Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Marcus Shelby’s Musical Study of Harriet Tubman

Adam Shulman, Marcus Shelby, and Genius Wesley performing Harriet Tubman and the Blues (from a Stanford Live Web page)

A little over a week ago Stanford Live announced the release of a new film for streaming. This one was entitled The Marcus Shelby Trio: Harriet Tubman and the Blues. Bassist Shelby performed with pianist Adam Shulman and drummer Genius Wesley in a program of excerpts from his evening-length suite Harriet Tubman, which he had written for his Marcus Shelby Orchestra. Where my own listening was concerned, this turned out to be a case where my procrastination was a bit advantageous, since some of that time was spent watching Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet film. Lemmons had her own ideas about music, recruiting Terence Blanchard to provide a score; but I have to confess that strongest musical impression came from appropriating Nina Simone singing her own interpretation of “Sinnerman.”

Structurally, Shelby’s Stanford Live offering consisted of interleaving Tubman quotations, all delivered by Aleta Hayes, with a combination of arrangements of traditional music and original selections, mostly his own, along with Wesley’s own solo in a tune called simply “Drums.” Lemmons’ film provided an excellent context for the quotations; and that context, in turn, helped inform how the music acted as a response to the words. The program opened with Shulman giving a solo piano account of “Harriet Tubman,” which, ironically, is not one of the eleven tracks on the Marcus Shelby Orchestra album but definitely served as an overture for what would follow. (The album tracks that were included were “Ashanti Stomp,” “North to Delaware,” “Go Down Moses,” and “Black Suffrage Blues.”)

The performance itself ran for about 45 minutes, with each selection finding its own duration appropriate to its specific reflection on the Tubman quotation that preceded it. Shelby’s arrangement of “Go Down Moses” was probably the most familiar offering from the album, introduced after a medley that included “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Amazing Grace.” There was also much to be fathomed in listening to Wesley’s imaginative drum solo.

This was the second video of Shelby’s trio. The first was the seasonal offering Holiday Swing, which went out of circulation this past January. The Tubman video itself has been uploaded to the Films & Screenings Web page on the Stanford Live Web site. Unfortunately, only Stanford students can view the offerings on this Web page at no charge. All others can only gain access by becoming a Stanford Live member at the level of $100 or more. That membership will provide not only complimentary access but also twelve months of benefits.

Karl Evangelista Announces Lockdown Festival V

Poster design for the next Lockdown Festival (from the Facebook Post created by Karl Evangelista)

Yesterday evening I saw the announcement of the fifth installment in Karl Evangelista’s Lockdown Festival series. This will take place almost exactly a year after the Festival was launched in response to the concert cancellations imposed after Mayor London N. Breed ordered a shutdown of all public performances, events, and gatherings at all the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center facilities. The fourth festival took place this past New Year’s Day, beginning at 4 p.m. and providing nine half-hour sets over the course of four and one-half hours.

The fifth Festival program will present only eight half-hour sets. It will begin at 4 p.m. on Saturday, April 10, and run until 8 p.m. Each set will have its own video stream with venues set by the performers, and those may all be viewed through Evangelista’s YouTube channel. This past January Evangelista used his Facebook announcement to provide individual hyperlinks for these videos, but that information has not yet been posted. The schedule for the eight performances is as follows:

  1. 4 p.m.: Kevin Robinson
  2. 4:30 p.m.: Mark Clifford and Crystal Pascucci
  3. 5 p.m.: Tania Chen
  4. 5:30 p.m.: Erika and Hitomi Oba
  5. 6 p.m.: Headboggle
  6. 6:30 pm.: a memorial set for Milford Graves, who died this past February 12, performed by Grex
  7. 7 p.m.: Vinny Golia
  8. 7:30 p.m.: Trouble Ensemble with Darnell Ishmel

The Festival will commemorate the spirit of Mills College, responding to the March 17 announcement that the institution will close when its final degrees are conferred in 2023. In response to this announcement, Geeta Dayal wrote an article for The New York Times reviewing the long history of adventurous composers and musicians affiliated with Mills. There will be no charge for admission to the Festival. Support for the program comes from donations; and proceeds will be directed to two East Bay spaces that embody the adventurous and socially-directed spirit of Mills: the Temescal Art Center and the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music. A portion of those proceeds will also be given to Graves’ family. Information about how donations can be made will be found on the Facebook page for the Festival.

William Susman Reissues Movie Music Album

from the Amazon.com Web page for the recording being discussed

William Susman’s Music for Moving Pictures album seemed to have been first released in May of 2009, probably coinciding with the premiere of one of the three films accounted for by the album title, When Medicine Got it Wrong, which was premiered that same month on KQED, the PBS (Public Broadcasting System) channel for the greater Boston area. The soundtrack is the source of the first eleven tracks on the album. They are followed by five tracks for Balancing Acts: A Jewish Theater in the Soviet Union, completed in 2008 and first screened in conjunction with a Marc Chagall exhibit first hosted by the Jewish Museum in New York and then by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The final track is the complete soundtrack for Native New Yorker, made in 2005 and winner of the best documentary short at that year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Many readers probably know by now that I have not really warmed up to Susman’s music. On this album he plays all the keyboard music, joined, as necessary, by cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and accordionist Mira Stroika. What is particularly disquieting, however, is that Jeanrenaud is credited with “all string parts.” In other words most of this music is a result of laying down tracks that can then be transferred over to the film. As the notes on the back of the album observe, in the days when films were silent, “live” music was provided as accompaniment. With the advent of film soundtracks, music would often be recorded by an ensemble in a screening room, with the conductor watching the film.

In that historical framework Susman is one of the harbingers of an “all-synthetic” technique, which no longer allows for spontaneous expressiveness. Separated from the films, such music makes for a relatively shallow listening experience, a far cry from the score composed for the ballet in the film The Red Shoes or the “complementary ironies” that emerge in much of the music that Nino Rota composed for the films of Federico Fellini. Perhaps Susman’s music “works” in the settings of the three films represented on this album; but there is little to draw the attentive listener to the audio in the absence of the video.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

ICE Continues to Disappoint

This afternoon I decided to give the TUES@7 concert series presented by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) a second try (having been rather disappointed with the first). Today’s program, entitled Home, actually involved a pairing within a pairing. Brittany J. Green shared performances of her “open” composition (a reflection on what Umberto Eco called “open work”) with a duo “open” performance by flutist Lepanto Gleicher and harpist Nuiko Wadden. The title of the program was supposed to indicate that the offerings would reflect on the different meanings of “home.” However, the reflections provided by both composer Green and the instrumental duo turned out to be a hodgepodge of soundscape samples, improvised pieces, and segments of recorded interviews.

The result amounted to 50 minutes of little more than superficial playing with auditory and visual devices. Once again, the performance itself and the background for that performance, shared between spoken introduction and jargon-laden program notes, emerged as little more than a tedious slog. Even more disconcerting was that pretty much none of what was presented could count as “contemporary.” Just about everything presented had a mind-provoking heyday back in the Sixties; and those of my generation got be justifiably nostalgic about those days. However, the dogs from those days (if they are still alive) are too old to be hashing out the same tricks again.

Back in my Silicon Valley days, I had a friend that had ascended to a reasonably high level of management at Apple. He would lead brainstorming sessions, during which ideas would often be introduced with the phrase “Wouldn’t it be cool if ….” The presenter would then describe something that my friend had implemented in another laboratory setting 20 or 30 years earlier! So it is with the “creativity” that seems to emerge from ICE, products of a new generation of young pups that seem to think that the study of history is a waste of time.

