Friday, April 30, 2021

Evangelista Announces Second “Unsolitary” Show

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

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

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

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

JACK Quartet Concludes Online PIVOT 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Calidore Quartet to Conclude SHCS Season

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

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

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

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

SFSymphony+ Adds Mozart to Chamber Videos

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

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

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

screen shot courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

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

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

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

LCCE at ISU’s Red Note New Music Festival

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Earplay: Next Month’s First Mondays Concert

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

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

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

Hoyson Album Features Friends and Standards

courtesy of Play MPE

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

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

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

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

Wayne Peterson’s “Brief Encounters”

screen shot from the video being discussed

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

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

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

Monday, April 26, 2021

Earplay to Honor Passing of Wayne Peterson

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

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

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

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

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

Profil to Release 10-CD Backhaus Anthology

courtesy of Naxos of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 25, 2021

“Strange Fruit” for Our Times from Koh and Tines

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

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

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

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

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

ASO to Stream All-Brahms Program

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

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

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

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

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

Volti Premieres Pamela Z’s “Ink”

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

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

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

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

courtesy of Volti

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

Saturday, April 24, 2021

SFSU to Stream Les Délices Recital

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

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

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

Ken Iisaka’s F-Sharp Major Piano Break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 23, 2021

SHCS to Host Recorder Recital by Tabea Debus

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

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

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

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

Delightful Abstractions and Dismal Narrative

Last night San Francisco Ballet began its run of the fifth program in its 2021 Digital Season. This was the third and last of its “mixed repertory” offerings. The overall structure consisted of a highly intense narrative in the middle of three selections, framed on either side by abstract interpretations of music by Johann Sebastian Bach (at the beginning of the program) and Ezio Bosso (at the conclusion). The “Bach ballet” was Helgi Tomasson’s “7 for Eight,” seven selections of movements from the keyboard concertos executed by different combinations of eight dancers and featuring Mungunchimneg Buriad on piano and harpsichord. The performance was captured on January 30, 2016. The final offering was David Dawson’s “Anima Animus,” set to Bosso’s “Esoconcerto,” a high-energy concerto for piano and strings, captured on video on April 25, 2018.

Like many of my generation, my first exposure to choreographing Bach’s music was George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco,” which remains one of my favorite Balanchine creations. This was very much a study in the overall architecture of a three-movement concerto for two violins and strings, suggesting that Balanchine was as attentive to the structures on the score pages as he was of the structures he was realizing with his dancers. “7 for Eight,” on the other hand, is more of a pastiche, picking and choosing individual movements from three of Bach’s solo keyboard concertos (BWV 1052 in D minor, BWV 1055 in A major, and BWV 1056 in F minor) with a “keystone” in the form of the second movement of the BWV 1065 concerto for four harpsichords in A minor. Ironically, that “keystone” is actually a transcription of the tenth concerto in Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 3 L’estro armonico, scored for four violins, cello, and ensemble in B minor.

The four male dancers in the final movement of “7 for Eight” (photograph by Erik Tomasson, © Erik Tomasson, courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)

Three of Tomasson’s movements are duets, two of them (the first and sixth) danced by Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets. Through these movements Tomasson explores different approaches to reflecting the solo-ensemble relationship in the concerto movements. There are also movements for three dancers (two female and one male) and the interplay of a two females and two males in different combination. Only one of the movements is a solo (taken by Taras Domitro, the one male in the three-dancer movement). The concluding movement is then an “all-hands” finale.

The four-harpsichord concerto selection was arranged for single harpsichord, and all the other solo selections were played by Buriad on piano. For the most part, this “mixed selection” did not grate on my preference for hearing Bach concertos in their usual three-movement structures. Only the harpsichord selection was disturbing, since the second movement of the Bach-Vivaldi synthesis concludes with a cadence clearly meant to introduce the final movement. That cadence is never fulfilled, since Tomasson shifts back to the solo keyboard repertoire; and that was the one moment that irritated my musical sensibilities.

Dawson’s approach to Bosso’s concerto, on the other hand, was a straightforward one. Bosso was apparently relatively eclectic as a composer; but “Esoconcerto” seems to have been his nod to the repetitive structures one finds in the music of Philip Glass. This provided Dawson with just the right background of a driving pulse against which he could explore the dynamic interplay among six women and four men. While the background material described the dance as revealing “the rich contrasts between male and female psyches,” I found I could settle into Dawson’s abstractions without worrying too much about signification.

