interjections make for listening that is just as satisfying as Cole’s deliveries of the texts; but that would suggest that Cole does not belong in the foreground, which would be a grievous dismissal of how attentively these songs have been interpreted.

To be fair, as a result of my own personal break with Mouse House products, the only tracks on the album that were even faintly familiar were “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “When You Wish Upon A Star.” (The tracks on Second Star To The Right (Salute to Walt Disney) played by Sun Ra & his Intergalactic Arkestra were far more familiar; but that is decidedly a different story!) I would suggest that, taken out of the original context, these songs have any number of virtues to stand on their own two feet, so to speak. Cole and her instrumental colleagues have brought no end of those virtues to light on this album, resulting in jazz singing at its most satisfying.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Lorenzo Viotti’s Mahler in Digital Concert Hall

Elīna Garanča performing with conductor Lorenzo Viotti (from the Digital Concert Hall Web page for this program)

Having now written my account of the “social distancing” concert given by the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Simon Rattle for an audience situated exclusively in the Digital Concert Hall, I decided to explore the archives of that Web site. Those archives provide an opportunity to examine not only repertoire but also conductors that I have not yet encountered in the concerts that I have covered in San Francisco. Today I decided to make my acquaintance with the young (about 30 years old) conductor Lorenzo Viotti, currently Chief Conductor of the Gulbenkian Orchestra in Lisbon. According to the biographical material found on the Web page for his concert, he recently made his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra; but this seems to be his only professional appearance in the United States to date. His performance with the Berlin Philharmonic consisted entirely of a performance of Gustav Mahler’s third symphony in D minor.

This particular symphony is a rather unruly beast, even for the most passionate followers of Mahler’s music. It has six movements divided into two parts, the first part consisting only of the first movement. Two of the movements require a mezzo soloist (Elīna Garanča in this performance); and the second of those two movements has the soloist accompanied by two choirs, one adult (the women of the Berlin Radio Choir) and one of children (the boys of the State and Cathedral Choir Berlin). To say that any conductor undertaking this symphony has his/her hands full is the height of understatement.

However, it is not only the quantity that is challenging. It is hard to avoid the conjecture that Mahler used this symphony to explore a new genre of dissonance. We normally think of dissonance in terms of relations among pitch classes. Dissonant intervals confront the informed ear with ambiguities that need to be resolved by progressing to more stable consonances. However, in his third symphony Mahler seems to be experimenting with the idea that thematic material itself can be rhetorically dissonant.

If a dissonant interval of pitches entails a departure from stability, then the same can be said of how Mahler handles his themes. Throughout the first movement of the third symphony, themes seem to intrude harshly upon each other. They almost appear to spring out of nowhere with stubborn assertions of self-importance; and they never seem to establish a “comfortable fit” in the overall fabric of the movement in its entirety. While that sense of disruptive intrusion is most evident in the first movement, it continues to arise throughout the second part of the symphony. Those encountering this symphony for the first time can easily be forgiven for wondering just what was going on in the composer’s warped mind to assault the ears so violently.

For the most part Viotti rose to the challenges of bringing some sense of overall coherence and progression to those thematic dissonances. Nevertheless, his attention to detailed phrasing strategies to express how these dissonances arise and are resolved led to short-changing a coherent account of the symphony as a whole. In other words he had not yet attained a level at which he could effectively manage everything on his plate. As a result, listeners more familiar with the symphony in its entirety could be forgiven if attention began to flag by the time Viotti had advanced to the final movement, which is the second-longest in the entire symphony (the longest being the first movement).

In the domain of the Digital Concert Hall, this makes for particularly challenging issues of presentation. Not only must the video direction make no end of difficult choices regarding how what one sees will impact what one hears, but also the texture of the score is so thick that balancing the audio signals from an adequately large bank of microphones is no easier. The result is that those experiencing this particular program with memories of past concert experiences (or at least well-produced recordings) may be the only ones to come away from this program with any sense of coherence.

It is entirely possible that Viotti had a clear and logical plan for presenting this symphony to his audience. It is just as possible that an attentive member of the audience at the Berliner Philharmonie would be able to apprehend and appreciate that plan. However, when manipulated through video and audio technology, at least in making this particular video document, that plan never really maintained its coherence in the digital domain.

