Friday, December 31, 2021

Jazz Piano Trio Plays Nikolai Kapustin

One of the high points in my “virtual concert” experiences took place in November of 2020, when the Piano Break series of streamed recitals presented by the Ross McKee Foundation offered a solo recital by pianist Alison Lee. This recital was particularly memorable for concluding with Nikolai Kapustin’s Opus 41 set of variations. Since she offered no commentary, I do not know whether Lee was aware that Kapustin had died on July 2 of that same year. She had clearly wanted to offer a wide window of diversity, and her repertoire for that program reached back to Ludwig van Beethoven and extended to Scott Joplin and beyond. The “beyond” was her Kapustin selection.

When I first began to extend the scope of my writing from the classical genre into jazz, I liked to joke that jazz was chamber music by other means. Over the course of his work as a composer, Kapustin seemed to suggest that his own motto was that chamber music was jazz by other means. The theme for the Opus 41 variations was taken from the opening measures of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring;” and Kapustin’s imaginative approach to writing variations definitely earned its place in the repertoire for piano recitals. However, the most informed listeners were those aware of the history of piano jazz, rather than just the history of “serious” recital music. Those listeners would have no trouble identifying references to Count Basie and Erroll Garner; and those with more adventurous tastes would probably add Cecil Taylor to the mix.

Obi Jenne, Jakob Krupp, and Frank Dupree playing the music of Nikolai Kapustin on the cover of their new album (courtesy of Naxos of America)

One week from today, Vienna-based Capriccio plans to release a new album whose full title is BLUEPRINT: Piano Music for Jazz Trio. All of the selections were composed by Kapustin, and many of them were arranged for jazz piano trio by the Frank Dupree Trio. Dupree leads this trio from the piano, and the other members are Jakob Krupp on bass and Meinhard “Obi” Jenne on drums. While can usually be counted upon to process pre-orders, they seem to be blissfully ignorant of this release. Those interested in pre-ordering the album can do so through the Presto Music Web page for the album; but since Presto is based in the United Kingdom, delivery may take longer than one would expect from Amazon.

The metadata provided for this album may have more than a few accuracy problems. However, it suggests that two of the works were explicitly composed for a jazz piano trio. These are the eight “concert studies” collected as Opus 40 and the 24 “jazz preludes” of Opus 53. Both of these collections are excerpted for the BLUEPRINT album, four from Opus 40 and twelve from Opus 53. All of the other tracks account for individual compositions arranged collaboratively by the trio and all assigned Kapustin’s opus numbers.

My guess is that all of the selections on this album were through-composed, meaning that none of the trio players are given opportunities to explore invented improvisations. That speculation is based on a quote that Dupree provided:

Kapustin uses jazz as his musical language and then composes quasi-improvisations that sound as though they stemmed right from Oscar Peterson’s or Errol Garner’s fingers. [Yes, readers can, if they wish, add Peterson to the above list of adventurous jazz pianists, particularly if they are familiar with The Timekeepers!] He is one of the few who were able to have the strictures of composition and liberty of improvisation come together to such an organic whole.

That may sound a bit like “fan-boy exaggeration;” but I doubt that anyone could come up with a better assessment of Kapustin’s aesthetic foundations. As is the case with recordings by Peterson and Taylor, one needs to listen to any of these tracks multiple times before mind feels “comfortable with the auditory stimuli,” so to speak. Having listened to this album several times myself, my real hope is that I shall be able to listen to at least some of this music performed in concert.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Christian McBride Big Band: Triple Tribute Album

courtesy of DL Media

This past September Mack Avenue Records released the latest album of performances by the Christian McBride Big Band. This large ensemble was founded in 2011 by bassist McBride for the release of the Mack Avenue album The Good Feeling, which was followed in 2017 by Bringin’ It. The new album is a tribute release, as may be inferred from its title: For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver.

The title refers to three days of recording sessions at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio arranged by organist Jimmy Smith and guitarist Wes Montgomery. This led to the release of the now-classic album Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo in 1966. This was followed in 1968 by Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes. On both of these albums, produced by Creed Taylor for Verve Records, Smith and Montgomery performed with big band arrangements provided by Oliver Nelson. McBride’s tribute album thus covers all the creative bases, so to speak.

On this new album the band resources consist of four trumpets, four trombones (one of which is bass), and five saxophones: two alto, two tenor, one baritone. They provide “background” for a “foreground quartet,” consisting of McBride joined by Joey DeFrancesco on organ, Mark Whitfield on guitar, and Quincy Phillips on drums. Given the inspiration behind the album, it is no surprise that most of the solo work is carried by DeFrancesco and Whitfield. Furthermore, four of the tracks are performed only by this quartet; and it is in that setting that the attentive listener can appreciate McBride’s inventiveness as a soloist. DeFrancesco also adds a bit of wit in composing one of the quartet selections: “Don Is” is an homage to Blue Note producer Don Was, who was also a bassist that co-founded the funk-rock band Was (Not Was) when he was not producing Blue Note releases.

From a strictly personal point of view, I prefer combos to big bands. So I tended to be most focused on the four quartet tracks. On the other hand, I have long appreciated the innovative qualities of Nelson’s arrangements. The Blues and the Abstract Truth and More Blues and the Abstract Truth remain favorites in my CD collection, and his death by heart attack at the age of 43 was one of the great tragedies of imaginative modernism in the jazz genre. Three of the big band tracks are reconstructions of Nelson arrangements, and McBride definitely deserves credit for reviving those arrangements with a new ensemble. In my case the deepest impressions were made on the “Down by the Riverside” track, which is particularly memorable for including Whitfield’s reflections on Montgomery’s inventiveness.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

SFS Concerts to Resume with Eschenbach

Conductor Christoph Eschenbach (photograph by Luca Piva, courtesy of SFS)

Next month the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will resume its subscription concerts with a program led by visiting conductor Christoph Eschenbach. According to my records, I have not encountered Eschenbach on the podium in Davies Symphony Hall since April of 2013, back when I was writing for That turned out of be quite an offering. The soloist was baritone Matthias Goerne performing two solo scenes from operas by Richard Wagner, the extended monologue, which introduced the Dutchman in the first act of Der fliegende Holländer (the flying Dutchman), and the conclusion of Die Walküre (the Valkyrie), best known as “Wotan’s Farewell.” The intermission was then followed by Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (“From the New World”) in E minor.

For next month’s program, Eschenbach’s soloist will be pianist Jan Lisiecki, performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 58 (fourth) concerto in G major. The symphony offering will be Johannes Brahms’ Opus 68 (first) symphony in C minor. The overture for this program will be an SFS premiere, the ensemble’s first performance of an overture in C major by Fanny Mendelssohn. Readers may recall that Lisiecki launched the San Francisco Performances Piano Series for this season this past October with a program consisting entirely of music by Frédéric Chopin structured around with twelve Opus 10 études.

There will be three performances of this program, at 2 p.m. on Thursday, January 13, and at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 14, and Saturday, January 15, respectively. Ticket prices range from $20 to $125, and a single event page has been created for online purchase for all three concerts. They may also be purchased by calling 415-864-6000 or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Monday, December 27, 2021

Virgil Thomson’s Complete Chamber Works

1947 photograph of Virgil Thomson (by Carl Van Vechten, from Wikimedia Commons, no known copyright restrictions)

Readers may recall that this year began with a report on a two-CD set of music by Virgil Thomson released by Everbest Music. This was a reissue as a single package of two albums that had previously been produced by Northeastern Records. To complement this release, this month began with another two-CD release.

This one is an “original,” which has compiled performances of all of the chamber music that Thomson composed. This consists of 63 tracks distributed across two “discs.” The scare quotes have been applied because the content has only been released for digital download, available through an Web page, and the good news is that the full-album download includes the PDF file of a highly-informative 24-page booklet.

