Saturday, July 31, 2021

Old First Concerts: Labor Day Special

Readers may recall the announcement made a week ago that the month of September in the Old First Concerts (O1C) calendar would be devoted to the new Piano Current series supported by the Ross McKee Foundation. However, there will be one event that will precede the first Piano Current concert. This will be the annual Labor Day tradition on the O1C schedule.

Pianist and sometime vocalist Mike Greensill (from the event page for his O1C performance)

That tradition involves the annual visit to Old First Presbyterian Church by pianist Mike Greensill. As usual, this will be an afternoon of songs composed by jazz musicians, most of them sung from the keyboard by Greensill. For this year’s offering Greensill plans to include Erroll Garner’s “Misty” and George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” along with the usual visit to some of the ballads and swing numbers associated with the Duke Ellington repertoire. Finally, Greensill usually injects a few of his own tunes.

This year Greensill will be joined by John Wiitala on bass. The performance will take place at 4 p.m. on Sunday, September 5. This will be another “hybrid” concert, allowing seating limited to 100 tickets, all being sold for $25 (no reduced rate for seniors and students). For those with tickets, the church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. All others will be able to attend through the live stream hyperlink that has been created for this concert’s event page.

esperanza spalding’s “Formwella” compositions

esperanza spalding (right) with Corey King, who is featured on the performances of spalding’s three latest “Formwela” compositions (courtesy of Play MPE)

Most readers, particularly those following performances presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), probably know by now that, when it was announced in December of 2018 that Esa-Pekka Salonen would succeed Michael Tilson Thomas as SFS Music Director, one of the first things Salonen did was to announce his collaboration with eight partners from a variety of different cultural disciplines. One of the partners he selected was bassist and vocalist esperanza spalding, whose approaches to jazz out on the “bleeding edge” were as stimulating they were unique. My own “first contact” with spalding took place in June of 2020, when she released an EP of five songs that she performed with pianist Fred Hersch at the Village Vanguard in October of 2018. Her first “official” affiliation with SFS took place the following month when KQED broadcast Throughline: San Francisco Symphony—From Hall to Home. Not only did this program provide the first opportunity to see Salonen in his new role as Music Director; but also the video showcased all of the Collaborative Partners, including a solo performance by spalding.

At the beginning of this month, I first learned about a series of Spalding compositions entitled “Formwella.” The first three of these pieces were first performed when spalding launched the Songwrights Apothecary Lab this past April. The “laboratory” provided a venue for collaboration among musicians, researchers, and practitioners in a variety of disciplines. The goal was to explore “how songwriters may meaningfully incorporate therapeutic practices and knowledge into their process and production.” Shortly after the performance, the three compositions were collected on a single Amazon Music listening page. In addition, separate MP3 download Web pages were created for “formwela 1,” “formwela 2,” and “formwela 3.”

During the month of June, three more “Formwela” works were created (along with a shift in capitalization). All three of these have been collected for both listening and viewing on a single Web page on the Web site for the Songwrights Apothecary Lab. Clicking on the plus sign pulls down a set of program notes for each composition. Clicking on the “album cover” launches a YouTube video of the performance of the piece.

I must confess that I tend to be more than a little skeptical when “therapeutic practices and knowledge” are invoked in acts of making music. However, all of these “Formwela” pieces are short, the longest (the third) lasting only a little over seven minutes. Each individual composition strikes me as a musical haiku, which triggers my own personal sense-making processes. Mind you, I can say the same of just about any other experience of listening to music; but spalding’s approach to distillation seems to trigger the deployment of a unique set of cognitive processes.

In all fairness I should observe that all of these pieces are a far cry from any of the five tracks on her album with Hersch. For one thing diction has much higher priority, and her scat singing on “Dream of Monk” is downright jaw-dropping. (When I wrote about this album, the only comparison that seemed appropriate was that of the paraphrases composed by Franz Liszt!) Also, all of the tracks on this EP were longer than any of the “Formwella” compositions. spalding’s priorities have clearly shifted to a new mindset; and, between my general love for straight-ahead jazz and bebop and my enthusiasm every time Hersch releases a new album, my own cognitive process will still need some time to adjust to how much spalding’s work has changed since 2018.