Skyline Records Reissues Vitro Debut Album

courtesy of Roseanna Vitro

At the beginning of this month, Skyline Records reissued Listen Here, the debut album of vocalist Roseanna Vitro. This was complemented by the first release of the content through MP3 download, and the Amazon.com full-album download Web page includes a digital version of the booklet that accompanies the physical release. This will be valuable for those interested in the instrumental backup, which was led by pianist Kenny Barron. All of the tracks feature Barron’s trio partners, Buster Williams on bass and Ben Riley on drums. Selected tracks also include Arnett Cobb on saxophone, Bliss Rodriguez on piano, Scott Hardy on guitar, and Duduka Da Fonseca on percussion.

There is generous diversity across the album’s twelve tracks. The only composer to appear twice is Antônio Carlos Jobim, whose “Chega de Saudade” opens the selection in its English version, “No More Blues,” with lyrics by Jon Hendricks and Howard S. Richmond (under the pseudonym “Jessie Cavanaugh”). The mid-point is taken by Jobim’s “This Happy Madness” with English lyrics by Gene Lees. Hendricks is also represented by “Centerpiece,” which he co-wrote with Harry Edison.

While all of the tracks are given engaging instrumental treatment, I am afraid I could not warm up to Vitro’s vocal stylizations. Her approach to pitch is often more that a little too casual for my tastes. This is not a case of my recent speculation of Pythagorean intonation in the vocals of Billie Holiday. While Vitro’s intonation frequently conveys compelling rhetorical impact, there are these occasions when, in the interest of being more up-beat, she tends to let go of precision with disappointing results. Nevertheless, those with a less demanding sense of pitch may well warm up to Vitro’s interpretations more generously than I did.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Lin and Klucevsek Play Kancheli’s “Songbook”

courtesy of Naxos of America

The Georgian composer Giya Kancheli was one of the many composers I first encountered thanks to Manfred Eichler and the albums he produced for ECM Records. Those that chose to visit this composer’s Wikipedia page will see that he was prodigiously productive, primarily in orchestral music but also in chamber music and several approaches to vocal music. However, those categories are preceded by an extensive “Filmography” section. For two decades of his life, he served as Music Director of the Rustaveli Theatre in Tbilisi; and this led to his writing music for dozens of films, as well as stagings of plays. When I wrote about him for Examiner.com in 2011, I observed that most of those films “remain unknown outside the Russian-speaking world;” and things do not seem to have changed very much since then.

However, in 2009 he published Simple Music for Piano: 33 Miniatures for Piano. As the title suggests, these are brief “sketches” that Kancheli “harvested” from all the incidental music he had composed. Eicher decided to celebrate Kancheli’s 75th birthday (which was on August 10, 2010) with a recording of selections from that 2009 publication. Rather than restrict the album to solo piano performances, Eicher chose to follow the advice of Kancheli’s son, Sandro, and feature the Argentine bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi. Shortly thereafter the planning extended to include violinist Gidon Kremer and Andrei Pushkarev, who had performed on vibraphone with the Kremerata Baltica.

The resulting album, Themes from the Songbook, consisted of only nineteen selections from Simple Music. This coming Friday Steinway & Sons will release a recording of the entire collection. The pianist is Jenny Lin, but she is joined by accordionist Guy Klucevsek. Each of them presents a solo account of a generous number of the compositions, and they also perform as a duo on many of the tracks. As usual, Amazon.com has created a Web page for pre-orders.

There is a certain degree of satisfaction that comes from a beginning-to-end traversal of Kancheli’s 33 miniatures. The music was certainly not originally created for that purpose. On the other hand, those that decide to follow the track listing, which identifies the plays and films for which the music was written, may be either puzzled or amused over the question of how the music relates to the narrative. At the same time, I am willing to give Kancheli the benefit of the doubt with regard to how these 33 pieces have been ordered. Mind you, I suspect that Saluzzi, Kremer, and Pushkarev also gave considerable thought as to how the excerpts they selected should be ordered; but, on the new Simple Music album, I assume that Lin and Klucevsek chose to honor the composer’s own ordering (even if not all of the selections were performed as piano solos).

Those that recall my rants against responding to COVID-19 with soothing blandness should take note that there is nothing bland about Kancheli’s music. There is always some undercurrent of wit in each of these miniatures. The music may have been intended to be “incidental;” but Kancheli always seemed to know how to make a listener sit up and take notice, even when the music may be providing a transition from one scene to another. When it comes to enduring pandemic conditions, this is decidedly my kind of quietude!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Old First Concerts: April, 2021

As of this writing, Old First Concerts (O1C) has scheduled two performances for next month. Given that April is less than a week away, I would say it is likely that this will be the full complement. The current plan is that both concerts will be live-streamed through YouTube, but at present a YouTube hyperlink has only been provided for the first concert. Presumably, program notes will be available for both concerts; but these also seem to be forthcoming. The best way to keep track of additional information will be through the O1C event pages. Hyperlinks to those pages will be attached to the date and time of performances as follows:

Sunday, April 11, 2 p.m.: The Del Sol String Quartet, whose members are violinists Sam Weiser and Benjamin Kreith, who alternate in playing first violin, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates, had been scheduled to present the Second Annual Pacific Pythagorean Music Festival on March 21, 2020. It took over a year of waiting, but the Festival will be held next month. The title was chosen to provide a platform to highlight the work of experimental innovators and traditional masters of integer-ratio harmonies.

Because the performance will consist of streamed video, the Festival will take advantage of a unique opportunity to invite performers whose work involves large instruments that cannot easily be moved for live performance. This will include specially tuned pianos for the performance of music by deVon R. Gray and Michael Harrison, as well as Ellen Fullman playing her Long String Instrument. Beyond European traditions there will be performances by Stephen Kent on didjeridu, Dariush Saghafi on santur, and Hong Wang on erhu. Vocalist Daisy Press will perform music by Hildegard of Bingen, and guitarist Giacomo Fiore will play a selection by Catherine Lamb.

Of particular interest Del Sol itself will play Set for Billie Holiday. This will be a suite of songs that Holiday recorded arranged by Ben Johnston. I am not sure that Holiday herself was particularly “Pythagorean.” Nevertheless, acute attention to many of her recordings will reveal that, if she did not have a piano to set a standard, she had a keen ability to stretch or squeeze her intervals to enhance the rhetorical significance of the phrases she was singing. (Whether or not she did this consistently is probably open to debate, as is the question of whether her recordings are representative of her style of delivery.)

Saturday, April 17, 8 p.m.: Quinteto Latino is the woodwind quintet directed by hornist Armando Castellano. The other four wind players are Diane Grubbe (flute), Kyle Bruckmann (oboe), Leslie Tagorda (clarinet), and Shawn Jones (bassoon). They were one of the groups that opened SF Music Day 2019 in the Veterans Building. Their repertoire draws upon Latin American music from both traditional folk sources and new works by living composers. Specific program information has not yet been announced.

An Engaging Chicago Partnership on Cedille

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over two weeks ago, Cedille Records released a thoroughly engaging album arising from an imaginative partnership. The participants consisted of Brazilian guitarist Sérgio Assad, his pianist-vocalist daughter Clarice, and the four members of Third Coast Percussion: Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore. By way of disclaimer, I should note that I have been fortunate enough to listen to all of these artists in performance, all thanks to San Francisco Performances (SFP), having enjoyed Clarice’s SFP debut with her father and his brother Odair in April of 2016 and having seen Third Coast in April of 2019. All of these performers are currently based in Chicago.

The title of the new album is Archetypes. It is basically a “shared suite” of twelve movements with each performer contributing at least one of those movements. More specifically, each Third Coast percussionist composed one of the movements, while each of the Assads was responsible for contributing four of them.

The idea behind this project was a musical depiction of a dozen different personality types, all of which can be found in cultures around the world. Each movement is named for one of those types, which are, in “order of appearance,” rebel, innocent, orphan, lover, magician, ruler, jester, caregiver, sage, creator, hero, and explorer. These may strike many as categories that are too abstract to be “described” through music. However, those willing to pay attention to the titles in the track list while listening to the album are likely to “get” the “connection” that motivated the composer.

