Sunday, February 28, 2021

Pocket Opera Honors Black History Month

A “media-rich” account of Harris singing Hairston’s “A Change Has Got to Come” (screen shot from the YouTube video of the recital being discussed)

This afternoon Pocket Opera resumed its 3-Song Mini Concert Series with the first of three offerings under the new rubric PocketWatch. The program departed from the usual format, but the duration of the performance was still only about fifteen minutes. The selections were chosen to mark the end of Black History Month.

That program was framed to present the music of Jacqueline Hairston, sung by baritone Phillip Harris accompanied at the piano by Tammy L Hall. The opening selection was Cullen’s Trilogy, Hairston’s settings of three short poems by Countee Cullen for baritone and piano, completed in 2016 and revised in 2017. The titles of the three movements are “For a Poet,” “Pagan Prayer,” and “The Foolish Heart.” It then concluded with “A Change Has Got to Come,” which Hairston composed for her Songs and Spirituals collection. Between these two Hairston offerings Hall gave a solo performance her own composition, “Blue Divine.”

I felt it important that all of the Hairston selections were presented with subtitles. The texts were in English, but it was clear that the relationship between words and music was of paramount importance to the composer. The performance was further enhanced with some judiciously imaginative video techniques, often giving the pianist as much attention as the vocalist, as well as viewing the vocalist from two different angles. There were also some inventive approaches to using background images to provide an “invented context” for Harris. Some of these techniques were also applied to Hall’s solo; but what mattered most was her inventive approach to a deceptively simple tune, which seemed to reflect on the spirit of Duke Ellington every now and then.

Following this afternoon’s live-stream, the program was uploaded to its own YouTube Web page. As mentioned above, this was the first of three offerings. The next will take place on April 18. Hopefully, Pocket Opera will continue this imaginative approach to using video to enhance the experience of a vocal recital.

Standards Do Not Hold Up to Elkins’ Vocals

courtesy of Play MPE

A standards album released by Jazzheads about a month ago fell disappointingly far from what it promised. ’Tis Autumn is vocalist Marty Elkins’ fifth recording. For this project she was joined in the studio only by bassist Mike Richmond. Taking advantage of the technology, Richmond added an improvised cello line to a few of the tracks.

Sadly, Elkins’ musicianship never rose to the height that Richmond attained in his capacity as accompanist. The major problem was that her approach to stylization seems to have involved bending every pitch beyond recognition. Those of us with a sense of history would probably come away wondering if Elkins’ had acquired her vocal talent through lessons with Darlene Edwards (who, in turn, probably cultivated her sense of pitch through studies with Florence Foster Jenkins). Indeed, it is hard to avoid speculating that Edwards’ capacity for missing the pitch of every note in “Honeysuckle Rose” may have inspired Elkins’ rendition of the same tune on her new album.

Still, when we listen to Darlene accompanied by her pianist husband Jonathan, we know we are supposed to laugh (particularly when Jonathan takes his solo turn at “Nola” or Darlene chugs her way through “Alabamy Bound”); where the ten tracks on Elkins’ album are concerned, I regret that I am not so sure.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

SFO Offers Verdi’s Only Successful Comedy

Alice Ford (Ainhoa Arteta) and Mistress Quickly (Meredith Arwady) hiding Falstaff (Bryn Terfel) in the laundry basket that eventually gets thrown into the Thames (courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

Over the course of his career, Giuseppe Verdi composed only two comic operas. The first of these was very early, the second of the 29 he completed. Un giorno di regno (a one-day reign) was a failure when it was first performed in 1840 and almost put Verdi off of composing any more operas. The other comedy was his final opera, Falstaff; and, like its immediate predecessor, Otello, it set a libretto by Arrigo Boito, who had a keen sense of how much to rely on Shakespeare and how much to support operatic expectations. The Shakespeare sources were drawn primarily from The Merry Wives of Windsor. However, there is a brief excerpt (in my article, I called it “a passing out-of-context nod”) taken from the “honor” monologue in the first part of Henry IV.

This weekend’s streamed Opera is ON offering presented by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) is Frank Zamacona’s video account of the last time the company performed this opera in a series of eight performances in 2013 between October 8 and November 2. The production, created by Olivier Tambosi, was owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducted. Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel gave a totally engaging larger-than-life account of the title character. However, Boito did not allow the “merry wives,” Alice Ford and Meg Page, to be upstaged; and they were given vividly engaging accounts by soprano Ainhoa Arteta and mezzo Renée Rapier, an Adler Fellow at the time. Similarly, contralto Meredith Arwady held her own as Mistress Quickly, never allowing herself to be upstaged in her confrontations with Falstaff.

Among the lesser parts, I was particularly impressed with bass Andrea Silvestrelli’s treatment of Falstaff’s henchman, Pistola (Pistol in Shakespeare’s text). Over the course of the decades I have spent going to SFO performances, I have encountered Silvestrelli frequently. I have consistently enjoyed the ways in which he highlights the sinister qualities of the assassin Sparafucile in Verdi’s Rigoletto; and his approach to Hagen in Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, which can be seen in the last of the four operas to be presented by Opera is ON next month, is one of the most informed that I have encountered. In that context I have consistently welcomed the few opportunities I have had to see him do comedy. He does not quite steal any scenes as Pistola, but he still manages to draw attention to the character!

Finally, one cannot overlook the dynamite account of Luisotti’s work in the orchestra pit. The second article I wrote for in 2013 shifted attention from the stage to the pit, pointing out the highly imaginative approaches to instrumentation that advanced the emotional context of the narrative as richly as the vocal work did. Indeed, this was one of the few occasions when I felt members of the orchestra needed to be called out by name. Since I still feel that way, those instrumentalists again deserve recognition: Shawn Jones on cimbasso, Rufus Olivier on bassoon, and Stephanie McNab on piccolo.

First Contact with Martinaitytė Orchestral Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

My interest in Lithuanian-born composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė goes all the way back to May of 2018, when the Volti a cappella choir presented the world premiere performance of her “Chant des Voyelles” (incantation of vowels). Less than a year later Starkland released the premiere recording of her “In Search of Lost Beauty…,” a 70-minute composition for piano trio to be performed with synchronized video projections to provide (in the words of the composer) “an evening-long immersive experience.” At the beginning of this month, Ondine continued its series of releases of music by Baltic composers with Saudade, presenting world-premiere recordings of orchestral works that Martinaitytė composed between 2013 and 2019.

One of the four compositions was written for string ensemble and solo piano. The “Chiaroscuro Trilogy” was composed in 2017; and, on this album, pianist Gabrielius Alekna is joined by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Giedrė Šlekytė. This selection is preceded by three full-orchestra works with Šlekytė conducting the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra. The entire album reinforced my “first contact” with Martinaitytė through “Chant des Voyelles,” whose approach to phonetic building-blocks left me with the impression that she could use human voices as alternative for electronic synthesis equipment.

In listening to the four compositions on Saudade, identifying which instruments are contributing to the overall sonorities tends not to be particularly difficult. Nevertheless, one can also appreciate the uniqueness of what is synthesized through those contributing sonorities. The result is a rhetoric in which darkness tends to prevail, whether it involves the melancholy associated with the Portuguese noun that provides the album with its title or the poignant gestures through which sonorities dissolve into each other across the movement boundaries of the “Chiaroscuro Trilogy.”

