Thursday, October 21, 2021

Bleckmann Returns to Launch PIVOT Series

Last night vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann returned to Herbst Theatre to launch this season’s series of PIVOT Festival concerts presented by San Francisco Performances. Bleckmann made his SFP debut during the PIVOT Festival held at the end of January of 2020, less than two months before the onset of lockdown conditions. At that time he presented a program of poems by Bertolt Brecht set to music by Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill. Some readers may recall that I was not particularly taken with Bleckmann’s approaches to these composers, and I accused him of blunting Brecht’s sharp edges.

Last night’s program was “something completely different.” Almost all of the selections were Bleckmann’s own compositions, and his arrangements of the others were more compelling. The title of the program was Elegy, which was also the title of one of his songs. He described that song as speaking to “a yearning for those I have lost.” Indeed, the entire program seems to have been colored by retrospective impressions of the COVID-19 pandemic, which no one saw coming in January of 2020.

The instrumental accompaniment for the Elegy program was provided by a basic jazz quartet. The performers were Shai Maestro on piano, Ben Monder on guitar, Chris Tordini on bass, and John Hollenbeck on drums. Bleckmann’s microphone provided input to a small table’s worth of electronic gear. Many of his songs were wordless, devoted entirely to electronic transformations of a diversity of vocalizing techniques. Only three of the selections drew upon the music of other composers: Henry Purcell (“Dido’s Lament” from his opera Dido and Aeneas), Johann Sebastian Bach (two cantatas, BWV 56 and BWV 82), and Stephen Sondheim (“Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).

The entire program was performed without an intermission. While each song had its own unique qualities, there was very much a sense of Bleckmann weaving these selections from his repertoire into a unified fabric. He was also more than generous in sharing the spotlight with his instrumentalists. Monder’s guitar work frequently provided intense reflections of the emotional dispositions behind Bleckmann’s singing. Tordini found just the right mix of plucking and bowing to establish the “ground bass” for each of the songs. For the most part Hollenbeck provided the rhythmic foundations from the background. However, when Bleckmann introduced his solo work, Hollenbeck mined a rich diversity of sonorities from his extended drum kit.

I have to say that I was initially skeptical about Bleckmann taking on “Dido’s Lament.” Nahum Tate’s words are the last uttered by the Queen of Carthage after she has been abandoned by Aeneas. However, the “lament trope” of stepwise descent in the bass line is more universal than any specific narrative setting. Bleckmann clearly captured that universality, escalating the performance above the confines of any specific narrative. Nevertheless, narrative was implicit in his accounts, as it was with all of his other selections, including those that involved nothing more than abstract vocalization.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

IDAGIO to Stream Jonathan Biss Recital

Poster for pianist Jonathan Biss’ Performance Reimagined recital (photograph by Benjamin Ealovega, courtesy of Shuman Associates)

At the end of this month, IDAGIO’s Global Concert Hall will stream a recital by pianist Jonathan Biss as part of its Performance Reimagined virtual recital series. The program will begin with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 511 rondo in A minor, followed by the eighteen pieces that Robert Schumann collected under the title Davidsbündlertänze (dances of the league of David), his Opus 6, which he composed in 1837. The program will be presented in partnership with the WGBH Educational Foundation, the “parent organization” of the Boston-based public broadcasting group, home of the WGBH television channel.

The streaming service will launch at 1 p.m. (Pacific Time) on Saturday, October 30. The stream will then be available for on-demand viewing through January 29 of next year. The basic price of admission will be $5. However, the Web page for purchasing tickets allows the buyer to choose how much they want to pay. That amount will directly support the participating artist through IDAGIO’s Fair Artist Payout Model. Under that model, up to 80% of the net profits go directly to the performer. Furthermore, audio stream revenue is calculated not by stream but by the second, making for a much fairer remuneration model. An IDAGIO account is required for all purchases. That account is created at no charge, and the event page for this recital includes a hyperlink for creating the account. That page also has the necessary hyperlink for purchasing tickets.

Profil’s Anthology of Violinist Jacques Thibaud

courtesy of Naxos of America

Following up on this past Friday’s anthology of “early recordings” of lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Profil released a second anthology at the same time, the beginning of last month. This one consists of a six-CD collection devoted to recordings of the French violinist Jacques Thibaud. Thibaud’s recording history is relatively modest. He is probably best known for the recordings he made with cellist Pablo Casals and the trio the two of them formed with pianist Alfred Cortot.

Cortot figures heavily in this collection. In addition to his trio work, he also made duo recordings with Thibaud. As might be guessed, French composers figured significantly in Thibaud’s repertoire, both with Thibaud and other partners. The composers encountered on the first two CDs are, in “order of appearance,” César Franck, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Ernest Chausson, and Camille Saint-Saëns. This is followed by an “encores” CD with selections by Debussy, Fauré, and Saint-Saëns, as well as Maurice Ravel. There is also a “Spanish connection” on this CD involving Isaac Albéniz, Manuel de Falla, and Enrique Granados. The fourth and fifth CDs are devoted entirely to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, respectively; and the final CD is divided between Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.

I have to say that the most satisfying selections in this collection can also be found in the Casals anthology, The Complete Published EMI Recordings. Where issues of problematic tracks, such as those found on the Fischer-Dieskau anthology, arise, there seems to be only one serious defect. The slow movement of Robert Schumann’s Opus 63 trio in D minor was replaced by the opening movement of Schubert’s D. 898 (first) trio in B-flat major (which is also the first track of the CD). Needless to say, this problem cannot be found in the EMI anthology!

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

SFP to Launch Piano Series to End Month

Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki (from his SFP event page)

San Francisco Performances (SFP) will conclude the month of October by launching the 2021–2022 Piano Series. Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki, who made his San Francisco debut under the auspices of the former SFP Young Master Series in December of 2013, has prepared a program entitled Poems of the Night, devoted entirely to music by Frédéric Chopin. As might be expected, much of the program will be drawn from that composer’s nocturnes. Those nocturnes will be selected from five of the six published collections, Opus 9, Opus 15, Opus 27, Opus 32, Opus 48, and Opus 62 (only Opus 55 is missing), as well as two of the posthumously published nocturnes in the keys of C minor and C-sharp minor, respectively. These selections will be interleaved with the twelve études that Chopin collected for his Opus 10, performed in numerical order.

This program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 27. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel.

Ticket prices are $70 (premium Orchestra and front and center Dress Circle), $55 (remainder of Orchestra, all Side Boxes, and center rear Dress Circle), and $45 (remaining Dress Circle and Balcony); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page. Single tickets can also be purchased at the door as available with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors. Single tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

Finally, because this is the first program of the series, subscriptions are still on sale for $340 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $265 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $205 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may also be purchased online in advance through a different SFP Web page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325 (also different from the number for single tickets).

Monday, October 18, 2021

The Bleeding Edge: 10/18/2021

“Bleeding edge” events continue to be sparse, particularly within the San Francisco city limits. This week there is only one such offering. The good news is that it comes from Bird & Beckett Books and Records, which has definitely earned a reputation as a venue for those serious about listening to jazz. While the name of the shop is a clear nod to Charlie Parker, this week’s offering will follow up on the October 9 offering with more music by Thelonious Monk.

Poster design showing Nate Brenner, Ben Goldberg, and Scott Amendola above two Thelonious Monk album jackets and the Plays Monk CD (from the Bird & Beckett event page)

This will be the latest jazz club! offering. The performers will be clarinetist Ben Goldberg and Scott Amendola on drums and electronics. Like the October 9 gig, this will be a trio performance with bass provided by Nate Brenner. The program will celebrate the digital release of the album Plays Monk, which will take place this coming Friday. (The Plays Monk CD was released in 2009.) On the album Goldberg and Amendola are joined by Devin Hoff on bass. The content consists of ten tracks of Monk at different levels of familiarity, including “Four in One,” which I have always felt was the musical version of a brain twister. Once again, the performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 23. It will take place in the shop but will also be live-streamed to the Bird & Beckett sites on both YouTube and Facebook.

