Thursday, April 30, 2020

“Apollo” a Pale Shadow of What it Once Was

I realized this morning that I had missed this week’s live broadcast through YouTube of Tuesday’s offering in the “Digital Spring Season” presented by the New York City Ballet (NYCB). As a result, I made it a point to view the saved video before it expires tomorrow. The selection was George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” his first collaboration with Igor Stravinsky. The video itself was a recording of a performance given on January 22, 2019. This was when Taylor Stanley made his debut in the title role, joined by Tiler Peck as Terpsichore, Brittany Pollack as Polyhymnia, and Indiana Woodward as Calliope. Stravinsky’s score was composed for a string ensemble, which was conducted by Andrew Litton.

It was through “Apollo” that I first began to appreciate the nature of Balanchine’s work in both theory and practice. This came about through a lecture-demonstration with the lecture delivered by B. H. Haggin. The demonstration was followed by a performance of the ballet in its entirety with the leading roles taken by Edward Villella and Patricia McBride. All other dancers were members of the Boston Ballet. With all of that context sustaining me for many years, every performance of “Apollo” was an absorbing one.

As a result, I looked forward to encountering the ballet again after a long absence. Sadly, it does not seem to have fared particularly well following the death of its creators. The original scenario was structured in two scenes, the first dealing with the birth of Apollo and the second with his first encounter with three of the Nine Muses, pride of place being given to the Muse of Dance, Terpsichore. Discovering that the entire first scene had been eliminated in the production captured on video hit me like a bolt from the blue, and I never really recovered after that.

In contrast to the pure abstractions of “Allegro Brillante,” which I discussed last week, “Apollo” has a well-defined narrative structured around those two scenes. In the opening scene we see Leto’s labor pains leading the the birth of Apollo. Like any new-born god, he is a wild child, tamed only when Leto’s handmaidens present him with a lute. Apollo’s mastery of that instrument, represented in the score as a solo violin cadenza, provides the transition to the second scene. The current video version opens with that cadenza depicting Apollo with his lute.

The three Muses then appear, leading to what may best be called “four-part geometry” at its most elegant. This begins a pas de quatre after which each dancer has a solo. In the narrative each Muse presents her talents to Apollo. First is Calliope reciting her poetry. In the version I recall from Villella’s performances, Apollo is not impressed and nods off to sleep before she has finished. Next comes Polyhymnia, the Muse of mime, who gets so enthusiastic that she breaks her silence, shocking Apollo as much as herself. So it is that Terpsichore is the only Muse that draws Apollo’s favor and is selected for one of Balanchine’s most elegant duets (with any number of subtle references to ordinary actions, including what is usually called the “swimming lesson”).

Unfortunately, none of this narrative registered with very much impact on this week’s video; and some of it was entirely disregarded, such as Apollo’s boredom with Calliope recitation. Furthermore, the very notion of a conclusion involving the ascent to Parnassus is given no substantive denotation. In other words what was conceived as a rich (and frequently witty) narrative had been reduced to an abstraction that was not that different than the choreography for “Allegro Brillante.” The steps that Balanchine conceived may have been there, but there was no sign at all of the spirit behind those steps.

I probably should also add the warning that the “replay” version is fraught with advertising. There are a few unpleasant interruptions and a few more pop-up windows. YouTube clearly wants viewers to pay for an upgraded version of their service; but, like all advertising, this was just plain annoying!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

George Balanchine’s “Duo Concertant”

Having just written about Igor Stravinsky’s “Duo Concertant,” composed in 1932, by citing George Balanchine’s decision to set the music to choreography for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival presented by the New York City Ballet, I decided that it was time for me to revisit the ballet itself. It did not take me long to find a YouTube video of a performance by the dancers for whom the ballet was created, Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins. As I had previously observed, they shared the stage with the violinist and pianist performing the music. On this particular video the violinist is Cees Van Schaik, accompanied by Gordon Boelzner at the piano. The source is a film by Hugo Niebeling, jointly produced by Unitel and the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, second German television) public television channel. The film itself was made in 1975.

When I think about Balanchine’s settings of music by Stravinsky, I often speculate on the extent to which Stravinsky’s music often inspired Balanchine’s sense of humor. This was certainly the case in the choreography for “Jeu de cartes” (card game); and the “Rubies” movement of Jewels is riotously funny. Indeed, there are even subtle winks of wit in a ballet as austere as “Apollo.”

Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins listening to Gordon Boelzner (screen shot from the video being discussed)

In that context I enjoy “Duo Concertant” for the many ways (subtle and not-so-subtle) in which it undermines the tradition of the pas de deux. For one thing, the two dancers seem to spend the majority of their time standing next to the piano, listening attentively (and utterly silently) to the music. When they move away from the musicians, they remain attentive; but there is a rhetorical dimension in their attentiveness. Much of the time there is a playful give-and-take of a core “vocabulary” of simple patterns. If an adagio can be associated with a more “classical” pas de deux, the “vocabulary” for that association tends to undermine observer expectations. If it is a pas de deux adagio, then it is followed by a variation that is identical for the two soloists compressed into the same music from Stravinsky’s score. The humor of “Duo Concertant” is not as raucous as that of “Rubies;” but it is still hard to watch without succumbing to a fit of the giggles.

It may also be that Balanchine was mocking his own approach to abstraction. Any sense of a personal relationship between the two dancers is seriously muted. Every now and then, however, there is a crack in that ice of emotional frigidity. The viewer lets out a sigh. The experience may be one of people dancing, but there is more than a bit of relief when the nature of the people rises above the nature of the dance!

Bruno Monteiro’s New Stravinsky Album

courtesy of Bruno Monteiro

Portuguese violinist Bruno Monteiro continues to expand his repertoire in unanticipated directions. Those following my writings for some time know that he has previously explored the catalogs of Karol Szymanowski, Erwin Schulhoff, and, most recently, Guillaume Lekeu. His latest album turns to more familiar selections, most of which are not in their usual settings. The album consists entirely of music for violin and piano by Igor Stravinsky; and, as in previous recordings, Monteiro is accompanied by pianist João Paulo Santos. As of this writing, it is currently available only directly through its label Etcetera Records. A Web page for purchase has been created; but, since Etcetera is based in Belgium, the price is in euros. Under current conditions, it may be difficult to estimate how long delivery time will be.

In the accompanying booklet Monteiro observes that much of the content of the CD resulted from an eight-year collaboration between Stravinsky and the violist Samuel Dushkin. What he seems to have overlooked is that all of the selections have connections to the evolution of modern ballet along a path with Michel Fokine and one end and George Balanchine at the other. Fokine created two of the ballets explicitly named in the track listing from which Stravinsky extracted arrangements for violin and piano: “The Firebird” and “Petrushka,” both choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Other Ballets Russes choreographers are Léonide Massine (“Pulcinella,” movements of which were extracted for the Suite italienne) and Bronislava Nijinska, whose “Le baiser de la fée” (the fairy’s kiss) provided music for a concert suite, which Stravinsky subsequently arranged as a divertimento for Dushkin.

That leaves only one “pure” composition on the album, the “Duo Concertant,” which Stravinsky composed for Dushkin in 1932. Stravinsky performed this piece with him at its premiere in Berlin, and it became a fixture in recitals that the two of them gave for the next several years. However, when Balanchine planned a Stravinsky Festival to be performed by the New York City Ballet in 1972, he created choreography for “Duo Concertant” as part of the project. Balanchine honored the title by creating a ballet for only two dancers, Kay Mazzo and Peter Martins at the premiere performance. As if to honor also Stravinsky’s original intentions, they shared the stage with the violinist and pianist. I have seen this ballet many times, and it remains etched in memory as one of the finest examples of Balanchine’s understanding of the music behind his choreography.

Those familiar with the ballet repertoire will probably recall the episodes behind the excerpts from both “The Firebird” and “Petrushka.” One may miss the rich orchestration, but Stravinsky certainly knew how to distill the essence of his own music. Monteiro consistently captures that essence in ways that will appeal to both concertgoers and ballet lovers.

