Thursday, May 6, 2021

Evangelista’s Improv Series: Second Installment

Some readers may recall the account of the launch of Unsolitary this past November. Avant-garde guitarist Karl Evangelista planned this as a quarterly series of improvised music, but the second installment did not take place until last night. As was the case with the first installment, Unsolitary II consisted of three pre-recorded sets live-streamed through YouTube and now with a Web page that is available for viewing at any time. As the was case with the first installment, the overall duration was about 80 minutes.

This time the three sets were ordered to begin with a solo, followed by a duo, and concluding with a trio. However, each set had its own characteristic style and approach to improvisation. Kim Nucci opened the program, presiding over an intimidatingly complex array of analog synthesis gear configured by a rat’s net of connecting cables:

Kim Nucci’s analog synthesis improvisation (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Presumably, the configuration was her own design, assembled from her own selection of components. These included oscillators, control modules for characteristics such as filters and amplitude envelopes, and an array of knobs and sliders to “control the controls.” As can be seen in the above photograph, Nucci wore headphones throughout the performance; and I suspect the audio track of the video was taken from that same source. (No loudspeakers were involved in the making of this music.) The set lasted for a little less than twenty minutes, amounting to Nucci’s “journey of control” through the diverse sonorities afforded by her gear.

The second set brought alto saxophonist Lewis Jordan together with Evangelista playing guitar with electronic enhancements. This was a performance of freely improvised jazz, occupied more with give-and-take between the two musicians than with riffs on familiar tunes. Both of these musicians established and maintained attention through the clarity of execution. The overall structure (such as it was) combined solo riffs, give-and-take exchanges, and superposition of “independent excursions” by the two performers. This also went on for about twenty minutes, during which there was never a dull moment.

The remaining 40 minutes of the program were taken by the Nathan Clevenger Trio, led by Clevenger, who alternated between a piano, which seemed to have been endowed with some internal preparations, and a guitar. Cory Wright alternated among clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor saxophone; and Jordan Glenn sat behind his drum kit. Personally, I felt that the level of interpersonal engagement was far less than had been established between Jordan and Evangelista.

Also, I noticed that all the performers had music stands. This left me wondering about the relationship between notation and improvisation in this trio set. Nevertheless, that wondering did not carry me very far. On the whole, there was a sense of sameness across the four selections performed by the trio, the only real diversity coming from the variety of sonorities across Wright’s different wind instruments.

That said, there was still more than enough in-the-moment music-making to appeal to the interests of the adventurous listener.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Joseph Szigeti’s Columbia Recordings

1950 photograph of violinist Joseph Szigeti (from the Cushing Memorial Library of Texas A&M University, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

After several delays, all of which were probably due to the impact of COVID-19 on “business as usual,” Sony Classical finally released its anthology Joseph Szigeti: The Complete Columbia Album Collection about a month ago. Szigeti, a Hungarian violinist, was a leading figure during the twentieth century. He was a notable colleague of Ferruccio Busoni, Béla Bartok, Ernest Bloch, and Eugène Ysaÿe, the last of whom dedicated his first solo violin sonata to him. (Ysaÿe’s Opus 27 is a collection of six solo sonatas, each of which is dedicated to a different virtuoso violinist reflecting the respective composer’s style.)

The very first CD in the Sony collection is probably the best reflection of these connections. It begins with the first of Bartók’s two virtuoso rhapsodies, originally composed for violin and piano and subsequently arranged for violin and orchestra. Bartók wrote this piece for Szigeti, and Columbia recorded the two of them performing the composition on May 2, 1940. The following May 13 they returned to the World Broadcasting Studios in New York, this time joined by clarinetist Benny Goodman, to perform what is probably the most authoritative account of Bartók’s three-movement “Contrasts.”

While the collection does not include the concerto that Bloch wrote for Szigeti, that first CD also includes his 1923 Baal Shem suite, composed when Bloch was teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music and given the subtitle “3 Pictures of Chassidic Life.” After these three pieces, however, there is a disappointing lapse in adventurous content. This is particularly disconcerting where the concerto is involved, since Discogs has a Web page for a Columbia vinyl that coupled the Baal Shem performance with one of the Bloch violin concerto played by Szigeti under the baton of Charles Munch conducting the Orchestra De La Société Des Concerts Du Conservatoire in Paris.

On the more positive side, there is a complete account of Szigeti’s performances at the Prades Festival. Based in the Pyrénées-Orientales department in the Occitanie region of Southern France, this festival was launched by cellist Pablo Casals in 1950 to commemorate the bicentenary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Columbia provided recordings of the performances at those annual festivals. Of particular interest is the recording from the 1953 festival of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 87 (second) piano trio in C major, with Szigeti joined by Casals on cello and Myra Hess on piano. Hess also accompanied Szigeti in a performance of Franz Schubert’s D. 574 sonata in A major. There are also three recordings of Casals conducting Bach, which are definitely valuable historical documents but are not likely to go down very well with “Bach purists.”

In general, there is much to be said for the company that Szigeti keeps. For my part the deepest impressions come from the recordings he made of the piano and violin sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven (as the composer himself described them) with the piano part taken by Mieczysław Horszowski. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that Horszowski also accompanied Szigeti in a recording of Busoni’s Opus 36a second violin sonata in E minor. This can be found on the penultimate CD in the collection, coupled with Szigeti’s performance of Busoni’s Opus 35a concerto in D major with The Little Orchestra Society conducted by Thomas Scherman.

In other words whatever liabilities there may be in this collection, they are more than sufficiently balanced by a wealth of assets.

An Early Celebration of Mother’s Day from OP

Banner for tomorrow evening’s recital (from its Opera Parallèle event page)

Tomorrow night Opera Parallèle will present its third free “celebratory” recital in its Close-Up series. This one will be an early celebration of Mother’s Day. The recitalist will be mezzo Kindra Scharich, accompanied at the piano by Jeffrey LaDeur.

There will be two particularly “maternal” selections on the program. One will be “Nature, the Gentlest Mother,” the first of Aaron Copland’s settings of twelve poems by Emily Dickinson. The other will be “Benedeit dis sei’ge Mutter” (blessed be the happy mother), the thirteenth song in the second book of Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch (Italian songbook). The least familiar of the offerings will be the second of a set of four folk song settings by Mozart Camargo Guarnieri entitled simply “Cantiga.” The program will begin with Franz Schubert’s D. 547 “An die Musik” (to music) and will also include “St. Ita’s Vision” from Samuel Barber’s Opus 29 Hermit Songs. The program will conclude with Jerome Kern’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” composed with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II for the film High, Wide, and Handsome.

This recital will be live-streamed tomorrow evening, May 6, at 5 p.m. Hyperlinks for both Facebook and YouTube will be posted on the Opera Parallèle event page tomorrow afternoon at 3 p.m. That Web page also includes a sign-up hyperlink, allowing those links to be received in an electronic mail reminder, which will be sent at 4 p.m. (one hour prior to the beginning of the performance). The full performance will be available on-demand until Thursday, June 17, at 5 p.m.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Malinowski’s WTC Project: Book I, Second Half

This past January I learned that Stephen Malinowski had completed his project to create animated visualizations of all of the preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. At that time I felt it would be a good idea to survey the entire collection of visualizations. As I wrote when I began this undertaking, I had forgotten that I had written about the 24 couplings of preludes and fugues in the first of Bach’s two books in July of 2016, but it seemed reasonable to take on the full collection of 48 couplings. I also discovered that, on the basis of attention fatigue, the best I would be able to manage in a single shot would be twelve of those couplings. As a result, on January 19 I wrote about the chromatic traversal from C major (BWV 846) to F minor (BWV 857).

