Sunday, May 31, 2020

You Can’t Heal What You Can’t Diagnose

I feel a bit sorry for mayors and governors currently trying to deal with a growing pandemic that has nothing to do with medicine. Rather, it is the pandemic of outrage aimed at a prevailing social context that is more obsessed with economic value, rather than the productivity and well-being of the overall population. The outrage may have been triggered by what appears to be deliberate brutality motivated by racism, but that trigger may be part of a larger context in which the very idea of a healthy society has gone by the wayside. I would like to suggest that there are two key aspects of this malady, which are unlikely to be addressed under the current conditions of governance.

One of these is poverty. When one considers how much of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the one percent of the one percent, it should be no surprise at the intimidating magnitude of the number of those than cannot earn a wage sufficient to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Indeed, wealth resides with those that do not have to worry about those three factors. To them productivity is simply a matter of manipulating instruments whose only design is to transform wealth into more wealth. Associating productivity with any particular “product” is irrelevant when the health of an enterprise is measured only by the value of the stock it issues on a major exchange. Until attention is redirected towards both productive workers and satisfied consumers, those that are not part of the one percent of the one percent will be ignored by any excuse for a social contract.

The other aspect is health; and, to some extent, it is related to the circumstances behind poverty and the consequences of those circumstances. During my lifetime I have observed the very idea of health care devolve from a public service to a network of private enterprises, all of which prioritize positions on stock exchanges over the effectiveness of all levels of practitioners and the effective treatment of those served by those practitioners. In other words health care, by virtue of having been industrialized, has become yet another puppet whose strings are pulled by the one percent of the one percent.

The idea of a social contract was originally conceived as a model for the relationship between the individual and the state. However, similar contracts must exist between an individual and those organizations with which that individual must interact. Interaction may involve provisions, employment, or ongoing relationships, such as health maintenance rather than treating maladies after they arise. For the one percent of the one percent, however, any instance of a social contract is nothing other than a fiction of convenience that will “keep the outsiders in their place.” Until countries around the world develop and maintain more equitable approaches to the management of wealth and health, those “outsiders” will continue to wallow in discontent. That discontent will continue to lead to frustration, that frustration will lead to pots that cause damage when they boil over too energetically.

A Video to Preview Next Season’s Opera

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

Readers may recall that, in a little less than a year, San Francisco Opera (SFO) will be concluding its 2020–21 season with its premiere production of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Opus 17 one-act opera “Der Zwerg” (the dwarf). Furthermore, a little over a month ago, this site reported on a video of another Zemlinsky opera by the Livermore Valley Opera. That opera was the composer’s Opus 16, “Eine florentinische Tragödie” (a Florentine tragedy), whose libretto was a German translation of a fragment of a play of the same title that Oscar Wilde never completed. Similarly, Opus 17 is based on one of Wilde’s short stories, “The Birthday of the Infanta,” which was turned into a libretto by Georg Klaren. Zemlinsky completed the score in January of 1921, and the opera was first performed on May 28, 1922. Those curious about what to expect may wish to view a video of “Der Zwerg” released by Naxos in both Blu-ray and DVD formats.

The video documents a production by Deutsche Oper Berlin with capture sessions on March 27 and 30, 2019. Staging was by Tobias Kratzer, and the conductor was Donald Runnicles. This is not the production that will be brought to the War Memorial Opera House. SFO will be presenting a staging created for the Los Angeles Opera, directed by Darko Tresnjak. The conductor in San Francisco will be Henrik Nánási.

The duration of “Der Zwerg” is about 90 minutes (performed without an intermission). Kratzer decided to provide the Berlin audience with a more extended production by providing a prologue for the program. The music he used for this prologue was Arnold Schoenberg’s “Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene” (accompanying music to a film scene), the composer’s Opus 30, completed in 1930. This music accompanied staging depicting Zemlinsky’s passionate affair with Alma Schindler (who would later marry Gustav Mahler), interpreted as a music lesson involving both of them at a piano keyboard. The respective roles were taken by two pianists, Evgeny Nikiforov and Adelle Eslinger-Runnicles. The stage design was almost entirely in black and white, the only exception being the hot pink of Schindler’s dress. Basically, Kratzer used the story of Zemlinsky’s frustrated passions for Schindler to prepare the audience for the similar frustration encountered by the dwarf in Wilde’s story, the major difference being that the dwarf dies in Wilde’s narrative.

Wilde’s text does not provide a specific date for his tale. Nevertheless, the opening section of the story serves up a few key suggestions that this is all happening in roughly the same time frame that we associate with Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Don Carlo. In Wilde’s version the Spanish Infanta has just turned twelve. Klaren’s libretto, on the other hand, takes place on her eighteenth birthday, making it clear that sexual awakening is part of the narrative. Kratzer then does Klaren one better, giving the opera a contemporary (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic) staging.

The Infanta (soprano Elena Tsallagova) is clearly the spoiled child of a very wealthy family, so wealthy that we never see any of them. We only see servants and friends; and, as one might guess, both Infanta and friends are expensively attired in flashy outfits, just right for sharing lots of photographs taken with cell phones. What threatens to be a contrivance actually works out rather well. The fact is that Wilde had no sympathy for either the Infanta or the dwarf that is presented to her as a birthday present by some sultan of a distant unnamed land. Thus, in Kratzer’s staging, the over-priced trendy shoe make the perfect fit for the self-indulgent teenaged Infanta.

The story revolves around the fact that the dwarf has no idea of his physical ugliness. Those that have kept and protected him made sure that he would never encounter a mirror. He is thus a curiosity to the Infanta. Unfortunately, he misinterprets the interest she shows in him as a sign of love; and, as might be expected, things go very badly from there to the end of the tale, in which the Infanta is too self-absorbed to realize that the dwarf has died after confronting his image in a mirror.

In staging this opera Kratzer decided to double-cast the dwarf. Zemlinsky scored the dwarf’s part for tenor, and in this performance that part is sung by David Butt Philip. However, because Philip is of normal size, Kratzer cast an actual dwarf, Mick Morris Mehnert, to mime the part. Both of them are on stage at the same time, and Kratzer engages several intriguing devices to depict the difference between how the dwarf imagines himself to be and how he really is.

I initially chose to view this video to familiarize myself with both the narrative of the libretto and Zemlinsky’s music, which I tend to enjoy in just about every genre that I have encountered. However, for those planning to see the SFO production next year, I have to confess that I am a bit cautious in recommending this video for advance preparation. Kratzer’s staging is so intense, even without the prologue, that I am concerned that it may raise conflicting expectations were the approach Tresnjak took for Los Angeles is concerned.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Telling the du Pré Story Through Choreography

Yesterday the Royal Opera House launched a YouTube video serving as the Premiere stream of The Royal Ballet performing “The Cellist,” a one-hour one-act ballet, choreographed by Cathy Marston, based on the life of cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Du Pré was born about eighteen months earlier than I was, meaning that she was coming to public attention not long before I began my freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, by the time I was beginning my first job after having received my doctoral degree, du Pré was experiencing the first signs of multiple sclerosis. She was “officially” diagnosed with the debilitating disease in October of 1973. She lived for another fourteen years, dying at the age of 42, but was never able to play the cello after her last public concerts in February of 1973.

Those of generations later than mine may know this story through Anand Tucker’s 1998 film Hilary and Jackie. The screenplay by Frank Cottrell-Boyce was based on conversations with both du Pré’s sister Hilary and her brother Piers. The film did not go down well with many that were close to Jackie, but those less personally involved reacted far more positively. My own impressions were, for the most part, positive; but I was far from a “cult follower” of Jackie’s work. Indeed, to this day, I do not have any of her recordings. I feel that this allows me to approach “The Cellist” with an acceptable level of objectivity.