In “Pulcinella,” however, we see one of the earliest moves away from Russian tradition into what came to be called “neoclassicism.” Under Diaghilev’s influence, Stravinsky thought he was creating a score based on the music of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Pergolesi was a very popular composer in his day, but he died of tuberculosis at the age of 26. In an effort not to lose his “cash cow,” his publisher hired other musicians to create further additions to the Pergolesi catalog; and these deceptions were not unravelled until musicological research in the twentieth century. Regardless of actual sources, however, Stravinsky endowed eighteenth-century Italian traditions with a bevy of twentieth-century twists; and those twists can be easily relished in Monteiro’s account of them.

The score for “Le baiser de la fée,” throws retrospection into an entirely different light. In this case Stravinsky drew his source material from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and I have to confess that this particular ballet score never really registered with me until I had become familiar with most of those sources. Now this is one of my favorite Stravinsky compositions, and I enjoy recognizing the Tchaikovsky “roots” in Stravinsky’s chamber music version as much as I enjoy them when watching the ballet. I suspect it would be fair to say that this was the portion of the album that evoked some of my fondest memories.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Statistically Insignificant Listening

This morning I read an article in The New York Times entitled “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Opera.” This involved interviewing a diverse variety of subjects including both performers (not all of music) and critics. This turned out to be a follow-up to articles with the same title that concluded with “Classical Music” (September 6, 2018) and “the Piano” (April 19, 2019). Normally, I dismiss such exercises as opportunities for self-indulgence on the part of the interviewees. However, given that the “social world of music making” is currently under the “COVID-19 siege,” I found it interesting to view the content of the articles as a sampling (not necessarily statistically significant) of “audience impressions.”

On the positive side I was more than pleasantly surprised to see that one selection showed up on two lists. In the 2018 list pianist Daniil Trifonov selected “Le baiser de l'enfant-Jésus” (the kiss of the infant Jesus) from Olivier Messiaen’s suite Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (twenty aspects of the infant Jesus). The following year it reappeared in the piano list, this time contributed by Times senior staff editor Joshua Barone. In both cases there was an audio clip of about five minutes (accounting for half the duration of the movement). The pianist for the Trifonov selection was John Ogdon, and that for Barone was Pierre-Laurent Aimard. There was no mention of the 1973 recording made by Yvonne Loriod, for whom the piece was composed.

Nevertheless, the selection definitely stood out in both lists. The 2018 list was particularly disconcerting, since in more cases than I would prefer to enumerate specifically, it seemed as if the choices had more to do with “what is trending,” rather than “what is memorable.” I also found it mildly ironic that conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen should choose the final movement from Maurice Ravel’s suite, Ma mère l'Oye (Mother Goose). This was written as a piano duet for two very young sisters (aged six and seven) and was only orchestrated about a year later. While I appreciate the sincerity of Salonen’s response to the orchestral version, my heart will always be with the original (particularly since I used to be able to play it)!

Then, of course, there was the “punch line” of the entire article in which Yuval Sharon recommended John Cage’s 4’33”. This was clearly more about Sharon than about Cage. However, I appreciate Sharon’s effort to call out the triviality of the entire exercise!

The rest of the 2019 list pretty much left me cold. Perhaps it served to reinforce my personal conviction that the experience of a concert performance will always trump even the best of recordings. Mind you, I have several recordings of that Messiaen suite (including the Loriod), as well as the score. However, at the end of the day, these serve as “mental road maps” that I can then consult when listening to the music being performed.

I suspect that the same rule of thumb applies to opera. Any “favorite musical moment” must still face the prospect of holding its own in a performance in which the context is established by not only the conductor but also the stage director. Thus, while I strongly sympathize with director Francesca Zambello’s selection of the final chorus of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, I still have to note that the music was brutally sapped of all impact by one of the worst stagings of this opera that I have ever experienced. I would prefer not to give any further details other than observing that Zambello was definitely not responsible for that particular staging!

More importantly, all three of these exercises, for the most part, involved pulling a listening experience out of context. There are any number of examples in the instrumental repertoire for which context can be disregarded without misconception. However, the presence of an overall narrative framework situates opera in an entirely different category of experiences.

In my teens I was hopelessly addicted to Mad, particularly where parodies were concerned. One of my earliest experiences was with the parody issue of Reader’s Digest (which I think was called “Reader’s Disgust”). As the title suggested, the Reader’s Digest mission was to distill articles down to “easily digested” summaries, allowing the reader to “get the point” in less time. However, there emerged a spin-off project that would provide abbreviated versions of entire novels. Mad decided to give Gone with the Wind (over 1000 pages long) the Reader’s Digest treatment, which amounted to only a few syllables for two utterances: “Fiddle-dee-dee!” and “BOOM!”

These seem to have been the seeds for my discontent with opera excerpts. I cannot dispute the impact of any of the selections. However, it is worth remembering that none of those selections mean very much to anyone that does not know the role they play in the overall narrative.

Exercise for the reader: Review all of the entries in the opera list. For each one, decide whether it is a “Fiddle-dee-dee!” moment or a “BOOM!” one. (Hint: It may be both!)

Monday, April 27, 2020

Glass Opera Needlessly Cluttered at The Met

Anthony Ross Costanzo in the title role of Akhnaten (from the PBS Web page for the Great Performances at the Met broadcast)

This month the PBS series Great Performances at the Met continued with the video document of Philip Glass’ opera Akhnaten. The premiere took place on April 5, but my first opportunity to capture and save the video in my xfinity cloud space came yesterday afternoon. Today was my very first experience this opera thus took place today, since, to the best of my knowledge, I have yet to listen to an audio account of even excerpts from the score.

Glass himself called this the third is what amounted to a trilogy of biographical operas, the preceding two operas being (in order of appearance) Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. Personally, I find the adjective “biographical” a bit of a stretch. Einstein on the Beach was very much a joint creation by Glass and Robert Wilson in which there is very little, if any, suggestion of narrative. Albert Einstein puts an appearance, but as a violinist, rather than a physicist or a mathematician. Furthermore, while “on the beach” refers to Nevil Shute’s novel about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, nuclear war was not even suggested by Einstein on the Beach. Satyagraha is decidedly more narrative in nature, but what emerges is an image of Mahatma Ghandi refracted through three other historical figures, Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Luther King Jr. Akhnaten is the only opera in which the “signature” character is a presence across the entire libretto.

The staging at the Metropolitan Opera was by Phelim McDermott, created originally for co-production by the English National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera. The title role was conceived for a countertenor and sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo at the premiere. He returned to revive his performance at the Met. Zachary James, who created the role of Akhnaten’s father, Amenhotep III, was also a member of the Met cast. The role of Nefertiti, Akhnaten’s wife, was taken by J’nai Bridges in which I believe she was making her Met debut. The conductor was Karen Kamensek, also making her Met debut.

I still have fond memories of the video document of McDermott’s staging of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 588 opera Così fan tutte (so do all women) for the Met. I cast my lot with those calling it the “Coney Island Così” with only the most positive connotations. It is not easy to do justice to Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, whose conclusion seems to have been left ambiguous deliberately. McDermott settled on a perfectly sound approach to resolving the complications of the plot, and he never interfered with the expressive role played by Mozart’s music along the way.

In Akhnaten, on the other hand, McDermott elected to create and inhabit a universe almost blatantly at odds with where Glass seemed to be taking the music. While the austerity of Glass’ gift for working with “repetitive structures” without giving in to mind-numbing monotony could not have provided a better setting for the austere rituals that emerge from the libretto (written by Glass with an impressive array of partners: Shalom Goldman, Robert Israel, Richard Riddell and Jerome Robbins), McDermott chose to embellish those rituals with everything but the kitchen sink. (By “everything” I include what amounted to a Greek chorus of jugglers.)