I suspect that each of the four pieces on this album are capable of providing ongoing journeys of discovery through a series of successive encounters. On the other hand I would suspect that the full rhetorical quality of any of these compositions will only really register when one is in the presence of the ensemble performing the music. Where “Chant des Voyelles” is concerned, the impact of synthesis most likely owes more to being in the presence of the vocalists contributing to the mix than to the sonorities that would be captured by recording equipment; and I conjecture that conditions would be the same when the sonorities are being synthesized by instruments, rather than voices.

Ainley’s Survey of Historical Piano Recordings

Yesterday evening’s live-streamed offering on the Ross McKee Foundation YouTube channel was a Piano Talk program by Mark Ainley, author of the Facebook group The Piano Files with Mark Ainley. The title of his talk was An Introduction to Historical Piano Recordings; and much of the talk was organized around listening to such recordings, all of which were made between 1927 and 1953. As with previous McKee offerings, the video of that program has now been uploaded and has its own Web page.

Because the entire program lasted a little less than 45 minutes, which included a generous amount of background information provided by Ainley, all of the recordings he discussed were represented by relatively brief excerpts. Most importantly, however, Ainley made the point that music, as such, does not reside primarily on the printed documents of score pages. The music only resides in how it is performed, and performance is not as strictly defined as any marks on paper.

Thus, very early in his presentation, Ainley selected a familiar excerpt from Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 9 set of nocturnes, playing recordings of a portion of the second of those nocturnes in the key of E-flat major performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff (recorded in 1927), Josef Hoffman (recorded in 1937), and Raoul Koczalski (recorded in 1938). This affirmed a point that has come up many times on this site, which is that my primary objective is to account for the experience of listening; and listening is tightly coupled to the act of performance, rather than documents of notation. Performance, in turn, resides just as much (if not more so) in what the performer chooses to do as in the marks on the score pages that (s)he is interpreting.

By the time Ainley had concluded his talk, he had presented viewers with samples from eight different pianists. One would have to do a bit of biographical research to discover that each of these pianists had his/her own personal blend of personality traits. Performance thus has egotism as one of its foundational stones. The music may be by Chopin, but the performance involves the disclosure of a distinct personality reflecting on Chopin through acts of interpretation.

That said, performance in a concert setting will always outweigh any recorded document. Ainsley did not devote much time to discussing what actually happens when a recording is produced, and that process has gone through many transformations reflecting changes in the underlying technology. Many of today’s recordings amount to syntheses based on editing processes that bring together excerpts from many different recording sessions. Those techniques are less evident in earlier recordings, simply because the technology was not yet there to apply them. However, the absence of editing had its own problems, such as making sure that the pianist played fast enough for the content to fit on the record.

Nevertheless, Ainsley was definitely correct in assuming that the best way to introduce listeners to the legacy of recordings is to provide examples for listening. Most important was that, aside from those multiple interpretations of the same Chopin nocturne, there was prodigious diversity in the content presented during the rest of his presentation. Indeed, listening to Marcelle Meyer play music by both Jean-Philippe Rameau and Maurice Ravel (with whom she studied) made for an absorbing scope of repertoire. Furthermore, the Ravel selection was taken from the “Ondine” movement of Gaspard de la nuit, one of the more technically demanding selections that Ainsley chose to program.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Innovative Additions to the Piano Repertoire

from the Web page for the album being discussed

Beyond 12 is a project that seems to have been launched by pianist Aron Kallay about a decade ago. The objective was to break free of the constraints afforded by the piano keyboard based on dividing the octave into twelve chromatic pitches. This led to the release of the CD Beyond 12: Reinventing the Piano, Volume 1 in September of 2013. It consisted of eight pieces, each by a different composer: Kyle Gann, Isaac Schankler, Aaron K. Johnson, John Schneider, Tom Flaherty, Vera Ivanova, Jason Heath, and Brian Shepard. The MP3 download was subsequently released on on October 30, 2015. Sadly, the accompanying booklet was not part of the download; but Microfest Records created a Web page of the content of that booklet.

At the middle of last month, Microfest Records released the second volume in this series. As of this writing, the album is only available for MP3 download from; but this time the booklet is part of the download. The composers contributing to this second volume are Jeffrey Harrington, Monroe Golden, Robert Carl, Veronika Krausas, Nick Norton, Alexander Elliott Miller, Bill Alves, and Eric Moe. The fact that none of these names overlap with those of the contributors to the first volume should indicate the breadth of interest in the motivation behind Kallay’s project.

The approaches to “reinvention” by these composers are similarly diverse. Those familiar with my writing probably know by now of my interest in tuning systems based on integer ratios that involve less familiar intervals arising from upper harmonics, such as the eleventh and the thirteenth (the latter being a personal favorite for its use by Benjamin Britten). Different aspects of this technique appear in several of the compositions on this new album, but there are also ventures into dividing the octave into some number of intervals of the same size other than twelve. The opening selection, Harrington’s “Sidereal Delay,” for example, divides the octave into 19 equal intervals. (The title refers to the two different ways to calculate the duration of a year based on different astronomical points of reference.)

For all of that diversity, the content of this new album is probably too rich in subtle differences to allow for start-to-finish listening. Each of the nine compositions (two by Krausas) has its own auditory frame of reference. While, with sufficient exposure, the ear can adjust to any one of those frames, abrupt adjustment from one frame to another as the recording moves on to another track is likely to be too demanding for most attentive listeners. Thus, while Amazon may have decided to limit its offering to the digital release because of potential delays in delivering a physical version, having those compositions separated for listening through a digital device will probably be more conducive to appreciating the merits of each individual selection.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Timo Andres’ “Pithy” Program from SFP

Timo Andres playing his Pithy Program (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Today San Francisco Performances (SFP) released the second of the four video recordings of performances that are being uploaded to the Front Row Web site as part of the Front Row Premium Series. Both of the initial uploads presented solo performances by pianist Timo Andres lasting roughly 35 minutes in duration. Andres called this second video a Pithy Program, probably acknowledging the brevity of the twelve selections he offered. Equally interesting, however, was his decision to interleave jazz compositions by Alvin Singleton, Duke Ellington, and Roland Hanna among the works of François Couperin, John Adams, Robert Schumann, Francis Poulenc, Clara Schumann, and Meredith Monk. Furthermore, the entire program had a “spinal cord” of multiple works by the French composers, three by Couperin and two by Poulenc.

What may be most interesting about this program is that Andres made a case that, while Philip Glass may take credit for calling his approach to composition “repetitive structures,” a rhetorical backbone of repetition has been around far longer than Glass himself; and, in this particular program, it reaches all the way back to the eighteenth century of Couperin’s inventive keyboard compositions. (It is worth noting that Andres’ first Front Row Premium Series video, which was released on February 11, both began and ended with études by Glass.) Mind you, the operative word in “repetitive structures” is the second one! Mere repetition reduces structure to triviality, so performance becomes a matter of making a case for an overarching structure that goes beyond simple iteration.

Each of the composers Andres visited in his Pithy Program had his/her own way of unfolding that overarching structure. Unfortunately, Andres’ ability to disclose that unfolding through his execution of the scores was more variable than one would have wished. It probably was most evident in the works of the jazz composers, even if he was playing strictly notated charts rather than unfolding a repeated infrastructure through a series of improvisations. On the other hand, his approaches to Couperin often left the uneasy sense that he had not quite grasped the spirit of either repetition or structure. This was particularly evident at the beginning of the program, in which it seemed is if Andres had not quite grasped the “thematic spinal cord” that Couperin embedded in the rich polyphony of “Les baricades mistérieuses” from his sixth ordre, which begins the second of his four books of keyboard compositions.

