Saturday, June 19, 2021

Violinist Goosby Reviews “Roots” on Debut Album

courtesy of Universal Music Group

This coming Friday Decca will release the debut album of violinist Randall Goosby, born in Memphis, Tennessee, to an African-American father and a Korean mother. The title of the album is Roots, and the overall program is a celebration of the works of Black classical composers. The two exceptions to that legacy involve composers that cultivated their own awareness of such musicians: Antonín Dvořák in the late nineteenth century, and George Gershwin in the first half of the twentieth. As usually, has already created a Web page for processing pre-orders.

For most of the album, Goosby is accompanied at the piano by Zhu Wang. However, the album begins with the world premiere recording of “Shelter Island,” a duo for violin and bass composed by Xavier Dubois Foley, who is the bassist for this performance. This is then followed by a solo violin composition by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, a three-movement suite entitled Blue/s Forms. Those that follow this site regularly will probably realize that the timing of that last sentence could not be more apposite. Augustin Hadelich’s visit to the San Francisco Symphony(SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall was capped by the selection of Perkinson’s “Louisiana Blues Strut: A Cakewalk” as an encore selection, a piece he had previously streamed for his Atterbury House Sessions recital a little over a month ago. Furthermore, during that earlier recital, “Louisiana Blues Strut” was preceded by a performance of Blue/s Forms!

Readers probably also know that I have been doing my best to track both performances and recordings of music by Florence Price. Last week’s SFS program included a string orchestra performance of the second (Andante moderato) movement from her string quartet in G major, based on a manuscript that had not been discovered until 2009. Roots includes three world premiere tracks of further fruits of that discovery. These are all relatively short pieces, the first entitled “Adoration” and the remaining two given the title “Fantasie” in the keys of G minor and F-sharp minor, respectively.

The other works by Black composers represented on this album are a three-movement suite by William Grant Still and Maud Powell’s arrangement of Samuel Taylor-Coleridge’s setting of the “Deep River” spiritual. The Gershwin selections are four of the songs from Porgy and Bess, transcribed for violin and piano by Jascha Heifetz. Less familiar to most listeners will probably be the Dvořák sonatina in G major, which accounts for the final four tracks on the album.

Goosby is consistently satisfying in his interpretations of this broad and diverse scope of selections. As we emerge from pandemic conditions, many of us have thoughts of performing artists once again coming to San Francisco as part of recital tours. Given the experiences that this city’s audiences have with Goosby’s repertoire, I suspect that he would be a most welcome visitor.

Pamela Z to Celebrate New Album Release

Cover of new Pamela Z album (from its Web page)

Yesterday marked the release of A Secret Code, Pamela Z’s latest album and her first solo CD since 2004. This coming Thursday she will celebrate the occasion with a free, live-streamed concert. Streaming will take place from the Visual Culture, Arts, and Media (VCAM) facility on the campus of Haverford College, where Z is currently on a short visiting artist residency. That residency was arranged through the VCAM DocuLab program.

The concert will consist of live performances of the compositions on all ten of the tracks of the new album. This will be followed by a “grand finale” of a collaborative work developed through Z’s work with DocuLab participants. Since the album is roughly an hour long, that should provide an expectation of the duration of the entire concert.

The performance will begin at 5 p.m. (Pacific time) on Thursday, June 24. There will be no charge, but registration will be required. Those wishing to register should send electronic mail to There will then be a reply with instructions for establishing a connection to the live stream.

“Vocal++” Adventures from SFCMP

Last night the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) presented their Voices in Reverberation program, the on STAGE streamed offering in its 50th season. The members of the ensemble were joined by guest artist Pamela Z, a leading figure in the creation and the performance of adventurous vocal music. Not only did she give a solo account of the “Breathing” movement from her Carbon Song Cycle, completed in 2013; but also she was the soloist in “Pine Tree,” composed for her by Caroline Shaw and scored for clarinet (Peter Josheff), piano (Kate Campbell), viola (Meena Bhasin), cello (Hannah Addario-Berry), and voice. In both of these works, Z’s vocalizations were augmented through real-time processing by laptop computer.

I have always had a soft spot for “Breathing.” This is not just due to Z’s inventive approaches to electronic augmentations to “natural” vocalization. What I enjoy is the extent to which those approaches make the music an étude directed as much at the listener as at the performer. Through her capacities for subtlety, Z draws the listener into her rich diversity of sonorities, thus cultivating that capacity for attentiveness wherein listening overtakes mere hearing. Those capacities served her equally well in “Pine Tree,” where vocalization included the delivery of the text from Yoni Noguchi’s “I Hear You Call, Pine Tree.” Sadly, however, Shaw never really homed in on a compelling instrumental rhetoric that would provide a suitable context for Z’s vocal work.

Ironically, that sense of interplay between text and context emerged with greater clarity in the strictly instrumental offerings of the evening. This was particularly the case in the opening selection, “Inexpressible v.2” by Amadeus Regucera. Indeed, the very title suggests an interplay of text and context that may not be entirely amicable. The work was scored for flute (Tod Brody), violin (Hrabba Atladottir), and cello (Addario-Berry); and the “text” relied heavily, if not entirely, on non-standard performance techniques. To some extent, this served as a “primer” for the devices Z would subsequently evoke in her solo work; and, as if to reinforce that premise, towards the end of his piece Regucera had Brody augment his flute work with simultaneous vocalization of phonemes.

Atladottir also gave a solo account of “Sabina,” Andrew Norman’s sonic account of his impressions of  the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome. This involved a subtle account of a variety of violin sonorities, concluding with what amounted to an unembellished account of plainchant. The overall idea was imaginative, and Atladottir’s interpretation was technically impressive. However, Norman never seemed to home in on those rhetorical factors that keep the listener as absorbed in the music as the performer needs to be.

Eric Dudley conducting SFCMP in the performance of John Adams’ “Son of Chamber Symphony” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

The program concluded with a full ensemble performance of John Adams’ “Son of Chamber Symphony.” Almost exactly a month ago I wrote about the recording of this music that had been released by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, coupling the piece with Adams’ earlier “Chamber Symphony.” The earlier composition was influenced by, in Adams’ words, “American cartoon music,” complete with clever titles including “Roadrunner” as a nod to the Warner Brothers cartoon character. The movements of “Son of Chamber Symphony,” on the other hand, have no titles; but, as conductor Eric Dudley (SFCMP Artistic Director) observed, the music began with an unmistakable nod to the Scherzo (second) movement from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (ninth) symphony in D minor. While that opening gesture clearly seized listener attention, I found myself more than a little disappointed that, as the three movements of the piece unfolded, there was less to sustain attention than I had previously thought.

Friday, June 18, 2021

SFS Updates Safety Protocols in Davies

This afternoon the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) announced updated safety protocols for live concerts at Davies Symphony Hall. These changes will take effect beginning with the next public concert, which will be held at 7 p.m. next week on Thursday, June 24. Admission to Davies will no longer require proof of vaccination or a negative test for COVID-19, and tickets will be available for full audience capacity.

Note, however, that masks will still be required in order to comply with current health and safety protocols provided by the San Francisco Department of Public Health. More specifically, the City and County of San Francisco will still require a face covering for entry into Davies, which must be worn at all times. Face masks must completely cover nose and mouth and have ear loops or a similar device for holding the mask in place. Gaiters and bandanas are not acceptable. Public Health measures will also include increased cleaning before all performances and a “no-touch or low-touch experience” applying to both staff and audiences.

The Box Office Lobby will still not be open for in-person ticket sales. Tickets may be purchased by phone at 415-864-6000. Tickets may also be purchased online through the event pages for specific concerts, all of which have been indexed on the Calendar Web page.

Earplay to Welcome Summer with Virtual Gala

This coming Wednesday, Earplay will host the next installment in its series of virtual galas. The program will host newly recorded videos of music by four composers. One of those composers, Andrew Conklin, will serve as the “virtual guide,” introducing not only the music but also testimonials by the composers, musicians, and supporters of Earplay. Conklin’s contribution to the program itself will be a solo piano composition entitled “I Am Not Prokofiev,” which will be played by Brenda Tom.

