Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Ashton’s Take on “Cinderella” as a Ballet

Some readers may recall that, back in April of 2019 when I wrote about the video release of The Frederick Ashton Collection: Volume One, I concluded that my greatest curiosity in the Ashton canon was Cinderella, his own choreography based on the score that Sergei Prokofiev had completed in 1944 for Rostislav Zakharov’s choreography at the Bolshoi Theatre, first performed in November of 1945. This choreography used the ugly stepsisters as comic relief, possibly to be performed by male dancers. When it came to those two characters, Ashton had such a field day with that “comic relief” that, as I have previously mentioned, New Yorker critic Winthrop Sargeant described the result as the story of two very droll old maids that happen to have a beautiful stepsister, who goes off and marries a prince.

Sadly, while the second volume in this series consisted of three full-evening ballets, Cinderella was not one of them. However, John Vernon directed a video of a performance of Cinderella given by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden in 1969, and it was released in 1970 as a movie for television. That video was uploaded to YouTube almost exactly two months ago by Elaine Jung; and it is definitely a “must see” offering, particularly for those not yet exposed to Ashton’s sense of humor. Ashton’s “partner in crime” in the role of the other stepsister was Robert Helpmann, a significant Royal Ballet “veteran” as a choreographer, as well as a dancer. (Ashton and Helpmann were also “partners in crime” in the 1951 film version of The Tales of Hoffmann, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.)

Comedy aside, Vernon’s video provided an excellent opportunity to observe young talents on the rise. The leading roles were taken by Antoinette Sibley (title role) and Anthony Dowell (the prince). The fairy godmother was danced by Georgina Parkinson; and the performers of her four “season fairies” were Jennifer Penney (spring), Vyvyan Lorrayne (summer), Ann Jenner (autumn), and Deanne Bergsma (winter). Most amusing, however, was the diminutive Wayne Sleep, who had to catch a rather larger Ashton in a flying leap:

screen shot from the video being discussed

Whatever Sargeant may have written about the abundance of comic turns in Ashton’s choreography, neither Cinderella nor the prince have been relegated to “secondary status.” There is a refreshing youthfulness in Sibley’s dancing that reminded me of the equally refreshing youthfulness that Francesca Hayward brought to the role of Juliet in the film that Michael Nunn and William Trevitt created based on Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography of Romeo and Juliet. For that matter, back in the Sixties, when everyone was following Rudolf Nureyev’s every move, I was far more interested in watching Dowell rise through the ranks (an ascension that led to becoming the Royal’s Artistic Director in 1986).

The bottom line is that Ashton’s Cinderella is far from “traditional.” However, Ashton had no end of insights into the wide diversity of human nature. Cinderella shows us several sides of human nature that we might not have associated with the fairy tale but tell us much about the very nature of character.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Center for New Music: October, 2020

The last time I tried to provide a monthly summary for the Center for New Music (C4NM) was for the schedule for this past April. It goes without saying that those events did not prevail over lockdown conditions; and my first encounter with a live-streamed concert did not take place until late in July, when D. Riley Nicholson, C4NM Project Manager, performed his Influences solo piano recital, which was streamed from the C4NM performance area. Since then these events have been relatively spare and have been given one-by-one previews.

I am hoping that this article will mark the return to the previous monthly-summary format. To be fair, as I write this, only two concerts have been scheduled for next month. Nevertheless, that sort of paucity has already shown up in the return of Bleeding Edge articles. That said, here is the list as it now stands with dates and times hyperlinked to their respective event pages on the C4NM Web site:

  • Saturday, October 10, 7 p.m.: Cornelius Boots will celebrate the tenth anniversary of the completion and self-publication of a volume filled with solo repertoire selections for one of the world’s rarest and most difficult musical instruments: Taimu shakuhachi. This is the bass variant of the shakuhachi, the vertical bamboo flute with roots (pun intended) in ancient Zen Buddhism. Boots will present a selection of songs drawn from this collection. The performance will be free, and the usual hyperlink for ticket purchase will take the reader directly to the YouTube Web page through which the performance will be live-streamed. Note, however, that the event page includes a DONATE NOW button. The suggested donation is between $20 and $40, and the amount will be divided equally between Boots and C4NM. [updated 10/8, 6 a.m.: The Friction performance has been postponed:
  • Saturday, October 17, 7:30 p.m.: This will be the second of two concerts that the Friction String Quartet has prepared to showcase new works by Bay Area composers. The program will present the latest efforts of nine of those composers: Mark Alfenito, Allan Crossman, Monica Chew, Jacob E Goodman, Kyle Hovatter, Steve Mobia, Martha Stoddard, Davide Verotta, and Shawne Workman. The event page has not yet been updated with information about live-streaming. Tickets will be sold for $15 for general admission and a $10 rate for C4NM members, students, and seniors; and there is currently a hyperlink for online purchase. Presumably, the event will be live-streamed following the same procedure used for the September 20 concert: All tickets must be purchased prior to 6:45 p.m. on the date of the performance. At 7 p.m. all ticket-holders will receive electronic mail with a link to the YouTube Web page through which the performance will be streamed.] [added 10/8, 8:50 a.m.:
  • Sunday, October 25, 4 p.m.: Chris Brown will perform two compositions for piano and interactive software controlled through the Buchla PianoBar keyboard interface. He will begin with the world premiere performance of “Shuffle Bagatelles.” This is a collection of twelve short pieces (the bagatelles), which are played in random order (shuffled). Those performances are sampled and transformed by software analysis using stochastic techniques. There will then be a short intermission during which a video by Johanna Boethig will be screened. The program will then conclude with “Obelisk,” which Brown composed in 2016. The score for this piece allows for improvisations taking place between the pianist and the software.]

A Recorded Account of Corea as Solo Recitalist

Pianist Chick Corea (courtesy of Chart Room Media)

This past November this site provided an account of a solo recital presented by pianist Chick Corea as part of the Great Performers Series offered by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. As I observed after that performance, Corea is more than a jazz pianist; and he can bring imaginative interpretations to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as readily as he can to tunes by Thelonious Monk. Indeed, the title of last night’s program was From Mozart to Monk, which would have been the perfect description were it not for the fact that none of those Monk tunes ever appeared.

Those wishing to experience Corea’s solo approaches to compositions by both Mozart and Monk would do well to check out his latest recording, a two-CD album entitled simply Plays. Mozart is there at the very beginning of the first CD, and there are three Monk tunes at the end of that same CD. Other classical composers to be represented include Domenico Scarlatti, Frédéric Chopin, and Alexander Scriabin. Furthermore, both the Davies recital and the Plays album presented what might be called the musical version of “wine pairings.”

On both programs there is a smooth segue from the second movement of Mozart’s K. 332 piano sonata in F major into George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me.” On the other hand, on Plays Domenico Scarlatti’s K. 9 sonata in D minor is coupled with Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays,” while in Davies Scarlatti was paired with Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado.” On Plays “Desafinado” serves as a “response” to the “call” of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debbie,” while in Davies the Evans tune followed the fourth (E minor) prelude from Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 11 collection of 24 covering all major and minor keys. The Scriabin prelude can also be found on Plays but as a “response” to the “call” of Chopin’s similar cycle of preludes, again selecting the fourth in E minor.

More interesting is that Plays documents two of the more adventurous aspects of Corea’s Davies appearance. The first of these involved improvisations that amounted to portraits. Two members of the audience (named “Carol” and “Adrian”) were invited to sit in a chair beside the piano while Corea improvised his impressions of the sitter. On Plays the sitters are, again, one woman and one man (Henrietta and Chris). Unfortunately, on the recording one cannot appreciate the extent to which Corea’s improvisations reflected specific visual sources of inspiration.