Nevertheless, for the most part Andres was able to make his point about the relationship between repetition and structure, resulting in a relatively brief offering that was as engaging as it was informative.

CMSSF to Stream Postponed O1C Concert

Poster design for Simone McIntosh’s guest appearance with CMSSF (from the Eventbrite Web page for the recital being announced)

One of the more regrettable cancellations to take place during the early stages of COVID lockdown, before concert organizers began to embrace streaming as a viable alternative, involved a performance originally scheduled by Old First Concerts for April 19 of last year. This involved a program prepared by the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco (CMSSF), the string quartet of violinists Jory Fankuchen and Natasha Makhijani, violist Clio Tilton, and cellist Samsun van Loon. This program was to feature mezzo Simone McIntosh as a guest artist. I particularly regretted the cancellation, since one of the last performances I experienced prior to lockdown involved McIntosh performing Olivier Messiaen’s Harawi song cycle as part of the Schwabacher Recital Series.

Fortunately, thanks to the sponsorship of Edwin and Davidson Bidwell-Waite, CMSSF will be able to present a virtual concert entitled Art of the Voice. McIntosh will join CMSSF to perform “Il tramonto,” Ottorino Respighi’s setting of the text of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “The Sunset,” translated into Italian by Roberto Ascoli. She will also present an “encore” offering of one of the songs composed by Nadia Boulanger, entitled simple “Cantique,” in an arrangement for voice and string quartet. These performances will be framed by CMSSF performances of first movements from two First Viennese School string quartets. The program will begin with the opening of the fourth of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 18 string quartets, in the key of C minor. The concluding selection will be the opening of Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/78 quartet in B-flat major, nicknamed “Sunrise.”

Eventbrite is handling tickets for two streaming performances of this program. The first of these will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 12, followed by a 6 p.m. performance on Sunday, March 14. General admission will be $25 with a Supporter rate of $50. For those with limited finances, there is also a Sliding Scale admission for $10. After the purchase has been finalized, Eventbrite will send electronic mail with the URL for viewing the event. On-demand viewing of the video will be available through March 22.

Gulda Remastered: Two 1959 Recitals

courtesy of Naxos of America

Readers may recall that the first of the five albums of performances by the Austrian pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda involved seven CDs of solo recitals performed between 1966 and 1979 almost entirely in Stuttgart, mostly in the Mozartsaal of the Liederhalle. All of the content was based on remastered tapes recorded by Südwestrundfunk (SWR, southwest broadcasting), the public radio service for the southwest of Germany. The final album, like the fourth released on the SWR>>music label a little less than two weeks ago, returns to the domain of solo recitals, presenting two, both recorded in 1959. The performances took place in palaces in the state of Baden-Württemberg in Germany, Bruchsal on January 29 and Schwetzingen on June 3. As is the case for the fourth album in the series, has created a Web page for the physical release; but downloading the tracks from a Presto Classical Web page is probably preferable.

Of the three CDs in this final release, the first two account for the Bruchsal performance. Gulda prepared an imaginative program of symmetries within symmetries with the two CDs presumably separated by the intermission he took. The first CD is devoted to sonatas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 333 in B-flat major) and Ludwig van Beethoven (the second, in the key of D minor, of the Opus 31 sonatas, known as “The Tempest”). The second CD then couples three short pieces by Claude Debussy with Maurice Ravel’s three-movement suite Gaspard de la nuit. For his encore selection Gulda returned to Beethoven with the first of WoO 83 collection of six écossaises in E-flat major.

The Schwetzingen recital begins with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 992 “Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother.” This is followed by two selections by Joseph Haydn, the Hoboken XVII/6 set of variations on an andante theme in F minor and the Hoboken XVI/52 sonata in E-flat major. Presumably there would then have been an intermission, after which Gulda played two Beethoven sonatas, the second, in the key of G major, of the Opus 14 sonatas and the Opus 110 in A-flat major.

This makes for considerable diversity, even across the contrasts of the three Beethoven sonatas. Most interesting is that this album provides the only opportunity to listen to Gulda playing Ravel, and it is hard to imagine a more challenging selection than Gaspard de la nuit. Similarly, the only prior appearance of Debussy came as an encore selection on the second album of piano concerto performances. Thus, the second CD in the set introduces the attentive listener to an aspect of Gulda’s approaches to expressiveness that had not been previously encountered in the first four albums of the SWR collection.

That said, I found myself reflecting, once again, on Gulda’s project to record of all 32 of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Those sonatas dominated the repertoire of the Stuttgart solo recitals documented in the first album of the SWR series. It thus seemed suitable that the journey through all five of these releases should conclude with further reflections on those sonatas. Whether or not that focus on Beethoven influenced how Gulda performed other music (including his jazz ventures) is left for the attentive listener to decide!

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Gulda Remastered: Two Major Studio Sessions

courtesy of Naxos of America

The remaining two of the five albums of Stuttgart performances by the Austrian pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda were released on the SWR>>music label a little less than two weeks ago. The first of these consists of major undertakings at two studio sessions, the first on April 11, 1953 and the second on November 6, 1968. Ironically, has created a Web page for the physical release of this album, claiming that the time of delivery “Usually ships within 3 to 5 days.” I must confess that I feel a bit skeptical about availability of this item on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, so I continue to prefer the downloading option. Since Amazon does not seem to have a Web page for this, I once again advocate downloading from a Presto Classical Web page.

Each of the two CDs in this release is devoted to a major technically challenging work, each by a different composer. The first CD presents a complete traversal of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 28 collection of 24 preludes covering all of the major and minor keys. The second CD presents Ludwig van Beethoven’s last major composition for solo piano, the Opus 120 set of 33 variations on a waltz presented to him by Anton Diabelli. (This work was completed in 1823 and was followed in 1824 by the last set of bagatelles, the six in Opus 126.) By way of an “overture” to the Diabelli variations, Gulda plays the WoO 80 set of 33 variations on an original theme in C minor. Both of these compositions involve thematic material on a miniaturist scale.

I have never been much of a fan of recital performances that include a start-to-finish traversal of the Chopin preludes. A recording, on the other hand, has at least the potential to serve as a useful “reference document.” From that point of view, Gulda’s account is a valuable item. While each of the preludes is relatively short in duration (all of the tracks are less than five minutes), Gulda presents each one of them as a rhetorical journey in miniature. As a result, these performances reinforce the proposition that each prelude is more than just a challenge in keyboard dexterity. Each presents its own expressive journey, and it is listening to each of those journeys that makes Gulda’s recording a valuable one.

On the other hand both Opus 120 and WoO 80 make a clear case for the proposition that, whatever physical pains Beethoven had to endure towards the end of this life, his sense of humor was as keen as ever. Readers may recall the impact on my own approach to listening that arose when András Schiff performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 “Goldberg” variations, providing notes for the program book that approached the entire composition as a journey for both performer and listener. BWV 988 was the first half of a recital Schiff gave in Davies Symphony Hall; and the second half was devoted entirely to Beethoven’s Opus 120, suggesting that this was as much of a journey as BWV 988 had been. In both of those performances, one could count on wit as a key device in advancing the progress of that journey.

