Sunday, January 31, 2021

The “General Semantics” of Reeds and Drums

from the Bandcamp Web page for the album being discussed

The latest release of performances by clarinetist Ben Goldberg is General Semantics, a trio album in which he is joined by reed player Geof Bradfield and percussionist Dana Hall. This is “pre-pandemic” music, since the recording sessions took place on November 30 and December 1 in 2018. The Delmark Records album was originally scheduled for release this past September, but that release was delayed until the beginning of December.

The album title is also the title of the sixth of the eleven tracks. Since the study of semantics played a major role in my previous life as a researcher in computer science, artificial intelligence, and multimedia, I invested a fair number of “brain cycles” in trying to find a story behind that title, all to no avail. I was reminded of when Goldberg had formed a quartet in January of 2012 called the Ben Goldberg School, whose first (and only, if I am not mistaken) release was entitled Vol. 1: The Humanities; but I suspect that the only trait shared with this earlier album is an imaginative approach to track titles.

Far more interesting is the diversity of sonorities summoned up by the two reed players. Both are multi-instrumentalists, but Goldberg sticks to his B-flat clarinet on all but three of the tracks. Bradfield, on the other hand, plays both soprano and tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. Goldberg’s only other instrument is his contra-alto clarinet. The primary assets of the album involve these players’ capacity of elaborate two-part counterpoint, often with the two lines interleaving in and among each other. In that context Hall substitutes for the usual bass in providing a “continuo” with his suite of percussion instruments.

While all of this inventiveness is refreshingly original, there are three tracks whose origins can be found in the compositions of others. Thus Bradfield prepared an arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Half the Fun,” which provided a platform for Goldberg’s contra-alto work. Bradfield also arranged Hermeto Pascoal’s “8 de Agosto.” The Brazilian composer had written a song for every day of the year, meaning that everyone would have a tune for his/her birthday. Bradfield chose to arrange this particular date, because it is Goldberg’s birthday. Finally, Bradfield and Goldberg joined forces in improvising on a “two-level” appropriation, Steve Lacy’s performance of the tune “Air,” composed by Cecil Taylor.

Like the title track, there are other selections with playfully enigmatic labels (such as “345”). However, at the end of the day, this album is all about the capacity for invention among an unconventional collection of instruments. There is definitely a prevailing sense of playfulness behind all that invention, making for a highly engaging listening experience.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

SFO Streams First-Rate Verdi Production

The opening scene of La traviata (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

The final January Opera is ON video stream presented by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) served up one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most popular achievements. Indeed, La traviata has been in the SFO repertoire since it was first performed in the company’s second season in October of 1924. Frank Zamacona produced his video when this opera was staged in the War Memorial Opera House in the spring of 2014. By that time the staging by John Copley was familiar to SFO audiences, since it was first performed in the fall of 1987. This particular revival was staged by Laurie Feldman. 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 Stoyanov as Alfredo’s father Giorgio. The conductor was Nicola Luisotti.

While this may be grand opera at its grandest, Zamacona’s video direction used close-ups the capture the full intimacy of the relationships among the three leading characters. Given the scale of the Opera House itself, there is always the risk that getting too close runs the risk of distorting the visual impact. However, through Feldman’s direction, it was clear that Cabell, Costello, and Stoyanova had all mastered the subtle details of the characters they had to develop. Thus, however familiar this opera may have been to almost everyone viewing it, this video account provided an opportunity to appreciate a depth of character that is rarely grasped from the extended distance from seat to stage.

To some extent this attention to detail also reached down into the orchestra pit. Both the first and third acts have extended preludes (both working with roughly the same thematic material but in different narratological contexts). Through this video one could appreciate how Luisotti evoked just as much subtlety as could be found in behavior of the characters on the stage. There were slow pans across the orchestra pit, but the preludes were at their most interesting when one could observe the precision behind Luisotti’s efforts to set the mood for what was about to unfold on stage.

Because this opera is so popular, it runs the risk that regular opera-goers often approach a performance with a here-we-go-again disposition. Between Luisotti in the pit and Feldman’s realization of Copley’s efforts on the stage, both enhanced through Zamacona’s video capture, the attentive viewer never felt that this was “just another” Verdi staging. Indeed, this was a production in which such viewers could experience an intimate relationship with both the music and the staging; and when “grand opera” is at its “grandest,” such occasions are rare indeed.

Freiburg Musicians Play Steve Reich

courtesy of Naxos of America

About two month’s ago Naxos released an album consisting entirely of music by Steve Reich as part of its American Classics series. This included the world premiere recording of one of Reich’s earliest compositions, “Music for Two or More Pianos,” composed in 1964, probably before he started working with the facilities of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and also most likely before he participated in the premiere performance of Terry Riley’s “In C.” This is the opening track on the CD; and it is followed by the much later (1979) “Eight Lines.” This later composition is one of several reflecting how Reich reworked techniques he had first developed by working with tape loops, applying them, instead, to the performance of conventional musical instruments.

The next two selections come from his “Counterpoint” series of compositions, in which his earlier pieces for ensembles give way to focusing on individual instruments. Those two pieces are “Vermont Counterpoint” for flutes and “New York Counterpoint” for clarinets. The album then concludes with “City Life,” which returns to tape music by adding recorded sounds to supplement instrumental ensembles.

Taken as a whole, the album provides a stimulating survey of instances of invention that emerged in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. Ironically, all of the performances were recorded in Freiburg in Germany. The performers are members of the Holst-Sinfonietta, founded and conducted by Klaus Simon and named after the English composer Gustav Holst. I suppose the good news from this is that we are beginning to see a rise in performances of Reich’s music that do not arise from direct contact with the composer.

Personally, I am very glad to see Reich rise to this level of status. Since I live in San Francisco, I have enjoyed any number of opportunities to listen to his music performed in concert; and I shall always prefer those opportunities to recordings. Nevertheless, I fear that there are only a few limited locations where Reich receives so much attention, meaning that recordings are the only viable alternative. From a technical point of view, the recordings on this recent Naxos release allow the attentive listener to appreciate both the intricate details and the overall effect when those details are superposed. While I question the booklet’s effort to identify jazz pianist Bill Evans as one of Reich’s influences, the music itself matters more than any of the commentary.

Ensemble 1828 Advances About 75 Years

Nicole Oswald, Alison Lee, and Isaac Pastor-Chermak playing Maurice Ravel’s trio on the altar of Old First Presbyterian Church (screen shot from the YouTube video of the concert being discussed)

Last night the Ensemble 1828 piano trio made its Old First Concerts debut. The group is the piano trio of violinist Nicole Oswald, cellist Isaac Pastor-Chermak, and pianist Alison Lee; and the collective name is taken after the year in which Franz Schubert died. At their debut in June of 2019, presented by Sunset Music and Arts in San Francisco, the program drew upon music from the final year of Schubert’s life. Thus, in addition to performing as a trio, they also presented solo and duo offerings. The full title of last night’s program was Vive la Différence: French music of the late 19th & early 20th centuries, advancing forward about 75 years from their namesake.

Their only performance as a trio took place after the intermission: Maurice Ravel’s 1914 trio in A minor. The first half of the program saw Lee accompanying two sonatas, César Franck’s A major violin sonata and Debussy’s cello sonata. Chronologically, Ravel’s trio was flanked by earlier and later sonata compositions. It thus served somewhat as a “central focus,” even if it was the last piece to be played. More important is that all three of these pieces experimented with departures from the usual structural conventions.

In Ravel’s case this is most evident in the third movement, Passacaille. This is a retrospective view of a seventeenth-century dance form in which any vestige of the dance has been shed in favor of a repeated pattern cast in a moody dark rhetoric. Ravel’s technical demands on all three instruments are imposing, and the passacaglia is the one movement in which those demands are somewhat eased. From the listener’s point of view, the trio stands out by virtue of the many adventurous sonorities Ravel evokes, the most chilling being the natural string harmonics that wistfully conclude the first movement. Ensemble 1828 admirably rose to all the demands imposed by the score, but their freshness of youth established a rhetorical context that made for new points of view of chamber music likely to be familiar to much of the audience.