The second offering was even more adventurous. Corea asked for volunteers to improvise with him at the keyboard. In Davies he recruited one male and one female. On Plays both of the improvisers are male: Yaron Herman and Charles Heisser. I have to say that the first of these recorded improvisations was particularly impressive, leaving me with no idea of who was playing what; and I wonder whether the absence of visual impressions was an asset, rather than a liability. Finally, Plays concludes with eight of the short pieces that Corea collected in his Children’s Songs, which he also sampled at the end of his Davies recital.

Clearly, for my own listening Plays was an engaging revival of the many pleasant memories I took away from being in Corea’s audience, rather than on the receiving end of a recording. Nevertheless, there is so much imagination in his solo keyboard work, that listening to all of that inventiveness is just as satisfying as being in the pianist’s presence. This is the sort of music that offers new insights each time one returns to the album.

Monday, September 28, 2020

The Bleeding Edge: 9/28/2020

Darius Milhaud conducting (artist unknown, from the Web page for this year’s Darius Milhaud Concert)

There is only one event to report this week. Back in the pre-pandemic days, I had more than enough to keep me busy by confining my attention to the San Francisco city limits. These days, however, I feel that it makes sense to go after streaming opportunities, particularly when they capture the spontaneity of a “live” performance.

As a result this will be my second account of a forthcoming performance taking place under the auspices of Mills College. The previous account actually took place in Chicago; but it was presented by Mills, since it featured cellist Tomeka Reid, who currently holds the Mills Darius Milhaud Chair in Music Composition. This time the performance will actually be live-streamed from the Littlefield Concert Hall on the Mills campus, and it will be the annual Darius Milhaud Concert.

As might be expected, most of the music will be by Milhaud, who taught at Mills between 1947 and 1971. This will included a selection of his songs based on texts from an impressive variety of sources, all sung by soprano Melissa Givens accompanied by Genevieve Feiwen Lee at the piano. Lee will also play excerpts from the solo piano suite La muse ménagère (the household muse). There will be chamber music performances of the 1940 sonatina for two violins, played by Sarah Thornblade and Sara Parkins, and the 1953 sonatina for violin and cello, played by Sara and Maggie Parkins.

The program will also present a “before, during, and after” account of music related to Milhaud. The “before” will be provided by Givens singing Erik Satie’s “La Statue de Bronze,” again accompanied by Lee. Thornblade and Parkins will couple their sonatina performance with the 1920 sonatina that Arthur Honegger dedicated to Milhaud. Composers influenced by Milhaud will include Zeena Parkins (her “Sistere” for solo cello and electronics, played by Maggie Parkins), William Bolcom’s “The Song of Black Max,” and Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” both sung by Givens accompanied by Lee.

The concert will begin at 8 p.m. this coming Friday, October 2. There is no charge for this event, but registration will be required through an Eventbrite event page. Those registering can also include a donation prior to checkout. Once checkout has been completed, information about the streaming source will be provided. Full program details and notes can be found on the Darius Milhaud Concert Web page on the Mills Performing Arts Calendar Web site. The Web page for the concert also includes a hyperlink to the Eventbrite site to establish admission.

Del Sol String Quartet Takes on Eastman

Del Sol String Quartet members Sam Weiser, Benjamin Kreith, Kathryn Bates, and Charlton Lee (from their Old First Concerts event page)

Yesterday afternoon Old First Concerts presented its final program for the month of September. The performers were the members of the Del Sol String Quartet, violinists Sam Weiser and Benjamin Kreith, who alternated in playing first violin, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates. The program began with three short pieces, all of which had been premiered by Del Sol. These were followed by a half-hour performance of Julius Eastman’s “Gay Guerrilla.” Like all of this month’s programs, the performance was live-streamed through YouTube and recorded for subsequent viewing on a YouTube Web page.

Eastman is one of the lesser known of the adventurous composers whose reputations ascended during the third quarter of the twentieth century. During his time in Buffalo, New York, his colleagues included Morton Feldman and Lukas Foss. (This would also have been the time when Michael Tilson Thomas was conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.)

“Gay Guerrilla” was composed in 1979 and shows awareness of recent achievements in adventurous repertoire. Terry Riley had composed “In C” in 1964, Philip Glass’ first opera, Einstein on the Beach, had been premiered in July of 1976, and Steve Reich had advanced from working with tape loops (with Riley as a colleague at the San Francisco Tape Music Center) to instrumental compositions. In that context “Gay Guerrilla” is a lush tapestry of repetitive structures.

Curiously, Eastman never specified instrumentation for this composition. The first recorded performance involved four pianos, and regular readers probably know by now that San Francisco Contemporary Music Players will present a two-piano performance by Kate Campbell and Allegra Chapman this coming October 16. The Del Sol players were coached by Luciano Chessa, who has become a strong advocate of Eastman’s music; and, under his guidance, they prepared a performance for three string quartets, two of which were prerecorded.

While the live-stream of this performance was thoroughly engaging, this was definitely a presentation that would have benefitted from physical presence. It was easy enough to associate specific motifs with the bowing patters of the individual performers. However, limitations of audio capture technology made it difficult to establish how with each of the recorded instrumental lines contributed to the whole. Around the time that many listeners may have felt that Eastman’s repetitive rhetoric had reached its limit, he began to insert fragments from the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” just to make sure listeners were still paying attention.

Each of the opening selections could be taken as a “warm-up exercise” in attentive listening. Rajna Swaminathan’s “Borne” was a fascinating exercise in endowing what might be called “Western practices” with an “Indian accent,” evident more through subtle phrasing than thematic content. Erika Oba’s “Halcyon” is named for the “Halcyon Commons” in South Berkeley and amounts to a study in serenity that never devolves into the mawkish. There is also a suggestion of serenity in Jonah Gallagher’s “Ghosts of Grass,” which turns out to be a reflection on bluegrass fiddle techniques of past centuries.

The entire program lasted almost exactly one hour in duration; and, at the end of the journey, the attentive listener had no cause to complain about too much or too little.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Plans for SFCMP’s 50th (2020–21) Season

Group portrait of the SFCMP performers (courtesy of SFCMP)

I seem to have fallen a bit behind the curve when it comes to the plans for the 50th season of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP); but that is more that a bit understandable in a context of uncertainty when it comes to the openings of venues that will once again allow performances to take place in the presence of an audience. For those that missed it, the first concert of the new season was announced on this site only through the September 14 Bleeding Edge column. It involved the latest installment in the ONLINE Series of How Music is Made programs that was launched after shelter-in-place was imposed, an online premiere of pianist Myra Melford’s “Homogeneous Infiltration.”

As of this writing, there will be two more SFCMP concerts before the end of the calendar year. Both of them will be live-streamed through YouTube, and there will be no charge for admission. Each has its own Web page with a hyperlink to SFCMP’s YouTube channel. Presumably, once the date of the performance is closer, there will also be a hyperlink to the YouTube Web page for the live-stream. The events themselves, along with hyperlinks to their respective event pages, are as follows:

  1. Friday, October 16, 7 p.m.: How Music is Made will present a performance of Julius Eastman’s “Gay Guerilla” performed by pianists Kate Campbell and Allegra Chapman, who will also host the program along with SFCMP Artistic Director Eric Dudley.
  2. Friday, November 6, 7 p.m.: How Music is Made will present Ted Hearne’s “The Cage Variations.” Hearne will join the SFCMP players as a guest performer. Dudley will again host, this time joined by violinist Hrabba Atladottir.