The shop is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station that serves both BART and Muni. For those planning to visit, doors will open at 7:15 p.m. There will be no charge for admission, but $20 will help pay the trio. There is also a donations Web page for those watching the live-stream. Given that only a limited number of people will be admitted, reservations are necessary and can be made by calling 415-586-3733. The phone will be answered during regular store hours, which are between noon and 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Sunday. Proof of vaccination will be required for entry, and masks will be necessary in the shop. Visitors may bring a beverage, as long as masks are lowered only for sipping.

Beethoven’s only Opera: “Prima la musica”

Drawing upon the frequently quoted words of Jane Austen, it is “a truth universally acknowledged” that Ludwig van Beethoven was never in his comfort zone when writing for the human voice. Indeed, the very idea of writing an opera was so frustrating that one of Beethoven’s letters refers to his efforts in composing his Opus 72 Fidelio amounting to a “shipwreck.” Indeed, when it came to finding music to set a text, whether a script for an entire opera or a familiar poem, Beethoven preferred to follow in the footsteps of his former teacher Antonio Salieri, who had composed a one-act opera entitled “Prima la musica e poi le parole” (first the music and then the words).

Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, it often seemed as if there was more action in the San Francisco Opera (SFO) orchestra pit than there was up on the stage. Indeed, Music Director Eun Sun Kim undertook a major overhaul in the seating of the musicians. She felt that this was a score that deserved having the first and second violin sections face each other, filling out the usual arc with the cellos on the left and the violas on the right, allocating the basses to the rear of the pit. The space to the far left accommodated an “extended wind quintet” of flutes, oboes, clarinets (including a brief appearance of the bass clarinet), and horns. The right-hand side was then given to the trumpets and trombones with the timpani behind them.

The entire layout provided Kim was a more accessible palette to balance her instrumental sonorities. This was evident as she unfolded the overture with an attention to coloration that is too frequently overlooked in an orchestra pit. That configuration also allowed the attentive listener to identify (and appreciate) the diversity of instrumental techniques that Beethoven deployed to reflect the connotations of the words being sung. Indeed, to find any earlier effective examples of instrumental coloration of the words, one would have to go back to that abundance of sacred texts set by Johann Sebastian Bach. Furthermore, just as those words that Bach set were rarely (if ever) paragons of literature, Beethoven’s instrumentation brought a third dimension to characters that, in the text of the libretto, are little more than cardboard stereotypes.

Elza van Den Heever as Leonore disguised as Fidelio (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

For the most part the vocalists up on the stage, under the direction of Matthew Ozawa, brought flesh and blood to that third dimension. This was particularly the case for the “title character” of Leonore disguised as a young man to work as an assistant at the jail where her husband Florestan has been unjustly imprisoned. Soprano Elza van den Heever studied at the San Francisco Conservatory, advanced to the Merola Opera Program, and then ascended to an Adler Fellowship, which brought her to a variety of compelling roles on the Opera House stage. There was a clear sense that the “flesh and blood” of her character owed as much to the subjective shadings coming from the music as from Ozawa’s staging.

The same could be said of tenor Russell Thomas’ characterization of Florestan. Indeed, the only character that showed signs of weakness was baritone Greer Grimsley’s account of of Don Pizarro, the governor of the prison, whose corrupt practices had been discovered by Florestan. After the vocal impact and multi-dimensional characterization of Wotan in his performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Grimsley both sang and acted as if his heart was not really in his role.

Beyond the individual characters, however, the rich musical resources of Kim’s orchestra were best complemented by the SFO Chorus prepared by Director Ian Robertson. Extended choral writing was composed for the finales of both acts of the opera. At the end of the first act, the prisoners are afforded a rare moment of sunlight; and, at the end of the second, they are all given freedom after the corruption of Pizarro has been revealed. These are some of Beethoven’s finest passages in the entire opera, and the rhythmic roller-coaster of phrasing in the concluding chorus is probably the best example of the composer at the top of his game.

The only real shortcoming in the production involved Ozawa working with a unit set. A turntable supported a structural cube, rotated to reveal both the conditions of the imprisoned and those of the “managers” of the prison. The visual experience was effectively contemporary, which is to say reflecting the disturbing conditions of current detention centers. Unfortunately, more often than not, the setting failed to coordinate with the libretto texts. Mind you, the unit set meant that the final scene did not require the curtain to fall during a major rearrangement, usually requiring the time available to play the third of Beethoven’s “Leonore” overtures (Opus 72b). The unit set allowed for a more “efficient” flow of the narrative; but, where the plot was concerned, the “fit” between what was sung and what was seen was, more often than not, an awkward one.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

LCCE Announces 2020–2021 Season

This evening the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) will launch its 29th season. Since the performance will take place at the Berkeley Piano Club, it does not quite fit in with my attempts to limit my articles to “live” concerts within the San Francisco city limits. However, because the performance will be streamed a week later, those honoring my San Francisco constraint will still have an opportunity to experience it. The remainder of the season will return to the usual conventions of admitting audiences to the space where the music will be performed. Those three concerts will not take place until next year, but I suspect that there will be readers that are already interested in saving the San Francisco dates. The dates of the individual concerts, along with hyperlinks to the event pages from which tickets may be purchased, are as follows:

Sunday, October 24, 5 p.m., Long Distance Call:  Readers may recall that, this past February, LCCE live-streamed the world premiere of Mark Winges’ “Spun Light,” which was described as a “distanced concerto” for violin with quintet accompaniment. This month’s program will present world premiere performances of two further composition conceived with such distancing in mind. The first of these will be Laura Rose Schwartz’ “Parse,” scored for distanced soprano, flute, cello, and piano. This will be followed by Ryan Suleiman’s “The Robin,” with the same scoring expect for the flute being replaced by a piccolo. The flute will also figure in the remaining two works on the program. One of these is the final trio composed by Louise Farrenc, her Opus 45 scored for flute, cello, and piano. The other will be Olivier Messiaen’s “Le merle noir” (the blackbird). As was observed this past Friday, this piece, written in 1952, is probably Messiaen’s first effort to create a composition based on birdsong. The recording of this concert will be available for streaming until this coming November 14.

Monday, January 10, 7:30 p.m., Living in Color: The title of this program is based on the winner of the 2019 LCCE composition contest, Sarah Gibson’s “I Prefer Living In Color,” scored for percussion and instrumental ensemble. At the other end of the timeline, there will be two compositions from the early twentieth century, Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 120 piano trio in D minor and the first of the three Opus 30 Myths, “La fontaine d'Arethuse” (the fountain of Arethusa), composed by Karol Szymanowski. More recent compositions will be the three pieces that John Luther Adams called “Canticles of the Birds,” “La Cigarette” by Colin Roche, and Errolyn Wallen’s energetic “Dervish.” This performance will take place at the Noe Valley Ministry, located at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street, a short walk from the trolley stop at 24th Street and Church Street.

Monday, April 11, 7:30 p.m., Clarinet Party: LCCE clarinetist Jerome Simas will be joined by two of his single-reed colleagues, Carey Bell, Principal Clarinet of the San Francisco Symphony, and Jeff Anderle, founding member of the Sqwonk duo and the Splinter Reeds quintet. The three of them will perform Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K.Anh. 229 divertimento in B-flat major and Anderle’s arrangement of the Board of Canada song “Zoetrope.” In addition, Simas will give the world premiere performance of a suite for bass clarinet and piano composed by David Garner. The program will also include “Echoes” by Olly Wilson, “Seven Pasos” by Sebastián Tozzola, and “Peace” by Jessie Montgomery. The performance will take place in the main building of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness trolley station.