New Conductor and Familiar Soloist at Davies

Cellist Joshua Roman (from the SFS event page for last night’s concert)

Last night Davies Symphony Hall saw the debut of Colombian conductor Lina González-Grandos on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Once again this was a program with a concerto at its core. Robert Schumann’s Opus 129 cello concerto in A minor had been planned to feature Pablo Ferrández as soloist. However, due to visa and travel complications, Ferrández could not appear in Davies; and he was replaced by Joshua Roman, a cellist familiar to many San Francisco music lovers.

Roman made his SFS debut in February of 2010 with Herbert Blomstedt conducting Joseph Haydn's 1765 cello concerto in C major, Hoboken VIIb/1. This was followed by his Bay Area recital debut in January of 2012 as the first artist to perform in San Francisco Performances’ newly launched Young Masters Series. Over the course of that decade, Roman’s activities have taken him beyond the confines of the concert hall, as comfortable giving a TED Talk as visiting HIV/AIDS centers and displacement centers in Uganda. Last night he returned to a more traditional setting.

Schumann composed his Opus 129 at a time when he was prodigiously creative (as might be guessed from the opus number). As is the case in his earlier (Opus 54) piano concerto in A minor, there is a smooth flow across the overall three-movement structure. However, the virtuoso turns for the cello account for only a portion of the delights in the overall listening experience. Schumann also engaged in a generous number of ventures into innovative instrumentation, and González-Granados made sure that listeners were aware of just how innovative those sonorities were. As a result both performers had their own ways of casting this concerto in the best possible light.

Roman was clearly familiar to many in the audience, and he was received with enthusiastic applause at the conclusion of the concerto. Clearly his fans wanted an encore, but they probably could not have anticipated what they got. Roman first remarked on the need to deal with crazy times, possibly by engaging in a bit of one’s own craziness. He then began to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” providing his own arrangement of accompaniment on his cello. Many concert-goers probably know by now that “Hallelujah” has been sneaking its way in the encore repertoire of many vocalists. However, Roman’s approach was decidedly unique; and it was so convincing that he had most of the audience singing along during the final chorus. To mix metaphors, that encore performance established that, while we may not be out of the woods, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Schumann concerto was framed on either side by music from the first half of the twentieth century. The program concluded with Zoltán Kodály’s “Dances of Galánta,” a two-part slow-fast rhapsody that draws upon folk music that Kodály collected during his pioneering ethnomusicological research in Eastern Europe. Principal Clarinet Cary Bell had a generous share of clarinet work thanks to Kodály’s efforts to evoke the sonorities of the Romanian single-reed instrument for folk music.

The program began with the first of the two suites that Manuel de Falla extracted from his score for the two-act ballet The Three-Cornered Hat, choreographed by Leonid Massine for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The original score consisted of eight movements, four for each of the two acts. Falla’s suites each had four movements, but they did not follow either the grouping or the ordering of the original score. Thus, while there have been many performances of excerpts from this ballet score, the movements of the first suite were probably unfamiliar to most of the listeners in Davies.

Nevertheless, González-Granados brought an engaging sense of flow to the entire suite, which lasted only about ten minutes. Her balancing of the rich sonorities in Falla’s score made for a stimulating account of the full SFS resources. At the same time there were any number of more subtle sonorities, such as the writing for harp, that made the overall rhetoric indisputably compelling. There is an old joke that George Szell used to “play” the Cleveland Orchestra is if it was his “instrument” rather than an ensemble. González-Granados may not have been as manipulative as Szell, but she certainly knew how to give all the details the due credit that they deserved.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Proof of Vaccination Required for SFO

Two days ago the San Francisco Opera (SFO) announced that, based on the latest medical advice and patron feedback, proof of vaccination will be required for all those aged twelve and older to attend performances at the War Memorial Opera House and the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera. That means that patrons with only a negative COVID test will not be admitted. Under this new policy, there will be no need to provide “buffer seats” to distance patrons, meaning that as many people as possible will be able to attend performances safely. SFO has created a “Safety First” Web page, developed in partnership with a team of physicians at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) led by epidemiologist George Rutherford, which summarizes plans to ensure the health and safety of audiences, artists, and employees.