2021 concerts will also be live-streamed. However, tickets for admission will be charged for almost all of them; and plans are currently in place to arrange for “physical” admission to most of them. It goes without saying that all plans are subject to change. Where charges for tickets are involved, ticket-holders will be notified ten weeks before the event, should it be cancelled or postponed. All tickets will be refundable. Program specifics are as follows:

  1. Saturday, March 6, 8 p.m.: The in the LABORATORY series will present a program entitled Overtones and Undercurrents. The music to be performed will be composed by musicians interested in breaking apart and recombining the elements of amplified music, with particular interest in the electronic side of the rock genre. The program will feature Fred Frith’s “Stick Figures,” scored for six electronic guitars played by two musicians, one a guitarist and the other a percussionist. Frith will join Dudley for the pre-concert How Music is Made discussion at 7 p.m. The program will also feature world premiere performances of two works created under the Technology & Applied Composition Program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. There will also be West Coast premiere performances of Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “The Vanishing Dark” and Donnacha Dennehy’s “Canons and Overtones.” The program will begin with Frank Zappa’s “Times Beach II;” and it will also include Ashley Fure’s “Shiver Lung 2,” scored for percussion and electronics. This concert will only be live-streamed.
  2. Saturday, April 10, 8 p.m.: The first program for which a “physical” audience has been planned will take place in the Mission at the ODC B.Way Theater, which is located at 3153 17th Street. PostScript to the Future will be an at the CROSSROADS offering. The program will feature the West Coast premiere of a new work by Tyshawn Sorey jointly commissioned by SFCMP and the Ensemble Intercontemporain based in Paris. Sorey will be present for the occasion and will join Dudley for the pre-concert How Music is Made discussion at 7 p.m. There will also be a world premiere performance of the winning composition in the annual SF Search for Scores competition managed by SFCMP. The program will also present two compositions by Olly Wilson and “Prospective Dwellers,” a recent string quartet composed by jazz cellist Tomeka Reid.
  3. Friday, June 18, 8 p.m.: The final program of the season has been planned for performance at the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera on the fourth floor of the Veteran’s Building in the Civic Center. The on STAGE series will present a program entitled Voices in Reverberation. As might be guessed, the emphasis will be on vocal music and will include the world premiere of a new composition that Caroline Shaw composed for performance by Pamela Z. Z will also perform her own “Breathing” movement from her 2013 Carbon Song Cycle. Both she and Shaw will join Dudley for the pre-concert How Music is Made discussion at 7 p.m. The program will also include John Adams’ “Son of Chamber Symphony,” Andrew Norman’s “Sabina,” and Amadeus Regucera’s “Inexpressible, v.2.”

Old-Time Reflections on Current Hard Times

courtesy of Orange Grove Publicity

About a month ago the New Orleans combo Sabertooth Swing released its second album, Songs of Future Past. The group is a combo led by trumpeter and vocalist Dan Ruch, who shares the front line with Alex Canales on reeds (saxophone and clarinet) and Chris Butcher on trombone. Rhythm is provided by Spike Perkins on bass and Robert Montgomery on drums, along with guitarist Roman Beauxis, who shares production duties with Ruch. Possibly due to COVID conditions, seems to be limiting itself to a Web page for digital download distribution. Bandcamp, on the other hand, has a Web page for both the physical CD and digital streaming and download, as well as a far more informative account of both the musicians and the tracks than Amazon managed to muster.

The group describes its repertoire as “a rich musical tradition of swing jazz with old roots and exciting new ramifications.” Those in the Bay Area might detect some “family resemblance” to the old-time style of Lee Presson and the Nails, but the Sabertooth swingers are less inclined to go for Presson’s comic approach to both horror movies and Spike Jones. On the other hand, the new album also has a track for Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus,” delivered with just the right style of mock-reverence.

The album also includes “guest artist” appearances for two of the more familiar tracks. Saxophonist Seth Ballin joins the front line on the opening track of the album, “Frankie and Johnny;” and pianist Ryan Hanseler joins the sextet for Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean.” (Berlin is the only composer to be honored with two tracks on the album, the other being “Blue Skies.”) Taken as a whole, the eclecticism of the group’s broad repertoire is consistently engaging, while its New Orleans roots provide the comfort of a less stressful past without ever succumbing to mawkish nostalgia.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Schumann Lieder Project Advances to Volume 9

courtesy of Naxos of America

Once again is has been a long wait for the Naxos project to record and release all of the songs composed by Robert Schumann to advance to its next album. Those that have been following this project know that the last release took place on February 8, 2019 with an album (the eighth in the series) entitled Spanisches Liederspiel. After another long wait, the ninth volume in the series, finally appeared a little over two weeks ago under the title Romances, Ballads and Melodramas. In all fairness, at least some of this particular long wait may have been due to the impact of COVID-19 on production and distribution processes.

All of the selections are sung by baritone Detlef Roth, accompanied at the piano by Ulrich Eisenlohr. As can be inferred from the title, these are all songs structured around narrative; and, given that the texts are all German, one can assume that, for the most part, those narratives are on the dark side. Surprisingly, none of the texts are drawn from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which tended to be Gustav Mahler’s preference for darkness. Wunderhorn texts appear in the Opus 79 Liederalbum für die Jugend (album of songs for the young), which can be found in Volume 3.

What struck me as particularly interesting In Volume 9 is that the second of the Opus 122 pair of ballads, “Die Flüchtlinge” (the fugitives), is the German translation by Julius Seybt of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Both of the Opus 122 ballads are also not strictly “songs,” since both of them involve expressive narration with piano accompaniment. From a personal point of view, the track on this album that I know best is the very first, “Die beiden Grenadiere” (the two grenadiers), the first of the three songs in Opus 49, which is the second of the Romanzen und Balladen (romances and ballads) books. Back when I lived in Los Angeles, I worked on this with a baritone colleague; and we were both amused by the interjection of “La Marseillaise” towards the conclusion of the song. Heine’s text is an ironic account of two French soldiers that have seen defeat in both Russia and Germany, and Schumann’s motivic insertion just provides another twist of the knife.

Dale Tsang Announces Solo Piano Recital

Following up on yesterday’s report on the new recording Once/Memory/Night: Paul Celan of chamber music performed by Ensemble for These Times (E4TT), I learned that pianist Dale Tsang has left E4TT to pursue other performance opportunities. One of those opportunities will take place this coming Friday under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation. To my chagrin I realize that I have lost touch with the Piano Talks recitals arranged by Executive Director Nicholas Pavkovic since my last report on the series in March of 2019.

As a result, I also failed to put out the word about the new Piano Break series, which was arranged to support Bay Area pianists who have lost performance opportunities due to COVID-19. The series was launched this past July 31 with a solo recital by Jeffrey LaDeur and has been taking place regularly at 5 p.m. on Friday evenings. Each program is live-streamed through YouTube, after which the video is saved for subsequent viewing. The “Piano Break Archive” Web page provides a summary of all participating pianists and the programs they prepared; and each entry has a hyperlink to launch the corresponding YouTube video.

Tsang will be the next pianist to give a solo recital in this series at 5 p.m. this coming Friday, October 2. Details have not yet been announced. However, the plan will be to present short works that will showcase give living Bay Area composers: Elinor Armer, David Garner, Allan Crossman, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Alden Jenks. Specifics will be presented on the Piano Break home page, including the URL for the YouTube live-stream. Following the performance, that video will be added to the archive.

[added 9/26, 1:05 p.m.:

Program specifics have now been provided. The title of Armer’s composition is “Promptu” (presumably a playful reflection in the “impromptu” genre. Crossman’s piece is entitled Street Suite, consisting of three movements named after streets in San Francisco, Montreal, and Berkeley, respectively. Frank draws upon her cultural background for “Barcarola Latinoamericana.” Jenks will contribute three short pieces, each of which seems to be playing on words as much as on the music: “Piano Ballads,” “Be That Way,” and “Tombeau De Gershwin.” Interleaved among these offerings will be three short pieces by Garner, “Bagatelle,” “Traveling Light,” and the the final selection of the program, “Spider Music.” Finally, the YouTube Web page for the live-stream of this program has now been created.]