Monday, June 6, 7:30 p.m., Myth & Memory: Berio Folk Songs with New Companions: As the title indicates, the program will include the arrangements of folk songs from a global variety of different sources that Luciano Berio composed for his wife Cathy Berberian in 1964. (As the Wikipedia page for this composition puts it, “the Berberian–Berio marriage was nearing its end, but their artistic partnership continued.”) The program will also present world premiere performances of five new works (as yet untitled) by Linda Catlin Smith, Hiroya Miura, Chris Castro, Seong Ae Kim, and Ingrid Stolzel. Finally, the program will include Carl Schimmel’s “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut,” which had been scheduled for its world premiere on March 9, 2020 but was cancelled due to COVID-19. This performance will also take place at SFCM.

In addition, LCCE has created a Web page for subscription tickets for all three of the 2022 programs at the price of $75.

Finally, violinist Anna Presler and cellist Leighton Fong, founders of LCCE, will be performing this coming Saturday as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF). They will perform Zoltán Kodály’s Opus 7 duo for violin and cello. The full program will be shared with the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco, the string quartet whose members are violinists Jory Fankuchen and Natasha Makhijani, violist Clio Tilton, and cellist Samsun van Loon. They will perform two trio selections, the first of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 9 set of string trios in the key of G major and Ernst von Dohnányi’s Opus 10 serenade in C major. This shared program will last for an hour with no intermission. It will take place at the Black Point Battery on the grounds of Fort Mason, beginning at noon this Saturday, October 23. Tickets will be sold for $18 and $20. SFIAF has created an event page for this concert, which includes hyperlinks for both individual tickets and passes to multiple Festival shows.

More Improvisation than Mind can Manage

Last night turned out to be my only opportunity to sample the programming prepared for the 25th Festival to be presented by Other Minds (OM). As was previously announced on this site, the full title of the event was Moment’s Notice: A Festival of Improvised Music. Last night’s program began with a duo improvisation by saxophonist Larry Ochs and drummer Donald Robinson. This was followed by a solo improvisation set by saxophonist Darius Jones. An intermission was then followed by a set performed by Trio Five, a combo led by Roscoe Mitchell on winds joined by Junius Paul on bass, and Vincent Davis on drums.

The program turned out to be a long one, probably clocking in at over two and one-half hours. I wrote “probably” because there is only so much improvised content that mind can maintain in memory. Sadly, the sets themselves were manageable; but the music turned out to be a smaller percentage of the overall duration than should have been expected. My own attendance at this event was through a live stream for which composer Pamela Z and Charles Amirkhanian, Executive and Artistic Director of OM, shared the duties of master of ceremonies. I have no idea whether the audience seated in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater experienced the insights provided by Z and Amirkhanian; but, for the most part, they distracted from the gaps between the sets admirably.

Saxophonist Darius Jones (from the OM Festival Web page)

The most memorable event from my own experience was Jones’ solo work. It did not take long to realize that his improvisation was based on a single phrase, which was repeated a prodigious number of times. Each repetition, however, brought with it subtle changes, which could involve intonation, phrasing, or sonorities through different blowing techniques. In addition, one eventually realized that the entire performance was structured by a descent of dynamic level from forte to the barely audible, almost as if the playing was gradually distancing itself from the listener until the distance crossed the threshold of perception.

This is the sort of performance than tends to be up-front about challenging the listener. Inevitably, there are listeners that decide, “I get it,” within the duration of about a dozen repetitions. After that, they “tune out.” However, the overall experience involves negotiating an extensive space of variations in sound quality and expressive articulation; and one does not “get” the full impact of those variations by reducing the entire performance to a simple formula. One has to “get beyond getting it” to appreciate the richness of invention behind Jones’ improvised performance.

Sadly, Ochs’ saxophone work in his duo performance with Robinson was far less satisfying. If Jones was the musical realization of Buckminster Fuller’s injunction to make more and more with less and less, then the scope of Ochs’ improvisatory invention came across as making less and less out of more and more. Fortunately, there was much more to experience in Robinson’s inventiveness; but there was little sense of connection between the two players, at least in the material they presented last night.

While I was probably most interested in what Mitchell would bring to last night’s concert, his Trio Five only took the stage after about two and a quarter hours had elapsed (not counting the panel discussion during the hour prior to the beginning of the concert). In the jargon of information theory, there are only so many bits that mind can process over the course of any event. By the time the Trio Five set began, the “bit bucket” was overflowing and my capacity for focused attention had been exhausted.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

ECM to Release New Marc Johnson Solo Album

courtesy of DL Media

This coming Friday ECM will release Overpass, consisting entirely of solo bass performances by Marc Johnson. I first became aware of Johnson around September of 2012 (making it almost a decade ago), when I learned about his duo album, Swept Away, with his partner, pianist Eliane Elias. Both of them were responsible for composing the first ten tracks on the album, and two of the tracks were joint efforts. (The final track was based on the folk song “Shenandoah.”) I wrote about Swept Away for, and I was glad when the opportunity arose for me to revisit Johnson’s work on my current site. As expected, has created a Web page to process pre-orders.

The new album has only eight tracks, five of which are Johnson originals. Two of the remaining tracks seem to be nods to Bill Evans. The second track gives an account of “Nardis,” which was composed by Miles Davis but has a richer recording history with Evans. The fourth track shifts to the love theme from Alex North’s score for the movie Spartacus, which was another Evans favorite. On the other hand the opening track is Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” which is probably best associated with the recording by the Second Great Quintet led by trumpeter Miles Davis. However, it goes without saying that the expressiveness of a solo bass occupies a decidedly different space from that of solo piano improvisations or the Davis combo.

Johnson’s own compositions explore a variety of different expressive techniques. Two of them involve overdubbing, but Johnson clearly prefers the spontaneity of solo improvisation. Both of them seem to reflect on Asian influences. “Yin and Yang” involves the natural harmonics that arise when the strings are plucked, and Johnson enhances awareness of those sonorities by allowing all four strings to reinforce each other. The results were then recorded to serve as a “ground bass” against which Johnson improvised both pizzicato and bowed effects. “Samurai Fly,” on the other hand, uses overdubbing for a “confrontation” between Eastern and Western idioms. The remaining tracks are just as rich in inventiveness, making it clear that Johnson was more in his “comfort zone” with performances that were not “technically enhanced.”

PIVOT to Conclude with Koh-Mazzoli Duo

Jennifer Koh and Missy Mazzoli (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

The final performance in this year’s PIVOT Festival produced by San Francisco Performances (SFP) will be a duo recital by violinist Jennifer Koh with Missy Mazzoli at the piano. Mazzoli is probably better known as a composer, rather than a pianist. Here in the Bay Area, many may have had their first contact with her music when West Edge Opera presented Breaking the Waves, her operatic reconception of the 1996 film by Lars von Trier with the same title. Some readers may recall that this performance earned the August entry in my year-end account of memorable concerts in 2019. Mazzoli’s PIVOT appearance will mark her SFP debut, while the recital will be Koh’s eleventh SFP appearance.

The program will consist entirely of eight of Mazzoli’s compositions. It will feature the world premiere of a reworking of “Hail, Horrors, Hail” to include additional electronics. (This will probably also be the offering closest to the overall Ghost Stories theme of the PIVOT Festival.) Koh will perform two solo interludes, both taken from Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin collection. In addition, she will begin the program with a solo performance of Mazzoli’s “Dissolve, O My Heart,” which she had selected for the first of the three albums in her Bach & Beyond series. The other works to be performed will be “Tooth and Nail,” “Orizzante,” “Kinksi Paganini,” and “A Song for Mick Kelly.”