That said, I would argue that does who do not already know Jackie’s story may have trouble following Marston’s scenario. Indeed, no names are attached to the members of the cast. Dancing the title role, Lauren Cuthbertson is listed only as “The Cellist.” However, what makes the choreography particularly interesting is that the core of the narrative is organized around Jackie’s relationship with her instrument. As a result, the instrument is embodied in a male dancer (Marcelino Sambé); and Marston’s choreography of the relationship between performer and instrument may well be recognized as a landmark in the history of narrative ballet.
 
The Mother (Kristen McNally) giving her daughter (Emma Lucano) her first lesson on the cello (Marcelino Sambé)

The other members of the du Pré family are not given very much attention with the exception of Jackie’s mother (danced by Kristen McNally), who gave Jackie her first cello lessons. More interesting is how Marston deals with the rise of du Pré’s recognition. The core character here is “The Conductor,” danced by Mathew Ball. This is clearly Daniel Barenboim, who was primarily a pianist when he met Jackie and for most of her remaining life. (The Wikipedia page for Hilary and Jackie includes a Barenboim quote about the film taken from an article in The National Review: “Couldn’t they have waited until I was dead?”)

Jackie converted to Judaism to marry Barenboim, and the wedding took place at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They became two-fifths of what was casually known as the “Kosher Nostra” (with absolutely no connotations of Jewish-American organized crime), the other three musicians being Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (violist), and Zubin Mehta (conductor). There was a very famous concert in London when all five of them convened to play Franz Schubert’s D. 667 (“Trout”) quintet, with Mehta playing the double bass part. Like many “all-star” events, the performance served up more spectacle than musicianship; but the event found its way into Marston’s choreography. In the absence of names, there is never any attempt to align dancers Luca Acri, Paul Kay, and Joseph Sissens with Perlman, Zukerman, and Mehta. Nevertheless, the score by Marston’s composer, Philip Feeney, serves up a generous amount of quotation of music from D. 667; so those who know the basic biography will easily recognize what is being depicted.

Feeney’s quotations also include many excerpts from Edward Elgar’s Opus 85 cello concerto in E minor. This was what Jackie performed at her concerto debut on March 21, 1962, having given her recital debut about a year earlier in Wigmore Hall in London. That episode is actually “previewed” in Marston’s scenario when the young Jackie (danced by Emma Lucano) holds up the record album of Elgar’s concerto being performed by cellist Paul Tortelier with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult. (The image captured by the camera was impressively clear, but could anyone in the audience see those details?)

All in all, Marston did an impressive job of packing a generous amount of narrative detail into a one-hour ballet. I was a bit skeptical at the beginning, but she had won me over by the time the curtain descended. To be fair, however, I knew the “real-life” narrative from the very beginning, meaning that much of my observation had to do with which episodes would be included and how they would be represented. Clearly, I cannot speak for those less familiar with the life and works of Jacqueline de Pré.

Seldom-Heard Quintets from Takács and Ohlsson

courtesy of PIAS

Yesterday Hyperion Records released its latest album of the Takács Quartet, consisting of violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér (the only remaining member of the quartet that was there when it was formed in Budapest in 1975). The album is devoted to two piano quintets, both of which get far less attention than they deserve. It begins with Amy Beach’s Opus 67 quintet in F-sharp minor, composed in 1907. This is followed by Edward Elgar’s Opus 84 quintet in A minor, which he completed in 1919. The pianist for these recordings is Garrick Ohlsson.

Given how difficult it is to encounter either of these compositions, I should consider myself lucky to have experienced both of them in recital before having the chance to listen to either on a recording. Furthermore, both of those encounters were here in California. (New Yorkers take note!) I first heard the Elgar at a chamber music recital in Santa Rosa in the late Eighties, when my wife and I were living in Los Angeles but had no trouble driving some distance to a promising performance. Not long afterwards I found a Meridian Records CD of the quintet performed by The Medici Quartet with pianist John Bingham, and it has remained one of the more frequently played CDs in my collection.

I have the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to thank for my first encounter with the Beach quintet. This took place in the fall of 2008 at a time when the San Francisco Public Library had prepared an exhibit organized around the time that Beach had spent living in San Francisco. Actually, SFCM provided an opportunity to listen to the quintet two times in close succession. The first occasion was a recital by pianist William Wellborn performing with the Ives Quartet. This was followed, one month later, by a String and Piano Chamber Music student recital. Ironically, I did not have a recording of this quintet until this new Hyperion release.

As a performing pianist, Beach was familiar with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 34 piano quintet in F minor, and the notes for the Hyperion booklet by Nigel Simeone suggest how that earlier piece may have influenced Beach’s composition. To evoke a metaphor I acquired from pianist Peter Grunberg, Brahms may be down there in “the engine room” of Beach’s quintet; but what she was doing with the music up on deck is an entirely different matter. For one thing there is an “Adagio rhetoric” that permeates the entire quintet, allowing more intense rapidity to emerge only in the last of the three movements. Furthermore, Simeone’s suggesting “elements of the ‘Brahms’ theme” most likely tells us more about Simeone than about Beach. There are more than enough reasons for the attentive listener to take her Opus 67 quintet on its own terms and reap all the satisfaction derived from that approach; and this recording provides ample opportunities to experience that satisfaction.

The Elgar quintet, on the other hand, is unquestionably Elgar through and through. Over the course of his life, the composer had to contend with dark moods; and the quintet was composed at a time when he was coming out of one of those moods. Having the advantage of more encounters with this quintet than I have experienced with Beach’s, I have come to the opinion that, while Elgar’s mental state may have improved, the shadows of darkness permeate all three of the composition’s movements.

From that perspective, the Hyperion recording left me with the impression that the performers were trying to shy away from the darkness, perhaps out of a shared desire to keep the emotions from going over the top. I definitely sympathize with that objective. One does not want a reading of a piano quintet that “out-herods Herod,” as William Shakespeare had Hamlet put it. Nevertheless, there is an emotional tension that cuts across this quintet’s three movements; and this recording seems to be so focused on being true to the letter of Elgar’s text that such tension never really reveals itself.

Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from listening to Beach’s music on this album; and, for those unfamiliar with Elgar’s quintet, the performance definitely has value for a “first encounter.”

Friday, May 29, 2020

dublab to Stream Music of Michael Vincent Waller

The last time I had a chance to write about composer Michael Vincent Waller was in October of 2019, when I covered the release of his third album Moments. At the beginning of next month, dublab, an experimental music radio station based in Los Angeles, will stream a concert of audiovisual collaborations that will bring Waller’s music together with the multimedia creations of Richard Garet.  Garet’s “Untitled #2 (frame composition)” will provide a visual environment for two tracks from Waller’s past albums.

The earlier of the compositions will be “Lines,” which was recorded on Waller’s Trajectories album. The other will be “Studio Moments” from the Moments album. The dublab broadcast will last for an hour, during which these pieces will alternate consecutively. Each piece will have its own visual interpretation by Garet’s work. The setting for “Studio Moments” involves robust abstractions of highly kinetic color field images. “Lines” is given a more cinematic interpretation with footage treated from water landscapes.

Presumably, Garet will be working with Waller’s recordings. Thus “Studio Moments” is a piano solo played by R. Andrew Lee. “Lines,” on the other hand, is a duo with Lee performing with cellist Seth Parker Woods. The entire performance will take place between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. (Pacific Time) on Sunday, June 7. The performance will be streamed through the dublab home page.

“Veteran” Performer Needs Better Pitch

courtesy of Play MPE

One of the online reviews of Suzanna Ross’ new album describes her as “the veteran NYC jazz and cabaret performer.” The album has the coy title is Bewitched*, the asterisk pointing to a “footnote” at the bottom of the album cover, which reads “not bothered not bewildered.” Ross herself produced the album in conjunction with Gregory Toroian.

Those that take their jazz seriously will probably find this a frustrating offering. The cardinal sin is the failure to give the names of the members of the jazz trio that provides Ross’ instrumental backup. In the same vein none of the composers for the fifteen tracks on the album are acknowledged. I suppose cabaret-goers are not perturbed by such matters, but that negligence will not go down well with more attentive listeners.