The other three works to be performed will be the following:

  1. Josiah Catalan scored “Light, Smoke and Siren Glow of Mist” for flute (Tod Brody) and viola (Ellen Ruth Rose).
  2. Rose will be joined by violinist Terrie Baune in a performance of “Weaving Variations” by Hyo-shin Na.
  3. Richard Festinger will present “Upon the Viol,” score for solo cello to be performed by Thalia Moore.

This performance will begin at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, June 23. There will be no charge for admission. However, registration is required through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Once registration has been processed, instructions for accessing the digital content of the event will be provided. As a result, registration requires providing an up-to-date electronic mail address.

The “live” performance of this program will take place through Zoom technology. Those uncomfortable using Zoom may wish to wait until the performances have been uploaded to Earplay’s YouTube channel. This probably will not entail waiting for very long.

Panda Digital Releases Scatman Crothers Album

courtesy of Orange Grove Publicity

Today Panda Digital released a retrospective album of eight vocal selections by Benjamin Sherman “Scatman” Crothers. Born in 1910, Crothers’ first big break came when WFMK in Dayton, Ohio, gave him a slot for his own radio program. He attracted attention by improvising his own scat singing over instrumental tracks that he was airing. This led to his forming the trio Scat Man and His Cats, which toured the South extensively. In 1943 he moved to Hollywood; and, for the rest of his life, which ended in 1986, he established himself as a familiar presence both on television and in the movies.

One result is that his work as a vocalist has become all but forgotten. The new Panda release, entitled Groovin’ with… Scatman, has been released only in digital form with only one connection to his Hollywood career: he composed “Louie is Your Garbage Man” as a tribute to the character he played on Chico and The Man. That is one of three tracks that he recorded with background vocals and rhythm in August of 1979. One of the engineers for that session was Andrew A. Melzer, who recorded one of the other album tracks, “Stanley (Does It All)” (dedicated to Stanley Kubrick, for whom Crothers would play the role of Dick Hallorann in The Shining), in the den of his Beverly Hills home, probably overdubbing Crothers singing the words above his own rhythmic scatting. There are also four tracks of Crothers singing with a combo led by bassist Ray Brown.

The one downside of this release is that the Web page, hyperlinked in the preceding paragraph, does not include the booklet prepared for the album. Fortunately, Panda has created a Web page that serves as the virtual version of that booklet. As a result, the attentive listener can both enjoy the music and appreciate the background information behind that music.

SFS: The Full Ensemble Returns to Davies

Esa-Pekka Salonen on the SFS podium (from the SFS Web page for this week’s concert)

Last night Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall to lead the first of the final two programs in the current reduced season of eight performances during the months of May and June. As regular readers know, the program planned for this week was updated towards the end of last month, when it was announced that SFS would be able to incorporate wind and brass instruments in the performances. This meant that visiting soloist, violinist Augustin Hadelich, could play the Opus 77 violin concerto in D major by Johannes Brahms, rather than the originally scheduled serenade by Leonard Bernstein.

In other words, for the first time since March of 2020, the stage of Davies was filled with SFS playing as a full ensemble, and the Brahms selection could not have been more appropriate. Not only does it have a long-standing reputation as an audience favorite; but also it served as a first-rate platform for Hadelich’s prodigious virtuosity. Furthermore, it offered welcome opportunity to appreciate Salonen’s skills in establishing just the right chemistry between soloist and ensemble. If that were not enough, the solo work was enhanced by Hadelich’s decision to provide his own cadenzas, rather than the cadenza Joseph Joachim prepared for his premiere performance of this concerto in 1878. In other words the performance provided just the right balance between the Brahms tradition and the freshness of immediacy delivered by both Hadelich and Salonen.

That immediacy was further reinforced by Hadelich’s choice of an encore, the “Louisiana Blues Strut: A Cakewalk” by the Afro-American twentieth-century composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. Readers may recall that Hadelich included this on the program he prepared for his Atterbury House Sessions recital, which was streamed almost exactly a month ago. All of the prodigious virtuosity that Hadelich had mustered for his Brahms interpretation resurfaced as “something completely different” in Perkinson’s cheeky blues rhetoric, delivered with that same intense technique that made the Brahms so stimulating.

Unless I am mistaken, last night was also the first time I heard Salonen address the audience. He chose to do this to introduce the United States premiere of Daniel Kidane’s “Be Still,” a wise decision since James Keller’s paragraph for the program sheet said much more about the composer than about the music. Most critically, Kidane took his title from “East Coker,” the second of the four long poems that T. S. Eliot collected under the title Four Quartets.

“Be Still” was Kidane’s personal reflection on living under pandemic conditions. As Keller’s note observed, he came particularly occupied with time, a theme that cuts across all four of the Eliot poems. The passage that inspired Kidane’s title is the following:

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

That stillness is realized through delicately understated passages for a string ensemble augmented by a set of crotales, which are bowed rather than struck. The piece lasted less than ten minutes, but the atmosphere that Kidane summoned and Salonen realized could not have been a better account of stillness suspending the very passage of time.

The SFS winds made their “comeback debut” at the beginning of the program with a performance of Richard Strauss’ Opus 7 serenade in E-flat major. Strauss was in his late teens when he composed this relatively short (about ten minutes’ duration) piece, which was probably inspired by the fact that his father was a virtuoso horn player. I was particularly struck by the fact that Strauss wrote this piece about three years after Brahms’ Opus 77 concerto was first performed. The association was motivated by the impeccable balance of wind sonorities that begin the Adagio (second) movement of that concerto. As I left Davies last night, I could not help but wonder that, had Strauss paid more attention to that Brahms concerto and less attention to his father, his youthful serenade would have been more sonorous and less rambling.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Chanticleer to Stream World Premiere

The Chanticleer vocalists (photograph by Lisa Kohler, courtesy of Brenden Guy Media)

At the end of this month, Chanticleer will stream a new concert film event entitled After a Dream. This will serve, in part, as a preview for the six-state national tour planned for the month of July; but it will also present the world premiere of “close[r],” composed by Ayanna Woods on a commission by Chanticleer. The July tour will mark the first live appearance by Chanticleer since March of 2020. The cities to be visited will be Winona, Minnesota, Newport, Rhode Island, Chautauqua, New York, Katonah, New York, Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, Akron, Ohio, and Phoenix, Arizona. Several of the compositions performed on After a Dream, including the new composition by Woods, will be included on the program to be performed at these seven cities.

The stream for After a Dream will begin at noon on Sunday, June 27, and remain available for viewing until noon on Sunday, July 11. This is a ticketed event. The price of tickets for individuals is $25. However, if there will be multiple viewers at the same residence, the “household” price of $42 will be required. Chanticleer has created a secure Web page for purchasing tickets. Once the purchase has been finalized, information for viewing the video on Vimeo will be sent by electronic mail.

Storyville to Reissue Solo Tommy Flanagan

courtesy of Naxos of America

It would not be an exaggeration to describe Tommy Flanagan as the (italics intended) jazz pianist of the second half of the twentieth century. His Wikipedia discography page summarizes as follows:

His appearances on record date from 1956 to 2001 and include more than 30 albums under his own name and more than 200 as a sideman.

That page also has the following cautionary remark as an introduction:

This is an incomplete list, which will never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness as it excludes bootlegs, mix tapes and other minor records by independent labels.

His sideman credentials include working with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane (through whom I first became aware of him), and an extended gig as Ella Fitzgerald’s full-time accompanist.

It that context it is worth noting that tomorrow sales will begin for the reissue of Flanagan’s Solo Piano on the Danish Storyville label. For those that want to jump the gun, is processing pre-orders (as they usually do). This album was recorded in Zürich, Switzerland, on February 25, 1974; but it was not initially released (by Storyville) until 2005.