In that context I would say that Gulda’s Opus 120 is highly satisfying, often playing with a bit of suspense in teasing the attentive listener over what will next happen. In that framework one might almost view WoO 80 as a “warm-up” for Opus 120. The suspense can also be found in WoO 80; but, because both theme and variations are almost microscopic in scale, both performer and listener progress through the composition at a breakneck pace. Having completed the 32 variations in WoO 80 in a little over eight minutes, the listener can settle into Opus 120, prepared to relish its many tropes with a more “conditioned” ear.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

SHCS to Host Hakhnazaryan’s Cyberspace Debut

Cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan (photograph by Evgeny Evtyukhov, courtesy of Morahan Arts and Media)

Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan will probably not be a stranger to many Bay Area readers. He made his San Francisco debut in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, giving the second concert in San Francisco Performances’ 2017–2018 Young Masters Series. Next month, under the auspices of the Shriver Hall Concert Series (SHCS), Hakhnazaryan will present his digital world premiere concert. With pianist Armine Grigoryan as his accompanist, Hakhnazaryan will be featured on a recording made at the Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall in Yerevan, Armenia. That recording will be streamed by SHCS next month as the third offering in its Spring 2021 Virtual Season.

Two of the works that Hakhnazaryan will perform had been played during his San Francisco debut. That program included Robert Schumann’s Opus 70 coupling of Adagio and Allegro movements originally written for horn and piano with a solo part that could also be taken by cello or violin. The other repeated piece will be Hakhnazaryan’s second encore selection for his San Francisco audience, a nocturne by fellow Armenian Eduard Bagdasarian, written for violin but translated over to cello with little difficulty.

For SHCS Hakhnazaryan will showcase another Armenian composer, Alexander Arutiunian, playing one of his earliest works, an impromptu for cello and piano completed in 1941. The other major work on the program will be another violin composition arranged for cello performance, César Franck’s A major sonata. (This arrangement was conceived by Jules Delsart.) The program will begin with Ludwig van Beethoven’s WoO 46 set of seven variations for cello and piano in E-flat major based on the duet “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” sung by Pamina and Pagageno in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute.

This performance will take place at 2:30 p.m. (Pacific time) on Sunday, March 14. 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 performance will be made available and will be valid for additional visits until the following Wednesday.

Gulda Remastered: Conducting and Playing Jazz

courtesy of Naxos of America

The third of the five albums of Stuttgart performances by the Austrian pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda was released on the SWR>>music label almost exactly one month ago. The title of the album is Jazz, and it consists of only a single CD. (Note that seems to have bailed on this release, perhaps due to the pandemic lockdown; so the hyperlink for downloading is from a Presto Classical Web page.) The content begins with a 1970 studio recording of Gulda conducting his composition “Symphony in G,” scored for the combination of a classical orchestra (the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra) and the Südfunk Tanzorchester (southern radio dance orchestra). This is followed by the solo piano set that Gulda performed at the 1971 Heidelberger Jazztage. The entire album again involves remastered tapes recorded by Südwestrundfunk (SWR, southwest broadcasting), the public radio service for the southwest of Germany.

“Symphony in G” is a particularly unique offering. The piece has never been presented in public, meaning that the 1970 studio session is the only available document of a performance. In other words the album provides the world premiere recording of the composition. The title suggests a playful nod to both George Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” composed in 1925, and Maurice Ravel’s “Concerto in G,” composed in 1931; but nothing about Gulda’s composition suggests either of these two composers. The booklet notes by Thomas Knapp suggest a connection with the “Third Stream” movement championed by Gunther Schuller; but Gulda’s rhetoric is a far cry from the sterile abstractions of any of the Third Stream composers. If anything Gulda swings too far into the schmaltzy side, only really breaking loose when the drummer is allowed an extended improvised solo in the third movement.

On the other hand Gulda’s talents as a jazz pianist have already been encountered in his first SWR album of solo recitals, both in his encore selections and the “Perspektive No. 1” trio improvisation. Of the five tracks on the Jazz album, four are Gulda’s own compositions (including the prelude-fugue coupling which is taken as an encore at two of those solo recitals). The other track is a selection by another Austrian jazz pianist, Fritz Pauer, an étude, which is the second piece in a set of five compositions collectively entitled Meditationen. These all serve up a consistently jazzier spirit than is encountered in the symphony, not to mention a healthy dose of Gulda’s prodigious keyboard technique.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Gulda Remastered: Stuttgart Piano Concertos

courtesy of Naxos of America

The second of the five albums of Stuttgart performances by the Austrian pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda was released on the SWR>>classic label in December of 2019, about three months after the Solo Recitals album discussed this past Friday. The second collection consists of only three CDs, again involving remastered tapes recorded by Südwestrundfunk (SWR, southwest broadcasting), the public radio service for the southwest of Germany. The content involves both concert and studio performances of concertos originally recorded between 1959 and 1962.

Two orchestras were involved in accompanying Gulda. The first two CDs present performances by the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra with two of the concertos conducted by the founding chief conductor, Hans Müller-Kray, and one conducted by Joseph Keilberth. The final CD consists of two concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart led by Hans Rosbaud leading the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra, for which he was founding chief conductor.

Mozart receives the most attention in this collection, not only from Rosbaud (conducting K. 449 in E-flat major and K. 488 in A major) but also from the only Keilberth recording (K. 491 in C minor). The other two concertos involve two other First Viennese School composers, Joseph Haydn (Hoboken XVIII/11 in D major) and Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 58, the fourth, in G major). The Haydn offering is the only concerto on the second CD.

It is followed by Richard Strauss’ “Burleske” in D minor, which should probably be described as a single-movement concertante composition for piano and timpani, making it a bit of a pity that the timpanist is never named. Both the Haydn and the Strauss selections were recorded at a single concert in the Stuttgart Liederhalle, the ensemble’s primary performance venue, which took place on January 10, 1962. Since the CD amounts to a concert recording, it also includes Gulda’s encore performance of Claude Debussy’s “Feux d’artifice” (fireworks), the final prelude in the composers second book of twelve.

All of these performances took place at a time when only a handful of musicians were presenting “historically informed” performances of music from any period. Nevertheless, both pianist and conductors served up satisfyingly coherent interpretations of the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. From a personal point of view, however, I have to confess that I seldom warm up to recordings of Mozart piano concertos, regardless of whether or not they are “historically informed.”

The “real history,” so to speak, of any of these concertos involves Mozart himself behind the keyboard, probably also leading the ensemble; and each concerto was a showcase for his own highly imaginative virtuosity. This was not just a matter of exploiting every cadenza as an opportunity for flamboyant display. In all likelihood Mozart would be playing around with any number of twists and turns in his phrasing even when he was engaging with the thematic material coming from the orchestra.

The good news is that I have enjoyed opportunities to experience many fine pianists channel Mozart’s provocative spirit in performances of his concertos; and it would not surprise me to learn that Gulda tried to do the same, even at a time when “polite” approaches to Mozart were more fashionable. However, even if Gulda did know how to do justice to Mozart’s spirit (or even channel it), that spirit tends to get abstracted away by the recording process.

As a result, the one selection in which justice is done to the spirit of the performance itself is that of the Strauss composition. Under Müller-Kray’s leadership, the attentive listener can appreciate the frequently obstreperous relationship between piano and timpani. Initial reactions of mild chuckles will eventually lead to overt belly-laughs.

Gulda’s following encore performance has its own way of manipulating listener attention. Most important is that it reminds the listener familiar with Gulda’s broader repertoire of his affinity for jazz improvisation. There is a spontaneity in his approach to the Debussy prelude that at least mildly hints that the score may have originated in improvisation (which the composer subsequently refined).