Ensemble Ari Showcases Women Composers

Ensemble Ari is a group of Korean-American musicians based in the Bay Area organized by composer Jean Ahn. Last night she introduced three of those musicians to the “virtual audience” for the latest program to be presented by Old First Concerts. They presented a program consisting entirely of music by women composers. The entire program was framed by two compositions by Amy Beach, between which were presented a recent composition by local composer Addie Camsuzou and selections from a collection of preludes by Sofia Gubaidulina. All three of the performers were also women: violinist Jiwon Evelyn Kwark, cellist Sarah Hong, and pianist Sharon Lee Kim.

The program was organized to feature each of these women as a soloist, after which they all joined forces to play Beach’s Opus 150 piano trio. The trio was one of her last compositions, completed in 1938. In many ways it reflects the influences of Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Nevertheless, it is the work of a mature composer that had established an impressive catalog across a multitude of genres; and her “chamber music voice” is decidedly her own. Indeed, from a personal point of view, this is one of the most familiar of her compositions; and I have previously written about two different recordings of it, the most recent having been almost exactly a year ago. While it is dangerous to draw upon recordings as a benchmark for concert performances, I feel that the Ari players never quite captured the compelling rhetoric of Opus 150, perhaps because each of the members had been putting so much time into her solo offering.

Certainly, Kwark seemed more comfortable with Beach’s more sentimental Opus 23, a “romance” for violin and piano. This was a far more intimate composition, and Kwark effectively summoned the appropriate affective spirits behind the thematic material. Kim served as a dutiful accompanist, following Kwark’s lead on the rhetorical progress of the composition and the more youthful spirit behind that rhetoric.

This was followed by a brief selection of Camsuzou’s music. Her instrument is the violin, but in 2018 she composed the first in a series of études for solo piano. In introducing this piece, Kim called out Camsuzou’s keen understanding of the diversity of piano sonorities; and it was impressive to experience how many of them she brought into play over the course of the few minutes allotted to her étude.

Hong, on the other hand, went on a bit too much in her introduction to five of the preludes from the set of ten that Gubaidulina composed for solo cello in 1974. These were an ideal complement to Camsuzou’s étude, since each prelude was conceived to highlight a particular approach to performing technique. Hong’s account was dutiful, but I suspect that there was more wit behind each of Gubaidulina’s preludes than she managed to express.

As a result, the entire program conveyed a sense of impressive technical achievement; but the performers did not always home in on bringing to light those affective spirits behind the prodigious technique.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Taking Issue with Alex Ross (or Jed Pearl)

Yesterday I finished reading “The Cults of Wagner,” the review that Jed Perl wrote about Alex Ross’ book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music for The New York Review of Books. Given that the book runs to 769 pages, Perl covered a lot of ground in his article. I would even say that his coverage was thorough enough that I can probably pass of reading the book itself. That said, there is one point where I would like to take issue; and, to be fair, I am not sure whether the issue is with Ross or Perl.

It concerns a single sentence:

What Ross believes, simply put, is that since life is disorderly, then art must be disorderly, too.

Given the argument that Perl develops across the paragraph that concludes with this sentence, I am inclined to believe that he has provided an accurate account of one of Ross’ beliefs. Regardless of the source, however, I am not sure there is much meaning in the premise that “art must be disorderly.” Indeed, I am not sure that there is much sense that can be derived from attempts to hang adjectives and adverbs on the noun “art.” In other words I have my doubts that art is anything and that it would be more appropriate to say that art provides grounds for experience. For those wondering, the answer is that this is not an original idea; rather it is one I picked up from John Dewey, specifically from the book Art as Experience.

What, then, is the “experiencing of art?” I would suggest that it is not that different from any other form of experience. The function of “mind” is basically to provide order to all the disorder that bombards us through stimuli. William James called this the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of sensory signals, which “mind” then tries to register as configurations of objects (often succeeding in unexpected ways that lead to phenomena such as optical illusions). No two minds need necessarily conceive of the same objects; but, at a much higher cognitive level, we have language to negotiate any disagreements. So it is that Ross turns to language to bring order to the disorderly stimuli created during a performance of Richard Wagner’s music and Perl does the same with the disorderly stimuli created while reading Ross’ book.

For some time I have been interested in those processes that enable bringing order to disorder. As I have written in the past, one of my primary sources has been a book by Friedrich Hayek entitled The Sensory Order, which seems to have had a serious impact on two researchers that have influenced me significantly: Marvin Minsky for his work on artificial intelligence and Gerald Edelman for his efforts to model what he called perceptual categorization. My guess is that neither Ross nor Perl have gone down either of these paths. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the “experiencing of art” has more to do with the biological substrate of experience itself than it does with any properties of “art itself,” philosophical, biological, or otherwise.

This is not an injunction to advocate writing about making music or listening to it in terms of a biological substrate. Nevertheless, to go back to William James, both making music and listening are instances of experience. Unless we can anchor our thoughts to viable (if not necessarily valid) hypotheses about “how we experience,” we might as well just be juggling symbolic structures (such as the sentences we write) the same way we do when we try to solve a crossword puzzle!

E4TT’s New Celan Album

This past June 26, Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) held a party streamed through both Facebook and YouTube to celebrate the release of its latest album. The group is the trio led by soprano Nanette McGuinness performing with cellist Anne Lerner and pianist Dale Tsang and joined by resident composer David Garner. The title of the new recording is Once/Memory/Night: Paul Celan, and its release on June 30 was scheduled to commemorate the birth of the Romanian poet Celan on November 23, 1920. It is available on only for MP3 download. Unfortunately, Amazon did not make arrangements to include the accompanying booklet in the album download package; but E4TT has compensated by provided the PDF file of the booklet, which is available, at no charge, for download.

On the recording Tsang is replaced by pianist Xin Zhao. In addition, the scoring for the major composition on the album, Garner’s Die eichne Tür (the oaken door), setting five of Celan’s poems, adds both English horn (Laura Reynolds) and violin (Ilana Blumberg) to the instrumentation. This is one of two cycles based on Celan texts. The other is Jared Redmond’s Nachtlang (nightlong), performed by the E4TT trio. Both of these pieces were composed in response to E4TT commissions. E4TT also commissioned Stephen Eddins to set the poem by Czesław Miłosz entitled “A Song on the End of the World” in English. The English translation was provided by the poet’s son Anthony. The track of Eddins’ setting is preceded by the English text read by the translator. Finally, the album has an “overture” in the form of the five-movement solo piano suite by Libby Larsen entitled (probably a reflection on the brevity of all five of her movements).

Taken as a whole, this is an ambitious undertaking. Celan was of Romanian-Jewish descent, but his family spoke German. Both of his parents died in Nazi concentration camps. He worked in a forced labor camp, which he barely survived. In many respects his poetry provided an outlet for “survivor’s remorse;” but that outlet ultimately failed him in 1970, when he committed suicide. Garner and Redmond each have their own approaches to creating music consistent with the darkness of the texts. Unfortunately, there are too many occasions on which McGuinness’ diction falls short of capturing those texts, even when the listener has a copy of the words at hand; and, sadly, her account of the English translation of Milosz does not fare much better.

On the other hand there is much to appreciate in the performances of all the instrumentalists. One might even conjecture that Zhao had acquainted herself with the texts of both Celan and Milosz while preparing her approach to Larsen’s suite. Similarly, the two interludes that Garner composed for Die eichne Tür tend to resonate with the expressive rhetoric of the Celan poems set in the other five movements.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Music to Inspire Voter Registration

Among the many events that commemorated the bicentennial of the United States of America, one of the less successful was the Broadway musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Leonard Bernstein provided the music for the book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, and both of them had more successes than can be easily enumerated. By 1976 Bernstein had established himself as a world-famous conductor and a composer that had excelled not only in the concert hall but also on Broadway. Lerner, in turn, was a leading figure in musicals, perhaps best known for My Fair Lady on Broadway and the film Gigi. Working together, the two of them should have been a “dynamic duo;” but, following thirteen preview performances, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on May 4, 1976 and closed the following May 8.