This program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 23. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel.

Ticket prices are $65 (premium Orchestra and front and center Dress Circle), $55 (remainder of Orchestra, all Side Boxes, and center rear Dress Circle), and $45 (remaining Dress Circle and Balcony); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page. Single tickets can also be purchased at the door as available with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors. Single tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Three Listening Opportunities for David Conte

Composer David Conte (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Between now and November 8, there will be three opportunities to listen to performances of music composed by David Conte. Conte is Chair of Composition on the Faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). All three of the performances will be vocal recitals. There will be no charge for admission at any of the events. The two performances that will take place at SFCM will be live-streamed. To the best of my knowledge, the remaining concert will be “strictly physical.” Specifics are as follows:

Friday, October 22, 7:30 p.m., Barbo Osher Recital Hall, Bowes Center, SFCM: Conte’s cycle of four songs entitled Everyone Sang will be performed by baritone Matthew Worth, accompanied by pianist Kevin Korth.

Sunday, October 24, 5 p.m., The Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin: The program for the October installment in the Candlelight Concert Series will begin with a performance of “In Paradisum,” the last of the three songs in Conte’s Requiem Songs collection. Soprano Ellen Leslie will be accompanied by harpist Douglas Roth and Eric Choate on organ. The church is located at 2325 Union Street at the southwest corner of Steiner Street in Cow Hollow.

Monday, November 8, 7:30 p.m., Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, SFCM: Brian Thorsett will present a program of three song cycles for tenor and chamber orchestra. The SFCM Chamber Orchestra will be conducted by Jeffrey Thomas. Conte’s selection will be his American Death Ballads collection of four songs.

Profil Anthologizes “Early” Fischer-Dieskau

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a month ago, Profil, which has established itself for the generous variety of anthologies it has produced, released a seven-CD collection of “early recordings” of lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. While I have gotten considerable mileage out of many of the Profil releases I have downloaded, I have to say that quality has become far more variable since early in 2020. Since problems began to surface prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I suspect that the difficulties have arisen through management problems, rather than the health of the workers being managed.

I have no idea how many (if any) of those problems have also surfaced on physical CDs. My guess is that, regardless of medium, this is a problem of workers not adjusting to digital technology, including those responsible for monitoring the quality of the finished product (assuming that such a job position has survived the workplace pathology of the digital age). Nevertheless, even if I trip over a defective track or two (or more), there is usually enough content to provide me with considerable satisfaction.

That said, I suspect that I would not be the only one to question Profil’s semantic interpretation of “early.” The time-span of the selections covers a 1948 recording of the first act duet of Rodrigue and Don Carlos (tenor Boris Greverus) in Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos; but the overall span of the collection is over twenty years of recordings. Where recorded performances are concerned, Fischer-Dieskau was already making a name for himself in the Fifties, due at least in part to his work with pianist Gerald Moore as his accompanist. Moore was making recordings with Fischer-Dieskau as early as 1951, when the results were being released on monophonic long-playing albums.

One of those monophonic selections in this collection is the “Abschied” (farewell) song from Franz Schubert’s D. 957 Schwanengesang (swan song). When Fischer-Dieskau was joined by sopranos Victoria de los Ángeles and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf for Moore’s farewell recital in the Royal Albert Hall in February of 1967, Fischer-Dieskau revisited that early recording session with Moore. By that time, EMI had shifted over to stereophonic recording, having produced their first stereo albums in 1955. Since art song is not a “spatial” medium, the shift to stereo had more to do with EMI keeping up with the times, rather than the fidelity of the recording system.

The art song recordings, all with German texts, account for the first two CDs in the Profil collection. As might be expected, Franz Schubert is given pride of place. However, the only cycle represented is D. 957; and “Abschied” is one of only four songs selected from the collection. The next two CDs are devoted to opera excerpts. Because the performances were recorded in Germany, all of the selections are sung in German (which makes that Don Carlos duet slightly disquieting). The fifth CD presents sacred music, much of which is by Johann Sebastian Bach. Finally, there are two “Concert Singer” CDs. The repertoire includes Bach and George Frideric Handel at one end and Gustav Mahler at the other. The one Mahler selection is the Songs of a Wayfarer, which Fischer-Dieskau recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, a recording that is available through more sources than I can enumerate.

For all my grumbling, I still take a fair amount of satisfaction from this collection, particularly the “younger voice” of the earlier recordings. I was also happy to see that two of Bach’s secular cantatas were included. One of these, BWV 212, has become a favorite for its sense of humor. Popularly known as the “Peasant Cantata,” the title is Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet (we have a new governor). After a generous number of arias (only two of which are included on the Profil CD) extolling how things will change for the better, the final chorus sets the text “Wir gehen nun, wo der Dudelsack,” loosely translated as “Let’s all go down to the pub!”

SFS: A Century of Music from Paris, France

The “official title” of this week’s program, presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall and conducted by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, is Exotic Birds: Debussy, Messiaen & Saariaho. What may be more interesting is that the selections by these three composers spanned a period of slightly more than 100 years. The entire program was framed by two of the best-known orchestral compositions by Claude Debussy, beginning with the “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” and concluding with “La mer.” The first half of the program continued with Olivier Messiaen’s “Oiseaux exotiques” (exotic birds) serving as the “mid-point” for the program’s century of music. For this performance the SFS ensemble was joined by pianist Jeremy Denk. The intermission was then followed by Kaija Saariaho’s concerto for flute and orchestra, given the title “Aile du songe” (wing of the dream), completed in 2001 with Claire Chase (one of Salonen’s Collaborative Partners) as soloist. While Saariaho was born in Helsinki and studied at the Sibelius Academy, her base of operations is now in Paris, the city that provided the same home for both Debussy and Messiaen.

The program note by James M. Keller for “Aile du songe” suggests that it might be more appropriate to call the composition “concerto-like,” rather than simply classifying it as a concerto. Certainly, the overall structure does not follow concerto conventions. The twenty-minute composition is divided into two sections reflecting settings first in the air and then on land. The first section begins with a “Prélude” followed by two episodes, “Garden of the Birds” and “Other Shores.” The second section begins with “Dancing Bird,” after which it concludes with “Bird, a Tiny Satellite of Our Planetary Orbit,” appropriating a phrase by the poet Saint-John Perse. Those viewing the SoundBox programs streamed by SFSymphony+ may recall that Chase performed the second section of this concerto as part of the Metamorphoses program that she curated at the beginning of this past July.

The instrumentation for “Aile du songe” was particularly imaginative. Chase shared the front of the stage with one of the largest percussion ensembles (including timpani) that I have encountered in Davies. The only other instruments were the string section, harp, and celesta. Saariaho has been known for her rich palettes of diverse sonorities, possibly due to her earlier interest in electronic music; but the diversity is so broad that one might easily forget that this is a flute concerto. Mind you, Chase had her own contributions to those sonorities, which included interpolating the flute passages with vocalizations. Ultimately, “Aile du songe” emerged as a performance in which the visual experience was as compelling as that of listening.

“Oiseaux exotiques” was similarly impressive in its approach to instrumentation. The percussionists took their usual place at the rear of the stage, but they were as busy in performing Messiaen as they were in the Saariaho selection. This time, however, there was no string section; and the winds and brass were distributed across the stage with some sense that spatial relations were as significant as the marks on the score pages. Denk’s piano, on the other hand, had the usual front-and-center location.