The breaks separating the tracks are so short that it would not surprise me to learn that the Zürich engineers simply started a tape recorder and let it run until Flanagan stopped. On a CD there was no problem with just marking where each new track began without adding any additional pause. There is a similar flow on the seventh track, labeled Strayhorn Medley, which links Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Pretty Girl,” and “U.M.M.G.” (Upper Manhattan Medical Group) into a smooth flow without interruption.

I was fortunate enough to be able to listen to Flanagan in performance at Birdland when a business trip took me to Manhattan. This probably took place in the late Nineties, when he was leading a trio with Peter Washington on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, both decidedly younger than Flanagan (and myself, for that matter) and clearly enjoying jamming with the master. To be fair, however, at that time I was still ramping up my skills as a jazz listener. As a result, what I remember most from that performance was the extended talk Flanagan gave, during which he confessed that he was talking at length while trying to remember the next tune the trio was going to play!

What strikes me most on this solo album is the clarity Flanagan brings to each of the tunes. The more “cerebral” jazz artists often begin an account of a tune with a “variation” resulting from thick embellishment of the melody itself and/or the rhythm of that melody. Flanagan consistently begins by honoring his “source material,” after which he unfolds no shortage of embellishments involving the tune, its rhythms, and the underlying chord progressions. This was the “bread-and-butter” approach to jazz improvisation during the second half of the twentieth century; and, as such, the album is not only an account of bravura solo piano work but also a first-rate introduction to cultivating the skills of listening to jazz.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Chelsea Music Festival to Stream All Events

With the reopening of “all businesses and activities” in San Francisco, this site will be able to return to homing in on “physical” performance experiences, as it did prior to the restrictions of lockdown conditions. Nevertheless, as most readers have observed by now, that return will be a gradual process. As a result, I anticipate “phasing out” reports about streamed performances as the “physical” opportunities gradually increase.

In that context I wish to call attention to the decision to stream the entire Chelsea Music Festival, entitled Weaving the Moment, which will take place next weekend on Friday, June 25, and Saturday, June 26. Those familiar with “the other coast” probably know that Chelsea is a particularly dynamic neighborhood of New York City, attracting artists, composers, and performers. Festival programs span musical genres ranging from classical to contemporary to jazz, and the Festival itself commissions composers whose works are not in the traditional Western canon. As a result, the concerts tend to venture into that “bleeding edge” that this site endeavors to promote.

The Festival will present only two concerts, one on each of the two days. Programming has not yet been entirely finalized. However, this is the information available thus far:

Online poster for the Chelsea Music Festival, showing oboists Amanda Hardy and John Ferrillo playing Eric Nathan’s “Just a Moment” (from the Festival Web site)

Friday, June 25, 4:30 p.m. (Pacific time): The highlight of this program will be the world premiere of “Just a Moment,” composed by Eric Nathan. This piece was commissioned by the Festival with additional financial assistance from Dr. Michael Sporn. The work was dedicated to the two oboists that will perform it, Amanda Hardy and John Ferrillo. The composer conceived this piece as a meditation on distance and intimacy; and, as a result (which can be seen in the above photograph), only one of the oboists will be on stage, while the other one will play in the balcony. The other performers for this concert will be violinist Augustin Hadelich and pianist Orion Weiss. Selections will include two compositions by Claude Debussy, his sonata for violin and piano and the “Clair de lune” movement from his Suite bergamasque, Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s “Louisiana Blues Strut: A Cakewalk,” composed for solo violin, and selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 collection of the so-called “Goldberg” variations on an aria theme.

Saturday, June 26, 11:45 a.m. (Pacific time): Sadly, the program for this concert has not been finalized. All that is known as of this writing is that the program will include the United States premiere of two works by Spanish composer Anton Garcia Abril, which will be performed by violist Jesus Rodolfo and pianist Reed Tetzloff. There will also be a screening of footage from the Festival archive not previously seen in public.

Admission to the video streams will require a contribution to the Festival. A Web page has been created for making the donations, itemizing the options and specifying how much of the donation is tax-deductible. The links to the two concerts will be available for 30 days. Donations may be made through the Web, with one hyperlink to Venmo and another for using either a credit card or PayPal.

Mandy Barnett’s Satisfying “Songbook” Album

courtesy of Play MPE

The beginning of this month saw the release of the eighth studio album recorded by torch singer Mandy Barnett. I have to confess that I tend to view torch singing as an endangered species, given how dependent it is on crystal-clear diction and a keen sense of pitch, both of which have been thrown into jeopardy by a barrage of serious misconceptions of the nature of “style.” Barnett’s new album, Every Star Above, makes it clear that torch singing is far from dead and may even appeal to at least a few of the new generation of vocalists and listeners.

The album was recorded prior to the COVID lockdown. All the sessions took place at the Ocean Way Studios in Nashville in the fall of 2019, and Barnett sang with a 60-piece orchestra. All ten of the tracks were taken from Billie Holiday’s 1958 Columbia album Lady in Satin. That album had twelve tracks, six on each side of an LP; and the tracks that were omitted were Matt Dennis’ “Violets for Your Furs” and Alec Wilder’s “I’ll Be Around.” Even Holiday’s most passionate admirers will probably admit that, when this album was recorded, her voice was a far cry from its peak, with pitch diction, and vocal quality taking their toll from those many years of alcohol and drug abuse. Thus, one way to approach Every Star Above is as a validation of Holiday’s tastes in music without any of her flaws in execution.

The use of the orchestra is, itself, a reflection on Lady in Satin. Leader Ray Ellis prepared all the arrangements with Holiday’s voice (including its own shortcomings) in mind. Barnett’s arranger was Sammy Nestico, who had his own reputation for impeccable craft. Sadly, Nestico never had the chance to listen to the release of Every Star Above because he died this past January 17 at the age of 96. Nevertheless, there are no “memorial clouds” hanging over this new album. There is only the precise engagement between Barnett and Nestico through which every syllable of the lyrics is given its due expressiveness.

This is an album that serves up no end of useful lessons for all vocalists, regardless of genre; and it also sets a standard for all listeners that enjoy any style of vocal music.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Opera Parallèle to Conclude Recital Series

This Thursday Opera Parallèle will release the final installment in its monthly “Close-Up” series of free, online streamed recitals. As was announced this past March when the series was launched, each recital was planned with a program to celebrate a particular occasion. This month’s celebration will honor Father’s Day.

Bass-baritone Kenneth Kellogg will be accompanied by pianist Kevin Korth. He has prepared a program of five distinctively different songs, each by a different composer with his/her own unique disposition. He will being with “Gifts,” the seventh in Robert Owens’ Opus 24 cycle Border Line, a collection of settings of poems by Langston Hughes. This will be followed by “Du bist wie eine Blume” (thou are, as is a flower), Robert Schumann’s setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine, which was the 24th of the 27 songs in his Opus 25 Myrten (myrtles) collection. Florence Price will then be represented by “To My Little Son,” a poem by Julia Johnson Davis. The other European composer on the program will be Gabriel Fauré, whose “Les berceaux” (the cradles) sets a poem by Sully Prudhomme for the first of the three songs published as Opus 23. The program will then conclude with “Lullaby Eternal,” a setting of a poem by Joette McDonald composed by Leslie Adams.

Kenneth Kellogg (from the YouTube “sneak peek” of this week’s recital, courtesy of Opera Parallèle)

This video will be made available for streaming at 5 p.m. this coming Thursday, June 17. Links to both Facebook and YouTube will be posted at 3 p.m. on the event page created by Opera Parallèle for this recital. This Web page also includes a hyperlink for receiving the links through an electronic mail reminder. Finally, there is a hyperlink for a YouTube “sneak peek” of the performance.