The idea was to survey the occupants of the White House (at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue) between 1800 and 1900 with one actor (Ken Howard) playing all the presidents and one actress (Patricia Routledge) playing all the First Ladies. It begins with Thomas Jefferson moving in while his predecessor, John Adams and his wife Abigail sing to him the song “Take Care of This House.” We now find ourselves in a time when the occupancy of “This House” may be more contentious than any of us can recall, meaning that the results of the coming Election Day may be the most crucial that any of us have experienced.

This past Tuesday was Voter Registration Day, singled out by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to recognize the need to “protect our health and our civil liberties at the same time, including our fundamental right to vote.” To this end the ACLU created a Web page with separate hyperlinks for each of the fifty states, providing information about the different ways in which a vote may be safely cast. To encourage visiting that Web page, pianist Lara Downes created a video of a performance of “Take Care of This House.”

Members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus singing from the windows of the White House (courtesy of Crossover Media)

In this video each performer appears in a window of the White House. First we encounter Downes playing in a window with cellist Yo-Yo Ma at the next window. Other instrumentalists include guitarist Conor Padmanabhan and another cellist, Ifetayo Ali-Landing. There is also an impressive number of contributing vocalists with line-by-line accounts taken by Thomas Hampson, Isabel Leonard, Ailyn Pérez, Lawrence Brownlee, Anthony Ross Costanzo, Julia Bullock, and J’Nai Bridges. Finally, all the windows are filled by the members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, after which Judy Collins provides a spoken epilog on why this musical journey was so important.

The resulting video makes for a refreshingly imaginative approach to media, but what matters the most is that we all react to the message behind the media!

Carl Nielsen’s Chamber Music for Violin

courtesy of Naxos of America

About a month ago Naxos released an album presenting the results of a major project to record the complete works for violin solo and violin and piano by Carl Nielsen. The project was realized through the efforts of Danish violinist Hasse Borup with joint support from the National Danish Academy of Music and the Royal Danish Library, as well as Naxos. Borup’s accompanist for this project was the American pianist Andrew Staupe. The “completeness” of the project is based on the catalogue of Nielsen’s works (CNW) compiled by the Royal Danish Library. The track listing provides the CNW numbers for all of the compositions, as well as the opus numbers for the published ones.

The major works on the album are the two published violin sonatas, CNW 63 in A major (Opus 9), composed in 1895, and CNW 64 with no key specification (Opus 35), composed in 1912 and revised in 1919. Both of these are three-movement sonatas with basically fast-slow-fast structures. Those familiar with Nielsen’s orchestral music will probably recognize some familiar chromatic tropes. CNW 63 predates all of the symphonies and concertos and may mark Nielsen’s initial pursuit of this particular style of chromaticism. However, by the time he began work on CNW 64, he had flexed his chromatic muscles, so to speak, on both the CNW 26 second symphony (“The Four Temperaments,” Opus 16) and the CNW 27 third (“Sinfonia espansiva,” Opus 27). Thus, there appears to be an interleaving of inventiveness between the orchestral works and those for violin (which was an instrument that Nielsen had played since his childhood).

The other major work is the CNW 46 (Opus 48) set of eight variations on a very short (a little over a minute) theme, which is preceded by a prelude, which is the longest section of the entire composition. According to the booklet notes by Niels Krabbe, this piece, composed for solo violin, was inspired by the Chaconne movement that concludes Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor. The inspiration clearly involved structure, since there are few, if any, traces of Bach in the thematic and embellishing content. Nevertheless, like the Bach source, the piece is definitely a reflection on the rhetorical impact of brief “source material.”

The album also includes three of Nielsen’s earliest compositions, all of which were composed when Nielsen became an army musician at the age of fourteen in 1881. These include two Romances (CNW 60 in G major and CNW 61 in D major) and a three-movement violin sonata (CNW 62 in G major). These date from a time when he became more familiar with the chamber music of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and Krabbe’s notes include a quotation associating CNW 62 with “a scent of Mozartian youth.” Nevertheless, it is clear that Nielsen’s skill’s had advanced considerably by the time his music was being published. Thus, the mature violin sonatas and the CNW 46 variations provide the “meat and potatoes” of this album and will probably leave the strongest impressions on the attentive listener.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Barbirolli on Warner: A History of Recording

Bust of Byron Howard’s bust of John Barbirolli outside the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, where he frequently conducted (photograph by David Brierley, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

At the beginning of this past June, Warner Classics announced the release of Sir John Barbirolli: The Complete Warner Recordings. The release was timed to mark the fiftieth anniversary of this conductor’s death on July 20. Pandemic conditions apparently impeded distribution; and, as a result, I was not able to make arrangements for a review copy until about a month ago.

The collection is now in my office: all 109 CDs of it. It covers recording sessions made in the United Kingdom as early as 1928, and Barbirolli was still planning recordings with HMV in 1970, the year of his death. The collection thus amounts of a complete history of recording sessions during his time in Great Britain. The only significant gap is the period between 1937 and 1943, which he spent in the United States; and last November Sony Masterworks released a six-CD collection of the recordings that Barbirolli made for both Columbia and RCA Victor.

109 CDs covers a lot of content, and it is unclear that there could be a convenient way to organize it all. Fortunately, the booklet provides an index of all the compositions in order of the last name of the composer. As a result, finding any particular work is not that difficult; and it is easy to skim through the index to get a general idea of Barbirolli’s extensive repertoire. On the other hand, dividing the entire collection into a manageable set of categories, as I did this past June for Herbert von Karajan, is no easy matter, at least if the categories are to be kept to manageable sizes.

My first step was to separate the recordings made for 78s from the “long-playing” sessions. Those recordings could, in turn, be grouped into instrumental music, concertos, and opera. My current plan is to make these my first three articles, after which I shall probably be making more arbitrary decisions, some on the basis of historical periods and others dealing with the ensembles that Barbirolli conducted. The one category I know deserves separate treatment is his experience in conducting the music of English composers.

The recordings of instrumental music for 78 albums covers the first ten CDs in the collection. The repertoire is extensive, with Henry Purcell at one end (the first track of the first CD) and Igor Stravinsky’s “Concerto in D,” known as the “Basle” concerto for string orchestra, at the other (the final three tracks of the tenth CD). There is no doubting Barbirolli’s nationalist preferences; and there are even two different recordings of Edward Elgar’s Opus 47 “Introduction and Allegro.” However, only the second of those two, recorded in 1948, explicitly identifies the string quartet musicians. “Double billing” is also provided for two of Barbirolli’s “chestnut” favorites: the first of the two suites that Edvard Grieg compiled from his incidental music for Peer Gynt and excerpts from Léo Delibes’ score for the ballet Sylvia.

Having dealt with my parents’ rather generous collection of 78s, I have to say that I was more impressed with the sound quality than I anticipated. I wonder how easy it was for those that owned those 78s to be able to distinguish the string quartet from the ensemble in the Elgar Opus 47. I also have to wonder to what extent Barbirolli had to adjust his tempos to fit the duration that a single 78 side could hold. Personally, I do not think that Barbirolli had to compromise the tempos he had in mind at either of those Opus 47 sessions; and I, for one, enjoy being able to listen to both of the recordings, since the second was not shaped by the “cookie cutter” of the first! Similarly, Barbirolli does not seem to have any trouble tapping into the visceral qualities of the “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Opus 36 set of “Enigma” variations.

