Friday, July 31, 2020

Beth Anderson Turns Names into Music

courtesy of Other Minds

One week from today, Other Minds Records will release its latest album in what it calls its series of “revelationary new music.” The recording consists of 65 short performances by Beth Anderson, each of which is based on the name of an individual that has impacted her life and/or her creative work. She performed one of these pieces in San Francisco in March of 2018, when she appeared in the final concert of Other Minds Festival 23, which was entitled Sound Poetry: The Wages of Syntax. The title of the album is simply Namely; and, as has come to be expected, is currently taking pre-orders for this recording.

Anderson herself prefers to call her work “text-sound composition,” rather than “sound poetry.” She is interested in how music can be derived from speech. As her notes for the accompanying booklet observe, her father was an auctioneer; and, if one has ever experienced a rural auction, one is probably familiar with the auditory virtuosity of an auctioneer’s spiel.

Each of the compositions on Namely, on the other hand, involves turning the letters of a name (first and last) into a text whose utterance reveals sonorous qualities. The process is based on a “magic square” approach, illustrated on the album cover when applied to the album’s title. The performance then consists of a series of “tours” around the square. The first is based on the outermost sequence of letters (read clockwise), followed by subsequent tours of the inner squares until the performer reaches the center. The booklet illustrates this technique by applying it to the name “John Cage.” (The name that Anderson performed at the Other Minds Festival was “John Giorno.”)

The listener does not have to reproduce the magic squares themselves to appreciate Anderson’s technique and her deft interpretations, which often have to contend with problematic sequences of vowels and consonants. However, as one listens to the tracks on the album, the mind behind the ear begins to appreciate the patterns that emerge behind the composer’s highly abstract technique. That said, a sequence of 65 names in alphabetical order of the last name makes for a somewhat demanding journey. These compositions are best appreciated for their individual innovations; and that appreciation is likely to wane if one tries to consume too many of them in one gulp, so to speak.

Nevertheless, every one of these pieces is a gem unto itself; and playback technology will now allow every listener to set his/her own strategy for appreciating the many delights of this album.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Sluggish Gershwin at the Metropolitan Opera

About two weeks after PBS released the Great Performances at the Met broadcast of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, it released the eighth installment in the series, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. This time the video source came from a Live in HD transmission, since the opera was shown in movie theaters this past February 1. While this opera was first performed in 1935, it did not enter the Metropolitan Opera repertoire until 1985. By that time New Yorkers had been able to see the Houston Grand Opera production, directed by Jack O’Brien in 1976, when it toured the Uris Theatre in September of that year, after the conclusion of the Houston season. That production was then revived in 1983 and performed at Radio City Music Hall, which was my own “first contact” with the opera.

Here in San Francisco, the Houston production was shared with the San Francisco Opera (SFO), where it was first performed on June 21, 1977. That production was then revived in the spring of 1987 and again in the spring of 1995. However, after David Gockley moved from Houston to San Francisco, he decided that SFO should have a new production of Porgy and Bess. That version was staged by Francesca Zambello, and it became my second encounter with the opera on June 21, 2009. Both of those productions were highly satisfying experiences.

Sadly, I cannot say the same about the new Met staging by James Robinson. Most important is that, while both O’Brien and Zambello had a keen sense of pace in playing out the narrative from beginning to end, Robinson’s staging felt like an interminable slog. The problem may have originated in the agenda behind the production itself. That agenda can be found on the Great Performances Web page for this program:

This Met Opera production takes a fresh approach to a complicated masterpiece, which has been criticized for its African American stereotypes since its 1935 debut. The setting — Catfish Row, a Charleston, South Carolina neighborhood – is now a close-knit, aspirational working-class community in which everyone is doing his or her best to get by, instead of an abandoned slum.

That premise is further elaborated by Robinson as follows:

The inhabitants of Catfish Row are integral to everything that’s going on with every other character. You get to know how this community functions. It’s a very religious community—they’re bound by their faith. Every individual in that community of Catfish Row, every member of the chorus, has a story.

Eric Owens and Angel Blue as the title characters in Porgy and Bess (from the Live in HD event page)

While all this may look good on paper, the result was a staging with too much of everything. Indeed, the choreography by Camille A. Brown was so abundant that one could almost take all the dancing to be a Greek chorus commenting on the narrative behind the libretto written by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. Furthermore, while Eric Owens gave a thoroughly compelling account of Porgy for Zambello (making his role debut in the process), his presence in Robinson’s “community” frequently ran the risk of coming across as merely incidental. Similarly, Angel Blue’s Bess for Robinson came across as little more than a junkie that “came clean” through Porgy’s influence, only to fall back into the habit due to Sportin’ Life (Frederick Ballentine).

In an interview with The New York Times, Robinson claimed that he did not want any of the characters in Porgy and Bess to devolve into caricatures. While he may have gotten beyond the sorts of stereotypes that one tended to expect in 1935, his attention to “community” seems to have developed its own set of caricatures. Furthermore, by prioritizing the community over the individuals, the number of those caricatures became overwhelming. As a result, Robinson’s production turned out to be too much of everything except the core relationship between Porgy and Bess.

Should Berners-Lee Testify Before Congress?

The testimony by Alphabet's Sundar Pichai, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, and Apple's Tim Cook at the House of Representatives probably made for good television, and there was much to be gained from subsequent analyses, particularly from sites such as BBC News. While I am no fan of those that skew the distribution of wealth to such a radical extreme, I suspect that most of our Congressional representatives may have missed out on a significant elephant in the room and how that elephant got there. While questions about work practices at all levels of the hierarchy are important, just as relevant is how this new generation of “captains of industry” got to be where they now are.

I would like to consider the possibility that all four of these gentlemen constitute the leading edge of a new generation of prospectors. I am more interested in how they came by their wealth than I am with what they are now doing with it. I propose that all four of them succeeded in “mining” a new “field” of resources that turned out to be very precious and thus very valuable. That “field” is the World Wide Web itself and its global impact on information flow.

For about two decades prior to the emergence of the World Wide Web, many research organizations came to appreciate the value of both shared data and shared software for processing data resources. That sharing was realized through the technology of computer networks. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, was one of those organizations. During his time working at CERN, Tim Berners-Lee saw the value of sharing within that organization; but he also realized that researchers could be even more productive if such sharing could take place across organizations. That was the motivating concept from which the World Wide Web would eventually emerge.

One of the original platforms for sharing across organizations was Usenet and the bulletin board system it supported. Simply put, researchers from different organizations were provided with “gateway” technology for both reading bulletin boards and contributing to them. The “gateway” allowed information to cross from one network to another; and the World Wide Web introduced new protocols for communication that did not have to take such gateways explicitly into account.

Fun fact: The very first unsolicited advertising, better known as “spam,” was distributed through Usenet before the World Wide Web had come up to speed. The fact is that dedicated researchers, such as Berners-Lee (and, for that matter, myself), seemed to take it for granted that sharing information could only be for the good. However, by the time the Internet as we know it was enabled, a new generation of those prospectors was beginning to emerge. They were more interested in the growth of capital, rather than the growth of collective knowledge. Four of those prospectors that “struck it rich” in a big (gargantuan?) way were called to account by our Congress yesterday.

One way of viewing this history is through that old guns-don’t-kill-people-people-kill-people cliché. One of the side effects of this new generation of prospecting was a growing myopia where issues of consequences were concerned. The prevailing motto was, “If you build it, they will come.” There was little concern over who “they” were or what they would do after they arrived. This leads me to wonder whether or not that myopia can be traced back to Berners-Lee himself. Nothing would please me more than to see him testifying before a Congressional committee and being confronted with that question of myopia.

Mind you, I suspect that anything Berners-Lee would say today would amount to little more than a historical perspective that is beyond the ken of those that have wealth and power. Nevertheless, the extent to which the very concept of information is now being undermined, simply because no one ever really bothered to view deceptive information (otherwise known as “fake news”) as a problem, amounts to a serious crisis situation. Ironically, I used to write about a book that took on the question of how serious crises should be addressed.