Finale of the first act of Tosca (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

In the near future these guidelines and measures will apply to the five performances of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which will launch the 2021–22 SFO season with five performances at 7:30 p.m. on August 21 and 27 and September 3 and at 2 p.m. on August 29 and September 5. The approximate running time will be two hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions. August 21 will mark the debut of conductor Eun Sun Kim in her new capacity as Caroline H. Hume Music Director. To provide a touchless experience, tickets will be electronic for either printing at home or display on a mobile device. Similarly, there will be no printed program books; and patrons will be provided with a hyperlink to a digital version that, again, may be printed or displayed on a mobile device.

Ticket prices range from $29 to $398. They may be purchased by calling (but not, as of this writing, visiting) the SFO Box Office at 415-864-3330. There is also a Web page with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for all five of the Tosca performances. To ensure flexibility for patrons during this transitional season, no-fee exchanges and refunds will be provided up to two hours before performances. In particular, refunds will be available to patrons that must miss a performance due to COVID.

Malcolm Martineau’s Fauré Songs: Volume 4

A funny thing happened along pianist Malcolm Martineau’s journey to record the complete songs of Gabriel Fauré. In March of 2018 Signum Classics released the third of the four CDs that Martineau had planned to record. However, almost exactly two months later the Canadian ATMA Classique “scooped” Martineau with a four-CD collection of all the songs in a single package. Over three years have elapsed since then, during which we all had to readjust our activities to pandemic conditions. At the beginning of this month, Signum finally released the final volume in Martineau’s project.

One of the major repercussions of the pandemic has been the change in distribution practices. When I wrote about the first three CDs, I provided hyperlinks to Amazon.com Web pages for the “physical products;” but these usually included hyperlinks for streaming the tracks. For this final volume Amazon has created only an MP3 download page; but I really cannot endorse it because it does not include a PDF file of the booklet, which includes all the texts. Rather, I direct readers to the Presto Music Classical Web page. Not only does this provide three download options with different levels of audio quality, all of which include the PDF booklet; but also it includes the option of purchasing the CD. Since Presto is based in Royal Leamington Spa in the United Kingdom, delivery time of the “physical version” is likely to be a bit up in the air.

While I have been happy with the subsequent ATMA Classique compilation, I am still glad that Martineau’s project has come to completion. From a personal selfish point of view, I am more familiar with his selection of vocalists. Two of those vocalists are making their “Fauré debut” on this final album: John Mark Ainsley and Kitty Whatley. The remaining six have appeared on previous volumes: Lorna Anderson, Isobel Buchanan, John Chest, Sarah Connolly, Iestyn Davies, and Ann Murray.

The music itself covers a rich variety of songs composed at different periods in Fauré’s life. These include two of his “Vocalise” compositions, sung (in “order of appearance”) by Murray and Anderson. In addition there are two song cycles. Whatley sings the six songs in the Opus 61 cycle La Bonne Chanson (the good song). Then, the journey concludes, with the four last tracks on this fourth volume which present Chest’s performance of the Opus 118 L’horizon chimérique, the last vocal composition that Fauré wrote. That final selection is appropriate unto itself, but it also puts the cap on the highly satisfying experience of listening to the entire four-album collection.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

SFS CURRENTS Concludes with Klezmer

Cookie Segelstein and Joshua Horowitz in their CURRENTS performance (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

This morning the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) released the last of the five programs in its CURRENTS series streamed with its SFSymphony+ service. Each of these programs offered a one-hour presentation of a specific non-Western approach to creating and performing music. The approach of this final offering, entitled Vessel of Song, was klezmer; and the program was curated by Joshua Horowitz, performing with his two Veretski Pass colleagues, his wife Cookie Segelstein and bass player Stuart Brotman.

The program was organized in three sets. The first of these was presented only by the Veretski Pass musicians, playing arrangements of three traditional pieces from different Jewish cultures, which were preceded by “A Doina far di Kale” (a song for the bride), which Horowitz had composed. For the remainder of the program, the trio was joined by a small group of SFS musicians: Catherine Payne (flute), Linda Lukas (piccolo), Russ deLuna (cor anglais), David Chernyavsky (violin), Nanci Severance (viola), Jill Rachuy Brindel (cello), Douglas Roth (harp), and Stan Muncy (percussion). These ensemble performances were conducted by Peter Grunberg.