Taken is a whole, there is far too much diversity across these ten CDs to give a “blow by blow” account. Suffice it to say that Barbirolli definitely made a mark for himself as early as the first recordings in this collection. It should not surprise anyone that, during his tenure with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Arturo Toscanini invited Barbirolli to appear as a guest conductor. This would lead to his extended stay in the United State as cited above. Ultimately, Barbirolli’s tastes were more adventurous than his conservative American listeners tended to prefer. As a result, even in the middle of World War II, Barbirolli returned to Great Britain, much to the significant loss of the American public.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

LCCE Features Flutist Stacey Pelinka

LCCE flutist Stacey Pelinka (from the Web page for the Soft-Spoken concert)

Last night the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) lauched its 2020–2021 (28th) season with a program showcasing its flutist Stacey Pelinka. The repertoire reached as far back as the twelfth-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen all the way to the immediate present of a world premiere performance of David Dominique’s “Soft-Spoken.” The title of that composition was also the title of the entire program. As of this writing, it appears that the broadcast of this program through YouTube has not been archived for subsequent viewing.

It appears that all of the performances and introductory material were pre-recorded, which gave the overall presentation a bit more polish than one tends to encounter through such YouTube offerings. Pelinka was joined by only three other performers, violinist (and Artistic Director) Anna Presler, violist (and composer) Kurt Rohde, and cellist Leighton Fong. The performances were recorded at the Women’s Faculty Club on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The principal room of the building was large enough to allow for social distancing; and, because of the demands of the flute, Pelinka was the only performer without a mask.

The most interesting of the offerings were two “remixes” composed by Rohde. I do not know if he coined the term. However, his notes for the program book provided an excellent account of how a remix differs from an arrangement:

Remixes are contortions, distortions, re-imaginings. For me, a remix is the point of view/listening from the other side of a wide canyon that looks/hears toward an object that everyone else has been observing from the same “somewhere else” place, down there, over there, far away.

Recognizability of the original material may or may not be one of the features of the remix. Remixing the mood, the affect, the tone of the music may happen. I think of a remix as being so touched by the source (the music) that it allows me to wonder of other possibilities, of other potentials unconsidered until the moment of the remix.

To some extent a remix follows the same motivations encountered in jazz contrafacts. Indeed, it takes some pretty intense listening skills to recognize that Charlie Parker’s “Ko-Ko” is a contrafact of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.” (When I was in high school, on the other hand, I remember hearing a vocal version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” sung against the John Schonberger’s music for the song “Whispering.” That was my first encounter with a contrafact.) Rohde presented remixes of two sources, Hildegard’s canticle “Ave Maria, o auctrix vitae” (Hail Mary, O source of life) and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.” Since I have never given Mitchell very much thought, I was particularly drawn to the reworking of chant into a trio for alto flute, viola, and cello, with particular attention to the blending of the lower flute register with the low strings.

The intense solemnity of this remix offered a striking contrast to its predecessor, Albert Roussel’s Opus 40 trio for flute, viola, and cello. Born in France, Roussel cultivated a lively rhetoric, almost as if he were determined to educate the entire world about the spirit of joie de vivre. Apparently, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge believed that Americans could do with more of that spirit; and she commissioned Roussel to compose his trio in 1929. Those that know their history know that 1929 turned out to be not a particularly good year for joie de vivre in the United States (or pretty much anywhere else); but the high spirits of Opus 40 have remained with us. Pelinka, Rohde, and Fong gave the score a delightful account, which could not have come at a better time when spirits need lifting.

Dominique’s “Soft-Spoken” was also a reflection on current times. Set for alto flute, viola, and cello, the music was inspired by the composer’s need for contrast to the intense amplitude of recent protest activities. To some extent the music settles on a still point, in which not only volume level but also movement itself is kept to a minimum. The piece lasted about six minutes, which was pretty much the right amount of time for it to make its point. Furthermore, it shared with Rohde’s “Ave” remix the sharp and stimulating contrast with Roussel’s trio.

The other recent composition was Laurie San Martin’s “Zeppelin.” First performed in December of 2002, the piece is a duo for flute and cello in which the high register of the cello was intended to evoke the smooth passage and quietude of a zeppelin in flight. The “world outside the zeppelin,” so to speak, was then evoked by Pelinka’s punctuations on both flute and alto flute.

The program concluded with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 25 serenade in D major for flute, violin, and viola. Published in 1801, the music tends to reflect the idea of working with more than four movements, as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had done in his serenades. Mozart’s compositions were probably intended as “background” for festive gatherings. Beethoven, on the other hand, was more interested in the players and the listeners; and Opus 25 is one of the best examples of the breadth of the composer’s capacity for wit. Unfortunately, little of that wit emerged in last night’s performance, almost as if the players had only begun to master the technical, leaving little time to move on to the rhetorical.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Two Generations of Hungarian Cello Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

This Friday Naxos will release an album featuring the German cellist Gabriel Schwabe playing twentieth-century Hungarian music. The CD is framed by the chamber music of Zoltán Kodály, beginning with the Opus 7 duo for violin (Hellen Weiß) and cello and concluding with the Opus 8 solo sonata. Between these two selections is György Ligeti’s solo cello sonata, which was originally composed in 1948 during his studies at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where one of his teachers was Kodály. As expected, has created a Web page to process pre-orders of this recording.

I was particularly struck by the fact that this may be the first time these three compositions (or, for that matter, any pair of them) have been juxtaposed on a single album. RCA made a landmark recording of Opus 7 pairing cellist Gregor Piatigorsky with violinist Jascha Heifetz; but I have been hard-pressed to find a recording of Piatigorsky playing Opus 8. More recently, Matt Haimovitz has taken on both Opus 8 and the Ligeti sonata; but I am not sure if he has recorded Opus 7. Personally, I am particularly interested in the Ligeti offering, since it was composed “before Ligeti became Ligeti,” so to speak. Even after it was revised in 1953, it served as a reflection on Hungarian rhetoric. Any explorations of pitches between a pair of semitones are realized only through the rhetorical device of glissando passages. Indeed, the transition between Kodály’s compositions when World War I was just beginning and Ligeti’s following the end of World War II is surprisingly smooth.

Most important is how each of these two composers explored new ways to advance the technical skills of the performer. In that frame of reference, Schwabe serves up a technically adept and rhetorically expressive account of all three of the compositions. Many listeners are likely to wonder why each of these compositions tends to be so unfamiliar. Cello students will probably not have that problem, and I would be only too happy to encounter all three of these pieces in future recital repertoires.

Disappointing Vocal Recital at C4NM

Banner for yesterday’s concert showing Joseph Collins Wicht and Jesse Barrett (from the C4NM event page)

Yesterday evening the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted composer Joseph Collins Wicht, who presented selections from his Trinity song cycle. As suggested by the title, the collection is divided into three sections: “The Prodigal Soul,” “The Epicene Heart,” and “The Rapacious Body.” On the basis of the excerpts that were performed, I doubt that I can even begin to plumb the denotations or connotations of these titles. Suffice it to say that each song in the cycle sets the text by a unique poet.

Three vocalists participated in the performance, tenors Jesse Barrett and Samuel Brondfield and bass Terrence McLaughlin. Wicht accompanied them all at the piano. A total of eight songs from the cycle were presented, along with three “works-in-progress” for which Wicht accompanied his own singing. Sadly, the online program material provided by C4NM included the list of the songs themselves but not the texts of the poems.

The good news was that all three of the vocalists delivered a solid command of diction. Brondfield was weaker in several aspects of vocal quality than his two colleagues. Most outstanding was Barrett, when he delivered the satirical selection, “Cafe,” based on a poem by Joan Gelfand. This was a mercilessly satiric attack on “city life;” and Barrett’s command of body language reinforced the clarity of his diction over the course of roasting the urban life style.