Where my own listening experiences are concerned, I found this album to be what might be called a “variation” on a familiar methodology. That methodology figured significantly in those compositions of Virgil Thomson that he called “portraits;” and, on many occasions, the “subject” of one of those portraits would “sit” for Thomson while he developed his composition at the keyboard of his piano. Those listening to these pieces today will probably find most of the names unfamiliar and will have to depend on program notes to appreciate just what made the composition a “portrait.”

On the other hand the movements of Archetypes are much more universal in nature. Every movement title is likely to inspire some form of “portrait” in the mind of the listener. That listener can then “update” the portrait (s)he has conceived in response to the music (which, at the end of the day, is the “portrait” imagined by the composer).

Nevertheless, listening to Archtypes does not have to be reduced to some sort of latter-day parlor game. Over the course of my own listening experiences, I found that I could be just as happy setting aside the titles of the movements. Each has its unique approaches to both thematic invention and rhetorical devices for presenting those themes. Yes, there are sonorities that will make one sit up and take notice, such as the prankish “Jew’s harp” sonorities intended to evoke the jester personality. Similarly, I have always enjoyed Clarice’s prodigious inventiveness when it comes to exploring the diversity of vocal sounds.

I suppose that I have now accumulated enough listening experiences to appreciate that no genre of music is necessarily obliged to signify; but, if signification is clearly an intention of the composer, mind usually finds its way to recognizing what is being signified.

The Wagner Journey: Fourth (and Final) Opera

One way to approach the four operas of Richard Wagner’s cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung), is as a “pair of pairs.” The focal point of the first two operas is Wotan, with his ambition to build Valhalla and the events he sets in motion from his position of power. On the other hand, each of the second two operas has a mortal of strong character as its focal point. The third opera is named after its character, Siegfried; and, as previously suggested, it provides some degree of “comic relief” from the seriousness of Wotan’s position. In the final opera, Götterdämmerung (twilight of the Gods), the focus is on Hagen; and his role is diametrically opposed to any suggestion of “comic relief.”

Hagen is the half-brother of Gunther, lord of the Gibichungs, and his sister Gutrune. They all have the same mother; but Hagen is the offspring of what was probably the rape of his mother by his father Alberich, the dwarf that foreswore love, stole the gold from the Rhine, and had in forged into the ring after which the cycle is named. In the second act of Götterdämmerung, Hagen encounters his father (who may or may not be a ghost) and is charged with the mission of killing Siegfried and recovering the ring.

When Francesca Zambello’s Ring staging for the San Francisco Opera (SFO) was performed in June of 2018, the total running time (including intermissions and bows) for Götterdämmerung was a little under five and a quarter hours. The first intermission took place at the conclusion of the first act, which was preceded by a two-scene prologue, all of which amounted to about two hours of uninterrupted performance. The only lengthier uninterrupted span took place at the very beginning of the cycle with Das Rheingold, which had no intermission and ran for about two and one-half hours (including bows).

Brünnhilde (Iréne Theorin) with Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli, to the right) and the Gibichung clan committing to killing Siegfried (photograph by Cory Weaver courtesy of SFO)

While Götterdämmerung is often held up as opera’s greatest feat of endurance, the fact is that the narrative unfolds at even brisker rapidity than Siegfried. For one thing, the “backstory” tends to be kept to a minimum, with almost all of the action unfolding at an intense here-and-now pace. Yes, there are interruptions to this flow when backstory is necessary; but even those episodes have been endowed with momentum in Zambello’s staging. For example, many would view Siegfried’s encounter with the Rhine maidens at the beginning of the final act as the “calm before the storm” that will result in his death. However, while those river-nymphs were playing with their gold in Das Rheingold, Zambello now has them cleaning up a massive number of plastic bottles that have impeded the Rhine’s flow.

Richness of narrative also has much to do with characters being escalated above the level of mere stereotypes. The fact is that both Siegfried (tenor Daniel Brenna) and Brünnhilde (soprano Iréne Theorin) may have a passionate love scene to conclude Siegfried; but that scene has a generous share of familiar tropes, probably by Zambello’s own design. However, she seems to have approached Götterdämmerung as a series of “reality checks.” Hagen (bass Andrea Silvestrelli) is the key agent of those reality checks; but they are encountered not only by Siegfried and Brünnhilde but also by Gunther (baritone Brian Mulligan) and, with intense dramatic attention, by Gutrune (soprano Melissa Citro), who remains to “bear witness” to “the end of it all” brought on by Brünnhilde’s funeral pyre.

By virtue of these technical approaches to direction, this weekend’s video stream of Götterdämmerung emerges as an edge-of-your-seat viewing experience, even for those viewers that may take more breaks than are afforded by the intermissions!

Saturday, March 27, 2021

CURRENTS to Sample American Indian Music

Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate conducting SFS strings in the performance of his “Talowa' Hiloha” (still image from the video being discussed, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

As was announced this past January, the CURRENTS series presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) through its on-demand streaming service SFSymphony+, will offer its next program at the very beginning of next month. The program will be curated by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, who is dedicated to composing music to reflect his own cultural background. The program will be framed by two of Tate’s compositions, “Talowa' Hiloha” (thunder song) and “Chokfi’.” Tate also collaborated with Elder Thomas Leon Brown (Machuchuk) to prepare an arrangement of “Hoy-Ya-A,” a traditional Shake Head Coming Out Song of the Pomo, the original residents of what is now Northern California. Two other composers will be represented on the program, Rochelle Chester (“Moon’s Lullaby”) and Louis W. Ballard (three selections from his Katcina Dances collection).

As might be expected, there will be a fair amount of percussion involved. SFS percussionists Jacob Nissly and James Lee Wyatt III will contribute, along with timpanist Edward Stephan. In addition Elder Ron Montez will play a traditional Pomo drum. However, a generous number of members of the SFS string section will contribute, along with Marc Shapiro on piano.

This episode of CURRENTS will launch at 10 a.m. this coming Thursday, April 1. A Web page has already been created for viewing this program. Like the other programs in this series, the admission charge will be $15. As has been the case for all other content uploaded to SFSymphony+, the video will remain available for on-demand streaming indefinitely. Subscriptions are still available for $120; and, as has already been mentioned, donors that have contributed $250 or more will be entitled to receive complimentary subscriptions. These subscriptions will remain active through the end of the current season on August 31.

Concert Recording of LCCE Playing Messiaen

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a week ago, Avie Records released an album of music from a concert performance presented by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) at the beginning of February of 2020. Content was based on recordings made during the second half of the program, entitled French Sublime, performed at both the Hillside Club in Berkeley and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). “For the record,” this site has an account of the SFCM performance.

That portion of the program was devoted almost entirely to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time). The LCCE performers were Artistic Director and violinist Anna Presler, cellist Tanya Tomkins, clarinetist Jerome Simas, and pianist Eric Zivian. This was followed by the world premiere of what could be taken as a reflection on Messiaen by LCCE violist Kurt Rohde, scored for violin and piano and entitled “one wing.”

As another “for the record,” this was not my first encounter with these four musicians playing Messiaen’s quartet. Ironically, that first encounter took place almost exactly (within a day) five years earlier, also at SFCM. On that occasion I was highly impressed by Simas’ clarinet work, particularly in his solo movement, “Abîme des oiseaux” (abyss of birds), in which the profound depth of that abyss is depicted through an extremely wide dynamic range, dropping all the way down to the threshold of audibility. As might be guessed, neither recording nor playback technology is adequately equipped to deal with such extremes, particularly at the soft end; so the best I can say is that the recording efforts of Zach Miley gave this track its best shot.