On the other hand, signification was unavoidable in Cathy Marston’s “Snowblind.” This choreographic interpretation of Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome was also captured on April 25, 2018, and that recording was discussed on this site at the beginning of this past June. At that time I had just become aware of Marston through “The Cellist,” which I had previously seen streamed by The Royal Ballet. Both of these ballets were rich in narrative content, “The Cellist” having been a reflection on the tragic life of cellist Jacqueline de Pré.

For both of these ballets, “first contact” primarily involved teasing out the narrative foundation and then considering how the choreographer would provide an interpretative perspective. On this second encounter with “Snowblind,” I began to wonder whether Marston had any perspective at all. Indeed, I could not decide whether she had read Wharton’s book and chose to express her reactions through choreography or she had just skimmed the CliffsNotes version and then began to conceive a danced version. Back in June I mustered all of the patience I could to document my impressions. However, on this “return visit,” I found the entire experience muddled in its approach to narrative and tedious in its efforts to find an effective choreographic interpretation.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Opera Parallèle to Celebrate Earth Day with Jazz

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

Tonight Opera Parallèle will celebrate Earth Day with its second free recital in its Close-Up series. This will be a jazz duo program featuring soprano Tiffany Austin joined by Marcus Shelby on bass. Acknowledgement of Mother Earth will include the spiritual “Down by the Riverside” and, a bit more explicitly, Björk’s “Oceania.” These will be preceded by Miles Davis’ “All Blues” with Austin singing the lyrics added by Oscar Brown Jr. The spirit of activism behind Earth Day will then be acknowledged in the final selection, Shelby’s own composition “I Will Not Stand Still.”

This recital will be live-streamed this evening, April 22, at 5 p.m. Hyperlinks for both Facebook and YouTube will be posted on the Opera Parallèle event page this afternoon at 3:30 p.m. That Web page also includes a sign-up hyperlink, allowing those links to be received in an electronic mail reminder, which will be sent at 4 p.m. (one hour prior to the beginning of the performance). The full performance will be available on-demand until Thursday, May 20, at 5 p.m.

New Album of Long Form Free Improvisation

One week from today Humbler Records will release non-dweller, an album of long form free improvisation performed by the trio of gabby fluke-mogul, Jacob Felix Heule, and Kanoko Nishi-Smith. Those that follow “bleeding edge” performances here in the Bay Area have probably encountered all three of these musicians in performance. Percussionist Heule has been improvising with Nishi-Smith, who has developed her own set of extended techniques for playing the koto, since 2007. Their duo extended to a trio when they were joined by violinist gabby fluke-mogul in 2019. non-dweller is the first recording of the trio’s inventive improvisations, and Bandcamp is currently processing pre-orders for both physical and digital distribution.

The album consists of two tracks, each approximately half an hour in duration. One can also experience that duration through a YouTube video of a performance presented as part of the Active Music Series in Oakland on October 8, 2019:

fluke-mogul, Nishi-Smith, and Heule performing at the Active Music Series (photograph courtesy of Jacob Felix Heule)

I have to say that, from a personal point of view, I find this video to be an informative resource. Since Nishi-Smith’s extended techniques include bowing her koto, in an “audio only” experience one is likely to have difficulty identifying which sonorities come from that koto and which from fluke-mogul’s violin. On the other hand, strictly from a listening point of view (so to speak), the interplay of that diversity of sonorities can be appreciated without knowing which of them were being contributed by which performers.

In my own experiences of listening to non-dweller, I found myself more interested in how the sonorities themselves unfold as a “conversation,” without worrying about whether that conversation actually reflects the “utterances” of the performers themselves. The other metaphor that may be operative for each of the two tracks on the album is that of a mural. Think of how many of the murals we are likely to encounter in the Mission have been the result of a group effort, the realization of a social experience, rather than a solitary one. In a similar way, the “whole” of each track emerges from how all three musicians contribute, sometimes taking the initiative and, at other times, adding to a region of that mural that had been previously created.

