Saturday, October 31, 2020

Kronos Quartet at Bing Concert Hall

Early this afternoon my wife and I took the time to watch the entire YouTube video of Testimony, the full-length concert by the Kronos Quartet, which was recorded in the Bing Concert Hall of the Stanford University Campus. This leaves readers with a couple of days to share the experience, since free viewing will no longer be available after Monday, November 2. As I had observed in my preview article, the program for this concert “was planned as a musical reflection on the immediate impact of this moment in our nation’s history.”

It is probably fair to say that the strongest substance for reflection came not from the music that Kronos played but from the recitations of original poetry by Darnell “DeeSoul” Carson, Zouhair Mussa, Cecelia “CeCe” Jordan, Anouk Yeh, and Jarvis Subia. After all, what makes the immediate present such a momentous occasion has to do with questions of “American identity” posed by any individual that is not white and male. All five of these poets speak from personal experience about what it means to be regarded as “other” in one’s own country, while three of the Kronos musicians, violinists David Harrington and John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt are about as white American male as you can get. All five of those poets delivered their words with both clarity and expressiveness, leaving no question about the messages that they wanted to deliver.

In contrast I have to acknowledge that Kronos has had a long history of playing an extensive repertoire of highly inventive music without providing audiences with any useful background to negotiate the listening experience. This is a practice that dates back at least as far as the mid-Eighties, when I was attending their regular concerts at the University of California at Los Angeles. Just about every program I experienced presented audience members with a single sheet of paper listing little more than titles and the names of their respective composers. I still remember what it was like to wrestle with my first experiences of the music of Alfred Schnittke!

Providing that minimum information at the bottom of the screen for each work that was performed would have been a great improvement over making viewers wait for the entire program to scroll by at the conclusion of the program. At least the YouTube Web page not only enumerates the musical and poetic selections but also provides time codes for all of them. Nevertheless, by the end of the program I found myself wondering whether there might have been a risk of a generation gap when it came to how listeners would react to the music that Kronos played.

Consider how the program began, with an arrangement for the quartet by Stephen Prutsman. The title listed on the YouTube page was “Star-Spangled Banner (inspired by Jimi Hendrix).” I suspect that, for many of my generation, Jimi Hendrix’ solo electric guitar account of the national anthem was one of the high points (if not the high point) of the 1969 Woodstock music festival. Half a century later that music still reverberates in conscious memory, even though I no longer have either the audio or the video account of the Woodstock movie. Thanks to that memory, I could appreciate Prutsman’s technique in evoking the Hendrix riffs at their wildest, even if the arrangement was only “inspired,” rather than intended to duplicate. Whether or not those of younger generations would react the same way is left as an exercise for the reader.

Somewhat more confusing was the listing “Strange Fruit (inspired by Billie Holiday).” The composer was listed as Abel Meeropol, who wrote both the music and the words of “Strange Fruit.” Only after it was written did it come to Holiday’s attention, leading to her recording it. So that parenthesis muddies the waters of understanding, rather than clarifying them. More accurate was crediting Jacob Garchik with arranging Meeropol’s music for Kronos. HIs arrangement did more than adequate justice to Meeropol’s original charts; but only those with a sense of history would have remembered that the words of the song are an account of lynching.

Vocalist Meklit Hadero (screen shot from the YouTube video being discussed)

Garchick provided the arrangements of most of the other musical selections. (The one exception was Michael Gordon’s somewhat twisted account of “God Bless America,” which managed to efface any association with Kate Smith. Nevertheless, in the context of the overall program, I found myself wondering how many enthusiastic conservatives enjoy singing this song at the top of their lungs oblivious to that fact that it was composed by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish!) Among Garchik’s other efforts, I found the arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Alabama” the least effective, while his treatment of Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace” was the best (even if I would have preferred somewhat better diction in Meklit Hadero’s treatment of the words).

Taken as a whole, the program was definitely mixed in quality; but the impact of the assets was strong enough to allow the liabilities to pass by with little, if any, notice.

Simone Dinnerstein Virtual Performances

Simone Dinnerstein (photograph by Tanya Braganti, courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has announced plans for a series of six concerts between today and the beginning of next year, all of which will be presented in cyberspace. Three of those performances will be based on her Orange Mountain Music album A Character of Quiet, released this past September. This album consisted of a performance of Franz Schubert’s final piano sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major, preceded by three of the solo piano études composed by Philip Glass. One of other programs will present the world premiere of a composition by Richard Danielpour. Another will present a variety of perspectives on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach; and the last of the concerts will survey selections by Robert Schumann, Philip Glass, Erik Satie, and François Couperin. The full schedule, presented in chronological order (all times given in Pacific Time), is as follows:

Saturday, October 31, 11 a.m.: Dumbarton Oaks will stream the first performance based on A Character of Quiet. Dinnerstein was recorded playing these selections in the Music Room. The video will be accessible through 11 a.m. on Friday, November 6. Admission will be $20, processed through an Eventbrite event page. Once admission has been processed, electronic mail will be sent providing the hyperlink through which the performance may be attended.

Saturday, November 14, 6:30 p.m.: Dinnerstein is currently an Artistic Partner of the Boulder Philharmonic. This past September they performed a program entitled The Beauty of Bach in the Brungard Aviation hangar at Boulder Municipal Airport before an audience practicing social distancing precautions. The program will begin with an arrangement by Philip Lasser of the “Erbarme dich, mein Gott, um meiner Zähren Willen” (have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tenacity) aria from Bach’s BWV 244 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel of Matthew. Dinnerstein will then present the BWV 1067 orchestral suite in B minor. She will conduct the BWV 1052 piano concerto in D minor from the keyboard, followed by a performance of the BWV 1050 “Brandenburg” (fifth) concerto in D major, for which she will be joined by flutist Christina Jennings and violinist Charles Wetherbee. Admission will be $40, processed by the event page for this concert on the Boulder Philharmonic Web site. Presumably, ticket-holders will subsequently be provided with the hyperlink through which the performance may be attended.

Sunday, November 15, 11 a.m.: The second performance based on A Character of Quiet will be streamed live from the Union Arts Center in Sparkill, New York. The concert will be presented by ArtsRock, hosted by Dinnerstein’s longtime friend Robin Quivers, co-host of The Howard Stern Show. The video will be accessible through November 20. Tickets are being sold for $10, $20, and $50 per household and may be purchased through the event page on the ArtsRock Web site. Again, ticket-holders should expect to receive the hyperlink for attendance after the payment has been processed.

Sunday, December 6, 2 p.m.: Danielpour’s An American Mosaic will receive its world premiere under the auspices of the Oregon Bach Festival, which commissioned the composition. The work is a set of fifteen miniatures for solo piano, each of which commemorates segments of the American population that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including parents, caretakers and those who have lost their lives to the virus. As of this writing, specifics about admission and tickets have not yet been announced. Presumably they will be posted on the Festival’s event page in the near future.

Tuesday, December 15, 4 p.m.: Dinnerstein will return to New York City for the third and final performance based on A Character of Quiet. She will be filmed live, and the recording will then be streamed through the Live from Columbia concert series entitled Pop-Ups in the Lantern. The performance will take place at the Miller Theatre of Columbia University. The streaming of this offering will be presented free of charge and will be streamed through the Pop-Ups in the Lantern Web site.

Friday, January 8, 5 p.m.: Dinnerstein will begin the New Year with a solo recital recorded in the Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. This will be an “all new” program, since none of the selections were included in programs for the above events. Schumann will be featured with performances of his Opus 18 “Arabesque” in C major and the Opus 16 Kreisleriana cycle. There will also be a Glass selection earlier than his études, “Mad Rush.” A “French side” to the program will offer the third of Satie’s “Gnossienne” compositions and two pieces from Couperin’s Pièces de clavecin, “Les Barricades Mystérieuses” (the mysterious barricades) and “Le tic-toc-choc, ou Les maillotins” (the tapping or the hammers). $20 pays for a 24-hour rental of the video stream of the performances. For $25 the view has 48-hour access along with a question-and-answer session following the performances. A Web page has been set up for purchasing tickets, and the video feed will be available until 5 p.m. on January 10.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Folk” Operas

The smallest of the three categories that classify the operas of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is the one of “folk operas.” There are only two operas in this category, May Night, completed in 1880, and Christmas Eve, completed in 1895. Both of them are based on tales that Nikolai Gogol collected under the title Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. As the Wikipedia page for this book observes, these eight stories capture the author’s “early impressions and memories of childhood” realized as “pictures of peasant life.” The tales that Rimsky-Korsakov set are two of four tales based on specific calendar occasions.