This contrasts sharply with the opera’s two predecessors. Wilson’s designs for Einstein were large in scale, but they never conflicted with the sparse materials that formed Glass’ score. The libretto for Satyagraha, on the other hand, drew upon the original Sanskrit of that portion of the Mahabharata known as the “Bhagavad Gita” and amounts to preparing the mind to enter a battle that will be long and bloody. However, the music never departs from the serenity that captures Ghandi’s modest passivity. On the other hand, McDermott took a libretto that dispassionately examined the concept of monotheism and turned it into rock-star-style sensationalism.

There are wags that would claim that, after listening to several hours of Glass, the ears need a rest. I have never felt that way. Nevertheless, my eyes definitely needed a rest from McDermott’s never-ending excesses!

Avery Amereau Sings Handel Arias with PBO

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past Friday Philharmonia Baroque Productions released its latest CD. The album features contralto Avery Amereau singing fifteen arias by George Frideric Handel, accompanied by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) led by Music Director Nicholas McGegan. Over the course of those fifteen tracks the album accounts for one cantata (the opening track) and seven Handel operas as follows (in “order of appearance”):
  1. Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (HWV 72)
  2. Agrippina (HWV 6)
  3. Rinaldo (HWV 7)
  4. Silla (HWV 10)
  5. Amadigi di Gaula (HWV 11)
  6. Radamisto (HWV 12)
  7. Giulio Cesare (HWV 17)
  8. Alcina (HWV 34)
The accompanying booklet provides a richly informative account of the context for all selections, written by Bruce Lamott, Scholar-in-Residence for the PBO and Chorale.

Readers may recall that Amereau was also the soloist on the PBO recording of Caroline Shaw’s oratorio “The Listeners,” which was released at the beginning of this month. This new album provides a much richer account of her talents. There will probably be those wondering if fifteen arias extracted from seven operas and one cantata might be a bit much. However, as those enamored of Handel’s operas know, the individual arias cover a wide variety of character dispositions, which frequently endow relatively thin (and sometimes dubious) plot lines with the substance of richly substantive personalities.

In that context the entire album has clearly been planned with a similar “tour” of character dispositions in mind. The result is that there is far more to Amereau’s talents than her technical command of each of the arias and the intimate chemistry through which she engages with accompaniment from PBO. There is also her appreciation of that diversity of personalities and her ability to endow each of them with those distinctive traits that make each character unique.

Nevertheless, the overall scope of the album may strike some as intimidating. After all, in the context of a full opera, character personalities are established (and may then change) over the course of the extended plot. It would be fair to say that many may prefer to sample this album, rather than take a sit-still-and-listen journey through all fifteen tracks. Indeed, current technology tends to favor that first approach to listening; and I do not think that either Handel or Amereau would be the worse for such a “piecemeal” approach.

Still, I would point out that, for those preferring the beginning-to-end journey, there is much to be gained from following the instrumental work as well as the vocal solos. There is rich diversity in Handel’s approaches to instrumentation, tempo, and even motivic character, as much as there is in the personalities of the characters being portrayed through he vocal work. One might almost call this album a study in “what makes Handel tick” with McGegan as the skilled watchmaker showing off the elegant interactions across gears and springs that goes into establishing just the right setting for Amereau’s splendidly diverse vocal talents.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

“Almost Live” Revival of Dresher-Neuburg Project

A little over a month ago I wrote about how a planned revival of They Would Have Been So Beautiful at Z Space might still be feasible. At that time the first rehearsal by Amy X Neuburg and the Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band was scheduled for April 7, which was after the expiration of the “Shelter in Place” Public Health Order that had been imposed and extended earlier in March. As readers now know, the order did not expire and was instead extended until early next month.

By way of compensation the Paul Dresher Ensemble circulated an electronic mail message that included hyperlinks to videos of three of the movements from They Would Have Been So Beautiful. These were all made at the premiere performance given by Neuburg and the Dresher Ensemble at Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley in December of 2014. The three selections included the compositions by both Dresher (“A Picture Screen Stands in Solitude”) and Neuburg (“Is it Conflict Free and Were Any Animals Harmed in the Making of It?”) The remaining selection was Guillermo Galindo’s “Blood Bolero,” whose image had been appropriated for the poster of the planned revival concert.

Readers may recall that I had attended the San Francisco premiere of They Would Have Been So Beautiful, and it was one of my last articles written for in June of 2016. In revisiting the project through these three videos, I quickly realized that the selection that had the greatest impact at that time was one of the three Dresher had selected. It was his own composition, based on a text by Michael Nelson, a lifer in San Quentin Prison. Nelson’s capacity for writing descriptive prose was nothing short of awesome; and Dresher knew how to keep that text in the foreground, enhancing it with both music and image projection without ever undermining the spirit behind the words.

I had also observed that experiencing ten compositions, each with its own characteristic uniqueness, constituted a problem of cognitive overload. Experiencing only three of the movements through Dresher’s hyperlinks was much more manageable, but it also entailed more critical examination. As a result, I have to confess that, while Neuburg’s piece began with the promise of a witty but jaundiced reflection on “modern life,” it left me cold after I had experienced roughly the first quarter of the piece. I suspect that it would manage better in an actual performance in which one is aware of not only what was being presented but also of the general “response” to those “stimuli.”

“Blood Bolero,” on the other hand, which seems to have lost any place in my memory, made a far deeper impression in this more modest setting. Much of this had to do with the disquieting images, photographs by Maya Goded that seemed to capture both affectionate and sinister connotations of expressions of love. Those connotations then resonated in Neuburg’s delivery of the text by Juvenal Acosta. The clarity of her diction left the impression of reflecting on the high-contrast sharpness of the Goded photographs. This is the shortest of the three videos, but the overall experience of listening while watching registers with intense impact.

Philharmonia Baroque’s Caroline Shaw Album

Composer Caroline Shaw (photograph by Kait Moreno, from Shaw’s Web site)

Those that have followed my work for at least half a decade know that my relationship with the compositions of Caroline Shaw has not been a smooth one. Indeed, my “first contact” took place almost exactly five years ago, in April of 2015, when the (at the time) recently formed string quartet calling itself the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco played Shaw’s “Entr’acte” in a Noontime Concerts recital at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. Writing a fair account of this event was not an easy matter, and I found myself concluding that the composition had more to do with ideas than with any practices of making music.

To be fair, I should note that this punch line has now been superseded. This past October, at the first San Francisco performance in the 39th season of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale, the second half of the program presented the fourth Shaw composition to be commissioned by PBO. As usual, there was a pre-concert event, which began with the members of the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ), violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen, playing “Entr’acte.” The piece was chosen since it had been written as a deconstruction of music from the string quartets of Joseph Haydn, which I had known when I first heard Shaw’s music. However, it took NEQ’s approach to performance to convince me that there was as much wit in Shaw’s marks on paper as there had been in her Haydn sources; and, as I put it when writing about the experience, listening involved “a series of subtle grins and the occasional belly-laugh.”

At the beginning of this month, Philharmonia Baroque Productions released a new CD consisting of all four of the Shaw compositions written under PBO commissions. The most recent of these, which was performed at the beginning of the season, was an oratorio entitled “The Listeners,” scored for PBO, the Philharmonia Chorale, and two vocal soloists, contralto Avery Amereau and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. The album begins with the first three commissioned compositions, all written for mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, collected into a single suite entitle Is a Rose.

Sadly, the primary impact of this new album has been to revive those impressions that had been formed five years ago. Once again I found myself encountering listening experiences that had more to do with ideas than with making music. To be fair, Shaw herself can be up-front about her interest in such ideas. The sixth movement of “The Listeners,” entitled “That’s us,” is a tape recording of a lecture by Carl Sagan, while the third movement, “Geeting,” plays back the opening track from the “Golden Record” attached to the Voyager satellite, consisting of a welcome-from-our-planet message given in English by Kurt Waldheim (then Secretary-General of the United Stations), followed by greetings in 55 other languages. These tracks make for highly absorbing listening experiences, particularly for those of us that were around when the Voyager was launched; but, as a result, the music itself comes across as an uninspired account of texts that leave little impression on the attentive listener, no matter how much expressiveness was engaged by both conductor Nicholas McGegan, Chorale Director Bruce Lamott, or the vocal soloists.