Today, a little less than four months later, I finally pulled together the time to view the remainder of the first book from F-sharp major (BWV 858) to B minor (BWV 869). By all rights, this should have involved 24 videos, assuming separate videos for preludes and fugues. However, this was not the case. Each BWV number is assigned to a prelude-fugue coupling; and those couplings are joined into a single video for the keys of A-flat major (BWV 862) and G-sharp minor (BWV 863). In addition, there are selections for which Malinowski created two different visualizations, such as the BWV 859 prelude in F-sharp minor. This should explain why the playlist for the first book consists of 46 (rather than 48) videos.

At this point I should note that I have mixed feelings about the playlist. No matter how many recordings have been released and recitals been performed, there is no evidence that Bach ever intended either of the two books for “concert performance.” As I re-emphasized in January, these books were written for pedagogical purposes; and each visualization of a prelude or a fugue should be taken on its own terms. When Malinowski decided to include a segue from prelude to fugue in his visualization, that was his own aesthetic decision. Personally, I was glad to be relieved of the bother of cuing up each video individually!

My own concern, however, has to do with the nature of “reading” these videos. As I observed in January, there are both syntactic and semantic elements in those visualizations; and both require a “learning curve” on the part of the viewer. I would guess, however, that anyone whose listening experiences have led to familiarity with these Bach compositions will grasp the logic behind Malinowski’s interpretations with little difficulty. Whether visualization leads to new insights that might not have been evident from simply listening to the music (or even reading the music notation) will probably depend on both the experience and the attitude of the listener.

For the most part, I found the videos I experienced during this second round to “make sense” with my understanding of each of the pieces being visualized. However, I would like to call attention to one video that revealed a prankish side of Malinowski’s technique. He created two visualizations for the B-flat major (BWV 866) fugue. The first one visualizes only the descending whole step that concludes the fugue subject. As the fugue progresses, there are a few instances of a half step, as well as the occasional ascension when the subject is inverted. The result is a screen full of blank space punctuated only by these squiggly cadential references:

screen shot from the first YouTube video for the BWV 866 fugue in B-flat major

Having had his fun, Malinowski then presents a second video which gives a more thorough note-by-note visualization of the same fugue.

Sometime a bit of prankishness can enhance even the most disciplined theoretical study.

VIRTUAL Salon to Feature 17th-Century England

Apparently, my announcement of the next performance in the PBO/VIRTUAL Salon Series, one of the streamed offerings of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBO) & Chorale, was either premature or just plain incorrect. I had previously announced that the second concert in this series was scheduled for April 22, two weeks after the first concert on April 8. Now it appears that the interval is one month, rather than two weeks, meaning that the next streamed recital in this series will take place this coming Thursday.

This recital has been given the somewhat prankish title GIBBONS/BLOW: What? … No Purcell?!, and it will present two compositions by each of two seventeenth-century English composers. The second of these composers is John Blow, a name that is probably familiar to aficionados of early music. The Gibbons in the title, however, is not the better-known Orlando Gibbons, a well-known composer of English madrigals. Rather, the selections will be by Gibbons’ son John. He will be represented by a four-part fantasy in A minor, which will be performed by violinists Katherine Kyme and Carla Moore, violist Maria Caswell, and William Skeen on gamba. His other composition will be a “fantasy suite,” scored for two violins, gamba, and continuo (to be taken by Jory Vinikour at the harpsichord). The Blow compositions will be a chaconne in G major and a suite of instrumental music from the opera Venus and Adonis.

This video will be streamed this coming Thursday, May 6, at 8 p.m. The entire program should last about half an hour. The performances will be recorded from the Herbst Theatre stage. All necessary information can be found on the Web page for this concert. This includes a “coming soon” button, which will link to the video Web page in time for the performance. There are also three useful pull-down menus. These include one for the content of the entire program, one for program notes written by Scholar-in-Residence Bruce Lamott, and one for a glossary (also by Lamott, which may be consulted while reading his notes).

Lindberg in the Last Decade of the 20th Century

This coming Friday Ondine will release its latest album of works by Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hannu Lintu. The last time I wrote about this composer was in September of 2018, when Ondine had released a recording of the same resources playing two Lindberg compositions, his second violin concerto, which he completed in 2015, and “Tempus fugit” (time flies), which was composed between 2016 and 2017. The new album presents three much earlier works, all concluded during the final decade of the twentieth century. As usual, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for this recording.

Each of these pieces has its own unique approach to resources. The earliest of these, “Marea” (the Italian word for “tide”), is scored for a “sinfonietta-sized orchestra” (according to the booklet notes by Kimmo Korhonen, translated into English by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, which distinguish the ensemble from a “chamber orchestra”). It was composed between 1989 and 1990. The major work on the album is “Aura – in memoriam Witold Lutosławski,” composed between 1993 and 1994. Consisting of four movements played without interruption, the booklet describes the piece as “a grand synthesis of Magnus Lindberg’s output in the 1990s, and … one of the most prominent monumental orchestral works of its time.” The remaining work was composed much later in the decade in 1997. “Related Rocks” is scored for two pianos, two percussionists, and electronics; and, as can be seen from the booklet photograph of the recording session, requires a conductor:

© Yle, courtesy of Naxos of America

I had not been aware of Lindberg until I made my move from multimedia research in Silicon Valley into honing my skills at writing about music from my new home in San Francisco. That was around the time that Lindberg was appointed composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic. Unless I am mistaken, my first encounter with his music took place in June of 2008 at a San Francisco Symphony (SFS) subscription concert led by guest conductor Sakari Oramo. The performance was the West Coast premiere of Lindberg’s “Seht die Sonne,” which had been jointly commissioned by SFS and the Berlin Philharmonic (which gave the first performance conducted by Simon Rattle). I suspect that a tacit connection to Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder had something to do with piquing my attention; and after that concert I became hooked on subsequent opportunities to encounter Lindberg’s music, as well as his skills as a performer.

In that context I should confess that my interest in Lutosławski was never that strong. Nevertheless, I have to confess that, once I set about to hone my listening skills, opportunities to listen to his music in concert tended to be more satisfying than I anticipated. When Lindberg began his work on “Aura,” Lutosławski was still alive; and Lindberg had drawn upon a structural strategy developed by Lutosławski to develop the architecture of this large-scale composition. Ironically, Lutosławski died while Lindberg was still working on “Aura,” prompting him to dedicate the work to the Polish composer’s memory.

I would say that, as a listener, I found myself more drawn to Lindberg than I had ever been to Lutosławski. My guess is that the reasons for this attraction have much to do with Lindberg’s capacity for rhetorical devices that both attract and maintain attention. Indeed, that keen sense of rhetoric cuts cleanly across all three of the compositions on this album, all the way down to the composer’s judicious approach to the use of electronics in the most recent of the three compositions. I suspect that this new album is one that I shall be likely to revisit in the future as a reminder of the persuasive powers of Lindberg’s rhetorical skills.

Earplay Streams Premiere of “Second Survival”

Last night Earplay launched the streaming of the eighth installment in its First Mondays series of video performances. The music performed was Linda Bouchard’s “Second Survival,” which lasted roughly twelve minutes. The video was made in conjunction with the world premiere of this composition, which was written under a commission by the Fromm Music Foundation. The performance took place on March 20, 2017 at the ODC Theatre.

The music itself is a revised version of “Systematic Survival,” which Bouchard composed in 2009. The composer described the piece as “about the wonder I feel at our ability to endure and to persevere in the face of challenges – and to create unlikely systems to sustain ourselves through the journey.” This is the sort of language that usually provokes me to display the Spock-like gesture of the raised eyebrow.