The title of the book was Thinking in Time, written by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May. It amounts to a collection of case studies concerning Presidential decision-making. When I used to write about this book, I summarized its “punch line” as a recommendation that any crisis situation should be addressed through two fundamental questions:

  1. How did we get into this mess?
  2. If we take this particular action, what will the consequences be?

In that context, I feel that the Congress might benefit from what Berners-Lee might have to say when it comes to answering the first of those questions!

The Sierra Ensemble at the Center for New Music

The Sierra Ensemble performing at C4NM (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted a live-streamed performance by the Sierra Ensemble. This group is a horn trio with hornist Janis Lieberman joined by Matthew Vincent on violin and Marc Steiner on piano. The layout of space at C4NM allowed the three of them to respect social distancing in a triangular array. Steiner’s piano was in the center and farthest to the rear, while Vincent and Lieberman were forward and against the left and right walls, respectively. The program was recorded and can now be viewed as a Facebook video.

The title of the program was A Frozen Shimmer in the Summer Sun. This referred to a pair of short pieces by Andrés Carrizo being given their San Francisco premiere: “Like a Frozen Silver Shimmer” and “Of Frozen Resonance.” The pieces may not have been consistent with the summer season, but they involved a rich diversity of sonorities from all three of the instruments.

The composition of the ensemble is most usually associated with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 40 trio in E-flat major. The opening selection, composed by Eric Ewazen in 2012, amounted to a “response” to the “call” of that trio. The layout of its four movements paralleled Brahms’ tempo selections and prevailing rhetoric. The only significant exception involved some fugal writing in the final movement. Ewazen’s trio was given an attentive performance convincing enough to hold up, at least potentially, to subsequent listening experiences.

The trio that concluded the program, “And Ezra the Scribe Stood Upon a Pulpit,” was far less convincing. Composed (also) in 2012 by Brian Wilson, the title refers to the return on the Torah scroll to the Temple in Jerusalem following the Jews’ Babylonian Captivity. The program note by the composer suggested that the music had been equally inspired by Hebraic sources and Duke Ellington. The former involved direct quotation, which sounded out of place in the score’s overall texture. In spite of the size of my Ellington collection, I was unable to establish where the Duke had been situated.

That final offering was preceded by a duo performance by Vincent and Steiner. They prepared Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 454 sonata in B-flat major. This is probably the most familiar of the many sonatas that Mozart composed for this instrumental pairing. Vincent was consistently capable on technical grounds, but he and Steiner never really homed in on the prankish rhetorical gestures that make this sonata so engaging.

In fairness to the performers, however, last night’s concert had to contend with more technical problems than usual. The “usual” involves deploying microphones that adequately capture all of the instruments and render the spoken introductions all but inaudible. (One basically needed a “Spinal Tap amplifier” cranked up to eleven to hear anything spoken.) Furthermore, towards the end of the program, there was an intrusion of white noise that seemed to increase in amplitude as the music grew louder. Both Mozart and Wilson had to contend with this difficulty.

Clearly, this is not “plug-and-play” technology; and there are procedural details that still need to be mastered if these live-streamed events are to continue to serve as an adequate substitute for “being there.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Karajan on Decca: 19th-Century Opera

In my last dispatch concerning The Complete Decca Recordings anthology of performances by conductor Herbert von Karajan, I observed that the “lion’s share of repertoire” consisted of music composed during the nineteenth century. I thus felt obliged to divide that category into “Instrumental” and “Opera” subcategories. The latter is the larger collection; and, for that matter, the opera albums constitute a healthy majority of the entire anthology, 21 of the 33 CDs.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492, The Marriage of Figaro, was discussed as the only opera representing a First Viennese School composer. At the other end six CDs have been allocated to the three most-frequently performed operas of Giacomo Puccini, La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly; and they straddle the division between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result, I shall deal with them in my final report on this anthology. That leaves twelve CDs accounting for five nineteenth-century operas.

Given that this is a relatively modest number, Giuseppe Verdi is limited to only two operas, Aida and Otello. The other opera that consistently draws enthusiastic audiences is Georges Bizet’s Carmen. That leaves two operas, neither of which I would have associated with Karajan’s comfort zone: Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Die Fledermaus, composed by Johann Strauss II.

That last selection was the most surprising. Karajan has always struck me as being serious unto an extreme; and, for those that like to niggle over extremes, opera lovers tend to emphasize that Fledermaus is an operetta, consigning it to a repertoire that is “merely entertaining.” Nevertheless, there is no end of imaginative inventiveness in Strauss’ score. Furthermore, any performance worth its salt is likely to play fast and loose with weaving familiar excerpts by other composers into the overall fabric of the score. (My favorite example can be found in the Covent Garden staging, which is a New Year’s Eve tradition. When the husband takes leave of his wife, concealing the fact that he will be having a night on the town with an old drinking buddy, the orchestra of the Royal Opera House strikes up a few measures of “Wotan’s Farewell,” from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre.)

Karajan’s conducting on this recording could not be more spirited, and the cast he assembled for the recording sessions of June of 1960 collectively got into the the fun of it all. Ironically, baritone Erich Kunz, known for such comic roles of Papageno in The Magic Flute and Dr Falke (the aforementioned drinking buddy), was recruited, near the end of his career, to take the role of the drunken jailer Frosch, a role that allows for considerable improvisation, both verbal and physical. The second act is devoted to the raucous party attended by Falke and the philandering Gabriel von Eisenstein. It is held by the Russian Prince Orlofsky, and another Fledermaus tradition is that this scene includes a gala performance by some of Orlofsky’s special guests. The guests on this recording include Leontyne Price (an anachronistic delivery of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess), Birgit Nilsson singing the equally anachronistic “I could have danced all night” from My Fair Lady, and the venerable Ljuba Welitsch singing “Wien, Wien, nur du allein.”

Just as unexpected was the inclusion of Boris Godunov. I never thought of Karajan as a Russian opera conductor; and Boris is particularly problematic, since it had to endure efforts of other composers to “correct errors” in the score. In addition, there are different versions which include some of the scenes and exclude others. Back in the Eighties there was a trend towards performing the score as Mussorgsky wrote it in 1869, which consists of only seven scenes. Subsequently, the number of scenes was bumped up to ten. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov edited nine of them, trying to “correct any errors” in Mussorgsky’s manuscript. That became the “authorized revised version” of 1872. The missing scene was the so-called “St. Basil’s Scene” from the 1869 version, which Rimsky-Korsakov chose to eliminate. However, that scene was restored and added to the nine-scene version when Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov was commissioned in 1925 to “repair” the Mussorgsky original. In other words Karajan presents what is probably the most thorough account of the opera, the only shortcoming being that it is situated some distance from the original composer’s intentions.

Mario del Monaco as Otello (from the Web page of this particular Decca recording)

While the Carmen was recorded in Vienna, it was originally released by RCA to highlight major Metropolitan Opera performers. Those performers included Price in the title role, Franco Corelli as Don José, Robert Merrill as Escamillo, and Mirella Freni as Micaëla. (There was a similar Viennese release of Mozart’s Don Giovanni conducted by Erich Leinsdorf with Price singing Donna Elvira.) The leading vocalist in the Verdi recordings, on the other hand, is Renata Tebaldi, singing both Aida and Desdemona in Otello. She is partnered with different tenors however, Carlo Bergonzi as Radamès and Mario del Monaco as Otello.