The bottom line is that Shaw has yet to establish a solid command of how her music can provide just the right environment for words that have already been structured around principles of syntax, semantics, and rhetoric. Ironically, I have had an opportunity to listen to her sing gospel songs from her By and By collection; and there is no question that she knows how to “get the spirit.” Some of that spirit can be found in her approach to Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose,” which concludes Is a Rose. This is the earliest of the three songs in the Is a Rose collection; and it is more than a little disappointing that, over the course of the remaining music she composed for PBO, the flesh should be as weak as it is.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

John Di Martino’s Strayhorn Tribute Album

courtesy of Jazz Promo Services

A little over two weeks ago, Sunnyside released jazz pianist John Di Martino’s latest album. The full title is Passion Flower: The Music of Billy Strayhorn, and that should be all most listeners need to know about the track selections. Di Martino leads a quartet with Eric Alexander on tenor saxophone and rhythm filled out by Boris Kozlov on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. There are fourteen tracks, only one of which is vocal with Raul Midon singing “Lush Life.”

Strayhorn is probably best known for his almost three decades of collaborating with Duke Ellington. Most of that time went into composing and arranging; and “Lush Life” is a key example of his keen ability to write lyrics for his own songs. In addition Ellington would often turn the piano over to Strayhorn for both performances and recording sessions.

The fact that Strayhorn was gay never seems to have phased Ellington, and there never seemed to be any threat that Strayhorn’s secret would be disclosed at a time when society was not as open to homosexuality as it now is. While Strayhorn spent a few years pursuing a solo career, he never really abandoned Ellington. Indeed, his final composition, “Blood Count,” was written for Ellington, who recorded it a few month’s after his death for the album …And His Mother Called Him Bill. That album also included “U.M.M.G.” (Upper Manhattan Medical Group) and “Lotus Blossom;” and all three of those selections can be found on Di Martino’s album.

The album also includes a generous sampling from the more familiar “Ellington book.” Tracks include “Isfahan,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Passion Flower,” and “Take the ‘A’ Train.” What is important, however, is that Di Martino never tries to evoke the “Ellington sound,” preferring instead to allow every member of his combo to bring out his own expressive voice. In other words this is an album dedicated to Strayhorn-the-composer, while Strayhorn-the-arranger takes a back seat to the inventiveness that Di Martino allows his individual players to express. The result is that even the most familiar tracks bring out the tunes in a freshly inventive new light, which, I suspect, will please Ellington’s spirit as much as Strayhorn’s!

Semi-Staged Weill-Brecht: Slatkin in Detroit

Photograph of Kurt Weill taken in 1932, not long before his departure from Germany (from the German Federal Archives, photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license)

The latest electronic mail promotion of a performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) given video documentation in the DSO Replay archive is a semi-staged presentation of “The Seven Deadly Sins,” classified as a “satirical ballet chanté [sung ballet],” composed by Kurt Weill setting a libretto by Bertolt Brecht. The performance took place on June 6, 2017 with Leonard Slatkin on the DSO podium. Detroit singer-songwriter Shara Nova performed the “leading role” of Anna, “backed up” by the Hudson Shad vocal quartet performing the members of Anna’s family and serving as a “Greek chorus.”

Before discussing either the performance or the video work, it is worth reviewing the background of this rather unique composition. The music was written in 1933, by which time both Brecht and Weill had the foresight to get out of Berlin before things got worse. Their collaboration on “The Seven Deadly Sins” took place in Paris. Weill received the commission in December of 1932, and Brecht left Switzerland to work with him. This would be their last major collaboration.

The commission came from Edward James, who was married to the ballerina Tilly Losch. James was the one that gave Weill and Brecht the idea that the lead characters should be performed by both a vocalist (Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya) and a dancer (Losch). In the libretto Lenya’s part was marked as “Anna I,” while a few spoken fragments were assigned to Losch as “Anna II.” As might be expected, the score was structured in seven scenes, one for each of the sins, framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The two Annas are twin sisters, living (in a “little house”) on the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana (possibly in New Orleans). They leave home in search of a better life; and each of the sins takes place in a different American city (the last of which, Envy, happens to be San Francisco).

The premiere was produced, directed, and choreographed by George Balanchine for a performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (best known in music history as the venue for the debut of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”). The libretto was subsequently translated into English by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. After his move to the United States, Balanchine added “The Seven Deadly Sins” to his New York City Ballet (NYCB) repertoire in 1958. Lenya sang the English version of the libretto with Allegra Kent dancing the role of Anna II.

Since that time there have been several stagings of note. These include a new version for NYCB with more dancers choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett and the two Annas performed by Patti LuPone and Wendy Whelan. However, there have also been a variety of approaches to concert performances with different degrees of staging. One of those performances was given in June of 2003 by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and vocalist Ute Lemper taking both of the Anna roles.

On that occasion Lemper was joined on the stage by Hudson Shad, and they definitely were comfortable with the sharper dissonances in Weill’s score and the ironies of Brecht’s libretto. (The part for the mother of the family is given to the bass voice.) The Detroit video thus provided me with my second opportunity to experience Hudson Shad’s approach to their role in the score, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves more with their increased acquaintance with the score. For her part in the production, Nova worked with a few sets and costume accessories. In the SFS performance I came away feeling that Lemper’s performance was too much about Lemper, so I much preferred Nova’s capacity for “playing well with others.”

Nevertheless, while the Detroit performance used the English libretto, it is important to recognize that Weill’s scoring was not as kind to the words as it had been in the Brecht partnerships that led to The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. This was a video document that almost cried out for subtitles, and the impact of the libretto frequently suffered from their absence. Even though Slatkin did his best to manage the right dynamic balance between the frequently raucous score for the instruments and the need for vocal clarity, too many critical lines in the libretto never registered with the necessary impact.

I also feel a need to quibble with the lack of final credits after the conclusion of the performance. When the recording involves conductor, ensemble, and soloist, i can appreciate that the video ends when the music ends. In this case, however, there was not even an effort to identify the Hudson Shad vocalists by name, which, for me at least, felt like a great injustice. Similarly, this was a case in which the video director definitely deserved credit for balancing the activities in the minimal staging with key views of what was happening in the orchestra.

That said, Slatkin clearly knew how to present Weill to a concert audience; and the impact of that presentation can be counted for more than any of my quibbles!

Friday, April 24, 2020

DSO Fumbles Significant Video Opportunity

Every now and then an instrumental composition arises that practically calls out to be supplemented with visual stimuli. I am not talking about works that accompany activity on a stage (as in opera or ballet) or a screen (as in movie soundtracks). I am talking about a concert experience that engages the eye as much as the ears. One of the best examples is probably Benjamin Britten’s Opus 34 “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” which was originally commissioned for an educational documentary about the instruments of the orchestra but manages quite well in the concert hall where members of the audience can easily view “where the action is” as the variations for different instruments unfold.

“Become Ocean,” which won John Luther Adams the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, has the potential to be such a composition. Many of Adams’ works seem to have been conceived as reflections on his natural surroundings in environments such as Alaska. However, “Become Ocean” was conceived on a more global scale, best expressed by the text that was included with the album of this composition performed by the Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot:
Life on this earth first emerged from the sea.
Today, as the polar ice melts and sea level rises,
we humans face the prospect that we may once again,
quite literally, become ocean.
When I wrote about this recording for back in November of 2014, I approached the music as a more extended approach to a technique that Arnold Schoenberg had explored in 1909, which he called “Chord-Colors.” When Leonard Slatkin preceded his performance of “Become Ocean” with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) in February of 2019, he began by emphasizing the significance of auditory coloration in the score, perhaps overshadowing the more familiar factors of what we tend to recognize as themes. Slatkin’s performance was given video documentation, and that video is now part of the DSO Replay archive on the DSO Web site.