The notes that Bouchard prepared for the performance fared much better when she was writing about the music, rather than herself. The piece was performed by all seven of the Earplayers, since it was scored for alto flute (Tod Brody), bass clarinet (Peter Josheff), violin (Terrie Baune), viola (Ellen Ruth Rose), cello (Thalia Moore), and prepared piano (Brenda Tom); and Brenda Tom conducted. Much of the score involves interplay between the winds and the strings, often with rhythms that seem to teeter on the edge of synchronization. The piano, on the other hand, provides a continuo of sorts, synthesizing percussive gestures with the unconventional sonorities of muted strings.

To go back to the Bouchard quote, the attentive listener is likely to respond to this auditory experience with a sense of wonder. However, the listening experience is not necessarily one of the journey that the composer had in mind. Rather, it is a panorama of highly innovative sonorities, which allows the listener to allow his/her attention to peregrinate among the sources of those sonorities.

In many respects the video facilitates that peregrination, allowing the viewer to observe who is doing what as the performance progresses. Unfortunately, that video is the product of a single fixed camera, meaning that there are significant limitations in what one sees. Tom, for example, is almost entirely obscured, visible only when she rises to play the piano from its strings, rather than its keyboard. On the right-hand side of the image,  Brody’s body is clearly visible, but at an angle that takes in only the mouthpiece of his flute. Josheff, on the other hand, is mostly obscured by Brody except for occasional glances of his bass clarinet.

My guess is that the video was not originally intended for public release, serving more as an archival document of the performance, to be consulted should another performance be scheduled. That said, I have to say I would be only too happy for such a follow-up performance to take place, since I was otherwise engaged on the evening of the world premiere. In such a context I would find this video as valuable a resource for listeners as for the performers; and, if the viewing may feel a bit frustrating from time to time, the listening experience remains thoroughly engaging from start to finish.

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Bleeding Edge: 5/3/2021

Once again there was a one-week hiatus in these reports, since the last Bleeding Edge article appeared on April 19. This time, however, that gap has been compensated by a more generous number of events. One of these offerings, the second installment in Karl Evagenlista’s Unsolitary series of improvised performances, was announced at the end of last week. However, as was the case last month, most of this week’s “action” will be taking place under the auspices of the Mills College Music Department and the Center for Contemporary Music. Specifics are as follows:

Tuesday, May 4, 7 p.m.: The Mills Student Musicians will perform in the spring Showcase Concert. One of them, Maisha Lani, will perform two of her own compositions, “The Wolf” and “Bap Boom,” providing her own instrumental and electronic accompaniment. The one ensemble performance will be of John Cage’s “Six,” performed by the students in the Mills Percussion Ensemble directed by William Winant. Sam Regan will provide the audio mix for the video stream. Other featured soloists will be vocalists Lillith Era and Julia “Jett” Barker. This will be the latest free program in the Music From Mills Classes series. The event page for this concert will provide a link for on-demand viewing at showtime.

Wednesday, May 5, 5 p.m.: Zeena Parkins will direct the next Selected Issues in Contemporary Composition and Improvisation performance at Mills. The title of the program will be Sounds of the Sonosphere, Poetic Responses to Listening. This will be the next free program in the Music From Mills Classes series. The event page for this concert has an embedded video player.

Wednesday, May 5, 8 p.m.: This will be an Introduction to Electronic Music Concert presented by the ten students in the class taught by Kaori Suzuki. The title of the program will be Imagine the Music as a Moving Chain or Caterpillar. All of the offerings will be based on experiments in working with analog technology based on voltage-controlled synthesis. In the course of the performance, all noise and accidents are welcome. This will be the next free program in the Music From Mills Classes series. The event page for this concert will provide the link for on-demand viewing at showtime.

Thursday, May 6, 5 p.m.: The Audium Theater is a pitch-black, 176-speaker space. It is the only theater of its kind in the world, pioneering the exploration of space in music for over 45 years. It has recently been upgraded and now allows for crisper and more immersive sound movement than ever before. Audium Sound Hour is the first performance to be given in the new space. Each performance is private, charging $100 for up to four people and $25 for each additional person with a maximum of ten in the audience. Ticketing is handled through a City Box Office event page. Note that, as of this writing, tickets are available for 5 p.m. on May 6; but subsequent performances are sold out until 8 p.m. on Friday, May 7.

Piano Break pianist Jenny Q Chai (courtesy of Peter McDowell Arts Consulting)

Friday, May 7, 5 p.m.: This week’s Piano Break streamed recital presented by the Ross McKee Foundation definitely counts as a Bleeding Edge event. Jenny Q Chai will take a multimedia approach to presenting her program. This will include two of György Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata compositions (the first and the seventh), which will be performed with visualizations of global warming data compiled by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. She will also perform the Bay Area premiere of Milica Pavlovic’s “Paranosic Bubble (in trouble),” played in a setting of a bubble machine and lights. In a somewhat more conventional setting, Jarosław Kapuściński’s “Side Effects” will be played in a setting of photographs by Kacper Kowalski. This will be the final selection in a program that will begin with Kapuściński’s “Oli’s Dream.” The other multimedia offering will be Andy Akiho’s arrangement of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” (also being given its Bay Area premiere) in a setting of paintings by Camryn Connolly. The overall title of this program will be Humanity First: We Are All In This Together. The concert will last under an hour and will be streamed through YouTube. The link for this video will be posted on the Web page for the Ross McKee Foundation YouTube channel.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Calidore String Quartet’s SHCS Recital

Calidore String Quartet members Jeremy Berry, Estelle Choi, Ryan Meehan, and Jeffrey Myers (from a 2019 announcement announcement of one of their programs)

This afternoon the Baltimore-based Shriver Hall Concert Series (SHCS) concluded its 2021 Virtual Season with a performance by the Calidore String Quartet of violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi. It is worth noting that this ensemble is no stranger to San Francisco, thanks to San Francisco Performances (SFP). They made their SFP debut in Herbst Theatre in January of 2019, performing with pianist Inon Barnatan in a program dedicated entirely to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. On that occasion their primary contribution was to provide “orchestral” accompaniment for four of Bach’s keyboard concertos. The following October the quartet returned to SFP and Herbst, this time playing “real” string quartets by Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven distinguished by final movements based on fugues.

The video for their SHCS performance was pre-recorded at a private home in New York City. It featured the world streaming premiere of a composition by Hannah Lash, which she identifies as her first string quartet. She had actually composed an earlier quartet in 2004 entitled “Four Still;” but she decided to attach a number to this composition consisting of four untitled movements. Her quartet was framed by compositions from either end of the nineteenth century. The program began with Antonin Dvořák’s Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major, composed in 1893, and concluded with Franz Schubert’s D. 887 quartet in G major, composed in June of 1826 but not published until 1851, over two decades after the composer’s death.

The Dvořák selection got the program off to an excellent start. All four of the players found just the right comfort zone for the composer’s capacity to interleave his thematic material among all four of the instrumental voices. Furthermore, watching their interpretation of the score, realized through both eye contact and what almost seemed like a vocabulary of gestures, was just as engaging as listening. This was clearly a performance in which the video work enhanced what one might have experienced in a “physical” concert setting.

Sadly, the opening selection on the program was also the most convincing one. Lash clearly understood the capacities of all four of the instruments in the string family, and that understanding allowed her to explore an impressive diversity of sonorities. Nevertheless, there was an emerging sense of one-thing-after-another without much apparent consideration to a sense of how the parts come together to form a whole. There was also the rather surprising decision to have the cellist sing a song during the third movement. Unfortunately, between Choi’s subdued vocal delivery and no apparent concern for having a microphone for her voice, the text that Lash had provided was pretty much entirely incomprehensible.