Taken as a whole, this subset of the Karajan collection left me with much more satisfaction than any of the preceding segments. Indeed, I realized that, back in my secondary school days, the only opera recording that really took over my attention was a performance of Mozart’s K. 620 The Magic Flute. This was my first-ever contact with Karajan, and I could not get enough of it. The same can be said of the nineteenth-century opera selections in this new anthology.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Met’s Ill-Fated “Dutchman” on PBS

At the beginning of this month, PBS released the seventh installment in this season’s series of Great Performances at the Met broadcasts. The offering was The Flying Dutchman, the earliest of the operas of Richard Wagner to be performed regularly in opera houses around the world. The Great Performances videos are generally taken from the Live in HD transmissions to movie theaters. However, this particular Live in HD offering was scheduled for March 14 and was cancelled due to the shelter-in-place response to the outbreak of COVID-19. Instead, Great Performances at the Met presented a video recording made on March 10, which was probably the last performance of this opera before shelter-in-place restrictions were imposed.

The staging was by François Girard, who had previously staged Wagner’s Parsifal for the Met in 2013. Readers may recall that I wrote about this production this past April, when it was given free access through the Met Opera on Demand video archive. In writing about that experience I confessed my strong attraction to traditionalist interpretations of the Wagner canon, and Girard’s approach definitely did not fall in that category. However, while my usual approach to poorly-conceived revisionism is sustained grumbling, Girard’s Parsifal merely left me yawning. As I previously wrote, he seemed more interested in projections and lighting, rather than interpreting the narrative through staging; so at least I did not have to endure some of the more outrageous revisionist approaches to Parsifal, such as the abundance of Nazi symbolism found in Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s film version.

My reaction to Girard’s Dutchman, on the other hand, definitely crossed the threshold into grumbling. One of my traditionalist mantras is that what you see on the stage should not involve violent contradictions of the words being sung. Thus, I suspected that I would be in for a rocky journey as soon as I realized that Daland’s helmsman was not at the helm of his vessel. That opening gesture was an omen that Girard would not miss an opportunity to provide visual impressions that consistently opposed the libretto, primarily in the texts assigned to the characters but also in the descriptive passages.

The most outrageous opportunity took place during the second act, when all the women of the village are busy at their spinning wheels. This setting was replaced by eliminating all artifacts except for a curtain of individual ropes which would tangle and untangle over the course of the act:

from the Live in HD Web page created for The Flying Dutchman

Another annoyance was the prevalence of large precious gems, the first of which suggested that the Dutchman was more interested in purchasing Senta, rather than loving her. By the third act, everyone in the village is carrying around those gems, rather than hoisting the steins of grog that went with the drinking song in the music.

Ultimately, the primary saving virtue of this video was the conducting by Valery Gergiev. This was not my first encounter with him conducting Wagner, so I went in with high hopes. I was not disappointed. If Girard did not care what the vocalists were singing or how their texts were reflected in the music, one could still count on Gergiev to tell the story that Wagner wanted to tell.

If the crowd scenes were consistently disappointing, there were at least a few virtues in the interpretations of the individual roles. Evgeny Nikitin did his best to deliver the personality traits of Wagner’s Dutchman, rather than Girard’s. Franz-Josef Selig’s Daland, on the other hand, was basically a good capitalist, who would not have been out of place in the “dark side” staging that I saw in the summer of 1988 in a Santa Fe Opera production directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Anja Kampe’s Senta never seemed to have figured out what to do with herself and tended to fall back on overwrought gestures. Finally, there was Sergey Skorokhodov as Erik, who seemed to be playing Don Ottavio at his most clueless (without the benefit of the wonderful tenor arias composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart).

As Vladimir Nabokov once observed, one can still find amusement in one’s own grumbling; so I should probably thank heaven for the small favors of those amusements!

Monday, July 27, 2020

A “Premiere Stream” from the Royal Ballet

This past Friday the Royal Ballet uploaded to YouTube a video of a full-length performance of The Sleeping Beauty performed in the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. No performance date was given; but, in all probability, this was the video archive of a performance that was broadcast live to cinemas around the world in February of 2017. The upload was part of the #OurHouseToYourHouse series, and it will be available for viewing until August 7. The background material (including casting) on the YouTube Web page is relatively sparse; but a separate Web page has been created with more detailed information about the production, as well as a “trailer” video.

By way of disclaimer, I have to “come clean” with my own opinion that, when compared with the other ballets set to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty provides the weakest narrative, perhaps because it involves the most familiar story. Thus, while practically everyone watching this video already knows the story (in some version or another), the choreographic treatment of the narrative has a tendency to come across as at least a little bit clunky. My personal conjecture as that there are too many details in the narrative, which lead to extended mimed passages, whose decoding can be a bit brain-twisting. Furthermore, all those details tend to slow down the pace of the narration, which is less of a problem when you are reading a book than it is when you are watching a performance on the stage.

The narrative is structured as a Prologue (the baptism of the Princess Aurora and the curse of Carabosse) and three acts:
  1. Princess Aurora, her four fiancées, and the sleeping curse
  2. Prince Désiré discovers Aurora and breaks the spell
  3. Aurora’s wedding
In the original choreography by Marius Petipa, both the Prologue and each of the acts has an extended divertissement, which interrupts the plot with a series of highly inventive dance episodes. The staging for the video was produced by Monica Mason and Christopher Newton, drawing primarily on choreography by Ninette de Valois and Nicholas Sergeyev but with additional material created by Frederick Ashton, Anthony Dowell, and Christopher Wheeldon. In the midst of all of those cooks, the divertissement for the second act was elided; and the Wikipedia page for the ballet suggests that those cuts go all the way back to Petipa.

Nevertheless, Sleeping Beauty is a ballet in which the dancers tend to take priority over the narrative. One might thus approach it as a series of highly engaging episodes of abstract ballet with unwelcome interruptions to get back to the plot. As a result those more interested in high-quality dancing technique may find themselves free to doze off during the storytelling for the sake of more attentive appreciation of the choreography behind those divertissements. Sadly, the list of performers on that aforementioned Web page does not adequately account for which dancers are featured in each of those divertissements.

The “fish dive” featured in the pas de deux of Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Personally, I do not mind that elision. These days I find myself primarily interested in the choreography; and I seldom “play favorites” when it comes to who gives the best account of that choreography. Still, during the final act, I could not resist being drawn into both of the major pas de deux offerings. The first of these featured Matthew Ball as the bluebird and Yasmine Naghdi as the Princess Florine, and both of them brought a stunning other-worldliness to their pas de deux. They were then complemented by Fumi Kaneko as the Princess Aurora and Federico Bonelli as Prince Florimund, whose dancing was so absorbing that one barely noticed how minimal the thematic material was.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Riley Nicholson Live-Streams from C4NM

This afternoon D. Riley Nicholson, Project Manager at the Center for New Music (C4NM), presented a solo piano recital which was live-streamed through YouTube and is now available for subsequent viewing. The title of his program was Influences; and, true to that title, he surveyed the influences of four key composers. He then concluded with the world premiere of his recent solo composition, “Without,” suggesting that the short movements of this ten-minute piece reflected the influences of the compositions he had just played.

Those past influences constituted what statisticians would call a “bimodal distribution” along the time line. (They could also be called two “clustered pairs.”) The earliest influence came from Erik Satie from a set of four preludes composed between 1888 and 1892 and given the title Quatre prélude posthumes. The “posthumous” adjective was typical Satie humor, since the preludes were written long before his death in 1925. The last two were called preludes for the Nazarene, and Nicholson played the second of these. This was followed by “A pied” (on foot), the first of the ten short pieces in Francis Poulenc’s Promenades collection, composed in 1921 and probably reflecting the composer’s familiarity with Satie’s music. Nicholson’s influences then leap into the second half of the twentieth century with two selections from Hans Otte’s Das Buch der Klänge (the book of sounds), composed between 1979 and 1982. Otte shares this “cluster” with Meredith Monk, whose “Railroad (Travel Song)” was composed in 1981.

Each of these offerings had its own distinctive approach to quietude, what John Cage sometimes referred to as a calming of the mind. There was a certain deadpan quality to Nicholson’s interpretations, but this amounted to making good the intention of letting the voice of each piece speak for itself. The brevity of each of these offerings encouraged a focus of attention that dwelled more on the emerging sonorities than on any conventional wisdom about themes and harmonic progressions. That almost primal approach to listening then served Nicholson’s performance of “Without” as well as it had served the influences behind that new composition. The result was a thoroughly engaging program, which, when taken in its entirety, transcended many of the expectations one brings to a recital and most of the labels invoked to classify different genres of composition.