Mind you, those listeners will probably encounter more serious difficulties. Foremost among them is Ross’ sense of pitch, which runs the gamut from extremely casual to downright sloppy. Her command of French for several of the tracks (including, of all things, “Over the Rainbow”) is much better. Perhaps she feels that French cabaret singers are allow a lack of focus where pitch is concerned. I would respectfully disagree with that premise and will try to forget about this recent release as quickly as possible.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Frustrations Encountered in “Pillar of Fire”

If the YouTube video of Anthony Tudor’s pioneering psychological ballet “Jardin aux lilas” (lilac garden) was frustrating for its lack of metadata, the account of “Pillar of Fire” has better background information but serious problems with the video itself. When Tudor made his move from London to New York in 1940, one of the first ballets he set for what is now American Ballet Theatre was “Jardin aux lilas.” However, a little more that two years later, he unleashed another psychological bombshell with “Pillar of Fire,” which was given its first performance on April 8, 1942. Once again, he took on the travails of a woman with intense emotional difficulties; but both the narrative and Tudor’s choice of music made for an entirely new perspective of revealing the psyche through dance.

In Balanchine’s New Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, George Balanchine found the perfect sentence to introduce “Pillar of Fire” as follows:
This ballet tells a story to a piece of music that was inspired by a story.
The piece of music was Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 4, “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night). The story that inspired it was a poem with the same title by Richard Dehmel, which he had published in his collection Weib und Welt (woman and world). The story unfolds in a compact sequence of six stanzas, which deserve repeating in the English translation by Mary Whittall on the Wikipedia page for Schoenberg’s composition:
Two people are walking through a bare, cold wood;
the moon keeps pace with them and draws their gaze.
The moon moves along above tall oak trees,
there is no wisp of cloud to obscure the radiance
to which the black, jagged tips reach up.
A woman’s voice speaks:

“I am carrying a child, and not by you.
I am walking here with you in a state of sin.
I have offended grievously against myself.
I despaired of happiness,
and yet I still felt a grievous longing
for life’s fullness, for a mother’s joys

and duties; and so I sinned,
and so I yielded, shuddering, my sex
to the embrace of a stranger,
and even thought myself blessed.
Now life has taken its revenge,
and I have met you, met you.”

She walks on, stumbling.
She looks up; the moon keeps pace.
Her dark gaze drowns in light.
A man’s voice speaks:

“Do not let the child you have conceived
be a burden on your soul.
Look, how brightly the universe shines!
Splendour falls on everything around,
you are voyaging with me on a cold sea,
but there is the glow of an inner warmth
from you in me, from me in you.

That warmth will transfigure the stranger’s child,
and you bear it me, begot by me.
You have transfused me with splendour,
you have made a child of me.”
He puts an arm about her strong hips.
Their breath embraces in the air.
Two people walk on through the high, bright night.
What is particularly interesting is that this entire narrative unfolds over the course of only a few minutes, while Schoenberg’s music, which follows the poem stanza-by-stanza, unfolds over the course of somewhat less than half an hour.

To do justice to both the poem and the music, Tudor therefore had to develop a more extended narrative, which would reflect Schoenberg’s music as effectively as that music had reflected Dehmel’s poem. Curiously, he engaged a device that had served him well in “Jardin aux lilas.” Only the principal character, the woman introduced in Dehmel’s first stanza, has a name: Hagar. The other character in the poem is known only as “the Man.”

Next, Tudor realized that he had to replace the woman’s narration in the poem with action. Thus, Tudor added the character of “the Man in the house across the way,” who is the father of the child that Hagar is carrying. Tudor then fleshes out the context by giving Hagar two sisters. The younger one is still not quite a woman and is full of vivacious expression and a heart just beginning to yearn for love. The older one is stern and becomes Hagar’s greatest source of fear after her encounter with the Man in the house across the way.

As a result, the substance of the narrative extends Dehmel’s account of two individuals to four: Hagar, her sister, and the two men. Once again Tudor handles all the subtle twists in the relationships, endowing these characters with the same rich palette of invention that he brought to “Jardin aux lilas.” Furthermore, just as the earlier ballet had a “Greek chorus” of wedding guests, a similarly small ensemble of neighbors weaves itself way among the principals. This time, however, there are two groups, the “upstanding” villagers (sometimes called “Lovers-in-Innocence”) and the more licentious ones (“Lovers-in-Experience”).

All this makes for a viewing experience that equals, if not betters, that of “Jardin aux lilas.” Unfortunately, YouTube has not done well by facilitating an attentive viewing experience. The source of the video was a PBS broadcast of an American Ballet Theatre performance in 1973. David Coll (one of the Lovers-in-Experience in that performance) seems to have made a videotape recording of that broadcast; but the video quality (including “tearing” across the top of the image and poor focus that often impedes the view of facial expression) leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, Coll created an upload for a YouTube video of the ballet in its entirety. On the other hand another user, going under the name Gualtier Maldè (clearly a fan of Giuseppe Verdi), uploaded the same source in two separate parts. Unfortunately, the overall intensity of both the first video and the second video is so dim that one can barely see the movement; and homing in on facial expression is even more problematic. Furthermore, Maldè never took the trouble to create a playlist for these two parts, meaning that the viewer has to have their respective URLs at hand before beginning.

In other words this is a perfect example of the old adage that anything that is free is worth the price. That said, however, it is worth approaching Coll’s upload with the necessary level of generous patience. “Pillar of Fire” has as significant a place in the repertoire of psychological ballets as “Jardin aux lilas” does. A version that is a bit frustrating to watch is still better than no version at all.

Uninformed Thoughts about the Nasdaq Index

I have gotten into the habit of using the Apple Stocks app to track significant indices in the United States, Europe, and Asia on a daily basis. (I review my own portfolios on a monthly basis based on statements provided by my broker.) As I write this, the Nasdaq index is at 117.33. This is the highest it has been since the index peaked at 118.67 on February 4!

Let's not kid ourselves. No stock index is a measure of "value." At best the level of an index can be taken as a level of confidence or, perhaps more specifically, willingness to trade. Why should that willingness be higher for the Nasdaq portfolio than it is for the S&P 500? Since I am not in any way an expert on these matter, my best conjecture is that Nasdaq holdings represent businesses that can function with much, if not all, of the employees working from home. Nasdaq reflects companies that "push bits," one way or another, rather than build houses or manage grocery stores.

In other words, while it might be easy to promote Nasdaq as a sign of recovery, the basis for computing the index value may not be a statistically significant indicator of the health of the overall economy.

Sony’s Fromm Collection: Lukas Foss

1960 photograph of Lukas Foss conducting at the University of California at Los Angeles (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As was observed about two weeks ago, the Twentieth Century Composers Series, financed by the Fromm Music Foundation, resulted in eight recordings, the last of which, presenting concertos by Elliott Carter and Leon Kirchner, was discussed this past Tuesday. However, the box set released by Sony Classical to anthologize this project consists of ten CDs. This ninth of these presented two recorded premieres of compositions by Lukas Foss that had been commissioned by the Fromm Foundation.

As can be seen on his Wikipedia page, Foss’ career was literally all over the map. When I survey the breadth of it all, I am reminded of a line from Bernard Pomerance’s play The Elephant Man, when the title character says “Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams.” Having encountered Foss at work on a generous number of occasions during his lifetime, I have some sense of the breadth of dreams that were knocking around in his head, few (if any) of which ever came to satisfactory fulfillment.

His support from the Fromm Foundation came at a time when the foremost of those dreams involved “liberating” practices of improvisation from the jazz domain and bringing them into the scope of “serious” music. To this end he founded and led a quartet called the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, in which he was the pianist. The other three members were clarinetist Richard Dufallo, cellist Howard Colf, and percussionist Charles DeLancey.