Tenor Leonid Sobinov in the role of Levko, who sings many of the “folk songs” in the opera May Night (1909 photograph from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Gogol’s “May Night” has as a subtitle “the Drowned Maiden.” It encompasses a generous amount of plot for a short story, which may explain why Rimsky-Korsakov realized it as a three-act opera. The narrative is set in the early nineteenth century during “Rusalka week,” the proper noun referring to young maidens that drown themselves out of grief. (This differs from the Czech connotation of the noun, which served as the basis for Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 114 Rusalka opera.) The overall plot of the opera is more than a little convoluted, but the score has a generous share of both solo and choral music that can be associated with folk sources.

Christmas Eve also involves a plot based in the supernatural, which has nothing to do with the Nativity. Rather, it involves a widow (Solokha) presumed to be a witch that plots with the Devil to steal the moon. The opera is structured in nine tableaux distributed over four acts. Over the course of the opera one encounters both the moon and the stars at play. There is also a grand polonaise episode, whose music will be familiar to anyone that knows Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin. I have not been able to establish whether Tchaikovsky appropriated the theme from a folk source. In general, however, Rimsky-Korsakov seems to draw on fewer “folk references” in unfolding the bizarre but engaging plot that unfolds in Christmas Eve.

Neither of these operas has enjoyed much exposure before Western audiences. Having listened to (and enjoyed) the music, I would confess that my personality is more curious where Christmas Eve is concerned. Nevertheless, I would probably jump at an opportunity to see either of these operas in performance.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Stanford Live Featuring Kronos Film

Kronos Quartet members (David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang) on the stage of the Bing Concert Hall (screen shot of the YouTube Web page discussed in this article)

Earlier this month a film was made of Testimony, a full-length concert by the Kronos Quartet, which took place in the Bing Concert Hall on the Stanford University Campus. The program was planned as a musical reflection on the immediate impact of this moment in our nation’s history. The selections began with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” inspired by the performance of the national anthem given by Jimi Hendrix as one of the high points of the 1969 Woodstock music festival. Other selections included Rhiannon Giddens’ “At the Purchaser’s Option,”  Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Joan Baez’ “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” given a vocal rendition by Meklit Hadero, and other compositions. Each musical offering will be paired with spoken word poetry by the young Bay Area poets Anouk Yeh, Cecelia “CeCe” Jordan, Jarvis Subia, Zouhair Mussa, and Darnell “DeeSoul” Carson.

The entire film, which is a little more than 40 minutes in duration, has been uploaded by Stanford Live Presents to a YouTube Web page. It will be available for viewing free of charge until 11:59 p.m. on Monday, November 2. After that, viewing will be available to all Stanford students and to Stanford Live members donating at least $100. However, the performance of “The President Sang Amazing Grace” will still be available for viewing at no charge at an alternative YouTube Web page.

Bland is Not a Remedy for Pandemic Blues

Late yesterday afternoon, while waiting for the 5 p.m. local news broadcast on television, my wife and I were listening to the Music Choice Classical Masterpieces channel provided by our xfinity service. The recording being played was a relatively old one of Christoph Eschenbach conducting the Houston Symphony. The music was Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 25 (first) piano quartet in G minor.

In one of his letters, Schoenberg claimed that he composed the orchestration because the chamber music itself was rarely performed (and, when it was performed, it was performed badly). Schoenberg was probably right in making those assertions in 1937, when he prepared the orchestration. These days there are plenty of recordings and chamber music recitals that allow the attentive listener to appreciate this music as Brahms wrote it, and that listener is much less likely to encounter opportunities to listen to Schoenberg’s treatment.

The attentive listener quickly appreciates that the arrangement is much more about Schoenberg than it is about Brahms. The instrumentation is far more extensive than any Brahms engaged in his own orchestral compositions, particularly in the percussion section. Indeed, the only instruments that are missing are from the keyboard family.

The fact is that there are more details (many of which run the gamut from mildly amusing to hysterically funny) than can be grasped in a single listening experience. Indeed, I doubt that I shall be able to get my head around all of them through a recording. According to my records, the last (and probably only) opportunity I had to listen to a concert performance took place in November of 2007 when Benjamin Shwartz included it on a program presented by the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. This was a capable reading, but it did not really register much of the underlying wit that Schoenberg brought to his orchestration. (One of the better jokes involves the few measures of music that were copied directly from the original Brahms score. Detection is left as an exercise for the informed listener.)

I relate this anecdote because, like many (most) others, my wife and I tend to approach the latest news with a sense of dread, much of which has been cultivated by the sustained impact of lockdown conditions for about half a year. Listening to what Schoenberg had done to Brahms brought a flash (however brief) of “positive thinking” to both my wife and myself. I make this observation because I have encountered a variety of efforts to approach music for its “healing” powers. While I am willing to accept a “whatever works” evaluation where others are concerned, in our family “feeding the mind” with vigorously engaging stimuli has it over “healing” hands down.

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

I offer this long-winded anecdote as explanation for the dim view I took of Inside, a new release on Summit Records of music by Scott Routenberg. The album will be released one week from today. As expected, has created a Web page for processing pre-orders.

The eleven tracks reflect the impact of quarantine on the composer’s longing for the “outside.” He works with a variety of keyboards and software, adding his own vocal work to one of the tracks, “Flower Moon.” Several of the tracks involve contributions by fellow musicians, captured and digitized remotely and then passed to Routenberg through the Internet for editing and mixing. While this allows for richer instrumentation (and vocal work) than Routenberg could have summoned on his own, there is a uniform rhetoric of blandness that pervades all of the tracks, regardless of the diversity of sonorities.

To be fair, these are entirely personal reactions. The point I have tried to make is that, in many settings, vigorous stimulation has much more benefit that soothing comfort. The latter may encourage mind to let go of things, but letting go is only beneficial when there is something else to grasp. Mind you, finding anything to grasp in many of Schoenberg’s “original” compositions is seldom an easy matter. However, he was clearly having fun with his “Brahms makeover” project; and I shall prefer buying into those high spirits over soothing sonorities any day!

Thursday, October 29, 2020

A YouTube Upload of a Richard Strauss Opera

from the Web page of the DVD version of the YouTube video being discussed

Because I seem to spend so much of my time making my own choices of YouTube videos that I wish to view, I rarely pay attention to attempts to woo me with recommendations. However, when I was able to find a video of Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, I happened to notice a recommendation for Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne aux Naxos. I made it a point to add this item to my “sooner or later” list; and “later” finally took place this afternoon. The title of the YouTube file itself was sufficient to attract my attention: “Ariadne auf Naxos Böhm Janowitz.” “Böhm,” of course, was Karl Böhm; and some readers may recall from my account of the Deutsche Grammophon retrospective box set Karl Böhm: The Operas that the collection included three recordings of Ariadne auf Naxos made in 1944, 1954, and 1969, respectively. “Janowitz” was Gundula Janowitz singing the title role.

The video was made from a film, which was not based on any of those three recordings. Rather, it was made by John Vernon and is currently available from as a DVD. Sadly, neither the YouTube video nor the packaging of the DVD provided much information about the production. The only production-related credit goes to the staging of the opera by Filippo Sanjust. Fortunately, there is an opera discography Web site that dates the “capture” of the performance as having taken place in October and November of 1977 and May and June of 1978, possibly in conjunction with performances by the Vienna State Opera.

 [added 10/31, 5:35 p.m.: Note that the YouTube file for this particular performance does not include subtitles, but subtitles are available on the DVD version.]