Taken as a whole, however, the 2020 performance never quite matched the qualities of the 1995 one (or, just as likely, my listening experiences over those five years led to the development of a more discerning ear). Those that have been following this site for some time probably know that I have frequently accused Zivian of showboating his keyboard work. The piano part for Messiaen’s quartet is as intensely expressive as the clarinet part. Obviously, the piano has broader resources at its disposal; but Zivian seemed more interested in lighting fireworks that in weaving the piano into the overall quartet structure. This seems to have had a negative impact on both Presler and Tomkins, whose problems with intonation can probably be attributed to having their references points obscured by Zivian’s showboating.

Rohde’s composition has its own “Messiaen connection,” which has nothing to do with the quartet. In 2002 San Francisco Opera presented the American premiere of Messiaen’s opera Saint François d’Assise (Saint Francis of Assisi). One of the characters is known only as “The Angel;” and the costume designer endowed the vocalist with an outfit involving only a single wing. This became the inspiration behind Rohde’s choice of title.

Nevertheless, as a listener, Rohde seems to have been better acquainted with Messiaen’s quartet than with his opera. Indeed, the last of the eight movements of that quartet is scored only for violin and piano; and there is an almost spooky segue on this recording as Messiaen’s duo appears to flow almost seamlessly into Rohde’s. Fortunately, these are the two tracks on the album where Zivian shows the most restraint, much to the advantage of both the violinist and the listener. However, it is also likely that Rohde was as interested in that breadth of dynamic range demanded of the clarinetist for “Abîme des oiseaux;” and his pursuit of the “outer limits” for the violinist makes for highly absorbing listening.

The fact is that Rohde’s duo deserves more than a “world premiere shot;” and, if there are shortcomings in the Messiaen performance, they are outweighed by giving a wider variety of listeners an opportunity to experience the skills behind “one wing.”

Friday, March 26, 2021

SFP Announces Free Online PIVOT Festival

This week began with the announcement that the four programs in the San Francisco Performances (SFP) PIVOT Festival, talking place on April 16, 17, 21, and 23, would be cancelled. Yesterday it was announced that the SFP Front Row Web site would launch an alternative streamed PIVOT series of three concerts, which will be launched on alternate Thursdays next month. All of these performances will be made available for free online streaming. Like previous “physical” PIVOT offerings, these will be performances that “stray from the beaten path,” each following the beat of its own drummer (to mix metaphors). The three offerings and their respective launch dates will be as follows:

The members of George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

April 1: Once again Great Britain has come up with an oddity that was launched on a lark and, shortly thereafter, began to attract sell-out audiences. (My favorite ensemble of this sort used to be the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which my wife and I followed enthusiastically, bringing a stuffed-toy penguin to a concert they gave in Los Angeles.) The full name of the group is George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and the title of their program will be Ukulele Lockdown. Their programming tends to favor the pop repertoire; and the program they will bring to SFP cyberspace will include Tom Waits, Kate Bush, and David Bowie (none of whom, most likely, would have imagined ukulele versions of their respective songs). However, those that prefer the concert repertoire will be able to listen to the group’s own arrangement of the Sinfonia that opens the third act of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 67 oratorio Solomon. (The title of that Sinfonia is best known as the “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”).

April 15: Vocalist Theo Bleckmann was last seen in last year’s PIVOT series. For this year’s streamed performance, he has prepared a program entitled Duet for One. He has not yet provided the details; but the program will consist of music that he recorded utilizing voice, loops, and “other toys.”

April 29: The final program was recorded this past December as part of the “digital residency” hosted by the Library of Congress for the JACK Quartet. The quartet members are violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell. Readers may recall that, at last year’s PIVOT, Campbell gave a duo recital with violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja. For this program JACK will be joined by pianist Conrad Tao. Not all program details have been announced; but there will be performances of two works by Elliott Carter, his third string quartet and “Duo.” There will also be a string quartet by Ruth Crawford Seeger and a performance of Tyshawn Sorey’s “For Conrad Tao.” In addition Otto has prepared an arrangement of the ballade “Angelorum psalat,” included in the Chantilly Codex and sometimes attributed to the fifteenth-century Spanish lutenist Rodrigo de la Guitarra.

Schoenberg and Americans he Influenced

Album design in which Arnold Schoenberg is the “cornerstone” with Leon Kirchner above and Roger Sessions to the left (courtesy of Naxos of America)

One week from today, Albany Records will release the album Transformations. This recording was conceived by violinist Elizabeth Chang as a reflection on profound teacher/student relationships from her artistic heritage. The earliest of the teachers is Arnold Schoenberg, born in 1874 and a leading pioneer in exploring alternatives to the harmonic progressions of tonal music. Roger Sessions was born about two decades later in 1896. Sessions’ primary teachers were Horatio Parker and Ernest Bloch; but he formed a friendship with Schoenberg when both of them were in California (Schoenberg in Los Angeles and Sessions in Berkeley). Leon Kirchner, born in 1919, would study with both of them and would go on to teach Chang at Harvard University. As usual, Amazon.com is taking pre-orders for this new release.

Curiously, the three composers on this album are presented in reverse chronological order. Thus, the album begins with Kirchner’s second duo for violin and piano, with Chang performing with pianist Steven Beck. Kirchner wrote this piece late in life, in 2002 at the age of 82.

For the better part of the twentieth century, too many of the compositions that pursued Schoenberg’s desire to depart from the need for a tonal center tended to constitute what might be called “agenda music.” That agenda might be distilled to the motto, “I don’t care if you like it, this is how things should be!” By 2002 Kirchner no longer had to worry about having an agenda.

The duo was composed as a tribute to the violinist Felix Galimir, whom he had first met at the Marlboro Music Festival. Galimir had been a close personal friend of Berg, and in 1936 his string quartet recorded Berg’s Lyric Suite. He joined the Marlboro faculty in 1954 and remained at that post until his death in 1999. In many respects the Lyric Suite is distinguished by the way in which the composer honors both tonal traditions and the new ambitions of his teacher, Schoenberg. To some extent there is a sense that Kirchner was reflecting on that balance in composing his 2002 duo.

Sessions is also represented by a duo composed late in life. In this case the violin was paired with a cello (performed by Alberto Parrini); and the duo itself was Sessions’ last piece of chamber music, written at the age of 82. This composition is stricter about avoiding a tonal center than Kirchner’s duo would later be.

However, Virgil Thomson once wrote that, for all of Schoenberg’s efforts to transcend tonality, the rhythms of his music always seemed to revert to the late nineteenth-century traditions of Vienna. While Sessions was not subjected to a similar influence, the attentive listener will quickly recognize that it is through his command of rhythmic patterns that this duo charts a well-defined course from beginning to end. This piece is preceded by an earlier (1953) solo violin sonata, in which Sessions adapted Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique to his own purposes; but this is another piece in which the listener is best guided by the rhetorical development of rhythms.

The album then concludes with the one Schoenberg selection, his Opus 47 “Phantasy” for violin and piano, composed in Los Angeles in 1949. I have to confess that I have a strong personal attachment to this music. In the late Eighties, when my wife and I were living in Los Angeles, we would make annual trips to Santa Fe every summer to see the opera performances. The summers were also devoted to a chamber music festival, which used to have rehearsals open to the public during the day. As a result, I had the good fortune to listen to violinist György Pauk and pianist Ursula Oppens prepare this “Phantasy.” I also had the chutzpah to ask Oppens if she wanted a page-turner, because I really wanted to follow the score while listening to them; and she was kind enough to allow me up on stage.