Two Pianos Jamming at the Jazz Bakery

Jazz pianist Bill Mays (from his online press kit)

At the beginning of this month, I learned through Jazz Promo Services of the release of a 1991 recording of improvised jazz on two pianos. The two pianists were Bill Mays and Mike Wofford, both of whom have extensive discographies as both leaders and sidemen. Mays created a Web page on his Web site on which he accounted how this recording came to be as follows:

Some 30 years ago Mike and I found ourselves seated at two grand pianos at the Jazz Bakery in L.A. and, although we’d both forgotten it, the one-nighter was recorded. Through a fluke I recently came upon the DAT recording and thankfully it was still viable. The music was transferred to digital format and we were happy enough with the musical results that we’ve decided you might enjoy it as well.

The result consists of eight tracks, two of which are “medley” tracks conjoining two tunes by the same composer(s). The first of these honors the combined efforts of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with a “synthesis” of “Black Beauty” and “Chelsea Bridge.” The final track, in turn, pairs two Charlie Parker favorites, “Cheryl” and “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” The album opens with a Thelonious Monk track, “Monk’s Mood;” and there are also more traditional standards, such as George Gershwin’s “How About You?” and Richard Whiting’s “Too Marvelous for Words.” There is also a track of a Wofford original, “Melissa.”

Given the spontaneity of the occasion, what is most important about this collection is the sheer breadth of inventive devices conjured up by the performers. Presumably, much of that invention came from the playful efforts of each of them to outdo the other. My only regret is that I lack the ability to sort out who is playing what, particularly when at least one of them was working from the inside of the instrument as well as the keyboard. On the other hand that sorting might spoil some of the fun of it all, since it is the smooth integration of multiple perspectives that makes the listening experience so engaging.

As of this writing Mays himself is distributing the album through his Web site. That aforementioned Web page includes a player for listening to individual tracks, which also has hyperlinks for downloading both single tracks and the entire album. This amounts to a gift to Mays’ fans, since there is no charge for either listening or downloading.

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Bleeding Edge: 6/14/2021

This week almost all of the events taking place on the Bleeding Edge are being presented by the Center for New Music. These include two live performances by the Rova Saxophone Quartet (Jon Raskin, baritone and alto; Bruce Ackley, soprano and tenor; Steve Adams, alto and sopranino; Larry Ochs, tenor and sopranino) taking place at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 18, and at 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 20. Sandwiched between these will be the next program consisting entirely of new works written by members of the Bay Area Chapter of the NACUSA (National Association of Composers of the United States of America). This will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 19.

That leaves only one other event this week, which will be streamed from Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). This will be a performance by Thessia Machado, who will be streaming her content from New York City. She describes herself as “a visual/sound artist;” and her performances tend to include instruments of her own construction. Here is a statement of the nature of her work:

She creates circumstances in which to mine the matter of her pieces for their innate physical properties and the sonic and visual relationships that can arise from their interactions. In improvised and composed performed works, the ensemble of things is augmented by a dynamically responsive and intentionally unpredictable human element. Electronics are usually implicated.

This performance will take place at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 18. It will be the latest installment in the CCRMA Quarantine Sessions series. The Web page for viewing the stream has not yet been created. In all likelihood, it will share the URL used for the last Quarantine Sessions program, which took place on Sunday, July 6. To be on the safe side, those planning to attend this performance are advised to navigate to the streaming site by way of the CCRMA home page. The performance is expected to last for one hour.

Zemlinsky’s Final Opera Reissued by Capriccio

courtesy of Naxos of America

This month’s second remastered release by Capriccio of an opera by Alexander von Zemlinsky is a two-CD performance of Der König Kandaules (King Kandaules). The recording was made from performances at the Hamburg State Opera that took place on October 18 and 25 in 1996. When the album was released the following year, it marked the world premiere recording of this opera.

Like Zemlinsky’s Es War Einmal, discussed on this site this past Saturday, Der König Kandaules is based on a play of the same title. Le roi Candaule was written by André Gide and translated into German by Franz Blei, and Zemlinsky prepared his own libretto based on Blei’s text. However, the narrative itself can be traced all the way back to Herodotus and even shows up in Plato’s Republic.

The narrative is basically one of pride that results in a significant fall. Kandaules, the king of Lydia, is so taken with the beauty of his wife Nyssia that he wants others to appreciate the qualities of her naked body. His desire is facilitated by a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible, and that ring is given to him by the fisherman Gyges. Gyges thus become the first to wear the ring to behold the naked Nyssia. However, in the darkness, he then spends the night with her, while she believes she is sleeping with Kandaules. When the truth is revealed the next morning, Nyssia orders Gyges to kill Kandaules, after which she crowns him as the new king of Lydia.

Zemlinsky had completed only the short score of this opera before escaping the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938 by traveling to New York. He had hoped that the Metropolitan Opera would produce the world premiere of this opera, but the plot was too lurid for the management. About half a year after arriving in the United States, Zemlinsky suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. As a result, the full score was left unfinished until Antony Beaumont completed the orchestration. Thus, a performing edition was prepared under an official commission from the Hamburg State Opera granted in 1991.

The unabashed sexuality of the libretto may remind those familiar with Zemlinsky’s work of his Opus 16 one-act opera “Eine florentinische Tragödie” (a Florentine tragedy), which he composed in 1916. Indeed, there is a descending chromatic motif that, in all likelihood, was appropriated from the lurid “punch line” of that earlier opera. In that context it is worth noting that the Wikipedia page for Der König Kandaules describes it as “Zemlinsky's third most performed stage-work, statistically ranking only behind his two one-act operas Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg.” That said, both of those one-acts are based on texts by Oscar Wilde; and they benefit significantly from the impact of brevity. Mind you, there is a fair amount of “talk” in “Eine florentinische Tragödie” before the “critical action” erupts; but I fear that the extent of the “talk” in Der König Kandaules tends to blunt the action by deferring it for too long.

Paul Dresher Performs “With Friends”

Last night Paul Dresher streamed a free concert entitled With Friends Like These. One of those friends was pianist Sarah Cahill, performing “Two Entwined,” a work that Dresher had composed for her in 2011. The other friends were “colleagues” in performance, duo partner Joel Davel, singer/musician Rinde Eckert (who, by my calculations, has been working with Dresher for about 40 years), and Vân-Ánh Võ performing on three traditional Vietnamese instruments, dàn tranh, dàn bầu, and dàn t’rung.

In addition to Cahill’s solo, the program presented three trios, all involving the Dresher Davel Invented Instrument Duo. Two of the selections involved the Duo accompanying Eckert’s vocal deliveries of traditional Indian music. In the remaining offering the Duo improvised with Võ playing all three of her instruments. The entire performance lasted for about 40 minutes.

Unless I am mistaken, Cahill’s offering presented my first encounter with music by Dresher that did not involve him as a performer. The piece evolved as an elaborate texture of polyphony in which the interplay of rhythms was as engaging as the entwined melodic lines. The result was keyboard virtuosity on a grand scale, music that deserves multiple listening experiences before one can even begin to recognize the many innovative devices lurking on the score pages. From a personal point of view, I was left wishing I had the piece on a CD to allow me to get under way with those multiple listening experiences.

There has been so much diversity in Eckert’s performances than I have given up on having expectations. I am not familiar enough with Indian music to know how faithful he was to original sources or even whether such fidelity mattered to him. For one thing, in his first offering, “Hindustani,” he accompanied himself on accordion, while Dresher provided another melodic line on electric guitar. Most interesting was how Davel adapted his Marimba Lumina to serve as a tabla, thus providing a compelling evocation of traditional Indian accompaniment. For the other selection, Eckert had his own drum; and Dresher provided thematic material with his Quadrachord.