The “sonata pairing” was particularly interesting when one recognizes that Franck was a significant influence on the young Debussy. Both of these sonatas were composed late in life, and each has its own way of departing from the usual sonata conventions. In Franck’s case this involves a particularly wistful opening movement and, more significantly, the replacement of the usual slow movement with a fantasia preceded by an extended recitativo. Oswald presented a solid command of the score, always establishing rhetorically appropriate grounds for interplay with Lee’s piano work. (Franck’s own “comfort zone” was the keyboard, both piano and organ. It is therefore no surprise that this sonata has the piano as a partner, rather than providing accompaniment.)

Debussy’s sonata was the first of a series of six (each with different instrumentation) that he planned towards the end of his life. He only lived to compose the first three. Debussy had originally given this sonata the subtitle “Pierrot fâché avec la lune” (Pierrot angry with the moon). The sonata was composed about three years after the first performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire;” and whether or not this is more than coincidence is left as an exercise for the reader. At the very least Debussy had no trouble with a rhetoric as sharp-edged as one found in the “Pierrot Lunaire” libretto; and Pastor-Chermak not only recognized those edges but gave them just the right rhetorical twists.

Ensemble 1828 also prepared an encore. This was the winter movement from Astor Piazzolla’s Estaciones Porteñas (liberally translated as “the four seasons of Buenos Aires”). José Bragato prepared the arrangement for piano trio, and the Neave Trio recorded its entirety on their Celebrating Piazzolla album, then bringing it to a Noontime Concerts program in December of 2018. Ensemble 1828 perfectly captured the wistful melancholy of this particular movement, which seemed the perfect match for our current run of inclement weather.

Friday, January 29, 2021

OM Honors Charles Shere’s 85th Birthday

This past November Other Minds (OM) celebrated the 85th birthday of Bay Area composer Charles Shere with the digital download release of a recording thought to be lost. The recording captured the world premiere performance of the trio he composed for violin, piano, and percussion. This composition had been commissioned by OM for the OM Festival 3, which took place in 1996; and it was performed by the trio of violinist David Abel, pianist Julie Steinberg, and percussionist William Winant. Sadly, Shere died less than a month after this recording was released on November 24. Abel, on the other hand, turned 85 on that same day.

Although Shere had studied composition briefly with both Robert Erickson and Luciano Berio, he was primarily self-taught. He was particularly interested in approaches to indeterminacy as practiced by composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, as well as the use of unconventional notations. However, by the time he composed this trio, he was working with more traditional foundations, developing a unique voice within those constraints. The score even includes an unabashed quotation from one of his friends, Virgil Thomson, while the dreamlike aesthetic may reflect another friend, Lou Harrison. The music is about twenty minutes in duration, guiding the attentive listener through a rich spectrum of subjective dispositions.

The score was composed during a summer that Shere spent on an island off the southern coast of France. He drew scenes from his window during both day and night. Those drawings appear side-by-side on what the album cover would have been were the album released in physical, rather than digital, form. Sadly, the image on the Web page does not do justice to those two drawings. Readers are encouraged to click on the image below for a better view:

courtesy of Other Minds

Albany Consort Live-Streamed from St. Ignatius

Last night the Albany Consort live-streamed a more limited version of its Roaring 1720s program than was originally intended, due to working with reduced resources. In place of an “All Star Band,” the performance was given by a quartet led by Jonathan Salzedo at the harpsichord. He was joined by his wife Marion Rubinstein on recorder (and keyboard in the final selection), his daughter Laura Jeannin on violin, and Roy Wheldon on gamba. The program itself could still have been consistent with the original intention of presenting selections that may well have been performed by the Collegium Musicum that met regularly at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig.

This could easily have been the case for the final selection, the first movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1052 harpsichord concerto in D minor, even if Salzedo had to revise the score for reduced resources. Bach was also represented on the program by his BWV 1016 sonata for violin and harpsichord in E major. The quartet began the program with a “programmatic” trio sonata (TWV 42:C1) taken from Georg Philipp Telemann’s collection Der getreue Music-Meister. Following the overture, the “program” depicted five women from Ancient Greek and Roman culture: Xantippe, Lucretia, Corinna, Clelia, and Dido. The two Bach selections were separated by a concerto by Jean-Philippe Rameau, the fifth in his collection Concerts de Pièces de Clavecin Avec un Violin et une Viole.

All of these selections were given engaging performances. The venue was St. Ignatius Parish, presented through is 24/7 YouTube Livestream. This is a church of gargantuan proportions with an enormous dome capable of sucking up sounds from anywhere in the sanctuary. Fortunately, the performance took place on the altar, a safe distance from that dome; and skillful microphone placement presented a well-balanced account of all four performers. In addition, multiple cameras were engaged, providing well-selected points-of-view that could almost be taken as an alternative for score-following.

As of this writing, the recorded video has not yet been upload to the Web page of videos on the Albany Consort Web site. However, there will be an “encore” live-stream tomorrow, Saturday, at 7 p.m. Further details about this performance may be found on an Albany Consort Web page of upcoming events.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

“Rare Documents” of Herbert von Karajan

courtesy of Naxos of America

Towards the end of this past November, the Italian-based record label Urania Records (not to be confused with the American Urania label, which is now a property of Warner Communications) released a two-CD album of recordings of Herbert von Karajan entitled Rare Documents. Each of the two CDs couples an extended multi-movement composition with a shorter single-movement offering. Three of the four compositions were recorded in Rome in December of 1953, while the second of the shorter pieces, “Antifone” by Hans Werner Henze, was recorded in Berlin ten years later.

Between 1938 and 1989 Karajan was responsible for some one thousand studio recordings. His “comfort zone” was very much in the domain of familiar repertoire. Rather than explore territory that was too adventurous, he tended to cultivate the diversity of interpretations of a well-known composition through multiple recording sessions. On the other hand the four pieces in this collection were recorded only once; and, because Karajan was not happy with the sound quality, they were never released in his lifetime. Indeed, the works are so unfamiliar that only one of them previously had a place in my collection. This was William Walton’s first symphony in B-flat minor, which is the first selection in the Walton Conducts Walton album produced by The Walton Edition.

Karajan’s Walton recording was made in Rome on December 5, 1953 at a session which also included recording “Musica da Concerto,” composed for viola and string orchestra by Giorgio Federica Ghedini. Walton’s symphony was composed between 1931 and 1934; and, given the amount of time that Karajan spent with the Philharmonia Orchestra during the decade that followed World War II, it is easy to imagine that he would have become aware of at least some of Walton’s work. Ghedini, on the other hand, was not very well known outside his native Italy; and, in all probability, Karajan’s session with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma led to the world premiere recording of Ghedini’s concerto.

Similarly, the subsequent Rome session on December 21 was probably the world premiere recording of the setting of the Requiem text by the Swiss composer Heinrich Sutermeister. The vocal work was primarily choral with solos for both soprano and bass. The soprano on this recording is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and I do not think I have encountered her singing pitches as high as those Sutermeister required in any other recording that she made. The bass part, which tends to be more forgiving, was sung by Giorgio Tadeo, whom I had not previously encountered.

The Henze recording is likely to be the most eyebrow-raising. “Antifone” was composed in 1960. There is a prodigious eclecticism in the diversity of approaches to composition that Henze took, and “Antifone” may be taken as representative of the thornier side of his styles. It is hard to imagine Karajan working with edges sharper than those he had encountered in Igor Stravinsky, but he definitely gave Henze a fair shake. Given how seldom Henze’s music is encountered these days, Karajan’s interpretation of “Antifone” definitely makes this album “worth the price of admission,” as P. T. Barnum might have put it.