When the program progressed to the concluding Schubert selection, it became clear that there were more problems with microphone placement than involved Choi’s voice. As a result, it was difficult to know whether significant problems with phrasing the passages in the score were due to a lack of sufficient rehearsal time or simply undue negligence in accounting for the audio capture of the performance. That latter possibility may also have involved situating the performers in a room which lacked adequate space for the technical infrastructure.

To be fair, D. 887 does not get anywhere near as much exposure as Schubert’s D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”) quartet in D minor. The fact is that, from a practical point of view, it is more difficult to negotiate, primarily for rhetorical, rather than technical, reasons. As a result, my most recent encounter with this music in performance dates all the way back to April of 2015, when I was fortunate enough to listen to a killer performance by students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music joined by their coach, Jodi Levitz, playing the viola part.

One reason for any general lack of attention to D. 887 may involve the duration, which is longer than any other Schubert quartet. For that matter, when played with the repeat, the duration of the first movement of D. 887 is longer than the duration of an entire symphony from the time of Joseph Haydn. Being able to command that much duration is no easy matter, and it may be that Calidore needs more than a little more preparation before getting both their mentalities and their dexterity into shape to take on Schubert’s final string quartet.

CURRENTS to Explore Zimbabwean Performances

It is probably just coincidence that the first performance by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to take place this year before an audience in Davies Symphony Hall will occur on the same date as the next program in the CURRENTS series streamed through SFSymphony+. Of course there is far more flexibility involved in viewing any of the SFSymphony+ offerings. However, the close coincidence of the physical and the virtual is worth noting and may even harbinger the possibility that the SFSymphony+ service will continue to be maintained even after all of the physical constraints associated with COVID-19 have been lifted.

Members of the Chinyakare Ensemble performing “Mbavarira,” on the the selections to be presented as part of the Mavambo eNgoma, Rooted in Music program (courtesy of SFS)

The title of the next CURRENTS program is Mavambo eNgoma, Rooted in Music. SFS musicians will partner with members of the Chinyakare Ensemble, whose performers include instrumentalists, vocalists, and dancers. The program will explore Zimbabwean music and dance through offerings that celebrate music as the root of family, community, and the world. This is likely to be one of the less familiar offerings to be captured on video by Frank Zamacona, but the viewing experience is likely to assuage that unfamiliarity through the affordances of informed video capture and editing.

This episode of CURRENTS will launch at 10 a.m. this coming Thursday, May 6. A Web page has already been created for viewing this program, which includes a fifteen-second preview. Like the other programs in this series, the admission charge will be $15. As has already been mentioned, SFS donors that have contributed $250 or more will be entitled to receive complimentary membership with access to all SFSymphony+ content. That access will remain active through the end of the current season on August 31.

Noah Haidu’s Response to Jarrett’s Repertoire

Cover of the album being discussed

This coming Saturday, May 8, will be Keith Jarrett’s 76th birthday. Those familiar with Jarrett’s biography probably know that he sustained two major strokes in 2018, the second of which left him paralyzed. After two years of rehabilitation, he was able to walk with a cane and could play the piano only with his right hand. This past October Jarrett told The New York Times that he does not see any further performances in his future.

In a gesture of homage to Jarrett, jazz pianist Noah Haidu recorded his latest album at the end of last year. Entitled SLOWLY: Song for Keith Jarrett, the album will be released by Sunnyside Communications this coming Friday as a “birthday celebration.” Haidu recruited two jazz masters from the latter half of the twentieth century to provide rhythm for this trio album. His bass player is Buster Williams, and the drummer is Billy Hart. Both of them are given more than ample time to explore their own riffs in response to Haidu’s keyboard work. As usual, Amazon.com is currently processing pre-orders for this recording.

Ironically, of the eight tracks on this album, the only one that credits Jarrett as a composer appears to be mistaken. According to the credits on the ECM Hamburg ’72 live recording of Jarrett’s trio performance with Charlie Haden on bass and percussionist Paul Motian, made (in 1972) at the NDR Jazz Workshop, “Rainbow” was composed by Jarrett’s first wife, Margot. On his SLOWLY album, Haidu uses that tune as a point of departure for his own personal reflection on Jarrett; and the smooth transition is an engaging one.

The only other track composed by Haidu is the one bearing the album title, “Slowly.” However, Williams is credited with the opening track, “Air Dancing;” and Hart is responsible for “Duchess” and “Lorca.” The remaining three tracks are standards from different periods in the twentieth century: “What a Diff'rence a Day Makes!,” “Georgia on My Mind,” and “But Beautiful.” I was not able to find recordings of Jarrett playing any of these three pieces, but my Jarrett resources are more limited than I would like them to be!

Taken as a whole, this is a satisfying album of the sort of straight-ahead jazz than I find myself missing in my encounters with recent recordings. Haidu’s improvisations are consistently engaging. They may not be as intricately convoluted as many of Jarrett’s memorable efforts. However, I am willing to take them as representative of Haidu’s own distinctive “voice;” and that is more than enough to engage my focused attention.

Low Strings in the Early Nineteenth Century

Charles Chandler and Amos Yang playing Rossini’s virtuosic duet (screen shot courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

This past Thursday cellist Amos Yang and bassist Charles Chandler, both members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), contributed their third contribution to the Chamber Music Series of videos streamed by SFSymphony+. The first two offerings presented works by contemporary composers, both of whom are bassists: Shinji Eshima, based (pun sort of intended) here in San Francisco, and Argentinian Andrés Martin. The new video takes listeners back to the first quarter of the nineteenth century with a D major duet in three movements by Gioachino Rossini.

This piece was composed in 1824. In the timeline of Rossini’s abundant catalog of operas, this far more modest offering (less than a quarter of an hour in duration) was composed in the year after the premiere performance of Semiramide at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. It is worth speculating that Rossini’s instrumental music tended to favor brevity, perhaps allowing him to take a break from the longeurs of his operatic efforts. Nevertheless, this duet demands just as much virtuosic skill as any of the many operatic arias that Rossini composed.

Furthermore, there is no shortage of wit lurking behind all that virtuosity. All three of the movements are basically structured around a give-and-take rhetoric between the two musicians. The cello, being the more agile of the two instruments (as we know from the demands found in the music of Rossini’s Italian predecessor, Luigi Boccherini), tends to confront the bass with technical challenges, allowing the bass to respond in kind proudly with a “So there!” rhetoric. In their performance for the new video, Yang and Chandler clearly appreciated this suggestion of rivalry, resulting in an account that is not only abundant in wit but also jaw-dropping in technical excellence.

Sometimes the low strings just want to have fun.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

SFS Plans for Return to Davies This Month

At the beginning of this past week, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) announced that it would return to presenting concerts to audiences seated in Davies Symphony Hall. A series of eight performances have been planned for the months of May and June, respectively, each of which will present a program at 7 p.m. on both Thursday and Friday evenings. The first of these offerings will be reserved for Bay Area hospital and medical professionals, as well as representatives from community centers and cultural districts, who have been at the front lines supporting the people of a city in critical ways throughout the pandemic. The tickets for those two performances will be free of charge. The SFS Box Office will reopen at 10 a.m. on Thursday, May 6, for the general public to purchase tickets for the remaining seven programs. The Box Office telephone number is 415-864-6000.

The plan for returning to live concerts was developed in accordance with regulations set by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the City and County of San Francisco, and the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center. All performances will require proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 testing for all patrons, musicians, staff, and volunteers. In addition universal mask wearing will be required. There will be significantly reduced concert hall capacity, contactless tickets, assigned seats that maximize physical distancing, 75-minute performances without intermission, increased ventilation and filtration standards, social distancing requirements, and other safety measures in place.