The Quadrachord was also his instrument in the Duo’s improvisation with Võ. This provided particularly imaginative video work, using a three-way split screen to provide the best view of each of the performers:

Vân-Ánh Võ playing dàn bầu, Paul Dresher playing Quadrachord, and Joel Davel on Marimba Lumina (screen shot from the video being discussed)

I have to confess to a personal attachment to the dàn bầu, since I was given a lesson in how to play it on my first trip to Vietnam. The interplay of music and video made this one of the most engaging improvisation sessions I have encountered, and the ways in which Võ utilized all three of her instruments made the experience all the more absorbing.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Programming for Last Three SoundBox Events

Readers may recall that, at the beginning of this year, when the SFSymphony+ on-demand streaming service was launched by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), specifics for the last two SoundBox events had not yet been finalized. That information is now available, and it turns out that there are now updates for the last three of those concerts. It is now sufficiently late in the season that the $120 subscription rate is no longer advantageous, but individual SoundBox programs may still be viewed for $15 per episode. Furthermore, donors that have contributed at least $250 will be admitted without charge. All programs will be available for viewing at 10 a.m. on the date of release. The updated content for the remaining SoundBox offerings will be as follows:

July 8: This program will now be curated by SFS Collaborative Partner and flutist Claire Chase, rather than composer Nico Muhly (also an SFS Collaborative Partner). It will also feature the San Francisco Girls Chorus under Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe. The conductor will be Vimbayi Kaziboni. Chase will perform excerpts from “Pan,” a 90-minute composition by Marcos Balter scored for solo flute, live electronics, and “mass community participation.” That performance will be preceded by Kaija Saariaho’s “Terrestre” and “Sanagi” by the Peruvian composer Pauchi Sasaki.

August 12: This is the slot that had originally been planned for Chase, and it will now be curated by Muhly. As previously planned, the program will feature choreographer and dancer Emma Lanier. It will also still feature the world premiere of “Flux,” created under an SFS commission by the Czech composer Lukáš Janata. It will begin with “Inbhir” by inti figgis-vizueta. Her background is both Andean and Irish; and her influences include (as stated on her Home page) “overlapping immigrant communities and Black-founded Freedom schools” in the District of Columbia. Muhly’s own music will be represented by the “This is the Record of John” from his Gibbons Suite and “Motion,” as well as his arrangement of Meredith Monk’s “Fat Stream.”

August 26: The final SoundBox program of the season will be curated by pianist Jeremy Denk, rather than SFS Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen as previously announced. SFS musicians will be joined by members of the SFS Chorus, directed by Ragnar Bohlin. Denk has prepared a program of prodigious diversity, extending all the way back to Orfeo’s arioso “Tu se’ morta” (have you perished), from Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo, and advancing to the immediate present of Missy Mazzoli’s “The Shield of the Heart Is the Heart.”

A Muddled Conclusion of E4TT’s Season

Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) streamed the concluding concert in the 2020/21 season presented by the Ensemble for These Times (E4TT). The performances were captured at the Berkeley Piano Club, but they were streamed through the C4NM YouTube channel. The title of the program was Émigrés & Exiles in Hollywood; and the performers were soprano Nanette McGuinness, cellist Anne Lerner-Wright, and pianist Margaret Halbig.

That title was more than a little deceptive, since the “Weimar on the Pacific” composers shared the program with Polish composers, at least one of whom, Grażyna Bacewicz, left Poland only for her musical studies. However, that deception was the least of the problems encountered in last night’s performance. The only convincing accounts were those given by Halbig’s solo piano performances. She contributed selections by Alexandre Tansman, André Tchaikowsky, and Miklós Rózsa with consistent technical skill and a clear understanding of how to bring expressiveness to the marks on paper. The rest of the program never came close to the bar set by those performances.

Nanette McGuinness singing Hanns Eisler’s “Hollywood” with pianist Margaret Halbig (screen shot from the video being discussed)

McGuinness opened the program with three of the songs from Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch (Hollywood songbook), the first, “Hollywood,” sung in English and the other two sung in German. There were frequent uncertainties in both pitch and her approach to the underlying expressiveness. Furthermore, in the absence of subtitles, most listeners were probably deprived of how Eisler approached the sharp edges of the texts by Bertolt Brecht that he was setting. Similar problems arose with McGuinness’ delivery of the more affectionate texts set by Eric Zeisl.

Most disappointing, however, were the cello performances. Lerner-Wright seemed to be having consistent problems with finding pitch. These were particularly apparent in her performance of the first four of the 24 solo cello preludes composed by Mieczysław Weinberg. These are all highly demanding pieces with a broad range of expressive stances, several of which are affectionate nods to Dmitri Shostakovich. Sadly, Lerner-Wright never got beyond doing justice to the marks on paper to take on any of that expressiveness, making for a seriously disappointing account of some of the most interesting music for cello written in the twentieth century.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Plans for ABS 2021–2022 Season

At the end of last month, Don Scott Carpenter, Executive Director of American Bach Soloists (ABS), shared plans to resume performances. Those plans include reviving the annual Summer Festival at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the return of the annual Sparkle fundraising gala, three performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah at Grace Cathedral, the return of A Baroque New Year’s Eve at the Opera, and the resumption of the annual three-concert Connoisseur Series. It is important to emphasize that all these plans are currently tentative. However Connoisseur Series subscribers have already received invitations to renew, and the current hope is that tickets will be on sale to everyone as of this coming Friday, June 18. The Academy, whose students perform during the Summer Festival, will not return until the summer of 2022. Programming for this summer’s Festival will be as follows: [added 6/18, 5:45 p.m.: Times added and one date corrected:

Sunday, August 1, 4 p.m.: Triples Alley will be a program of concertos for three violins by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1064R in D major), Georg Philipp Telemann (TWV 53:F1 in F major), and Antonio Vivaldi (RV 551 in F major); there will then be a “grand finale” of Vivaldi’s RV 580 concerto for four violins in B minor, the tenth of concertos in his Opus 3 (L’estro Armonico) collection (as well as the “source” for Bach’s BWV 1065 concerto in A minor for four harpsichords).

Tuesday, August 3, 7 p.m.: Bach Transformations will present arrangements of Bach’s music by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Eugène Ysaÿe, and Franz Liszt. Treatments of the Preludio movement, which opens the BWV 1006.1 solo violin partita in E major, will be by Rachmaninoff and Ysaÿe. The Liszt offering will be a set of variations on the opening motif of the BWV 12 cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (weeping, lamenting, worrying, fearing). The Bach sources will be performed prior to the programming of the arrangements.

Thursday, August 5, 7 p.m.: The Devil’s Trill will be a program of bravura compositions. The program takes its name from a violin sonata by Giuseppe Tartini in G minor. The program will also feature compositions in a similar vein by Bach, his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, and George Frideric Handel.

Saturday, August 6, 7 p.m.: Bach & His World will survey composers whose works influenced Bach. Those composers will include Johann Heinrich Schmelzer, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber, Johann Pachelbel, and Dietrich Buxtehude. The Bach selections will be the BWV 1019 violin sonata in G major, the BWV 1029 sonata for viola da gamba in G minor, and the BWV 1056 harpsichord concerto in F minor.

Sunday, August 8, 7 p.m.: The Festival will conclude with The Garden of Harmony, an abundant program of musical reflections on the harmony of nature, with particular attention to birds and other animals.] [added 6/18, 5:45 p.m.:

Tickets are now on sale for all of the above events. The performances will be held in Herbst Theatre, which is located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Tickets will be sold for prices between $25 and $89. There will also be a VIP Section, whose tickets will cost $150. All seats will be reserved, and masks must be worn at all times. A single Web page has been created for purchasing all tickets to all of the concerts.]

In addition Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas will give a three-part lecture series entitled “All About That Bach” scheduled as follows:

  1. Monday, August 2: Bach Past & Future
  2. Wednesday, August 4: Instrumental Music
  3. Friday, August 6: Cantatas, Oratorios, and Passions

The date of Sunday, September 26 has been set for the Sparkle 2021 Fundraising Gala. Once again this will be held at the James Leary Flood Mansion, located in Pacific Heights at 2222 Broadway. Further details have not yet been announced.

The annual Messiah performances have been scheduled for Wednesday, December 15, Thursday, December 16, and Friday, December 17 at 7:30 p.m. in Grace Cathedral, located at the top of Nob Hill at 1100 California Street, between Taylor Street and Jones Street; but soloists have not yet been announced.

Similarly, both performers and programming for the Baroque New Year’s Eve at the Opera concert have not yet been finalized.