For those unfamiliar with Ariadne, it is basically an opera about opera. (It is far from the first in that genre. Even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart took a crack at that narrative genre.) The opera that it is about (so to speak) is a single-act creation; and, in the libretto, it is preceded by a Prologue. The context for the Prologue, in turn, is based on Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (loosely translated as “the middle-class aristocrat”), by Molière. The title character of this play is planning to host a major social event; and, he is assisted by two of his “hired help,” a music master (baritone Walter Berry) and a dancing master (tenor Heinz Zednik). The music master has, as his protégée, a young composer (soprano Trudeliese Schmidt in a “trouser” role), who has written an opera about Ariadne abandoned by Theseus on the isle of Naxos. The dancing master, on the other hand, is promoting a commedia dell'arte troupe led by the seductive Zerbinetta (coloratura soprano Edita Gruberova). After heated arguments over which of these offerings will be shown to the guests, the host, in all of his bourgeois wisdom, commands that the two offerings be performed simultaneously!

The result is that the “opera” portion of the score is a bit like a pendulum swinging between the ridiculous and the sublime. However, if we go by the way in which Strauss developed his score, it is pretty clear that the opera concludes in sublime territory with Ariadne rescued from Naxos by the god Bacchus (tenor René Kollo). Nevertheless, Zerbinetta manages to get in a penultimate word reflecting the ribald behavior that is as rich as the astronomically high notes that Strauss composed for her part.

I have had a generous amount of exposure to this opera in both full-length performances and excerpts presented at “scenes” recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. As a result, I have been exposed to a wide variety of different approaches to this confrontation between the ridiculous and the sublime. My preference remains a Paris Opera production I saw in the Eighties in which the setting for the opera portion includes all of those guests that had been invited for the evening as audience. As the opera progresses, particularly after the arrival of Bacchus, the guests gradually nod off and then leave their seats, meaning that, by the final measures, Ariadne and Bacchus are singing to an empty house!

Sanjust’s staging, on the other hand, took a more straightforward approach to the narrative. In so doing he tended to blunt the edges of both the ridiculous and the sublime. As expected, Böhm gave a first-rate account of the music (all the more impressive since he was in his mid-80s at the time). However, staging details tended to undermine his efforts to keep things going at a crisp pace. Fortunately, all the vocalists were in first-rate conditions, all singing as if they really enjoyed performing this music. (A full account of the cast can be found on the opera discography Web site and on the image of the back cover of the DVD on the Web page.)

One Found Sound: November Watch Party

Logo for the next One Found Sound concert (from the Eventbrite event page)

Next month will see the second “Virtual Watch Party” in the eighth season of One Found Sound (OFS). The program will present creative music video recordings of the two STRUM performances that took place at The Midway a week ago. That title is also the title of the composition by Jessie Montgomery that will begin the program. It will be followed by the string quartet in G major by one of the leading female Americans of the twentieth century, the Black composer Florence Price. The program will then conclude with an OFS “acknowledgement” of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven. The Beethoven selection will be the third of the Opus 59 (“Razumovsky”) string quartets, written in the key of C major.

This cyberspace event will begin at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 19. Attendance requires registration through an Eventbrite event page, and donations will be accepted when the arrangements for tickets are made. Completion of the registration process will result in an electronic mail message providing a link to the streaming site. This will be a live broadcast; and the audience is invited to submit questions and comments through a chat window, which will be active throughout the event.

Duets by Monk and Hollenbeck in Cyberspace

Meredith Monk and John Hollenbeck performing Duet Behavior 2020 (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Last night the Noguchi Museum began streaming a video entitled Duet Behavior 2020, which was produced jointly with Bang on a Can. The composition was a duo performance by vocalist Meredith Monk and percussionist John Hollenbeck. The first time I encountered Monk’s vocal work was at the American Dance Festival, back when it was still being held during the summer at Connecticut College for Women. It was an outdoor concert, and she provided her own accompaniment on a modest electronic keyboard. Since then, to the best of my knowledge, she has always been in charge of all performance details.

Duet Behavior 2020 was thus a significant departure from her usual approach to presenting her work. She selected pieces from the full extent of her catalog, which covers over 50 years; and she and Hollenbeck performed duo improvisations on those selections, thus throwing “standards” into an entirely new light. Since this was a “socially distant” presentation, with Monk in upstate New York and Hollenbeck in Montreal, coordination was particularly critical for those improvisations. It was enabled primarily by Jamulus, software designed to facilitate real-time coordination of music performed over the Internet. As was the case for Monk’s previous cyberspace-based performance of “Anthem,” the visuals were created through Zoom technology.

I first became aware of Monk through her dance company. I was therefore struck by the physical richness of her performance of Duet Behavior 2020, all executed while standing in front of a microphone. Just as her songs tend to involve a playfully-conceived bridge between phonetics and semantics, her performance of this particular piece seemed to explore a similar bridge between stasis and motion. This provided an excellent complement to Hollenbeck’s percussion work, which, of necessity, was all about the movements required to evoke the sounds he was improvising.

As a result, this “pioneering” venture into improvisation fared extremely well, a tribute to the ways in which Monk’s music can serve as a foundation for different “structures of performance” and an opportunity to experience her performances in a context of inventive percussion work.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Historical” Operas

courtesy of Naxos of America

Readers with long memories may recall that, in June of 2018, Profil released a 22-CD album of performances of the complete operas of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, along with fragments and incidental music. This month saw what some may wish to take as a “sequel” to that release, a 25-CD album of the complete operas of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, again including existing fragments. I must confess that, for a fair amount of time, I tended to take a rather chilly approach to Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. It was only after I learned of his influence on the young Igor Stravinsky that I realized that I should not be so dismissive. I thus decided that I should take the plunge into this rather massive offering.

Fortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Wikipedia page provided me with some guidance in how to approach this collection. The section on operas classifies the entire collection into three categories: historical drama, folk operas, and fairy tales and legends. I decided to take this as a guide to accounting for this collection of recordings in three articles. Furthermore, since Rimsky-Korsakov’s earliest opera was in the historical category, I decided that would be the best place to begin.

I have to say that this was the category that particularly piqued my curiosity. While Rimsky-Korsakov was primarily interested in Russian narratives, he composed a one-act opera entitled “Mozart and Salieri.” The opera was actually inspired by an 1830 verse drama by Alexander Pushkin with the same title, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s libretto is almost a verbatim account of Pushkin’s text.

Thanks to Peter Shaffer and both the stage and film versions of his play Amadeus, this narrative is probably familiar to just about anyone reading this text. It is therefore worth noting that, in the Preface of my Harper Colophon paperback of the script for Amadeus, Shaffer writes at great length about how the script developed between the London production of the play and the one on Broadway. However, I saw nothing about any awareness of Pushkin, let alone Rimsky-Korsakov.

To be fair, there is a lot more citation of Mozart’s music in Shaffer’s play than there is in Pushkin’s. Furthermore, the casting for Pushkin’s play consists only of the two characters named in the title. The play itself consists of only two scenes, the first being a monologue of jealousy delivered by Salieri. The second scene has the two characters in dialog over a dinner, during which the subject of the K. 626 setting of the Requiem (and the circumstances behind its composition) arises. For his part, Rimsky-Korsakov keeps his Mozart musical quotes to a minimum; and, taken as a whole, his own score basically allows the narrative to advance by allowing both protagonists to say their respective pieces.

For most listeners the closest they will get to familiarity (beyond the Mozart references in “Mozart and Salieri”) in the remaining operas in this group will be The Tsar’s Bride, only because its overture gets a modest amount of attention in the concert repertoire. This is one of two operas about Ivan IV (“Ivan the Terrible”), who never makes an appearance. The title character is Marfa, and the overall narrative involves unrequited love and royal authority on a collision course. Between poisons and potions, the plot involves more than a fair share of death; and it is easy to appreciate why most listeners prefer not to venture any further than the overture.