SFS Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen (photograph © by Andrew Eccles, courtesy of SFS)

Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct the free program prepared for May 6 and 7. He has prepared a program that will interleave works by Scandinavian and American composers, beginning with the orchestral version (strings, percussion, and triangle) of the Rakastava (the lover) suite, composed by his fellow Finn, Jean Sibelius. The orchestral suite, his Opus 14, was based on a setting of Finnish folk poems, first composed for a cappella men’s chorus and subsequently arranged, first for men’s chorus and orchestra and then for mixed chorus.

The program will continue with selections for the string section, George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” will be followed by Carl Nielsen’s Opus 1, a suite for string orchestra composed at the age of 22 during his private studies with Orla Rosenhoff, who had been his composition teacher at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. (Nielsen himself would later teach at that same conservatory.) The other American selection on the program will be the string orchestra version of Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte,” which responds to the prankish rhetoric of Joseph Haydn with more than a few pranks of its own. The program will then conclude with the string orchestra version of Edvard Grieg’s Opus 40 Holberg suite.

Programming has been finalized for the next two concerts in May. These may be summarized as follows:

May 13–14: Pianist Jeremy Denk will conduct from the piano keyboard. The program will include concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1052 in D minor) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 449 in E-flat major). These will interleave with William Grant Still’s “Out of the Silence,” originally composed as a piano solo and later adding instrumental accompaniment, and Gerald Finzi’s “Eclogue,” scored for piano and strings.

May 20–21: James Gaffigan will conduct the United States premiere of Freya Waley-Cohen’s “Talisman.” This will be followed by two pieces of chamber music subsequently rearranged for string orchestra. The first of these will be Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 4 “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night), originally a string sextet. The program will then conclude with Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which began as the second movement of his Opus 11 string quartet.

While program specifics have not yet been announced for the remaining concerts, the conductors have been finalized as follows:

May 27–28: Ken-David Mazur

June 3–4: Joseph Young

June 10–11: Joshua Weilerstein

June 17–18: Esa-Pekka Salonen

June 24–25: Esa-Pekka Salonen

Friday, April 30, 2021

Evangelista Announces Second “Unsolitary” Show

When avant-garde guitarist Karl Evangelista announced the launch of the Unsolitary series for the presentation of improvised music this past November, the plan was that these would be quarterly concerts. However, during the beginning of this year, he was occupied with two Lockdown Festivals in January and April, respectively. So it may turn out that Unsolitary will be semiannual, because the second installment has now been announced for the beginning of next month.

Like the first program, Unsolitary II will offer three decidedly diverse sets. This time the sets will present solo, duo, and trio improvisations in that order. Specifics are as follows:

  1. Kim Nucci’s solo may involve a variety of resources, including saxophone, modular synthesizer, and other electronics.
  2. Evangelista will perform the duo improvisation with Lewis Jordan on saxophone.
  3. The final set will be taken by the Nathan Clevenger Trio. All three members of this trio are accomplished on multiple instruments. Clevenger leads from piano, guitar, and/or computer. Cory Wright commands the rich diversity of reed instruments. Jordan Glenn extends his drum kit with a wider diversity of percussion resources.

The video may be viewed at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5, through Evangelista’s YouTube Web site. There will be no charge for admission. However, donations are warmly encouraged with all proceeds directed to Oakland social causes. These include the efforts of the Grex duo (Evangelista and Rei Scampavia) to raise funds to support the Milford Graves Memorial Fund. (Graves, a leading avant-garde jazz drummer, died this past February 12 at the age of 79.) All donations will be processed through the electronic mail address LockdownIII2020@gmail.com.

JACK Quartet Concludes Online PIVOT 2021

Yesterday afternoon San Francisco Performances (SFP) began streaming the third and last of its PIVOT 2021 programs, presented as an alternative to the four programs planned for the PIVOT Festival originally scheduled for this month. This new video is a performance by the JACK Quartet with a guest appearance by pianist Conrad Tao. The quartet members are violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell; and they shared with Tao a “digital residency” hosted by the Library of Congress this past December. That residency resulted in the video that SFP is now screening as the latest addition to its Front Row Web site.

The JACK Quartet playing “Everything Changes, Nothing Changes …” (black-and-white videography by David Bird, from the PIVOT video being discussed)

The program for the video was, to say the least, boldly imaginative. Roughly half of the one-hour program involved the performance of Tyshawn Sorey’s “Everything Changes, Nothing Changes ….” This score for string quartet amounts to an imaginative synthesis of Philip Glass’ approach to repetitive structures and the subtle departures from repetition that one encounters in many of the late works of Morton Feldman. The JACK performance could not have been more focused, encouraging the attentive listener to seek out the subtle shifts in detail that reflect Sorey’s choice of title.

Equally challenging and just as satisfying was the quartet’s account of the string quartet that Ruth Crawford Seeger composed in 1931. Seeger had briefly encountered Arnold Schoenberg during her studies in Germany, which took place shortly before she began work on the quartet. However, she clearly had her own thoughts about rejecting the need for a tonal center; and, in many respects, this quartet is one of the first American compositions to break sharply from nineteenth-century traditions. It is also worth noting that Elliott Carter was familiar with Seeger’s work, which may have influenced his own unique approaches to writing for string quartet.

On the PIVOT program, however, Carter was represented by his duo for violin and piano, performed by Wulliman and Tao. This was a brashly energetic account, an excellent source to acclimate the attentive listener to Carter’s imaginative use of variations in rhythm. The rhetorical stance that Wulliman and Tao took in interpreting Carter’s score felt almost celebratory, as if, after much study, the two of them had “discovered the music” in the many note symbols that Carter had committed to paper; and, having made that discovery, they wanted the rest of the world to know about it. At the very conclusion of the video program, Wulliman underscored that sense of discovery with a solo performance of Sorey’s “For Conrad Tao.”

All of that modernism contrasted sharply with the opening selection, the ballade “Angelorum psalat,” included in the Chantilly Codex and sometimes attributed to the fifteenth-century Spanish lutenist Rodrigo de la Guitarra. While the source may have been fifteenth-century, the music itself is a clear reflection on the origins of polyphony attributed to the Notre-Dame school, which flourished between 1160 and 1250. The music is basically a two-voice melismatic organum with Richards playing the cantus firmus and Otto playing an upper-voice melisma. Otto also added parts for both the second violin and the cello, both of which spend much of the time playing pizzicato. Ultimately, this was the “overture” for the evening, encouraging the listener to sit up and take notice of what would follow.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Calidore Quartet to Conclude SHCS Season

The members of the Calidore String Quartet (courtesy of SHCS)

This Sunday the Baltimore-based Shriver Hall Concert Series (SHCS) will wrap up its 2021 Virtual Season with a performance by the Calidore String Quartet of violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi. The program will feature the streaming world premiere of Hanna Lash’s first string quartet, made possible through considerable generous support. The work was commissioned for Calidore by Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting for the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Chamber Music Series, by the SHCS, and by the Fonds Kleine Zaal of the Royal Concertgebouw, a fund which is managed by Het Concertgebouw Fonds. The quartet is scheduled to be given its concert premiere in February of 2022.

This new work will be framed by two nineteenth-century selections. The program will begin with Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major. The program will conclude with the last string quartet written by Franz Schubert, his D. 887 quartet in G major. Schubert composed this piece in June of 1826, meaning that it is not a “final year” composition. However, he never saw it published; and publication only took place over two decades after his death in 1851.