On the other hand, plans for the Connoisseur Series, which will run from January through May on Sunday afternoons at 4 p.m., have been set as follows:

January 23: Sweet Harmony will feature chamber music by Bach and Handel, beginning with the BWV 234 Mass setting in A major.

March 27: Passion & Joy will be the annual concert of music for the Easter season with compositions by Bach, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, and Johann Theile.

May 1: Pious & Profane will present both sacred and secular music by composers active in Venice, including Giovanni Gabrieli, his former assistant Claudio Monteverdi, Biagio Marini, Giovanni Legrenzi, and Isabella Leonarda.

As they say, “Watch this space for further developments!”

Capriccio Reissues Zemlinsky Opera Recordings

courtesy of Naxos of America

This coming October will mark the 150th birthday of Alexander von Zemlinsky. Capriccio is honoring this occasion by issuing remastered releases of past recordings of Zemlinsky’s music, with particular attention to his operas. Two of them were released at the beginning of this month; and, because they are operas, it seems fair that I address these recordings in separate articles.

Today’s report will account for Es War Einmal (once upon a time), described as a “fairy-tale opera” in three acts preceded by a prologue, which, in turn, is preceded by an instrumental prelude. Recording originally took place at Denmarks Radio in June of 1987. The libretto is based on a play by the Danish author Holger Drachmann, and it was prepared for Zemlinsky by Maximillian Singer. The play was popular enough to be made into a film twice, the first time in 1922 under the direction of Carl Theodor Dreyer.

The IMDb Web page for Dreyer’s film describes the plot as follows:

A beautiful but imperious princess refuses all offers of marriage, often condemning her suitors to death. The prince of Denmark comes seeking her hand and, aided by magic objects given to him by a mysterious spirit, seeks to win her love.

My guess is that any opera lovers reading that synopsis will be immediately reminded of the Turandot narrative. However, Es War Einmal predates the operas composed by both Ferruccio Busoni and Giacomo Puccini. On the other hand it is worth noting that the Busoni version is another one of the operas that Capriccio has reissued.

Zemlinsky’s opera, on the other hand, has its own impressive association with another composer. After Gustav Mahler became the Director of the Vienna State Opera, he helped Zemlinsky to prepare his opera for performance. This included not only recommending changes in the music but also alterations to the libretto. Mahler then conducted the opera’s first performance on January 22, 1900.

The good news is that Mahler let Zemlinsky be Zemlinsky. If one did not know that Mahler had a guiding hand in the score, one would not associate Mahler with that score. In the following decades Zemlinsky would continue to work on operas, turning to other sources for narrative content. The most interesting of his sources was Oscar Wilde, whose texts were adapted for two one-act operas “Eine florentinische Tragödie” (a Florentine tragedy) and “Der Zwerg” (the dwarf). By the time he started work on these operas (over a decade after Es War Einmal was first performed), Zemlinsky’s musical interests had progressed from Mahler to Arnold Schoenberg. Thus, from today’s perspective, Es War Einmal may best be approached as an “origins” account of Zemlinsky’s ventures into opera.

PBO Brings Herbst Theatre Back to Life

Last night the gradual “return to life” of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center continued with the first performance in Herbst Theatre since lockdown conditions were imposed roughly sixteen months ago. Last night the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players, all members of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) presented a program entitled PBO is Bringing Back Baroque! (Note that the exclamation point was part of the title.) The concert marked the debut of Augusta McKay Lodge as leader of the Chamber Players. The rest of the ensemble consisted of violinists Carla Moore, Noah Strick, and Katherine Kyme, violist Aaron Westman, cellist William Skeen, David Tayler on theorbo, and Hanneke van Proosdij on a harpsichord generously lent for the occasion by John Phillips.

The program featured three of the “usual suspects” from the PBO repertoire: George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Georg Philipp Telemann. The Handel selections framed the entire program, which included three Vivaldi compositions, one of Telemann’s orchestral suites, and an introduction (for most of us) to the music of Giuseppe Valentini (born in the same year as Telemann). All of the offerings were ensemble pieces, with the exception of Vivaldi’s RV 565 concerto in D minor for two violins (Lodge and Moore) and cello (Skeen).

However, given the reduced resources of the entire ensemble, there was a sonorous transparency to the overall performance through which one became aware of each of the players as an individual. I have to say that I was particularly impressed with Westman’s viola work, since he was playing the one line that was not reinforced by another instrument. He never showed any difficulty with audibility, presenting that “inner voice” of the polyphony with all the consideration it deserves and no sense of overplaying his part.

The plan of the overall program provided enough diversity that no selection ever evoked a here-we-go-again response from the attentive listener. The Telemann suite was centrally situated and constituted the longest of the offerings. It was given the title La Bizarre; and, over the course of its eight movements, one could detect a healthy share of eccentricities to justify that title. (Since Telemann was composing for the “general public” of Hamburg, rather either chapel or court, he was more aware of the need for “customer satisfaction;” and his capacity for “entertainment” is frequently encountered in his catalogue.)

The entire program ran for about 90 minutes, which was just about right for an attention span not given time for an intermission. There was also an encore; but Lodge’s introduction was, for all intents and purposes, inaudible. She would do well to take some lessons from PBO Music Director Richard Egarr. Those of us who have heard his introductions know that he has impeccable clarity of speech, not to mention an amplitude that can probably be heard on the other side of Van Ness Avenue on the steps of City Hall!

Friday, June 11, 2021

Global Programming Concludes Back at Home

Conductor Michael Christie at the podium of the New West Symphony (courtesy of Jensen Artists)

The Global Sounds, Local Cultures season planned by Michael Christie, Artistic and Music Director of the New West Symphony in Los Angeles, will “come back home” for its final concert. The title of this concert will be America the Melting Pot, and it will feature a rich diversity of composers representing an equally rich diversity of genres. The “classical” genre will be represented by William Grant Still’s “Mother and Child,” composed for string ensemble, and an excerpt from Florence Price’s single-movement piano concerto with Lara Downes as the piano soloist.

In the “crossover” domain the ensemble will play two of Mimi Rabson’s arrangements for string orchestra of songs by Duke Ellington, “Echoes of Harlem” and “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So.” Similarly, Jeremy Siskind has prepared an arrangement of Eubie Blake’s “Love Will Find a Way,” originally composed for the Broadway musical Shuffle Along. The domain of African-American spirituals, on the other hand, will be represented by Margaret Bonds’ arrangement of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” This will probably feature tenor soloist Ashley Faatoalia.

The jazz genre will be particularly interesting through the selection of pianist Hazel Scott. Scott was the first black American to host her own television show, The Hazel Scott Show, which went on the air in 1950. Sadly, her success did not last long after she was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. She realized that her career progress was limited in the United States and moved to Paris in 1957, not returning for another ten years.

In the more “immediate present” another soloist will be bassist Xavier Foley. He will play two of his own compositions, “For Justice and Peace” and “Cranberry Juice.” In addition, the program will begin with “Umoja,” composed by Valerie Coleman, creator of the Imani Winds quintet. The other contributing soloist to the program will be violinist Eunice Kim.

This performance will begin at 3 p.m. on Sunday, June 27. Once again, the concert will be the final event of a Cultural Festival, which will begin on Thursday, June 24. Admission to the entire Festival will be $25 for a Festival Passport, which may be purchased online through the Festival event page. Passport holders will then be provided with information on how to stream the individual events. In addition to the concert itself, the only event to be streamed will be a Meet the Artists panel discussion, which will take place on Saturday, June 26, beginning at 7 p.m.