The other “Ivan opera” is The Maid of Pskov (Pskovitianka). This is also based on a play of the same name by Lev Mei. At the beginning of the opera, Ivan is planning an attack on Pskov to bring it under his control. The “maid” is Princess Olga Yuryevna Tokmakova, daughter of Prince Tomokov, who is dedicated to maintaining Pskov’s independence. The climax of the plot involves Ivan realizing that Olga is his own daughter through his relationship with Vera Sheloga. The details behind the relationship behind Olga’s birth were subsequently elaborated in Rimsky-Korsakov’s one-act opera “The Noblewoman Vera Sheloga,” composed about six years after the final version of The Maid of Pskov, which was completed in 1892. It would subsequently serve as a prologue for The Maid of Pskov; and it consists of only three scenes (none of which involve Ivan’s presence).

The remaining historical opera is Pan Voyevoda (the gentleman provincial governor). The Wikipedia page for this opera declares it “one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s least-successful works.” The setting is Poland, and Rimsky-Korsakov intended the music to serves as a tribute to Frédéric Chopin. That said, the presence of Mozart’s music in “Mozart and Salieri” is much more evident than that of Chopin in Pan Voyevoda. Indeed, even the sense of “Polish spirit” encountered in so much of Chopin’s music is lacking.

Neave Trio to Perform Women Composers

Readers may recall that earlier this month the Neave Trio streamed a live performance from the Edward M. Pickman Concert Hall at the Longy School of Music of Bard College, which is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Next month the Auditorium Chamber Music Series, presented by the University of Idaho, will offer another online performance by this ensemble, whose members are violinist Anna Williams, cellist Mikhail Veselov, and pianist Eri Nakamura. This will be a video stream of a recording made at Longy, where the group is Faculty Ensemble-in-Residence.

Cover of the Neave Trio’s Her Voice album (courtesy of Jensen Artists)

This new program will revisit two selections from this months’ earlier concert and two from Her Voice, the latest album that Neave recorded for Chandos Records. The latter will be devoted to two of the three women composers represented on the album, the Opus 150 trio by Amy Beach and the trio by Rebecca Clarke. The “revisited” selections will extend the theme of women composers, beginning with Clara Schumann’s Opus 17 trio in G minor and concluding with Jennifer Higdon’s trio, whose two movements are entitled “Pale Yellow” and “Fiery Red.”

The program will be streamed on Tuesday, November 10. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. (Pacific Time, since it will be broadcast from Idaho). There will be no charge for admission, and no advance registration will be required. The Auditorium Chamber Music Series has created a Web page that will host the streaming. In addition, the Series has its own Facebook page, which will also host the video stream.

SFCM Cello Students in Recital

Last night the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) presented a live-stream of a recital shared by four students in the cello department. The program, which was provided on the Vimeo Web page hosting the stream (and now hosting the recorded version of the performance), made no mention of the graduating year of each of the students; and, even more disappointingly, the names of the accompanying pianists were omitted. Apparently, “virtual” programs have not yet caught up to the past standards of program sheets, at least where students are concerned.

Over the past years I have taken different approaches to writing about student recitals. I feel that, since SFCM is an educational institution, it makes sense to keep track of what the students are doing, rather than focus entirely on faculty. At the same time, I have always tended to approach student recitals as works-in-progress, even when considerable progress may be appreciated. As a result I tend to pay more attention to repertoire choices, rather than diving into details of technique and expressiveness.

From that point of view, the high point of last night was the decision by Federico Strand Ramirez to play the first movement of William Walton’s cello concerto. Walton wrote this piece on a commission by Gregor Piatigorsky, who gave the world premiere performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch on January 25, 1957. RCA then arranged recording sessions in Boston’s Symphony Hall; and that recording is included in the Gregor Piatigorsky: The Art of the Cello anthology.

Listening to Ramirez’ interpretation of the first movement, I found myself wondering why there have been so few occasions to encounter either performances or recordings of this concerto. The thematic material is boldly expressive, while affording many opportunities for technical display. My only real regret was that the execution was limited to accompaniment by piano. Walton had a keen ear for instrumental coloration, and his technical skill is immediately evident in the opening measures that precede the cello’s entrance. I was thus left hoping that Ramirez would not only extend his mastery to the entire concerto but also have the opportunity to play it with the Conservatory Orchestra.

The other concerto on last night’s program was given a “tag team” approach. Abigail Monroe played the opening movement of Robert Schumann’s Opus 129 concerto in A minor, and Daniel Yoo played the remaining two movements. One could appreciate the technical skills of both students, but there was a sense that both of them were still coming to terms with how to approach the often erratic qualities of the composer’s expressiveness. More straightforward was Julian Bennett’s account of the first movement of César Franck’s FWV 8 sonata in A major, originally composed for violin.

Where disappointments are concerned, I prefer not to call out students by name. Suffice it to say that the Courante movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1010 solo cello suite in E-flat major was the least satisfying account of the evening. Regular readers of this site should know by now my conviction that, whenever Bach wrote a dance movement, he had a clear sense of the steps of that dance in the back of his head. While we may never know just what those steps were, the approach to rhythm in the execution of this movement was not even a vague hypothesis of what those steps could be. All that mattered was putting out a convincing execution of each of the notes. On that account, however, there was disappointment in the lack of any awareness of the underlying bass line, even if most of the notes of that line were implicit.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Ballet Created Around Cinematic Technique

Turner Classic Movies now has rights to the digital restoration of one of the most imaginative films structured around ballet choreography. The restoration began at the UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) Film and Television Archive in 2006 and was first screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. The film, for those that have not yet guessed, is The Red Shoes, first released in both the United Kingdom and the United States in 1948.

The overall plot was basically an extended trope on the Hans Christian Andersen tale with the same title. At the core of the narrative is the creation and performance of a ballet based on that tale. That narrative, in turn, is embedded in a narrative of the tension between devotion to one’s art and devotion to other people. That “outer narrative” tends to be melodramatic unto an extreme; but the ballet itself marked a significant turning point in cinematography.

The most important characteristic is that the choreography conceived by Léonide Massine can never be executed on the stage. There are too many cinematic effects that define and advance the narrative that are far beyond mere gimmickry. This should not be surprising. The premise behind the original tale is basically supernatural: shoes that turn the dancer into their vehicle, rather than the other way around. Thus, the narrative can advance smoothly across physically impossible events without the viewer feeling that (s)he is viewing mere special effects.

In that respect the restoration of the original stock is more than just a matter of dutifully cleaning up decayed media. In the restored version, the viewer can more readily give in to the world of illusion on film that goes far beyond what one can expected from dancers on a theater stage. One can also appreciate how ballet dancers that were not particularly familiar with movie-making (specifically, Moira Shearer as the girl in the red shoes, Massine as the shoemaker, and Robert Helpmann in roles of several men she encounters) knew how to synthesize the two art forms:

Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, and Léonide Massine in the final episode of the “Red Shoes” ballet (image for a publicity still for The Red Shoes film, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Many viewers are likely to find the narrative in which the ballet is embedded to be a bit on the hokey side, but the restoration of the entire film allows for much richer opportunities to appreciate Massine’s talents as both choreographer and dancer.

Sarah Cahill’s Plans for Remainder of Year

Sarah Cahill (courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Pianist Sarah Cahill has planned an active and diverse schedule for the last two months of this year. Two of the events have already been cited in earlier articles, but one of those citations has been updated. Each date will have its own hyperlink to the Web page that will provide access to the video stream of Cahill’s performance. Specifics are as follows:

Sunday, November 15, 2 p.m.: Cahill will be one of the performers in the performance celebrating the 50th anniversary of Old First Concerts (O1C). The entire program will begin at 2 p.m., and all the details have not yet been finalized. Thus, as of now, the time of Cahill’s performance has not yet been provided. However, her contribution to the program will consist of the chaconne that Sofia Gubaidulina composed as a student in 1962, which I first encountered when Cahill played it in her program Chaconnes, Revisited, which she prepared for a San Francisco Performances Salon at the Hotel Rex in December of 2016.