Leonard Slatkin’s “visual design” for his performance of “Become Ocean” (from the Web page for the performance being discussed)

For that performance Slatkin rearranged seating in such a way that different sections could be highlighted through lighting of different colors. The strings occupied the front. Behind them, to the left, were the winds, mirrored by the brass on the right. Two harps sat “at the boundary” between the strings and these two other sections, while the rear was occupied by the percussion.

I would like to believe that between the geometry of the layout and the lighting design, those in Orchestra Hall could follow all the activity churning behind Adams’ rhetoric of gradually changing sonorities and dynamics. Sadly, being there seems to have been the only way to appreciate the rich relationships between what one could see and the associated acts of listening. Those that decide to sample the resulting video are likely to find themselves somewhere along the scale between confusion and frustration.

The good news is that Slatkin’s conducting was clearly sensitive to the physical layout of all the factors that contribute to the overall sonorities. Between his conducting and no end of attentive balancing by his audio engineers, one could not only appreciate the “progression” of those “Chord-Colors” but also discern the “mixture of components” producing each of those colors. Sadly, such discernment would have been better facilitated by keeping one’s eyes closed. More often than not, the camera cues were looking in the wrong place, often observing musicians just sitting there and sometimes looking at a performer relegated below the range of audibility by the audio team. Particularly frustrating was the handling of the two harps, each of which had a distinctively different part to play; and almost always the camera was looking at the wrong one!

Thus, while Slatkin’s opening remarks could not have been more informative and while his overall management of the score was equally impressive, particularly in the few episodes of major shifts in dynamics, where the video is concerned, this is a performance that is best heard without being seen.

Glass and Stravinsky Violin Concertos on Sony

courtesy of Jensen Artists

COVID-19 seems to be taking a toll on the release of new recordings. A case in point of particular interest is a Sony Classical album of two violin concertos from different eras in the twentieth century. The earlier of these is Igor Stravinsky’s only violin concerto, composed in the key of D major. Completed in 1931, the piece is frequently presented as a model of his so-called “neoclassical” period, even if the primary influence comes from the baroque period. This selection contrasts with Philip Glass’ first violin concerto, first performed in 1987. The piece was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for soloist Paul Zukofsky; and, as its Wikipedia page observes, it was the composer’s “first full-scale venture into non-theatrical orchestral composing.”

On the new Sony recording the violin soloist is Zürich native David Nebel, working with the Estonian conductor Kristjan Järvi. The Glass concerto is performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, and the ensemble for the Stravinsky is the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. The album was originally scheduled for release at the beginning of this month. Currently, my best source for when it will actually be available is Barnes & Noble Booksellers (of course, of course), whose Web page is currently taking pre-orders with availability planned for one week from today, May 1. Somewhat to my surprise, I have not yet encountered a digital download site.

It is worth noting that each of these concertos has its own approach to reflecting on the pre-classical past. All of the movement forms of the Stravinsky concerto can be found in baroque sources: toccata, aria (used in two consecutive movements), and capriccio. The middle of the three movements of the Glass concerto, on the other hand, is basically a chaconne.

What may be more interesting is the attention that both composers gave to repetition. However, while “repetitive structures” have served as a foundation for Glass’ approaches to composition, Stravinsky was more interested in eccentricities arising from slight departures from strict repetition. That technique can be found at least as early as the music he composed for the crowd scenes in the ballet “Petrushka;” and the attentive listener will have no trouble encountering it throughout the three movements of his concerto.

As a result, this new album has the relatively unique quality of offering two compositions that can be appreciated for both similarities and differences. Nebel is particularly impressive through his capacity to bring expressiveness to the techniques of both composers without ever letting his personal expressions override those of the composers themselves. Given how much each composer packed into his approach to writing a concerto, this album is likely to hold up through frequent listening experiences.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

ASQ Brings Social Distancing to Haydn Recital

Since the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), consisting of violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson, has been Ensemble in Residence at San Francisco State University since 1989, it had never occurred to me that they would also have a residency on “the other coast.” I was therefore surprised to learn a week ago that they also held a residency at the Baruch Performing Arts Center (BPAC) of Baruch College in Manhattan. Under BPAC auspices they were invited to prepare a “cyberspace performance” of Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ in its string quartet version (Hoboken III/50–56).

This music has interesting history. It began as orchestral music to serve as meditations that would take place for each of the “Seven Words” at a Good Friday service in Cádiz. The original commission was for an oratorio; but Haydn provided a sequence of seven meditative “sonatas” framed by a Maestoso ed Adagio introduction and a concluding depiction of the earthquake (Presto e con tutta la forza) that following the Crucifixion. The music was commissioned in 1786 and published the following year, when it was performed in Cádiz. The year after that (1787), Haydn adapted the score for string quartet and later (in 1796) recast the music as an oratorio with a libretto of German pietist poetry. These days the quartet version tends to be the most familiar.

The “cyberspace” factor in the ASQ performance has to do with the fact that all of the performers were playing in their respective homes. As can be seen in this screen shot:

ASQ members (counter-clockwise from upper left) Zakarias Grafilo, Frederick Lifsitz, Paul Yarbrough, and Sandy Wilson (captured from the YouTube Web page)

all of them were “connected” through earbuds. I suspect that this was their only means of connection, since it is likely that the above “mosaic” display was only created after all four of the individual videos had been captured. Clearly, these are not the best of circumstances. As has been discussed frequently on this site, eye contact tends to be as crucial a factor in the performance of chamber music as is auditory awareness. In this particular setting it would not be reasonable to expect much more than a dutiful account of the marks on the score pages.

Those accounts were framed in “meditative contexts” that reflected the original intention for the music. Each movement following the Introduction was preceded by a reading of poetry or prose (or both) presented by one of the ASQ performers. There was no attempt to emulate the discourses presented at the original performance. Rather, all of the movements were framed in sources with decidedly contemporary connotations.

The entire video was screened last night (Eastern Time) as a “live” YouTube video. That YouTube Web page is now set up to replay the performance, and it will be available through May 6. That Web page, in turn, provides a hyperlink to the program notes, which include a background essay by Eric Bromberger and all of the texts (with appropriate citations) of the “meditations” that take place between the movements. This offering may not capture the immediacy that one expects of a chamber music recital, but it is impressive for the imaginative approach taken to production.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Live-Stream Mozart from Opera San José

This month Opera San José was scheduled to conclude its season with a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. By way of compensation for the cancellation of this project due to COVID-19, the company has provided a live-stream source for an earlier Mozart production, the K. 366 Idomeneo. This performance was given in 2011, and it has many merits.

Most importantly, the conductor for this production was George Cleve, best known for his annual Midsummer Mozart Festival, which he produced until his death in August of 2015. This video document allows one to appreciate the full diversity of Cleve’s approach to conducting Mozart, including instrumental sections, vocal solos, choral work, and even ballet music. The latter, in turn, was given choreography by Dennis Nahat and was performed by Ballet San Jose, which disbanded in 2016.

Idomeneo is half a decade earlier than the K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro, the first of the three operas with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The Idomeneo libretto by Giambattista Varesco is a far cry from Da Ponte. Nevertheless, the expressiveness of Mozart’s music tends to rise above many of the melodramatic shortcomings of Varesco’s libretto.

The plot is set following the end of the Trojan War. Poseidon had been a supporter of the victorious Greeks but then turned on them. The best example of his wrath can be found in what he did to Odysseus. Where Idomeneus was concerned, Poseidon’s vengeance was not as prolonged. He was allowed to sail safely back to Crete but only if he would then sacrifice the first person he saw upon his return. Naturally, that person turned out to be his son; and Poseidon’s curse becomes the basis for the plot in Varesco’s libretto.