Getting to Know Swedish Guitarist Tomas Janzon

courtesy of Kate Smith Promotions

The latest album from Swedish guitarist Tomas Janzon was released this past October; but, things being what they are, I only learned about it a little more than a week and a half ago. Given the restrictions on where I can currently go and a general absence of physical performance experiences, the timing could not have been better. Janzon studied guitar at the Musikhogskolan, the Royal School of Music in Stockholm, after which he began his professional career. This soon led to his move to the United States, which resulted in a Masters Degree in Classical Guitar from the Thornton School of Music at the University of California.

He now resides in New York; and the title of his latest album, 130th & Lenox, serves as the “coordinates” for where he lives in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan. Readers will note that the hyperlink leads to a CD Baby Web page, from which one may purchase the album either as a CD or as a digital download. This is yet another case in which has chosen not to recognize the sale of the physical product.

The album itself is the product of three recording sessions taking place over three consecutive years. The first two of these are trio sessions that Janzon recorded with Nedra Wheeler on bass and Donald Dean on drums, taking place on December 28, 2017 and December 29, 2018 at Nosound in Pasadena. The final session took place at Acoustic Recording in Brooklyn on May 25, 2019. Janzon led a quartet whose other members were Steve Nelson on vibraphone, Hilliard Greene on bass, and Chuck McPherson on drums.

The album has eleven tracks, three of which are Janzon originals. Three of the tracks fall into the “standards” genre: “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” (Sigmund Romberg), “Have you Met Miss Jones?” (Richard Rogers, given the title “Have You Met Ms. Jones” on the track listing), and “Invitation” (Bronisław Kaper). The more modern composers include Thelonious Monk (“Monk’s Mood”), Wayne Shorter (“Iris”), Kenny Dorham (“Prince Albert”), and Sam Rivers (“Beatrice”). The final track is a traditional Swedish tune from Janzon’s childhood.

The prevailing rhetoric across this album is one of inventive introspection. He can present Romberg in the same sort of imaginatively unconventional syntax that one is more likely to encounter in Monk. His original “Hypnagogic,” on the other hand, basically documents how he came to terms with a rhythmic pulse consisting of eleven beats to the measure (and then get the other members of his Brooklyn combo to come to the same terms). The “bottom line,” then, is that this is an album of prodigious imagination; but that imagination is consistently reinforced by the attentive approaches to execution taken by both Janzon himself and his two sets of combo partners.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Free Streaming of Fred Hersch Documentary

Poster design for the documentary film being discussed (courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

My recent efforts to keep working while dealing with the impact of COVID-19 has led me to return to performances streamed through cyberspace. Yesterday’s effort involved my second visit to the Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic since the restrictions of social distancing had been imposed. Today I had the opportunity to balance sources from the concert hall with those in the domain of jazz.

This morning I learned that The Ballad of Fred Hersch, a documentary made by Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozano in 2016, had been made available for free streaming courtesy of the directors. Regular readers probably know that Hersch’s recordings have received considerable attention on this site. However, in the overall context of Hersch’s biography, my listening experiences have come relatively late in his extraordinarily prodigious career. The scope of the film goes all the way back to his earliest engagements with Art Farmer in 1978 and goes all the way up to his now regular appearances at the Village Vanguard.

In spite of this breadth, the film also homes in on what was probably his most ambitious effort, My Coma Dreams. The title refers to a medically induced coma that Hersch sustained in 2008 and his retrospective impressions after regaining consciousness. The music he composed for this project 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 section. Some readers may recall that when this show was “taken on the road,” the tour included a performance in Herbst Theatre presented by San Francisco Performances.

In spite of this focus, Lagarde and Lozano are more than generous in providing opportunities to listen to Hersch making music, primarily as a soloist but also in combo settings. I have to say that the film had strong personal impact when attention was turned to the Village Vanguard. The Vanguard had provided me with my first opportunity to listen to Thelonious Monk play, back when I was a graduate student. I could barely get my head around what he was doing, and his very presence scared the daylights out of me. Nevertheless, I accepted the fact that the only way in which I could learn to listen to Monk’s music was to listen to Monk playing it.