Verve Releases Jimmy Heath’s Final Album

courtesy of Play MPE

Jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath died this past January 19 at the age of 93. That means that he lived through just about every genre of twentieth-century jazz. His personal involvement in making jazz can be traced back to performances with both Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie.

A little over a week ago Verve released his final album entitled Love Letter. There are only eight tracks, all of which are ballad classics, including songs written by Billie Holiday, Mal Waldron, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, and Gordon Parks (who is probably better known for his work in photography and film). Heath’s rhythm section includes Kenny Barron on piano, David Wong on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums. For some tracks the combo is augmented by Russell Malone on guitar and/or Monte Croft on vibraphone.

The album also features three “special guests.” Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis joins Heath for a duo account of Dorham’s “La Mesha.” In addition two of the leading vocalists of the current century join the group. Both of them sing songs by Parks, “Left Alone” presented by Cécile McLorin Salvant and Gregory Porter delivering “Don’t Misunderstand.”

I first became aware of Heath’s achievements through the Blue Note CD reissue entitled Picture of Heath. The album was originally issued under the title Playboys, perhaps in a coy reference to the sextet with two leaders, Chet Baker on trumpet and Art Pepper on alto saxophone. Five of the seven tracks were Heath compositions (with the other two by Pepper). There is much more quietude in the rhetoric of Love Letter; and, when listening to “La Mesha” in its current context, one can only describe the paired rhetoric of Heath and Marsalis as one of poignant lyricism.

The weakest tracks on the album are the vocals. Salvant may have been trying to sound coy in “Left Alone.” However, her voice lacks body; and her pitch is often uncertain, having to rely on Heath’s much more secure intonation to get back on track. Porter brings a much more secure sense of pitch to his delivery, but his rhetorical stylizing tends to slip into past clichés that are better forgotten.

Still, the focus of listening deserves to be centered on Heath himself. The advance publicity material described him as “a jockey-framed, spirited, 93-year-old man, who with the full breadth of his intellectual powers, delivers his final, magnificent salvo.” That last noun is a bit over the top for a repertoire of lyrical ballads. For that matter, while there is no question that Heath approaches these eight tracks with keen sensitivity to the tunes themselves, there is nothing intellectual about the foundational rhetoric.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Leoš Janáček’s Opera In and About Time

In his massive three-volume treatise Time and Narrative, the philosopher Paul Ricœur addressed the need to recognize that a narrative can be in time or about time. The former is more frequently encountered, but the latter has its own distinctive qualities. Ricœur presented Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway as a representative example of the latter, and one can probably argue that James Joyce’s Ulysses falls in the same category.

On the other hand music can only exist in time. As a result, an opera libretto based on a narrative about time can only do justice to the music if it is also in time. Ricœur was not yet a teenager when Karel Čapek wrote his play, The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos in Czech); but Čapek probably knew full well that he was approaching time as a subject, rather than simply a setting in which his narrative unfolded. Thus, when Leoš Janáček prepared his own libretto from Čapek’s text for an operatic interpretation of the play, he may well have appreciated the distinctive role that time played without the benefit of Ricœur’s insights.

One can appreciate that role in this weekend’s Opera is ON streaming of a San Francisco Opera (SFO) performance of Janáček’s The Makropulos Affair. One cannot avoid the looming presence of a clock in Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s sets for all three acts of this opera, whose performance was co-produced with the Finnish National Opera. Furthermore, it would not be difficult to see that the clock is actually moving, emphasizing that the nature of “real time” is as significant to the narrative and the music as it is to the pace of the plot as staged by Olivier Tambosi with the music conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek (who made his SFO debut when this opera was first performed).

Emilia Marty (Karita Mattila, center) in the law office of Dr. Kolenatý (Dale Travis, right) with his client Albert Gregor (Miro Dvorsky, left) (photography by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

I feel fortunate in having seen both the production that Frank Zamacona directed for video capture in November of 2010 and the revival that took place in October of 2016. Zamacona knew how to do justice to the full scope of stage imagery for each of the opera’s three acts as well as to close-up shots that captured those character traits that were key to the unfolding of the narrative. In 2010 the leading role of Emilia Marty was sung by Karita Mattila, whose body language consistently reflected her character’s enigmatic personality. In many ways, however, those enigmas provided mirrors that reflected the motives and desires of all the other characters crossing her path. So it was that the observer in the audience could be drawn into the story of a legal dispute over a will that has been going on for almost 100 years and the resolution of that dispute through the intervention of a woman (Marty) over 300 years old who has not lost her youthful appearance. Furthermore, that observer could accept that story without dismissing it as absurd.

The key to following the plot is to accept the absurdity, rather than challenge it. Acceptance, in turn, is reinforced by the stunning athleticism that Mattila brings to Marty’s 300-year-old character. The intensity of her approaches to movement (as directed by Tambosi, no doubt) reflect the very intensity of her situation. We are initially cued to that situation as we (and all the other characters) come to realize that she knows more of the details behind the legal dispute than any of the other characters do. To return to the about-time nature of the narrative, her character is consistently framed by the rich and complex path that leads form a distant past up to the present in which the legal dispute will eventually be resolved with little satisfaction to any of the characters (including Marty herself).

All this complexity may seem like more than an audience viewer can manage; but Tambosi’s staging and Zamacona’s video direction bring a clarity to all of the complexities that make viewing a bracing but satisfying experience.

New Krenek Release from Toccata Classics

Photograph of Ernst Krenek at the piano on the cover of the recording begin discussed (courtesy of Naxos of America)

The pace at which Toccata Classics has been recording the music of Ernst Krenek has been painstakingly slow. The British label seems to have a plan for organizing their releases according to different genres. However, as of this writing, the only genre to have been given a complete account is that of piano concertos, which required only two CDs and was completed when the second CD was released in April of 2017, about a year after the first CD was released.

The very first Krenek album from Toccata surfaced much earlier, in July of 2015, during my days, under the title of Ernst Krenek Piano Music, Volume One. The pianist was Stanislav Khristenko. The description of the back of the jewel case described the release as the “first extended survey of the piano music of Ernst Krenek.” This claim made me curious enough about the scope of that survey that I checked out the list of Krenek’s compositions on Grove Music Online. I discovered that he had written seven piano sonatas between 1919 (Opus 2 in E-flat major) to 1988 (Opus 240), along with twenty additional piano pieces.

At the beginning of this month, the second volume in this series was finally released. Like the first volume it includes only a single sonata, Opus 121 (the fifth), composed in 1950. (The sonata on the first volume was Opus 114, the fourth, composed about two years earlier. That volume also includes the Opus 120, entitled “George Washington Variations.”)

Most of the second volume explores Krenek’s talents as a miniaturist, both early in his career in Europe and later after he had acquired American citizenship. The earliest of these is the Opus 13a Little Suite, composed in 1922. The full title in German is Eine kleine Suite von Stücken über denselbigen Choral, verschiedenen Charakters (a little suite of pieces based on same chorale, in different characters). The “same chorale” refers to Opus 13, consisting of a toccata and a chaconne both based on the chorale theme for the hymn “Ja ich glaub’ an Jesum Christum” (yes, I believe in Jesus Christ). Taken together, Opus 13 and Opus 13a serve up a fascinatingly refracted reflection on Johann Sebastian Bach, not only in the forms of the Opus 13 movements but also in Opus 13a beginning with an allemande, a sarabande, and a gavotte. Nevertheless, Krenek’s interest in the influence of American dance bands surfaces in the final movement, which is a foxtrot.