Messiaen’s interest in birdsong dates back to 1952 when he composed “Le merle noir” (the blackbird) for flute and piano, in which the flute part was based entirely of blackbird songs. This was followed in 1953 by the orchestral composition “Réveil des oiseaux” (awakening birds), which again involves little more than a rich diversity of birdsongs. “Oiseaux exotiques” was composed between 1955 and 1956 and accounts for an array of 47 birdsongs. Mind you, I did not try to count them all; but some of them were clearly more percussive than melodic. As a result, there was considerable diversity in the quarter-hour duration of this composition, although it would probably be fair to say that not all of the birds accounted for are consistently engaging.

Given the rich inventiveness encountered in both “Oiseaux exotiques” and “Aile du songe,” the familiarity of “La mer” made for a welcome conclusion to the evening. Nevertheless, this, too, is music with a rich diversity of subtly-shifting sonorities. The primary distinction was probably that most of the listeners in the hall knew what would come next and when it would come. Still, Salonen brought his own approach to shaping the three movements of Debussy’s composition. Furthermore, the earlier selections on the program sensitized the listener to attend to even the subtlest of details; and those subtle details were just as evident in century-old Debussy as they were in the mid-century of Messiaen and the recent past of Saariaho. For that matter, the decade-earlier “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” had its own subtle sonorous details unfolding during the modest duration of only ten minutes.

Taken as a whole, the entire experience amounted to an evening in which attentive listening was consistently and abundantly rewarded.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Post:ballet Project Comes to Fruition at SFP

Lyra is a project that has been in the making since 2018, conceived by Robert Dekkers as a full-evening work for his Post:ballet dance company. I first became aware of Dekkers through The Living Earth Show (TLES) duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson. They provided the music for Do Be, a cycle of five dances that Dekkers choreographed for his company; and I covered the world premiere performance at Z Space at the beginning of August of 2016. Each of the dances was set to music by a different composer, all commissioned by TLES.

Babatunji Johnson (Orpheus) and Moscelyne ParkeHarrison (Eurydice) in Benjamin Tarquin’s film for Lyra (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Like Do Be, the performance of Lyra will involve music provided by TLES. This time, however, the entire score has been composed by Samuel Adams; and, unless I am mistaken, Adams’ music was on the program of the first public concert presented by TLES. This time, however, the dancing has been choreographed by Vanessa Thiessen; and it will be integrated with projected film conceived and implemented by cinematographer Benjamin Tarquin. Dekkers will serve as the overall director, responsible for integrating all of the contributing resources.

2018 now feels like the distant past. Most likely pandemic conditions led to an extended wait for performance to take place. However, at the beginning of this year, three films of Post:ballet performances were presented as a live-stream by the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The second of those films was “Surface Down,” and it provided a foretaste of what to expect from the full-length performance of Lyra.

Lyra was conceived as a contemporary take on the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the arid landscapes of Eastern California. “Surface Down” was filmed on a railroad track leading into a tunnel, the implication being that the tunnel was the gateway to the Underworld. The choreography presented the episode during which Eurydice was taken from Orpheus and escorted to the Underworld by Atropos. The music was provided by Meyerson, whose vibraphone and drums were situated in the mouth of the tunnel, suggesting that he was the “gatekeeper” to admit Atropos and Eurydice.

The performance of Lyra in its entirety will be the third program in the PIVOT Festival presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). It will take place in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, which provides considerable flexibility to accommodate both Thiessen’s choreography and the projections of Tarquin’s cinematography. (Equally flexible will be the layout of seats for the audience.) The Theater itself is on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building, which is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Readers probably know by now that this is an excellent location for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel.

All tickets for Lyra will be sold for $65. There will be two performances, the first on Friday, October 22 at 7:30 p.m., followed by a 5 p.m. performance on Sunday, October 24. Each date has its own Web page for purchasing tickets, accessible through the hyperlinks on the dates themselves in the previous sentence. The duration of the performance will be 65 minutes without any pause or intermission.

Mezzo Kirchschlager Cancels SFP Recital

Late yesterday afternoon San Francisco Performances (SFP) announced the cancellation of the final recital in the 2021–2022 Art of Song Series. This was the program at which mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager was to sing Franz Schubert’s D. 911 song cycle Winterreise (winter journey) accompanied at the piano by Julius Drake. This performance was to have taken place this coming spring on the evening of Thursday, May 12.

Some readers may recall that this recital had originally been scheduled for this past February 20 but was cancelled in compliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines and the ongoing restrictions on public gatherings. As was the case at that time, the options for those holding tickets for this event are as follows:

  • Apply the value of the tickets towards another single performance in the current season.
  • Make a tax-deductible donation of the value of the tickets to SFP.
  • Apply the value of the tickets toward a gift certificate.
  • Request a refund.

Patrons may contact SFP regarding their chosen option either through electronic mail to or by telephoning 415-677-0325. For those wishing to phone, SFP business hours are between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Brooklyn Rider to Come to SFP PIVOT Festival

Tenor Nicholas Phan (right) and the members of the Brooklyn Rider string quartet (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

The Brooklyn Rider string quartet of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas made its San Francisco Performances (SFP) debut in November of 2017, providing the music for Some of a Thousand Words, a duo performance by choreographer Brian Brooks and dancer Wendy Whalen. Their first recital took place about a year later as part of the SFP Shenson Chamber Series. Next week they will return to SFP for the second performance in this year’s PIVOT Festival.

As was recently cited, the overall theme of the festival is Ghost Stories. In that vein Brooklyn Rider will perform the West Coast premiere of Nico Muhly’s song “Stranger.” The quartet will be joined by tenor Nicholas Phan. This will be preceded by two other song selections, Thomas Campion’s “Never weather-beaten sail” and Rebecca Clarke’s “Daybreak.” After a brief pause, these songs will be followed by Brooklyn Rider playing Franz Schubert’s D. 810 string quartet in D minor. This quartet has its own “vocal connection,” since the second movement is a set of variations on the composer’s D. 531 song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (death and the maiden).

This program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 21. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel.

Ticket prices are $65 (premium Orchestra and front and center Dress Circle), $55 (remainder of Orchestra, all Side Boxes, and center rear Dress Circle), and $45 (remaining Dress Circle and Balcony); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page. Single tickets can also be purchased at the door as available with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors. Single tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

Igor Levit: To Shostakovich and Beyond

courtesy of Jensen Artists

Many readers probably know by now that I have taken interest in the imaginatively diverse approaches that pianist Igor Levit has taken to repertoire, particularly in preparing albums for Sony Classical. His latest album, On DSCH, was released a little over a month ago. It is a three-CD album presenting only two compositions; but there is just as much diversity in the scope of those works as there has been in Levit’s previous albums.

The first two CDs are devoted entirely to the Opus 87 collection of 24 preludes and fugues that Dmitri Shostakovich composed in 1951. I have been interested in this undertaking for quite some time; and, thanks to San Francisco Performances, I had the good fortune to listen to a concert of the entire cycle performed by pianist Alexander Melnikov in November of 2011. The third CD is devoted entirely to “Passacaglia on DSCH,” which the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson completed in 1962.

Those familiar with Shostakovich know that those four letters serve as an abbreviation of his name. However, they also spell out a sequence of pitches under the German conventions of naming the notes: D, E-flat, C, B natural. That motif appeared in many of the works that Shostakovich composed, probably beginning when he was enduring the hardships of World War II. Its best known use can be found in the Opus 110 (eighth) string quartet in C minor, where it appears in all of the movements. Ironically, it appears only once in Opus 87 in the stretto of the fugue in D-flat major.

Stevenson seems to have been inspired by the many ways in which Shostakovich used that motif, and that inspiration resulted in the “Passacaglia on DSCH.” Stevenson did not try to hide the source of his inspiration, and he dedicated the composition to Shostakovich. He then presented a copy of the score to Shostakovich when they were both attending the 1962 Edinburgh Festival. The piece has its own Wikipedia page, which observes that it “takes more than an hour and a quarter to perform and may be the longest unbroken single movement composed for piano.”