There was thus a certain irony in that the account given of My Coma Dreams in this documentary included an extended section devoted to Hersch’s own take on Monk’s music. The title of that particular movement is “Dream of Monk;” and it involved a poignantly elegant deconstruction of “Crepuscule with Nellie.” I suspect that one of the reasons that Lagarde and Lozano allowed so much attention to this excerpt was because it amounted to an almost clinical account of efforts to recover memories in the wake of the coma experience.

My other major takeaway involved Hersch’s composition entitled “Whirl.” This shows up on several of his recordings and was also the title of the 2010 album that marked the first recorded appearance of his trio withJohn Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, a trio that has now been playing at the Vanguard for over a decade. I had always thought that the title referred to an underlying sense of dynamic energy; but, thanks to this cinematic biography, I now know that the music was inspired by the ballerina Suzanne Farrell!

Three Storyville Albums of Jazzpar Winners

A little over a week ago, the Copenhagen-based Storyville Records released three CDs, each of which presented a live performance associated with the awarding of the Jazzpar Prize. This Danish prize was founded by trumpeter Arnvid Meyer in 1990. The award consisted of 200,000 Danish crowns, a bronze statue, a Jazzpar Prize Concert at the SAS Falconer Center in Copenhagen, and the release of the Storyville album.

Of the three awardees whose concerts were released by Storyville, only one is still alive, Roy Haynes, the 1994 winner. Tommy Flanagan, winner of the 1993 award, died on November 16, 2001; and Geri Allen, who won the 1996 award, died on June 27, 2017. I feel fortunate to have listened to all three of these leading jazz figures in performance, even if my experience with Flanagan was the only satisfying one, having taken place at Birdland in New York. Suffice it to say that my encounters with both Haynes and Allen arose through SFJAZZ.

Both pianists, Flanagan and Allen, led a trio. Flanagan was joined by Jesper Lundgaard on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. On two of the tracks, the trio was joined by the “Windtet,” consisting of Henrik Bolberg Pedersen (trumpet), Vincent Nilsson and Steen Hansen (baritone horn), Jan Zum Vohrde (also saxophone and flute), Uffe Markussen (tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, and bass clarinet), and Flemming Madsen (baritone saxophone and bass clarinet). The group as a whole played Ole Kock Hansen’s arrangements of two Flanagan originals, “Beyond the Bluebird” and “Minor Mishap.”

Allen’s trio consisted of Palle Danielson on bass and Lenny White on drums. They were joined by Johnny Coles on flugelhorn for a performance of the standard, “Old Folks.” Both Coles and the trio also performed as members of the Jazzpar 1996 Nonet. This saw the return of Markussen and Pedersen (this time alternating between trumpet ands flugelhorn), along with Kjeld Ipsen (trombone), Axel Windfeld (trombone), and Michael Hove (alto saxophone, flute, and drums). The Haynes album saw him leading a quartet whose other members were Tomas Franck on tenor saxophone, Thomas Clausen on piano, and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass.

All tracks were recorded live by the Danish Broadcast Corporation. Only the Flanagan album was recorded entirely at the Prize Concert. The albums for both Haynes and Allen were supplemented with tracks recorded at other Danish cities.

I have no problem admitting that each of these albums is a satisfying package of jazz as I like to listen to it. I have been promising myself for some time to pay more attention to Allen’s compositions, and there was more than enough to enjoy in the three tracks of her own work on her album. I was more familiar with the Flanagan repertoire, but was quickly drawn into Hansen’s arrangements. The Haynes album, on the other hand, had a generous share of “classics,” presenting not only works by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk but also more traditional offerings from Harold Arlen and Jule Styne.

It is also worth noting that the Prize itself casts a rather wide web where styles and genres are concerned. The very first award went to Muhal Richard Abrams, while in the current century awards were given to Chris Potter in 2000 and Andrew Hill in 2003. The only real downside is that the final prize was awarded in 2004 due to loss of sponsorship.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Berlin Philharmonic Performs Only for Cyberspace

from the Digital Concert Hall Web page for this program

In the interest of social distancing to minimize the contagion of COVID-19, the Berliner Philharmonie, the home of the Berlin Philharmonic, has been closed to the general public; and, as of this writing, it will remain so until April 19. This decision was made early this month at a time when Simon Rattle had returned to Berlin to lead the orchestra in a program consisting of Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia” and Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” Bearing in mind the risks of physical proximity, both the ensemble and its conductor decided that the concert should be presented as planned. However, it would be performed without an audience, exclusively in the Digital Concert Hall.