Needless to say, reading the score well enough to turn the pages at the right time was no easy matter; but I managed to do all that was required of me without fumbling. Unfortunately, seeing what both musicians were playing did little to penetrate an overall sense of opacity. However, towards the end of the piece, Pauk said (very audibly) “Now we dance!” This rehearsal took place decades before I had encountered Thomson’s observation about Schoenberg. However, thanks to Pauk, this was the first time I began to appreciate how to get caught up into Schoenberg’s rhetorical command of rhythm! As a result, I could not listen to the recording of Chang and Beck without thinking of Pauk and Oppens; and, even without having the score pages to follow, that sense of rhythm unfolding into dance made for a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

San Francisco Opera Streams for April

As has already been announced, next month will mark the return of San Francisco Opera (SFO) to live performances, beginning on April 23. However, those performances will be preceded by three Opera is ON free opera streams. These will take place during the first three weekends of April. As in the past, 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 April offerings are as follows:

April 3: The month will begin with another comic opera by Gaetano Donizetti, Don Pasquale. While L’elisir d’amore is about a hopelessly lovesick young man who finally wins the love of his life, Don Pasquale is about a crusty old bachelor determined to take a young wife (who happens to be in love with his nephew). This production, shared with the Santa Fe Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, was performed by SFO in 2016. Staging was by Laurent Pelly, who also designed the costumes; and the SFO performances were directed by Daniel Dooner. Former SFO Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi conducted, and Ian Robertson prepared the choral work by the SFO Chorus. The title character was sung by bass Maurizio Murano, his hopeful bride-to-be Norina was sung by soprano Heidi Stober, and her sweetheart Ernesto (Pasquale’s nephew) was sung by tenor Lawrence Brownlee in his SFO debut. Running time is approximately two hours.

Set design for Poe’s House of Usher (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

April 10: The Fall of the House of Usher was a “double bill” program of two one-act operas, both based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe and both about one hour in duration. The composers were, in order of performance, Gordon Getty (“Usher House”) and Claude Debussy (“La chute de la maison Usher”). Getty’s version made Poe a leading character (sung by tenor Jason Bridges, making his SFO debut); and almost the entirety of the libretto is a dialogue between Poe and Roderick Usher (baritone Brian Mulligan). Mulligan returned in the same role in the Debussy version, as did Adler Fellow Jacqueline Piccolino in the role of Usher’s sister Madeline. However, the character of Poe is replaced by “a friend,” sung by baritone Edward Nelson, another Adler Fellow. The production, directed by David Poutney, was shared with the Welsh National Opera and staged in San Francisco by Polly Graham. The Debussy score was reconstructed and orchestrated by Robert Orledge; and this performance, concluding the 2015 fall season, was its American premiere. Both operas were conducted by Lawrence Foster.

April 17:  The final offering of the month will be the 2016 revival of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlos utilizing the composer’s 1886 five-act Modena version of the score. (With an overall duration of about three and one-half hours, this should be a walk in the park after this month’s Wagner streamings!) This tangled web of politics and love was directed by Emilio Sagi. Music Director Nicola Luisotti conducted; and, once again, the SFO Chorus was prepared by Robertson. The title character was sung by Michael Fabiano. Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez sang the role of his beloved Elisabetta, who is obliged, for political reasons, to marry his father, King Philip II of Spain (bass René Pape). Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień took the role of Carlos’ close friend Rodrigo; and the sinister Princess Eboli (who expects to marry Carlos) was sung by Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva.

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.

Mark Kroll Completes his Couperin Project

courtesy of Naxos of America

This month began with the release of the tenth and final volume in Mark Kroll’s project to record the complete keyboard works of François Couperin on Centaur Records. Due to a flaw in my bookkeeping, my prediction of the content of this final release was incorrect. I had claimed that only two of the ordres remained to be recorded, but the number of remaining ordres was actually three. Furthermore, those three are consecutive: the fourteenth in D major-minor, the fifteenth in A minor-major, and the sixteenth in G minor-major.

By this time I suspect that there are readers thinking that I have written pretty much all I have to say about both Couperin and Kroll’s project. For the most part, they are correct. Nevertheless, the fourteenth ordre is particularly special for me, because it includes two compositions that serve as “milestones” in my personal listening history.

Unless I am mistaken, the very first piece in this ordre is also the very first Couperin composition I ever heard. It’s title is “Le rossignol-en-amour” (the nightingale in love). Ironically, it was on a recorder-and-harpsichord LP my parents had purchased; so what I heard was an arrangement for those instruments, rather than a keyboard solo!

The other favorite is the penultimate composition in this ordre, “Le carillon de Cithére” (the carillon of Cythera). This was on the first Couperin LP that I purchased myself. This was a Musical Heritage Society album of an assortment of Couperin compositions all performed by the harpsichordist Robert Veryon-Lacroix; and I am pretty sure that this “carillon” piece was the first selection on the first side of the disc.

So my journey through Kroll’s traversal of all 27 of Couperin’s ordres has come to an end; but I am certain I shall be returning to these discs to refresh my memories of all of these short pieces, if not to provide guidance when I try to play any of them for myself!

Revisiting Price’s Contrapuntal Folk Songs

After over a month I finally found the time to return to the streamed Chamber Music Series presented by SFSymphony+. This was a string quartet performance by members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) string section: violinists Wyatt Underhill and Jessie Fellows, violist Matthew Young, and cellist Barbara Bogatin. The music performed was Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint, given a brief introduction by Bogatin.

Readers may recall a previous encounter with this music this past November. That also involved San Francisco musicians, the Thalea String Quartet of violinists Christopher Whitley and Kumiko Sakamoto, violist Luis Bellorin, and cellist Titilayo Ayangade; but their performance was live-streamed by the University of Maryland School of Music. The five songs that Price set were “Calvary,” “Clementine,” “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” “Shortnin’ Bread,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot;” and, at the very least, those selections make it clear that there is considerable breadth to what constitutes a “folksong.”

When I previously wrote about this Price composition, my key observation was the following:

The counterpoint cited in her title is thickly textured, while her harmonies lead the tonal center on a winding path that pretty much loses all account of a “home key.”

Each of the five songs is delivered with a rich variety of abundant embellishment; and, true to Price’s title, one seldom (if ever) encounters and instrumental line serving as an “accompanying voice.” However, for all the sophistication of the five settings, the SFS musicians occasionally revealed suggestions of prankishness that I had not previously noted.

Most interesting on that score was the “Clementine” setting. The opening phrase is given a straightforward delivery, after which it is picked up by another voice starting a fifth higher than the first statement. This is usually the way a fugue begins, but Price was clearly playing with the attentive listener. The suggestion of fugue passes almost as soon as it is posed, as if Price were saying, “You really can’t make a fugue out of this tune!” Instead, the tune prances around to Price’s contrapuntal setting until she feels that all four of the instrumental voices have had a fair say in the matter.

Counterpoint in both audio and video (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

I realized that, in my past writing about Price, I never seemed to call out her capacity for playfulness, which made this SFSymphony+ video release a particularly satisfying listening experience. Once again, that experience was given imaginative visual enhancement. On several occasions the video crew would superimpose the images from two different cameras; and it was only later that I realized that the video direction was exercising its own interpretation of counterpoint!

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

San Francisco Opera Returns to Live Performances

Over the course of the next two months, San Francisco Opera (SFO) will return to presenting live performances. Since all San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center venues are still under lockdown, the venue for these events will be on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge on the campus of the Marin Center. The offerings will include performances of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and recital performances by the 2021 Adler Fellows.

The opera production will be adapted to accommodate both the venue and the handling of the audience. These will be “drive-in” events, meaning that the audience will experience the performance from their respective cars, thus avoiding any problems that might involve social distancing. Tickets will be available for two neighboring locations on the Marin Center campus. The Fairgrounds will provide a view of the set and the performers. The Lagoon will be equipped with a drive-in movie screen, allowing ticket holders to experience a simulcast of the performance. The music will be transmitted through an FM radio signal. Both sets and projections have been designed by Alexander V. Nichols, and JAX Messenger has created the lighting for this open-air production. New costumes have been designed by Jessica Jahn.