The other early composition is the Opus 26 set of two suites composed in 1924. All of the movements of both suites are labeled only by tempo markings, rather than referring to dance forms. Like the Opus 13a suite, the movements show Krenek’s individual approach to atonality. He had not been influenced by Arnold Schoenberg but, instead, by the textbook Grundlagen des linearen Kontrapunkts  (foundations of linear counterpoint) by Ernst Kurth. While these movements do not draw upon familiar forms as a point of departure, there is still a recognizable rhetoric of playfulness that distracts the listener from any concerns about the lack of a tonal center.

The final composition of this second release is the Opus 168 collection of six “Vermessene” (measurements), composed in 1958. By this time Krenek was living in Los Angeles and had cultivated a friendship with Igor Stravinsky. This was a time when Stravinsky was getting interested in serial composition; and he may have been drawn to Krenek because the latter had chosen a path different from that of Arnold Schoenberg. The Opus 168 pieces are, again, miniatures; but they reveal a voice that would not be confused with those of Schoenberg and his student Anton Webern. They also would not be confused with Stravinsky, but this was a time when Stravinsky showed little interest in writing for solo piano.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Charlotte Zwerin’s Monk Documentary

Cover of the DVD packaging for the documentary being discussed (from its Web page)

Listening to Philip Greenlief’s solo tenor saxophone account of the music of Thelonious Monk ten days ago turned out to trigger two key personal memories of Monk and his music. The earlier of those memories came from when, during my graduate student days, I would take a break by traveling down to New York, where I was able to listen to Monk perform at the Village Vanguard. The other was the recollection of seeing Charlotte Zwerin’s Monk documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. The New York encounters took place during the second half of the Sixties. Zwerin’s documentary was released in 1988, but almost all of the content footage was shot by cinematographer Christian Blackwood and his brother Michael around that same time that I was hanging out at the Vanguard. The two of them closely followed Monk for six months, capturing both performances and day-to-day life primarily in New York and on tour in Europe. Blackwood also filmed Monk’s funeral after his death on February 17, 1982.

Prior to the first of my visits to the Vanguard, I was aware of a few Monk recordings and less than a handful of his tunes. Having spent almost all of my time with the classical repertoire, I was pathetically ill-equipped to listen to jazz as far out as any of Monk’s themes, let alone his improvisations on those themes. I also knew nothing about Monk’s practices as a performer, and my most salient recollection of those Vanguard sessions was that he scared the living daylights out of me.

Much of that was probably a reaction to his keyboard technique. He tended to keep all ten fingers in play with almost violent force. As a result, just about every tune emerged through a maelstrom of arrhythmic tone clusters, almost as if the tune was the signal trying to work its way through the noise of Monk’s unmistakable keyboard technique. The Blackwood brothers captured that technique with such accuracy that all of my fearful impressions once again rose to the surface while watching Zwerin’s documentary. Furthermore, they were punctuated by off-stage views of Monk that tended to capture a mind that was always somewhere else, possibly teetering delicately on any sense of stability.

Revisiting that documentary, I realize that no one could ever play Monk’s music the way that Monk did it himself. Early in Zwerin’s documentary, we encounter two of the foremost jazz pianists of the second half of the twentieth century, Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris. They are in the process of preparing a two-piano account of one of Monk’s tunes, and the documentary captures them poring over Monk’s charts trying to make sense of how the marks on paper will guide them through their performance efforts. If pianists as skilled as they were struggled to figure out how to give an acceptable account of Monk’s music, what hope can there every be for the well-intentioned efforts of any listener?

The fact is that, in working with all that footage from the Blackwood brothers, Zwerin never tries to elaborate on, let alone explain, the phenomena behind either Monk making music or the effort behind trying to listen to the music being made. Having struggled with those listening efforts for half a century, I find that I can offer little more by way of explanation than that God-awful cliché: “It is what it is.” Mind you, one can always find a point of reference in the six CDs that Frank Kimbrough’s quartet recorded for the album Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk. This is not to say that Kimbrough’s account of Monk’s thematic material is inadequate. However, every one of those tunes has been “untimely ripp’d” from the context of “being Monk,” particularly when that tune has emerged from what is almost a tortured relationship between an extraordinarily imaginative jazz pianist and his instrument.

Carlo Grante Concludes Scarlatti Project

courtesy of Naxos of America

One week from today Music & Arts will release the sixth and final volume in Italian pianist Carlo Grante’s project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. This has been a major journey, since the first volume was released in April of 2010. My own interest in this collection did not begin until early in 2014, during my time with, which meant that I had to catch up on the earliest releases. Furthermore, while I was keeping up with Grante’s releases, Warner Classics reissued its box set of all of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas performed by the late harpsichordist Scott Ross, meaning that I now have at my disposal two “complete” Scarlatti collections. As expected, has already created a Web page for pre-ordering the final Grante release.

The Ross collection works its way through the catalog numbers of Ralph Kirkpatrick over the course of 33 CDs. The final CD includes entries in the catalog that are not for solo harpsichord. This accounts for all 555 entries in Kirkpatrick’s catalog. Grante’s collection runs to 35 CDs and is organized by the dates of publications and miscellaneous manuscripts. The total number of tracks is 570. Thanks to the Apple Music app, I was able to determine that, if played without interruption, it would take 1.7 days to listen to the entire Grante collection.

Grante’s final volume begins with the 42 sonatas in the last of the fifteen Parma volumes, published in 1757. This is followed by those sonatas published in Venice in 1742 and 1749 that are not found in any of the Parma volumes. Taken together, these account for all but the last two tracks of the first five CDs. Those two tracks and the remaining two CDs account for a wide variety of miscellaneous sources, not all of which were cataloged by Kirkpatrick, which is why Grante’s track-count exceeds Kirkpatrick’s total. Whether or not Grante’s collection is “complete” will be decided by future doctoral candidates in musicology.

Mind you, neither the Ross nor the Grante releases were intended for “marathon” listening. Back in my student days, I used to see billboard ads for the Sunday issue of The New York Times with the slogan, “You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there!” I like to think of both releases as valuable reference resources. In Grante’s case that includes questions of grand piano technique that will do proper justice to Scarlatti’s polyphony.

I also would like to believe that these releases can serve as valuable resources for students aspiring to make a career as keyboard performers. Audiences deserve to know that there is far more to Scarlatti’s output than the few sonatas that Vladimir Horowitz would crank out in his recital programs. My piano teacher in Santa Barbara encouraged me to venture into the less-familiar sonatas; and, thanks to IMSLP, I can continue those explorations with sonata-by-sonata downloads. As a result I have taken great pleasure in following Grante’s journey from beginning to end; and I feel strongly that any fraction of those 1.7 days required to listen to the entire collection will be time well spent.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Helia’s Collaboration with Natalie Raney

Regular readers probably know by now that I have been doing my best to report on the activities of the Helia Music Collective, co-founded by composers Emma Logan and Julie Barwick. Their mission is to support the creative endeavors of women in music throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, my last attempt to write about their efforts took place at the beginning of this past November, when they curated a solo violin recital by Robert Simonds for Old First Concerts (O1C) consisting entirely of works by women composed between 1990 and 2019.

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

Following that performance, Logan and Barwick have been working with cellist Natalie Raney on a project entitled Catalyst: A Musical Collaboration. Raney provided a foretaste of this project this past June, when O1C live-streamed a solo recital she had prepared. That program included the first movement of Bloom, a suite recently composed by Dorothy Chang. The full Catalyst program has not yet been announced; but the Center for New Music (C4NM) has already committed to hosting its performance and live-streaming the event. The current plan is to include newly commissioned works by Elizabeth A. Baker (“stringDefinition” for speaking cellist) and Belinda Reynolds (“Moments”), as well as recent works by both of the Helia co-founders, Logan (“Desert Aesthetic”) and Barwick (“Counterbalance”). Raney is also planning to begin the program with Kaija Saariaho’s “Près,” scored to solo cello and live electronics. (If necessary, this article will be updated to reflect any changes in program content.)