That libretto involves more characters than one might imagine and a fair amount of complexity before a peaceful solution emerges. However, in the midst of all of that complexity, Mozart’s music consistently endows the many characters in this opera with believable and sympathetic motives. At least this is the case during the first two acts, in which more and more complications arise in the wake of the curse placed on the title character. In order to resolve all of those complications, the third act is much longer in duration; and, for all the acute sensitivities of Mozart’s music, it tends to feel as if it goes on forever, even with Cleve’s consistently reliable sense of tempo.

Fortunately, the Web page for streaming the video of this opera has provided separate files for each of the three acts. There is much to be said for watching the first two acts and then allowing a significant interval of time to lapse before launching into the third act. (The files will be available through May 18.) The viewer will then be at less risk of giving into fatigue before all the the complications are resolved (and will probably be more patient with the extended ballet that takes place before the final chorus).

While all of the vocalists presented a solid and informed account of Mozart’s music, there is no question that the greatest asset of this recording is Cleve himself. He knew how to manage every level of detail for both the instrumentalists and the vocalists. (There is a full cast listing on the Web page.) Mozart never sounded better, and we are all the better for having such a well-produced document of Cleve’s interpretation of this particular score.

Graindelavoix Records Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Music

Sixteenth-century portrait of Carlo Gesualdo (artist unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

At the end of last week, the Spanish Glossa label released its latest recording of the a cappella choir Graindelavoix, led by Director Björn Schmelzer. The composition of this ensemble tends to vary on the basis of the music being performed. The title of the new album is Tenebrae; and it consists of the music that Carlo Gesualdo composed for the three Tenebrae services on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, respectively. Those following the above hyperlink to will see that this is an album of three compact discs. It is being sold by the Classical Music Superstore, which is handling the shipping.

The one-to-a-part performances in this new release require eight voices, many of whom sang on the last Graindelavoix album discussed on this site, The Liberation of the Gothic. Again, the only two women are the same sopranos: Anne-Kathryn Olsen and Carine Tinney. The male vocalists are alto Razek-François Bitar, tenors Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete, Marius Peterson, and Adrian Sîrbu, and bass Arnout Malfliet.

Tenebrae Responsoria was Gesualdo’s final publication, released in 1611, the same year as the publication of his six (and final) book of madrigals. For all intents and purposes, the settings of the Tenebrae texts follow the same techniques one encounters in Gesualdo’s madrigals. Only the nature of the texts has changed, although the substance of those changes may be less than one might expect.

For better or worse, Gesualdo is best known for having killed his first wife and her aristocratic lover after finding them in flagrante delicto. His Wikipedia page tries to establish this as a context for his style of musical composition:
The evidence that Gesualdo was tortured by guilt for the remainder of his life is considerable, and he may have given expression to it in his music.
As far as I am concerned, “may have” are the operative words in that assertion. I prefer to think of Gesualdo as a madrigalist inclined to set highly emotional texts without dwelling excessively on what drew him to those texts. What is more important is that the emotions in the words led to his exploring highly unfamiliar uses of chromatic pitches for both sharply dissonant harmonies and sinuous melodic lines. That same Wikipedia source cites Gesualdo as including all twelve chromatic pitches in a single phrase, deploying them in both simultaneous and sequential relations. Those relations so fascinated Igor Stravinsky that he prepared instrumental versions of three of those madrigals to honor the 400th anniversary of Gesualdo’s birth, two from the fifth book and one from the final sixth book.

It should be no surprise that the disquieting connotations of such dissonances should find their way into sacred music associated with the annual commemoration of the Crucifixion. To be fair, however, in the context of the wide diversity of music composed during the twentieth century, dissonance is not what it used to be. It is thus unlikely that Gesualdo’s Tenebrae settings will evoke painful reflections on either the suffering of Jesus or the texts drawn from the Old Testament Book of Lamentations. Nevertheless, one can still appreciate how much prodigious invention has gone into polyphonic treatment of the Tenebrae texts. Such appreciation will provide more than adequate grounds for the satisfaction of the attentive listener.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Balanchine Launches NYCB “Digital Season”

I just finished watching the first live broadcast through YouTube of what the New York City Ballet (NYCB) is calling its “Digital Spring Season.” For six weeks NYCB will broadcast full ballets and excerpts twice a week. Tuesdays will be devoted to the works of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Fridays will present ballets by contemporary choreographers, including Kyle Abraham, Pam Tanowitz, and Alexei Ratmansky.

It seemed appropriate that this evening the season would begin with one of the best known of Balanchine’s works, “Allegro Brillante.” The music for this ballet is by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, his Opus posthumous 75 (third) piano concerto in E-flat major, which survives as only the first movement. The choreography features one female and one male soloist (Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette), accompanied by a corps of four women and four men. The NYCB Orchestra is conducted by Music Director Andrew Litton, and the piano soloist is Susan Walters. The recording was made on January 18, 2017.

Balanchine himself described “Allegro Brillante” as “everything I know about classical ballet in thirteen minutes.” He created it in 1956 and one can certainly make a case that it is in the top five of his catalog, if not the very top. It is one of those rare examples of a ballet whose experience can be enhanced by video direction sensitive to the geometrical patterns best seen from directly above interleaved with the more “standard” front-and-center point of view.

Back in the days when I was writing about dance, I lost track of the number of times I saw “Allegro Brillante,” as well as the number of companies I saw performing it. Thus, in many respects, this evening amounted to encountering an old friend I had not seen in decades. What was interesting is how the cultivation of my capacity for listening quickly meshed with my capacity for observation that, in turn, reflected on past encounters with the ballet.

Because the opening section of the concerto is played before the curtain rises, it should not be a surprise that the dancers are already energetically at work when we see them for the first time. Those who dislike Balanchine accuse him of treating his company as if it were a machine. Even if one accepts that premise, there is no arguing with the elegance of the mechanics! The best way to describe the structure is as the smooth flow of an abundant variety of geometrical shapes, each of which pauses long enough to register with the eyes before moving on to the next one.

Mind you, this is a technique that goes all the way back to “Serenade,” the first ballet Balanchine created in the United States. However, the abstractions of “Serenade” gradually give way to a poignant narrative. A foundation of the dynamics of shapes in motion presented with no need of narrative only emerged later through such ballets as “Concerto Barocco,” “The Four Temperaments,” and “Symphony in C,” the last of which continues to leave my jaw dropping in the face of its diversity.

Nevertheless, I appreciate Balanchine’s own evaluation, simply because he was able to distill so much content into so little clock-time. It is almost the case that “Allegro Brillante” is over before you know it; and you feel as if you barely had enough time to process it. The good news is that the YouTube Web page for the live stream will remain available for the next three days. My guess is that those choosing to return for another visit will be surprised at seeing shapes and flows that they had not previously recalled!

“Allegro Brillante” is almost 65 years old; but, through the freshness of the performance captured on this video document, the ballet never shows its age!

An Introduction to Morton Feldman from SFCMP

Those following the concert offerings of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) probably know about the pre-performance demonstrations and discussions that are prepared by Artistic Director Eric Dudley under the title How Music is Made. In response to the current shelter-in-place imposed in the interest of social distancing, Dudley has taken How Music is Made into cyberspace with “ONLINE series” programming enabled through the SFCMP YouTube Channel. Each of these programs will involve a video document of the performance of a single composition preceded by an introduction presented by (as SFCMP has put it) “some of contemporary music’s most inspired personalities.”

The first offering in this series was released this past Friday, but today provided my first opportunity to check out the viewing/listening experience. The performance was of Morton Feldman’s “For Samuel Beckett,” which was captured on video when it was conducted by Steven Schick in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on January 19, 2016. The introductory presentation was delivered by the young composer Amadeus Regucera. Regular readers may recall that percussionist Andy Meyerson played Regucera’s bass drum solo, “IMY/ILY” as part of the “Humble Servant” concert he presented this past September.