Weilerstein’s Program of Sharp Contrasts

SFS Visiting Conductor Joshua Weilerstein (photograph by Sim Canetty Clark, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

My choice of headline comes directly from Joshua Weilerstein, who is conducting this week’s program of the San Francisco Symphony. Particularly noteworthy is that the two primary contrasting composers are both Czech, separated by about half a century. The earlier of these was Antonín Dvořák, represented by his Opus 22 serenade in E major for string ensemble, which he composed in 1875 when he was 33 years older. The later composer was Bohuslav Martinů, whose 1938 concerto for two string orchestras, piano, and timpani was written after he had fled to Switzerland as Adolf Hitler began to expand German control over Europe. Ironically, his concerto was completed on the date of the signing of the Munich Agreement, in which the United Kingdom, France, and Italy allowed Germany to appropriate that portion of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland.

In that context Martinů’s concerto was the darkest selection on the program. It would not stretch the imagination too far to approach the two string orchestras as the opposing forces arguing over whether the annexation Germany desired could be called more accurately invasion. Similarly, the aggressive timpani performance by Edward Stephan easily evoked Hitler’s stentorian rhetoric, making his demands with no room for the slightest compromise. The piano part, in turn, tended more toward percussive reinforcement, rather than thematic intervention between the two string ensembles.

(As a sidebar it is worth noting that it did not take long for Martinů to feel as much at risk in Switzerland as he had been in Czechoslovakia; and he emigrated to the United States in 1941, where he would live in New York City.)

The Dvořák serenade provided just the right sunny disposition to dispense with the dark shadows of Martinů’s concerto. This has long been a popular composition with an impressive discography. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from listening to this music in concert. Dvořák had an uncanny knack for interleaving the voices of an ensemble. That skill is frequently evident in his chamber music for strings, but it is particularly sophisticated in the Opus 22 serenade. Thus, between the spatial layout of the performers and the clarity of the performance that Weilerstein conducted, one could appreciate the full extent of interleaving details, even without the benefit of looking at the score pages themselves.

The Martinů and Dvořák selections were separated by a string orchestra account of the second (Andante moderato) movement from Florence Price’s string quartet in G major. Readers may recall that violinists Annamarie Arai and Kashi Elliott, violist Christina Simpson, and cellist James Jaffe performed this quartet in its entirety for the One Found Sound “virtual watch party” streamed this past November. Weilerstein brought convincing clarity to last night’s ensemble version, but I suspect that I shall always prefer string quartets to be played by only four performers. The program sheet included the account of how this quartet was one of the manuscripts that was not discovered until 2009; and, as a result, the date of composition printed on the program (1929) amounts to a well-educated conjecture, similar to the situation on the American Quintets recording of Price’s piano quintet discussed on this site this past Wednesday.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Montgomery’s “Banner” will Stream from CMNW

Jupiter String Quartet players Nelson Lee, Liz Freivogel, Meg Freivogel, and Daniel McDonough (photograph by Sarah Gardner, courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Next month Chamber Music Northwest (CMNW) will present a “double-barreled” festival. A “live” series of concerts will be held in Kaul Auditorium on the campus of Reed College between Thursday, July 1, and Sunday, July 25. All performances will be professionally recorded for the “at-home” version of the festival, which will take place with a two-week delay. In other words the “virtual festival” will be available for viewing between Thursday, July 15, and Saturday, August 7. (With one exception, all programs will be performed on two consecutive days.)

One of the concerts in this series may be of interest to local readers, because it will provide a second opportunity to listen to music that was performed by the San Francisco Symphony last week. That composition was Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner,” composed in 2014 for a string ensemble with solo parts for all section leaders. In other words the solos will be taken by a string quartet augmented with a bass. The ensemble for the CMNW festival will be the East Coast Chamber Orchestra; and, with the exception of the bass, the solo parts will be taken by the members of the Jupiter String Quartet. Readers may recall that this is somewhat of a “family” quartet. The violinists are Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, and the violist is Meg’s older sister Liz. In addition, the cellist is Meg’s husband, Daniel McDonough.

The program will begin with Edward Elgar’s Opus 20 serenade for string ensemble in E minor. The Montgomery selection will be followed by “Where Springs Not Fail,” composed in 2015 by Hanna Benn. The concluding selection will be Béla Bartók’s divertimento for string orchestra.

Streaming will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 17; and the performance will remain available for streaming until Tuesday, August 31. Currently, admission is only available through purchase of the AT-HOME Summer Festival Pass. The price is $150 for the household. Streaming will be provided through both Vimeo and the CMNW Web site. All videos will be password-protected, and the password will be provided through electronic mail. Tickets for streaming single concerts will be available through the same Web site beginning on Friday, July 9.

Prokofiev Plays Prokofiev on Parnassus

courtesy of New Sounds Consulting

According to my archives, I have not had an encounter with Parnassus Records since 2016, the year in which that label released a recording of Sviatoslav Richter playing both Books of The Well-Tempered Clavier over the course of four recitals in Innsbruck in July and August of 1973. What made this album particularly interesting is that the entire content was packaged on a single Audio DVD (which, unless I am mistaken, contributes tracks from time to time on the Music Choice Classical Masterpieces cable channel). Parnassus found its way back on my radar after it released an album entitled Prokofiev on the Air about two months ago.

The content consists of a radio broadcast on WABC in New York on January 16, 1937, which took place in the Columbia Concert Hall. To be fair, this broadcast accounts for only about half of the album. The remainder is devoted to recordings of three of the early collections of short pieces for solo piano, the four Opus 3 pieces composed in 1911, the four Opus 4 pieces composed between 1910 and 1912, and the ten Opus 12 pieces composed between 1906 and 1913. The tracks were taken from an album on the Russian Melodya label recorded by Prokofiev’s assistant, Anatoly Vedernikov.

Most of the selections on this album do not currently receive very much attention. For most listeners the closest to familiarity will probably be found in Prokofiev’s performance of eight of the twenty short pieces in his Opus 22 Visions fugitives (fugitive visions), composed between 1915 and 1917. These days this collection is one of the few Prokofiev compositions for solo piano that get much exposure. (The others would probably be the three “war” sonatas, Opus 82 in A major, Opus 83 in B-flat major,  and Opus 84 in B-flat major, all composed during World War II.) Given that I tend to look forward to opportunities to listen to Opus 22 in recital, I was more than a little disappointed that the broadcast did not include the entire set; but I can understand that WABC probably assumed that most of its listeners would not have had the necessary attention span.

On the other hand the Vedernikov recordings provided me with my “first contact” with those early collections of short pieces. I am not sure why current recitalists shy away from them. Perhaps they assume that an audience that sees Prokofiev’s name on the program expects to experience more of his technical fireworks.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Malinowski’s WTC Project: Book II, Second Half

This afternoon I completed my traversal of Stephen Malinowski’s animated visualizations of all of the preludes and fugues in Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Readers may recall that I divided this task into four equal parts, each accounting for twelve of the prelude-fugue couplings in each the two books. Thus, this afternoon was devoted to the preludes and fugues from F-sharp major to B minor in the second of Bach’s two books.

Readers may recall that I had some misgivings about the first half of that second book. This was less of an issue this afternoon, perhaps because my capacity for listening required a “learning curve” to adjust to the harpsichord performances by Colin Booth. Most important, however, was a growing appreciation for the diversity of techniques that Malinowski engaged. It is seldom (if ever) the case that the eye is confronted with what might be called a “glorified player piano roll.” Malinowski approached each selection with a sense of how we wanted to guide the attentive ear; and, having made that decision, he could then select a repertoire of shapes, colors, and animation techniques.

I should again emphasize that these are visualizations of performance, rather than of the score pages being performed. One might say that the task of any keyboardist playing these preludes and fugues must begin by deciding how (s)he wishes to guide the attentive listener through Bach’s rich polyphonic structures. Thus, Malinowski’s visualizations provide a means through which that listener can better appreciate the decisions that Booth made. Were Malinowski to revisit this project with recordings of Glenn Gould or András Schiff, I suspect that he would seldom (if ever) fall back on any of his past visualizations. On the other hand, having now experienced the logic behind Malinowski’s visualizations, I suspect that my capacity for listening to these preludes and fugues will now pursue new perspectives in listening to both performances and recordings as a consequence of those experiences.