Friday, November 20, 11:45 a.m.: Cahill will “perform remotely” at next month’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Her program will consist entirely of compositions she has been playing as part of her The Future is Female project. The selections will be Deirdre Gribbin’s “Unseen,” Annea Lockwood’s “Ear-Walking Woman,” Theresa Wong’s “She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees” (inspired by Nina Simone’s song “Images”), Maria de Alvear’s “Intenso,” Aida Shirazi’s “Albumblatt,” and the third étude in the Estudios entre preludios (études between preludes) collection composed by Gabriela Ortiz. Note the “local time,” scheduled for an evening performance at Huddersfield!

Friday, December 4, 5 p.m.: This will be Cahill’s contribution to the fall schedule of the Piano Break recital series, presented under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation. As previously announced, she will feature the premiere performance of Piano Poems by Regina Harris Baoicchi, musical reflections on poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright. The program will also include “Summer Days,” which Cahill performed for O1C this past October 11. For the remainder of the program, she will play Aida Shirazi’s “Albumblatt,” and George Lewis’ “Endless Shout.”

Sunday, December 13, 2 p.m.: Cahill will present her Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The program will feature the premiere performance of “Up,” composed by SFCM alumnus Riley Nicholson (class of ’16). Nicholson scored this piece for two pianos, and Cahill will be joined by pianist and alumna Regina Myers (class of ’05). In addition, Cahill will revisit both “Albumblatt” and “Endless Shout.” The program will also include Reena Esmail’s “Rang de Basant” and Regina Harris Baiocchi’s Piano Poems.

Saturday, December 19, 7:30 p.m.: Cahill will close out the year with her next The Future is Female recital, which will also be her third concert for the Community School of Music and Arts. The title of this particular program will be Celebration of the Centennial of the 19th Amendment. The program has not been finalized; but the composers whose works will be performed will include Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Florence Price, and Teresa Carreño.

Monday, October 26, 2020

SFS to Showcase Collaborative Partners

Readers may recall that when it was announced that Esa-Pekka Salonen would become the next San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Music Director as of this past September, he planned to bring a new artistic leadership model to his tenure. Key to that model was the naming of eight Collaborative Partners, representing a wide variety of cultural disciplines. Those Partners and the scopes of their respective talents are as follows:

  1. pianist, film producer, and composer of award-winning film scores, Nicholas Britell
  2. soprano and curator, Julia Bullock, who has made social consciousness and activism fundamental to her work
  3. flutist, educator, and advocate for new and experimental music, Claire Chase
  4. composer, new music curator, and member of The National, Bryce Dessner
  5. violinist, musical director, and artistic trailblazer, Pekka Kuusisto
  6. composer and genre-breaking collaborator, Nico Muhly
  7. artificial intelligence entrepreneur and roboticist, Carol Reiley
  8. jazz bassist and vocalist, esperanza spalding.

To introduce these Partners to the Bay Area community, SFS commissioned Muhly to compose a work that SFS would perform to introduce them all. The result was “Throughline,” structured as thirteen interconnected sections. Eight of the movements would feature individual partners. Most of them would provide either instrumental or vocal performance, but Reiley co-composed her movement with Muhly. In addition, each movement would highlight a small ensemble of SFS musicians.

Nico Muhly conducting “Throughline” in Davies Symphony Hall (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Under current pandemic conditions, the performance of “Throughline” has been realized through filming and recording. The Collaborative Partners were geographically distributed as follows:

  1. Britell played piano in Los Angeles.
  2. Bullock sang in Munich.
  3. Chase played flute in New York.
  4. Dessner played guitar in Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle (in France).
  5. Kuusisto played violin in Helsinki.
  6. spalding contributed bass and vocal work in northern Oregon, composing her respective movement.
  7. Muhly conducted in Davies Symphony Hall.

(Reiley’s work on contributing to the score was not filmed.) In addition, Salonen was filmed in Finland.

The result will be given its first public performance as a broadcast on Public Television station KQED. It will be part of a concert program that will include four other compositions:

  1. SFS percussionists will play Ellen Reid’s “Fear / Release.”
  2. Kev Choice and his musicians will be joined by AÏMA the DRMR and SFS musicians in a performance of “Movements,” commissioned by SFS and released as part of the CURRENTS series.
  3. The string quartet of violinists Chen Zhao and David Chernyavsky, violist David Kim, and cellist Anne Pinsker will play the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 95 string quartet in F minor.
  4. Salonen will conduct seven SFS string players in a performance of the “Shaking and Trembling” movement from John Adams’ Shaker Loops.

KQED will broadcast this program, entitled Throughline: San Francisco Symphony—From Hall to Home at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 14. The video will also be available for streaming through a Web page on the SFS Web site. That video will be available for on-demand viewing following the initial live-stream presentation. Finally, the local NBC channel will re-broadcast the concert at 7 p.m. on Monday, November 30.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

SF Music Day: First Three Offerings

Today is SF Music Day 2020; and, as I write this, I have just experienced the first three of the ten performances scheduled for the afternoon. Rather than treat this as a “live” concert experience, InterMusic SF made the judicious decision to pre-record all ten of the performances. All of the recordings were made on the stage of Herbst Theatre, one of the four venues in the Veterans Building that has hosted SF Music Day performances in the past. Because the performances were pre-recorded, it was easier for the entire production to keep to its schedule and not have to worry about how much time is required for one group to clear the stage before the next one enters with its necessary gear. I shall now account for the performances I experienced in the order in which I encountered them.

One reason that I wanted to “begin at the beginning” was that the schedule opened with the Telegraph Quartet, whose members are violinists Joseph Maile (taking first chair on this occasion) and Eric Chin, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw. They revisited one of the selections from the program they presented at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) a little over a week ago, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opus 34 (third) quartet. Korngold was born in Moravia but made a name for himself while still a child prodigy in Vienna. He was able to escape the Nazi invasion of Austria-Hungary thanks to the stage director Max Reinhardt, who brought Korngold to Southern California to write film scores.

According to Maile, Korngold refused to return to the composition of “serious” music until Hitler had been defeated. As a result Opus 34 was composed in 1945, the same year as his Opus 35 violin concerto, which was subsequently recorded by Jascha Heifetz. While he used Opus 35 to reflect playfully on many of the motifs of his film scores, Korngold gave Opus 34 a more “formal” treatment, with intense rhetoric behind the thematic material of the quartet’s four movements. Listening to the quartet earlier this month was an exciting and revelatory experience; and, through the freshness that Telegraph brought to their execution, the “second time around” was just as stimulating, if not more so.

Telegraph was followed by a Latin jazz trio led by Ricardo Peixoto playing a seven-string acoustic (but amplified) guitar. He was joined by Marcos Silva on piano and Brian Rice on percussion. Four of the selections were composed by Peixoto along with one by Silva entitled “Not Enough Notes.” (That one left me wondering whether there might be hidden reference to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.) The set also included “Surfboard,” one of the less familiar compositions by Antônio Carlos Jobim. The entire set made for a refreshing contrast with the post-War dispositions of Korngold’s quartet. All six trio selections were entirely “in the moment;” and Peixoto could not have been more generous is allowing both Silva and Rice to take their own solo turns.

from the Program Book for SF Music Day 2020

The pendulum then took a swing back in the opposite direction, this time reaching into the nineteenth century. The trio of violinist Tom Stone, pianist Elizabeth Dorman, and cellist Amos Yang played Johannes Brahms’ Opus 8 (first) piano trio in B major. Stone introduced the performance, noting that he had been playing chamber music with Yang (now best known for his membership in the San Francisco Symphony) for a fair amount of time. When it came to deciding to play a trio, however, Dorman was new to the group.

That factor would probably have been more evident to those that spend a lot of time listening to chamber music; but, for better or worse, I happen to be one of those listeners. As a result I found myself approaching this particular reading of Opus 8 as “work in progress.” Each of the three performers had a solid command of interpreting the marks on the score pages. Nevertheless, when it came to assembling all the pieces, it seemed as if each player was still establishing orientation with the other two. As a result the reading of Opus 8 was a well-organized parade of notes, but the rhetoric behind all of those notes had not yet established itself.