Those familiar with the earlier “physical” release will know that, where art song, chamber music, and piano music are concerned, Thomson was basically a miniaturist. Each of the “virtual discs” in this new release consists of a fanfare for trumpets and percussion; and the one that begins the first of the discs is eight seconds long.

This should prepare the listener for the fact that, where chamber music is concerned, Thomson was far from a traditionalist. He did compose two string quartets, both written in 1931 and revised in 1957; and each serves to conclude one of the “virtual discs.” There are also two pieces identified as sonatas, one for violin and piano (composed in 1930) and the other for solo flute (composed in 1943).

More interesting, however, is how many of the selections involve Thomson experimenting with less familiar combinations of instruments. His 1926 sonata da chiesa (church sonata) is scored for clarinet, French horn, trumpet, trombone, and viola. The label was used primarily in the seventeenth-century to distinguish music written for church purposes from those with secular intent. The latter was called sonata da camera, which translates as “chamber music” and subsequently encompassed both sacred and secular intentions. Thomson’s three-movement sonata reflects on these “historical roots,” beginning with a chorale and concluding with a fugue. However, the middle movement is a tango, which is about as conventional as his instrumentation!

The title of the previous release was Portraits, Self-Portraits and Songs. Thomson’s instrumentation for both portraits and self-portraits involved either solo piano or limited chamber resources. As a result, there is some overlap in content across the two releases. However, all of the performances on the new release were recorded during the 2012 Monadnock Music Festival. The album was produced by conductor Gil Rose, who was formerly Artistic Director for Monadnock.

Personally, I have to say that I find the digital domain more conducive to this content than traditional “physical” CDs. The “album” consists of a rather large number of compositions, all of which are relatively short in duration. However, listening to a whole string of them back-to-back is likely to undermine the individual qualities of each selection.

In the digital domain each offering can be taken (or left) on the basis of its own virtues. Put another way, the medium encourages active browsing over passive listening. Since Thomson died on September 30, 1989, he probably never encountered this shift in the listening experience. My guess is that he would have appreciated it; but, because he tended to have a feisty side, he probably would not have owned up to such approval!

Brahms, Waltzes, and Balanchine

As promised yesterday, I used this morning to view the YouTube video of George Balanchine’s two-act ballet Liebeslieder Walzer (love-song waltzes). The video itself was created from a 1973 German film; and, like many other video accounts of Balanchine’s choreography, it was uploaded to YouTube by John Clifford. Clifford included the following cautionary sentence on the Web page:

Some in the very beginning is missing and a few brief moments are off the music.

Sadly, the quality of the video itself leaves much to be desired. Watching it will require more than a little patience, but one can still learn much about the choreography that was created.

Balanchine’s title was drawn directly from the music he selected. Unless I am mistaken, this was his first effort in working with the music of Johannes Brahms. The title of the ballet was taken from two collections of waltzes that Brahms’ scored for piano four hands and four vocalists, soprano, contralto, tenor, and baritone. The title of Opus 52 was Liebeslieder Waltzes, and it was followed by the Opus 65 Neue Liebeslieder (new love songs). As I observed yesterday, all the musicians shared the stage with four couples of dancers. In the film that Clifford uploaded, those couples were Violette Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, Karin von Aroldingen (who now holds the rights to this ballet) and Peter Martins, Kay Mazzo and Conrad Ludlow, and Patricia McBride and Frank Ohman. The pianists were Dianne Chilgren and Gordon Boelzner, and the vocalists were unidentified.

Yesterday’s article cited Brahms’ (probably humorous) regret at not having composed the “Blue Danube” waltz. The fact is that Brahms had a great interest in waltzes, and Opus 52 was preceded by an earlier four-hand piano collection, the Opus 39 set of sixteen waltzes. In this set one encounters some highly imaginative rhythms that seem to be poking fun at the traditional three-beats-to-the-measure pattern. Furthermore, the last of the waltzes takes an ambiguous approach to not only the rhythm but also the thematic material.

In both Opus 52 and Opus 65 Brahms continues to take occasional jabs at tradition with his not-really-a-waltz architectures. Balanchine seems to have been keenly aware of what Brahms was doing in these compositions. While the choreography serves up a fair share of familiar “waltz idioms,” Balanchine, too, finds ways to depart from those idioms. As a result, neither the music nor the choreography ever leaves the listener/viewer discontented with a “one damned thing after another” performance.

At this point I should make a confession, which is that I have never followed a text sheet for these songs, either at a recital or while listening to a recording. It goes without saying that, when I saw this ballet at the New York State Theater, the texts were not included in the program book. After all, we were supposed to be looking at the stage! The technology for projected titles had not yet found its way into performance venues; but I suspect that even they would distract from the rich diversity one encounters in both Brahms’ music and Balanchine’s choreography.

The fact is that the music easily comes across as a highly imaginative pair of studies in miniaturist rhetoric. Balanchine seems to have clearly understood that structural foundation. While there were several episodes in the ballet in which a “theme” would progress across a few successive waltzes, more often than not, the choreography would confine itself to a single waltz. The result was a bit like the impact of a haiku that captures an isolated moment; and, in the overall flow of the choreography, such a moment might escape the inattentive viewer.

The entire ballet is about 45 minutes in duration. Unless I am mistaken, when I saw it at the New York State Theater there was an intermission between Opus 52 and Opus 65. That would have been a wise programming decision. Even the most attentive listener/viewer needs a break around the half-way mark! Taken as a whole, the ballet ventures into content that Balanchine rarely (if ever) explored in any of his other creations. By all rights it deserves a better video document than the flawed German account, which currently seems to be the only option.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Brahms and the Ballet

At the beginning of this month, much to my surprise, I received, as a gift, a copy of John Clifford's memoir Balanchine's Apprentice: From Hollywood to New York and Back. As I write this, I am about halfway through the book; and I am already accumulating notes to prepare for writing about it in its entirety. However, I wanted to reflect on my one experience thus far in which my opinion contrasted sharply with Clifford's.

This concerns the ballet that George Balanchine created entitled "Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet." While Clifford bubbles with enthusiasm over specific dancers, particularly those in the original cast, that performed this ballet, on the one occasion when I saw this ballet performed in the New York State Theater, there was little about the choreography or its execution that left much of an impression. Furthermore, last year when I was depending on streaming to write about performances, I happened to encounter two different programs, in June and October, respectively, that presented excerpts; and both of those video streams left me as cold as I had recalled my first encounter to be.

What strikes me the most is a sense that Brahms' music was not particularly suitable for dancing. Indeed, Brahms seemed aware of this shortcoming. There is an anecdote that, on one particular social occasion, a woman offered Brahms her fan and asked him to autograph it. Instead, he jotted down the opening measures of the "Blue Danube" waltz, underneath which, he wrote, "Not, alas, by Johannes Brahms!"

In all fairness, there is not much by way of dance rhetoric in Brahms' Opus 25 piano quartet in G minor; and Schoenberg's orchestration did little to enhance that rhetoric. (Only the fourth movements has the potential to lend itself to dance.) On the other hand, Balanchine had previously created choreography for both of the Brahms Liebeslieder Walzer collections. Indeed, New York City Ballet had been performing that choreography for many years before Jerome Robbins' "Dances at a Gathering" made it fashionable to dance with a piano on stage. (Those that know Brahms' music can guess that, for Balanchine's ballet, there were two pianists on the stage sharing a single keyboard and performing with four vocal soloists.)

Fortunately, I just found the YouTube Web page for Balanchine's more successful encounter with Brahms; and, given how quiet things are for the rest of the year, I should have no trouble watching this film and documenting my impressions.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Revival of a Little-Known Gerry Mulligan Album

from the Web page for the album being discussed

At the beginning of this month, New Land released a reissue of one of the less familiar albums of baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan. The title of the album is Night Lights. The tracks were recorded at the Nola Penthouse Studios in New York City over the course of two sessions taking place on September 12 and October 3, 1962. The result was a six-track album lasting a little more than half an hour, and it was released by Philips in 1963.