While I still have a strong preference for in-the-moment experiences of improvised performances, I have to confess that I have come away from non-dweller with new perspectives on the nature of such experiences.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

NCCO Announces Virtual Spring Season

Daniel Hope with the NCCO musicians (photograph by Matthew Washburn, courtesy of NCCO)

Yesterday afternoon the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) announced its first performance as an ensemble with Music Director Daniel Hope in over a year. That performance will take place as a streamed concert film presented by Stanford Live. The program will include the world premiere of a concerto by Tan Dun, which was jointly commissioned by NCCO and the Odessa Classics Festival. The streaming of that video will be followed by two free episodes from NCCO’s new Resonance series film project. All three of these videos will be made available on three successive Thursdays at noon as follows:

May 20: The title of the Stanford Live program will be New Century: Reunited. Hope will lead as both Concertmaster and soloist in the Tan concerto. This composition is a double concerto for violin, piano, and string orchestra; and the piano soloist will be Alexey Botvinov. Botvinov will also perform the piano obbligato part in Ernest Bloch’s first concerto grosso, composed in 1925. The program will begin with Aaron Jay Kernis’ newly composed “Elegy (for those we lost),” dedicated to those who have suffered and died in the past year from both the pandemic and from racial violence and hatred.

City Box Office has created an event page for purchasing tickets. Pricing is flexible with tickets available for $10, $20, $30, and $40. They can also be purchased by calling City Box Office at 415-392-4400. After the order has been processed, the purchaser will receive the hyperlink for viewing the performance. Because the film is being presented by Stanford Live, it will also be available through 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.

May 27: The first Resonance offering will feature artist and couturière Colleen Quen. It will follow her on the journey of creating a mixed media sculpture inspired by a performance of the two dances that Claude Debussy composed for harp and string orchestra, “Danse sacrée” and “Danse profane.” This music will be performed by harpist Meredith Clark with one-to-a-part accompaniment by violinists Iris Stone and Karen Shinozaki, violist Elizabeth Prior, cellist Michelle Djokic, and Anthony Manzo on bass. The program will be streamed through the NCCO home page.

June 3: The second Resonance program will present Antoine Hunter, also known as Purple Fire Crow, founder and director of the Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival and his own Urban Jazz Dance Company. The film will follow his creating choreography for Missy Mazzoli’s string quartet “Death Valley Junction.” The music will be performed by a quartet whose cellist will again be Djokic. The other members will be violinists Deborah Tien Price and Nicole Sauder and violist Jenny Douglass. The program will also be streamed through the NCCO home page.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Albany Consort’s Bach-Vivaldi Coupling

This past Friday Jonathan Salzedo sent out electronic mail apologizing for the technical glitches encountered during a live-stream performance from the campus of the Maybeck Christian Science Church in Berkeley on Sunday, April 11. He announced that he had resolved those problems with a remix of the audio and the video, the results of which are now available as a YouTube video. However, I should let viewers know that I have taken to watching YouTube through my xfinity app; and the audio during the last ten minutes of the video left much to be desired. On the other hand both watching and listening from my computer was a great pleasure.

As was the case this past January, the concert was a quartet performance led by Jonathan Salzedo at the harpsichord. He was joined by his wife Marion Rubinstein on recorder, his daughter Laura Jeannin on violin, and Roy Wheldon on gamba. The entire quartet began and concluded the program playing Salzedo’s arrangements of works composed for other resources.

The opening selection was Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 992 Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother, originally composed for solo keyboard. The conclusion was Antonio Vivaldi’s RV 524, a concerto in B-flat major scored for two solo violins and strings. Both of these pieces held up well under transcription. The solo lines of the Vivaldi concerto were just as convincing when played by violin and recorder, and Salzedo and Wheldon dutifully filled in the rest. In BWV 992, on the other hand, the diverse instrumentation brought new clarity to the programmatic titles of the individual movements, whose titles were read aloud by Salzedo (in English) prior to their respective performances.