Old First Concerts: February, 2021

As of this writing, Old First Concerts has scheduled only one concert for next month. This will be the return of three of the members of the Wooden Fish Ensemble: violinists Terri Baune and Ilana Blumberg and pianist Thomas Schultz. The two violinists will present the world premiere of Hyo-shin Na’s “Weaving Variations,” preceding it with a performance Na’s “The Sway of the Branch II.” They will also perform the world premiere of “Three Pieces and More” by Boudewijn Buckinx. Schultz will play Frederic Rzewski’s North American Ballads, followed by Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangements of two chorale preludes by Johann Sebastian Bach. There will also be duets for violin and piano by Erik Satie and Arvo Pärt.

As is currently the case, this concert will be live-streamed through YouTube. The specific link to the YouTube streaming will be found on the event page for this concert. The performance will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 26; and a hyperlink to the program notes will be added to the event page a few hours before the beginning of the concert. There will be no charge for admission, but all are invited to choose an amount to donate through the hyperlink on the event page. As usual, any changes in current plans will be updated through the Web page you are currently reading and the Facebook shadow site for this series of articles.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Jupiter String Quartet to Stream Concert Series

Jupiter String Quartet players (left-to-right) Daniel McDonough, Liz Freivogel, Nelson Lee, and Meg Freivogel (courtesy of Jensen Artists)

The Jupiter String Quartet is one of the more “familial” chamber ensembles. The violinists are Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel. The violist is Liz Freivogel, Meg’s older sister; and the cellist is Daniel McDonough, Meg’s husband (making him Liz’s brother-in-law). The members were appointed as artists-in-residence and faculty members at the College of Fine & Applied Arts of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne in 2012. Since that time they have performed regularly on campus at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at Illinois and directed chamber music programming.

On the four successive Fridays of next month, the quartet will present a concert series entitled Reflection and Renewal. Each program will begin with a movement from a well-known string quartet from the nineteenth century. This will serve as a basis for comparison with a more recent composition; and, on one of the programs, it will also be contrasted with an earlier eighteenth-century work. All programs will last for at most half an hour and will be available for on-demand viewing beginning at 10 a.m. (Pacific Time) on the Friday of each week. Viewing opportunities will continue through March 5. The programs planned for each of the four weeks are as follows:

February 5: The nineteenth-century offering will be the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 95 (“Serioso”) in F minor; and it will be followed by “Imprimatur” by Canadian composer Kati Agócs, currently teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music.

February 12: The program will begin with the second (theme and variations) movement from Franz Schubert’s D. 810 string quartet in D minor. This is known as the “Death and the Maiden” quartet, since the theme is taken from the D. 531 song setting the poem by Matthias Claudius of the same title. This will be followed by the final two movements of Michi Wiancko’s To Unpathed Waters, Undreamed Shores, “Follow the Water” and “Rise Up.”

February 19: The opening selection will be the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s final string quartet, Opus 80 in F minor. This will be coupled with the Largo cantabile e mesto movement from Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/79 quartet in D major. The program will then conclude with excerpts from Dan Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs.

February 26: Complementing the preceding program, the final offering will begin with the fourth movement of Mendelssohn’s first quartet, Opus 12 in E-flat major. This will be followed by George Walker’s first string quartet, entitled “Lyric for Strings” and written in memory of his grandmother on his mother’s side. The program will then conclude with one of the three rags the William Bolcom composed for string quartet, “Incineratorag.”

The Krannert Center has created a single Web page for the entire series. Graphic tokens have been created for each of the four programs. That token will provide the event link through which the concert may be viewed when on-demand viewing begins.

APR Releases Final HMV Backhaus Recordings

courtesy of Naxos of America

In November of 2018, I wrote an article about the recordings that pianist Wilhelm Backhaus made for HMV prior to the outbreak of World War II. These were two two-CD sets entitled, respectively, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann & encore pieces, recorded between 1925 and 1937, and The complete pre-War Beethoven recordings, recorded between 1927 and 1937. (The latter includes three “encores” of music by Johann Sebastian Bach.) These albums were produced by Appian Publications & Recordings (APR), which, this past November, completed the HMV anthology with the release of The complete 1940s studio recordings. In 1950 Backhaus would begin recording for Decca, resulting in a far more extensive anthology filling 39 CDs.

The Forties recordings amount to a somewhat uneven account of a difficult period in Backhaus’ life. After the Nazis took over Germany, Backhaus met Adolf Hitler; and, not long thereafter, he became the Executive Director of the Kameradschaft der deutschen Künstler (fellowship of German artists), which basically governed Nazi oversight of artistic activities. Backhaus clearly benefitted from Nazi favors, but his career in the rest of Europe was seriously jeopardized. He would eventually move to Switzerland to distance himself from the Nazis. However, the first recording on this new release was made in Berlin in 1941, a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 537 (“Coronation”) concerto in D major with Fritz Zaun conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin, the resident orchestra of the Berlin State Opera. All of the other recordings were made in Zürich over the course of three days, March 15–17, 1948.

It would probably be unfair to associate the Mozart concerto with any Nazi sympathies. While this may not, strictly speaking, be a “historically informed” performance, Backhaus followed Mozart’s lead in providing his own cadenzas. Indeed, he had his own take on Mozart’s prankish nature when, in the final movement, his cadenza toys with the opening measures of the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 21 (first) symphony in C major, in which Beethoven displayed his own capacity for prankishness.

The 1948 sessions were divided across compositions by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. These are all solo works for piano, and Mozart is represented by his K. 331 sonata in A major. Here, again, Backhaus appreciates the prankishness of this music, particularly in the concluding “Turkish” rondo. A similar rhetorical stance can be encountered in the third (in the key of E-flat major) of Beethoven’s Opus 31 sonatas, one of the best examples of a sonata that playfully dismisses the “scowling Beethoven” cliché. Schubert is represented only by the second (again in the key of E-flat major) of the four D. 899 impromptus.

More interesting are the Bach selections, the first of which is the BWV 971 “Italian concerto” for solo keyboard in F major. Bach was particularly imaginative in being able to separate solo and ripieno ensemble passages while allowing both to inhabit the same single keyboard. Backhaus’ approach to phrasing gives the clearest possible account of the composer’s intentions. If the style is not “historically informed,” the spirit of the performance is still unquestionably valid. This is then followed by the B-flat major prelude-fugue coupling from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, given an equally valid account for performance on a twentieth-century piano.

Backhaus’ HMV legacy may be modest, but it serves up any number of delights for the attentive listener.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

New Release of Evans with DeJohnette and Gómez

Jack DeJohnette (photograph by Francois Jacquenod, courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz Communications)

Jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette spent only six months as a member of the trio led by Bill Evans, which also included Eddie Gómez in bass. The only recording to result from that brief partnership was Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival, which is included in the anthology of Evans’ Verve recordings. More recently, however, Resonance Records released two additional concert albums of the trio’s performances: Some Other Time: The Lost Session from The Black Forest and Another Time: The Hilversum Concert. This past November Resonance released a third album, Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s. Taken as a whole, that amounts to a generous number of tracks for a trio that lasted for six months.

The new album consists of two CDs, each of which has ten tracks. Only three of them are Evans originals: “Turn Out the Stars,” “Very Early,” and “Waltz for Debby.” All of them can be found on other albums, which is also true of the standards found on the remaining seventeen tracks. What is important, however, is that Evans never dominates over this trio. Indeed, anyone interested in jazz bass technique may find more of interest in the many solos that Gómez takes, rather than attending to Evans’ imaginative harmonic progressions and his often adventurous rhythms. DeJohnette may not have taken over as much of the time that Gómez dominated; but throughout his career, he has demonstrated a rich portfolio of what amount to “punctuation marks” in the tunes he is backing.

What makes this collection particularly interesting is that all of the tracks were drawn from DeJohnette’s personal archives; and DeJohnette co-produced the album with Zev Feldman. From a personal point of view, I think that DeJohnette was the first drummer I encountered when I first started to frequent the Village Vanguard. Unless I am mistaken, he was playing drums for Thelonious Monk on that occasion; and it did not take long for me to get drawn into the solo riffs he came up with when Monk would take a break and wander around the stage.