As of this writing, C4NM has created an entry for this event on its Calendar Web page. The performance is scheduled to take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 4. This will not be a free event, but a hyperlink has been created for the advance purchase of tickets. [updated 8/3, 6:25 a.m.: Change in ticket prices: The fee will be a familiar one, $10 for general admission with a $5 rate for C4NM members and students.] Tickets will be available until 7:15 p.m. At 7:30 p.m. all ticket holders will be sent the private link for streaming the performance.

Art Song Video from St. Mary’s Music Notes

St. Mary’s Music Notes is a series of videos of music performed in the sanctuary of The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin. These are initially live-streamed on Facebook and then archived for subsequent viewing. The series was probably organized and curated by Eric Choate, who serves as both choirmaster and organist at the church.

This morning I watched a video, which was live-streamed this past Tuesday morning. According to the header, this is the ninth video in the series. The featured artist was soprano Ellen Leslie, accompanied at the piano by Choate. The video, which was only ten minutes in duration, presented four songs by Déodat de Séverac.

Séverac was born in Toulouse in 1872, about a decade after Claude Debussy. He studied in Paris, where his best known teacher was Vincent d’Indy (who was never much of an admirer of Debussy’s music). After his studies he returned to the south of France, where he lived until his early death in 1921.

Séverac is probably best known for setting texts in Occitan and Catalan. However, the core of Leslie’s program consisted of settings of poetry by Paul Verlaine. The first of these was “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit” (the sky above the roof). This was followed by “Soleils couchants” (fading dawn), the first of the seven poems in Verlaine’s Paysages tristes (sad landscapes). This pairing was preceded by “Temps de neige” (snowy weather), setting a poem by Henry Gautheir-Villars, best known as Colette’s first husband, given the nickname Willy. Leslie concluded with Séverac’s setting of “Renouveau” (renewal), a fifteenth-century poem by Charles, Duke of Orléans.

All four of these songs were delivered with satisfying clarity, as was the interplay between vocalist and pianist. Even without the French texts, one could probably recognize this as French music during the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Still, there is a sense that Séverac approached this transition retrospectively, rather than prospectively! It might have been useful to have links to both the texts and their translations; but too much attention to the words themselves might have distracted from the overall rhetoric, whose traits were revealed through music with its own distinctive expressive traits.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

SF International Piano Festival in Cyberspace

Next month the San Francisco International Piano Festival will present its fourth annual season. In the past founder and Artistic Director Jeffrey LaDeur has presented performances at a variety of venues throughout the Bay Area, and this site has focused on the concerts presented within the San Francisco city limits. Under the current extraordinary circumstances, this year’s Festival will be presented in a variety of virtual formats, combining retrospective highlights alongside commissioned programs. The title of the Festival will be “A Season of Reflection;” and all of the virtual presentations will be presented without any charge. The schedule for these events is as follows:

Thursday, August 20, 7:30 p.m., A Call to Reflection: As was the case when the Festival was first launched, the opening program will be a Schubertiade. The program will be presented in collaboration with LIEDER ALIVE! and will feature LIEDER ALIVE! Artist-in-Residence mezzo Kindra Scharich, accompanied at the piano by LaDeur (who performs regularly at LIEDER ALIVE! recitals). The program will be devoted entirely to the music of Franz Schubert, and Scharich will perform six of his most familiar songs. In addition LaDeur will give a solo performance of the D. 894 piano sonata in G major (whose recording by Peter Serkin was discussed at the beginning of this week).

Friday, August 21, 7:30 p.m., Music of the Future: In Conversation with Albert Kim: Kim has been a favorite with Festival audiences. When he is not performing, he is a passionate educator and thinker who is sensitive to the constantly shifting landscape of performance, scholarship, and classical music at large. The program will revisit selections from the 2019 Festival, beginning with Kim’s performance of “Une barque sur l’océan” (a boat on the ocean) the third of the five movements of Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs (mirrors) suite. There will also be performances by the Fervida Trio with pianist Karina Tseng joining violinist Sean Mori and cellist Angeline Kiang. They will play Pierre Jalbert’s first trio, given the title “Life Cycle” and the Presto Finale of the first, in the key of E-flat major) of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 1 collection of three piano trios. Between the performances Kim and LaDeur will discuss the exploration of tradition and innovation, the formats through which we share and receive music, illusions of the classical music industry, and the extraordinary young musicians that are leading the way forward.

Saturday, August 22, 7:30 p.m., Mysteria: This program will revisit another 2019 Festival performance. This was a candlelight concert presented by soprano Kayleen Sánchez, pianist Paul Sánchez and violinist Eka Gogichashvili in partnership with Old First Concerts (O1C). The program will consist of three compositions by David M. Gordon, whose approaches to instrumentation involve three pianos, singing glasses, autoharp, finger symbols, harmonica, and more.

Sunday, August 23, 7:30 p.m., Ode to Joy: This will revisit the 2019 Festival performance of Franz Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Opus 125 (ninth) symphony in D minor. Scharich will return as mezzo soloist, joined by soprano Heidi Moss Erickson, tenor Michael Jankosky, and bass Kirk Eichelberger. The instrumental score will be performed entirely by pianist Bobby Mitchell.

Monday, August 24, 7:30 p.m., Night Music: This program will present new performances by pianist Eunmi Ko, who made her Festival debut in 2017. The program will begin with David Liptak’s “Star Light,” composed in 2009. This will be followed by Frédéric Chopin’s very first nocturne, the first (in the key of B-flat minor) of the three in the Opus 9 collection. Then, somewhat in the spirit of the synthesis of thesis and antithesis, Ko will play “Nocturne after Stella Starlight,” composed for her by John Liberatore. Her program will then conclude with the “Carambola” movement from Tyler Kline’s Orchard suite.

Tuesday, August 25, 7:30 p.m., Nicholas Phillips Presents #45 Miniatures Project: A Musical Protest: This program will be the result of a “Call for Scores” post to Facebook. Composers were welcome to use anything related to our 45th President (tweets, speeches, etc.) as source material to create a miniature, or small collection of miniatures, for solo piano. This will be the premiere performance of the results of that project.

Wednesday, August 26, 7:30 p.m., Concert Confidential: This program will revisit an evening of anecdotes, musical encounters, and mishaps, originally presented by LaDeur at the 2018 Festival. The musical selections will be drawn from different periods of music history. The earliest of these will be “Les Barricades Mystérieuses” (the mysterious barricades), the fifth piece, in the key of B-flat major, in the sixth ordre in the collection of harpsichord compositions by François Couperin. This will be followed by the first of Chopin’s four ballades, Opus 23 in G minor. The next selection will be “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (the girl with the flaxen hair), the eighth piece in Claude Debussy’s first book of twelve piano preludes. The musical selections will then conclude with William Bolcom’s, “The Graceful Ghost Rag.”

Thursday, August 27, 7:30 p.m., Frederic Rzewski: Songs of Insurrection: This program will revisit the 2019 Festival at which Mitchell presented the United States premiere of Songs of Insurrection, which Rzewski completed in 2016.

Friday, August 28, 8 p.m., Beethoven 250 - Live!: This will be the 2020 installation of the Festival’s partnership with O1C. The program will present three selections of Beethoven’s chamber music featuring pianists Gwendolyn Mok, Allegra Chapman, and Sarah Yuan. Stephen Harrison will be accompanied by Mok in a performance of the second of the Opus 5 cello sonatas in the key of G minor. Chapman will then join violinist Eunseo Oh for the third of the Opus 30 violin sonatas in G major. Finally, Yuan will join four members of the Nomad Session wind and brass octet, oboist Jesse Barrett, clarinetist Jonathan Szin, bassoonist Kristopher King, and hornist Stephanie Stroud, to conclude the program with the Opus 16 quintet in E-flat major.

Saturday, August 29, 7:30 p.m., Dialogue Interrupted: The “interruption” refers to the fact that Johann Sebastian Bach died before completing one of the fugues he was composing for his BWV 1080 collection The Art of Fugue. That music will be represented by the performance that Owen Zhou gave during the 2018 Festival. That performance will be complemented by another “live” Phillips offering showcasing the music of Florence Price. He will perform her grand and virtuosic piano sonata, complemented with a selection of her miniatures for solo piano.