These ensemble selections framed the Bach selections, both in G major, with Salzedo on harpsichord. The first of these was the BWV 1019 violin sonata, followed by the BWV 1027 gamba sonata (which I knew better as the BWV 1039 trio sonata for two flutes and continuo). Throughout the entire program, the video work frequently provided split-screen images of the individual performers; and that technique was particularly valuable in the visual account of both of these sonatas. I have to say that I particularly liked the layout that juxtaposed the “broad view” of Salzedo and Jeannin playing BWV 1019 with an overhead shot of Salzedo’s fingering:

screen shot from the video being discussed

Taken as a whole, the program was a delightful juxtaposition of unfamiliar Vivaldi with three Bach compositions that would benefit from more attention than they usually get.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Tim Berne Jams for Newvelle Live

At the beginning of this month Newvelle Records launched Newvelle Live, a weekly series of videos of live jazz performances. The project was conceived to provide “a novel way to support artists and institutions who are continuing the legacy of improvised music for a new generation.” A program of improvised jazz is launched every Friday of the month, and the Newvelle Live home page is set up for listeners to consider making a contribution to support the performers. Over the course of this month, twelve performers will each contribute to one of five Friday evening gigs. The total of all contributions (which is displayed on the Newvelle Live home page) will then be divided among those performers at the end of the month.

This afternoon I decided to check out the performance that was recorded this past Friday, which now has a YouTube Web page for viewing at any time. The performance, which was recorded at East Side Studios in New York, was a half-hour duo set bringing alto saxophonist Tim Berne together with Gregg Belisle-Chi on acoustic guitar. There is a certain irony in my having made this selection, since the last time I wrote about Berne, discussing the debut of his Snakeoil combo on the Intakt recording The Fantastic Mrs. 10, was only a couple of days before Mayor London N. Breed ordered that all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center were cancelled in order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

On that album Snakeoil was a quintet, rather than a duo; and the guitarist, Marc Ducret, was playing an electric, rather than acoustic, instrument. However, the album was produced by David Torn (who is also a guitarist); and it was probably not a coincidence that the first selection on Friday’s duo performance was dedicated to Torn (given the teasingly ambiguous title “DT’s”). I also found it interesting that none of the selections that followed were announced. After about 25 minutes Berne announced that he and Belisle-Chi had performed all the tunes they had prepared and would wind up the set with a free improvisation.

Tim Berne and Gregg Belisle-Chi explore free improvisation (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Truth be told (as they say), I am not quite sure just how many tunes preceded that improvisation. First impression listening proceeded along an almost smoothly continuous flow. To be sure, there were distinguishable shifts in the rhetorical framework, which included different approaches to interplay between saxophone and guitar. Nevertheless, there was a sense of journey across different performance strategies, both technical and rhetorical, that reminded me of my much earlier efforts to “parse” John Coltrane’s Ascension album.

The free improvisation, on the other hand, was a distinctively different beast. Berne seemed to lead by focusing on “extended techniques” yielding sonorities of breathing without vibrating the reed and the unconventional squeaks of remotely high harmonics. This then inspired Belisle-Chi to explore how his instrument could map its own territory of extended techniques. Some might argue that this half-hour set was more than mind could embrace; but, for my money, that is reason enough to revisit this recording a few more times!

The Bleeding Edge: 4/19/2021

John Bischoff giving his thesis concert at Mills College in 1973 (photographer unknown, from the event page for his upcoming recital)

After a one-week hiatus we are back in the domain of a single Bleeding Edge item for the coming week. Fortunately, it amounts to a “usual suspect” offering, the latest offering by the Mills College Music Department and the Center for Contemporary Music. The title of the program will be Celebrating Electronics, and there will be three selections featuring John Bischoff. The program will begin with two of Bischoff’s creations, “Bitplicity,” composed in 2020, and “Visibility Study,” completed in 2015. The remaining selection is Bischoff’s latest work, “League Trio,” which he calls a “hybrid method that falls between traditional composition (invention ahead of time) and free improvisation (invention in the moment).” For this trio performance Bischoff will be joined by James Fei and Tim Perkis.

This performance will begin at 7 p.m. this coming Saturday, April 24. This will be the latest free program in the Mills Music Now series. The event page for this concert has an embedded video link. Clicking on the image will enter the broadcast of the performance. Donations will be appreciated, and they can be made through the Eventbrite Web page for this performance.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

PocketWatch: Handel’s Woman Have Their Say

This afternoon Pocket Opera streamed the second of the three recitals in its current PocketWatch 3-Song Mini Concert Series. The title of the program was Handel, with Care; and it featured soprano Marcelle Dronkers, whose contributions to Pocket Opera have involved a variety of roles in the operas of George Frideric Handel. She was accompanied at the piano by Jefferson Packer.