PROTOTYPE to Stream Carmina Slovenica

courtesy of PROTOTYPE

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about the PROTOTYPE Opera | Theatre | Now Festival hosting the streaming of Pamela Z’s “Times3,” a site-specific sonic experience involving a text by Geoff Sobelle and music by Z. PROTOTYPE has now added a series of free digital streams entitled Opera | Theatre | X. These will involve live-streams available through a PROTOTYPE Web page at no charge for one showing only. No registration will be required.

Tomorrow PROTOTYPE will stream a performance by the vocal theatre company Carmina Slovenica, which specializes in an unconventional approach to choral storytelling, which takes place in a landscape of prerecorded sounds. The title of this performance is Toxic Psalms. A chorus of 30 young women embody a collective organism that reflects the human desire to merge. The performance channels ancient and modern humanities realized through a repertoire that invokes the Middle East, Pussy Riot, Africa, weapons, extinctions, contaminations, and abuses of religions. The texts have been extracted from the writings of Stanisław Lem, Hanne Blank, Svetlana Makarovič, Hafiz, Jean Luc Nancy, Karmina šilec, Ifigenija Zagoričnik, and Drago Jančar. The prerecorded sounds will be provided by Dean Santomieri, Marko Hatlak, Musica Cubicularis, Karmina šilec (the Director of the performance), Willi Bopp, Danilo Ženko, and the Big Band of the Slovenian Army Forces. A Web page has been created with a PDF file of the full program for the performance.

This performance will begin at 1 p.m. (Pacific time) tomorrow, Thursday, June 10, streamed by Vimeo at no charge through the aforementioned Web page.

A British Account of American Chamber Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past Friday the British Chandos label released an album of performances by the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective entitled American Quintets. The ensemble consists of the string quartet of violinists Elena Urioste and Melissa White, violist Rosalind Ventris, and cellist Laura van der Heijden, joined by pianist Tom Poster and bass vocalist Matthew Rose. The “program” consists of three quintets (all by American composers, as indicated by the album title) composed during the first half of the twentieth century.

The “central” offering is likely to be the most familiar. Samuel Barber’s Opus 3 is a setting of Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” scored for “medium voice” and string quartet. I am not quite sure what Barber intended by “medium.” I have a 1935 recording of him singing this composition with the Curtis String Quartet, and Barber is listed as a baritone. I may be too used to listening to Barber’s voice, but I found Rose’s tone to be at least a bit too dark and heavy for Arnold’s rhetoric. That said, I suspect that British listeners may be more sympathetic to setting the words of Arnold than many Americans might be.

Barber’s quintet is framed on either side by a piano quintet. The opening selection is Amy Beach’s Opus 67 in F-sharp minor, composed in 1905. The final selection was probably composed about three decades later, a quintet in A minor by Florence Price, for which this album is the world-premiere recording. These are decidedly contrasting offerings. As a pianist Beach had performed Johannes Brahms’ Opus 34 quintet in F minor in 1900, and many listeners are likely to detect signs of Brahms’ influence on her Opus 67.

I should point out that my personal history with this quintet dates all the way back to my first encounter with it at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in October of 2008. Also, “for the record,” I already have the Hyperion Records album of this quartet played by pianist Garrick Ohlsson with the Takás Quartet when its members were violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, violist Geraldine Walther, and cellist András Fejér. Regardless of what may be said or written about Brahms’ influence, I am probably most struck by the extent to which all four of the quartet instruments have distinctive voices of their own, thus avoiding the epithet of “concerto for piano and very small orchestra,” which one often encounters in chamber music that Brahms’ composed for piano.

The Price quintet, on the other hand, serves up American influences that one does not encounter in Beach’s score. It also is far less balanced in the durations assigned to the successive movements, which get progressively shorter. The first movement accounts for a little less that half of the entire duration, traversing a series of episodes, each with a different tempo. One might almost approach this movement as a chamber music approach to a dramatic monologue. The following Andante con moto movement, which is about half the duration of its predecessor, has a more recognizable ternary form. However, chamber music conventions are then dismissed in the third movement (again about half as long as its predecessor), which is entitled “Juba,” named for the African American dance style. This is where the music livens up and starts to feel more “American;” and the quartet concludes with an even shorter movement labeled as a Scherzo.

This music was never published during Price’s lifetime. (She died on June 3, 1953.) Indeed, the manuscript was not discovered until 2009 (which explains why this is a world-premiere recording); and, unless I am mistaken, it is never mentioned (or indexed) in Rae Linda Brown’s biography of Price, The Heart of a Woman. I have no idea how this music has been received when Kaleidoscope performs it on their “home turf” in the United Kingdom; but I suspect that most American listeners will be drawn to the subtlety of Price’s citations of American sources, a sharp contrast to the more blatant quotations one encounters in the music of Charles Ives.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Sandresky to Celebrate Strawberry Moon

Poster design for this month’s Lunar Landscapes program (from the Eventbrite event page)

This month’s installment of Eleonor Sandresky’s Lunar Landscapes concert series will celebrate the Strawberry Moon. The strawberry has the reputation of being the first fruit to emerge after the the seeds were sowed in March. The moon is also associated with the summer solstice, the beginning of summer marked by the longest day of the year.

This month’s special guest will be Leonardo Heiblum, a prolific composer for film and the creator of the Encyclopedia Sonica Web site. This is basically a database of sounds, the first three volumes of which are available for listening. Heiblum, sometimes working with a collaborator, has recorded the material in different parts of the world over the course of 25 years. He will play two of the entries in this collection, “The Monk and the Elephant,” and “Requiem For the Sheep.” He will also join Sandresky in a performance of the sixteenth of the piano études composed by Philip Glass. Sandresky will give a solo account of “Freedom,” the eleventh composition in her Strange Energy series.

The performance will begin at 6 p.m. (Pacific Time) on Thursday, June 24. Admission is $10, and payment can be processed through an Eventbrite event page. Once the processing is complete, electronic mail will be sent providing the URL for connection to the video stream of this performance. Subscriptions are also available as part of membership, with membership fees of $5, $10, and $15 per month.

Sonic Diversity … if not Luxury

Last night the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble offered the last of its five streamed programs that constituted its 28th season. The title of the program was Sonic Luxury; and there was definitely imaginative diversity, if not luxury, in the instrumentation of the four compositions on the program. The program began with a solo performance of Clara Schumann’s Opus 20 set of variations on a theme by her husband Robert presented by LCCE pianist Eric Zivian.

Regular readers probably know that I have not taken well to the flood of physical mannerisms that Zivian exhibits, presumably to convey his personal attachment to the music he is playing. The good news is that the video direction judiciously led the cameras away from those mannerisms for the most part, preferring instead views of the piano from different angles. This allowed the viewer to focus on the music, rather than the musician; and, through the shots of the keyboard and the inside of the piano, one had a better sense of Schumann’s sensitive approaches to both polyphony and sonority.

Zivian then accompanied clarinetist Jerome Simas in a performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s four-movement sonata entitled “Nachtlieder.” In his opening remarks Simas suggested a connection to the four pieces for the same instrumentation that Alban Berg had composed for his Opus 5. The author of Berg’s Wikipedia page refers to the “aphoristic poetic utterances” that Berg set in his Opus 4 Altenberg Lieder collection. That sense of aphorism seems to have lingered into Opus 5 and was subsequently appropriated by Salonen. One might almost view “Nachtlieder,” composed in 1978, as a “reflection” of (or on) Berg’s Opus 5, which was composed in 1913.

The remainder of the program shifted attention to larger collections of strings. Derek Bermel’s “Soul Garden” amounted to a concerto for viola (Kurt Rohde) and a quintet of two violins (Anna Presler and Phyllis Kamrin), viola (Matilda Hofman), and two cellos (Leighton Fong and Tanya Tomkins). This was followed by Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Opus 10, a quintet for clarinet and string quartet in F-sharp minor. Neither of these was given a particularly compelling account, almost as if the players were too buried in their score pages to allow any of the expressiveness in the music to emerge.