Opus 87 also has its own Wikipedia page. As might be expected, it includes a comparison with Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Indeed, there are a generous number of instances in which Shostakovich explicitly acknowledged his debt to Bach. However, there is probably a good chance that Shostakovich intended Opus 87 to be performed in its entirety as a concert offering, which is what happened for the first time in December of 1952, when the music was premiered by Tatiana Nikolayeva.

On the other hand I have long held to the proposition that Bach was more interested in pedagogy, rather than expecting a keyboardist to play either of the two books as a concert offering. Nevertheless, I can admit that I found the experience of listening to András Schiff playing both of those collections (at two different concerts) as satisfying as my encounter with Melnikov playing Shostakovich. The fact is that I have multiple recordings of both the Bach and the Shostakovich collections. I enjoy listening to the diverse approaches taken in performing the individual preludes and fugues, and I am more than happy to add Levit’s performances to my collection.

The Stevenson passacaglia, on the other hand, is a tougher nut to crack. All I know about how often it has been performed or who the performers were can be found on the composition’s Wikipedia page. I am not surprised that John Ogdon was on that list, since he also recorded Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji’s “Opus clavicembalisticum, a twelve-movement composition, whose recording required five CDs. However, I am not particularly interested in such marathon undertakings. I suspect that I would appreciate the opportunity to listen to the more amenable duration of a recital performance of “Passacaglia on DSCH,” particularly now that I can prepare myself by listening to Levit’s recording prior to attending that performance.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Eleonor Sandresky to Celebrate Harvest Moon

Poster design for this month’s Lunar Landscapes program (from the Eventbrite event page)

My guess is that those that have been following Eleonor Sandresky’s Lunar Landscapes concerts have been confronted with a barrage of unfamiliar names for the full moons that appear during different months of the year. This month, however, the name of the full moon being celebrated is likely to be very well known to at least some readers, even if they are limited to those of my generation. That familiarity is due to Jack Norworth, who wrote the lyrics for “Shine On, Harvest Moon.” The music was written by Norworth’s wife, Nora Bayes; and the song was first performed as part of the 1908 Ziegfeld Follies. I took some comfort from the Wikipedia page for this song, since it listed a new recording made as recently as 2017 by the indie folk singer-songwriter Mree.

As usual, Sandresky will take a more adventurous approach to the music prepared to celebrate the Harvest Moon. Her guest artist will be composer Mary Jane Leach, whose approach to composition is based on how different acoustic properties interact with the space in which they sound. She is particularly interested in difference, combination, and interference tones, each of which involves the emergence of a tone other than the ones sounded by the performers. These phenomena are familiar to those with a basic understanding of acoustics; but The New Yorker was so impressed by Leach’s work that they described it as an “acoustic ‘Through the Looking Glass.’” Leach’s music will be preceded by the music of Philip Glass and followed by one of Sandresky’s own compositions.

The performance will begin at 6 p.m. (Pacific Time) on Wednesday, October 20. Admission is $10, and payment can be processed through an Eventbrite event page. Once the processing is complete, electronic mail will be sent providing the URL for connection to the video stream of this performance. Subscriptions are also available as part of membership, with membership fees of $5, $10, and $15 per month.

Catching up with Wayne Shorter on Blue Note

from the Web page for the collection being discussed

My awareness of saxophonist Wayne Shorter came relatively late in the history of my listening to recorded music. It resulted from my decision to keep up with the series of collections of recordings that trumpeter Miles Davis had made for Columbia. These included both of the “Great Quintet” performances (the first of which was sometimes expanded to a sextet). Shorter was the last musician that Davis recruited for his second quintet, following Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Recordings of that quintet covered the period from 1964 to 1968.

Around the time that the “Second Great Quintet” anthology had been released, I was just beginning to build up a collection of Mosaic anthologies as a result of my getting on the mailing list for Blue Note Records. That led to my discovery of Shorter’s earliest albums on Vee-Jay Records: Introducing Wayne Shorter, Second Genesis, and Wayning Moments. Only later did I learn that, during his tenure with Davis, Shorter was also making albums for Blue Note. For a very long time, I knew of only one of those albums, Speak No Evil.

More recently I discovered that the “revived” Blue Note, led by President Don Was, was reissuing past recordings through a 5 Original Albums series.

My curiosity got the better of me, and I purchased the Wayne Shorter collection about a month ago. The span of content over the five albums is impressive. Here are the titles, dates, and personnel joining Shorter on tenor saxophone for each of them:

  1. Night Dreamer, 1964: Lee Morgan, trumpet; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie (listed as “Reginald”) Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums
  2. The SoothSayer, 1965: James Spaulding, alto saxophone; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; McCoy Tyner, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Tony Williams, drums
  3. Etcetera, 1965: Herbie Hancock, piano; Cecil McBee, bass; Joe Chambers, drums
  4. Adam’s Apple, 1966: Herbie Hancock, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Joe Chambers, drums
  5. Schizophrenia, 1967: Curtis Fuller, trombone; James Spaulding, alto saxophone and flute; Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Joe Chambers, drums

Shorter’s reputation was first firmly established during the late Fifties, when he was a member of The Jazz Messengers, led by drummer Art Blakey. During his tenure, he would become Blakey’s primary composer. After leaving the Messengers in the Sixties, he was able to draw upon past Messengers and present members of the Davis quintet to contribute to his Blue Note recording sessions. Almost all of the tracks in this collection are original compositions by Shorter. The only exceptions are single tracks on three of the albums composed by Gil Evans (on Etcetera), Jimmy Rowles (on Adam’s Apple), and James Spaulding (on Schizophrenia).

To say that all of this makes for rich listening experiences would be the height of understatement. Each of these albums deserves multiple listenings, and I am just beginning to get my head around an initial sampling of all of the tracks. Personally, I am more than merely glad that all five of these albums have been given a new lease on life.

My only cautionary observation is that serious listeners would do well to have a magnifying glass readily available. Each CD has its own sleeve. The original album cover is on the front of the sleeve, while the back provides information about the content. That information includes valuable commentary by writers such as Nat Hentoff, Blue Note Producer Michael Cuscuna, and Leonard Feather. However, trying to read all of that material may be hazardous to visual acuity if attempted without the assistance of a magnifier!

Monday, October 11, 2021

One Found Sound to Return to Live Performance

This Saturday One Found Sound will launch its ninth season. As has already been announced, the theme of the season will be Constellations; and the title of the first concert will be PHOENIX. The program itself is likely to be a journey of discovery for just about the entire audience.

It will begin with Jessie Montgomery’s “Records from a Vanishing City,” which was given its world premiere by Orpheus in Carnegie Hall on October 27, 2016. Those following the summer concerts given by the San Francisco Symphony may recall that Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner,” composed in 2014 as a bicentennial “response” to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was conducted by Joseph Young at the beginning of this past June. “Records” will be followed by Louise Farrenc’s Opus 36 (third) symphony in G minor, composed in 1847, which was conducted in Davies by Michael Morgan at the end of July. (Sadly, Morgan died less than a month later at the age of 63, when he contracted an infection, which may have been due to his kidney transplant this past May.) The final selection will be Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s “Chokfi’.” While this was not performed at Davies, Tate had prepared this piece for the CURRENTS program, which he curated for streaming by SFSymphony+ this past April.

As usual, there is more to a One Found Sound program than just the music. A special new “LIVE film experience” has been created for the performance of “Chokfi’.” As in the past, there will be live video projections crafted and performed by Max Savage, as well as original artwork and animations by Ben Wigler. Finally, light installations will be provided by cinematographer Yuito Kimura.