Composed by Mulligan, the title track is the first one on the album. He is also responsible for composing two other tracks, “Festival Minor” and “Tell Me When.” In addition he prepared an arrangement of one of the 24 solo piano preludes (accounting for all the major and minor keys), which were composed by Frédéric Chopin as his Opus 28. Mulligan’s selection was the fourth of these, a Largo composed in the key of E minor. Two other composers are represented on the album. The second track is Luiz Bonfá’s “Manhã de Carnaval” (morning of the Carnival), which provided the principal theme for Marcel Camus’ film Black Orpheus. This is followed by David Mann’s tune for the song “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” The album concludes with a second “Night Lights” track, recorded in 1965.

Taken as a whole, this album provides a thoroughly engaging account of the cool jazz genre. Whether or not Mulligan recorded these tracks to wean listeners away from the distorted semantics of “cool,” which had been popularized by both Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and Leonard Bernstein’s music (including a fugue, no less) for West Side Story, can be vigorously debated; but all that vigor would be the antithesis of “cool!” Much more important is that, to establish a more genuine sense of “cool,” Mulligan recruited three masters of subdued understatement: Art Farmer on flugelhorn (and possibly trumpet), Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone, and Jim Hall on guitar. Rhythm is provided by Bill Crow on bass and Dave Bailey on drums.

The 1965 version of “Night Lights” involves entirely different resources. Mulligan leads a quintet while playing clarinet. The other quintet members are Pete Jolly on piano, Jond Gray on guitar, Jimmy Bond on bass, and Hal Blaine on drums. There is also what amounts to an evanescent background provided by a ten-piece string ensemble led by concertmaster Harry Bluestone. It goes without saying that the “semantics” of 1965 differ significantly from those of 1962. However, that “bonus track” simply reinforces the breadth of approaches one can take to playing cool jazz.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Memorable Recordings in 2021

Those that have followed this site for some time may recall that there was not a “Memorable Recordings in 2020” article. Instead, due to pandemic conditions, my “Month-by-Month Memories” article for that year included months that were memorable for an encounter with a recently released recording. This year’s “Month-by-Month” article, on the other hand, basically chronicled the transition from streamed performances to the return to “physical” concert-hall settings. As a result, “Memorable Recordings” returned to its original state as a retrospective review of “album content.”

The good news is that listening to recently-released albums occupied a generous amount of my time, encouraging a more positive outlook than that of reading the daily news reports about the pandemic. Thus, when I looked back on what I had written, I realized how much had been accumulated in terms of raw quantity. As I made note of those articles that revived positive memories, I realized that the list was growing faster than I anticipated. It was clear that my listening experience could not be distilled down to another month-by-month account. Instead, I was ultimately able to filter my list down to ten items, three of which were based on articles written during a single month.

I do not view the resulting compilation as a “top ten” list. There was too much diversity across the selections to establish any viable criteria for rank-ordering. As a result, I shall order my list according to the chronology of when the articles were written. As in the “Month-by-Month Memories” article, each item will have a hyperlink to the text source that triggered my memory. The resulting list is as follows:

  • Azica Records launches UNCOVERED series. This series was launched by the Catalyst Quartet, consisting, at that time, of violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Jessie Montgomery, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez. The objective was to “uncover” artists in classical music that have been overlooked, especially because of race or gender. The first Azica album was released at the beginning of this past February, presenting three compositions by the British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who became known among New York musicians as the “African Mahler.” Catalyst would subsequently launch an Uncovered series for San Francisco Performances, and the three compositions on their album were performed during their first two programs this past October and November. On those occasions they were joined by the “guest soloists” on the recording, pianist Stewart Goodyear and clarinetist Anthony McGill, respectively.
  • Sony Classical releases the complete recordings of Artur Rodziński leading the New York Philharmonic for Columbia Masterworks. Regular readers probably know by now that I find “anthology” releases to be a valuable resource when it comes to understanding the different approaches that performing artists take to interpretation. Nevertheless, I had to confess that I was drawn to this collection because it included one of the first long-playing albums that I heard in my childhood. Sadly, Rodziński’s four-year tenure involved a problematic relationship with the ensemble’s manger Arthur Judson. HIs Wikipedia page states that he resigned at the end of his fourth season, while Virgil Thomson’s autobiography states, more bluntly, that he was fired. Thus, like his predecessor John Barbirolli, he was a victim of “social dynamics” that had nothing to do with the quality of his work.
  • Gidon Kremer continues to record the music of Mieczysław Weinberg. Kremer has recorded on a diversity of labels. ECM New Series provided him with a particularly generous platform for his recording Weinberg’s chamber music with his Kremerata Baltica ensemble. However, at the beginning of this year, Accentus Music release a Weinberg album that featured Kremer performing the Opus 67 violin concerto with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Daniele Gatti. This provided an opportunity to experience the interplay of a soloist in a concertante setting, which left me wondering if I would ever have the opportunity to listen to this concerto in a concert hall.
  • Tommy Flanagan Solos on Storyville. This was a good year for revisiting jazz masters of the past. Three of them made it onto my list, the first being pianist Tommy Flanagan. He is one of the two artists that I was fortunate enough to listen to in performance prior to his death. This particular album was originally recorded in Zürich, Switzerland, during a single session on February 25, 1974. It was not released, by the Danish Storyville label, until 2005, after which it went out of circulation. Fortunately, Storyville decided to reissue the album this past June.
  • Paul Badura-Skoda plays Franz Schubert’s sonatas. This is another reissue, this time of recordings made between 1991 and 1996. Over the course of making studio recordings of Schubert’s twenty piano sonatas, Badura-Skoda played five fortepianos, all in his own personal collection and all made in Vienna between 1810 and 1846. Sadly, Badura-Skoda died in September of 2019; but he had become one of the primary authorities for historically-informed performances of Schubert’s keyboard music. He is another artist whom I was fortunate enough to enjoy in a concert setting, making this album a high-ranking personal favorite.
  • András Schiff conducts and performs Johannes Brahms. Unless I am mistaken, I have never had an opportunity to listen to either of Brahms’ two piano concertos, Opus 15 in D minor and Opus 83 in B-flat major, in a performance at which the soloist also conducted the orchestra. However, this past June ECM New Series released an album on which Schiff did just that, performing with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The result was impressively convincing. However, given how much detail Brahms wrote into the solo piano part, my conjecture is that a good deal of Schiff’s leadership was probably channeled through the orchestra’s Concertmaster Kati Debretzeni!
  • Neuma Records releases a Pamela Z survey. Many readers probably know by now that I do my best to keep up with Z’s performances, particularly those taking place within the San Francisco city limits. The release of her a secret code album allowed me to revisit several of the works that I had first encountered at one (or more) of her recitals. At those recitals, the visual experience was often as stimulating as the auditory one; but the album offers the opportunity to focus more intently on subtleties in auditory quality that may pass by too quickly in a “real time” concert experience.
  • Sviatoslav Richter plays Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. All of the selections on this album will be familiar to those who enjoy the “First Viennese School” repertoire. Nevertheless, Richter is one of those performers that could throw a new light on familiar repertoire. Thus, no matter how many different albums I have of Mozart’s solo piano music, a Richter recording never fails to seize my attention and pull it in a previously unconsidered direction. The same can be said for the piano music of Joseph Haydn (although I have to confess that I can count on recent recordings by Emanuel Ax, as well as “historical” Richter recordings, to achieve that same effect).
  • Lee Morgan at The Lighthouse. As I previously observed, my serious collection of jazz recordings only began after I returned from Singapore in August of 1995. By getting on the Blue Note mailing list, I learned about the three-CD Lee Morgan collection Live at the Lighthouse and relished adding it to my collection. The tracks were taken from performances in Hermosa Beach at The Lighthouse on July 10, 11, and 12, 1970. The selections on those three CDs were the only compositions that Morgan’s combo played over the course of those three evenings. This past August Blue Note released a complete account of all of the Lighthouse sets, providing a richer perspective of how much in-the-moment spontaneity guided the combo through multiple performances of the same tune. Such an exhaustive account may not be for everyone; but, as I put it in my article, the thoroughness of these recordings offers “some joyous lessons in how listening to jazz is more about the ‘making’ than about ‘what is made.’”
  • A Love Supreme in Seattle. The final jazz selection on the list involves another account of “live” music-making. My guess is that just about every enthusiastic follower of the music of John Coltrane has a copy of the Impulse! studio recording of his A Love Supreme suite, which was made in a single session on December 9, 1964. On this album Coltrane led a quartet, whose other members were McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. The quartet then took the entire suite on tour, during which a second recording was made in Antibes based on “live” recordings made on July 26 and 27 of 1965. Impulse! subsequently released a “Deluxe Edition” two-CD set, coupling the studio recording with the one from Antibes. However, this past October 22 Impulse! released an entirely new album of another “live” recording, this one made at The Penthouse in Seattle late in 1965. For this performance the quartet was expanded to include two additional saxophonists, Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Ward, and a second drummer, Donald Garrett. This performance extended the four movements of the suite with four “Interlude” movements, allowing for much more highly embellished improvisations, providing another rich example of “making” taking priority over “what is made.”