Taken as a whole, however, Wicht’s selections were uneven in commanding listener attention. Sometimes the piano accompaniment would reinforce attention to the song; but too much of the performance sounded too routine, both in the inventiveness of the music and its execution. If Trinity was intended to allow Wicht to display his personal joy in the diversity of poetry in the English language, then that train never really left the station.

The program was further marred because Wicht seemed more interested in talking about his work than in playing it. Sadly, the C4NM technical crew has not yet found a way to provide a microphone for anything that is spoken between the performances of the music. Thus, most of what Wicht uttered came across as distant mumbling (and I have to believe that he was not aware of his incoherence).

Over the course of the summer, I put in a good deal of time tracking the progress of how different organizations were approaching live-streaming. The most impressive learning curve can be found in the efforts of Old First Concerts (O1C), which took a great leap forward when they were finally able to stream from their “home base,” the Old First Presbyterian Church. C4NM, of course, has its own space; and, to date, it has presented far fewer live-streamed offerings than O1C. Nevertheless, they still need to do some work on how each performance must, out of necessity, be provided with its own unique configuration of gear for capturing all of the audio (not just the music) and an informative account of the video. Hopefully, things will improve in time for next month’s performance by the Friction String Quartet, particularly since the players frequently provide valuable verbal background to supplement their performances.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Layered Video for Layered Monk Composition

Towards the end of last month, composer and vocalist Meredith Monk collaborated with three members of her Vocal Ensemble and the chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound for the premiere of her recently completed “Anthem.” Inspired by the Buddhist concepts of interdependence and cause-effect relationships, the music was conceived for performance through the video-chat medium. All of the twenty performers were “isolated” from each other, presumably in their own homes. Each had his/her own microphone and a set of headphones.

Superposition of “Anthem” motifs at its fullest (screen shot from the YouTube video being discussed)

The score itself has what can best be called a “layered architecture,” an approach that I have encountered in some of Monk’s other compositions. My guess is that the performance itself was based entirely (or perhaps just almost entirely) on audio cues. Through those cues (and, perhaps, a “shared clock”) each performer had his/her own motif that (s)he would contribute to the layers. All of the performances were captured on video, and Director Gavin Chuck used the “windowing tool” that manages on-line meetings to display different visual arrays of the performers.

From a listening point of view, the result was impressive for the logic behind its construction. Each motif was rather like a Lego brick that could interconnect with just about every other Lego brick. Chuck’s direction thus amounted to a journey, during which the viewer would “visit” both specific bricks and their interconnections. As a result, the logic behind the listening experience was reflected in (and probably enhanced by) those visual experiences. Since the entire performance was only about ten minutes in duration, first adding motifs to the mix and then withdrawing them, the resulting video, now available on YouTube, makes for an accessible and absorbing presentation, a rather serene study in the interplay of physical isolation and musical synthesis.


Mills Presents Online Concert by Faculty

Cellist Tomeka Reid (from the Eventbrite Web page for the concert being discussed)

Last night Mills College presented an online concert, presenting a video recording of a performance that took place in Chicago featuring cellist Tomeka Reid, who currently holds the Mills Darius Milhaud Chair in Music Composition. Reid performed one uninterrupted hour of improvisation with percussionist Adam Vida as the only other musician. However, video artist Selenia Trepp contributed to the mix with her electronic video processing gear. She provided real-time synthesis of images projected behind the two musicians. The projector itself was on “audience side,” meaning that it also cast shadows of the performers that (presumably) contributed to the overall visual effects.

The greatest risk in this performance is that the visual experience would overshadow the auditory one. Reid is clearly a skilled cellist with a powerful command of a hefty repertoire of extended techniques. However, by the time half an hour had elapsed, even the most attentive listener would probably acknowledge that she had said pretty much all that she had to say. Because Vida seemed to be conscientiously committed to remaining in the background, his own contributions did little to extend the overall flow of the improvised music.

That left Trepp’s contributions to the mix. Her work was both technically imaginative and aesthetically stimulating. She had an almost uncanny gift for exploiting ambiguities across two-dimensional and three-dimensional images. Clearly, the projection itself was two-dimensional; but Trepp summoned highly inventive techniques to convey impressions of physical depth, often exploiting those techniques to summon up “impossible objects,” which were then set in motion.

It was the diversity of the visual journey that kept the viewer occupied after that first half-hour during which Reid “had her say.” Nevertheless, after about 45 minutes, Trepp seemed to resort to recapitulation; but, when combined with Reid’s meanderings, there was little conveyed to the listener/viewer that would establish any “sense of an ending” on the way. Indeed, after the hour had elapsed, all three performers just stopped, almost as if they had been “working on the clock” rather than exploring the underlying communicative nature of acts of improvisation.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Walter White’s “Extra Large” Big Band

from the Bandcamp Web page for the recording being discussed

A little over a month ago, jazz trumpeter Walter White completed work on his latest album, entitled Walter White BB XL; and the album was “officially” released on August 28. White leads groups of all sizes, one of which is the Walter White Big Band. This probably accounts for the “BB” in the title, while “XL” suggests that even more players than usual were recruited for this project. It appears that, at the present time, the album is available only for digital download or streaming. While has created a download Web page, the one created by Bandcamp is far more informative, providing much of the information that one would expect to see in an accompanying booklet.

The album presents eight compositions, only three of which are composed by White. However, one of these occupies two tracks, since “Portus Apostoli” is preceded by an “Intro” for just trumpet (White) and piano (Gary Schunk). The other composers involved provide a richly diverse account of the sort of jazz that was being made during the twentieth century. They are, in “order of appearance,” as follows: Dave Brubeck (“Blue Rondo a la Turk”), Herbie Hancock (“Cantaloupe Island”), Horace Silver (“Nica’s Dream”), Jerome Kern (“The Way You Look Tonight”), and Victor Young (“My Foolish Heart”). White prepared his own arrangements of all five of these selections.

The primary emphasis across the album involves brass instruments of a variety of different sizes. That includes solo tuba work from Dan Anderson, although in “My Foolish Heart” he is playing in a register high enough to suggest that he is using a tenor-sized instrument. There is also the usual contingent of saxophones, but their opportunities for solo work are relatively modest. Where the upper register is concerned, White tends to save the “stratospheric” passages for his own instrument.

The results amount to an affectionate reflection on some of the more exciting big band sounds of the last century. Those of my generation may be reminded of many of Stan Kenton’s richest arrangements; and, for many, those stratospheric riffs from White may bring to mind many of the bold and steep ascents played by Maynard Ferguson. The album thus amounts to a heart-felt take on twentieth-century jazz at its most assertively brazen, now viewed (perhaps a bit sentimentally) from a vantage point in the following century.

This may not have been my favorite approach to jazz when it was first being made, but I appreciate the respect it has been accorded by White’s new album.

Lyle Sheffler’s Old First Concerts Debut

Guitarist Lyle Sheffler (from his Old First Concerts event page)

Readers may recall that, about two months ago, this site reported on a live-streamed solo recital by guitarist Lyle Sheffler, which took place as part of the Manny’s Musical Sundays concert series. Last night Sheffler gave his Old First Concerts (O1C) debut recital. About 80 minutes in duration, the program surveyed the works of composers with different nationalities. As in the past, Old First Concerts has archived the video; and it now has its own YouTube Web page.

The program began in Brazil with four explorations of the choro genre by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Sheffler began with the first of the fourteen compositions in the Chôros collection, followed by three of the movements from the Suite popular brasileira, “Mazurka-Choro,” “Schottish-Choro,” and “Chorinho.” This suite was composed while the composer was living in Paris and served up what amounted to Brazilian impressions of European dance forms. Sheffler was particularly good at giving each influence its proper due.