Another observation that may (or may not) be relevant is that DeJohnette succeeded Philly Joe Jones as Evans’ drummer. On their many Verve tracks, Evans could be more than generous in allowing Jones to go his own way. It is therefore likely that he expected the same amount of prodigious invention to come from DeJohnette, and DeJohnette definitely did not disappoint.

One last historical tidbit: Apparently, Miles Davis first become aware of DeJohnette during that trio date at Ronnie Scott’s. As a result, DeJohnette departed from Evans because Davis asked him to replace Tony Williams in his band! One of the more memorable results of that transition was that DeJohnette was the primary drummer on Bitches Brew!

San Francisco Opera Plans for February

Next month the Opera is ON service presented by San Francisco Opera (SFO) will continue with four new opera streams, one for each weekend. In addition, the second of those weekends will include the next operatic drive-in event presented at the Fort Mason Flix Drive-In. Because there are only four opportunities to attend the Fort Mason screening, while Opera is ON offerings can be viewed any time over the course of the weekend, the Fort Mason event will be described first.

The SFO performance to be screened at Fort Mason will be a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. This had originally been planned for December, but was postponed in response to the stay-at-home order imposed after a rise of COVID-19 cases. The opera was one of the offerings in SFO’s opening season, first presented at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, October 2, 1923. The video capture was made during the spring season in 2009. Staging was directed by Jose Maria Condemi, and the conductor was Marco Armiliato. The leading characters were performed by soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as Floria Tosca, tenor Carlo Ventre as Mario Cavaradossi, and Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli as Baron Scarpia.

The video will be displayed by a 40’ X 20’ LED screen. The running time of the opera will be approximately two hours. Screenings will take place at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Friday, February 12, and Saturday, February 13. Tickets for all four of these events may be purchased through a single SFO Web page or by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330. General admission will be $49 per car with a $5 handling fee. The entrance to the Fort Mason Center for the Arts & Culture is located at 2 Marina Boulevard.

Viewing the Opera in ON programs is more flexible. The selection for each weekend will become available on Saturday at 10 a.m.; and free access will expire at the end of the following day. Each video will then be added to the archive available to subscribers and those that have donated $75 or more. Specifics for the four February offerings are as follows:

February 6: The month will begin with the first streaming of an opera by Richard Wagner, Lohengrin. The production, which was shared with the Houston Grand Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève, was conceived by Daniel Slater, working with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins. The performances took place during the fall 2012 season. Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducted, and Ian Robertson prepared the rich choral work performed by the SFO Chorus. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich made his role debut as the title character. Lohengrin’s bride (remember, the Wedding March is probably the best-known selection from this opera), Elsa von Brabant, was sung by soprano Camilla Nylund. The “nemesis” characters of the sorceress Ortrud and her husband, Count Friedrich of Telramund, were taken by dramatic soprano Petra Lang and baritone Gerd Grochowski, respectively. Running time will be approximately three hours and 40 minutes, but Slater’s staging is very effectively well-paced.

February 13: The second offering will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 588 opera Così fan tutte (all women do it). This was the third and last of the Mozart operas that used a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte; and, while each of those operas tends to be classified as “comic,” each has its own “dark side” in addressing the nature of infidelity. The narrative involves two couples: Fiordiligi (soprano Ellie Dehn) and Guglielmo (bass Philippe Sly); and Dorabella (soprano Christel Lötzsch) and Ferrando (tenor Francesco Demuro). The cynical philosopher Don Alfonso (bass Marco Vinco) suggests that the men put their partners’ fidelity to the test by disguising themselves and then having each woo the partner of the other. He is abetted by Despina (soprano Susannah Biller), who serves as maid to the two women (who are sisters). The production was conceived by John Cox, who set the narrative in a Mediterranean beach town shortly before the onset of World War I; and the production was shared with the Opèra de Monte-Carlo. The San Francisco staging was realized by Condemi for performance in 2013. There will be no “spoilers” about how everything concludes; and “for the record,” Da Ponte’s libretto provides no explicit resolution of the plot. Once again the conductor will be Luisotti. Running time is about three hours.

February 20: While Tosca is one of Puccini’s most-performed operas, La rondine (the swallow) received much less attention. It was first performed in 1917, after which it was revised by the composer in 1920 and 1921, resulting in two completely different endings. Unfortunately, Puccini died before settling on a final version. Once again, the plot is about love, with the courtesan Magda de Civry (soprano Angela Gheorghiu) as the principal character. Concealing her identity, Magda falls in love with Ruggero Lastouc (tenor Misha Didyk), whom she meets in a café. The staging was conceived by Nicolas Joël for a production shared with the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. The SFO performance, which took place in 2007, was directed by Stephan Barlow, working with conductor Ion Marin. Running time is about two hours.

February 27: The month will conclude with Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff. As had been the case for his previous “Shakespearean” opera, Otello, Verdi worked with a libretto by Arrigo Boito, who, in turn, organized his narrative around three of William Shakespeare’s plays, the two parts of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. As might be expected, the narrative is dominated by the title character, sung by bass-baritone Bryn Terfel. From a musical point of view, the conclusion of the opera provides one of the few opportunities to appreciate the composer’s skill at writing a fugue. Olivier Tambosi created the staging for the Lyric Opera of Chicago; and the SFO performances took place in the fall of 2013, conducted by Luisotti. Running time is a little over two hours.

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

Monday, January 25, 2021

LCCE to Provide Music for Two New Animations

Having announced this past Saturday that the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) would premiere a new concerto by Mark Winges at the beginning of next month, LCCE has announced another new performance, which will take place this coming Thursday. This will be a live-stream from the Anne E. Pitzer Center as part of the Noon Concert series at the University of California at Davis. The program will premiere two new animations by Maria Fong, each intended to accompany music to be performed by LCCE cellist Leighton Fong.

The first of these was created for a performance of Craig Walsh’s “Pipeline Burst Cache,” which he composed for solo cello and tape. The second also involves a solo cello performance, Peter Tornyai’s “fiori sfiorati.” Fong will also perform a duo with violist Matilda Hofman entitled “Pas de Deux,” composed by Ross Bauer. He will conclude the program by performing the second piano trio composed by Melinda Wagner, given the title “Romanze with Faux Variations.” He will be joined by Anna Presler on violin and Allegra Chapman on piano.

This will be a 55-minute concert, beginning at 12:05 p.m. this Thursday, January 28. There will be no charge for admission. The program will be live-streamed through the UC Davis Music YouTube channel.

Emil Gilels’ Russian/Soviet Repertoire

courtesy of Naxos of America

In June of 2018, this site discussed Profil’s release of its Emil Gilels Edition, a box of thirteen CDs accounting for recordings of performances by Russian pianist Emil Gilels made between 1933 and 1963. The cover design enumerated an impressive number of composers: Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. While some may find this a rather limited scope of music history, the early recordings on the first CD include more recent composers, such as Claude Debussy and Francis Poulenc.

This past October Profil released a second box. This one is devoted entirely to composers that are either Russian or from countries that fell under the influence of the Soviet Union. The organization of the album is roughly chronological, with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky at one end and Andrey Babaev (born in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1923 and died in Moscow in 1964) at the other. These recordings were made between 1940 and 1963.

Ironically, one of the high points of this collection involves music previously released on another label. Gilels made a few trio recordings with violinist Leonid Kogan and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. These recordings were anthologized in a five-CD box set released by DOREMI, which I discussed in August of 2017. The Profil release allowed me to revisit the recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 50 trio in A minor and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 67 (second) trio in E minor; and listening to both of these offerings felt like encountering old friends. Indeed, the Shostakovich performance was so compelling that I was more than a little disappointed that the only other account of this composer involved three of the prelude-fugue couplings (in the keys of C major, D major, and D minor) from that composer’s Opus 87 set of all 24 major and minor keys.