This program will be given only one performance this Saturday, October 16, beginning at 8 p.m. As usual, the venue will be Heron Arts, which is located in SoMa at 7 Heron Street on the block between 7th Street and 8th Street. All tickets are being sold for $25 and will include basic bar access. Tickets are available online through an Eventbrite event page, which also includes the text of the prevailing COVID-19 health and safety precautions and regulations. There is also a map for those unfamiliar with SoMa geography.

An Electro-Acoustic Shaggy Dog Story

The nature of the shaggy dog story has been nicely captured in the opening sentence on its Wikipedia page:

In its original sense, a shaggy dog story or yarn is an extremely long-winded anecdote characterized by extensive narration of typically irrelevant incidents and terminated by an anticlimax.

To the extent that the telling of the story is more important than the story itself, one might view the shaggy dog story as one of the more significant ancestors of performance art. That Wikipedia page includes an “Examples in music” section; but all five of the examples have to do with the text associated with the music, rather than with the music itself.

There are, however, examples in which the spirit of the shaggy dog story has been captured in music without words being involved. The best examples tend to involve a reversal of the usual structure of variations on a theme. The composition begins with some richly thick texture; and, as the variations unfold, that texture thins out until all that is left is a relatively innocuous theme. The best example of this, which probably never involved any sense of humor on the part of the composer, is Benjamin Britten’s Opus 70 “Nocturnal after John Dowland,” in which fragments of Dowland’s “Come, Heavy Sleep” come to congeal into the entire song, but only after the listener has negotiated eight movements, each of which has its own way of disclosing fragments from that song.

“Sunrise,” an electro-acoustic work composed jointly by Jacob Cooper and Steven Bradshaw, takes a similarly serious approach to the shaggy dog genre. The piece will be released this coming Friday as a CD produced by Cold Blue Music. Since seems to have bungled the creation of Web pages for this album to the extent that it no longer shows up on the first page of Google search results, those wishing to pre-order this album will probably do best by visiting the Web page created by Barnes & Noble Booksellers. (Those of my generation with an attachment to New York City are invited to chime in, “Of course, of course!”)

The title of this piece provides the first clue as to what the punch line will be. Nevertheless, most listeners will probably not be aware of what that punch line is or how the path leads to it unless they read the notes provided by the two composers for the CD jacket. They identify the song “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” composed by Canadian Ernest Seitz (the pseudonym of Raymond Roberts), setting lyrics by American Gene Lockhart. The song was first published in London in 1919 and first recorded in 1921. Those of my generation probably know it best through a 1951 recording for Capitol Records made by Les Paul and Mary Ford (which was subsequently satirized by Stan Freberg).

That publication date is roughly in the middle of the duration of the Spanish flu pandemic, first documented in March of 1918 and continuing for over two years. Whether Lockhart had the pandemic in mind when writing his lyrics is open for debate. However, the idea of “waiting for the sunrise” in the midst of the current pandemic seems to have motivated the composition of “Sunrise.”

The music was created through a back-and-forth exchange of content described by the two composers as follows:

Steven would record melodies, improvisations, motifs, vocal scrapes, hisses, whispers, and screams; Jacob would sonically manipulate them and generate new material, forging it all into a compositional framework. With a request for more vocal sounds, the cycle would begin again.

The process began in the summer of 2020 and lasted for about a year. The result demands a generous share of patience on the part of the listener, whether or not that listener is aware that the work has been structured around a “punch line.” However, to draw upon a recent metaphor that I evoked, the music does not drag the listener into the Slough of Despond. Rather, the imagination behind the creative process should encourage the sort of positive thinking that I have advocated for prevailing over pandemic conditions.

SFS Chamber Music Series Returns to Davies

Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) launched its Chamber Music Series through which SFS musicians and their colleagues have an opportunity to explore the diverse aspects of the chamber music repertoire. For its first program since the imposition of lockdown conditions, the series coupled two works composed during the last decade with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 57 piano quintet, composed in 1940. This made for impressive diversity in which the visual element was often as striking as the auditory.

Indeed, the opening selection, “Perfectly Voiceless” by Devonté Hynes, was originally intended as part of a full-evening dance production by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Hynes composed on a digital audio workstation, after which he worked with the Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion quartet to orchestrate the score for their instruments, primarily an ensemble of marimbas of different sizes. San Francisco audiences had their first opportunity to listen to “Perfectly Voiceless” when Third Coast included it on the San Francisco Performances program they presented in April of 2019. That performance was choreography unto itself as the members negotiated paths through a stage filled with instruments and music stands.

Yesterday afternoon’s percussion quartet was led by SFS Principal Percussion Jacob Nissly, joined by Bryce Leafman, Stan Muncy, and Marty Thenell. Their command of the many instruments required by the score and the choreography required to negotiate those instruments was as impressive as it had been when performed by the quartet for whom the music had been composed. For my part, a second opportunity to experience a performance of this music was even more stimulating than the first. I was in a better position to appreciate the subtle shifts in sonorities arising from the details in the score.

It is also worth noting that Nissly was one of the founding members of Third Coast when it was first formed in 2004. However, he left Chicago after about a year, eventually securing his SFS post in 2013. Nevertheless, his memories of the original spirit of Third Coast may have informed yesterday’s performance, even if only slightly.

Like “Perfectly Voiceless,” Shinji Eshima’s “Bariolage” also explores a rich repertoire of sonorities; but the instrumentation could not be more different. The piece was composed in 2016 for SFS musicians Amos Yang (cello) and Charles Chandler (bass) on a commission by Michèle and Larry Corash. The title refers to a bowing technique of rapid alternation between notes on adjacent strings.

However, there is much more to the foundations of Eshima’s score than bariolage technique. Eshima himself currently plays bass for both the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet, holding the position of Associate Principal Bass for the latter. His experiences as a performer have provided him with a solid foundation of technical and rhetorical devices exchanged by the two musicians. Indeed, much of the prevailing rhetoric is more reflective, emphasizing that technique is simply the platform from which expressiveness may be explored. As a result, that expressiveness threw new light on the approach to making chamber music taken by Yang and Chandler.

It is probably worth noting that three of the performers of the Shostakovich quintet were born in Russia: violinists David Chernyavsky and Polina Sedukh and pianist Asya Gulua. They were joined by Bay Area native Katie Kadarauch on viola and Canadian cellist Sébastien Gingras. However, the Russia of today’s musicians differs significantly from that of Shostakovich.

Indeed, before he began work on his quintet, he had fallen from the good graces of Stalinist authority in 1936 and spent two years keeping a low profile. Redemption came in 1937 with his Opus 47 (fifth) symphony in D minor. Opus 57 was composed during those few good years prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

From a historical point of view, the structure of Opus 57 reflects on past music history. The opening movements are a prelude and a fugue, which were clearly inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach. (Shostakovich would go on to compose his own Opus 87 set of 24 preludes and fugues in all major and minor keys between 1950 and 1951.) The remaining three movements are more reflective on nineteenth-century rhetoric. Nevertheless, the thematic material is consistently and unmistakably Shostakovich, leaving a somewhat poignant reflection on the narrow window of time during which life was good for Shostakovich in the Soviet Union.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

SFO to Live-stream This Month’s Performances

Readers may recall that, a little less than a month ago, this site announced the specifics regarding the new production of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 72 Fidelio to be presented by San Francisco Opera (SFO) during the second half of this month. Early this past week, SFO announced that the first three of the six performances of this production will be live-streamed. The operative word in that last sentence is “live.” Each video will be a unique real-time video account of the performance taking place on that date. The usual controls for playing the video (such as pausing and resuming) will not be operative; nor are there plans to archive the content for subsequent on-demand viewing.