This performance will be live-streamed this coming Sunday, May 2, at 2:30 p.m. (Pacific time). The video will be archived for subsequent viewing for one week following. The fee for admission will be $15, and SHCS has set up a Web page for online purchase. Once a ticket has been purchased, a hyperlink for viewing the performances will be made available and will be valid for additional visits until Sunday, May 9, at 8:59 p.m. (Pacific time).

SFSymphony+ Adds Mozart to Chamber Videos

My last report on a streamed video in the Chamber Music Series of SFSymphony+ involved a duo performance by San Francisco Symphony (SFS) members Amos Yang on cello and Charles Chandler on bass. Their selection was a contemporary one, “Synchronicity,” composed by the Argentinian bassist Andrés Martin. Exactly a week ago a new video was uploaded to the Chamber Music Series Web page. It is another duo performance but a much more traditional one.

The selection is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 423 duo for violin and viola in G major, one of two three-movement compositions that Mozart wrote for this combination of instruments. The performers are violinist Yukiko Kurakata and violist Matthew Young. Both of the duos are short works, about a quarter of an hour in duration.

As might be guessed, this composition involves an ongoing give-and-take between the two performers. As in vocal duos, one finds a combination of exchanges of melodic material, but always with a rich account of the harmonies implicit in the two parts. While the video work often involved an “audience-eye” view of the performances, some of the more intricate exchanges were presented with through split-screen technique:

screen shot courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

As a result the visual experience enhances awareness of Mozart’s imaginative polyphony in ways that might not be grasped when watching the performers up on stage from an audience-member’s vantage point.

Thus, one is likely to encounter a more intimate account of this rather brief offering than one might expect.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

LCCE at ISU’s Red Note New Music Festival

The “family portrait” of the LCCE musicians (photograph by Bonnie Rae Mills, courtesy of LCCE)

This year the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) is the ensemble-in-residence at the Red Note New Music Festival. This will be the fourteenth season of the week-long event, which is hosted by Illinois State University (ISU). LCCE will be giving performances at 5 p.m. (Pacific Time) tomorrow, April 29, and Saturday, May 1, both of which will be streamed through the YouTube channel managed by the ISU School of Music. Not all specifics have been provided. However, the following is currently known about the two LCCE programs:

April 29: This concert will highlight music by the Festival’s featured guest composer, Martin Bresnick. The program will present some of his most recent compositions, including “Oyfn Veg” and “Mayn Rue Plats,” both of which draw upon traditional Yiddish folk melodies. There will also be performances of some of Bresnick’s earliest works. LCCE will be joined by both students and faculty of ISU for this concert. The streaming URL has not yet been released.

May 1: LCCE will give premiere performances of works by participants in the Red Note New Music Festival Composition Workshop. Those five emerging composers will be Santiago Beis, Anuj Bhutani, Grace Ann Lee, Paul Novak, and Joan Tan. This program has already been assigned a streaming site.

There will be no charge for admission at either of these concerts.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Earplay: Next Month’s First Mondays Concert

Mary Chun conducting the other Earplayers in the world premiere performance of Linda Bouchard’s “Second Survival” (screen shot from the video of the performance)

For the next installment in its First Mondays series of streamed video performances, Earplay will present Linda Bouchard’s “Second Survival.” Earplay performed the world premiere performance of this composition, which was written under a commission by the Fromm Music Foundation. The score is a revised version of “Systematic Survival,” which Bouchard composed in 2009. This will be an “all hands” presentation involving all seven of the Earplayers. Bouchard’s composition is scored for alto flute (Tod Brody), bass clarinet (Peter Josheff), violin (Terrie Baune), viola (Ellen Ruth Rose), cello (Thalia Moore), and prepared piano (Brenda Tom). The ensemble will be conducted by Mary Chun. The video footage will also include a recent dialogue that Bouchard had with the Earplayers.

This program will begin at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of next month, May 3. The YouTube Web page for the performance has already been created. The video was recorded by Kirby Castro on March 20, 2017 during a performance that took place at the ODC Theatre. David Ogilvy took care of audio capture. There will be no charge for admission to either the performance or the subsequent dialogue videos.

Hoyson Album Features Friends and Standards

courtesy of Play MPE

Almost exactly a month ago jazz drummer released his latest self-produced album. Strollin’ is his second recording organized around a trio the sees him providing rhythm for Tony Monaco on a Hammond B-3 organ and Hendrik Meurkens on harmonica. (The Hammond Wikipedia page credits Jimmy Smith with introducing the B-3 to the jazz world.) Readers should note that the above hyperlink on the album title is to a Bandcamp Web page that provides both physical and digital purchase. (Amazon.com seems to be a bit muddled when it comes to distribution, particularly of the physical release.)

The trio is augmented by George Jones on congas and guitarist Mark Lucas, who is featured in a track of his own composition entitled “A Room Above.” Most of the tracks are composed by Monaco or Meurkens, but the title track was composed by Horace Silver. There are also “vintage” tracks by Charlie Parker (“Yardbird Suite”) and Thad Jones (“A Child is Born”), as well as Gene de Paul’s standard, “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”

To the best of my knowledge, this is my first encounter with Meurkens. I have listened to a fair number of recordings on which the harmonica serves as the primary melody instrument, but this is the first time that I have been able to hang a performance on a specific name. There is definitely something to be said for capturing the spirit of one of Parker’s bebop classics just as effectively as the more lyrical “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Meurkens is also the composer of three of the tracks, each of which is likely to hook the attentive listener.

The upbeat mood of this album reinforces my conviction to seek out sharp-edged stimulation during pandemic conditions, rather than succumb to that excess of soothing rhetoric that seems to have overtaken too many of the albums recently released; and I am now curious about what some of Hoyson’s other productions will yield.

Wayne Peterson’s “Brief Encounters”

screen shot from the video being discussed

As announced yesterday morning, Earplay streamed a performance of the music of San Francisco composer Wayne Peterson as a memorial for his death this past April 7. The offering was a solo violin composition entitled “Brief Encounters,” played by Earplay violinist Terrie Baune. Brevity was definitely of the essence, since the entire performance lasted less than five minutes.

Nevertheless, the use of the plural was definitely accurate. Each “encounter” amounted to a gesture, which, on the one hand, was self-contained, but, on the other, contributed to an overall sequence. To some extent the entirety suggested the approach to the linking of short poems in a manner similar to that of Japanese renga. However, while renga involves collaboration among multiple poets, “Brief Encounters” clearly presented the voice of a single composer.

One might also approach “Brief Encounters” as a study in études on a microscopic scale. Each of those individual gestures had its own innovative technical challenges. However, while it was easy enough to focus on each of those gestures, there was a clear sense of flow that mapped out the composition in its entirety. Thus, there is very much a sense of a journey, however brief; and the visitor to the YouTube page may well be drawn into experiencing that journey multiple times as Peterson’s inventive details begin to reveal themselves.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Earplay to Honor Passing of Wayne Peterson

Composer Wayne Peterson (from the SFSU memorial announcement on Twitter)

Composer Wayne Peterson died at the beginning of this month on April 7 at the age of 93. He joined the faculty of San Francisco State University (SFSU) in 1960, retiring at the rank of Professor of Music in 1991. For the next three years he served as guest professor of composition at Stanford University.

Sadly, much of the obituary content I encountered centered on a controversy. Peterson was awarded the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Music for “The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark,” commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, which performed the premiere performance under the baton of David Zinman. In awarding Peterson the Prize, the Pulitzer board overturned the unanimous selections of its jury for a composition by Ralph Shapey, “Concerto Fantastique.” In 2012 Peterson observed that, while he was very satisfied with Zinman’s performance, the music had never been given another performance, meaning that the award “meant nothing for the piece that won.”