The program featured arias from three of Handel’s operas, Agrippina (HWV 6), Alcina (HWV 34), and Rinaldo (HWV 7); but Dronkers opened with two contrasting arias from Agrippina. For those not familiar with their Suetonius, Agrippina was the mother of Nero; and the opera is about her machinations to have him named emperor of Rome. In many respects the opera is a “prequel” to Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea; and, in Agrippina, Nero is one of the two men in Poppea’s life. Dronkers’ two aria performances served to establish the characters of Poppea and Agrippina (in the order in which she sang them); and one could definitely sense the complex machinations behind both of these characters.

Marcelle Dronkers evoking the character of Alcina (courtesy of Pocket Opera)

She then moved on to one of Alcina’s arias from the opera of the same name. This is one of many operas about an encounter between an evil sorceress and a virtuous knight. Needless to say, the sorceress get the more virtuoso arias as she reveals her cunning plans. Similar temptations are brewed up by Armida in her designs for Rinaldo, which evolve in the context of the First Crusade.

All three of these operas benefit from the overall narrative. Nevertheless, Dronkers selections provided a tempting foretaste of the rich character types that make Handel’s opera narratives so interesting. Those operas definitely deserve more exposure.

Opera Narrative on an Epic Scale

This weekend’s Opera is ON free opera stream provided by the San Francisco Opera returned to the epic scale of Götterdämmerung, the final opera in Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung). This time, however, the composer was Giuseppe Verdi; and the opera was the Italian version of Don Carlo. The original libretto was written in French by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle, based on Friedrich Schiller’s dramatic Play Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (Don Carlos, Infante of Spain). However, most productions these days prefer the Italian translation by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini with addition text translated by Piero Faggioni.

The video was directed by Frank Zamacona, captured during the performances given at the War Memorial Opera House in June of 2016. Those performances ran for about four and one half hours, including two intermissions. As usual, the streamed version does not include “intermission breaks;” so the overall duration is about an hour less. Nevertheless, five acts of opera over the course of that period of time makes for a lot of music; and the intricate plot of the libretto makes for a lot of narrative. Both my wife and I agreed that we needed our own “intermission breaks,” rather than trying to watch the video uninterrupted.

Michael Fabiano and Ana María Martínez (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

That abundance of narrative also makes for a rich and diverse cast of characters; and, from a musical point of view, that entails a broad variety of styles of performance across the full extent of vocal ranges. At the very top we have Élisabeth de Valois, sung by soprano Ana María Martínez. She is a French princess betrothed to Carlos (tenor Michael Fabiano) as part of a peace agreement with Spain. However, the first act, which takes place in Fontainebleau, where the agreement is being finalized, concludes with the news that she will be marrying Carlos’ father, Philip II, the King of Spain (bass René Pape). The opening act thus serves as a prolog to the dramatic turmoil that will ensue over the following acts.

Philip is the son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V; and the remaining four acts are framed by scenes that text place before the Emperor’s tomb in the monastery of Saint-Just in Spain. In the opening scene we learn of Carlos’ friendship with Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa (baritone Mariusz Kwiecień), who is a strong defender of the right of the Flemish (under Philip’s rule) to practice their Protestant faith. By the time the narrative has progressed to the final scene, Rodrigo has been murdered for betraying the Catholic faith, Philippe has learned of Élisabeth’s true love, Élisabeth herself has left the royal court for a nunnery. However, she encourages Carlos to continue Rodrigo’s work.

Complex as this may all see, Emilio Sagi created a staging that leads the audience through all of the conflicts in the political domain of authority and the religious domain of faith. Much of this involves an abundance of spectacle, some of which is deliberately disquieting. This includes the mass burning of heretics in an auto-da-fé bonfire in the public square in front of a cathedral in Madrid at the end of the third act. Just as important, however, is how Sagi developed the individual traits of each of the characters, through which the audience was well-equipped to deal with the many twists and turns of both the plot and the personalities of the characters involved in that plot.

Finally, Zamacona again deserves credit for his attention to those personalities. All of the stage sets for this opera were expertly conceived by Production Designer Zack Brown. However, the plot itself is more about the individuals than about the setting in which their actions unfold. Zamacona’s video cues provide just the right interplay between close-ups of the characters and the broader view of the entire stage. In many respects the viewer of this video document is better equipped to negotiate the complexities of the libretto than anyone sitting in the Opera House audience would have been.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Navona Surveys Chamber Music of Alberga

courtesy of Naxos of America

This coming Friday Navona Records will release a new album surveying chamber music by Eleanor Alberga. Two of the pieces are quintets, adding an instrument to a string quartet. On the album that quartet is the Ensemble Arcadiana, consisting of violinists Thomas Bowes and Oscar Perks, violist Andres Kaljuste, and cellist Hanna Sloane. The remaining two selections are duos in which Bowes is joined by Alberga at the piano. As is usually the case, is currently processing pre-orders for the release.