The one element that puzzles me is the minimal attention paid to Beethoven. Mind you, like many, I tend to place Opus 58 on the higher plane than the four published concertos on either side of it. However, as I previously observed, my first knowledge of Gulda came from his recording all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. I would have thought that this rich context would have also served Gulda’s concerto repertoire. However, that does not appear to be the case, at least where the SWR archives of his performances are concerned.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Trifonov Recital Video Marred by Disinformation

This afternoon the Baltimore-based Shriver Hall Concert Series (SHCS) launched the second of the five concerts to be presented in its spring season. Following today’s live-stream the video will be available for on-demand viewing until the end of the day next Sunday, February 28. The program is a solo piano recital by Daniil Trifonov recorded at the 92nd Street Y. Technical production was by Adam Abeshouse, a name that may be familiar to those following the video documents of performances by another pianist, Simone Dinnerstein.

Sadly, this video had one of those fatal flaws that is particularly hazardous to any viewers not familiar with the piano repertoire. The last of the program’s three selections was blatantly mislabeled. As can be seen from this screen shot, the final selection of the program was identified as Johannes Brahms’ Opus 1 (first) piano sonata in C major:

Unfortunately, this not the music played on the video. Trifonov’s final selection was, indeed, a Brahms sonata; but it was the Opus 5 (third) sonata in F minor. Because this is the most frequently performed of the composer’s three solo piano sonatas, I suspect that many viewers caught the error; but none of them made note of it in the chat window for the YouTube Web page. The error can also be found on the Program/Notes Web page on the SHCS Web site.

If some feel that this is just nit-picking, I have to confess that it is a nit that deserves to be called out for even the most familiar program selections. I believe that, at any performance, there is always someone for whom a particularly selection is a “first encounter.” If that someone has been profoundly moved by the performance, chances are that (s)he will seek out other opportunities to listen to music again. Such potential enthusiasts do not deserve to be pointed in the wrong direction.

That is particularly true in the case of Trifonov’s Brahms selection. All three of the sonatas were published between 1853 and 1854; and Robert Schumann’s first account of Brahms’ music appeared on October 28, 1853 in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (new journal of music), which Schumann co-founded. However, while the first two sonatas serve up impressive displays of virtuosity, Opus 5 provides one of the earliest signs of Brahms beginning to find his own way. This is particularly evident in his departing from the usual four-movement form, adding an Intermezzo between the Scherzo and Finale movements. That Intermezzo is actually a reflection on the thematic material from the second (Andante espressivo) movement, almost as if Brahms felt a need to rethink what he had previously said before proceeding to the final movement.

From a technical point of view, Opus 5 is almost like a wild beast defying anyone to tame it. Nevertheless, Trifonov rose to every technical challenge that Brahms had posed, making sure this his reading was more a rhetorical journey than merely a display of a panoply of keyboard skills. Sadly, I have had few opportunities to listen to this sonata performed in concert. This video left me hoping that Trifonov will bring this part of his repertoire with him when it again becomes possible to visit San Francisco to perform a recital here.

The preceding offerings on the program were equally impressive. He began with Claude Debussy’s three-movement suite entitled simply Pour le piano (for the piano). This was followed by Trifonov’s one selection from his most recent album, Silver Age, Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 17 Sarcasms. Composed in 1912, this suite would be followed by the Opus 22 Visions fugitives, which was completed in 1917, a more extended journey through the rhetoric of miniaturist rhetoric. (By way of context, the miniaturist approach taken in Anton Webern’s Opus 5 set of five movements for string quartet was composed in 1909.) In many respects the opportunity to observe Trifonov’s physical approach to Prokofiev’s Opus 17 enhances the listening experience beyond what was offered on his audio recording.

The Debussy selection predated both Webern and Prokofiev. Pour le piano was published in 1901. All three of the movements have titles found in the keyboard suites composed during the Baroque period. However, any similarities between Debussy’s three movements and those composed by Johann Sebastian Bach or George Frideric Handel are purely coincidental. Indeed, while the technical structures of all three of these movements are impressively intricate, one has to wonder whether Debussy might have been playfully thumbing his nose at his imposing predecessors. Trifonov did not try to play up that possibility. Rather, he focused on the richness of structure in each of Debussy’s pieces, making sure that the subtle embellishments registered as effectively as the thematic material being embellished.

This was, without a doubt, a memorable program on all fronts; and SHCS really needs to be called out for bungling what listeners should expect to remember!

Sarah Cahill’s Plans for March, 2021

Sarah Cahill (photograph by Miranda Sanborn, from the CSMA event page)

On Tuesday of this past week, Sarah Cahill announced that she will be giving two virtual performances during the month of March. One of these was reported about a month ago, since it involves her participation in the second SoundBox program to be streamed by SFSymphony+. The other will be the next installment in her ongoing The Future is Female project. Each date below will have its own hyperlink to the Web page that will provide access to the video stream. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, March 11, 10 a.m.: The time marks the beginning of the availability of the second SoundBox program, Lineage. This is the program that soprano Julia Bullock had been schedule to curate in April of last year. Cahill will perform two selections on this program, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 784, the A minor two-part invention, and “In this uncontainable night,” the third movement of Elizabeth Ogonek’s Orpheus Suite (after Rilke). The admission fee for viewing this SoundBox episode will be $15. Donors that have contributed $250 or more will be entitled to receive complimentary subscriptions to both the SoundBox and CURRENTS series of concerts.

Saturday, March 20, 7:30 p.m.: This appears to be the concert that was originally planned for this past December 19, which would have been Cahill’s third concert for the Community School of Music and Arts (CSMA). The program was organized around the title Celebration of the Centennial of the 19th Amendment. The following selections for the program have been announced:

  • The third of the Opus 5 sonatas by Hélène de Montgeroult
  • Clara Schumann’s Opus 20 set of variations on a theme by Robert Schumann
  • Teresa Carreño’s “Un rêve en mer”
  • Amy Beach’s “Dreaming,” the third of her 1892 Four Sketches collection, Opus 15
  • The first and third pieces in Vítězslava Kaprálová’s April Prelude collection
  • Margaret Bonds’ “Troubled Water”

The program will be streamed without charge through the CSMA YouTube Channel, after which it will be added to the Channel archives.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Disappointing Late Puccini from SFO

This weekend’s streamed Opera in ON offering presented by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) is Giacomo Puccini’s La rondine (the swallow). First performed at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo on March 27, 1917, this is “late period” Puccini. Unsatisfied with the premiere, Puccini worked on several revisions. However, the last works of his life Il trittico (the triptych) and Turandot (completed by Franco Alfano after the composer’s death) yielded far more satisfying results; and Puccini died before finding a revision of La rondine that satisfied him. Tito Ricordi refused to publish it the original version, dismissing it at “Bad Lehár.” One might also condemn it as a poor man’s La traviata or a failed attempt to get the lightning of La bohème to strike twice.

The SFO production was staged in November of 2007. It was shared with the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden. The production was conceived by Nicolas Joël and directed in San Francisco by Stephen Barlow. The conductor was Ion Marin, and Ian Robertson prepared the SFO Chorus.

Angelina Gheorghiu as the “swallow” Magda de Civry in Puccini’s La rondine (photograph by Terrence McCarthy, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

It is easy to appreciate why this opera is compared with La traviata. Visiting Paris for the first time, Ruggero Lastouc (tenor Misha Didyk) is smitten with love for Magda de Civry (soprano Angela Gheorghiu). In this case, however, it is not his father that sets him straight but Magda herself. (This production marked Gheorghiu’s SFO debut.) Sitting in the audience in 2007 (before I started writing for, I came away thinking that I had just watched a two-hour episode of Sex in the City.