Director Matthew Ozawa has created a staging to accommodate the extraordinary circumstances of the performance. The duration will be 90 minutes without any intermission. Furthermore, Ozawa will exploit the available technology by adding backstage comedy to the mix. The performance will be sung in English with English supertitles. There will be eleven performances taking place on April 23, 24, 27, and 30 and on May 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, 14, 15, all beginning at 8 p.m.

On the musical side Roderick Cox will make his SFO debut conducting a socially distanced ensemble of members of the SFO Orchestra. The title character (Figaro) will be sung by baritone Lucas Meachem. The role of the Count Almaviva will be sung by tenor Alek Shrader. Two mezzos will share the role of Rosina, whom Almaviva aspires to make his Countess. Daniela Mack (who happens to be Shrader’s wife) will sing at the first eight performances, and Laura Krumm will take the role for the remaining three. Rosina’s guardian Bartolo (who aspires to marry Rosina himself) will be sung by bass Philip Skinner; and mezzo Catherine Cook will (once again) sing the role of his maid Berta, a part she has sung in five previous SFO productions of this opera.

[added 3/25, 9:50 a.m.:

For those interested in the medical challenges that needed to be confronted as part of the process of rehearsing for this production, Joshua Kosman has written a thoroughly engaging account for the San Francisco Chronicle of these problems, approaches to solutions, and the contributions of the medical community, some of which are likely to remain valuable even after pandemic restrictions have been lifted.]

Tickets for the Fairgrounds will be sold at $250 per car. For those watching the performance on the drive-in screen at the Lagoon, admission will be $50 per car. A Web page has been created for online ticket sales. Tickets may also be purchased by calling the SFO Box Office at 415-864-3330. Tickets must be purchased ahead of time; no tickets will be sold at the Marin Center. Shortly after the final performance, a video stream will be available for $25.

The Adlers offering will be a 70-minute program of popular arias, duets, and scenes from the opera repertoire. The vocalists will be sopranos Anne-Marie MacIntosh, Elisa Sunshine, and Esther Tonea, mezzo Simone McIntosh, tenors Zhengyi Bai, Christopher Colmenero, and Christopher Oglesby, baritone Timothy Murray, and bass Stefan Egerstrom. Accompaniment will be provided by pianists Kseniia Polstiankina and Andrew King. There will be three performances, again beginning at 8 p.m. on April 29, May 6, and May 13.

Once again tickets will be sold for both the Fairgrounds and the Lagoon. The price for the live performance at the Fairgrounds will be $150, while admission to the Lagoon will again be $50. Again, there is a Web page for online ticket sales; and tickets can also be purchased through the Box Office. Also again, no tickets will be sold on the site of the Marin Center. There will again be a video stream available shortly after the final performance.

An American Jazzman in Yokohama

from the Amazon.com Web page for the recording being discussed

About a month ago the jazz label Summit Records released a Live in Japan album of a club date by the Joseph Howell Quartet. During his time as a musician for the United States Navy, Howell had served in Japan for about three years. He frequently used his leave time to check out jazz practices in Japan and, when possible, jam with the musicians.

The musician that seems to have had the greatest impact was drummer Kenichi Nishio. Through Nishio, Howell was able to connect with pianist Keigo Hirakawa, his previously fellow student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Eventually, they were joined by bassist Kenji Shimada; and the Joseph Howell Quartet was born. The Live in Japan album documents a performance that the quartet gave in Yokohama at the Jazz Live House CASK on May 27, 2018.

I was happy to discover that three of the seven compositions on this album were tunes by Joe Henderson, since I seem to be consistently reminding myself that I need to learn more about Henderson as both performer and composer. The tunes themselves are “Serenity,” Jinriksha,” and “Mamacita,” all given satisfying quartet performances with refreshing inventiveness from Howell himself. Wayne Shorter is also represented on the album with “Nefertiti,” in an account that I found to be a bit too polite when compared to the more visceral approach that Shorter took with the Miles Davis Quintet.

On the other hand the quartet takes an engagingly refreshing account to one of my personal favorites, “Good Bait,” composed jointly by Tadd Dameron and Count Basie. This is the second track on the album, which concludes by balancing Basie with Duke Ellington. The final track is Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which quickly became a standard for the Ellington orchestra and many others thereafter. The remaining track is devoted to a more traditional standard, Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart,” which was more part of the pop scene until Bill Evans added it to his own book.

Most important is that this is a quartet album on which everyone has his own time under a spotlight. For all of Howell’s own inventiveness, he is particularly good at letting the other players add their respective voices. The result is a stimulating reminder of just how engaging jazz practices could be for the better part of the twentieth century. These days it is harder to come across that kind of originality, so it is good to know that at least one group is doing a good job of keeping the torch burning in the current century.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

E4TT Program to Honor “Prophetic” Cassandra

Next month Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) will live-stream the third concert in “its Virtual and (We Hope) Live 2020/21 Home Season.” The full title of the program will be The Cassandra Project: Women’s Prophetic Voices. This program is based on the results of four commissions, all requiring the recipients to create new compositions inspired by the Greek myths about Cassandra. E4TT co-founder and Artistic Advisor David Garner will be one of those four composers. The other three will be Hannah Lash, Jessica Rudman (setting a libretto by Kendra Preston Leonard), and Valerie Liu. All four compositions will be given world premiere performances. The program will also include an earlier work related to Cassandra composed by Mary Kouyoumdjian.

E4TT is led by its other co-founder, soprano Nanette McGuinness. She will be accompanied by Season Guest Pianist Margaret Halbig and two other guest artists: violinist Ilana Blumberg and cellist Abigail Monroe. The program will be live-streamed from the Center for New Music (C4NM).

The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 17. The program will be live-streamed through the C4NM YouTube channel. Those using the RSVP hyperlink will be connected to the program and notes about the individual compositions.

Cellist Pablo Ferrández Previews his New Album

The “mood lighting” that Nicolas Hudak arranged for his film of Pablo Ferrández’ video recital (from the YouTube Web page for that video)

This morning Spanish cellist Pablo Ferrández presented a video preview of Reflections, his debut album with Sony Classical, which is scheduled for release this coming Friday. He played five selections from the album for a program that was less than twenty minutes in overall duration. He was accompanied at the piano by Denis Kozhukhin. Now that this preview has been live-streamed, it is now available on YouTube for subsequent viewing.

If the program was brief, it was still particularly well structured. The major work on the album will be Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 19 sonata in G minor; so the “core” of the program was a performance of the second (Allegro scherzando) movement from that sonata. In addition the entire program was framed by two of the twelve songs that Rachmaninoff has collected as his Opus 21. These selections did not require any arrangement for the cello; Ferrández simply played the vocal line.

Over the course of the entire performance, he only briefly addressed the audience. This was simply to say that his two favorite categories of music were Russian (hence the Rachmaninoff) and Spanish (his own nationality). As a result, the two selections on either side of the Rachmaninoff sonata movement were by Spanish composers. That movement was preceded by “Oriental,” the second of the 1893 Danzas españolas by Enrique Granados; and it was followed by “Asturiana,” the third of the Siete canciones populares españolas (seven popular Spanish folksongs) collection by Manuel de Falla. The “Asturiana” arrangement was prepared by Maurice Maréchal; and the Granados selection was arranged by Gregor Piatigorsky (who had previously performed on the instrument Ferrández was playing, the Lord Aylesford, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1696). (Fun fact: One of Piatigorsky’s earliest recordings, which was released in May of 1942, was of this Granados arrangement.)

Taken as a whole, this relatively brief offering served up a tempting taste of the entire album (which is now on my list of recordings that I plan to discuss at a later date).