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Going Back to Montgomery’s Debut Album

courtesy of Naxos of America

Exactly one month ago I realized that it was about time that I should get beyond a knowledge of the music of Jessie Montgomery limited to bits and pieces. That realization was triggered when SFSymphony+ streamed a performance of the chamber version of “Strum,” which also happened to be the title of her debut album on Azica Records. That album had been released at the end of September in 2015, and it surveyed music for strings that she had composed between 2012 and 2015.

Indeed, much of my awareness of Montgomery was due to the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Unless I am mistaken, my “first contact” took place during this past summer’s concerts in Davies Symphony Hall, when Joseph Young conducted “Banner.” This past September the SFS Youth Orchestra launched its season with a performance of “Starburst.” Another strong advocate for her music has been One Found Sound, whose repertoire includes both “Strum” and “Records from a Vanishing City.”

The album includes “Strum” and “Starburst,” both of which were composed in 2012, along with “Banner,” which was composed in 2014. The other selections include a solo violin rhapsody, played by Montgomery herself, “Source Code,” performed by the Catalyst Quartet, for which she was founding second violin, and the suite Break Away, performed by the string ensemble PUBLIQuartet, which she co-founded. She has since left Catalyst, replaced by Abi Fayette; and she is currently Mead Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

What is particularly impressive is that, while this album limits itself to the string family, each of the six selections has its own distinctive “voice.” Granted, the rhapsody may well have been composed as a platform for Montgomery’s own favorite virtuoso techniques, but there is no shortage of expressiveness behind all of that surface-level virtuosity. My own interests, however, have been particularly drawn to “Banner.”

Back in the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky had decided to compose an arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner;” and, unless I am mistaken, performance of that version was banned by an act of Congress. Things have changed since then; and, as far as I am concerned, changes to our perspective of the national anthem have, for the most part, been for the better. Most people know little more than the first stanza; but what are we to make of this couplet from the fourth:

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, 
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’

“Banner” enjoys a rhetoric of high spirits; but those spirits are celebrating the prodigious diversity of background cultures encountered in the broad spectrum of our citizens, which continues to grow as new immigrant cultures apply for citizenship. It seeks to transcend any lingering jingoism, rather than trying to attack any prevailing prejudices. Congress may still harbor some of those who still embrace the “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) perspective. Fortunately, they constitute a minority; and, hopefully, their numbers will remain limited.

The “bottom line” is that Montgomery’s Strum album has drawn my attention; now I am ready to shift that attention to following what she does with her Chicago residency.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Vogler Quartett’s Dvořák: Fourth Volume

courtesy of Naxos of America

The German cpo label seems to be picking up the pace in the project of the Vogler Quartett to record all of the string quartet music composed by Antonín Dvořák. The fourth album of two CDs was released a little over a month ago, which was a little more than two years after the release of the third volume. As I have previously observed, my guess is that only one more of these two-CD albums will be required to complete the project.

That said, the first CD of the latest release is devoted entirely to Dvořák’s second quartet, B. 17 in B-flat major. Dvořák tried to destroy three of his quartets. beginning with this one and followed by its two successors. However, copies of the individual instrumental parts were discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century, allowing for the reconstruction of all three of those quartets. To judge by the Vogler recording, Dvořák probably had the right idea. Almost 50 minutes in duration, all of the movements, with the possible exception of the third, are overwritten to the point of exasperation. (For the record, this is the composer’s second-longest piece of chamber music.)

The second CD is more satisfying. It begins with B. 37, which Dvořák published as his Opus 9. His satisfaction with his efforts can be seen in his decision to rework the second movement (Andante con moto quasi allegretto) into his Opus 11, the F minor romance for violin and orchestra, which has been championed by many violinists, one of the most recent being Itzhak Perlman, who recorded it with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That recording was subsequently included on a Sony Classical sampler entitled Dvořák in Prague: A Celebration.

The remainder of that second CD departs from the string quartet genre for one of my personal favorites. This is the B. 148 terzetto in C major, scored for two violins and viola and published as Opus 74. I first encountered this music when I first saw The Leaves Are Fading, an extended multimovement ballet created by Antony Tudor for American Ballet Theatre in 1974. I have always suspected that Tudor wanted to get even with Jerome Robbins for the exasperating duration of Dances at a Gathering, all set to solo piano music by Frédéric Chopin, and first performed by the New York City Ballet in 1969. I have always felt that Tudor was far more imaginative, not only in his choreography but also in the Dvořák compositions he selected for that choreography, the Scherzo movement from B. 148 being one of the most stunning of those selections.

NCCO to Present Matinee at Presidio Theatre

Next month the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) will shift its venue from the Civic Center to the Presidio. The title of the program will be Hope Leads Appalachian Spring; and, as that title implies, Music Director Daniel Hope will return to lead as Concertmaster. The title refers to the suite Aaron Copland distilled from the music he composed for Martha Graham’s pioneering (double meaning intended) work of modern dance, “Appalachian Spring.” Readers may recall that, a month ago, Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in the complete score for Graham’s choreography. While only thirteen players were involved in the Graham premiere, Copland later provided a full-orchestra account of that version, which is less known than the concert suite that was specifically scored for full orchestra. More recently, there have been efforts to perform that suite with the original thirteen-instrument resources, which was the case on the recent Transatlantic release by the Berlin Academy of American Music.

NCCO guest soprano Leah Hawkins (photograph by Dario Acosta, courtesy of NCCO)

The program will also present the NCCO debut of soprano Leah Hawkins, who will perform a collection of vocal music associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The selections will include two songs by Florence Price, “We Have Tomorrow” and “Hold Fast to Dream,” William Grant Still’s Songs of Separation, “Come Sunday,” which Duke Ellington originally composed for his Black, Brown and Beige suite, and “Chloe’s Aria” from Harry Lawrence Freeman’s opera Voodoo. Composed in 1928, this was the first opera by an African-American to be presented on Broadway. Hope will be soloist in another Price composition, “Adoration,” which she scored for violin and strings. He will also begin the program by leading the strings in a performance of David Diamond’s “Rounds.”