While I still find the opera relatively disappointing, its distance in time has provided me with more perspective. With Sex in the City now a distant memory, I was better equipped to approach Joël’s production on its own terms. Furthermore, this was a narrative that demanded subtleties of intimacy from not only the lead characters but also the relationship that unfolds between the poet Prunier (tenor Gerald Powers) and Magda’s maid Lisette (soprano Anna Christy). If neither the music nor the words could do justice to that intimacy, video director Frank Zamacona conceived any number of highly informative close-ups, which afforded far more sympathy than the distance between the stage and an opera-lover in the audience.

Nevertheless, even with the impact of video, I still found myself wondering too often how long it would take the plot to resolve.

Noe Music to Stream Telegraph Quartet Recital

Telegraph Quartet members Eric Chin, Jeremiah Shaw, Pei-Ling Lin, and Joseph Maile (from the Noe Music event page for their next performance)

Two weeks from today will mark the anniversary of the cancellation of all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus (coronavirus). It therefore seems worth reflecting on the prodigious efforts of the Telegraph Quartet (violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw) to respond to these conditions with an impressive set of virtual performances. These offerings have been presented by Noontime Concerts, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and SF Music Day 2020.

At the end of this month, the Online Main Stage Series of Noe Music will host a new Telegraph program, filmed exclusively for this event at the Noe Valley Ministry. The program will begin with a performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opus 34 third string quartet followed by Johannes Brahms second quartet, Opus 51, Number 2 in A minor. The Korngold quartet was composed in Los Angeles in 1945, about a decade after his first work as a composer of scores for Hollywood films, although it was not given its first performance until 1949. The performance will be followed by a live Q&A and discussion with the members of the quartet joined by Noe Music Artistic Directors Meena Bhasin and Owen Dalby.

The live-stream of this event will begin at 7 p.m. on Sunday, February 28. Admission will be $20, and tickets may be purchased through the Noe Music event page for the concert. Ticket holders will be able to watch the video through March 7.

Antonio Iturrioz’ Program of Piano Transcriptions

Carl Van Vechten’s 1935 portrait photograph of Leopold Godowsky (from the Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Yesterday evening’s Piano Break offering, live-streamed through the Ross McKee Foundation YouTube channel, presented Steinway Artist Antonio Iturrioz playing transcriptions for piano by two virtuoso performers, Franz Liszt and Leopold Godowsky. The recording of that live-stream has now been uploaded to that channel and now has its own Web page. The program was roughly 40 minutes in duration; and the second half of the program was devoted entirely to a single Liszt composition, the “grande fantasie,” which the composer entitled “Réminiscences de Norma.”

Ironically, this was not the first time that this particular display of Lisztian excess had been presented under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation. Back in December of 2018 (when concerts were still physical, rather than virtual), Peter Grunberg presented a Piano Talks program whose very title served as a premonition of Lisztian excess: Beyond the Piano – Before the Phonograph: Transcriptions and Paraphrases by Franz Liszt with Gratitude to Bellini, Berlioz, Schubert, Verdi, and Wagner. On that occasion the Norma offering was “paired” with Liszt’s transcription of the “Liebestod” from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. In writing about that portion of the concert, I observed that, in transcribing Wagner, “Liszt had no need to add his own embellishments or elaborations.”

Perhaps the most memorable feature of Liszt’s approach to Norma is what is missing. There is no trace of “Casta diva,” which may be the only thing most opera-lovers know about this particular opera by Vincenzo Bellini. However, it would be unfair to say that nothing in the rest of the score is memorable. Indeed, once one gets beyond going to a performance to join the crowd in shouting “Brava!” at the diva, one may discover a generous share of orchestral and choral writing that is both dramatic and emphatic. This was the grist for Liszt’s mill; and, to mix metaphors, he definitely had no trouble overplaying his hand.

Fortunately, Iturrioz did not respond to all of that excess with further excess in his approach to execution. Instead, he made sure that those familiar with the Norma score had a clear sense of where Liszt had collected his sources. Iturrioz then wisely decided to let the music speak for itself, consistently doing justice to all those “embellishments and elaborations” without ever allowing the listener to lose track of where the themes themselves resided. Mind you, it is still hard to avoid thinking that Liszt went on much longer than his thematic sources deserved; but Iturrioz’ approach to execution put less of a strain on listener attention than might be encountered among other passionate Lisztian advocates.

The Godowsky offerings were far shorter and more diverse. The opening selection, the Prelude movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1011 solo cello suite in C minor was particularly impressive. Godowsky labeled this as “Prelude and Fugue,” which is what it is. In many ways the transcription serves as a reflection of the many prelude-fugue couplings that Bach composed for the keyboard; but Godowsky was composing for a virtuoso piano performance, rather than for Bach’s approaches to pedagogy and interpretation.

Virtuosity was more flamboyant in the second selection. Godowsky took the sixth (in the key of E-flat minor) of the études in Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 10 collection and chose to play it on the left hand alone. Many might be inclined to dismiss this as a parlor trick. Nevertheless, Godowsky knew exactly how to give both the thematic material and the pedagogical context their proper due. In other words Godowsky never compromised the heart of the music in that particular étude; and Iturrioz never compromised Godowsky’s unconventional approach to presenting that music. This was followed by an affectionately modest approach to Henry Bishop’s “Home Sweet Home,” which suggested that Godowsky could connect with his American audiences at an expressive level, rather than just a technically flamboyant one.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Three New Original Digital Series from SFO

As was announced this past Wednesday, the second category of new offerings for the Spring 2021 season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) will involve three series of short-form digital content. These are very much work-in-progress projects, which means that only one release date has been announced thus far. Nevertheless, it is worth reviewing the plans for these offerings, since that only release date takes place in a little less than two weeks. Here is what has been announced thus far for each of these series:

In Song: This will provide the opportunity to learn more about SFO performers through a series of intimate video portraits. The current plan is to release six of these programs, each of which will have roughly ten minutes’ duration. As of this writing, vocalists have been finalized for the first three of these programs, the first of which has been given a release date:

Mezzo J’Nai Bridges (photograph by Taylor Ballantyne, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

  • March 11: The first vocalist to be highlighted will be mezzo J’Nai Bridges. She will sing “Widmung” (dedication), the first song in Robert Schumann’s Opus 25 Myrthen (myrtles) cycle, accompanied at the piano by Damien Sneed. She will also perform a medley of spirituals including “I’m Determined to Walk with Jesus” and “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired.” For accompaniment Sneed will lead a trio, whose other members will be drummer Jonathan Barber and Michael Olatuja on bass. The performance was filmed at the Blue Gallery in New York this past January 29.
  • The second vocalist will also be a mezzo, Jamie Barton. Indeed, in the Opera is ON presentation of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung) taking place next month, Barton will be found in two of the operas, singing three different roles: Fricka in Das Rheingold, the Second Norn in the Prologue to Götterdämmerung and Waltraute in the final scene of the first act (allowing plenty of time to get out of one character and into another). Barton will use her In Song program to reflect on her roots in a region of Georgia known as “The Pocket;” and her selections will range from classical to bluegrass.
  • The third program will feature the husband-and-wife duo of tenor Pene Pati and soprano Amina Edris. They reflect backgrounds roughly half a world apart, and they will use their program to highlight both of them. Edris will offer examples of the traditional music she learned while growing up in Cairo, Egypt. Pati, on the other hand, will perform traditional Samoan and Maori music, accompanying himself of both guitar and ukulele.