That group performs the second selection on the Sony CD, the chamber version of Time Cycle. This was a cycle of four songs, setting texts by W. H. Auden, A. E. Housman, Franz Kafka, and Friedrich Nietzsche, scored for orchestra and soprano. The premiere performance was given in 1961 by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein, and the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble provided improvised interludes between the songs. In the chamber music version the songs are accompanied by that Ensemble. (Once again, the texts are illegible on the reverse side of the sleeve for this CD, a reduced reproduction of the same side of the original album jacket.)

It has been so long since I have heard the New York Philharmonic recording that I have absolutely no idea how much of the chamber version is given over to improvisation. What I do recall, however, is that, for the most part, efforts to take jazz as a point of departure for new approaches to genres such as chamber music tended to be grounded in a poor understanding of jazz practices. By way of comparison, Gunther Schuller had a much better understanding of those practices when he began to explore what he and his colleagues called “third stream” music. (Back in 1950 Schuller played French horn for four of the tracks on Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool album.) That same time frame saw Lennie Tristano finding his own path to the classical domain, particularly in his solo piano work (some of which was probably known to Bernstein). Then, of course, there was Cecil Taylor, who probably knew as much about Karlheinz Stockhausen as he knew about traditional and modern jazz practices. Finally, there were the experiments in alternative notions that led to the practices of indeterminacy by John Cage and his New York School colleagues, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff.

In all of that context, Foss’ approaches to improvisation come off as “a day late and a dollar short.” Time Cycle leaves the impression of being little more than an abstract assemblage of notes. Whether those notes originated from notation or improvisation does not appear to make very much of a difference. Furthermore, it is unclear just how (or even if) the composer saw this as music that could “travel” to performance by other musicians.

That issue arises in the first selection of the Sony CD. Echoi is a four-movement suite that was also written for the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble. However, the recording is made by a quartet with the same instrumentation but different players, called the Group for Contemporary Music at Columbia University. In this quartet the pianist is Charles Wuorinen, joined by clarinetist Arthur Bloom, cellist Robert Martin, and percussionist Raymond DesRoches. Foss composed this piece after Time Cycle in 1963, but it precedes Time Cycle on the Sony recording. (On the original release, the two pieces would fill the two sides of a long-playing record, allowing for more flexibility in how one could choose to listen.)

In the context of the entire Fromm collection, Foss’ compositions may have been the most adventurous in their ambitions. However, in the journey from theory to practice, it seems as if those ambitions should have been “made of sterner stuff.” Given the combination of the recent past and the experienced present that occupied creativity in the first years of the Sixties, there may be a cautionary tale behind the failure of Foss’ ventures into improvisation to leave much of a mark.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Jimmy Cobb: Last Survivor From Miles’ Sextet

Jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb died in Harlem this past Sunday. The New York Times was a bit tardy in coming through with an obituary, but the one filed by Giovanni Russonello yesterday was definitely worth the wait. Cobb’s name may not be as familiar as those of Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, but he was a major figure in the recordings that Miles Davis made after leaving Prestige and signing with Columbia. That move saw Davis grow his combo from a quintet to a sextet, sharing his trumpet work on the front line with two saxophonists, John Coltrane on tenor (from the earlier quintet) and Cannonball Adderley on alto. [added 5:50 p.m.: I just realized that Russonello’s obituary for Cobb appeared on the date that would have been Davis’ 94th birthday!]

The original rhythm section for that sextet consisted on Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Cobb succeeded Jones in the spring of 1968, around the same time that Bill Evans succeeded Garland. The tracks recorded at the first session of this new sextet, which took place on May 26, 1958 showed up on two Columbia albums, Jazz Track, which was released on October 19, 1959, and Black Giants, which was not released until May of 1975.

Miles Davis on the cover of his Kind of Blue album (from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording)

However, the sessions that had the greatest impact on jazz history as we now know it took place on March 2 and April 22 of 1959. These were the tracks that were released on the album Kind of Blue. Four of the album’s five tracks (“So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” “Blue in Green,” and “All Blues”) were recorded in a single take. “Flamenco Sketches” had one alternate take; but both takes are included on the CD version of the album.

Cobb never took an extended solo on any of these tracks. Davis saw him provide the foundation for charts that provided little more than rough sketches of melody for each of the compositions. Russonello quoted Cobb recalling the instructions that Davis gave him:
He said, “Jimmy, you know what to do. Just make it sound like it’s floating.”
Cobb clearly delivered what Davis wanted.

Indeed, one might even say that there are no real “tunes” on this album. Rather, each track introduces itself through little more than a motif or two. As Miles requested, each of those motifs “floats” across the sextet, allowing each front line player to improvise around it. In the rhythm section Chambers gets ample opportunity to work a bass line around the essence of the motif, while Evans’ talent for interleaving melody and harmony anticipates the keyboard work that we would subsequently follow intently when he became a leader of his own combo.

The Wikipedia page of Kind of Blue claims the album “has been regarded by many critics as the greatest jazz record.” Those who have followed my writing for some time probably know that I do not like to play that game. On the other hand, the staying power of an album often lies in the impact that resonates through other performers. In that respect I think it is important to recognize that Jon Hendricks created a brilliant transcription of “Freddie Freeloader” in which Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, George Benson, and Hendricks himself “covered” the recorded performances by pianist Winton Kelly (on this track of Kind of Blue only), Davis, Adderley, and Coltrane, respectively, while Cobb was on hand to again “make it float;” and Fate allowed him to outlive the other five members of that historically-significant sextet. Kind of Blue is not only a significant creation; it also offers a foundation for subsequent re-creation.

Pro Arts to Stream “Quarantine Edition” Events

Normally I do not write about events at the Pro Arts Gallery & COMMONS, because it is based in Oakland; and I do my best to confine myself to the San Francisco city limits. However, as those following this site since the initial cancellation of all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center on March 7 know, city limits do not signify in cyberspace. It thus seems appropriate to call attention to the Pro Arts Series Quarantine Edition of programs that will be presented through the Pro Arts YouTube Channel.

The series was conceived to merge experimental and punk sensibilities with performance art, film screenings, artist talks and special events that foster community engagement and mutual-aid. It was launched on April 2, and artists are invited to submit sample material before they can be scheduled for performance. I only found out about the series today through one of the performers whose work I have been following. The current stage of the series is planned to continue through June 30.

Tomorrow’s offering will begin streaming at 7 PM. There will be four sets of adventurous offerings, many of which can be found on this side of the Bay at venues such as the Canessa Gallery and the Luggage Store Gallery:
  1. The opening set will be taken by Iranian-American multidisciplinary artist Sholeh Asgary, who develops installations that involve different combinations of sculpture, painting, and sound; her sound compositions have been released through the Cutty Strange Records label.
  2. Asgary will be followed by Robbie Martin, who performs as Fluorescent Grey. He has been working in electronic and experimental music for almost 25 years and is planning to release both modern classical and ambient recordings later this year. Technically, he has been working with physical modeling synthesis; and his esthetics seem incline to psychedelia.
  3. Derek Gedalecia has given a variety of duo performances with like-minded musicians. As a soloist he performs as Headboggle. His solo sets involve unfolding soundscapes controlled through electronic keyboards.
  4. The final set will be taken by Michael Daddona, performing as Malocculsion. He is a performance artist working with both acoustic and visual media. Much of his work involves inquiries into the nature of the social world.
There will be a charge of $6 for admission to the Pro Arts YouTube Channel for this program. Tickets may be purchased online through an Eventbrite event page. The performance will begin tomorrow, May 28, at 7 p.m.; and it is expected to last until about 10 p.m.

