Thursday, May 6, 2021

Evangelista’s Improv Series: Second Installment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Joseph Szigeti’s Columbia Recordings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Early Celebration of Mother’s Day from OP

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Malinowski’s WTC Project: Book I, Second Half

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIRTUAL Salon to Feature 17th-Century England

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

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

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

Lindberg in the Last Decade of the 20th Century

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

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

© Yle, courtesy of Naxos of America

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

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

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

Earplay Streams Premiere of “Second Survival”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Bleeding Edge: 5/3/2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Calidore String Quartet’s SHCS Recital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CURRENTS to Explore Zimbabwean Performances

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

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

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

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

Noah Haidu’s Response to Jarrett’s Repertoire

Cover of the album being discussed

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

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

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

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

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

Low Strings in the Early Nineteenth Century

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

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

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

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

Sometimes the low strings just want to have fun.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

SFS Plans for Return to Davies This Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 27–28: Ken-David Mazur

June 3–4: Joseph Young

June 10–11: Joshua Weilerstein

June 17–18: Esa-Pekka Salonen

June 24–25: Esa-Pekka Salonen