Where concertos are concerned, three of them are accounted for by two different recordings. Most interesting is Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 (first) concerto in B-flat minor, whose second recording was made with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and is included in the anthology of his RCA recordings. This is coupled on the same CD that begins with a performance of the same concerto made with Konstantin Ivanov conducting what is now known as the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra but was called the USSR State Radio Symphony Orchestra under Soviet rule.

I suspect that there are few listeners interested in playing this CD from beginning to end to experience two different performances back-to-back. However, the Opus 44 (second) concerto in G Major gets the same treatment. This time the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra is conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, best known for having conducted Van Cliburn’s prize-winning performance of Opus 23 at the first International Tchaikovsky Competition (which earned Kondrashin his own place in the catalog of RCA recordings). The second performance was recorded with the Hungarian National Philharmonic (then the Hungarian State Orchestra) conducted by András Kóródi. The other concerto to get two recordings is Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 30 (third) concerto in D minor. Both of them were again made with Kondrashin and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra.

My primary disappointment involves an unsatisfying limited account of piano sonatas. Only one of Sergei Prokofiev’s “war” sonatas, Opus 84 in B-flat major, is included. There are only two other Prokofiev sonatas included, the Opus 14 (second) in D minor and two recordings of the Opus 28 (third) in A minor. Even more disappointing is that Alexander Scriabin is represented by only two very early sonatas, Opus 6 (first) in F minor and Opus 30 (fourth) in F-sharp major. The latter comes from the time when Scriabin was still experimenting with rich chromaticism, not yet ready to pursue the potential of atonality.

In many ways the assortment in this collection reminds us of just how conservative prevailing tastes were during the middle of the twentieth century. Shostakovich knew how to think “out of the box;” but that tended to provoke Soviet authorities into confining him within a stronger box. His colleague Mieczysław Weinberg could be similarly adventurous and probably took advantage of how few people knew about his compositions. Fortunately, his Opus 56 (fourth) piano sonata in B minor is included in this Gilels collection. Mind you, conditions in the United States tended to be just as conservative, allowing repertoire to be determined by balance sheets and the prices of shares on stock exchanges!

The bottom line is that there is a generous supply of piano-playing talent that is far better than merely satisfactory in this collection. If Gilels was limited by the narrowness of public opinion, he was far from the only performing artist to be so confined. Better we should simply enjoy the expressiveness he could bring to the compositions he was allowed to perform.

ASQ Launches MAKM Virtual Season

Last night Music at Kohl Mansion (MAKM) launched its 38th season, consisting of prerecorded videos, each of which will be given two “live” streamings. The opening concert presented a single composition, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major in the version that the composer originally wrote, with the Grosse Fuge as the last of its six movements. The performers were the members of the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson. This was probably the group’s final performance with Yarbrough, who is about to be replaced by David Samuel.

The program amounted to a “follow-up” to the second of the two Beethoven Marathon recitals that ASQ recorded last month for San Francisco Performances (SFP) for viewing through the Front Row: 2020 Online Concert Series video archive. For that recording ASQ played the seven-movement Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor. The Opus 130 performance was a lengthier enterprise, particularly due to the fact that the duration of the fugue is about fifteen minutes, longer than any of the five preceding movements.

ASQ has been playing the Beethoven quartets (and recording them) for well over a quarter century prior to my settling into writing about music as my “retirement gig.” They used the SFP marathon to offer representative samples from the three periods that partition the entire canon: early (Opus 18, published in 1801), middle (primarily the three “Razumovsky” quartets, composed in 1806), late (the five quartets composed between 1824 and 1826, shortly before Beethoven’s death in March of 1827). However, there is so much innovation across those last five quartets that it is understandable that a “farewell gesture” to Yarbrough would involve another quartet from the late period.

What is particularly distinctive about Opus 130, however, is how it reminds the listener that, even during the final (and often stressful) years of Beethoven’s life, his sense of humor was as sharp as ever. Each of the first four movements has its own generous share of playful surprises, almost as if each of the four instruments had its own prankish dispositions. There is probably a bit of humor, albeit more subtle, in the fifth movement, which Beethoven labels as a cavatina. Its Wikipedia page identifies the cavatina as “originally meaning a short song of simple character;” and I have always felt that the perfect model for a cavatina is “Porgi amor,” sung by the Countess at the beginning of the second act of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro.

Beethoven’s cavatina, on the other hand, is anything but short and hardly “of simple character.” It is one of the longer of the five movements that precede the fugue, and the interplay of the four instrumental lines makes for some of the composer’s most sophisticated polyphony. From a rhetorical point of view, this is the music that brings an interlude of calm following the more raucous humor of the first four movements while bracing the listener for the shock of the fugue that is about to follow, a movement that departs from any expectations of fugue even more disquieting than Beethoven’s departure from cavatina conventions.

What makes ASQ performances so engaging is that, collectively, they know how to escort the attentive listener through the wide breadth of rhetorical diversity that Beethoven brought to all of his music. The late period quartets make it clear that, through all of that breadth of diversity that permeated his work as a composer, Beethoven was as inventive as ever in his last years, if not more so. One could almost say that their MAKM recital came close to serving up the same elements of surprise that would have jolted those listening to the earliest performances of the late quartets.

That said, it is worth observing that the video work did not do ASQ any favors. Unless I am mistaken, they recorded Opus 131 for SFP with a fixed camera in Herbst Theatre. However, the frame provided a consistently informative view of the entire group. As a result, one could readily grasp the many different approaches to polyphony that emerged in Beethoven’s writing. The attentive eye could easy follow how thematic motifs could be both shared and handed-off.

The video treatment at Kohl Mansion, enabled by the Sun Valley Music Festival Crew, was, on the other hand, overly burdened with multiple-camera busy-work. Furthermore, in all probability none of the members of that crew had even a vague sense of what was in the score being performed by ASQ. As a result, the eye was almost always forced to look at one or two players, while the ear was being directed to the players that were “out of frame.” As might be imagined, the Grosse Fuge was the primary casualty, but many of Beethoven’s wittiest turns of phrase in the first five movements were similarly undermined.

Those that attend performances frequently are well aware that watching contributes as much to the experience as listening does; let us hope that basic video technique will improve over the course of the remaining concerts in the MAKM season.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Volti to Showcase One of its Own at Next Concert

Composer and low bass vocalist Joel Chapman (courtesy of Volti)

Next month Volti will present the third of the four mini-concerts it has planned for its 42nd season. Since this a cappella vocal ensemble specializes in new music, it is appropriate that each of those concerts will present a world-premiere performance. However, the next concert will be particularly special, since the composer, Joel Chapman, sings low bass in Volti performances.

Chapman is also a conductor, and those who have seen him in performance are probably aware of his physical disability. The title of the piece he has composed is “Interdependence;” and, through it, he reflects on what the last year has taught us about connection: the ways in which, after nearly a year of physical distancing, masks, and hand sanitizer, the isolation of the pandemic may have also caused us to realize how interconnected we are and may have created the beginnings of a bridge of understanding between abled and disabled people. Chapman provided his own text for “Interdependence;” and he has chosen to preview his work by offering the opening lyrics:

There are things I can do
There are things I can't do
Maybe it's true for you too

Oh, the things that I miss
If I might reminisce
(Maybe it's true for you too)

The performance will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 13. There will be no charge for admission, and the performance will be less than an hour in duration. All that is necessary is that one registers prior to 5 p.m. on that day through the Tix Web page that creates a free ticket.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Biblical Opera Beyond the Spectacle

As was announced about a month ago, this weekend’s offering in the Opera is ON service presented by San Francisco Opera (SFO) is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah. With the exception of “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” (my heart at thy sweet voice), the aria that Delilah sings in the second act to seduce Samson, this opera tends to be known more for its unabashed spectacle than for any other factor. Indeed, as I observed in previewing the production, it was the first to be presented through the Opera at the Ballpark series of simulcasts to the Mitsubishi Electronic Diamond Vision Board in Oracle Park for an audience of about 15,000 viewers; and the visuals alone would probably be sufficient to knock one out of the park.