Horowitz and Segelstein can both be classified as ethnographic musicologists. Fortunately, at their performances they address the audience with an engaging clarity that one seldom encounters among academics. In addition, if they offer an insight to the audience, they almost always reinforce it by demonstrating it through the performance of an appropriate musical selection.

That said, through the interleaving of spoken address and musical performance, their approach to an audience is as informative as it is stimulating. On this particular occasion I was struck by Segelstein explicitly citing the inclusion of Chernyavsky among the SFS players. When he is not playing for SFS, he is a member of another klezmer group; and Segelstein observed that, because he is from Saint Petersburg, he brought aspects of Yiddishkeit to his performance that differed significantly from the “roots” behind the Veretski Pass repertoire.

Klezmer had its origins in joyous celebrations, including weddings and the variety of Jewish holidays. Among the different Jewish cultures, it had its roots among the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews living across the many different European countries that began to form around the end of the first millennium as part of the Holy Roman Empire. In such a context Jews were almost always “other;” so it should be no surprise that their own music did not fit into what is taught in “history of Western music” textbooks. On the other hand Jews were not oblivious to how their neighbors celebrated; and, as a result, klezmer emerged as a mélange of Jewish folk influences blending with the traditional music of “other folk.”

As a result, most listeners, regardless of background, would probably find the selections performed on this particular CURRENTS program to be more familiar than the music presented in the four preceding offerings. About half a century ago, there was a famous series of advertising posters around New York with the caption “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Jewish Rye.” This was soon followed by a record album entitled When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish. Today’s CURRENTS program reminded me of that album and left me with a craving for Jewish Rye.

Michael Harrison to Preview Album in Cyberspace

At the beginning of this month, Cantaloupe Music, which is the “house label” for Bang on a Can, released a new album of music by Michael Harrison. Seven Sacred Names is an eight-movement suite, whose final movement recapitulates the opening. Each movement is an original composition inspired by a Classical Indian raga; and each has its own “instrumentation” involving vocal, as well as instrumental, resources.

Michael Harrison and Nitin Mitta playing “Etude in Raga Bhimpalasi” (screen shot from an unlisted YouTube video provided by Drive East by Navatman)

Next month Harrison will present a duo recital of ragas and compositions for piano and tabla. The tabla player will be Nitin Mitta. Harrison will give a performance of his “Etude in Raga Bhimpalasi.” This is the fourth of the “sacred names” in his recording, the name being “Qadr.” Bhimpalasi is an afternoon raga, whose scale is similar to the Dorian mode, thus providing a more familiar point of reference than is encountered in many other ragas. Nevertheless, it involves a slow ten-beat rhythmic cycle in which four-against-five polyrhythms are embedded. The remainder of the program will consist of traditional Indian classical music, which Harrison has adapted for piano with tabla accompaniment.

This concert will be presented by Drive East by Navatman, and it will be performed at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club in Lower Manhattan. Fortunately, for those of us on the “other coast,” the performance will be live-streamed, after which the video will be available for subsequent viewing for the next 24 hours. Here in San Francisco, the performance will begin streaming at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, August 12. Tickets may be purchased through a Drive East by Navatman event page. After the ticket purchase has been finalized, instructions for viewing the video will be sent through electronic mail.

Roy Hargrove and Mulgrew Miller on Resonance

Since its founding in 2008 by George Klabin, Resonance Records has established itself as a valuable resource for jazz lovers of archival recordings. I first became aware of the label with the release in November of 2019 of Hittin’ the Ramp: The Early Years (1936–1943), a seven-CD anthology of recordings of Nat King Cole that preceded his signing with Capitol Records. That was followed almost exactly a year later by the two-CD Bill Evans Live at Ronnie Scott’s. This past Friday, the latest album, In Harmony, was released. This is a two-CD collection of previously unreleased live recordings of duo performances by Mulgrew Miller on piano and Roy Hargrove, alternating between trumpet and flugelhorn.