He then shifted over to Cuba for a selection by Leo Brouwer. The 1956 lullaby, “Canción de cuna (Berceuse),” was the first piece in Dos temas populares cubanos (two popular Cuban themes). This one was an arrangement of Emilio Grenet’s “Drume negrita,” reflecting African influences on Cuban music.

The first half of the program then concluded in Austria with a Chinese-influenced composition by Dietmar Ungerank. The composition consisted of four compositions based on the imagery of Chinese painting, the last of which, “Land Circus,” incorporated a Chinese folk melody. All of the thematic material was based on a whole-tone scale, which required alternative tuning of the guitar. The four pieces were preceded by an “overture” entitled “Intonation.” The result was an experience of sonorities that were as striking as they were subtle.

The intermission was followed by two selections evoking Moorish Spain. The first of these was Miguel Llobet’s transcription of “Córdoba,” the fourth movement from Isaac Albéniz’ Opus 232 piano suite, Chants d’Espagne (songs of Spain). This was followed by Francisco Tárrega’s solo guitar composition “Capricho árabe.”

The repertoire then shifted to three aspects of music north of the English Channel. As he had done for his Manny’s program, Sheffler arranged a sixteenth-century composition, this time John Dowland’s “My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe.” He then revisited Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Farewell to Stromness,” which he had played at Manny’s. This time he took the time to explain the political protest behind the music. He finished the set with his take on a traditional Irish reel, “The Bucks of Oranmore.” The program then concluded in Paraguay with one of the “Danza Paraguaya” compositions by Agustín Barrios (often known as Mangoré).

While there was no audience to call for an encore, Sheffler provided one. He played a solo guitar arrangement of the “Danza del molinero (Farruca)” (dance of the miller) music from Manuel de Falla’s score for the two-act ballet The Three-Cornered Hat. All of this made for an evening that was as informative as it was affable. Following up on his Manny’s gig, Sheffler seemed much more at ease in playing for an audience that he could not see, and his explanatory remarks before the selections came across as more relaxed and prepared. O1C has an impressive history of solo guitar recitals, and last night’s performance made for an engaging addition to that history.

Friday, September 18, 2020

SF Music Day 2020 Offerings Announced

This year the thirteenth edition of SF Music Day, the free annual music festival presented by InterMusic SF, will be offered in a special online format. There will be exclusive premiere performances by ten jazz, classical, chamber, and global music ensembles, which will be streamed between noon and 6 p.m. on Sunday, October 25. All of the offerings will be pre-recorded especially for this event in Herbst Theatre, one of the four venues in the Veterans Building that has hosted SF Music Day performances in the past.

The offerings will be divided into two categories, each of which will involve five ensembles. The first of those categories will be Classical & Contemporary Music. The ensembles and their respective offerings will be as follows:

  1. The Del Sol String Quartet will present the world premiere of “A Popular Tune,” composed on a commission from the quartet by Jung Yoon Wie; other works on the program were commissioned by the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, including compositions by Kerwin Young and Andrew Rodriguez.
  2. The Telegraph Quartet will perform Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opus 34 (third) quartet in D major, which he composed in 1945 (the same year in which he composed his Opus 35 violin concerto, dedicated to Alma Mahler and premiered by Jascha Heifetz).
  3. [updated 9/19, 2:15 p.m.: This performance will no longer take place: The Musical Art Quintet will premiere Pandemic Reflections, a nuevo tango suite composed by its bassist, Sasha Jacobsen.]
  4. The trio of violinist Tom Stone, pianist Elizabeth Dorman, and cellist Amos Yang will play Johannes Brahms’ Opus 8 (first) piano trio in B major.
  5. The AIR Trio, led by pianist Motoko Honda, will perform her new improvisatory work, “Soundscape of Our Present Minds,” scored for prepared piano, electric guitar, and percussion.

The five offerings in the Jazz & Global Music Traditions category will be as follows:

  1. The Mads Men ensemble, led by violinist Mads Tolling, will revisit classic tunes from Sixties television, film, and radio.
  2. Harpist Destiny Muhammad will lead a trio in performances of her own music and arrangements of songs by Marvin Gaye and Dorothy Ashby.
  3. The trio of guitarist Ricardo Peixoto, pianist Marcos Silva, and percussionist Brian Rice will play a set of Brazilian jazz.
  4. Guitarist Terrence Brewer will play a set that will combine his original works with jazz and blues standards.
  5. Two of the members of Quartet San Francisco, violinist Jeremy Cohen and cellist Andrés Vera, will present a program of original string duos inspired by tango music and vintage jazz.
  6. [added 9/19, 2:20 p.m.: This performance has been added: The duo of Rob Reich on accordion and Daniel Fabricant on bass will present original tunes, gypsy jazz, and standards from around the world.]

All of these pre-recorded performances will be streamed through the InterMusic SF home page. All of the offerings will be free. Neither tickets nor reservations will be required to launch the streaming facility. Any addition information about the scheduling of these ten sets will be provided when it becomes available.

Glenn Gould: Dance Suites

The remaining CDs in Sony’s The Bach Box collection of recordings of Glenn Gould playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach are devoted, for the most part, to dance suites. That means, primarily, the BWV 812–817 “French” suites and the BWV 806–811 “English” suites. The French collection also includes the BWV 831 “Overture in the French style,” which, aside from the opening overture movement is basically a suite of dances. BWV 831 was the one Clavier-Übung selection that was not discussed in the first article about The Bach Box.

The Aria theme, which may be interpreted as a sarabande, for BWV 988 written into Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notenbüchlein (from Wikimedia Commons, source unknown, public domain)

The final CD of music in the collection is a compilation of Gould’s personal favorites, which was released as a recording entitled The Little Bach Book, which is presumably a coy nod to the Notenbüchlein (little notebook) für Anna Magdalena Bach. The album itself includes thirteen tracks of dance movements. (The total number of tracks is 33.) The collection then concludes with a recording of Gould interviewed by Tim Page on the occasion of the release of his second recording of the BWV 988 set of “Goldberg” variations. I shall not discuss this recording. I have enough trouble keeping a cool head while reading many of Gould’s articles collected in The Glenn Gould Reader (edited by Page) to keep a cool head while listening to him expostulate at length!

Those who have read the Clavier-Übung article can probably guess how I reacted to the French and English suites. The operative word in this collection is “dance.” Most of the dance forms in these suites were beginning to go obsolete when Bach was composing them. Recently there have been several noble scholarly attempts at reconstructing those dance forms, but I am not sure how many of those scholars have examined Bach’s scores for hints that might suggest the “spirit behind the steps,” even if very little information is available about the steps themselves.

It is clear from these recordings, however, that Gould did not care a fig about such scholarship. He is only interested in interpreting the marks on paper with little, if any, regard to potentially informative context. As a result, there are likely to be two camps of listeners where any of Bach’s dance movements are concerned. Those that like to acquire Gould’s recordings tend to be in the “let Gould be Gould” camp; and I shall not begrudge them their opinions.

Nevertheless, I tend to cast my own lot with the “let Bach be Bach” crowd. For those that recall my account of the exchange between harpsichordist Wanda Landowska and cellist Pablo Casals, I actually feel that Casals is in the “let Bach be Bach” camp. However, my own opinion of Landowska has not yet been settled, since I have only heard her Well-Tempered Clavier recordings and have not yet had the opportunity to consider her approach to the dance forms.

Looking back over the entire Gould collection, I would say that there is no debating that it is a significant historical artifact. That said, I am not quite sure what the content signifies, particularly to the current generation of pianists and the coming generation of students. I have my doubts about whether Gould’s historical record has anything to say to those generations; and the recent Deutsche Grammophon album of Lang Lang playing BWV 988 in both studio and concert settings strikes me as a strong affirmation of the “let Bach be Bach” position. Perhaps Gould’s recordings and writings serve more as a “fossil record” of the second half of the twentieth century, rather than as guideposts for current musical practices.