However, as I observed in a preview article I wrote prior to seeing this production in September of 2007, there is more than ample evidence that Saint-Saëns himself prioritized the music over the spectacle. The composer deserves to be remembered for at least two technical skills, each of which carries far more weight than the “Bacchanale” theme which is definitely up there in the top five clichés in the classical music repertoire. Most important was his prodigious gift for writing highly inventive polyphonic music, a gift exercised in Samson and Delilah for both instrumental and vocal writing. In the latter category Saint-Saëns’ choral music is just as compelling for its homophony as it is for its polyphony. Another significant feature is the composer’s gift for chromatic lines that register just the right emotional impact without getting written off as too “slimy."

Douglas Schmidt’s design for the “Bacchanale” scene that concludes Samson and Delilah (photograph by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

When it comes to the SFO production, everyone involved was on the ball in equal measure. Conductor Patrick Summers clearly appreciated all of the above virtues of Saint-Saëns’ techniques, and he knew how to make sure that they would register with any attentive listener. At the same time, Douglas Schmidt provided designs (such as the one reproduced above) on a grand scale that probably would have gone down very well with Parisian audiences at the end of the nineteenth century. Sandra Bernhard realized the staging conceived by Nicolas Joël by allowing the narrative to flow at a brisk pace without ever suggesting any tedium. As to the vocal work, the title roles taken by tenor Clifton Forbis as Samson and mezzo Olga Borodina as Delilah were pure dynamite. The same can be said for Samson’s nemesis, the High Priest of Dagon, sung by baritone Juha Uusitalo. Finally, Frank Zamacona’s direction of the video capture consistently found just the right techniques for alternating between intimate views of the individual characters and the overall grandeur of the setting in which they were situated.

All hands clearly played significant roles in presenting Samson and Delilah as an opera that was far more than mere spectacle.

A Spoonful of Eye Candy Makes the Counterpoint go Down

Originally written in September of 2007

As I prepare to see the San Francisco Opera production of Samson and Delilah next Sunday, it is hard to forget that this opera embodies what is probably the most well-worn cliché of the music literature, at least over the course of the twentieth century when it was worked to death by just about every comedian on stage or screen (including the animated ones in the latter case). This moment is all the more ridiculous, since the "official" title of this particular musical episode is "Bacchanale," in spite of the fact that Bacchus-worship was not a practice of the Philistines. (Indeed, the libretto by Ferdinand Lemaire makes it clear that this scene is celebrating Dagon, which is one of the details from the Book of Judges that is kept intact.) However, once we get beyond the hackneyed, this opera reminds us that spectacle was not an invention of Cecil B. DeMille, or even D. W. Griffith, and that "grand" was quite a meaningful adjective in the phrase "grand opera!"

We are also reminded that music was just as much a business in late nineteenth-century France (or, for this particular opera, Germany) as it was about three-quarters of a century later when Lennie Tristano was bemoaning the sorry state of jazz in the Forties of the twentieth century. However, if we get beyond the eye candy on the stage and even the "star turns" of the leading characters, this opera provides us with many opportunities to see that Camille Saint-Saëns was just as as serious about his music as Tristano was about his. We get to hear Saint-Saëns display his command of both counterpoint and choral writing with a refinement that we miss if we limit our attention to the "Bacchanale" or other his spectacles, such as the second piano concerto or the "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso." Then, if we listen "behind" the mezzo-soprano's delivery of Delilah's seduction aria ("Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix"), we hear some wonderfully delicate management of orchestral texture and chromatic lines that, in other hands, would have been written off by my own composition teachers as "slimy."

This leaves us with an impression of a Saint-Saëns who was able to achieve a dialectical synthesis of the ideals of his art form with the pragmatics of the business that provided him opportunities to compose. He could produce music that, as Roger Sessions would put it about a century later, he could listen to (and present to his students) "without blushing." If the general audience cared only about seeing a sexy Delilah, lapping up orgiastic choreography, and finishing it all off with the collapse of the Philistine temple, that was their affair. Today's audiences tend to have the same interests; and, if that benefits the budget of an opera company, we are all the better for it. The rest of us can seize the opportunity to listen to the music that probably gave Saint-Saëns, himself, the greatest satisfaction; and we, too, benefit.

William Susman’s Programmatic Anthology

from the Bandcamp Web page for the recording being discussed

This past Wednesday Belarca Records released A Quiet Madness, an anthology of compositions by William Susman. Readers will see from the hyperlink that the best site for purchasing this album in both physical and digital forms is provided by Bandcamp. The Web page itself is particularly valuable, since it includes all of the text content of the booklet that accompanies the physical release.

Susman was born in 1960, and a major source of his education came from Herbert Brun at the University of Illinois. The advance material for this album cite’s Susman as “working in a post-modern, post-minimalist language.” I have been very skeptical about any useful semantic interpretation of “post-modern;” but it is clear from this album that Susman found his own way to work with the sorts of repetitive structures that served as a bedrock during the emergence of the minimalist movement.

One may approach A Quiet Madness as a suite compiled from individual movements involving different instrumental resources, which he composed between 2006 and 2013. The “spinal cord” is defined by the first, fifth, and seventh compositions in a series of solo piano pieces composed in 2010 under the title Quiet Rhythms. Susman collected 44 of these pieces in two Books during 2010. These were followed by a third book of 22 pieces in 2012 and a fourth book (also of 22 pieces) in 2013.

On A Quiet Madness the three selected pieces are played by Francesco Di Fiore, whose approaches to composition seem to parallel Susman’s. The album begins with the only piece composed in 2013, “Aria,” performed by violinist Karen Bentley Pollick, accompanied by Susman at the piano. The pieces interleaved among the three Quiet Rhythms selections are “Seven Scenes for Four Flutes,” performed by flutist Patricia Zuber, and “Zydeco Madness,” played by accordionist Stas Venglevski.

While there is considerable diversity among all the scores being performed, there tends to be an overall impression of rhetorical sameness. For example, “Zydeco Madness” was supposedly composed as a response to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. However, there is not much to either denote or connote that tragedy, let alone the richly diverse culture of music making one encounters in New Orleans. NCIS: New Orleans may make for pretty routine television viewing, but it certainly does not short-change that aforementioned culture of music making.

Perhaps my listening experience amounted to confronting a diversity of abstractions, none of which offer many (if any) hints of what is being abstracted, reminding me of the joke about feeling hungry within an hour after having consumed a full meal.

LCCE to Premiere “Socially-Distanced” Concerto

Violinist Hrabba Atladottir (from the LCCE event page for the concert being announced)

Readers may recall that Long Distance Call, the program originally scheduled for performance by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) this coming Monday, was rescheduled for performance on May 3. By way of compensation, LCCE has added a special performance of another “long distance” work, which will take place at the beginning of next month. Local composer Mark Winges has written “Spun Light,” a “distanced concerto” for violin and a quintet consisting of flute (Stacey Pelinka doubling on alto flute), viola (Phyllis Kamrin), cello (Leighton Fong), bass (Michel Taddei), and piano (Allegra Chapman, doubling on toy piano). The violin soloist will be Hrabba Atladottir.

Social distancing was achieved by having all performers record their respective parts individually. While Atladottir is well known to Bay Area concert performances, she recorded her part in Reykjavík, capital of her native Iceland. Her recording engineer was Ólafur Elíasson, while all the other parts were recorded by Jeff Kolhede at the 25th Street Studios in Oakland. Kolhede was then responsible for mixing all of this content to create a chamber music variation of the concerto form with a decidedly different take on how musicians collaborate. The performance of this three-movement composition will then be supplemented with video created by Guðrun Olafsdottir in Reykjavík and Taylor Joshua Rankin, who was responsible for the final mix.

The world premiere of this concerto will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 8. There will be no charge for admission. The streaming site has not yet been finalized. However, once it has been created, a hyperlink will be added to the event page for this performance on the LCCE Web site.