The Digital Concert Hall library now includes the recording of that concert, which was made this past March 12. The performance was preceded by some introductory remarks by Rattle in which he confessed that he had no idea how this experiment would be received. Having just watched the video document, I have to say that there was much to appreciate, beginning with the fact that the orchestra itself “substituted” for the audience by applauding Rattle as he entered the stage at the very beginning of the event. This spirit of making the best out of a difficult social context prevailed throughout the entire recording.

Rattle provided eleven minutes of spoken introduction prior to the Bartók performance in the second half of the program. Writing as one that began listening to and studying this composition seriously during my freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I have to say that I was very impressed with Rattle’s presentation. There were any number of fresh perspectives on the music that I encountered, and I was particularly impressed that Rattle delivered all of his material without ever resorting to a first person pronoun. His impressions may not have changed my personal thoughts about the music, but they definitely held my attention.

I moved from Philadelphia to Cambridge in 1963 shortly after Erich Leinsdorf was named Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). One of his first recordings (possibly the first recording) he made in that capacity was of the Bartók concerto. For all I know, I could have attended the concert at which he performed the music during my freshman year; but I was too busy trying to be a good freshman. However, as I became more familiar with this music, I was drawn to the earlier recording made by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. Bartók had been Reiner’s piano teacher; and Reiner was one of the key figures that persuaded Serge Koussevitzky, then the BSO Music Director, to commission the “Concerto for Orchestra.” While the premiere of that composition was recorded and subsequently released, Reiner’s interpretation has remained my “gold standard.”

That said, Rattle’s interpretation left me with little (if any) cause for complaint. While my Reiner recording has not lost its status, I continue to value my recording of Rattle conducting the concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He clearly understands the full spectrum of emotional dispositions that cut across the concerto’s five movements. He appreciates and conveys the humor of the even-numbered movements (and I do not mind that some of my favorite details did not “make the cut” in his introduction); and the wide scope of dynamic range could not have done better justice to the longer odd-numbered movements. Furthermore, the final movement emerged as a triumphant life-affirming assertion made by a dying man.

Mind you, my usual quibbles about disoriented camera work are still maintained; but this was definitely a case in which listening to the music would prevail over any irritation with the video.

The Berio selection was another matter. “Sinfonia” was composed in 1969 on a commission for celebrating the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. Berio had been a Visiting Professor at Harvard University during my senior year at MIT (where, at the same time, Elliott Carter was a Visiting Professor). Ironically, Berio seems to have spent less time with the Harvard Music Faculty, preferring instead to get to know many of the pioneers of what we now call “cognitive science” at both Harvard and MIT.

As a result, when I had to write about the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) performance of “Sinfonia” in September of 2016, I described the piece as “a massive experiment in sensemaking, that process by which the mind behind the sensory organs figures out how to differentiate signal from noise.” Sadly, in his efforts to account for all that he had absorbed from faculty members at Harvard and MIT, Berio created a score into which he threw in everything but the kitchen sink (which may actually be lurking in one corner of the score I have not yet investigated thoroughly). For example, the second movement is a microlevel syllabic decomposition of the name of Martin Luther King, while the third movement is a wild collage whose sources are so numerous that they probably have yet to be cataloged. The soloists performing with the Philharmonic were the members of the Swingle Singers; and, when they were not vocalizing phonemes they were delivering texts by authors such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Samuel Beckett.

The result amounted to a stew that had so many ingredients that one could barely taste anything. When the work was first performed, Berio had completed only four of the five movements he had planned; but they were more than enough to exhaust even the most devoted listener. Columbia then released the recording of those four movements, and I have to say that the engineering could not have been better. This was probably one of the best examples in which the recording could give a better account of the score than any “live” performance.