Sunday, August 30, 2 p.m., Reflection in Nature: The Festival Finale will explore human experience as reflected in nature. The first half of the program will feature solo performances by LaDeur. George Walker’s third piano sonata, revised in 1996, will be flanked by two major nineteenth-century compositions, the first, in the key of F minor, of the four D. 935 impromptus by Schubert, and Chopin’s Opus 54 Scherzo in E major. Following the intermission, Scharich will return to sing Ravel’s Histoires naturelles (natural histories) song cycle, accompanied by LaDeur. Finally, LaDeur will join the wind players that performed Beethoven’s Opus 16 to conclude the program with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 452 quintet for piano and winds in E-flat major.

The Festival Web site has not yet provided the necessary hyperlinks for these concerts; readers are advised to consult the concert calendar page prior to those concerts they wish to experience.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Fred Hersch’s Theater Piece Now on YouTube

This past Friday Fred Hersch uploaded to YouTube a video of a performance of My Coma Dreams in its entirety, approximately 90 minutes in duration. Those that follow this site regularly know that the title refers to a medically induced coma that Hersch sustained in 2008 when he was hospitalized after losing the ability to get out of his own bathtub. The narrative begins with events leading up to his hospitalization and concludes with his experience of a physical therapy session after he had regained consciousness.

Michael Winther narrating Herschel Garfein’s text of My Coma Dreams (photograph by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz)

The script was  written by Herschel Garfein, who directed what amounted to an amalgam of a monodrama for a narrator embedded in an instrumental ensemble augmenting a jazz combo with a string quartet. Hersch composed the music for that ensemble, performing (as expected) at the piano with Gregg Kallor serving as conductor. The text embodied two distinct voices, both performed by Michael Winther, who also sang the vocal numbers from the score. The primary voice is that of Hersch’s partner, Scott Morgan, while Hersch’s own voice is cited at critical moments in the narrative.

Hersch’s extended combo for this performance included Ralph Alessi on trumpet and flugelhorn, Mike Christianson on trombone, Steven Lugerner on oboe and clarinet, Adam Kolker on flute, clarinet and tenor saxophone, John Hébert on bass, and John Hollenbeck on percussion. The string quartet consisted of violinists Joyce Hammann and Laura Seaton, violist Ron Lawrence, and cellist  Dave Eggar, with Hammann shifting to viola to give a duo performance with Hersch during one episode of the narrative. The music and text were supplemented by video projections of both static and animated images.

Watching this video is no easy matter. Garfein’s script provides an almost clinical account of the entire experience without ever confounding the listener with excessive technical language. At the same time he personalizes the narration with several informal digressions. The one with the greatest impact describes St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, enhanced by a riff on Vincent de Paul himself and the Daughters of Charity that followed him. All of this is delivered by, in the words of the script, “a Jew from Cincinnati.” (There is a bit of irony here, since Cincinnati is the city in which Reform Judaism was founded.) Thus, while the narrative itself is intense, the script has enough “sidebars” to make the journey bearable.

That said, I have to confess that, around 60 minutes into the performance, I began to wonder whether I would make it to the end without drifting into sidebars of my own thoughts. I can appreciate why the script was written to deliver the entire narrative without interruption. However, one of the prime virtues of the music is that it encourages the listener to “stay the course.” From my own point of view, what I found particularly interesting was how Hersch’s score reflected the influences of Thelonious Monk, almost as if the Monk’s ghost was a third character in the narrative itself, whose voice was delivered by Hersch’s piano, rather than Winther.

When it comes to recommending My Coma Dreams as a viewing experience, I am reminded of a preconcert talk that Scott Foglesong gave for the San Francisco Symphony. The talk had been devoted to what is probably the most despondent of the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich; and Foglesong confessed that he could not really invite the audience to “enjoy” this music. Instead, he concluded by wishing “The Force be with you.” That is probably the right mindset for experiencing My Coma Dreams, and it is definitely worth the effort.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Peter Serkin on Sony: Nineteenth Century

The original cover of the vinyl release of Peter Serkin’s first Schubert recording (from the Web page for this album)

The nineteenth-century selections recorded by pianist Peter Serkin included in The Complete RCA Album Collection are very modest, almost as modest as his recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Nevertheless, one of them has highly personal significance, which deserves an anecdotal background. Back in the Sixties my father worked for RCA during its brief attempt to venture into the computer hardware business. One December all the employees got a “Christmas gift” in the form of a recently-released album. The one my father brought home was Serkin’s second recording for RCA, which consisted entirely of Franz Schubert’s D. 894 piano sonata in G major.

At that time I tended to be more than a little scornful of Schubert. I had little exposure to his songs and just as little interest in getting to know them. His symphonic music, on the other hand, struck my arrogant attitude as warmed-over attempts to revive the spirit of Ludwig van Beethoven. On the chamber music front I knew little other than the D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”) string quartet in D minor. As a result, when I put down the needle on the first side of the D. 894 album, my mind had already closed like a steel trap.

In less than a minute, it sprang open. I had not yet been exposed to the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, but almost immediately I grasped that Schubert had tapped into that technique of “making more and more with less and less.” Furthermore, that “more and more” registered with me with the same intensity I kept encountering in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. That album got me hooked on Schubert, leaving me eager to get to know the rest of his catalog.

Since that album was produced so early in Serkin’s tenure with RCA, it is the second CD in the new box set, making it my first exposure to Serkin’s approach to nineteenth-century repertoire. I was delighted to find that the magic was still there, regardless of the number of recital performances and recordings of D. 894 that I have subsequently encountered. Indeed, when I was living in Santa Barbara and had a piano teacher that encouraged me to try everything, I even struggled with trying to play the damn thing for myself (thankful that my piano teacher was the only individual exposed to my efforts).

While many of Schubert’s songs were setting of texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, I am not sure how well acquainted he was with Faust, beyond the song texts that Goethe had included in the script. However, one way to approach D. 894 is in terms of the contract that Faust makes with Mephistopheles. Those terms are nicely summarized on the Faust Wikipedia page:
Faust's arrangement is that if he is pleased enough with anything Mephistopheles gives him that he wants to stay in that moment forever, then he will die in that moment.
So much of D. 894 involves that sense of staying in a moment forever, and each of the four movements has its own way of conveying that sense. Whether or not that was Schubert’s intention, it may well have been the motivating force behind Serkin’s approach to interpreting the marks on paper; and that approach carries just as much impact today as it did half a century ago.

There are two more Schubert selections in the RCA collection. One is a much earlier sonata, D. 568 in E-flat major. The other is a Tashi performance of the D. 667 (“Trout”) quintet. Tashi members Serkin, violist Ida Kavafian, and cellist Fred Sherry are joined by Joseph Silverstein on violin and Buell Neidlinger on bass. The resulting recording tends to convey of sense of friends gathering the make music. This is not to short-change the quality of the musicianship; but the interpretation comes off as sounding little more than dutiful.