The entire album is framed by these two duos, beginning with “No-man’s-land Lullaby,” composed in 1997, and concluding with “The Wild Blue Yonder,” composed in 1995 and the source for the title of the entire album. The first of the two quintets brings hornist Richard Watkins together with Ensemble Arcadiana. The title of the piece is “Shining Gate of Morpheus;” and it is the most recent work on the album, having been composed in 2012. It is followed with the quintet “Succubus Moon,” composed in 2007 and featuring oboist Nicholas Daniel.

“No-man’s-land Lullaby” may be familiar to those readers that streamed this past November’s performance by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE). This was performed by violinist Phyllis Kamrin and pianist Eric Zivian. What may well be the most popular lullaby tune, the fourth song in Johannes Brahms’ Opus 49 collection, entitled simply “Wiegenlied” (lullaby), serves as the spinal cord of Alberga’s composition. However, the first part of the title is an evocation of the carnage of World War I, suggesting that, for so many of the soldiers fighting on both sides, sleep had been murdered (as William Shakespeare would have put it) by the war.

While I am not yet sure I have connected the two quintets with their evocative titles, there is no questioning the other-worldly sonorities that Alberga has evoked for both horn and oboe. As already noted, they are the more recent offerings; and they seem to suggest that Alberga is exploring sonority itself as a primary medium of expression. However, this may also indicate a broader mission that might be called the exploration of “otherness.” Early signs of that exploration can be found in the two violin-piano duos, while the quintets pursue sonority as another device for pursuing that mission.

The advantage of having a recording is that one can listen to it many times, and these four Alberga compositions definitely deserve multiple listening experiences.

Pocket Opera’s Mini Concert Series Continues

Poster for the event being announced (courtesy of Pocket Opera)

Tomorrow will be the date for the second of the three recitals in the current 3-Song Mini Concert Series presented by Pocket Opera, which has now been given the name PocketWatch. The vocalist will be soprano Marcelle Dronkers, whose contributions to Pocket Opera have involved a variety of roles in the operas of George Frideric Handel. It is thus appropriate that the “three songs” she has selected will be arias from three of Handel’s operas, Agrippina (HWV 6), Alcina (HWV 34), and Rinaldo (HWV 7). Dronkers will be accompanied at the piano by Jefferson Packer. Appropriately enough, the program is entitled Handel, with Care.

Like past recitals, this performance will be available for streaming tomorrow, Sunday, April 18, at 3 p.m. It can be viewed through both YouTube and Facebook. The concert will be followed by a Live talkback hosted by Artistic Director Nicolas A. Garcia.

Impressive Emerging Talent at Piano Break

Yesterday evening the Piano Break series presented by the Ross McKee Foundation streamed a solo recital by Zak Mustille. Born in 2003, he is currently a scholarship student in the Pre-College Division at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) and last year was the winner of the 2020 Ross McKee Young Artist Competition. The video was not “live,” with the second half recorded at the SFCM Recital Hall. The first half may well have been recorded at Mustille’s home. The entire video is now available for viewing on YouTube.

The program Mustille prepared was a seriously challenging one, taking on grand designs from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The twentieth-century selection was the second movement of Charles Ives’ first piano sonata. This is an ambitious undertaking for even the most accomplished pianists. The sonata is in five movements, but both the second and fourth of those movements are divided into “A” and “B” sections.

When I was living in Santa Barbara, I had a piano teacher that was determined to have me work through the “A” section of the fourth movement, which amounts to a little more than three pages. On the first two pages I marked out “1 & 2 &” for every measure, not that it helped very much when I had the negotiate the seven-against-ten in one of those measures! This is the shortest section of the entire sonata, and to this day I cannot recall how I managed to negotiate it all.