Balanchine’s Donizetti Fares Better than Verdi

The final offering of choreography by George Balanchine in the “Digital Spring Season” of the New York City Ballet was devoted entirely to “Donizetti Variations,” produced as part of a Salute to Italy program first performed on November 16, 1960. Gaetano Donizetti was one of four Italian composers, whose music was set to choreography. The other three were Gioachino Rossini (the comic “Con Amore”), Carlo Gesualdo (arranged by Igor Stravinsky for “Monumentum pro Gesualdo”), and Vincenzo Bellini (the dark “La Sonnambula,” inspired by the opera of the same name). The music for “Donizetti Variations” was drawn from the opera Dom Sébastien, the last opera that the composer completed.

According to a review for The New York Times by Donal Henahan of a concert performance of this opera in Carnegie Hall in March of 1984, “some forgotten critic” described this opera as “a funeral in five acts.” Needless to say, there is nothing funereal about Balanchine’s choreography. Rather, it is yet another model of the choreographer’s imaginative approaches to pure abstraction, as engaging as last week’s broadcast of “Diamonds” was. Indeed, like “Diamonds,” “Donizetti Variations” has been structured around a grand pas de deux, with the variations and coda interleaved with the other sections involving the ensemble of six female dancers and three males.


Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette near the beginning of their pas de deux adagio (screen shot from the video being discussed)

The primary soloists were Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette. While they were true to the steps, they did not always endow any sense of personality in their respective executions. The original female soloist was Melissa Hayden, and she still owned that part when I saw her in the New York State Theater over half a decade later. Indeed, she shined all the brighter next to the almost bloodless accounts of solo passages taken by the other dancers. To some extent I worry that the current round of reconstructions of Balanchine choreography pay too much attention to the letter to acknowledge the spirit. Still, seeing “Donizetti Variations” after all these years was like meeting an almost-forgotten old friend; and, if the execution itself tended to short-change expressiveness, the meeting was still a welcome one.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

SFGC Announces June Festival of Live-Streaming

The San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) had originally planned to conclude its 2019–2020 concert season in Herbst Theatre with a semi-staged preview of a choral-opera commissioned for American composer Matthew Welch entitled Tomorrow’s Memories. The performance was scheduled to take place in Herbst Theatre on Tuesday, June 16. Due to the cancellation of all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center as of this past March 7, this preview event will not be taking place.

By way of compensation, SFGC will be presenting its first-ever virtual festival featuring the SFGC Premier Ensemble. This will consist of four live-streamed videos, one of which will present a scene from Tomorrow’s Memories. The other three will revisit significant past programs. All of these virtual events will be streamed through the SFGC YouTube channel. Whether they will remain on YouTube following the live-stream has not yet been announced. Schedule specifics are as follows:

Friday, June 5, 7 p.m.: This will be a never-before-seen video of Rightfully Ours co-produced with the Berkeley Ballet Theater and first performed this past March 1. This work was conceived to commemorate the Centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (granting women the right to vote); and the program consisted of eight new pieces of choreography set to choral works by eight living composers. Where necessary, instrumental accompaniment was provided by the Amaranth Quartet (violinists Abigail Shiman and Kashi Elliott, violist Christina Simpson, and cellist Bridget Pasker) and The Living Earth Show (TLES) duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson.

Saturday, June 13, noon: This is another co-production, this time with Voices of Music and the San Francisco Early Music Society. The program features a performance in its entirety of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. That performance took place in June of 2018 as part of that summer’s Berkeley Festival & Exhibition.

Saturday, June 20, 7 p.m.: This will be the preview of a scene from Tomorrow’s Memories.
Members of SFGC performing “Music with Changing Parts” will Philip Glass in the foreground (photograph by Carlin Ma, courtesy of SFGC)

Friday, June 26, 7 a.m.: The final event will be a rebroadcast of a video originally produced by Medici TV, which will also be streaming the video (hence the early hour of performance). The program is devoted entirely to Philip Glass’ 90-minute “Music with Changing Parts,” which which was performed in Carnegie Hall in February of 2018. This marked SFGC’s debut appearance with Philip Glass and the Philip Glass Ensemble; and, following the Carnegie event, all of the performers came to San Francisco for a repeat performance in Herbst Theatre on the evening of February 20.

Sony’s Fromm Collection: Carter and Kirchner

Elliott Carter and Leon Kirchner on the original cover of the recording being discussed

Among the recordings in the Twentieth Century Composers Series produced by the Fromm Music Foundation that were part of the library of the campus radio station for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the one that most attracted my attention coupled Elliott Carter’s double concerto, scored for harpsichord and piano with two chamber orchestras, with Leon Kirchner’s concerto for violin and cello, accompanied by ten winds and percussion. That recording has been reproduced as the eighth CD in Sony Classical’s ten-CD anthology of that series. My personal interest was due, in part, to the visiting appointment that brought Carter to MIT during my senior year; and it was through Carter’s visit that I met Kirchner for the first time.

Ironically, most of the classes that Carter taught and the public lectures that he delivered were devoted to music other than his own. That did not prevent me from broadcasting recordings of his music over the course of his visit; and, from my vantage point as a presenter, the high points of those broadcasts involved his second string quartet and the double concerto. The other thing I remember most vividly at that time was a generous amount of talk about “metric modulation,” associating that term with Carter.

Mind you, I never heard Carter invoke that term. However, it can be found in “Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!,” which Charles Rosen wrote for The New York Review of Books not long after Carter reached the age of 100 on December 11, 2008 and was as actively engaged in composing as he had ever been. Rosen describes the phrase as the “method of superimposing one pulse over another,” which is not particularly consistent with other interpretations of the term “modulation,” associated much more often with harmonic progression.

Rosen was the pianist on the double concerto album, joined by Ralph Kirkpatrick at the harpsichord. It would thus be fair to say that, until his death on December 9, 2012, he was one of the foremost authorities on Carter’s music that could account for both theory and practice. Fortunately (at least for those of us trying to find our way through the many complexities in Carter’s scores), he wrote a much more informative account of Carter’s approach to time and rhythm in a later New York Review article that appeared in the February 9, 2012 issue (sadly behind the Web site’s paywall).

Here is the opening text of Rosen’s article:
A German pre-Romantic philosopher, Johann Georg Hamann, held that the sense of music was given to man to make it possible to measure time. The composer Elliott Carter’s fame comes partly from a reconception of time in music that fits the world of today (although there are many other aspects of his music to enjoy). We do not measure time regularly, like clocks do, but with many differing rates of speed. In the complexity of today’s experience, it often seems as if simultaneous events were unfolding with different measures. These different measures coexist and often blend but are not always rationalized in experience under one central system. We might call this a system of irreconcilable regularities.

In Carter’s music, things happen for different instruments at different tempos—none of them dominates the others, and an idiosyncratic character is often given to the different instruments that preserves their individuality. Carter is never dogmatic, and the different measures of time may occasionally combine briefly for a moment of synthesis. The individuality of tempo and rhythm can make his music difficult to perform as each player unconsciously responds physically to the different rhythms he or she hears and yet tries to preserve his or her own system intact.
Needless to say, it tends to be the case that even the most attentive listeners run into the same problems that confront the performers. Fortunately, Carter frequently could draw upon the services of performers willing to adapt their techniques for both execution and listening to serve the his objectives.

All this should make it clear that the double concerto is not for the “casual” listener. The advantage of a recording is that one can revisit a specific “document of performance” several times. Initially, one should be content with establishing basic orientation around the concerto’s seven sections, all of which are played without intervening pauses. Fortunately, two of those sections are cadenzas, one for harpsichord in the second section and the other for piano in the penultimate section. We thus have a symmetrical framework in which the first cadenza follows the Introduction, while the second one precedes the Coda. Between those cadenzas are three sections identified by familiar tempo markings: Allegro scherzando, Adagio, and Presto. Once one is comfortable within that framework, one can then dive into the ways in which both the soloists and the instruments in the chamber orchestras negotiate the multiplicity of tempos specified in the score; and, in all likelihood, the attentive listener will begin to appreciate Carter’s rhetoric of textures without getting too tangled by the individual threads.