This performance will begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, January 23. The Presidio Theatre is located on the grounds of the Presidio at 99 Moraga Avenue. Single tickets may be purchased through a City Box Office event page. Ticket prices are $30 (last five rear rows), $55 (far side seating and rows L through S), and $67.50 (prime central viewing).

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Month-by-Month Memories of 2021

2020 was the year in which I had to make the transition from going to performance venues to watching and listening to my computer monitor. (Actually, it was also the year in which I discovered that my xfinity service included a YouTube app, meaning that I could view many performances from just about any room in my Opera Plaza unit, rather than just behind my computer table.) This year the transition began to take place in the opposite direction. For the most part, my “physical” experiences have been limited to the second half of the year at the War Memorial venues: Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House, Herbst Theatre,  and the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, the latter two both being in the Veterans Building. Where most other venues are concerned, for the most part I am still live-streaming. That said, here is my month-by-month account with hyperlinks to the associated articles:

January: SFO Streams La Traviata. Opera is ON, the video streaming service provided by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) provided my wife and I with the opportunity to revisit some of our favorite productions that we had previously seen as subscribers. One of those took place in the spring of 2014, when Laurie Feldman revived John Copley’s delightfully opulent staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, which was first performed in the fall of 1987. The revival took place when Nicola Luisotti was Music Director, and he served as conductor. Casting featured soprano Nicole Cabell in the title role of the courtesan Violetta Valéry, tenor Stephen Costello as her lover, Alfredo Germont, and baritone Vladimir Stoyanova as Alfredo’s father Giorgio. The video was produced by Frank Zamacona, who captured just the right balance of intimate close-ups with the broad view of the entire stage.

February: Premiere of Mark Winges’ Violin Concerto. “Spun Light” was a “distanced concerto” for violin and quintet accompaniment that Winges composed for the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble. All six of the parts were recorded separately. As a result, the concerto performance was “created” by Winges, who took full responsibility for mixing all of the content. Violinist Hrabba Atladottir was responsible for the “ultimate distancing,” since she recorded her part in Reykjavik, the capital of her native Iceland. The ensemble musicians, Stacey Pelinka (flute and alto flute), Phyllis Kamrin (viola), Leighton Fong (cello), Michel Taddei (bass), and Allegra Chapman (piano and toy piano), all recorded their parts in the Bay Area. While this process threatened to be the musical equivalent of a dog walking on its hind legs, the listening experience could not have been more satisfying.

March: Der Ring des Nibelungen. March was a big month for the Opera is ON videos streamed every weekend by SFO. Over the course of those four weekends, each of the four operas in Richard Wagner’s monumental saga was streamed. (Note that each of the four words of the title has a hyperlink corresponding to its own unique opera.) This was the staging that Francesca Zambello created for both SFO and the Washington National Opera, and the San Francisco performances saw the return of former Music Director Donald Runnicles. Zambello’s use of contemporary settings made the narrative as accessible to “Wagner virgins” (Zambello’s phrase) as it was to those of us hooked on both the music and the narrative for decades. Once again, the video was directed by Zamacona.

April: Volti sings Pamela Z. Volti, the Bay Area’s a cappella vocal ensemble that specializes in new music, presented four mini-concerts for streaming. The last of these was Pamela Z’s Ink, a five-movement suite realized as an elaborately composed video recording. Like “Spun Light,” this was a composition that existed only in the domain of edited video content, rather than performance before an audience. The result was engagingly witty and very much unique it is creative strategies.

May: Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet. San Francisco Ballet concluded its 2021 Digital Season with its contribution to Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance in 2015. That contribution was a full-length account of the ballet Romeo & Juliet choreographed by Tomasson to the score composed by Sergei Prokofiev. This amounted to a translation of the staged version first performed at the War Memorial Opera House in March of 1994, subsequently reworked to leverage the affordances of video. Of greatest interest, however, were the many episodes through which Tomasson established his own unique reading of William Shakespeare’s text, realizing his personal interpretation through his choreography.

June: With Friends Like These. This was the title of a free video-streamed concert prepared by composer Paul Dresher. HIs “friends” included pianist Sarah Cahill, performing a solo work that Dresher composed for her in 2011, Vân-Ánh Võ performing on traditional Vietnamese instruments, and singer/musician Rinde Eckert, whose partnership with Dresher goes back about 40 years to when they were both part of the George Coates Performance Works. The remaining “friend” was Joel Davel, currently Dresher’s partner in the Dresher Davel Invented Instrument Duo. The entire performance lasted for about 40 minutes, and the experience could not have been more absorbing with its diversity of instruments and styles of execution.

July: Garrick Ohlsson Concludes his Brahms Cycle for SFP. On February 21, 2019, Garrick Ohlsson performed the first of four recitals for San Francisco Performances (SFP), which he organized to present the complete solo piano music composed by Johannes Brahms. The cycle was scheduled to conclude on March 31, 2020. Instead, it was the only one of the four programs that had to be postponed due to COVID. This past July SFP returned to live performances in Herbst Theatre in a series entitled Summer Music Sessions. Ohlsson’s contribution to the series was the conclusion of his Brahms project; and that achievement was one of the high points of the entire series.

August: SFO Returns to the War Memorial Opera House. The next major revival of the practice of performing for an audience marked the reopening of the Opera House. The selection was Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, and the selection could not have been more appropriate. This was the first SFO production in that venue, and it was also selected to launch the return of SFO to the Opera House in the fall of 1997 after having been closed for eighteen months due to earthquake retrofitting. It also marked the first performance to be conducted by Eun Sun Kim in her newly appointed position as Music Director.

September: Cross Rhythms at Old First Concerts. This program was prepared for Current: A Piano Festival, presented by the Ross McKee Foundation and performed as part of the Old First Concerts schedule. The program itself was the product of a weekly sharing of ideas among pianists gathered via Zoom and coordinated by Sarah Cahill during lockdown conditions. Six of those pianists performed last night, Cahill herself, along with (in alphabetical order) Allegra Chapman, Gloria Cheng, Monica Chew, Jerry Kuderna, and Regina Myers. While I often feel overwhelmed by “too much content,” there was a freshness to this program from beginning to end.

October: Lyra. This was the high point of the SFP PIVOT Festival. It was performed in the Taube Atrium Theater and made impressive use of the full extent of that venue’s technological affordances. That included a “spatial” performance of the score composed by Samuel Adams, who realized his effects through his own command of the audio control technology. The performers included The Living Earth Show (TLES) duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and drummer Andrew Meyerson and members of Post:ballet performing choreography by Robert Dekkers. That choreography was executed not only in the Atrium space but also on a film projected during most of the performance. That abundance of media could have led to “too much information;” but all of the participants found just the right “sweet spot” to present a consistently engaging performance.

November: Messalina. Ars Minerva, led by Executive Director Céline Ricci, returned to the ODC Theater with its latest take on pre-Baroque opera. Ironically, this was performed at a time when SFO was presenting Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 72 opera Fidelio, which originally had the subtitle The Triumph of Marital Love. Those familiar with Fidelio will quickly recognize Messalina’s character as an “anti-Leonore.” I summarized the opera as “a joyous romp through sexual infidelities and dalliances among at least half a dozen different characters.” Ricci has consistently approached farcical operas from the pre-Baroque period with a sharp wit, and it was a delight to encounter that wit in practice again.

December: Simone Young conducts SFS. Since making her SFS debut in April of 2019, conductor Simone Young has consistently prepared and executed thoroughly engaging programs. She began her latest visit with a performance of Edward Elgar’s Opus 61 violin concerto in B minor. Her soloist was violinists Christian Tetzlaff. They served as a “dynamic duo” for one of Elgar’s most passionate compositions. Following the intermission, passions were just as intense in her account of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 64 (fifth) symphony in E minor.