A far more positive aspect of Peterson’s life involved his long-time relationship with Earplay and its commitment to a repertoire of new chamber music. Over the course of that relationship, Earplay performed more than a dozen of Peterson’s compositions. Tonight, Earplay will present archival footage of one of those performances. This will be a video recording of “Brief Encounters,” a violin solo played by Terrie Baune at an Earplay concert given at the ODC Theatre on May 18, 2015.

This video will be live-streamed on a YouTube Web page at 7 p.m. tonight, Monday, April 26.

Profil to Release 10-CD Backhaus Anthology

courtesy of Naxos of America

This coming Friday Profil will release its Wilhelm Backhaus Edition, a box of ten CDs accounting for recordings of performances by the German pianist made between 1908 and 1961. As usual, Amazon.com is processing pre-orders. However, those that search the Amazon site with keywords “wilhelm backhaus profil” will probably discover that this new box set is a compilation of earlier Profil releases.

This is far from a comprehensive account of the legacy of Backhaus recorded performances. This past January this site reported on the last of the three HMV anthologies produced by Appian Publications & Recordings. There is also an SWR>>classic album of concerts that Backhaus gave for Germany’s Southwest Broadcasting, Südwestrundfunk (SWR) in the Fifties; and that decade is also covered by a 39-CD anthology of recordings that he made for Decca. In that context the Profil release is a bit of a grab bag, but it is not without merits.

Without trying to sound too much like a nationalist, I have to say that, for me, the high point of the collection can be found in the three CDs that account for performances that Backhaus gave in Carnegie Hall in 1954 and 1956. Backhaus was no stranger to the United States and even taught at the Curtis Institute of Music in 1926. While he became a citizen of Switzerland in 1930, his attitude toward Nazi Germany was, at best, questionable. However, with Swiss credentials, he fared better in performing in the United States after World War II than the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler did.

The earliest Carnegie recording was made on March 3, 1954 with a program of five piano sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven. On March 18, 1956 Backhaus returned to Carnegie to perform Beethoven’s Opus 58 (fourth) piano concerto in G major with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Guido Cantelli. The following April 11, he gave one final Carnegie recital of another three Beethoven sonatas, concluding with the Opus 106 (“Hammerklavier”) sonata in B-flat major. Ironically, when Backhaus died on July 5, 1969, he was working on his second complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas for Decca (which had already recorded the first cycle). The only sonata missing from that second cycle was Opus 106.

In terms of personal preferences, I was glad that the Profil anthology also included both of the piano concertos by Johannes Brahms, both performed with the Vienna Philharmonic. Opus 83 (the second) in B-flat major tends to get far more attention than its predecessor, Opus 15 in D minor. The Opus 83 recording was made in 1953 with Carl Schuricht conducting, and it definitely makes for a satisfying listening experience. However, the 1952 recording of Opus 15 was made with Karl Böhm; and the Backhaus-Böhm partnership makes a throughly convincing case that this concerto is more than a show-off display by a young upstart.

The Wilhelm Backhaus Edition may not be either comprehensive or scholarly, but there is no questioning the abundance of satisfying listening experiences that it offers.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

“Strange Fruit” for Our Times from Koh and Tines

This past Friday Voices of Hope presented a new music film conceived to distill the history of Asian American oppression and highlight the untold story of solidarity between Asian Americans and the Black community. The film has been uploaded to YouTube, where it will be available for viewing through this coming May 31. The music is provided by the duo of violinist Jennifer Koh and operatic bass-baritone Davoné Tines with electronics provided by Berkeley-based composer Ken Ueno.

The score for the film is basically an arrangement of the song “Strange Fruit,” first recorded by Billie Holiday for the Commodore label on April 20, 1939. Ueno composed the arrangement, preceding it with a solo violin introduction. The lyrics were taken from a poem by Abel Meeropol that provided an uncompromising depiction of the lynching of Black Americans. The poem was published under Meeropol’s pseudonym, Lewis Allan. He then worked with his wife, Laura Duncan, to compose music for his text, which Holiday then recorded (with Commodore crediting the song to Allan).

The visual content of the film was conceived by dramaturg Kee-Yoon Nahm. It is definitely not for the faint of heart. The images basically interleave photographs of the lynchings that inspired Meeropol’s poem with both photographs and video of brutal acts of violence against Asian Americans. The sound track is limited entirely to Ueno’s score, serving to provide a context for images that could not be more blunt in speaking for themselves.

In Ueno’s setting neither Koh and Tines ever deliver a straightforward account of either the music or the words for the original “Strange Fruit” setting. To some extent Ueno’s arrangement appeals to those already familiar with Holiday’s recording. However, those lacking that familiarity will still “get the message” of the parallel between past treatment of the Black community and the current acts of violence against Asian Americans. As one with that familiarity, I have to note that I was impressed with how Tines’ delivery of Ueno’s arrangement begins with a subtle “insinuation” of Meeropol’s music, with the words becoming clearer as, more and more, they underscore the impact of the visual content.

The introduction to this film on Koh’s Facebook page notes that the “program contains graphic images that some viewers may find disturbing;” but, when it comes to putting out the word about this film, I have to side with Albert Einstein, who said about conditions in Nazi Germany, “If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.”

ASO to Stream All-Brahms Program

While there are signs of a gradual return to “physical” concert opportunities, most performing arts organizations are still presenting primarily in cyberspace with either “live” streams or programs based on pre-recorded performances. Towards the end of this past week, I received word for the first time of the virtual presentation of the current Spring Concert Series of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO). The organization is offering access to concert videos on both a membership basis (with one tier for access to all concerts at $10 each and another for access to three or more concerts at $15 each) as well as admission to individual concerts for $20.

Violinist Robert McDuffie (from the event page for the concert being described)

The next offering in this Series will take place this coming Thursday with a program presenting two compositions by Johannes Brahms conducted by Robert Spano. Violinist Robert McDuffie will be the soloist in a performance of the Opus 77 violin concerto in D major. This will be preceded by a less familiar work which deserves more attention, the Opus 16 (second) serenade in A major, composed in 1859 and dedicated to Clara Schumann.

Both of Brahms’ serenades were written after the death of Robert Schumann in 1856. They constitute Brahms’ first serious efforts to compose for a full orchestra. However, Opus 16 is distinguished by the omission of violins, trumpets, trombones, and percussion but including double woodwinds. However, the final movement includes amusingly trilled passages for piccolo; and, when this serenade was performed here by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in March of 2012, I described those passages as sounding “a bit like a pet canary that has just escaped its cage.”

This program will be available for on-line viewing beginning at 5 p.m (Pacific time) on Thursday, April 29. Individual tickets may be purchased through the event page for $20. With those tickets the concert will be available for viewing for 24 hours after its premiere. For those with membership status, viewing will be available for up to one month.

Volti Premieres Pamela Z’s “Ink”

Yesterday evening Volti, the Bay Area’s a cappella vocal ensemble that specializes in new music, presented the last of the four mini-concerts, each highlighting the work of single composer, constituting its 42nd season. The program consisted of the world premiere performance of Ink by Pamela Z. Those familiar with this site probably already know of Z’s highly imaginative work as a vocalist, performing her own compositions, which often involve inventive use of electronic gear. As a result, I am pretty sure that this was my first opportunity to experience Z’s music performed by an a cappella ensemble or, for that matter, any other performers.

About twenty minutes in duration, Ink consists of five relatively short movements, each of which has its own “ground rules.” As a lexeme, “Ink” is the title of the last of those movements. However, it is also the morpheme that concludes the titles of the first four movements: “Drink,” “Blink,” “Think,” and “Link.” Each movement has individual parts for each of the sixteen vocalists; but the auditory content of the performance is tightly coupled to the video techniques engaged to present the performers, as well as the images that reflect on the title of the final movement.