Mind you, that level of awareness is more likely achieved when one can also enjoy the physical presence of the performers. (I lost track of how many hours I spent with the Juilliard Quartet recording of Carter’s second string quartet before encountering it in a recital.) Sadly, where pieces like the double concerto are concerned, the opportunities for a concert performance are precious few. (I have never had that opportunity for the double concerto itself. For that matter, unless I am mistaken, my last concert encounter with Carter came when students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music prepared his second quartet; and that was over a decade ago!) Nevertheless, when it comes to wanting what you have, the Kirkpatrick-Rosen recording can definitely provide satisfying listening experiences for those willing to give the piece the attention it deserves.

This CD also includes a “bonus selection” that was not on the original vinyl release. The final two tracks are devoted to Carter’s 1946 piano sonata, also recorded by Rosen. The attentive listener will probably find this piece more familiar, particularly in the expressiveness of its rhetoric. The architecture is a bit distinctive, since the sonata consists of only two movements, an opening Maestoso followed by an Andante. However, Ludwig van Beethoven was already tinkering with sonata architectures towards the end of his life; so one can hardly expect traditions from the past to impede listening to this early Carter effort.

That said, the Kirchner concerto feels a bit like a breath of fresh air between the intense rhetoric of the two Carter selections. Mind you, the music has its own inventive devices of complexity. However, perhaps because the accompanying ensemble consists of winds and percussion, there are elements of joyfulness in that rhetoric, if not a bit of slapstick coming from the percussion. Given the high “information content” of the entire album, I would say that this particular CD does not really lend itself start-to-finish listening; but those that do decide to listen that way will probably find Kirchner’s concerto a welcome “change of scene” following the Carter concerto.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Another Round of Pancakes in Cyberspace

poster design for events being discussed

Apparently the cyberspace reincarnation of G|O|D|W|A|F|F|L|E|N|O|I|S|E|P|A|N|C|A|K|E|S was successful enough that a second program has been announced. The next event will take place this Wednesday, May 27; and it will be structured the same as the first program, which took place on May 1. That means that the concert will again be presented as a “Quarantstream” event beginning at 6 p.m. As of this writing, based on the event page in the BayImproviser calendar, there will be six sets performed, respectively, by Thomas Dimuzio, Coagulator (visiting from Los Angeles), Thom Blum, Earth Jerks, Alex C. (visiting from New York), and Mal Sed. There will also be a pre-show at 5 p.m. at which Brutallo will present selected favorites from his DVDRPARTY! video library. This time, however, the concert will be followed by a special memorial event held in honor of those that died in the Ghost Ship fire. Details do not seem to have been finalized, but the event will probably involve both video and music performances.

Sharon Isbin’s Second New Album Faces East

Amjad Ali Khan playing his sarod at a 2008 concert in Kochi (photograph by Anees Kodlyathur, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The second of the two new Zoho albums featuring guitarist Sharon Isbin is actually a “partnership” performance. Strings for Peace presents four compositions by sarod master Amjad Ali Khan, scored as duos for guitar and sarod and specifically written for Isbin. The album is somewhat of a “family affair,” since Isbin performs only one of those ragas with Khan. The others are played with his two virtuoso sons, Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. Each performance also includes tabla accompaniment, performed by Amit Kavthekar.

Those of my generation may recall the release of the album West Meets East in the late Sixties, around the same time that The Beatles were discovering Indian classical music. West Meets East was recorded shortly after the Bath Music Festival in the spring of 1966, when violinist Yehudi Menuhin played duets with Ravi Shankar, at the time the most familiar name in the West associated with Indian classical music. The album was released in January of 1967 with two “follow-up” volumes coming out in 1968 and 1976. What was probably most interesting about these recordings was Menuhin’s skill in following Shankar, particularly when it came to matching Indian intonation, which frequently departed from the equal-tempered chromatic scale.

Menuhin had a far more advantageous situation than did Isbin, since a violin has no frets. While Isbin had no trouble with dexterity in dealing with the passages that Kahn composed for her, it does not take a considerable amount of training to recognize that the pitches from her guitar do not always align with those of the sarod. There is no doubt of the “willingness of spirit” that prompted both Isbin and Khan to engage in this project. However, the chromatic complexity of all of the plucked Indian instruments establishes a domain far beyond the imagination of even the most skilled Western musicians.

That said, there is what may be a more significant difference between Menuhin and Isbin in the latter’s favor. Shankar already had an international reputation by the time he was invited to Bath. I might even be so bold as to suggest that, without that reputation, he probably would not have been invited! On the other hand, while Khan first performed in the United States as early as 1963, he never achieved the “star power” that fell to Shankar and a few other Indians. While I would not bet on Strings for Peace elevating Khan to “household name” status, the four tracks on this new album are sufficiently engaging (regardless of intonation matters) that Khan may finally get that broader attention that has been due to him for over half a century.

The Dark Side of the American Frontier

My latest visit to the DSO Replay Web site of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) was motivated by the electronic mail I received about a “watch party” programmed for the Memorial Day weekend. Ostensibly, this was a program of “celebratory Americana;” but those familiar with the planned selections probably knew that the “grand finale” was anything but celebratory. I thus decided to view it in isolation, allowing it more “room” to unfold its dark narrative.

That narrative comes from a 1936 documentary written and directed by Pare Lorentz entitled The Plow That Broke the Plains. Virgil Thomson worked with Lorentz to provide music for the film, after which he compiled a six-movement suite for concert performance. That suite was first performed in the summer of 1946 at a concert by the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra led by its founder and first conductor, Leopold Stokowski. There is also a four-movement piano version, presumably prepared by Thomson himself, which I was once agile enough to play.

The original version of the suite was conducted by Leonard Slatkin at a concert given on February 8, 2019; and that is the performance that was captured on video for DSO Replay. Between the movements Slatkin read passages that were extracted from the narration for Lorentz’ documentary. The title of the film might lead one to suspect that it was a celebration of the pioneer spirit. However, between Slatkin’s narrations and the titles of the movements, it is clear that this was a far cry from any tub-thumping patriotism.

The titles of the movements provide a useful abstract of the film’s narrative:
  1. Prelude
  2. Pastorale (Grass)
  3. Cattle
  4. Blues (Speculation)
  5. Drought
  6. Devastation
While the narration never acknowledges that the plains to the west of the Mississippi River had indigenous inhabitants, contemporary historical perspective is less kind to that “pioneer spirit” our country used to be so fond of celebrating. The descendants of those that had worked the fields and forests to the east were initially confronted with grasslands that were not suitable for past farming practices. Nevertheless, the pioneers tried to force the land to yield for their own purposes (ignoring, and frequently eliminating, those that had established a more viable relationship with that land). As the title of the fourth movement suggests, those that worked the hardest were often motivated by speculators for whom short-term profit was all that mattered. Ultimately, the film says little about pioneering and much about those circumstances that eventually led to the Dust Bowl.

Monica Fosnaugh playing one of Virgil Thomson’s cor anglais moments (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Thomson’s score never tries to underscore any point that Lorentz tried to make that was best made in text. Instead, the music draws on familiar folk tunes, which Thomson then arranges with enough ironic rhetoric to make it clear that all was not well in the garden (or out on the plains). His approach to instrumentation is particularly inventive, almost as if he was determined to favor instrumentalists that seldom have much to do. Some of those instrumentalists, such as the cor anglais player, benefitted from the video work. Unfortunately, there were also too many shots that were looking in one section of the ensemble while the “action” was taking place somewhere else. Fortunately, even when the camera work was not up to snuff, Slatkin’s sense of balance always allowed the attentive listener to appreciate the full impact of every emotional gesture that Thomson established in his score.