While there is little to generalize over these three offerings, I want to make it a point to recognize the high quality of both audio and video recording in all of these performances. Microphone placement could not have been better, probably meaning that any mixing could be kept to a minimum. None of the problems with video work for the Telegraph Quartet at SFCM were evident. Instead of too much jumping from one camera angle to another, all the video cues were helpful in guiding the ear through Korngold’s polyphony. Camera work for both Peixoto’s trio and the Brahms performers was equally conducive to a satisfying listening experience.

Barbirolli at Hallé: English Composers

As previously observed, I am continuing my examination of the collection Sir John Barbirolli: The Complete Warner Recordings by writing about his long-playing recordings of British orchestral compositions made with the Hallé Orchestra. This is far from a comprehensive survey. Barbirolli clearly had favorites, several of which have both monaural and stereo recordings. Among those favorites, the most attention goes to Edward Elgar, whom Barbirolli presumably knew, since both of them served as guest conductors of the Hallé Orchestra at the same time (when Hamilton Harty was conducting overseas). A fair amount of attention is given to Frederick Delius, who was basically Elgar’s contemporary, and the somewhat more recent Ralph Vaughan Williams. There are then “assorted others,” including two suites that Barbirolli himself arranged based on early English music (both of which he had recorded with the New York Philharmonic when he was leading that ensemble).

One cannot quibble over Barbirolli making multiple recordings of Elgar compositions. He always seemed to find new approaches to the scores. Thus, I have no problems with there being two different recordings of both of the symphonies (Opus 55 in A-flat major and Opus 63 in E-flat major), as well as the Opus 47 Allegro movement for strings (with an introduction). (However, the second recording of Opus 55 was made with the Philharmonia Orchestra, rather than the Hallé.) Most interesting, however, is the “bonus” CD releasing a “live” recording of a performance of the second part of the Opus 38 oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. This may have been previously unpublished due to flaws in both the recording conditions and the omission of the opening three measures of one of the arias. Nevertheless, even as an excerpt, this is probably the largest-scale Elgar selection in the collection; and it is definitely worthy of attentive listening.

The Vaughan Williams selections are much more modest. Nevertheless, there are two recordings of his second (“London”) symphony, along with single recordings of the seventh (“Sinfonia antartica”) and the eighth in D minor. The seventh is particularly notable, since the recording was made about six months after Barbirolli conducted the world premiere performance with soprano soloist Margaret Ritchie; and the recording includes all the resources from the Hallé premiere. If I have any quibble with Barbirolli’s Vaughan Williams repertoire, it is the absence of a complete recording of the “Aristophanic Suite,” whose movements were originally composed for a staging of The Wasps. The overture is wonderfully witty, and Barbirolli’s account clearly honors that wit. However, there is plenty of humor in some of the other movements of the suite, particularly the “March Past of the Kitchen Utensils,” which I very much missed.

Delius has fallen so far out of fashion that, according to my records, my only experience of his music in concert took place in September of 2013, when Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) decided to prepare a large collection of “miniatures” for performance by the San Francisco Symphony. The Delius selection was “On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring,” in which it is not difficult to detect the cuckoo’s song. That piece was recorded twice by Barbirolli, which probably affirms its past popularity. However, the composer had a far richer catalog, which included influences of time that he spent in the United States (in the state of Florida). While I tend to prefer Delius in small doses, I definitely appreciated than Barbirolli made a much better case for him than MTT did.

The remaining selections make for an appealing assortment. Readers may recall yesterday’s observation of my knowing Arnold Bax primarily through his orchestral tone poems. Barbirolli recorded two of them, “The Garden of Fand” and “Tintagel,” both of which are representative of the composer’s expressiveness in this genre. However, beyond any further specific details, Barbirolli knew how to cut to the core of the musical culture of his homeland at a time when most audiences preferred what they could get from Europe. I anticipate that, in the future, I shall be taking the time to revisit many of the recordings in this category of Barbirolli’s catalog.

Old First Concerts: November, 2020

As of this writing, it appears that Old First Concerts (O1C) has planned only three events for next month. However, one of them will be the celebration of the series’ 50th anniversary with a “virtual gala.” Another will be the rescheduling of a performance originally planned for the beginning of the current month. All events will continue to be live-streamed through YouTube. As usual, any changes in current plans will be updated through both this Web page and the Facebook shadow site. Specifics are as follows:

Friday, November 13, 8 p.m.: This is the program that had originally been scheduled for the beginning of this month. The Circadian String Quartet, whose members are violinists Monika Gruber and David Ryther, violist Omid Assadi, and cellist David Wishnia, have prepared what might be called a “Debussy++” program. The principal offering will be a performance of that composer’s only string quartet. However, by way of an “overture,” Ryther has prepared string quartet arrangements of three of Debussy's solo piano preludes: “Ondine,” “Des pas sur la neige” (footprints in the snow), and “La danse de Puck.”

Sunday, November 15, 2 p.m.: O1C will celebrate its 50th anniversary by showcasing some of the favorite musicians that have performed for the series. Live performances from the space will be interleaved with pre-recorded performances made especially for the occasion. Details have not yet been finalized.

Friday, November 20, 8 p.m.: Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) will launch its 2020/21 season with an O1C offering. The group is a trio consisting of soprano Nanette McGuinness and cellist Anne Lerner. For the current season their pianist will be guest artist Margaret Halbig. The title of their O1C program is Old Becomes New. It will be present music by living composers inspired by older forms, styles, and themes, taking something old and refashioning it into something brand new. Composer Dalit Warshaw will appear as guest pianist, performing her “Winter Dream (in memoriam Charlotte Salomon)” through a live-stream from New York City. There will also be world premiere performances of two commissioned works by Mary Bianco and the California premiere of “Through the Guarded Gate,” a setting of poetry by Margaret Widdemer composed for soprano and piano by Juliana Hall. Other contributing composers will be Marti Epstein, John Musto, Alden Jenks, Grigory Smirnov, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Steven Stucky, Tan Dun, Pablo Ortiz, and Garner.

Mills Music Now Presents Pamela Z

Last night Mills Music Now presented a solo program of Pamela Z performing nine of her compositions. This was the second in a monthly series of concerts presented by the Mills College Music Department and the Center for Contemporary Music under the general title Mills Music Now. (The first of these concerts was reported on this site.)

Z’s program involved compositions for voice, real-time electronic processing, sampled sounds, wireless gesture controllers, and interactive video. One piece was based entirely on a “found object.” “Rotary Telephone” involved Z evoking a diversity of imaginative sounds from a telephone that probably dated from the Fifties with its plastic cover removed. My guess is that the object was entirely alien to most of the audience, leaving recognition only to those of my generation that still remember the sounds it made.

I was particularly struck by the imaginative ways in which Z used video, going beyond much of what I had seen her perform in concert:

screen shot from the performance being discussed

It was clear that the lighting designed for each selection was as important as the music; and even the ceiling lamp (shown in the above image) appeared as if it had been designed for the occasion. In addition to imaginative contrasts of light and shadow, there were a variety of images reflecting past inventive acts, such as the projection of the work of Marcel Duchamp included in the above screen shot.

The only shortcoming was that the video itself did not identify the individual compositions by name. (Since all of the pieces unfolded in a continuous flow, this would have been handled best by subtitles.) Given how much there was to engage attention over the entire program, this is a minor cavil. The list of titles can be found on the Web page for the concert; and, of this writing, the video is available for replay on that Web page. The video itself includes about half an hour of “wait for it” slides about the Mills series, meaning that the performance is found only on the last 40 minutes. Visitors are encouraged to fish around for where the actual content begins. Once found, all of that content will make for a thoroughly absorbing experience of both audio and video.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Center for New Music: November, 2020

The Center for New Music (C4NM) seems to be progressing towards developing monthly schedules. Readers may recall that, when I tried to write about this month’s C4NM plans, I began with a list of two items, deleted one, and added another. Granted, every day is still Anything Can Happen Day (for those that remember the weekly occasion offered by Walt Disney); but, as of this writing, C4NM has plans for four programs during the month of November. All of them will be live-streamed.