Late in March the first episode of North Stage Door will debut. This will be a podcast that will focus on all the backstage activity essential for any opera production. There will be interviews with opera stars, composers, directors, writers, craftspeople and musicians. The first episode will focus on mounting the production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville that will be given eleven drive-in live performances on the Marin Center campus. The entire series will consist of four episodes, each 45 minutes in duration.

Atrium Sessions will present performances taking place in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera on the fourth floor of the Veteran’s Building, across the courtyard from the War Memorial Opera House. The series of short performances will begin with videos of graduates of the SFO Center’s training programs. These will include soprano Rhoslyn Jones, mezzo-soprano Laura Krumm, baritones Edward Nelson and Efraín Solís and bass-baritone Michael Sumuel. The plan is to release the first video in April with the following videos to be shared every few weeks.

Gulda Remastered: Stuttgart Solo Recitals

courtesy of Naxos of America

Since September of 2019, SWR>>music has released a series of five albums of performances by the Austrian pianist and composer Friedrich Gulda. I first became aware of him during my graduate student days, when the Musical Heritage Society became the American distributor of his recordings of all 32 of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Not long after that I remember listening to jazz on the radio and hearing his name announced for the very first time. However, it was only after I made the shift from Silicon Valley researcher to writing about the performance of music that I first began to pay attention to the recordings he had made.

All five of the albums involve remastered tapes recorded by Südwestrundfunk (SWR, southwest broadcasting), the public radio service for the southwest of Germany. There is considerable variation in the amount of content on each of the albums, so they will be treated individually in the order of their release. As of this writing, all of them are available from only for digital download. Given the problems of delay involved with postal delivery, even within the United States, I tend to agree with Amazon that downloading is the most efficient way to gain access to the content.

The title of the first album in the series is The Stuttgart Solo Recitals: 1966–1979. The content is divided into seven discs; and Amazon includes the booklet as part of the last of the discs, which is also the shortest. The repertoire covers a broad span of music history, with Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel at one end and a half-hour of free improvisation at the other.

Consistent with those aforementioned recordings, the lion’s share of the content goes to Beethoven with performances of nine of the piano sonatas. These include such usual favorites as Opus 13 (Sonata Pathétique) in C minor and the second Opus 27 sonata (“Moonlight”) in C-sharp minor. However, there are also impressive accounts of three of the late sonatas, Opus 101 in A major, Opus 106 (“Hammerklavier”) in B-flat major, and Opus 110 in A-flat major.

Somewhat perplexing is Gulda’s decision to play six of the prelude-fugue couplings from The Well-Tempered Clavier on an electrically amplified clavichord. Since all of these recitals took place in SWR studios, one would have thought that judicious microphone placement would have been sufficient. His instrument did not have a damper pedal, thus imposing the same fingering constraints as a harpsichord. However, since the clavichord string is struck by a metal pin known as the tangent, that pin can maintain touch with the string, allowing for pitch-bending techniques that allow for a richer sense of intonation than can be elicited from the plucked strings of a harpsichord. Perhaps the electronic amplification was more for the sake of Gulda’s listening, rather than how the sounds would be captured for broadcast.

The title of the improvisation on the final album is “Perspektive No. 1.” Gulda is joined by Günther Rabi on bass and Ursula Anders on drums. He departs from the piano keyboard from time to time to play not only a set of recorders of different sizes but also a crumhorn. The original performance took place on the second half of the program that began with the Bach preludes and fugues. Unfortunately, the recording of that session was lost; so SWR>>music replaced it with a recording of a similar improvisation session that took place four months later. What is most engaging in this final track is the diversity of sonorities, exploring dimensions of listening that are seldom encountered in the practice of “modern jazz” in the Seventies, when this recording was made.

Getting the News in the South Pacific

Following the reports about Facebook blocking access to news in Australia has been a disquieting experience. For the record, I have never used Facebook as a news site. Indeed, the only reason I have a Facebook account at all is because Blogger no longer notifies my readers whenever I create a new article. As a result I have created a “shadow” page, also called The Rehearsal Studio, which readers can follow to receive hyperlinks to new articles as they are published.

Furthermore, that limited use of Facebook was reinforced by Mark Zuckerberg himself, when he told a Congressional committee that the business of his company was advertising. Any “distribution of information” was assessed more on what advertisers would pay to share space with that information than on whether the information itself was accurate or willfully deceptive. Why would anyone want to get news from such a source, particularly in a setting that allows users to compare reports from different sources, either through a search engine or by maintaining multiple RSS feeds?

For the record, I have three such feeds for international news: Al Jazeera, BBC News, and The Guardian. I am writing this just after having read a Guardian article by Sheldon Chanel about the accessibility of news across the South Pacific. For the record, this article was written with financial support from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. The operative content of this article comes down to the citation of an observation made by Amanda Watson, a research fellow at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs based at the Australian National University:

Facebook is the primary platform, because a number of telco providers offer cheaper Facebook data, or bonus Facebook data. Many Pacific Islanders might know how to do some basic Facebooking, but it’s questionable if they would be able to open an internet search engine and search for news, or go to a particular web address.

One reason for this limited approach to access appears to be that most of these individuals connect to the Internet through a cell phone, rather than a computer. (I should also observe that my own experience has taught me that the efficiency of search increases with the size of the screen displaying the results.)

My guess is that Tim Berners-Lee would have puppies if he encountered Watson’s analysis of Internet use in the South Pacific. He would probably accuse the Islanders of trying to ride bicycles on his eight-lane superhighway! I was reminded of the sobering experience I had when I once attended an advertisers’ conference. One talk began with a sobering observation:

We spend much of our time flying over the people we influence.

In other words the primary target of advertisements lies in those population centers that are not on the coast of either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.

Internet usage is sort of the “flip side” of that proposition. Internet content is driven heavily by a handful of technology companies, and most of the drivers think that the whole world sees the Internet the same way that they do. This is, to say the least, a fatuous fantasy. As a result, we now have an extensive demographic that is likely to be deprived of timely news simply because Facebook is more interested in more revenue, rather than in seeing to the needs of one category of its user base. (It goes without saying that one of those needs is the distribution of content vetted for validity!)

Zuckerberg might want to give that proposition some thought, were it not for the fact that his only view of the South Pacific would probably be restricted to a luxury resort on one of the islands.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

New Streamed Content from Pocket Opera

Yesterday Pocket Opera announced that its 3-Song Mini Concert Series, which was launched on YouTube on April 13 of last year, would be continued in 2021. As the name implies, these are relatively brief performances, since only three songs are performed. As was the case last year, each recital is captured on video, which is then uploaded to the Pocket Opera YouTube channel. As of this writing, three such recitals, all available for streaming on a Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m., have been planned for the first half of this year as follows:

Phillip Harris, Jacqueline Hairston, and Tammy L Hall (courtesy of Pocket Opera)

  • February 28: The title of the program is Songs of Concealment. All three of the songs will be works composed by Jacqueline Hairston, making this the first time that Pocket Opera has presented works by a female composer, as well as by an African-American. The vocalist will be baritone Phillip Harris. He will be accompanied at the piano by Tammy L Hall. Suitably, this offering will mark the end of Black History Month.
  • April 18: As might be guessed, the three songs to be performed in the concert entitled Handel, with Care, will be selections by George Frideric Handel. The vocalist will be soprano Marcelle Dronkers, who has performed a variety of roles in Handel operas for Pocket Opera. [updated 2/19, 9:10 a.m.: Her accompanist will be Jefferson Packer.]
  • June 20: The summer solstice, marking the shortest night of the year, will be celebrated with a program entitled Songs of the Night. Two vocalists will participate, soprano Lindsay Roush and tenor Alex Taite. [updated 2/19, 9:10 a.m.: The accompanist will be David Drummond.]