D. 568 is another matter. The music is a revision and completion of the D. 567 sonata in D-flat major, whose composition was interrupted in the midst of the third movement. On the RCA album it was coupled with Robert Schumann’s Opus 82 collection of nine short pieces entitled Waldszenen (forest scenes). From a structural point of view this set is more intriguing than the Schubert sonata. Here again a quotation from the Wikipedia page for the composition is in order. Schumann addresses the “programmatic” nature of the music as follows:
The titles for pieces of music, since they again have come into favor in our day, have been censured here and there, and it has been said that “good music needs no sign-post.” Certainly not, but neither does a title rob it of its value; and the composer, by adding one, at least prevents a complete misunderstanding of the character of his music. What is important is that such a verbal heading should be significant and apt. It may be considered the test of the general level of the composer's education.
For my part, I am less interested in the composer’s capacity for either denotation or connotation. What interested me most about the titles is the symmetrical plan organized around a solitary journey that begins when the protagonist enters a forest and concludes when (s)he departs. Indeed, the outer movements are entitled “Eintritt” (entry) and “Abschied” (farewell). The second and eighth movements then address two encounters with hunters, “Jäger auf der Lauer” (hunters on the lookout) and “Jagdlied” (hunting song). The third movement, “Einsame Blumen” (lonely flowers), is reflected by “Vogel als Prophet” (bird as prophet), while the fourth and sixth movements are about buildings in the forest, “Verrulene Stelle” (haunted place) and “Herberge” (wayside inn), respectively. Finally, the central movement “Freundliche Landschaft” (friendly landscape) seems to suggest comparison with the field that the protagonist left upon entering the forest. I would thus suggest that the coupling of Schumann’s Opus 82 with the D. 568 sonata presents the listener with two complementary approaches to structuring a multimovement composition, and Serkin effectively finds approaches to mine expressiveness from both of these “mechanical” foundations.

There is also an album of two compositions both written in 1910 and reflect the “twilight” of the nineteenth century, rather than the emergence of the twentieth. One of these was a personal “first encounter,” Max Reger’s Opus 116 (fourth) cello sonata in A minor, with Serkin accompanying cellist Mischa Schneider. Since my knowledge of Reger has been cultivated primarily around his organ music, I must confess that I am still finding my way with this relatively late undertaking.

On the other hand I have long been familiar with Ferruccio Busoni’s “Fantasia contrappuntistica” in a variety of different settings. Like many of Reger’s compositions, this “Fantasia” was conceived on a large scale, which embraces four fugues, an opening set of chorale variations, three variations on an intermezzo, and a concluding no-holds-barred stretto. Serkin recorded the two-piano version of Busoni’s score, joined by Richard Goode. Since I encounter performances of this massive project so seldom, I found myself particularly satisfied with its realization by this particular partnership.

The remaining nineteenth-century offerings are three albums of solo compositions by Frédéric Chopin. Given how adventurous Serkin could be in the recordings that he planned, it is hard to avoid thinking that some RCA executive was nagging him to provide them with a more salable commodity. Serkin’s accounts of Chopin are dutiful enough; but given how much inventive imagination he has put into so many of his other albums, one comes away with the impression that duty was all that mattered. Personally, I sympathize with his attitude, as many readers can probably guess on the basis of the sense of relief that usually arises when I get to write about a piano recital with no Chopin on the program! Suffice it to say that Chopin-lovers will have no trouble finding favorites on these three CDs; but, for my own tastes, there are performances of all of those selections that I prefer through the hands of other pianists.

Grex Brings the Coltranes to Bird & Beckett

Last night Bird & Beckett Books and Records presented its latest live-streamed performance among the many shelves of books at the venue. The performance was given by the Grex duo of guitarist Karl Evangelista and keyboardist Rei Scampavia, and the program was a tribute concert presenting all five tracks from Alice Coltrane’s album Journey in Satchidananda. These were followed by an “encore” performance of “Leo,” from John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space album, recorded in 1967, the year of his death. The video content of the performance has now been archived as part of the Facebook collection of Past Live Videos from Bird & Beckett.

Journey in Satchidananda is notable for the appearance of saxophonist Pharoah Sanders as “guest artist” on all five of the tracks. The first four were recorded at the Coltrane home studio by a quartet with rhythm provided by Cecil McBee on bass and Rashied Ali on drums, along with additional percussion from Tulsi and Majid Shabazz. Alice alternated between piano and harp. The final track, “Isis and Osiris,” was recorded at the Village Gate with Charlie Haden replacing Ali. Vishnu Wood joined the quartet on oud, and Alice complemented his plucked performance on harp.

While all five of the tracks were recorded by Alice, Sanders’ performance provided the thematic focus. Thus, Evangelista’s challenge was to take the rich outpouring of thematic content coming out of Sanders’ soprano saxophone and realize it through electric guitar riffs. By way of “full disclaimer,” I should observe that the Journey in Satchidananda album was unfamiliar to me before I learned about last night’s concert. On the other hand, I have had many opportunities to listen to Sanders’ work, primarily through recordings that he made with Coltrane.

Evangelista’s performance reawakened all those memories of Sanders. He seemed to have internalized all the twists and turns of Sanders’ elaborate melodic contours. While he could not bring Sanders’ breath control into his emulation, Evangelista still delivered approaches to phrasing that reflected Sanders’ technique. Scampavia then took care of “all of the rest,” working with two electronic keyboards and a drum machine. Granted, no drum machine can do justice to Ali’s work with both Coltranes; so that technology served only to provide a firm foundation for the keyboard and guitar work. (In that context it is worth noting that “Leo” was a duo performed by John and Ali.)

On the receiving end, the only real problem involved the capture technology. My only previous encounter with one of these Bird & Beckett gigs came from the two one-hour videos of tenor saxophonist Philip Greenlief giving a solo account of the music of Thelonious Monk. That performance required only a single microphone.

Between the thick textures of polyphony and the diversity of the instrumentation, Grex required more extensive capture technology. However, I am not sure that Bird & Beckett provided it; and, if it was provided, it was not particularly well-managed. Thus, one had no trouble observing Scampavia spinning out the elaborate passages for keyboard and harp that Alice provided, but almost all of those passages were barely audible almost all of the time. There also seemed to have been a network glitch, which required a second start for “Leo;” but that did not entail any improvement in the overall balance of the two performers.

Nevertheless, I found the opportunity to reflect back on the work of both Coltranes to be a satisfying one. All of my recordings predate the departure of McCoy Tyner and his replacement by Alice. However, my only opportunity to hear Coltrane in performance, during my undergraduate years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took place after Alice had joined the group. Last night’s performance reminded me that there are still some major gaps in my collection of jazz recordings that need to be filled.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Lighter Side of Beethoven: Paul Lewis

courtesy of PIAS

At the beginning of this year, harmonia mundi launched its 2020–2027 project, defined in terms of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven and the 200th anniversary of his death. All of the classical music recording artists on the harmonia mundi label are contributing to what promises to be a vast canvas depicting the many different aspects of performing Beethoven’s music. The project got off to an early start this past November, when harmonia mundi released a fourteen-CD box set reissuing recordings of pianist Paul Lewis. At the beginning of this year, I prepared a “piecemeal” coverage of this collection, beginning with the ten CDs of the published piano sonatas, followed by three CDs of the piano concertos, and a single CD for the Opus 120 collection of 33 variations on a waltz theme given to the composer by the music publisher Anton Diabelli.

A little over two weeks ago, harmonia mundi added a new Lewis CD to the 2020–2027 collection, this one devoted to shorter compositions and a sunnier disposition. The three published collections of bagatelles, the Opus 33 set of seven, the Opus 119 set of eleven, and the Opus 126 set of six, begin the album, followed by the unpublished WoO 59 bagatelle, best known by the title “Für Elise.” This is followed by three more unpublished short pieces, WoO 60 in B-flat major, WoO 61 in B minor, and WoO 61a in G minor. The album then concludes with the Opus 77 fantasia in G minor.

This past Thursday, when I was writing about Peter Serkin’s Beethoven recordings, I observed that Opus 120 was a personal favorite in my ongoing campaign to undermine the “scowling Beethoven” cliché. Indeed, I took another shot at that epithet when I wrote another “lighter side of Beethoven” article at the beginning of February. There is definitely no scowling on Lewis’ new recording. He brings just the right rhetorical touch to all 29 of the album’s tracks without ever succumbing to the Monty Python nudge-nudge aggression. More often than not, those of my generation are more likely to experience a Spock-raises-left-eyebrow reaction to Lewis’ engaging style.

Those unfamiliar with these pieces are also likely to raise eyebrows at Beethoven’s prodigious gift for casual subtlety (although I must confess that my own personal reaction to Opus 77 is that it raucously serves up one belly-laugh after another).