Nevertheless, those few pages of the fourth movement are a walk in the park compared with the second movement that Mustille performed. The second (“Concord”) sonata gets far more attention than the first; and I have been fortunate enough to listen to several recital performances of it. On the other hand, prior to yesterday evening, I knew the first sonata only through a few recordings. From a thematic point of view, there are several tropes that will be recognized by those familiar with the general Ives canon. Never the less, this is one of those pieces for which attentive listening can be as challenging as the act of performing.

The advantage of having this performance on video is that one can revisit individual selections. Last night’s “first encounter” tended to dwell on Mustille’s intense focus during his performance. I suspect that focus was abetted by his decision to play the movement from memory. That may have been a challenging goal to meet, but it gets beyond the hazard that all those notes on the printed pages can distract as easily as they can inform. Since it has been some time since the last time I even listened to a recording of this sonata, I have no baseline against which I can assess Mustille’s interpretative skills; but giving a clear account of all the marks on paper is well over 90% of getting the job done. However, on the basis of how he has handled this one movement, Mustille has left me curious about what he can do with the other four.

The ambitious selection from the nineteenth century was the second movement of Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Opus 33 sonata, given the title “Grande sonate: Les quatre âges” (grand sonata: the four ages). The four movements portray a man at the ages of twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty. As a result, the tempo markings tend to get slower as the sonata progresses, a significant departure from what one tends to expect of sonata architecture. Mustille played the second movement (the age of thirty), which is given the subtitle “Quasi-Faust.” Raymond Lewenthal described this movement as “actually a tone poem within a tone poem ... it forms the apex of the sonata and it is the longest and most difficult movement. It stands very well by itself and no one performing it without the other movements need fear being criticised for serving up a bleeding chunk.”

Mustille rose to Alkan’s challenges as impressively has he had to those of Ives. Once again, his focus was facilitated by having memorized the score. I must confess that few thoughts of Faust came to me while listening to this selection. On the other hand I was quickly hooked by the fugal episode in the movement, which I later learned involved eight independent voices.

I was also impressed that Mustille chose to follow this Alkan movement with a bagatelle by Nicholas Pavkovic. It would not surprise me if he played this selection as part of his Competition performances, since Pavkovic is Executive Director of the Ross McKee Foundation. Indeed, I was first aware of Pavkovic as a composer when one of his compositions was performed at the very first Hot Air Festival presented by SFCM students.

In many respective Pavkovic’s technical challenges were right up there with both Alkan and Ives. There may also have been a bit of playfulness in the way he labeled his composition. The bagatelles of Ludwig van Beethoven were some of the shortest pieces he ever wrote. Pavkovic’s bagatelle, on the other hand, ventures into a relatively broad space of technical challenges in rhythmic contexts that sometimes reflect on the wild imaginations of Ives. Thus, in some respects, the overall Piano Break recital emerged as a “trinity” of ambitious undertakings by Alkan, Pavkovic, and Ives.

The program opened on much more familiar turf, the BWV 868 prelude-fugue coupling in B major, taken from the first book of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. This was an excellent selection to prepare the attentive listener for Mustille’s clarity of “diction,” particularly in his accounting for the independent fugal lines. In addition, the Pavkovic and Ives selections were separated by Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 52 ballade in F minor, the last of the four ballades that he composed. This performance was recorded at SFCM, and it was hard to avoid the feeling that Mustille was playing it because someone told him he had to do so! While the execution was technically capable, he never seemed to tap into the undercurrents of spirit, which had made his approaches to Alkan, Pavkovic, and Ives so compelling.

Friday, April 16, 2021

Violinist Kristin Lee to Stream American Music

Kristen Lee (photograph by Sophie Zhai) and Jeremy Jordan (photograph by Trisha Keeler)

At the end of this month, violinist Kristin Lee will be accompanied by pianist Jeremy Jordan in a virtual recital entitled Americana. This will be a live-stream from the Adelphi University Performing Arts Center on Long Island. Lee was born in Seoul, Korea and emigrated to the United States at the age of seven. When she arrived she could not speak any English; and that shortcoming, combined with bullying and racism, made her transition to American life difficult. Her one refuge was her violin; and, now that she has established herself more confidently in this country, she has prepared a program to survey the rich history of American music, which is entitled simply Americana.