The Feldman selection was definitely a bold choice for launching this series. For over half a century I have been listening to Feldman’s music going all the way back to the early pieces he composed in his days with John Cage as part of what is now called “The New York School.” That was a time when Feldman was exploring indeterminacy with scores consisting of rectangles on graph paper, allowing performers extensive opportunities for choice.

In his “post-Cage” period, Feldman would return to working with conventional notation. He tended to conceive structures that seemed repetitive on the surface but were distinguished by subtle differences. As his work progressed, his compositions took on longer and longer durations, leading to the completion of his second string quartet in 1983 that requires a little over six hours to perform.

Olesya Aleksandrovna Denisova’s portrait of Mark Rothko standing before one of his paintings (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Rather than taking a historical perspective, Regucera chose to focus on Feldman’s relationship to the painters of his time, dwelling particularly on Mark Rothko. He drew attention to the large dimensions of the paintings that Rothko began to create during the mid-Fifties. Regucera observed that, 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. The “message” from that observation is that a sensory impression that seemed almost uniform “in the large” concealed no end of subtle details “in the small.”

That observation may have provided the best possible frame of mind for approaching “For Samuel Beckett.” Images of specific score pages suggest that the music involved relatively short repetitive structures that would endure for considerable time. However, where the actual listening experience is concerned, Feldman introduces subtle interruptions to repetition. These interruptions are separated by significant intervals of time, so long that one cannot develop viable expectations for when they are likely to occur. Rather, they keep the listener attending to the small as the only way to appreciate change when it occurs.

In this context I found that, while listening to this music, I was recalling the penultimate sentence that is narrated at the end of the third movement of Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia.”
We must collect our thoughts, for the unexpected is always upon us.
Repetitions are disrupted by unexpected changes, but those changes establish impact precisely by being unexpected. Feldman did not want listeners to approach “For Samuel Beckett” with the same confidence that faces the disruptive out-of-key recapitulation that undermines the flow of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major (which almost all listeners enjoy by virtue of expecting it)!

One can probably say that the best way to approach compositions like “For Samuel Beckett” is with attentive patience. Sustaining such patience over the duration of an hour is no easy matter. On the other hand a video document of a performance may have the upper hand when it comes to encouraging that approach.

One is not obliged to maintain a high level of attention for an entire hour. One can begin by acclimating to, say, about one quarter of that duration. Then one might extend one’s capacity for attention to roughly half an hour. In other words, like Feldman himself, the curious listener can adjust to sustaining durations of attention for longer and longer periods until one can stand before “Feldman’s canvas” (so to speak), aware of both the overall scale and the subtleties of detail.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Karina Canellakis’ Shostakovich in Detroit

One of the high points in our foreshortened season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) came this past October with the debut of conductor Karina Canellakis. Indeed, I had no trouble “jumping the gun” on the significance of her visit when, at the end of the calendar year, I designated her visit to Davies Symphony Hall as the most memorable one to be given in the month of October. That recognition was due in no small part to the performance she had prepared of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 60 (seventh) symphony, dedicated “To the City of Leningrad.” While many have dismissed this symphony as little more than militarist clichés, Canellakis brought genuine intensity to her reading of the score, reflecting not only the stress that the composer endured during the siege of Leningrad but also his insistent belief that there would be light at the end of the tunnel.

Shostakovich actually began work on this symphony in the wake of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, but his frame of mind shifted with the onset of the siege on September 8, 1941. The symphony was completed in December, but the siege would continue until January 17, 1944. Thus, the final movement of Opus 60 is an envisaged future that would not be realized for several years.

In this context I was intrigued that the DSO (Detroit Symphony Orchestra) Replay Web site included a performance of Canellakis conducting Shostakovich’s following symphony, the Opus 65 (eighth) in C minor on January 27, 2019. This one was written in the summer of 1943, and the end of the siege was far from in sight. Indeed, conditions were so trying that Shostakovich had pretty much lost the ability for any sort of a positive rhetorical stance. As a result, his friend Isaak Glikman described Opus 65 as the composer’s “most tragic work.” There are few that would disagree with this assessment. Ironically, SFS had given three performances of Opus 65 in its preceding season, chosen for the program at the end of May of 2019 by visiting conductor Juraj Valčuha.

Karina Canellakis conveying the intensity of Shostakovich’s Opus 65 symphony (screen shot from the video being discussed)

To call a performance of Opus 65 “satisfying” suggests that one has missed the point of the composer’s intentions. Canellakis clearly understood the many devices through which Shostakovich expressed in music that the ongoing siege of Leningrad had brought him to the end of his rope. Indeed, it is almost difficult to applaud after the final gasp the the fifth movement; but there was clearly a need to break the tension that Canellakis had established in her interpretation. Applause was the best way to come down to earth, although many would have heaved an enormous sigh of relief prior to acknowledging just how perceptive and compelling the performance had been.

I suspect that there will be some that will try to recast the emotions of Opus 65 in the current global context. Personally, I feel that a reality check is in order. Leningrad had been under siege for a little less than two years. We are now in a period of restricted movement and interaction that has not lasted even two months. When we reflect on dark times in the past, we should give those times due respect; but any attempt to view those times as a context for the present would be short-sighted, to say the least.

Spirituals and Freedom Songs from Lara Downes

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

At the beginning of this month Flipside Music released Some of These Days, the latest album of pianist Lara Downes. Consistent with prevailing practices, this recording is currently available only for streaming or MP3 download. In many ways the new album serves as a complement to Downes’ America Again album, which was released on October of 2016. However, while the earlier release consisted entirely of solo performances, the cover of Some of These Days credits “Lara Downes & Friends.” Those friends enable a diverse approach to arrangements of the selections, some composed and a few traditional. This makes for an innovative mix of spirituals and freedom songs, all of which can be taken as a reflection on the source for the America Again title, Langston Hughes. Indeed, the very title of the new album has its roots in the text of the African-American spiritual “Welcome Table.”

That title also finds its way to the final track of the album. This is Downes’ solo arrangement of “Some ’o These Days,” based, itself, on a spiritual arrangement originally composed by Florence Price for voice and piano. Price is the only composer on Some of These Days that had previously appeared on America Again. On that earlier release, Downes had played the first in a series of compositions entitled Fantasie nègre in E minor. Based on the spiritual “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass,” this composition for solo piano was completed in 1929 and revised in 1931. The new release follows up with a performance of the second piece in the series in the key of G minor, completed in 1932. (According to Price’s Wikipedia page, Downes gave the premiere performance of the last of the four pieces in this series this past November.)

Taken as a whole, all of the arrangements on Some of These Days are true to their respective sources, frequently bringing a new character perspective to familiar tunes. My favorite would have to be “Steal Away,” in which Downes partners with guitarist Toshi Reagon, who also sings the text. However, this is very much a “meeting of minds” partnership, since Downes weaves into the spiritual tune a few of the key motifs encountered in the third movement of Charles Ives’ second piano sonata. That sonata was given the title “Concord, Mass., 1840–60;” and each movement is named for individuals from Concord associated with transcendentalist philosophy. The third movement is devoted to Bronson Alcott and Louisa May Alcott (with a clear nod to Ludwig van Beethoven and possibly Richard Wagner).

The album concludes with an “appendix” in the form of a conversation between Downes and Jacqueline Woodson, which addresses many of the cultural factors associated with the music presented in the preceding tracks. About half a decade ago, Downes curated a series of programs under the rubric The Artist Sessions. Each of these amounted to a conversation with another musician interleaved with performances. This was an engaging series, due in no small part to Downes’ skills as an interviewer in making sure that the discussion was based on the guest, rather than the interviewer! Given the cultural context of the selections for Some of These Days, that conversation makes for an engaging and informative development of contextual background.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Nicholas McGegan on DSO Replay

English composer (now a New York resident) Anna Clyne (photograph by Jennifer Taylor, from the Boosey & Hawkes News Web page about the United States debut of “Three Sisters”)

My latest adventure in exploring a performance on the DSO (Detroit Symphony Orchestra) Replay Web site motivated by a “watch party” invitation involved experiencing both a conductor and a soloist associated with my San Francisco listening experiences. The conductor was Nicholas McGegan; and, unless I am mistaken, this was my first opportunity to listen to him lead an ensemble with “modern,” rather than “historical” instruments. The soloist was mandolinist Avi Avital, whom I had not encountered since he had been the featured guest in a concert by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in March of 2010.