Samantha Cho at Old First Concerts

Pianist Samantha Cho (from the Old First Concerts event page for her recital, which includes a hyperlink to the YouTube video of that recital)

Last night Old First Concerts presented the first recital of the new year, a solo performance by pianist Samantha Cho. Cho prepared an impressive repertoire, playing all six of the compositions in the two books that Claude Debussy entitled Images, followed by Edvard Grieg’s Opus 7 piano sonata in E minor. By way of a “warm-up,” Cho began her program with four short compositions by Germaine Tailleferre, “Pastorale,” “Rêverie,” “Hommage à Debussy,” and “Romance.”

It is unclear whether Debussy intended his six Images compositions to be performed beginning-to-end. Each of the pieces is of moderate duration, combining rhetorical depth with prodigiously demanding keyboard technique. Cho’s undertaking would be a major physical strain for any pianist, while the sophistication of the pieces themselves is equally demanding on the listener. Nevertheless, Cho’s graceful technique always seemed to highlight the imagery that Debussy suggests in the titles of these six pieces. So, while the overall journey was no “walk in the park,” Cho knew how to guide the attentive listener through the many intricate details of Debussy’s technique, bringing to mind the advice from the I Ching that “perseverance furthers.”

Grieg’s sonata is one of his earliest compositions. Indeed, it is probably the earliest piece he wrote that is part of standard piano repertoire. One gets the impression that he is making an obligatory nod to traditional practices that predate his sonata by at least half a century. (The sonata was first written in 1865 when Grieg was 22 years old and was subsequently revised by a more mature Grieg in 1887.) Cho brought a clarity to her interpretation through which the attentive listener could appreciate how the composer was responding to traditional influences. She found just the right rhetorical stance to bring to each of the sonatas four movements, finding more personality in that rhetoric than other pianists have cultivated in undertaking this sonata.

Given that Tailleferre is known for little more than being the one female composer in Les Six, her music would have benefitted from even a modest introduction. The paragraph in the program book had little to say about the selections that Cho played, and Cho devoted her own attention only to the music. The best one can say is that Cho played the music with an affable rhetoric, leaving at least this listener desirous of greater familiarity with the Tailleferre catalog.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Karen Slack Announces Merola Recital Program

Soprano Karen Slack and her accompanist Mary Pinto (from the Eventbrite Web page for the recital being announced)

Next month the Merola Opera Program will launch its Merola Virtual Recital Series of 2021. The recitalist will be soprano Karen Slack, a 2002 Merola alumna. She has prepared a program entitled Of Thee I Sing! Songs of Love and Justice. She will be accompanied at the piano by Mary Pinto, and their performance will be live-streamed from Philadelphia.

Ironically, the program will not include “Of Thee I Sing,” the song that George Gershwin composed for a musical of the same name, which was a scathing satire of political behavior (at least as it was practiced in 1931). Slack’s approach to politics is much more serious; and her program will conclude with the other half of her program’s title, Songs of Love and Justice. This is a collection of three settings of texts by Martin Luther King Jr. given the respective titles “Justice,” “Decisions,” and “Love.” Adolphus Hailstork composed this cycle in 1992 for soprano and orchestra, along with an arrangement for soprano and piano. Hailstork’s “finale” will be preceded by songs composed by Undine Smith Moore (“Love Let the Wind Cry How I Adore Thee” and “I Want To Die While You Love Me”), Harry Burleigh (“Lovely, Dark, and Lonely One”), Scott Gendel (“Kids Who Die”), Leslie Adams (“Prayer”), and Ricky Ian Gordon (“My People”). The program will begin with Clayton White’s arrangement of the spiritual “Over My Head.”

This streamed performance will begin at 4 p.m. (Pacific time) on Sunday, February 7. Tickets are $25 for individuals and $40 for households. A limited number of $80 VIP tickets are available that include a virtual reception with Karen Slack after the performance. Eventbrite has created an event page that will handle all three of these prices.

Another Bland Attempt to Cope with COVID-19

from the Web page for the recording being discussed

Today I seem to have endured my third encounter with music that has responded to COVID-19 by blunting sharp edges, rather than seeking them for stimulation. To “review the bidding,” the first of these experiences involved Scott Routenberg’s Inside album, consisting of eleven tracks of music for keyboards and software. I wrote about this at the end of this past October while declaring my preference for one of my recordings of Arnold Schoenberg’s orchestration of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 25 (first) piano quartet in G minor. Inside was followed, at the beginning of January, with Love in the Time of Cholera, duo performances by jazz pianist Peter Malinverni and classical violinist Juliet Kurtzman.

I can now add to the list Spirit Garden. This is the second album featuring saxophonist Tivon Pennicott, in which he performs with a full (and richly lush) string ensemble. He also draws upon the services of two jazz bassists, Dominique Sanders and Yasushi Nakamura, as well as drummer Joe Snyder and trumpeter Philip Dizack. The advance material claims the album title represents “a communion of human spirits, who can collaborate, be nourished, heal, and give each other hope through positivity. It’s a direct reflection of fruits in a garden and the fruit of the spirit.”

Sadly, I cannot see myself inhabiting such a garden. Perhaps that is because my auditory cortex is still buzzing with the provocative sonorities evoked by composer Ash Fure, whose music I discussed about a week ago. On the jazz side my dispositions remain more inclined to the consistently provocative subtleties of pianist Satoko Fujii and the many colleagues that have joined her on adventurous journeys. In such a listening context I find no need to seek a blissed-out experience, no matter how honorable the intentions behind that experience may be.

SFB Launches 2021 Digital Season

Last night San Francisco Ballet (SFB) launched its 2021 Digital Season by revisiting the first and only offering of last year’s season at the War Memorial Opera House. During that past performance of George Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the word went out from City Hall that all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center were to be cancelled to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The initial cancellation was to last through March 20, 2020; but, as we all now know all too well, that cancellation is still in effect.

A few days after that announcement SFB was able to return to the Opera House with a film crew led by Frank Zamacona. A multi-camera capture of the entire ballet was created, and the Web page for viewing the results was launched last night. That Web page will remain active through February 10.

What is probably most important is that the resulting video provides a viewing experience that goes beyond what anyone could have seen from any seat in the Opera House. Regular readers should, by now, be familiar with Zamacona’s name through the videos he created for the San Francisco Opera, many of which have been made available for viewing through the Opera is ON service. He clearly understands how to determine the right vantage point for every instance of the drama unfolding on the stage; and, when the curtain is down, he is just as skilled in tracking the instrumental performance in the orchestra pit. For Midsummer that included several opportunities to appreciate Martin West’s skills in managing the breadth of instrumental resources required to perform the music by Felix Mendelssohn.

Most of the video, however, involved accounting for the highly imaginative choreography for an extended corps de ballet along with a rich cast of characters exploring the interplay between the natural and supernatural worlds. That narrative was further enhanced by the “hyper-reality” of Martin Pakledinaz’ scenic designs, enlarging the flora of the forest to remind the viewer of how small the fairies are. As I observed last year, Balanchine developed his own plot line, rather than following William Shakespeare’s lead. This was more than a matter of allowing for all that splendid corps de ballet work. It also entailed a rich diversity of techniques through which character traits could be established without the characters ever speaking.

Titania (Sasha De Sola) and her attendants (photograph by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)

For the most part his techniques were impressively convincing. The relationship between Oberon (Esteban Hernandez) and Titania (Sasha De Sola) emerges as richer than the squabbling one encounters in Shakespeare’s text, while Puck (Cavan Conley) establishes himself as the “prime mover” of the entire narrative. (Was he serving as alter ego of Balanchine himself?)