Not all of the compositions on her program were written for violin. Jordan has prepared arrangements for her of George Gershwin’s song “But Not for Me,” “Lament,” by the jazz trombonist J. J. Johnson, and Scott Joplin’s piano rag “The Entertainer.” Jordan has also contributed his own original composition for Lee entitled “Fish Me a Dream.” The other composers to be represented on the program will include Jonathan Ragonese, Harry Burleigh, Patrick Castillo, Amy Beach, Florence Price, and John Novacek.

This performance will begin at 4:30 p.m. (Pacific time) on Thursday, April 29. The price of admission will be $10. Tickets are available through the “Register” hyperlink on the Adelphi University event page for this recital. Once registration has been processed with the purchase of a ticket, a confirmation will be sent by email, which will include instructions for how to access the live-stream. This performance will not remain online for later viewing.

Rodziński and the New York Philharmonic

courtesy of Jensen Artists

The latest anthology of a conductor that I encountered is a Sony Classical release of sixteen CDs covering the complete recordings of Artur Rodziński leading the New York Philharmonic for Columbia Masterworks. This box set currently has an Web page that describes it as an import item, but my understanding is that it will go into domestic circulation one week from today on April 23. Whether or not Amazon will create a new Web page on that date remains to be seen.

While Rodziński’s name may no longer be familiar to most readers, he was a major figure during the twentieth century. In the United States his discography includes the Cleveland Orchestra, as well as the Philharmonic. Those recordings were also released by Columbia; and, hopefully, Sony will put them into circulation in the near future. However, where the Philharmonic is concerned, his Columbia albums follow up on those made by his predecessor, John Barbirolli, whose recordings were discussed on this site this past October.

There is also a more personal side to my interest in Rodziński. When I was very young, my parents bought their first turntable for long-playing (LP) records. Their purchase came with a “bonus start-up kit” of LPs, all of which were Columbia releases. One of them was of Rodziński conducing the Philharmonic in a performance of Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition. The very idea behind the music riveted me, particularly since the album jacket provided descriptions of each of the pictures associated with each of the movements. That recording is one of the CDs in the new Sony anthology; and, even if the recording technology shows its age, my memories are as vivid as ever.

What is interesting about the collection taken as a whole, however, is the way in which Rodziński balanced less familiar offerings with selections that could be called “audience favorites.” Readers may recall that Barbirolli’s Philharmonic tenure did not go down well with his audiences, even though the musicians liked him. As a result, many of the recordings that Barbirolli made with the Philharmonic tended to be on the adventurous side. Rodziński turned out to be just as adventurous but was much better received than Barbirolli, perhaps by virtue of his past engagement with the Cleveland and the Los Angeles Philharmonic before that.

One thing that sticks out particularly prominently when one makes a side-by-side comparison of the Sony collections of Barbirolli and Rodziński is that neither box has any music by Ludwig van Beethoven. The most “iconic” of the composers represented in the Rodziński collection is Johannes Brahms with recordings of his first two symphonies. The Barbirolli collection, on the other hand, has one CD devoted entirely to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart’s only appearance in the Rodziński recordings involves the four short compositions that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky orchestrated and arranged for his Opus 61 (fourth) suite in G major, given the title “Mozartiana.”

Ironically, the two Brahms CD are completed by two CDs devoted entirely to Richard Wagner. One accounts for the third act of Die Walküre (the Valkyrie), while the other features soprano Helen Traubel in the roles of Sieglinde (Walküre again), Isolde (Tristan und Isolde), and Elsa (Lohengrin). The only other composer to be allotted two entire CDs is Sergei Rachmaninoff for his Opus 27 (second) symphony in E minor and his Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor with piano soloist György Sándor.

More interesting is the number of selections that were adventurous in their time. Indeed, Jean Sibelius’ Opus 63 (fourth) symphony in A minor still delivers an intense dose of shock value. On the other hand it was nice to encounter the witty spirit behind Morton Gould’s “Spirituals for Orchestra” under the baton of a conductor other than Gould himself. Similarly, Rodziński was a first-rate champion for the tone-poem qualities of Jacques Ibert’s Escales (ports of call) suite, with movements portraying Rome, Tunis, and Valencia. There are also two “pops” albums entitled Twilight Concert, which may well have been recordings of selections performed during the Philharmonic’s summer concerts at Lewisohn Stadium on the campus of City College of New York.

Overall, the amount of diversity that one encounters across these sixteen CDs is impressive, as is Rodziński’s ability to find just the right foundations of expressiveness for every selection he performs.