Design of the prison setting by Alexander V. Nichols for Fidelio (courtesy of SFO)

As has already been reported, the production will present a contemporary perspective of political imprisonment staged by Matthew Ozawa. The vocalists will include soprano Elza van den Heever in the title role, along with tenor Russell Thomas, baritone Greer Grimsley, and bass James Creswell. The cast will also include four Adler Fellows, all making role debuts. These will include soprano Anne-Marie Macintosh, who will be making her SFO debut. The other Adler Fellows will be tenor Christopher Oglesby, tenor Zhengyi Bai, and bass Stefan Egerstrom. The SFO Chorus will be prepared by Director Ian Robertson, and the conductor will be Music Director Eun Sun Kim.

These live-streams will be treated as ticketed events. Streaming will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 14, and Wednesday, October 20, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, October 17. Like the performances in the War Memorial Opera House, these will be ticketed events. The price of all three of the live-streams will be $25. SFO has created a Web page for purchases for all three of these dates. Tickets may also be purchased by calling the SFO Box Office at 415-864-3330. Either way ticket-holders will be required to give an electronic mail address, through which instructions for viewing the live performance will be sent.

More Thelonious Monk from Phillip Greenlief

Dan Seamans, Phillip Greenlief, Tom Hassett, and Beth Schenck performing at Bird & Beckett (screen shot from the video of the concert)

During the first year of lockdown conditions, one of my favorite sites for streamed performances was provided by Bird & Beckett Books and Records, which had accumulated a major video archive of concerts that the shop had hosted. In July of 2020 I wrote about visiting that archive to listen to Monk, a survey of the music of Thelonious Monk played entirely on solo tenor saxophone by Phillip Greenlief over the course of about two hours. This was a two-set concert, and separate videos had been archived for the first set and the second set. That second set gave a solo account of the selections on the album MONKWORK, performed by The Lost Trio of Greenlief, Dan Seamans on bass, and Tom Hassett of drums.

Last night The Lost Trio came to Bird & Beckett for a live-streamed concert presented to a limited audience in the shop. The trio was joined by a special guest artist, Beth Schenck on alto saxophone. Once again, Monk’s music was featured on the program, coupled this time with the music of Ornette Coleman. Yesterday had been a busy day, so I only had the energy to make it through this first set. However, the video archive now has a single two-hour recording of the entire concert.

The first set accounted for extended takes on three Monk compositions that deserve more attention than they tend to get, “Boo Boo’s Birthday” (which was recorded only once at a Columbia session on December 21, 1967), “Ugly Beauty” (on the same Columbia album as “Boo Boo’s Birthday”), and “San Francisco Holiday” (first recorded by Riverside at the Blackhawk in San Francisco on April 28, 1960). Both Greenlief and Schenck were well-coupled in their solid command of Monk’s angular melodic lines. These were all pieces that emerged from Monk’s eccentricities at the keyboard involving mind-blowing unconventional intervals growing out of rhythmic patterns that ran the gamut from groping to staggering.

Each of the two saxophonists took a highly personalized account of coming to grips with Monk’s unconventional approaches to composition and performance. Both of them also created space for embellishing improvisations from both Seamans and Hassett; but, for the most part, the performance of each tune involved taking a melodic line as a point of departure for highly personalized interpretations. It is clear from his background that Greenlief takes performing Monk’s music very seriously, but his partnership with Schenck took his appreciation for Monk’s inventiveness to a new level. Their performances reminded the attentive listener of just how significant Monk was in the history of jazz and how fresh and relevant his eccentric innovations remain today.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

DSO to Launch Season with Free Live Stream

DSO Music Director Jader Bignamini (courtesy of Opus 3 Artists)

Readers may recall that, during the early days of lockdown conditions, one of this site’s first ventures into streamed performances involved the Live from Orchestra Hall archive of online performances by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). This was the time when DSO was awaiting the arrival of conductor Jader Bignamini to begin serving as Music Director by launching the 2020–2021 season. As a result, I wrote an article about a video of a performance by Bignamini leading the DSO on October 18, 2019.

Tonight Bignamini will kick off his first full season in Detroit, and the performance will be given a free live stream. This will be a celebratory occasion for which Bignamini has decided to “pull out all the stops” to provide a rich account of the ensemble’s capabilities. The second half of the program will be devoted to the two best-known tone poems by Ottorino Respighi, “Fountains of Rome” and “Pines of Rome,” both of which abound with the rhetoric of spectacle. They will be preceded by an interview during the intermission at which Bignamini will discuss his own thoughts about these compositions.

The first half of the program will feature Jean Sibelius’ Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor with violin soloist Ray Chen. The opening selection will be Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner,” scored for solo string quartet and string ensemble, composed under commissions by the Sphinx Organization and the Joyce Foundation. For those unfamiliar with this music, it was created as a response to the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When Anthony Tommasini wrote about this piece for the New York Times in 2014, he credited the music with “daringly transform[ing] the anthem, folding it into a teeming score that draws upon American folk and protest songs, and anthems from around the world, including Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban, to create a musical melting pot.” Some readers may recall that, this past June, Joseph Young conducted this piece at the beginning of the program he had prepared for the San Francisco Symphony.

The concert will begin at 5 p.m. (Pacific time) this evening, Saturday, October 9. The performance will be live-streamed through the DSO Facebook Web page. DSO also has its own Web page for viewing, but this will require registering for the chat space. There will be no charge for registration. If there are any readers in Detroit, they should be informed that tickets are still on sale for this concert, as well as tomorrow afternoon’s matinee performance.

Credible Jazz from Austin Musicians

In the late eighties I was working at one of the computer research laboratories in Los Angeles that was active in laying the foundations for what would eventually be called the Internet. I had been invited to interview for a recently-opened laboratory in Austin, Texas, which would provide an opportunity for me to return to my favored specialization in artificial intelligence. This was a time when my wife and I were enjoying an abundance of opportunities to attend both symphonic and chamber music concerts, along with the emergence of the Los Angeles Opera. When I told my interviewer of my interest in music, he assured me that Austin was an ideal venue with more country music outlets than one could possibly imagine!

To be fair, I have since learned that there is now far more to Austin than I had been led by that interviewer to believe. In 2007 the Austin Lyric Opera gave the premiere performance of Philip Glass’ Waiting for the Barbarians. While news of the Austin Symphony Orchestra has never registered on my radar, the city hosts two historically-informed ensembles, the Austin Baroque Orchestra and La Follia Austin Baroque. This morning I learned that the city also houses at least one credible jazz combo.

The name of the combo is Jazz Daddies; and much of its repertoire consists of original songs by its guitarist, Randy Larkin. The front line consists of saxophonist Andrew Malay and Shane Pitsch on both trumpet and flugelhorn. The rhythm section has two bass players, Marty Mitchell and Gary Feist (never playing at the same time); and Kenny Felton handles the percussion.

My first encounter with this group was the album Moontower Nights, released about a month ago; and, at least for now, available for only streaming and download. The title is a local reference. Moontowers were the earliest sources of light before systems of street lights was installed and deployed. Here is a nineteenth-century engraving of one in our own city of San Jose, providing light for (among other things) a trolley being pulled by a team of horses:

A San Jose moontower (nineteenth-century engraving by an unknown artist, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The moontowers of Austin are protected structures, and one of them serves as a public Christmas tree of lights.

I am not convinced that the title track of the Jazz Daddies album evokes much, if anything, having to do with Austin moontowers. However, all ten of the tracks of Larkin’s compositions offer much to appeal to listeners that are still devoted to straight-ahead jazz. As can be guessed, he allows himself ample opportunities for solo work; but he is just as accommodating to the other members of the combo. If none of the tracks are strikingly outstanding, they consistently honor past traditions of “modern jazz,” perhaps with the same attentiveness that the Austin Baroque Orchestra and La Follia Austin Baroque bring to their own slice of music history.