Danielpour’s “Mosaic” of Pandemic Life

from the Amazon.com Web page for the album being discussed

This Friday Supertrain Records will release An American Mosaic, the latest solo album of performances by pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The album is devoted entirely to music by Richard Danielpour. The title composition is a suite of fifteen miniatures inspired by living under pandemic conditions. It is followed by solo piano transcriptions of three movements by Johann Sebastian Bach, the chorale “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” from the BWV 244 setting of the Passion text from the Gospel of Matthew, the final chorus of BWV 244, “Wir setzen, uns mit Tränen nieder,” and, between those two selections, the “Agnus Dei” aria from the BWV 232 setting of the Mass ordinary in the key of B minor. As usual, Amazon.com is processing pre-orders for this new release.

The An American Mosaic suite was commissioned by the Oregon Bach Festival (OBF). Dinnerstein gave the premiere performance this past December 6 from her home in Brooklyn, streamed online for a virtual OBF concert. Thus, it would be fair to say that the music was composed on the basis of the first half-year of pandemic conditions.

I have to say that I have acquired a taste for what I have previously called “miniaturist rhetoric,” influenced particularly by Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 17 Sarcasms and his subsequent Opus 22 Visions fugitives. As a result, I found that, as a listener, I could easily adjust to Danielpour’s rhetorical strategies. It was only after my initial listening experience that I learned the circumstances under which these miniatures were created.

The pandemic was particularly stressful for Danielpour. As he wrote in his note for the accompanying booklet, he is asthmatic. As a result, during the first wave of the pandemic, his pulmonologist warned him that, were he to contract the COVID virus, his chances of survival would be about 30%. As might be guessed, the stress of that warning brought about insomnia. His booklet note observed:

The only thing that was able to relax me enough to sleep (no amount of medication would do the trick) was listening to Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach recordings.

Nevertheless, there is little sense of personal stress in the fifteen movements of An American Mosaic. Danielpour’s intention was to commemorate different segments of the American population that had been particularly influenced by the pandemic, such as doctors, parents, children, front line workers, caretakers, and those who have lost their lives to the virus. While many of the movements amount to moments of sober reflection, there are occasional outbursts of enthusiasm, such as in the “Journalists, Poets, & Writers” movement. These musical portraits are framed by a “Prologue” and an “Epilogue,” along with two “Interlude” movements. All of of those movements are labeled as “Consolations;” and, ultimately, consolation is the prevailing rhetoric at the conclusion of this suite.

The Bach arrangements amount to thanking Dinnerstein for her role in motivating the suite’s creation. As arrangements go, they make for satisfying listening. Nevertheless, I must confess a preference for “original version” Bach. This is particularly the case in that final chorus of BWV 244, where Bach scores a truly bone-chilling dissonance for the oboe. Danielpour did not try to smooth over that dissonance, but the sharp contrast of the oboe’s timbre clearly could not migrate to the body of a grand piano.

LCCE: Too Much Talk; Not Enough Cello

The full title of last night’s Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) concert was Cello Heaven with Nina Shekhar: World Premiere Performance and Discussion. The focus of the program was the world premiere performance of Shekhar’s “if these walls,” which was scored for two cellos and had been commissioned by LCCE cellists Leighton Fong and Tanya Tomkins. Shekhar’s name may be familiar to regular readers: Cellist Anita Graef opened her Old First Concerts recital on Sunday afternoon, March 14, with a performance of Shekhar’s solo cello composition “Cajón,” an imaginative exploration of the interplay of bowed passages with percussive sounds from the body of the instrument. Fong began last night’s program by playing this piece.

Sadly, too much of last night’s program involved talk, rather than music. Fong, Tomkins, and Shekhar all had things to say about the music; but little of that verbiage threw much light on the opacity of Shekhar’s new composition. (For that matter, Graef had been far better prepared to introduce “Cajón” than Fong was.) In all fairness, however, talking about new music is no easy matter, due in no small part to the differing perspectives of composers and performers.

The fact is that, even in settings like Davies Symphony Hall, efforts to provide a verbal introduction to music that has never before been played in public often devolve into fumbling blather. Recently, the best exception to that rule has been the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP), which has a long tradition of pre-performance discussions that involve both composers and performers. Since becoming SFCMP Artistic Director, Eric Dudley has guided those discussions with a firm and well-informed hand; and, when SFCMP had to “migrate into cyberspace” during lockdown, he skillfully replaced those panel discussions with well-edited video remarks collected in appropriate settings.

None of those skills were captured in last night’s LCCE video. Too much time went into saying nice things about cellos and cellists, and it was clear that Shekhar had a keen ear for the wide diversity of sonorities that could be produced by the instrument. However, I am not sure that I ever came away with a convincing justification for the title of her new composition, let alone any sense of structure or rhetorical intent. Basically, it was “something that happened” for about five and one-half minutes; and there was little sense of any “what” or “why” behind that something, neither while performance was taking place nor over the course of the subsequent discussion.

Tanya Tomkins and Leighton Fong leading the cellists playing Clarice Assad’s “Lemuria” (screen shot from the video of last night’s LCCE offering)

Fortunately, there was still good news for those that enjoy cello music. Between the two Shekhar performances, the program included an archived video excerpt of the conclusion of Clarice Assad’s “Lemuria,” which was performed at an LCCE concert in January of 2019. This piece was scored for a large ensemble of cellos led by two soloists (Fong and Tomkins) along with a generous battery of percussion instruments played by Loren Mach. The composer herself added vocals, but they were not particularly evident on this particular video clip. The entire work left me bubbling with enthusiasm when I first encountered it, and I was more that delighted to have my memory tweaked!

Monday, March 22, 2021

SFP Updates in April and May

This afternoon San Francisco Performances (SFP) announced the cancellations and postponements of programs scheduled for April and May in compliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines and current restrictions on public gatherings. Three of those programs have been postponed with new dates to be announced. These include two of the lecture/performances that music historian Robert Greenberg has prepared with the Alexander String Quartets at 10 a.m. on Saturday mornings, April 10 and May 1. In addition the Guitar Series recital marking the 60th anniversary tour by the Romeros (Celin, Pepe, Celino, and Lito), featuring soprano Isabel Leonard as guest artist, will be rescheduled from the original planned date of April 8.

The entire PIVOT Festival will be cancelled, consisting of four programs over four evenings:

  • Friday, April 16: The Dizzy Spells Afro-futuristic fusion of jazz, tap, and bebop prepared by trumpeter Sean Jones and his colleagues
  • Saturday, April 17: The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
  • Wednesday, April 21: The Paradoxes in Performance solo piano recital prepared by Aaron Diehl
  • Friday, April 23: The program of Nordic music presented by Dreamers’ Circus

The remaining cancellations will be as follows:

  • Saturday, April 10: The Piano Series solo recital by Natasha Paremski
  • Thursday, April 29: The Art of Song Series recital by countertenor Anthony Ross Costanzo, joined by the Attacca Quartet and pianist Timo Andres, who was scheduled to bring a new work to the program
  • Saturday, May 1: The Chamber Series recital by the Chiaroscuro Quartet
  • Tuesday, May 4: The Art of Song Series recital by soprano Golda Schultz, accompanied at the piano by Jonathan Ware
  • Saturday, May 8: The Guitar Series recital by Thibault Cauvin, rescheduled from its original date on November 21
  • Thursday, May 13: The Chamber Series recital by the Danish String Quartet, rescheduled form its original date on November 10

As in the past, the options for those holding tickets for these cancelled events are as follows:

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

These options are also available to those holding tickets for the rescheduled events but those tickets can also be used to attend the concert, once the new date has been announced.

Patrons may contact SFP regarding their chosen option either through electronic mail (tickets@sfperformances.org) or by calling 415-677-0325 during business hours, between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Opera San José to Stream Three One-Acts

Next month Opera San José will kick off spring by streaming a 75-minute program entitled Love & Secrets: A Domestic Trilogy. The program will consist of three one-act operas, each of which explores its own perspective on the relationship between a man and a woman. All three of the operas were composed during the twentieth century, covering the period from the first decade of that century to the last. The operas will be presented in the chronological order of composition.