Those concerts for which admission will be charged will provide information about the streaming source as in the past: All tickets must be purchased 45 minutes prior to performance. 30 minutes before the performance begins, all ticket-holders will receive electronic mail with a link to the YouTube Web page through which the performance will be streamed. For the free concerts, the same procedure may take place through a donation Web page; or, possibly, the link will simply be added to the Center for New Music YouTube Web page. The events currently planned for next month are as follows with hyperlinks to their respective Web pages:

from the Web page

  • Saturday, November 7, 8 p.m.: This program will be shared by two solo pianists. Janis Mercer will play selections from her new CD commemorating the 75th anniversary of the death of Anton Webern. These will include short works taken from The Kinderstück Project, music composed used the twelve-tone row taken from Webern’s 1924 “Kinderstück” (see above). Contributing composers will be Brian Belet, Pablo Furman, Donivan Johnson, and Martha Stoddard. William Sorenson will then play Roger Sessions’ first piano sonata and Igor Stravinsky’s 1919 “Piano-Rag-Music.” Tickets will be sold for $15 for general admission and a $1 rate for C4NM members and students. There is currently a hyperlink for online purchase.
  • Friday, November 13, 8 p.m.: Flutist (and former C4NM curator) Meerenai Shim will give a solo recital. She will premiere her own graphic score composition “On All Sides” and also give the first performance of “Wings to Air,” composed by Andrea Reinkemeyer and dedicated to Natalie Haworth-Liu, who commissioned the work. She will also perform solo compositions by Alice Jones, Janice Misurell-Mitchell, and Adolphus C. Hailstork. Tickets will be sold for $15 for general admission and a $1 rate for C4NM members and students. There is currently a hyperlink for online purchase.
  • Sunday, November 15, 8 p.m.: Tom Nunn will return to C4NM to perform on his invented instruments. On this occasion he will be accompanying six solo dances performed by Christina Braun. Underlying the dance and music is the idea of chaos and our human response to it. Instruments newly born and without a history offer a unique “field of play” where the random can subvert the purpose. Improvised dance born from Butoh and the modern dance techniques of Isadora Duncan may express intention emerging from chaos. There will be no charge for admission for this performance. However, a donation of between $10 and $20 is suggested, all of which will be split between C4NM and the artists. [added 11/4, 5:45 p.m.
  • Saturday, November 21, 8 p.m.: The San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Association of Composers/USA (NACUSA) will present a program entitled New Music for Strings & Piano. The program will consist of new duo and trio works by eight West Coast composers Adrienne Albert (“Musescape”), Davide Verotta (“Asynchronous”), John Beeman (“Luminosity”), Joanne Carey (second piano trio), Sheli Nan (“Awaken”), Karl Schmidt (“Interlude”), Allan Crossman (“Frequent Flyer”), and John Bilotta (“Sass”). All performances will be by three members of the Ives Collective: Susan Freier (violin and viola), Stephen J. Harrison (cello), and Lori Lack (piano). There will be no charge for admission, but donations to NACUSAsf are encouraged.]
  • Saturday, November 28, 8 p.m.: This will be a pre-recorded broadcast through the C4NM YouTube Live channel. The Friction Quartet of violinists Otis Harriel and Kevin Rogers, violist Lucia Kobza, and cellist Doug Machiz will showcase some of the new works by Bay Area composers that were originally planned to be performed this past October 17. The composers whose works will be presented will be Monica Chew, Allan Crossman, Davide Verotta, and Shawne Workman. The concert will be free, but donations to C4NM are suggested and encouraged.

Discovering Viola Repertoire at O1C

Violist Aaron Rosengaus and pianist Jennifer Lee (from the Web page for last night’s concert)

Last night’s live-streamed recitalist in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series was violist Aaron Rosengaus. He was accompanied at the piano by Jennifer Lee. The title of his program was The English Viola. More specifically, he presented five compositions, all by British composers and all composed during the first half of the twentieth century. The program was structured in such a way that all five pieces were played in chronological order. Rosengaus also cited which of the compositions had been written for Lionel Tertis, generally acknowledged as one of the first violists to make a career as a recitalist. By way of disclaimer, I should note that all five of these compositions were “first encounter” experiences for me. The video stream has now been archived and may be viewed through a YouTube Web page.

The program included two thee-movement sonatas by Arnold Bax (1922) and Julius Harrison (1945), respectively. My knowledge of Bax was limited almost entirely to his orchestral tone poems known for their rich instrumentation. It is thus worth noting that the sonata he wrote for Tertis was just as abundant in expressive rhetoric, even in the absence of any narrative framework. As a result, there were at least hints of the dramatic in the ways in which the sonata unfolded the rich diversity of viola sonorities, even in the absence of any narrative framework. The same could be said of the Harrison sonata and the expressiveness of Rosengaus’ interpretation, but the overall architecture was not as tightly-knit as it was in the Bax sonata.

Each sonata was preceded by a shorter composition by Rebecca Clarke. Back when she taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, violist Jodi Levitz would sometimes use her Faculty Artist Series recitals to introduce listeners to Clarke. Nevertheless, both of Rosengaus’ selections were new to me, “Morpheus” (1917) preceding Bax and “Passacaglia on an Old English Tune” (1941) preceding Harrison. Both of these were written during the two respective World Wars, and the second was written at a time when Clarke’s plans to return to English were thwarted. The “tune” of the latter was Thomas Tallis’ “Come Creator,” which lent itself perfectly to the passacaglia rhetoric. “Morpheus,” on the other hand, was a tone poem in miniature that marked the richness of Clarke’s capacity for expressiveness.

The program began with two short pieces, composed in 1908 by Frank Bridge on a commission by Tertis. Bridge tends to be better known as Benjamin Britten’s teacher, rather than for his own achievements. (Bridge was also a major influence on Clarke.) It was impressive how much expressiveness he could pack into his brevity. Rosengaus definitely knew how to seize audience attention by beginning with these pieces, which set the mood for the diversity of expressive compositions that would follow.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Piano Talks: Remainder of 2020

Having caught up with the monthly Piano Talks series with Sarah Cahill’s performance at the end of last month, presented by the Ross McKee Foundation and arranged by Executive Director Nicholas Pavkovic, I can now account for the programs in this monthly series for the remainder of the year. This offering was conceived not only to provide unique perspectives on the piano repertoire but also to examine the life and work of pianists, not only as performers but also as teachers. Each event begins at 7 p.m. with a duration between 40 and 60 minutes, and will it be live-streamed through the Ross McKee YouTube channel. After the performance the video is then archived on the YouTube Piano Talks 2020 playlist. The dates and content for the remaining three months of this year are as follows:

October 27: Peter Susskind will present a lecture entitled The Russian Tradition. He will review the achievements of the great Russian piano teachers of the nineteenth century. Those achievements will be framed in terms of their impact on students of these teachers that performed through the middle of the twentieth century. The teachers and students to be discussed will include Anton Rubinstein, Nikolai Rubinstein, Josef Lhévinne, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Shura Cherkassky, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, and Sviatoslav Richter. To that list will be added two significant Poles, Artur Rubinstein and Mieczysław Horszowski. Susskind will supplement this content with both recordings and videos.

November 24: Carl Blake will prepare a “showcase” solo piano recital entitled Buried Treasures: Piano Music by Black and Non-Black Composers. The former category will be represented by composers dating as far back as the eighteenth century. These include the Chevalier de Saint Georges (known by his contemporaries as “the Black Mozart”) ), Blind Tom (an ex-slave), Nathaniel Dett (Black Canadian-American), Margaret Bonds (Harlem and Chicago Renaissance pianist and composer), Jacqueline Hairston (distinguished local African-American pianist and composer), and Richard Thompson (Black English folk rock composer and performer). Composers in the latter category influenced by Black cultural and musical traditions will include Claude Debussy, Jean Sibelius, George Gershwin, Federico Mompou, and Astor Piazzolla.