A “Complete” Schubert Symphony Project

Ruine im Riesengebirge, painted by Caspar David Friedrich around 1834 (album cover image provided by Naxos of America)

Almost exactly a month ago the German label cpo released a four-CD album of music by Franz Schubert entitled Complete Symphonies & Fragments. Michi Gaigg conducts the L’Orfeo Barockorchester, which she founded in 1996. Over the last two decades the orchestra has established itself as one of the leading ensembles in historically informed performance practices and has produced over 40 CD releases. The selections in this album are based on the Neue Schubert-Ausgabe (NSA, New Schubert Edition), a publication project by Bärenreiter that began in 1963, is projected to consist of 101 volumes, and is expected to conclude in 2027.

The original catalog compiled by Otto Erich Deutsch lists eight symphonies, one fragment, and two sets of sketches. The “unfinished” symphony (D. 759 in B minor, consisting of an Allegro moderato, an Andante con moto, and a fragment of a scherzo), is included in that set of eight. In the original publication by Breitkopf & Härtel, what is now D. 944 was listed as Schubert’s seventh symphony. However, because it was composed after D. 759, one used to encounter some recordings that listed it as the seventh and others that listed it as the ninth. These days those numbers have been overhauled. D. 759 is now considered the seventh symphony, and D. 944 is the eighth. That is how they are listed in the new cpo release.

On the other hand, the only fragment from the original Deutsch catalog that is included is D. 729, the first 115 measures of a symphony that was never continued or completed. The other six fragments on this new release come from NSA, assigned number-letter pairs to interleave properly with the chronological sequence of the original Deutsch numbers. They are all quite short and break off “in midstream.” This makes for a somewhat frustrated listening experience, making them a perfect example for a quote that may or may not have originated with Abraham Lincoln:

Well, for people who like that kind of thing, I think that is just about the kind of thing they’d like.

More important is the listening experience that Gaigg’s ensemble offers for the symphonies now numbered from one to eight. She tends to favor brisk tempos, which can be delivered with compelling results by the reduced numbers of a historically-informed ensemble. These days, D. 944 tends to attract the most attention, at least among the conductors performing in Davies Symphony Hall; and interest tends to decline monotonically as one progresses through the earlier symphonies in chronological order. For my own part, I feel that the earliest of those symphonies deserve more attention; and Gaigg’s interpretations go a long way towards reinforcing my personal opinions.

Monday, December 20, 2021

SFGC’s Highly Imaginative Holiday Concert

For the second year in a row, the annual holiday concert of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) took place in cyberspace. Last year’s event, Island Holiday, was a relatively modest affair. Sean San José managed the comings and goings of the different choral and instrumental resources, and the results were captured on video by Joan Osato and New Art Media. For yesterday afternoon’s production, however, Taylor Joshua Rankin’s approaches to video were far more adventurous, combining familiar settings (including Davies Symphony Hall) with the imaginative products of video synthesis techniques. Taken as a whole, the diversity of those techniques was a bit overwhelming, often for the viewers and occasionally for the performers themselves; but by the end of the program the assets clearly outweighed the liabilities.

The full title of the program was Sprit of the Season: A Global Celebration of Baroque and Early Music, and the duration was roughly an hour. The program consisted of fifteen selections involving a generous range of durations. As always, the SFGC Premiere Ensemble, which performs all of the subscription programs, was joined by students at all levels of the Chorus School, from the Prep Chorus, through the Training Chorus, and up through the subsequent four levels of expertise. As in the past, those “on the way up” were joined by half a dozen SFGC alumnae. Within the Premiere Ensemble, there is also a Soloist Intensive division, which began the program with William Byrd’s “Lulla, Lullaby.”

In the past the “traditional” performances at Davies involved a fair amount of time for the different vocal groups to enter and leave the stage. Those prolonged interruptions occasionally tried the patience of the listener, but they could be accepted as necessary. Video afforded the opportunity for a more “streamlined” account of the program, as well as opportunities to transcend the limitations of the physical.

Readers may recall that, a year ago, Volti presented a video of a performance in which its sixteen vocalists were “socially distanced,” taking the affordances of Zoom technology as a point of departure. Rankin ramped up those affordances to “eleven” (thank you, Spinal Tap) with elaborate mosaics, often with stunning symmetries:

Screen shot of a performance by Chorus School students (from the YouTube video of the concert)

Now, to be fair, the  younger students clearly showed some difficulty in dealing with headsets and physical separation. However, as the level of performance skill advanced, so did the capacity for working with a wide diversity of video techniques.

Those techniques were particularly impressive when the Premier Ensemble joined forces with the program’s guest artist, violinist Edwin Huizinga. Performing in a church setting, the group presented an arrangement of the first section of the Ciaccona that concludes Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor, which was augmented with “chorale reconstructions” composed by Helga Thorne. The video for this selection was produced by Starr Sutherland with Atypical Project, and the synthesized images were positively mind-blowing.

The video experience, taken as a whole, may not have consistently risen to the standards of sophisticated technology coupled with excellent musical technique. However, there was no doubt that more than considerable imagination went into creating this video. Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe merits a vigorous shout-out for managing such an impressive enterprise and consistently holding the attention of viewers throughout the entire performance.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

SFCM Highlights: February, 2022

Highlighted concerts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) will resume this coming February. That month will include the return of the SFCM Chamber Music Tuesday concerts held in the Barbro Osher Recital Hall on the top floor of the Ute and William K. Bowes Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. This will be one of the five unique genres taking place during the month. As in the past, all the events enumerated below will be identified by date, time, and venue, all of which will be hyperlinked to the appropriate Web page in the online Performance Calendar. Those events will continue to be live-streamed through a link provided on that Web page, which will also indicate whether or not tickets will be required for attendance. Specifics for this month’s events are as follows:

Tuesday, February 8, 7:30 p.m., Barbro Osher Recital Hall, 200 Van Ness Avenue: This program will be framed by two “first” piano quartets, both in minor keys. The opening selection will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 478 in G minor, and the program will conclude with Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 15 in C minor. Between these two quartets will be Mieczysław Weinberg’s Opus 48 string trio. Faculty members Simon James, Ian Swensen, Dimitri Murrath, Jennifer Culp, and Jean-Michel Fonteneau will perform with Chamber Music students.

Saturday, February 12, 7:30 p.m., Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, 50 Oak Street: Conductor Edwin Outwater will return to lead the next concert to be given by the SFCM Orchestra. This will be the program that highlights the world premiere of the winning composition from the 2020 Highsmith Competition. “Romancero gitano: Preciosa y el aire” was written by alumnus composer Juan María Prieto Iborra. This piece will begin the second half of the program and will be followed by the work of another living composer, Gabriela Lena Frank’s concerto for orchestra entitled “Walkabout.” The first half of the program will be devoted entirely to Maurice Ravel, beginning with the orchestral version of “Alborada del Gracioso,” followed by the second of the two suites extracted from the score for the one-act ballet “Daphnis et Chloé.” The opening selection will be led by student conductor Jaco Wong (class of ’22).

Sunday, February 13, 2 p.m., Barbro Osher Recital Hall, 200 Van Ness Avenue: SFCM Baroque Orchestra Directors Elisabeth Reed and Corey Jamason will present the winners of the Baroque Ensemble Concerto Competition. Rocío López Sánchez will begin the program with Luigi Boccherini’s G 480 cello concerto in G major. This will be followed by what is probably the most familiar work to be presented, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1041 violin concerto in A minor, with violin soloist Annemarie Schubert. Kyle Stachnik will then conclude with a cello concerto in D minor by Antonio Vivaldi. Since the sources I have accumulated through both listening and reviewing account for three D minor concertos (RV 405, 406, and 407), I am not prepared to guess which of these will be played! Both soloists and ensemble members will be playing historically-informed instruments.