Then, of course, there is the abundant abstract choreography in the second act, which I had previously described as moving Shakespeare into “Aurora’s Wedding” territory. In this case there are three couples getting married: Theseus-Hippolyta, Lysander-Hermia, Demetrius-Helena. [updated 1/24, 7 a.m. for a more accurate account of how Theseus and Hippolyta figure in the choreography: Theseus and Hippolyta are finally given distinctive “voices,” albeit through some lusciously elegant non-narrative choreography.] Mostly, however, the act consists of Balanchine abstractions at their finest, returning to narrative only to wrap up the entire ballet with Puck’s monologue.

Clearly, no spirits were offended in the making of this video account of one of Balanchine’s more extended creations.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Sono Luminus to Release Latest Icelandic Album

from the Sono Luminus Web page for the recording being discussed

According to my records, I have been following Sono Luminus releases of Icelandic performances since August of 2015, when Clockworking, the debut album of Nordic Affect, first appeared. First impressions found this music intriguing; but, as subsequent releases emerged, I gradually became concerned that I was getting “more of the same.” However, yesterday brought me my first opportunity to listen to music by Icelandic composers performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. The accompanying background material described Occurrence as “the third and final installment in a trilogy of albums from Sono Luminus and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

The physical release is a bit curious, since it consists of two discs. The first is the CD of the five compositions on the album, each by a different composer. This is coupled with (from the advance announcement) “Pure Audio Blu-ray with 9.1 Auro-3D, Dolby Atmos 7.1.4, and 5.1 DTS-MA versions, as well as the mShuttle application containing FLAC and MP3 audio files” (whew!). The album is scheduled for release tomorrow; but the best site for pre-ordering is the product page on the Sono Luminus Web site. Amazon has created a Web page for MP3 downloads; but, as of this writing, only one track is available. However, there is a hyperlink for pre-ordering the entire album. I am happy to report that the full download includes the accompany booklet. However, it appears that Amazon will not commit to delivering the physical version.

As was the case with Clockworking, Occurrence is an album with distinctive diversity across the five selections on the program. Mind you, there are eccentricities that some might dismiss as overly mannered. At the very beginning of the first track, a violin concerto by Daníel Bjarnason, the attentive listener almost immediately recognizes that the composer expects the soloist (Pekka Kuusisto, for whom the piece was written, on this album) to whistle, sometimes simultaneously with bowing his instrument. As one might suspect, this leads to some decidedly unconventional sonorities; but Bjarnason’s sense of overall architecture is such that these “extended sonorities” never descend into the realm of gratuitous gestures. It is probably worth noting that he also conducts the Iceland Symphony Orchestra for all of the selections on this album. (As a result, there probably were no serious disagreements between composer and conductor!)

The other concertante selection is “Flutter,” composed by Þuríður Jónsdóttir for solo flute (Mario Caroli) and orchestra with sampled sounds of grasshoppers and crickets. This piece was commissioned to mark the centenary of Olivier Messiaen, but it involves extended techniques that occupy territory beyond the range of sonorities that Messiaen could evoke. As one might guess, flutter tonguing is involved; but that technique assumes is rightful place alongside the many other devices maintained by Jónsdóttir in her toolbox.

Both of these concertante selections are roughly twenty minutes in duration. In both cases that is an interval long enough to establish a rich palette of sonorities without allowing any of them to overstay their welcome. The other three pieces on the album, “Lendh” by Veronique Vaka, “In Seventh Heaven” by Haukur Tómasson, and “Adagio” by Magnús Blöndal Jóhannsson, are closer to the ten-minute duration. These may be approached more at the level of études, each exploring the expressiveness of its own limited palette of sonorities. From a personal point of view, I found myself most struck by “Adagio,” almost as if the composer was seeking an approach that would follow in the footsteps of the Adagio rhetoric of Gustav Mahler. It is not so much that Jóhannsson has explicitly evoked Mahler’s spirit as it is that he found a new approach to reflect on Mahler’s rhetorical techniques, bringing just as much intensity to a much shorter overall duration.

Ross McKee Foundation Spring Season Plans

This past fall I tried to allocate a fair amount of my time for covering performances presented under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation. This involved catching up with the Piano Talks recitals arranged by Executive Director Nicholas Pavkovic, which I had not covered since March of 2019. It also led to getting to know the Piano Break series, which was arranged to support Bay Area pianists who have lost performance opportunities due to COVID-19.

Both of these series will continue during the New Year. Pre-recorded events will be live-streamed through the Ross McKee Foundation YouTube channel. Each performance will run for about a hour’s duration, after which the audience can meet the artist and ask questions in a Zoom Green Room. In addition, there will be a third series entitled Piano Launch, which will showcase recitals by Ross McKee Young Artists from both 2019 and 2020. Taken collectively, all of these offerings will be presented weekly on Friday evenings at 5 p.m. As was the case in the fall, Web pages for the Piano Break and Piano Talks series provide summaries and links to more specific information; the Piano Launch recitals are listed on the Piano Break Web page, identifying the performers as Ross McKee Young Artists. Here is a week-by-week summary of the Spring Season, which will begin in two weeks and continue through the first week in May:

February 5: Piano Break: This will be a very special tribute concert honoring Robin Sutherland, whose life ended this past December 18. Sutherland was Principal Pianist for the San Francisco Symphony for 45 years. The performers will be Christopher Basso, Britt Day, Elizabeth Dorman, Jeffrey Kahane, Jeffrey LaDeur, Keisuke Nakagoshi, and Marc Shapiro, each playing a short work with a connection to Sutherland. They will also share personal remembrances. Pavkovic will serve as host.

February 12: Piano Launch: 2020 Ross McKee Young Artist Ryan Sheng will perform works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Liszt.

February 19: Piano Break: Antonio Iturrioz will present a program of transcriptions prepared by two leading virtuoso pianists, Liszt and Leopold Godowsky.

February 26: Piano Talk: Mark Ainley is the author of the Facebook group The Piano Files with Mark Ainley. The title of his talk will be An Introduction to Historical Piano Recordings, and he will advocate the practice of listening to such recordings. In the course of making his case, he will present, as examples, recordings of Dinu Lipatti, Josef Hoffman, Ignaz Friedman, and other major pianists from the beginning of the twentieth century.

March 5: Piano Break: Robert Schwartz will present a program structured around three major nineteenth-century composers, Johannes Brahms, Liszt, and Frédéric Chopin.

March 12: Piano Launch: 2019 Ross McKee Young Artist Solomon Ge will perform works by Robert Schumann, Beethoven, Chopin, Joseph Haydn, and Sergei Prokofiev.

March 19: Piano Break: Christopher Basso will present a program organized around the music of Dmitri Shostakovich and Beethoven.

March 26: Piano Talk: Dorman will lead a conversation with her teacher Gilbert Kalish, reflecting on his 85 years as both a performer and a teacher.

April 2: Piano Break: Joe Warner will present a program entitled 100 Years of Piano. He will review the range of influences in the last century of both jazz and blues. The composers examined will be Bud Powell, Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, Fats Waller, W. C. Handy, John Coltrane, and Stevie Wonder.

April 9: Piano Launch: 2020 Ross McKee Young Artist Zak Mustille will perform works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Charles-Valentin Alkan, and Pavkovic.

April 16: Piano Break: Kate Campbell will showcase compositions by Bay Area composers Leila Adu-Gilmore, Fernanda Aoki Navarro, Matthew Welch, Ryan Brown, and Stanford University graduate David Lang.

April 23: Piano Break: Ken Iisaka will undertake a virtuosic review of compositions in the key of F-sharp major (six sharps); the contributing composers will be Chopin, Nikolai Medtner, and Alexander Scriabin.

April 30: Piano Talk: Christina Dahl will take a social networking approach to music history. The title of her talk will be In the Orbit of the Schumanns. She will examine the extent to which nineteenth-century musical culture developed by virtue of acquaintances, influences, and (probably) rivalries that can be traced back to both Robert and Clara Schumann.

May 7: Piano Break: Jenny Q Chai will take a multimedia approach to performing works by Jarosław Kapuściński, György Ligeti, Milica Pavlović, and Stephen Sondheim supplemented by visualizations of data compiled by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration pertaining to both climate change and pandemics.