The performance itself was the United States premiere of Anna Clyne’s “Three Sisters,” a three-movement concerto for mandolin and string orchestra. The concert took place on April 27, 2019; and, in the program he had prepared, McGegan coupled Clyne’s composition with Antonio Vivaldi’s R. 425 concerto for mandolin and strings in C major. To be fair, Clyne herself did not take Vivaldi as a point of departure for her concerto; and, to clear up another potential misconception, the concerto does not seem to have anything to do with Anton Chekhov.

The work resulted from Clyne having won the 2016 Hindemith Prize, which entailed a commission by the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival. It was written for Avital and Kremerata Baltica, and they gave the world premiere performance during the 2017 Festival in Hamburg. The title refers to the three stars that form the belt in the constellation of Orion. As Clyne put it, she turned her impressions of those stars in the night sky into “three portraits … sharing the same DNA in varying guises.”

Just what these portraits are may elude even the most attentive listener, but there is no mistaking that each movement has its own unique character. As a result, Avital has the opportunity to exercise a wide scope of his technical talents, almost all of which depart from what we usually expect to hear from a mandolin (even when Vivaldi is the composer). Indeed, about the only expectation that might be satisfied is the overall fast-slow-fast tempo structure that Clyne shares with Vivaldi.

Those watching this video will see the microphone placed close to Avital’s instrument. I have no idea whether this was used for more than recording performances. I do recall listening to Avital in Herbst Theatre without the assistance of amplification, but the hall in which DSO performs is much larger. I would hope that amplification was not required for the audience, particularly since it might have interfered with Avital’s interactions with soloists in the string section.

Regardless of any “programmatic” inspiration, Clyne’s concerto is rich with engaging listening experiences coming from both the soloist and the accompanists. As those of us familiar with McGegan’s work in San Francisco would expect, he knew how to bring out the full scope of those experiences. The result amounted to an irresistible blend of past and contemporary aesthetic sensibilities, likely to hold up to many subsequent listening experiences.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Familiar Comedy Balances Unfamiliar Tragedy

Once again I decided to turn to YouTube to experience an opera performance in cyberspace. This time the occasion was a double bill of one-act operas presented by the Livermore Valley Opera last month. The first half of the program was devoted to Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Opus 16 opera “Eine florentinische Tragödie” (a Florentine tragedy). This was followed by Giacomo Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” the last of the three one-act operas he collected under the title Il trittico (the triptych). Each opera was given its own YouTube file (hence the two hyperlinks). Both operas were staged by Layna Chianakas, and the conductor was Alex Katsman.

Zemlinsky’s Opus 16, composed in 1916, involves an “eternal triangle” narrative based on “A Florentine Tragedy,” the only fragment of a play that Oscar Wilde never completed. Perhaps the most significant context for the narrative is that of Richard Strauss’ Opus 59 comic opera Der Rosenkavalier (the knight of the rose), first performed in 1911. It is generally taken for granted that the introductory music that precedes the raising of the curtain is intended to depict a series of highly energetic acts of sexual congress, and it does not take very much imagination to recognize what the fanfare-like passage for the French horns represents. When the curtain rises, the very first words of the libretto are basically a variation on, “Was it good for you, too?”

Zemlinsky’s overture is just as explicit, however in the staging by Chianakas, the lights come up on the stage almost immediately. Unfortunately, the eroticism of the score is somewhat undermined. We first see the merchant Simone (Robert Mellon) taking leave of his wife Bianca (Anush Avetisyan), after which Bianca’s lover Guido Bardi (Michael Day) makes his first appearance; and the “action” begins to reflect the music. Since the text itself begins with Simone returning home, Chianakas’ conception is a little more than inconsistent. However, once she starts working from the libretto itself, rather than the instrumental music, she becomes far more effective in her staging.

Nevertheless, there is still a problem in the overall setting. According to the synopsis given on the YouTube page, the opera takes place in Florence in 1917 (the year in which it was first performed); and this is definitely consistent with the costumes. However, Wilde’s setting was sixteenth-century Florence, which provides a clearer context for the motives behind the libretto.

Simone (Robert Mellon) showing his wares to Guido Bardi (Michael Day) while his wife (Anush Avetisyan) looks on suspiciously (photograph by Barbara Mallon, from the Facebook photo album for “A Florentine Tragedy”)

With the status of a prince, Guido Bardi is only accountable to his royal father and basically has carte blanche for any other activities. Simone, on the other hand, is a prosperous merchant but must still “know his place” in the presence of royalty. Regardless of how Wilde would have completed his play, in the opera libretto based on Max Meyerfeld’s translation of Wilde, Simone has no trouble understanding what the prince is doing in his house; but, at the same time, he knows that his future demands that he “know his place” in such a situation.

That context does not translate readily into 1917. Nevertheless, Chianakas’ direction goes a long way towards developing the motives of each of the three characters, even if those motives are occasionally anachronistic. In other words she lets the love triangle unfold according to the text of the libretto; and, for the most part, she avoids any significant pitfalls of anachronism.

At this point it is important to observe that the libretto itself concludes with one of the most outrageous punch lines of any narrative. The shock value is so strong that I would prefer not to disclose it for the benefit of those that have not seen this opera in performance or read its libretto. Similarly, those seeing this opera for the first time would do well to pass on the synopsis text provided on the YouTube Web page. Suffice it to say that Chianakas appreciated the impact of that punch line and did not short-change it in the least.

Indeed, my only source of discontent involves the nature of the video itself. The titles have been consigned to the very bottom of the screen. This is not a problem when viewing this video on a computer. However, I decided to try watching it through the YouTube app provided by the xfinity cable service. Due to the difference in aspect ratios, the bottom line of the titles was often obscured. Given my familiarity with the libretto, this was not a major problem for me; but I figured that a cautionary observation should be offered.

Where “Gianni Schicchi” was concerned, however, this “technical difficulty” was more noticeable. Probably for reasons of bandwidth, the clarity of the xfinity image was decidedly poorer than that encountered on my computer. (Mind you, this may be a matter of the computer having a connection with better bandwidth than the bandwidth feeding into my cable box.)

Fortunately, bandwidth was the only problem where this second opera was involved. Chianakas’ approach to the libretto Giovacchino Forzano prepared for Puccini never missed a trick, and she probably pulled a few rabbits of her own out of her hat. (The ceramic dog by the side of the bed counts as one of those rabbits.)

In addition “Gianni Schicchi” is the only opera of the two on the program with a show-stopping aria. That, of course, is Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro,” which was sung by Avetisyan with all the sincerity necessary to make it sound convincing. (I still remember Patricia Racette’s delivery for the Fall 2009 season of the San Francisco Opera, when she pre-empted applause with a fit of bawling that could well have been inspired by Edward Gorey’s “The Beastly Baby.”) It was interesting to see Avetisyan coupled again with Day as Rinuccio, this time engaged in a less illicit relationship. On the other hand Mellon returned as Schicchi; and it was delightful to see him in a less menacing character, attentive to every detail (including the citation of Dante Alighieri in the epilogue). (The other feature that linked the two operas is that both sets had the same view of Florence in the background.)

I remember first hearing about this program near the beginning of the season. For better or worse, I now rely almost entirely on public transportation, and my driver’s license has been replaced by the Senior Citizen Identification Card issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles. I could not have been more delighted to learn that Livermore Valley Opera had prepared these video documents. For me they were the best possible alternative to being there.