Thursday, February 17, and Friday, February 18, 7:30 p.m., Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, 50 Oak Street: Michael Mohammed, Director of the Musical Theatre Workshop, will stage The Apple Tree, a series of three one-acts with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, better known for the full-length musical Fiddler on the Roof. Bock and Harnick also contributed to the book, working with Jerome Coopersmith. Each act draws upon a different literary source: Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Frank R. Stockton’s enigmatic short story “The Lady, or the Tiger?,” and Jules Feiffer’s story “Passionella.” The Music Director will be Michael Horsley.

Saturday, February 19, 7:30 p.m., Sol Joseph Recital Hall: The New Music Ensemble will give its next performance, led by its Director Nicole Paiement, who will share conducting duties with Wong. The program will be devoted to living composers with one notable exception: the concluding selection will be Tōru Takemitsu’s “Tree Line.” The opening selection will also reflect on the past. “In Memoriam Muhal Richard Abrams” was composed by Tyshawn Sorey. Abrams was one of the four founders of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago and served as its first president in 1965. The other composers on Paiement’s program will be Anna S. Þorvaldsdóttir, Ian Dicke, and Linda Buckley.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Oscar Peterson in Helsinki in 1987

courtesy of DL Media

Back in the pre-pandemic age of socializing, I would often find myself in conversation with other amateur pianists. Mostly we would talk about recitals and recordings in the classical genre, but every now and then we would shift over to jazz pianists. Usually the conversation would begin with Thelonious Monk; but, in the broader scope of history, the other name that would occur frequently would be Oscar Peterson.

This was not a surprising topic. Peterson’s own technique seems to have derived from his own pantheon of “keyboard giants” from the past. One of them was Johann Sebastian Bach, and another was Art Tatum. That should not surprise anyone. Both of them understood the “sweet spot” where both invention and technical dexterity cohabited; and Tatum appreciated the classical genre as much as Peterson did (although one of his own influences was his contemporary, Sergei Rachmaninoff).

Those reflections should serve as context when considering a new release from Mack Avenue Records at the end of last month: A Time for Love: The Oscar Peterson Quartet – Live in Helsinki, 1987. This is a two-CD album that documents the final concert of a fourteen-city tour that began in South America and concluded in Europe. The first CD consists of five Peterson originals. In the context of history, the most impressive of these is “A Salute to Bach.” Over the course of about twenty minutes, Peterson unfolds a three-movement homage, dealing more with that context of invention and dexterity than with appropriating any of Bach’s themes or motifs.

On the second CD that same extended duration is directed at a medley of six selections from Duke Ellington’s book, all of which may be regarded as classics in their own right. What is important, however, is that Ellington is not the only composer contributing to this medley. Peterson begins with Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A” Train” before advancing into three Ellington standards: “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Come Sunday, and “C Jam Blues.” He then returns to Strayhorn with “Lush Life” before wrapping up with “Caravan,” which Ellington composed in partnership with his trombonist Juan Tizol.

On that CD the Ellington medley is preceded by compositions by Johnny Mandel (“A Time for Love”), Morgan Lewis (“How High the Moon”), Benny Goodman (“Soft Winds”), Bill Evans (“Waltz for Debby”), and Leigh Harline (“When You Wish Upon a Star”). After those six tracks, the CD concludes with one last Peterson original “Blues Etude.” It goes without saying that Peterson’s command of invention and dexterity unfolds just as imaginatively when he takes on other composers as when he is playing his own works.

The other members of the quartet are guitarist Joe Pass, Dave Young on bass, and drummer Marin Drew. Pass, of course, commands his own toolbox of invention and dexterity. One of the most impressive aspects of this Helsinki date as the frequency with which Peterson allows Pass to take the foreground. (“When You Wish Upon a Star” is given a solo performance by Pass, complementing Peterson’s solo take on “Waltz for Debby”). To some extent this amounts to a mutual admiration society. More often than not, the attentive listener is likely to feel as if (s)he is eavesdropping on a highly intimate conversation, in which sharing one’s fondest thoughts takes priority over any sense of one-upmanship.

Nevertheless, the resulting inventions are so prolific that one is likely to listen to all of the tracks several times, just to make sure that the act of listening can keep up with the act of playing.

After Almost Two Years Sirota Will Get Premiere

The Telegraph Quartet (above) with Abigail Fischer and Robert Sirota (below) (courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Those with long memories may recall that, at the end of February of 2020, this site previewed a series of three performances by the Telegraph Quartet (violinists Joseph Maile and Eric Chin, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw) to present “Contrapassos,” a new composition by Robert Sirota scored for string quartet and soprano. Those concerts were scheduled for the following month, making them some of the earliest offerings to sustain cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This past Thursday the word went out that all three of the performances have been rescheduled.

Given how much time has elapsed, it seems appropriate simply to repeat the background information that was provided in the original preview article:  The libretto was written by Stevan Cavalier, who explains the text he wrote as follows:

Contrapasso is an Italian term from Dante's time meaning a punishment made by inversion of a sin. For example, one who in life was mired in the vain pursuit of worldly goods, is condemned after death to wander eternally in boiling mud. In this poem, dreams may be regarded as the contrapassos of waking life.

Sirota, in turn, has explained the structure of his composition:

The piece begins with memories of the quotidian joys of childhood, quickly turning to darkness and thoughts of early death by suicide, heart attacks in middle age, and final judgment. And yet throughout, there is the vigorous embrace of abundant life, of the beauty of our world, and of our striving for faith.

As originally planned the world premiere of “Contrapassos” will be presented by the Sierra Chamber Society in Walnut Creek. However, shortly thereafter, Telegraph will offer two additional performances within the San Francisco City limits. Both of these will be presented without charge.

The first will be presented by Noontime Concerts, and the program will also include a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 132 quartet in A minor. The Beethoven offering will be the only change to the program that was planned in 2020. The original selection was Opus 131 in C-sharp minor. However, Opus 132 is distinguished by its middle movement, which is about twenty minutes in duration, for which Beethoven provided a title: “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode). We may not yet be out of the “COVID woods” entirely; but the spirit behind that title still seems appropriate.

Noontime Concerts events take place regularly at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays. This particular program will be performed on February 8. The event will take place in the sanctuary of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which is located in Chinatown at 660 California Street, on the northeast corner of Grant Street. There is no charge for admission, but this concert series relies heavily on donations to continue offering its weekly programs.

The second performance will take place in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). While the Noontime Concerts offering will only be an hour in duration, SFCM will present a full-length concert program. Thus, in addition to the works by Beethoven and Sirota, Fischer will also join Telegraph in a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 10 (second) string quartet in F-sharp minor, whose final two movements include a soprano along with the quartet.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 10. The SFCM building is located at 50 Oak Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni Station. There will be no charge for admission, but reservations are highly recommended for those wishing to attend. The SFCM event page for this concert includes hyperlinks both for making reservations and for viewing the performance through a live stream.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Music In the Mishkan Announces 22nd Season

Readers may recall that violinist Randall Weiss, Music Director of the Music in the Mishkan series, launched that series’ 21st season on February 9, 2019. This was followed, a little less than a month later, by the second concert on March 1. Sadly, the final concert, scheduled for April 26, had to be cancelled due to lockdown conditions imposed in response to the need to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Two years on, Weiss and his regularly appearing colleagues, all performing under the collective name The Bridge Players, are ready to launch the series’ 22nd season. As in the past, both Weiss and pianist Marilyn Thomson will perform at all three of the concerts in the series. That means that, over the course of the season, there will be both familiar and new faces participating in the recitals. Program details are as follows:

January 16: Last year, while working under pandemic conditions, Brian S. Wilson composed a piano trio entitled “Alchunun ben Mordechai.” This will be the central work on the first program of the season, framed by two nineteenth-century “standards.” The program will begin with Robert Schumann’s Opus 63 (first) piano trio in D minor and conclude with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 49 piano trio, also in D minor. The cellist that will join Weiss and Thompson will be Michael Graham.