Unfortunately, the technical crew for the Digital Concert Hall could not rise to that same level of quality. The usual problems of poor decisions regarding which cameras should be looking where at what point in the score were compounded by almost no evident judgement in mixing the plethora of sound sources coming through the full array of microphones. The bottom line is that Columbia’s approach to mixing all of those sources remains a “gold standard” of its own; and it would not surprise me to learn that Berio himself had a strong hand in directing all of those mixing efforts.

Is this the sort of music that can only be appreciated in performance? My personal opinion is that this is probably not the case. When I wrote about the SFS concert, I described “Sinfonia” as “one of those rare examples in which it may be unlikely that any performance will rise to the level of any of the available recordings.” While that is probably still the case, I realize that at least one subsequent recording, in which Berio was not involved, also fell significantly short of the mark. This would be the 2014 Ondine release of Hannu Lintu conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Although I have been impressed with many of Lintu’s recordings of recent compositions, I fear that even his recording team would have done a better job had Berio been around to provide better input (impossible since Berio had died in 2003).

Like it or not, “Sinfonia” may well be one of those you-had-to-be-there compositions, at least if “there” involves listening to how Berio engineered the mixing for the incomplete Columbia recording.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Miles Davis’ “Flim Score” for Louis Malle

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

Readers with long memories may recall an article I wrote in June of 2017 about the two-CD album Thelonious Monk – Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960. The album was the document of the soundtrack created for Roger Vadim’s 1959 film Les liaisons dangereuses (dangerous liaisons), a setting in contemporary Paris based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel of the same title. This was not an “original soundtrack.”

Rather, Monk provided recordings of performances of several of his compositions that had achieved “standards” status: “Rhythm-a-Ning,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Six in One,” “Well, You Needn’t,” “Pannonica,” “Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are,” and “Light Blue.” They were performed with Monk at the piano playing in a quartet he had formed with Charlie Rouse (tenor saxophone), Sam Jones (bass), and Art Taylor (drums), all whom were joined by French saxophonist Barney Willen. All the recordings were made in New York between July 27 and July 29, 1959.

Vadim’s decision to work “modern jazz” into his soundtrack may have been inspired by a 1958 film made by his fellow director Louis Malle. The film was released in the United States with the English title Elevator to the Gallows, and its soundtrack was provided by Miles Davis. However, the creation of that soundtrack was far more interesting, because all of the music was original and it was recorded with Davis in Paris in November of 1957. Willen was a member of his combo, along with pianist René Urtreger and Pierre Michelot on bass. The only other American in the group was the drummer, Kenny Clarke.

In this case none of the music that Davis had previously recorded was appropriated for the score. Instead, the music was provided only after Malle had completed the film. The combo improvised its performance while watching a projection of that final cut.

Elevator to the Gallows was broadcast last night on the Turner Classic Movies channel. I saved the broadcast on my xfinity “cloud” space; and my wife and I watched it this afternoon. The opening remarks suggested that Davis himself had probably seen the film prior to bringing his combo to the recording studio. For that matter, there is a good chance that Davis worked out with Malle the particular scenes in the film where music would be appropriate. Nevertheless, all of that music was improvised, making the result a rather significant milestone (pun intended) in the history of film music.

Ironically, the music itself was never released in the United States. However, PolyGram (which is now part of the Universal Music Group) released a “comprehensive” recording in October of 1990 under the original French title of the film, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. It includes the eleven tracks that were used in the film, preceded by fifteen tracks of takes that were rejected. In other words the creation of the music itself may have been spontaneous; but a considerable amount of “post hoc judgment” probably when into finalizing the soundtrack itself.

The Product Description describes the music as “something of a throwback to the feel of Miles' early ’50s Blue Note recordings with drummer Kenny Clarke.” I’m not sure I agree. In the Davis chronology the album sits between Miles Ahead and Milestones, and those serious about Davis’ work would probably find both of those albums more “advanced” than his improvised soundtrack. On the other hand Davis knew how to pull out microtonal auxiliary tones when playing at a slow tempo, and those subtle shifts in pitch tend to underscore the combination of tension and inevitability in the film’s plot line. I might even hazard a guess that those qualities of the plot will register even with those listening to the recording that do not know the film itself.