1917 photograph of Mario Sammarco and Lydia Lipkowska as Count and Countess in “Il segreto di Susanna” (scanned from The Victrola book of the opera, from Wikimedia Commons, no known copyright restrictions)

The first of these operas, “Il segreto di Susanna” (Susanna’s secret), was composed by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari and first performed in Munich on December 4, 1909. The title character is a twenty-year-old countess (soprano Vanessa Becerra) married to Count Gil (baritone Efraín Solís). The “punch line” of this 40-minute opera will probably strike many as absurd, and the above photograph deserves a spoiler alert!

Four Dialogues is actually a song cycle that Ned Rorem completed in 1954, scored for soprano (Marnie Breckenridge), tenor (Carlos Enrique Santelli), and two pianos. The texts are taken from the poems of Frank O’Hara. Somewhat in the tradition of song cycles by Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann, the narrative follows a couple’s relationship from love’s first blush to the pangs of the bitter end. However, O’Hara’s texts are given to more irony and whimsy than can be encountered in those nineteenth-century song cycles.

The final selection is also a chamber work, lasting only about ten minutes. Tom Cipullo composed “The Husbands” in 1993 for soprano (Ashley Dixon), high baritone (Eugene Brancoveanu), flute, viola, and piano. The text is the prose poem “Rain” by William Carpenter. The libretto serves as a rumination of widows, tenderly keeping their departed spouses forever present in their hearts.

All three operas will be staged by Resident Director Tara Branham. Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by members of the Opera San José Orchestra, and conducting duties will be shared by Music Director Joseph Marcheso and Resident Conductor Christopher James Ray. Streaming will launch at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, after which there will be a Zoom-based “virtual cast party” at 7:30 p.m. The video will be available for streaming for 30 days. Admission is on a pay-what-you-can basis through a Web page that is set up for $15, $25, and $40 admission rates. For those wishing to attend the cast party, there is a $50 charge; and, once payment has been processed, a Zoom link will be sent on the morning of April 15. The Web page also allows purchasing a ticket as a gift.

Disappointing Premiere Album from Hennessy 6

from the Amazon.com Web page for the recording being discussed

According to my records, it was exactly two months ago that I wrote my third rant over “music that has responded to COVID-19 by blunting sharp edges, rather than seeking them for stimulation.” Ironically, this would have been about the same time that the jazz label Summit Records released a new album that provoked me in exactly the same way. The title of the recording is The Road Less Traveled, and it is the premiere album of a group called the Hennessy 6.

The leader is trumpeter Sean Schafer Hennessy (not to be confused with the founder of the British synth-pop band Chungking). He is joined by Cully Joyce doubling on tenor saxophone and alto flute, Colin McAllister on guitar, Brad Bietry on keyboards, Jason Crowe on bass (alternating between acoustic and electric), and Chris Gaona on drums. “Backup” is provided by the Colorado Springs Youth Symphony (conducted by Gary Nicholson); and two of the tracks include vocals by Krista Joyce. Of the eight tracks on the album, four are composed by Hennessy, three by Joyce, and one by McAllister.

Mind you, from a technical point of view, all six of the sextet members share a talented command of their respective instruments. There are even moments of engaging exchange work, such as can be found between Hennessy and Joyce in the opening of Hennessy’s “Haunted Eyes.” Nevertheless, each of the individual tracks begins to leave the attentive listener wondering why things are going on for so long (this written by someone that has absolutely no difficulty with an exchange of improvisations that might go on for half an hour, if not longer). My guess is that, in spite of album title, serious jazz listeners are likely to come away feeling that the “road traveled” is an all-too-familiar one that could do with ventures in new directions.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

A Video Treatment of Gounod Chamber Music

Those that have been following this site for some time are probably well aware of how isolation from traditional concert-going experiences has led to an impressive diversity of inventive multimedia approaches to performance. As a 1924 popular song put it, “Everyone Wants to Get into the Act;” and, about half a week ago I learned of a new entrant from Fayetteville, Arkansas. That city is the home of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas (SoNA), whose Executive Director is now D. Riley Nicholson, previously a familiar face here at the Center for New Music.

First oboist Theresa Delaplain in the “video accompaniment” for Gounod’s chamber music (from the Facebook Online Event page)

As part of its Reimagined Season, SoNA will release a digital performance of chamber music by Charles Gounod. The composition is his “Petite Symphonie,” scored for nine wind players and first performed in 1885. The participating performers will be Kristen Salinas (Flute), Theresa Delaplain (Oboe I), Kristin Weber (Oboe II), Richard Bobo (Bassoon I), Kay Brusca (Bassoon II), Bruce Schultz (Horn I), Jason Hofmeister (Horn II), Orlando Scalia (Clarinet II), and Trevor Stewart (Clarinet I). Their performance was recorded on green screen at the Crisp Recording Studio in Fayetteville, run by videographer and media artist Darren Crisp. Working with visual artist Romain Erkiletlian, Crisp created a real-time visual experience to “accompany” the musical performance. Those visuals will present creative renderings of landscape images of the city of Paris, which was the composer’s beloved home.

This multimedia digital performance will be given its premiere at 4:30 p.m. (Pacific time) on Friday, April 2. As of this writing, there appear to be three different Web platforms from which the performance may be viewed: the Facebook Online Event page, the video added to the YouTube SoNA home page, and the event page on the SoNA Web site. There will be no charge for viewing on any of these platforms.

Elliott Carter’s Ballet Scores

At the beginning of this month, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) released its latest album. The recording is devoted to some of the earliest works of Elliott Carter, two orchestral compositions made for one-act ballets, “Pocahontas” and “The Minotaur.” Both of these scores were commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein, who had been one of Carter’s fellow students at Harvard University. Kirstein would go on to become one of the first impresarios to cultivate “home-grown” ballet in the United States.

Kirstein and George Balanchine started the School of American Ballet in 1934. This would become the “training ground” for the professional company now known as the New York City Ballet (NYCB). Kirstein also founded a “training company” called Ballet Caravan, which presented the premiere of “Pocahontas” in 1939. Local readers may wish to note that the choreography was created by Lew Christensen, who would direct the San Francisco Ballet between 1952 and 1984. The production was a failure, and The New York Times particularly went after Carter, describing his music as “so thick it is hard to see the stage through it.”

A photograph of John Taras’ choreography for “The Minotaur” (from the booklet accompanying the recording being discussed)

“The Minotaur” was commissioned by Kirstein for NYCB. Carter assumed that Balanchine would create the choreography, but Balanchine went to Paris in 1947. The task of making the new ballet was turned over to his young assistant John Taras. While the resulting choreography was not particularly memorable, the music became known due to a suite that Carter published in 1956. This found its way to the “flip side” of a Mercury album of the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra conducted by Howard Hanson, which featured Colin McPhee’s Indonesian-inspired suite Tabuh-Tabuhan.

My guess is that I am far from the only purchaser of this album that was totally blown away by Tabuh-Tabuhan and had no idea what to make of the Carter suite. I might even venture that Hanson himself was in the same boat with the rest of us. As a result, this new BMOP album, conducted by Gil Rose, may be the first opportunity any of us have had to give the “Minotaur” a fair shake.

For one thing, it helps to have a track listing that provides a better account of the relation between the music and the ballet’s scenario. For another, Rose’s conducting reflects a clearer understanding of the building blocks of Carter’s thematic material and the ability to sort out a rich vocabulary of embellishment from the themes being embellished. (The score may still have the “thickness” that annoyed the Times critic, but Rose seems to have gotten beyond any problems of opacity!) Finally, I would speculate that this score offers an early account of Carter’s interest in rhythmic patterns and the techniques of unfolding those patterns through both sequencing and superposition.

From that point of view, this new album is not so much an account of “Carter before he became Carter” as it is an indicator, particularly through the score for “The Minotaur,” of how Carter would begin to establish his own voice in the Fifties.