Ultimately, The Plow That Broke the Plains is a film about environmental crisis, making it a valuable object lesson in the context of our current crisis situation.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Bach in the Time of COVID-19

This afternoon public media organization PRX joined forces with Boston Public Television station WGBH to present a streamed performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The program, which lasted about two and one-quarter hours and was “live-only,” was devoted entirely to the six solo cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 1007–1012, played in the order of their catalog numbers. This is one of Bach’s most systematically organized collections. Each suite consists of a Prelude movement followed by five dance movements. Four of the dance forms are identical in all of the suites, the second through fourth movements (Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande) and the conclusion (Gigue). The fifth movement is always in ternary (ABA) form; but there are three different styles, each of which appears in two of the suites. The overall ordering is two Minuets, two Bourrées, and two Gavottes.

Most likely Bach composed these when he was at Köthen as part of his duties as Kapellmeister. (This would have been between 1717 and 1723.) It is not unreasonable to guess that the suites were written for pedagogical purposes, rather than for an audience of listeners. Indeed, they received almost no attention in concert halls until Pablo Casals not only included them in his recitals but also recorded them. Whether or not Casals had any influence on Ma’s approach to playing these pieces, we do know that Ma played in the Marlboro Festival Orchestra when Casals was its conductor.

Casals’ decision to “publicize” the suites may have motivated a remark attributed to Wanda Landowska, regardless of whether or not she actually said it:
You play Bach your way, Pablo; and I’ll play it his!
Actually, Casals seemed to be as aware of Bach’s pedagogical intentions as anyone familiar with even the most casual biography of the composer. Indeed, Bernard Greenhouse (formerly of the Beaux Arts Trio) documented his experiences in studying with Casals with particular emphasis on playing the cello suites. (Those experiences were documented in Donald Schön’s book Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, and they prompted a relatively early article on this site.) It is clear that Casals was as much a stickler for expressiveness and underlying technique in equal measure. His approaches to interpretation may have differed from those taken by Landowska, but they were still true to Bach’s spirit.

Ma’s own approach to technique was certainly not weak. Nevertheless, it was inconsistent, particularly when linked to his capacity for expressiveness. Most importantly Ma never found convincing ways to express the spirit of dance behind all those movements cutting across the six suites. For that matter he also had trouble bringing expressiveness to the opening movement, even when Bach used that movement to “play around” with the conventional coupling of prelude and fugue.

As a result I suspect that most listeners, whether well informed or only modestly experienced, are likely to have experienced fatigue over the course of this broadcast, possibly even before the halfway mark. One can certainly appreciate the good intentions behind this project. Sadly, however, Bach was not well served by those intentions. No one seemed to care very much that Bach was being treated as a monument, rather than a working musician; and this misconceived approach to video media may be one of the reasons why I almost never watch PBS offerings any more.

Isbin’s Album of New Works Written for Her

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

This past Friday Zoho released two new albums of guitarist Sharon Isbin. These are so different in content that they deserve to be treated separately. The title of the more conventional guitar album is Affinity, and all five of the selections were written for Isbin. Four of them are world premiere recordings, and one of those is an innovative arrangement. Isbin’s former student and duet partner Colin Davin prepared a two-guitar setting of Antonio Lauro’s “Natalia” waltz; and Davin joins Isbin for that track of the album.

There is also a solo performance of Tan Dun’s “Seven Desires for Guitar.” Mezzo Isabel Leonard joins Isbin to perform Richard Danielpour’s song cycle Of Love and Longing; and the album takes its title from a new concerto for guitar and orchestra by Chris Brubeck, performed with Elizabeth Schulze conducting the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. The only selection not being given a premiere is Leo Brouwer’s suite El Decameron Negro, which he wrote for Isbin after she won the Toronto Guitar competition in 1975.

My only opportunity to see Isbin in recital took place at Herbst Theatre in October of 2018. She shared the stage with Brazilian jazz guitarist Romero Lubambo. While each of them took a brief solo set in their respective repertoires, their “meeting of minds” made for an inventive and stimulating performance. Isbin clearly has a reputation for “playing well with others;” and her Affinity album sustains that reputation.

That being the case, I must still confess that I was particularly drawn to the Brouwer selection. I have long felt that Brouwer deserves more exposure than he tends to get. My encounters with his music have been few and far between, always leaving me curious about what else he has done. Now we have a piece of his that is likely to be older than many that listen to it, and I still find myself hungry for more.

By the same count every encounter with a composition by Tan leaves me curious about his other works. There is a potentially interesting backstory to Tan’s guitar composition. At a recital by the Beijing Guitar Duo I learned that their teacher, Manuel Barrueco, had prepared a guitar arrangement of Tan’s Opus 1 piano composition, Eight Memories in Watercolor. Apparently, Tan preferred the guitar version to his own, which may have motivated him to compose for the guitar. The results on Isbin’s album make it clear that he was the better for following that motivation, which had begun earlier with his composing a concerto, “Yi2,” for her.

I must confess that the remainder of this album did not have quite as much impact. I have had many opportunities to listen to Leonard, and I always enjoy her vocal qualities. Nevertheless, Danielpour’s approach to setting his texts, poetry by Rumi translated into English by Raficq Abdulla, never left much of an impression. Similarly, while I was struck by Brubeck’s concerto structure as three uninterrupted movements, the thematic material itself did little to tweak the mind behind the ear. That said, the offerings by Brouwer and Tan definitely make this album “worth the price of admission.”

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Taking What You Can Get from “Jardin aux Lilas”

Over the course of my revived interest in both classical ballet and modern dance, I realize that I have written accounts of the choreography of Frederic Ashton, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Martha Graham. This morning I was struck by what I feel has been a serious sin of omission on my part: I have not yet written anything about the work of Anthony Tudor. Tudor came “up through the ranks,” dancing originally with Marie Rambert in 1928 and then moving to New York in 1940 to become one of the major figures associated with what is now American Ballet Theatre.

One of Tudor’s most enduring achievements was also one of his earliest works as a choreographer, “Jardin aux lilas” (lilac garden). It would not be too great of an exaggeration (if it were exaggeration at all) to call this the most intense quarter-hour of choreography that has even been created; and, as its Wikipedia page (citing David Vaughan’s entry about this ballet in the International Encyclopedia of Dance) declares, it is “considered to be the first of the genre of psychological ballets.” Traditionally, ballet narratives involve a woman and a man that eventually find happiness and let you know it by dancing a grand pas de deux. More often than not, there is a third figure in the narrative that comes between the woman and the man. “Jardin aux lilas” ups the ante, so to speak, with the entanglements of two women and two men.

Only one of these has a name: Caroline. The ballet is set at a garden party, which is probably taking place on the eve of her marriage. When the curtain rises, we see her with The Man She Must Marry; and it does not take long for even the most casual viewer to realize that not all is well in the garden. Each of them carries uncomfortable baggage. For Caroline it is the dancer identified as Her Lover. For her future husband it is the woman identified as An Episode in His Past. Tudor uses the music of Ernest Chausson’s Opus 25 “Poème” for violin and orchestra as the “engine” to advance the complex entanglements of these relations. (Some of the most intense emotions unfold during violin cadenzas.) There is also a small corps of wedding guests that provide a backdrop of “proper behavior” to complement the tension of those entanglements. The whole thing culminates in the stately procession of all four of the characters side-by-side, placing Caroline between her future husband and the man she still loves.

As may be expected, mere words are a poor substitute for the complex inventions of Tudor’s choreography. The good news is that it does not take long to find a complete performance in a video on YouTube. The bad news is that there is no background information about any of the performers. The file was posted on June 24, 2019; and, in all probability, it is an “unauthorized” video of a performance by American Ballet Theatre. Back when I had contacts at the Dance Notation Bureau (I was supervising a graduate student whose thesis amounted to “word processing” software for Labanotation), I knew that such videos were a valuable tool for notators and tended to be given don’t-ask-don’t-tell treatment. Even in that context, I realize that I may be spilling beans that will result in this video being taken down from YouTube.

[Note: Anyone that knows any of that background information, particularly the names of the four leading dancers, should feel welcome to provide anything useful by submitting a comment to this article.]