Each movement has its own unique approach to reflecting on its title. Thus, the visual dimension of how “Blink” is performed reinforces the title more strongly than the vocal work. On the other hand, the video for “Drink” interleaves images of the vocalists with different forms of glasses holding different types of libations.

However, it is the final movement that offers the most powerful draw of attention to both visual and auditory stimuli. True to the movement’s title, the text being sung is about inkjet printing. The primary image is that of the score being sung, which gradually unfolds into four-part counterpoint. (This is definitely the first time I have associated Z with such sophisticated notation.) The vocalists follow the score dutifully. However, every now and then, there are blotches of ink that obscure the notes, during which the vocalists engage in a sort of groaning improvisation. As the score progresses to its conclusion, those blotches begin to take over the entire page:

courtesy of Volti

Taken as a whole, Ink is a playful composition, occasionally recalling the ludic qualities of Danny Clay’s Singing Puzzles, the new work that Volti performed this past December. Each movement serves up a generous share of wit, but no movement ever lasts beyond the limit of feeling welcome. Nevertheless, the composition depends significantly on video as part of the creative process. This makes it ideally suited to prevailing lockdown conditions, but it also leaves me curious as to how Z might work in the future with the “concert experience” of an a cappella ensemble.

Saturday, April 24, 2021

SFSU to Stream Les Délices Recital

The next program in the Jane H. Galante Concert Series, presented by the Morrison Chamber Music Center of the College of Liberal & Creative Arts at San Francisco State University (SFSU), is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. The one thing known for certain is that the performance will be given by Les Délices, an early music ensemble founded by baroque oboist Debra Nagy in 2009. Beyond that one fact, sadly, is considerable disagreement regarding both what music will be performed and who the performers will be. I have decided to rely on the SFSU Web page, rather than any announcements through electronic mail, since, among other reasons, that Web page contains a hyperlink to a PDF file of rather detailed program notes.

In that context Nagy will alternate between oboe and recorder. The other instrumentalists will be Julie Andrijeski on violin, Rebecca Reed on gamba, and Mark Edwards on harpsichord. The program has been organized around depictions of two “leading women” in mythology, Medea and Circe, both embodied in music by French composers in the early eighteenth century. Those “roles” will be “performed” by soprano Hannah De Priest. The music for Medea was composed in 1710 by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, and the Circe selection was composed by Colin de Blamont in 1729. Each of these vocal offerings will be preceded by an instrumental selection by François Couperin and Pancrace Royer, respectively.

The online streaming of this program will begin at 3 p.m. tomorrow, Sunday, April 25. There will be no charge for viewing the video. The window for the video source has been installed on the event page for this concert.

Ken Iisaka’s F-Sharp Major Piano Break

Last week I wrote about the Piano Break recital presented by the Ross McKee Foundation for Zak Mustille, the winner of the 2020 Ross McKee Young Artist Competition. Last night’s recitalist, Ken Iisaka, is a three-time finalist in the Van Cliburn Amateur Piano Competition, dividing his time between music and artificial intelligence. He presented a program entitled In F-sharp Major: Etherealism and Exoticism in One Key. The composers he selected for this performance were, in order of appearance, Frédéric Chopin, Nikolai Medtner, and Alexander Scriabin.

The Scriabin selection was particularly interesting. The Opus 30 (fourth) sonata in F-sharp major was the last of the ten sonatas to be assigned a key. Scriabin was determined to get away from conventional harmonic progressions; but, as Donald Francis Tovey put it in his “Harmony” entry for the Encyclopædia Britannica, the composer “complained shortly before his untimely death [in 1915] that he had, after all, not succeeded in getting away from a sophisticated dominant seventh.”

Even with its key assignment, Opus 30 shows early signs of Scriabin’s quest. Last night’s video provided many convenient overhead shots of Iisaka’s playing, suggesting that he wanted his listeners to “see the action” involving the black keys. Where Scriabin is concerned, one of my conjectures that, in choosing the key of F-sharp major, the composer had sought to attempt to reverse the roles of black keys and white keys, making the white keys the “chromatic auxiliaries” to the black ones.

This would require that new approach to harmonic progressions. The black keys allow for only two triads, F-sharp major and D-sharp minor. White keys are necessary for the dominant triad of either of these keys, C-sharp major and A-sharp minor, respectively, suggesting that progressions that avoid the white keys are likely to be unsatisfying, at best. In the opening Andante movement of Opus 30, it almost seems as if Scriabin was trying to get beyond harmony as the basis for progression, turning to rhythm instead. Such a premise would suggest that the black keys and the white ones have become “equal partners,” a premise that Arnold Schoenberg was just beginning to address when Scriabin’s Opus 30 was first published in 1904.

Opus 30 thus serves somewhat as a “landmark,” not only in Scriabin’s catalog but also in the history of music during the first half of the twentieth century. One could thus take considerable satisfaction in the video techniques that Iisaka planned to complement the listening experience of his account of this sonata. Regrettably, however, this was the most satisfying portion of his program.

The Medtner selection was his Opus 27 (eighth) piano sonata, which the composer called “Sonata-Ballade.” The composer structured the piece as a ballade, an introduction, and a finale. While the score is rich in thematic ideas, from a rhetorical point of view it never manages to get beyond rambling. Medtner seemed more interested in unfolding an assembly of engaging themes without endowing those themes with a framework through which the attentive listener can appreciate progressions from beginning to middle to end. As a result, when the composer tries (not particularly successfully) to launch into a fugal exposition, one begins to wonder whether this will be a “grand finale.” (It wasn’t.)

The author of Medtner’s Wikipedia page claims that there is a “passing reference to Chopin’s Barcarolle.” Given that Iisaka began his recital with that Chopin composition, I have to say that any “passing reference” went by too quickly to be recognized. One problem may have been that, while Iisaka tended to have a strong command of phrasing in managing Scriabin’s unconventional approaches to progressions, his accounts of both Chopin and Medtner tended to be flatter, with less sense of prioritizing the primary and the secondary. Given the duration of Medtner’s Opus 27, one needed considerable patience to hang in there until the Scriabin account got under way.

Friday, April 23, 2021

SHCS to Host Recorder Recital by Tabea Debus

Recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus (photograph by Ben Ealovega, from the SHCS event page)

The Spring 2021 Virtual Season of the Shriver Hall Concert Series (SHCS) will continue tomorrow afternoon with a recorder recital by Tabea Debus. This performance will be her “virtual” Baltimore debut. (Scare quotes have been used because that performance has been pre-recorded at the Lauderdale House in London.) Her accompanist will be Alon Sariel, alternating between lute and mandolin.

The title of the program being presented is Ohrworm (earworm). The selections will explore how tunes and dances migrated across many aspects of composition and performance in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Debus will begin the performance by demonstrating a chaconne theme that can be found in compositions by Antonio Bertali, Tarquinio Merula, and Claudio Monteverdi. A more contemporary perspective will be provided by “Diaries of the Early Worm” by the contemporary British composer Gareth Moorcraft. Other composers from the earlier centuries whose music will be performed will be Johann Sebastian Bach, John Schop, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Pierre-Francisque Carroubel.

This performance will take place tomorrow, Saturday, April 24, beginning at noon (Pacific time). There will be no fee for admission, but reservations are required. SHCS has set up an event page for making reservations, along with several other useful hyperlinks, including program notes. Once the reservation has been processed, a hyperlink for viewing the performance will be made available and will be valid for additional visits until the end of the day of Saturday, May 1.