In addition the annual gala and auction will also be virtual. This will mark both the 44th year of Pocket Opera and the 95th birthday of Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus Donald Pippin. The title of this year’s celebration will be Offenbachanalia! Excerpts from La belle Hélène (the beautiful Helen), The Tales of Hoffmann, and La Vie parisienne (Parisian life) will be sung by “The Three Offenbach Tenors,” Robert Vann, Joseph Meyers, and Michael Mendelsohn. The festivities will begin at 2:45 p.m. on Sunday, March 21. There is no charge for attendance, but registration is required.

SFSymphony+ Continues CURRENTS Series

This morning at 10 a.m., SFSymphony+, the on-demand streaming service hosted by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), continued its CURRENTS series with a program of Indian Classical Music prepared by tabla master Zakir Hussain. Many of my generation first became aware of Indian music as a result of the Beatles having traveled in 1968 to Rishikesh in that country to take part in a three-month meditation “Guide Course” at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. However, their “discovery” of Indian music and performance techniques was predated by Yehudi Menuhin meeting sitar player Ravi Shankar the previous year, an encounter that would lead to the two of them making a recording entitled West Meets East.

The result was a set of tracks that had Menuhin performing with not only Shankar but also other musicians that often played with him. These included the tabla master Alla Rakha and two tambura players, Nodu Mullick and Amiya Dasgupta. I offer this as context for today’s new video release, because Hussain is Rakha’s son. Furthermore, the program he prepared, entitled Rhythm Spirits involved “West meets East” performing. The other “Eastern” musician was Kala Ramnath performing Indian classical violin.

The “Western” side involved a generous number of SFS musicians. This included an all-percussion performance of Hussain’s “Laya-Jam” in an arrangement he prepared with Neelamjit Dhillon with parts for four SFS percussionists, Principal Jacob Nissly along with Bryce Leafman, James Lee Wyatt III, and Stan Muncy. Hussain was the only one of the five of them not playing from printed score pages, leading me to suspect that the breadth of his technique allowed him to contribute a wide diversity of spontaneous rhythms that would blend readily with the percussion parts that had been committed to notation.

“Laya-Jam” was both preceded and followed by Western string instruments accompanying both Hussain and Ramnath. These were also arrangements of traditional Indian music, both of which were prepared by Dhillon and Chris Votek. Most interesting was the contrast between Ramnath’s meend (glissando) technique and the minimizing of vibrato on the Western instruments. Ramnath also explained that, unlike a Western scale, a raga involves how the sequence of pitches is phrased, which includes both meend and gamakas (oscillations around a single pitch).

In the opening selection, “Bichhua,” composed by Ustad Allarakha Qureshi, Hussain and Ramnath performed with Barbara Bogatin on cello, Scott Pingel on bass, and Douglas Rioth on harp. Rioth’s playing could almost be taken as a continuo of chords among which melodic lines would unfold; and, for the most part, Pingel reinforced this “continuo effect.” Bogatin was particularly interesting, however, in playing without vibrato to contrast her thematic lines with those of Ramnath.

The final selection was an arrangement of a traditional song entitled “Sands of Time.” Both the title and the thematic material were intended to evoke the desert lands of Rajasthan:

The Thar desert of Rajasthan (photograph by user:Flicka, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

For this performance Hussain and Ramnath were joined by two violinists (In Sun Jang and Raushan Akhmedyarova), two violas (Katie Kadarauch and Christina King), cello (Amos Yang), and bass (Daniel G. Smith). This rich instrumentation made for a particularly absorbing listening experience as Ramnath wove her own characteristic sonorities in and among those established by the SFS players.

Indeed, the relationship among the instruments was particularly facilitated by the always perceptive skills of Frank Zamacona directing the resulting video. By now regular readers are familiar with Zamacona’s expertise in using video to enhance the act of viewing an opera, rather than just “capturing” the performance. One might go so far as to say that, in this case, the resulting video guides the ear through the unfamiliar terrain of Indian classical music by guiding the eye through those performative acts that result in how that music is made. Neither Menuhin nor the Beatles served up such a constructive context for appreciating the nature of an unfamiliar domain.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

SFO Announces Busy Spring of Performances

Yesterday afternoon San Francisco Opera (SFO) Tad and Dianne Taube General Director Matthew Shilvock announced an impressive set of plans for Spring 2021 programming. These will include not only additional streamed content but also live performances to be experienced in a drive-in setting. Those performances will include a new production of a long-time favorite of SFO audiences, Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Given the magnitude and diversity of these offerings, this site will preview them in a series of separate articles based on a chronological ordering as follows:

  • Beginning on March 6, Opera is ON will devote the four weekends of March to the four operas that Richard Wagner composed for his epic music drama Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung); these video streams will be supplemented by a series of live background events, which will take place on Zoom, allowing participants to interact and ask questions of the artists and performers.
  • SFO will launch three new programs of both performances and useful background presented in short-form digital content. The first of these will be launched on March 11 under the series title In Song. Late in the same month, the first episode of North Stage Door will debut. This will be a series of four 45-minute episodes that focus on backstage activities. Finally, more intimate music making will be presented through the Atrium Sessions series.
  • The eleven drive-in live performances of The Barber of Seville will begin on April 23 on the Marin Center campus.
  • Beginning on April 29, the Marin Center will host three drive-in programs of performances by the 2021 Adler Fellows.

This article will focus on next month’s Wagner offering.

The server farm of the three Norns (Sarah Cambidge, Ronnita Miller, and Jamie Barton) (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

The videos for the four parts of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy were captured during the summer of 2018. This was the second round of performances based on staging by Francesca Zambello, which involved a variety of innovative perspectives to translate the narrative from the domain of Norse sagas to that of some 150 years of Californian history. Since the “source object” of the entire narrative is a magic lump of gold at the bottom of the river Rhine, where it is guarded by three “Rhine maidens,” Zambello began her account by setting it in the days of the Gold Rush. By the time the narrative has advanced to the final opera Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), the rope of Destiny, woven by the three Norns, has transformed into a server farm where the Norns provide tech support! The music, on the other hand, is pure unadulterated Wagner given excellent realization by conductor Donald Runnicles.

Each of the four operas will be available for streaming beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday and concluding until 11:59 p.m. on Sunday. As with all other Opera is ON offerings, subscribers and member-donors will retain access after the “window of public access” has closed. The Saturday dates for the four operas are as follows:

  1. March 6: Das Rheingold
  2. March 13: Die Walküre
  3. March 20: Siegfried
  4. March 27: Götterdämmerung

The Zoom events will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 6; and the final event will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30. These are ticketed events with a price of $15 for each event. There is also a Festival Pass available for $99 with a reduced price of $69 for SFO subscribers and member-donors. An All-Access Festival Pass is available for $144, which includes all Zoom events and extended access to all four Ring operas. $75 of that fee can be claimed as a tax-deductible donation. Those with both forms of Festival Pass will also be able to attend the “Opening Salute” at 1 p.m. on Friday, March 5 and the “Closing Toast” at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30. A single Web page has been created summarizing the content of all of these events with hyperlinks to further details.