Regardless of shortcomings, however, I feel obliged to advise all readers to take a look at this video while they can. Anyone who has never seen this ballet should strike this iron while it is hot. Mind you, Tudor himself created several more of these “psychological” ballets; and, for my money, he still dominates the market for intense examinations of human nature. Nevertheless, “Jardin aux lilas” was the first one “out of the gate;” and, over the many years during which I have enjoyed performances of both ballet and modern dance, it remains (to mix metaphors) the one ring that rules them all.

Pianist Ralph Van Raat’s French Rarities

courtesy of Naxos of America

Yesterday Naxos released its latest album of solo piano music performed by Ralph van Raat. The pianist has had an exclusive contract with Naxos since 2006, having begun with a release of the complete piano works by John Adams. The title of the new album is French Piano Rarities, and the track listing almost reads like a recital program.

That overall program is framed by the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The two Debussy rarities, “Étude retrouvée” (recovered étude) and “Les Soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon” (evenings lit buy the burning coals), whose title is taken from a line in Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Le balcon” (the balcony), were both written near the end of the composer’s life. At the other end the album concludes with a minuet composed by Maurice Ravel in 1904 but not published until long after his death, when an editor identified only as “Guifré” (apparently based in Barcelona) prepared a PDF upload to IMSLP.

Between these “bookends” van Raat presented what amounted to a teacher-student offering with selections first by Olivier Messiaen and then by Pierre Boulez. To be fair, the only Messiaen composition that predates Boulez’ first encounter with him as a teacher is a brief sight-reading exercise composed in 1934, whose theme would later reappear as the “Thème de l’amour mystique” (theme of mystical love), which serves as one of the leitmotifs of Messiaen’s mammoth suite Vingt Regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (twenty aspects of the child Jesus). The other three selections are the results of Messiaen’s musical interpretations of bird songs, two of which were composed as solo piano movements in another major suite, Des Canyons aux étoiles… (from the canyons to the stars), composed for large orchestra.

The major selection by Boulez is his 1945 collection of twelve haiku-like compositions for solo piano entitled Notations. This is preceded by the world premiere recording of an earlier (1944) student effort, three solo piano movements following the relatively traditional structural forms of prelude, toccata (with fugue), and scherzo. The final Boulez selection was composed late in his life In 2005, “Une page d’ephéméride” (a calendar page). Given the friendship that a much younger Boulez had formed with John Cage, I have to wonder whether van Raat may have deliberately taken four minutes and 33 seconds to perform this piece.

If this was, indeed, the structure of a recital program, I have to say that I am just as glad that I did not have to sit through it. Considered in its entirely, this album serves up music with dauntingly high “information content” (in Claude Shannon’s mathematical sense of that phrase). For example, when Messiaen worked on a large scale, as he did in both the Vingt Regards and Des Canyons aux étoiles…, he knew how to guide the listener through his own relationships between foreground and background. Consequently, those two piano solos that van Raat recorded were intended as cadenzas in the overall plan of Des Canyons. Taken out of context, they are little more than jaw-dropping instances of prodigious technical skill, ideal for a competition but not so much in a concert setting.

Mind you, there is much to recommend any individual track on this new album; but, for the most part, any single track is best appreciated in isolation from all of the other tracks.

Friday, May 22, 2020

ASQ Returns with Socially Distanced Dvořák

Cellist Sandy Wilson, violist Paul Yarbrough, and violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz (photography by Shirley Singer, from the SFSU event page)

Almost exactly a month ago this site reported on how the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), consisting of violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson, prepared a “cyberspace performance” of Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ in its string quartet version (Hoboken III/50–56) as part of their residency at the Baruch Performing Arts Center of Baruch College in Manhattan. Most local readers know that ASQ is also quartet-in-residence and directors of the Morrison Chamber Music Center in the College of Liberal & Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU). In that capacity they prepared a similar performance for a “virtual” celebration of the conclusion of the current foreshortened academic year, playing Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major. That performance is now available for viewing through the event page for that celebration.

It would probably be fair to say that ASQ has gone through a “learning curve” between last month’s performance and the one released yesterday evening. It also appears as if Lifsitz and Yarbrough were playing from different locations, while the “backgrounds” for Grafilo and Wilson appeared to be the same as they were last month. More importantly, however, this second venture into cyberspace strongly suggested that all four players had a better sense of how to communicate with each other while playing, to an extent that the Dvořák performance itself benefitted from both more subtlety and more spontaneity in phrasing.

The other factor that may have some significance is the likelihood that the four ASQ players are more familiar with Dvořák’s Opus 96 than they were with their Haydn selection. Indeed, familiarity may come from not only their own past performances of the music but also experiences in coaching student quartets preparing for a recital. Where audience tastes are concerned, Opus 96 probably ranks quite high, possibly higher than any quartet composed by Haydn. As a result student ensembles that aspire to “go pro” need to anticipate audience demand for this particular Dvořák quartet.

Whatever the cause(s) may be, this “cyberspace performance” is highly engaging. It may not be as engaging as an actual concert performance experience, but ASQ has gone a long way in putting their own stamp of individuality into this elaborately synthesized recording. Even those that think they have “heard it all” in performances of Opus 96 are likely to discover new perspectives while viewing this highly compelling artifact.

Paris-Based Duo Tries to Jam with Prokofiev

Today is a major date for new releases. On my own queue I have four CDs and one video, which I shall have to alternate, one way or another, with the remainder of the ten CDs in the Twentieth Century Composers Series, which has been a focus of attention for this past week. Today I shall focus on one of today’s releases, a new album from the Paris-based Jazzmax label.

Giovanni Mirabassi and Stephane Spira (photograph by Nicolas Guillemot, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications)

The title of the album is Improkofiev, a clever mash-up of the verb “improvise” with the last name of the composer Sergei Prokofiev. As of this writing, Amazon.com is making this album available only through MP3 download. Improkofiev is also the name of the three-movement suite that occupies the last three of the seven tracks on the album. The suite was the brainchild of soprano saxophonist Stephane Spira, developed through his latest partnership with pianist Giovanni Mirabassi. Spira’s idea was to develop a platform for improvisation built upon selected themes from Prokofiev’s Opus 19 (first) violin concerto in D major.

This made for an interesting strategic move. The best-known violin concerto by Prokofiev is his Opus 63 (second) in G minor. In my own listening experience, if I have heard Opus 19 in performance at all, it was probably only once in Davies Symphony Hall. Since Opus 19 is less familiar, it provides the Improkofiev suite with a more open-minded approach to listening. Rather than playing “name that tune,” the listener can, instead, attend to the motivic seeds of each movement and how they unfold into improvisatory riffs.

For this project Spira and Mirabassi expanded their resources to a quartet, adding rhythm provided by Donald Kontomanou on drums and Steve Wood on bass. In addition, the opening movement of the suite (also entitled “Improkofiev”) has Yoann Loustalot on flugelhorn weaving a second melodic line around Spira’s saxophone work, an example of contrapuntal interplay that will be familiar to many Prokofiev enthusiasts. Ultimately, however, Prokofiev spends most of his time in the background, allowing the serious listener to focus on the inventiveness of all of the jazz players, which is where attention really belongs.

That attention is definitely also given its due in two of the opening tracks, both composed by Spira. “Ocean Dance” and “After Rain” provide a much richer opportunity for the listener to explore the inventive interplay between Spira and Mirabassi, consistently well supported by both Kontomanou and Wood. On the other hand I felt that the attempt to improvise around the first of the three Erik Satie piano compositions that he called “Gymnopédies” departed significantly from Satie’s spirit without filling the space with particularly convincing alternative content. The other opening track was Carla Bley’s “Lawns,” which was pleasant enough on the surface without allowing for much depth.

While the overall listening experience was consistently pleasant, by the end of the album I found myself more curious about giving Prokofiev’s Opus 19 closer listening.