March 20: The major work on this program will be the final selection, Johannes Brahms’ Opus 25 (first) piano quartet in G minor. Weiss and Thompson will be joined by violist Patricia Whaley and cellist Victoria Ehrlich. The program will begin with Arthur Foote’s Opus 65 (first) piano trio in B-flat major. This will be followed by a performance of George Gershwin’s three piano preludes.

May 1: The final program will also conclude with a piano quartet. This one will be Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 15 (first) quartet in C minor. For this program the violist will be Natalia Vershilova, joined by cellist Matthew Linamen. The program will begin with Alexander Krein’s “Elegy,” which will be followed by the first of Ludwig van Beethoven’s two Opus 70 piano trios, this one composed in the key of D minor.

All three of these concerts will take place on a Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. As in the past, the venue will be Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, located at 290 Dolores Street at the northwest corner of 16th Street. Tickets for the general public are $25, but members of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav will be admitted for $20. There is also a discounted rate for the three-concert series of $65 for general admission and $50 for members of the congregation. Tickets may be purchased in advance with a credit card by calling Congregation Sha’ar Zahav at 415-861-6932. They may also be acquired online through a Web page, which supports online purchase of both single tickets and subscriptions. This Web page also allows for additional donations to Sha'ar Zahav.

All attendees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Those planning to attend can send a digital image of their vaccination record to They can also show either a printed copy or an image on a cell phone at the door. There will be no physical tickets, only a record of the names of those attending the performance. All attendees must be masked while in the building. Those who do not wish to visit Sha’ar Zahav will also have the option of viewing the performance on Zoom. As part of the process of purchasing tickets, they may request that a Zoom link will be provided prior to the event.

Gidon Kremer on Warner: Twentieth Century

As was observed at the beginning of this month, the lion’s share of performances offered in the Warner Classics release Gidon Kremer: The Warner Collection consists of works composed during the twentieth century. While this involves many of the “usual suspects,” such as Igor Stravinsky, Jean Sibelius, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Alban Berg, and Benjamin Britten, Kremer was far more interested in using the recording studio to bring attention to composers that were less known when he was preparing programs for his albums. This was a bold move, because much of this music challenged listeners with its thorny rhetoric, while other selections came off as decidedly remote from concert hall settings.

Original album cover showing Gidon Kremer, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Yuri Bashmet (from the Web page)

The largest share of those thorny offerings came from the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke. Like many, I was unaware of the composer until the emergence of compact discs and the release of The Alfred Schnittke Edition by BIS Records, based in Sweden. As previously observed, Kremer’s performances of Schnittke’s music can also be found in his albums for the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) 22-CD box set of concerto recordings; but the Warner collection offers a far more extensive and diverse account of that composer’s catalog. There is even an element of “star power” in the CD that has Kremer playing two Schnittke selections with violist Yuri Bashmet and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

The other composer to receive generous attention is Astor Piazzolla. One might say that Rostropovich was responsible for bringing Piazzolla out of the Argentinian tango dance halls when the latter composed “Le Grand Tango” for the former. Rostropovich gave the work its first performance in 1990, and later in that decade Kremer would work with several arrangers to prepare “concert versions” of Piazzolla’s music.

Ironically, the most familiar of those undertakings, an arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov best known as The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, is not included in the Warner anthology. Instead, Kremer was involved in a project to record far less familiar music by Piazzolla, the tango operita (tango opera) “María de Buenos Aires,” which was first performed in Buenos Aires on May 8, 1968. Readers may recall that a recording of this one-act opera was discussed on this site in March of 2019. The instrumentation followed that of Piazzolla’s quintet for the tango halls: bandoneon, violin, piano, guitar, and bass. Desyatnikov’s arrangement keeps the bandoneon, violin, piano, and bass but then adds flute, viola, cello, and percussion. Sadly, neither a libretto nor a synopsis is provided; and the titles of the tableaux (cuadros) are given only in Spanish.

The entire opera fills two CDs. There is then a third CD of Piazzolla compositions provided by three different arrangers. Desyatnikov’s contribution is a transcription for violin and string orchestra of “Tango Ballet,” which Piazzolla originally composed for string quartet. This is followed by “Concierto del Angel,” transcribed by Rolf Gupta for violin, bandoneon, bass, piano, and string orchestra. As was the case with Four Seasons, this is a compilation of four individual Piazzolla compositions. The final transcription is by José Bragato, who arranged Four Seasons for piano trio. “Tres piezas para orquesta de camera,” scored for piano and string orchestra, is an arrangement of three short pieces for cello and piano, which were collected and published as Piazzolla’s Opus 4.

Desyatnikov’s original music can be found on an album entitled Le Cinema. The album, as a whole, includes both original compositions and arrangements. Kremer performs with pianist Oleg Maisenberg, along with Andrey Boreyko conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, the orchestra originally founded in 1946 by American occupation forces. Piazzolla’s music can also be found on this album, along with two selections by Nino Rota (Federico Fellini’s preferred composer). This album also marks the only appearances of Dmitri Shostakovich, Darius Milhaud, and Toru Takemitsu.

The other “themed” album is entitled From my Home. “Home” refers not only to Latvia, where Kremer was born, but also to the other two Baltic states, Lithuania and Estonia. While Kremer would subsequently champion Arvo Pärt in recordings he released on ECM, this earlier album includes only the 1992 version of “Fratres,” scored for violin, string orchestra (the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie), and percussion. Pēteris Vasks (also Latvian) can be found on this album with his “Musica Dolorosa,” scored for string orchestra; but there is also an entire CD devoted to two Vasks compositions. This is the only CD in the collection in which Kremer is performing with his Kamerata Baltica.

Taken as a whole, this collection of twentieth-century music is a mixed bag. Some may find this frustrating for the unfamiliarity of much of the content.  Others will laud the opportunity to encounter unknown compositions by barely-known (if at all) composers. Such novelty is most accessible when useful background information has been provided, but the text of the accompanying booklet offers more information about Kremer than about his repertory choices. The good news is that there is much on the Internet to satisfy those more interested in the music itself.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

New Dates Announced for PUSH Premiere

[updated 1/19, 4 p.m.: All three performances of The Motley Experiment have been cancelled.]

Some readers may recall that The Motley Experiment was scheduled for its world premiere performances at the end of March of 2020. Those performances by Raissa Simpson’s PUSH Dance Company, like many other performances that month, had to contend with cancellation due to the lockdown conditions imposed as a reaction to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost two years later, Simpson’s full-length multimedia dance work will finally be given its premiere.

The work was conceived as an exploration of the efforts of Jazz Age painter Archibald Motley. The narrative is structured around the experiences of a very light-skinned Black woman passing for white in social settings during the height of the Harlem Renaissance of the Twenties. The choreography involves ten dancers performing in a digital landscape, which is structured around the display of five of Motley’s paintings. Multi-instrumentalist Idris Ackamoor has prepared a score for this performance, and the music will be performed live by Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids.

The Motley Experiment will be given three performances taking place at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, February 19, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 20. The Bayview Opera House is located at 4705 3rd Street. This is located a short walk from a stop for the Muni T line between Newcomb Avenue and Oakdale Avenue. Ticket prices for all performances are $10, $25, and $50 for for general admission. Sales are not yet being processed; but there is a Web page with a hyperlink, which will be updated when tickets are available. Those wishing to purchase tickets may wish to examine the online checklist for COVID safety. This must be completed within 72 hours of the performance being attended and, as of this writing, requires reporting the date of the most recent Test Results but not any information about vaccination.