December 29: December will be the month of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Conductor Teddy Abrams will present a program entitled 250 Years of Beethoven. His talk will address issues of what it means to perform Beethoven’s music today. He will address questions such as the following: How do we experience Beethoven in the context of our modern world? How do his timeless messages resonate today? Further details will be forthcoming. 

Hyperion to Release Latest BWV 988 Recording

courtesy of PIAS

Those that have been following this site regularly may have noticed that Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of “Goldberg” variations has received a generous amount of attention since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless I am mistaken, my first encounter with the music under “shelter-in-place conditions” came from pianist Anyssa Neumann, who took a one-day-at-a-time approach to making YouTube videos of each of the variations, after which all of the recordings were compiled into a single YouTube Playlist. My own listening was also guided by two major anthologies of recordings of past pianists, Peter Serkin and Glenn Gould (both of whom released two different recordings of their performances of BWV 988). Lang Lang then did the same thing, releasing an album with recordings of both a studio performance and a recital at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked as Kapellmeister (music director) from 1723 until his death in 1750. Most recently (about a month and a half ago) I found myself listening to an arrangement of BWV 988 for solo harp prepared and performed by Parker Ramsay. Ironically, over all these months, I have yet to write about a performance of this music on an instrument that would have been played during Bach’s lifetime!

The latest release to come my way brings another pianist into the fold. Hyperion has recorded a performance of BWV 988 by Siberian-born pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, now based in London. The album is scheduled for release one week from today; and, as expected, now has a Web page for processing pre-orders. What makes this new release interesting is the set of circumstances behind Kolesnikov’s decision to perform this music. Having created choreography for Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos, the dancer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker decided that her next project would be BWV 988; and she invited Kolesnikov to work with her.

I do not know very much about De Keersmaeker; but, on the basis of her Wikipedia page, she certainly strikes me as an adventurous choreographer. However, there is no indication of whether, when she decided to embark on her BWV 988 project, she was aware of the choreography that Jerome Robbins had created, which was first performed by the New York City Ballet in May of 1971. I remember seeing that ballet shortly after its opening. Unless I am mistaken, the music was performed by an on-stage pianist. The choreography was not particularly compelling and seemed to lack the “musical awareness” that one could find in George Balanchine’s approach to Bach in his “Concerto Barocco” ballet. Indeed, I wondered if Robbins shared my own sense of fatigue as he worked his way through the last half-dozen variations. After a good night’s sleep, I found myself thinking about the film The Spirit of St. Louis and the fatigue that began to take hold of Charles Lindbergh in that seeming-eternity of time before he finally saw European soil!

Obviously, the new Kolesnikov album does not occupy the listener with how De Keersmaeker managed to fill that same amount of time with her own choreography. However, I was definitely struck by his admission that, prior to De Keersmaeker’s invitation, he had very little knowledge of the music and no experience in trying to play it. As a result, his recording is very much a document of how he found his own way; and his notes for the accompanying booklet state that, in preparing for performance, “I had no choice but to build the piece anew, to the best of my own humble knowledge and understanding.”

That decision suggests a rejection of the possibility of standing on the shoulders of giants; and, on the basis of that metaphor, I came away from this recording feeling that Kolesnikov never managed to see very far into the distance. The good news is that one can appreciate a sense of spontaneity in his approach to each of the variations. The bad news is that, in the absence of any underlying structure to unify the whole experiences, he runs the risk of giving in to the same sort of fatigue that undid Robbins.

Many readers probably know by now that my own “orientation” for any journey through BWV 988 was supplied by pianist András Schiff, who believed that the “journey” through the composition was “guided,” from beginning to end, by the bass line. In that context I would say that Kolesnikov’s attention to the bass line was a “sometime thing.” As a result, one is likely to be more satisfied with “piecemeal” listening, allowing any individual variation to speak for itself, rather than worrying about how it fits into the overall architecture. To be fair, this was probably how the insomniac Count Hermann Karl von Kaiserling listened to the music that Johann Gottlieb Goldberg played for him.

I must confess that current conditions have led to my own bouts with insomnia recently. I tend to deal with them through either my SiriusXM subscription or the Music Choice channels provided by my xfinity subscription. Perhaps on one of those occasions I shall encounter Kolesnikov’s recording and decide whether he has evoked a suitable “Goldberg experience.”

Thursday, October 22, 2020

SFO Announces November Video Streams

The month of November will see San Francisco Opera (SFO) stream performances of five of its productions through its Opera is ON service, beginning with the final weekend of this month, which couples the last day of October with the first day of November. As with the previous offerings, each will become available on Saturday at 10 a.m.; and free access will expire and the end of the following day. Each video will then be added to the archive available to subscribers and those that have donated $75 or more. Specifics for the five new offerings are as follows:

October 31: Readers may recall that, this coming Sunday evening, SFO will offer its first-ever operatic drive-in event, presented at the Fort Mason Flix Drive-In. The opera for this occasion will be Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and the projection will present a video recorded during the 2008 Spring Season. This same video will be streamed by Opera is ON during the following weekend of October 31 and November 1. The production, originally staged at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale in Florence by Graham Vick and brought to San Francisco by Marco Gandini, presented the SFO debut of soprano Natalie Dessay in the title role. Casting also included tenor Giuseppe Filianoti in the role of Lucia’s beloved Edgardo Ravenswood and baritone Gabriele Viviani as her brother Enrico Ashton, making his United States opera debut. The conductor was Jean-Yves Ossonce, making his United State debut. The running time of the opera will be approximately two and one-half hours.

November 7: This will be a video recording of the most recent SFO production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (a masked ball) in October of 2014. This will be the version set in 1792 in Stockholm, Sweden, as opposed to the less politically controversial version set in Boston in the period leading up to the American Revolution. The production marked the SFO debut of soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, a Merola Opera Program alumna, in the role of Amelia. Amelia is the wife of a jealous husband, Count Anckarström, sung by baritone Thomas Hampson. She is being pursued by Gustavo (Gustavus III, Kind of Sweden), sung by tenor Ramón Vargas. Staging was by Director Jose Maria Condemi, and the conductor was Nicola Luisotti. Running time will be approximately two and one-quarter hours.

November 14: This will be the first SFO performance of the original 1869 version of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, performed during the fall of 2008 The title character will be sung by bass Samuel Ramey. The staging was conceived by Stein Winge for the Grand Théâtre de Genève and staged in San Francisco by Julia Pevzner, making her Company debut. Similarly, this marked the first time that Vassily Sinaisky served as conductor for an SFO production. Running time will be approximately two and one-half hours.

November 21: Harry Silverstein’s staging of Verdi’s Rigoletto has become a major SFO favorite, particularly due to Michael Yeargan’s striking sets, which evoke the images of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. The performances in September of 2012 were double-cast. In the video that will be presented, the title role was taken by Serbian baritone Željko Lučić. The role of his daughter Gilda was sung by Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak. Filling out what may be the most famous quartet in the Italian opera repertoire will be Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as the Duke of Mantua and Adler Fellow mezzo Kendall Gladen as Maddalena. Luisotti will again be the conductor, and the duration will be approximately two hours.

November 28: After four dramatically intense productions, the month will conclude with Gaetano Donizetti’s delightful comedy L’elisir d’amore (the elixir of love). Director James Robinson transported the setting from the Basque region of the eighteenth-century to Napa Valley on the eve of World War I. The video was recorded during the fall of 2008, which was the last time this opera was performed by SFO. Albanian soprano Inva Mula made her SFO debut in the role of Adina, complemented by Vargas as the love-smitten Nemorino. Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli sang the role of Dr Dulcamara, purveyor of the elixir that is supposed to allow Nemorino to win Adina’s heart. The conductor was Bruno Campanella, and the duration will be approximately two and one-quarter hours.

Access to free streaming is enabled through the SFO home page. For those interested in viewing any of the Opera is ON productions after free access has been terminated, there is a log-in Web page for donors and subscribers. There is also a Web page for those interested in becoming donors in order to benefit from full access to all available videos.