More specifically, the recordings were made at two different concerts. The first took place on January 15, 2006 at the Merkin Concert Hall of the Kaufman Music Center in New York City. The second was held on November 9, 2007 on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, at the Williams Center for the Arts. To some extent this album constitutes a memorial. Miller died at the age of 57 on May 29, 2013. A little more than five years later, Hargrove died at the tragic age of 49 on November 2, 2018. This is the first album of Hargrove’s performances to be released since his death. Ironically, one of the tracks on In Harmony is a performance of Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford,” his memorial tribute to trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in an automobile accident at the age of 25; but there is definitely no “shadow of death” hovering over the sessions from which the tracks of this album were taken.

These two sessions are somewhat unique in the context of the usual performances given by both of the players. In Harmony is now the only recording in the Hargrove discography that does not include a drummer. That establishes a certain intimacy that one seldom encounters is jazz sessions. Miller’s catalog, on the other hand, includes a few duo performances, as well as one solo album. As a result there is almost a sense of an understated private conversation in the thirteen tracks in this collection.

For the most part the performances at both of the sessions were familiar standards. Only Hargrove appears as composer with his “Blues for Mr. Hill,” which is probably written in memory of blues singer Z. Z. Hill, who, along B. B. King, was one of Hargrove’s early influences. On the more adventurous side of straight-ahead jazz, there are two tracks of Dizzy Gillespie (“Con Alma” and “Ow!”) and two of Thelonious Monk (“Monk’s Dream” and “Ruby, My Dear”). The Monk tracks are consecutive, suggesting that they may have been performed back-to-back as a memorial tribute. Regardless of background, however, there is considerable inventiveness to be found on every track in this collection.

Kenya Moses at Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio


It’s been over three years since I last checked out the jazz at Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio. That last occasion involved the Tenth Anniversary Tour of Lithuanian jazz singer
Viktorija Gečytė. As can be seen in the above logo, the venue offers “soul and spirits;” and Gečytė definitely knew how to mine soul out of each of her selections from the Great American Songbook.

Last night’s vocalist was Kenya Moses, and her source for soul was the bossa nova with particular attention to Antônio Carlos Jobim. She performed with the trio of Anne Sadjera on piano, Aaron Germain on bass, and Ami Morinelli on percussion. The instrumentalists provided a few opening selections and one during the middle of Moses’ set. Moses’ voice had clarity in both diction and pitch; and her style was more than sufficiently engaging, leaving me wishing that I could listen to her voice without the intervention of a microphone.

As I had observed on my last visit, “much of the clientele was there for the spirits.” As a result, anyone taking his/her jazz listening seriously had to contend with a rather imposing wall of chatter. Fortunately, the amplification system did much to deliver the efforts of the entire quartet to those of us that showed up to listen (which seemed to be a minority in the house). I was particularly impressed with the generous number of imaginative solos that Germain delivered in his bass work, and Morinelli deftly dealt with the sort of percussion variety one expects of bossa nova while contending with the limited space on the bandstand.

If the overall setting was a bit chaotic, Moses still prevailed as the still center of this entropic universe. Since I am unfamiliar with Portuguese, the best I can say is that I found her command of the language convincing. If the music was her primary guide through the rhetorical settings of the words, then she could not have taken her lead with greater satisfaction. I would definitely be curious to encounter her repertoire and delivery again, hopefully in a setting that is somewhat kinder to both the performers and their attentive listeners.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Free Summer Concerts Have Returned

Thanks to the pandemic, it has been about two years since I have given any thought to the free Union Square Live concerts that my wife and I used to attend occasionally. More often than not, the music up on stage was only half the story, since there was a swing dancing club that would show up frequently. They clearly enjoyed trying out their steps to live music, and watching them definitely enhanced the listening experience.

It was only this past weekend that I learned that these events had returned two weeks ago, and it took that much time for a press release to circulate (at least in my direction). This being a Wednesday, it is time for this site to get back in the groove. What is important, however, is that the groove has gotten wider, even if the schedule has gotten narrower; and the name of the series of concerts is now SFWednesdays.

The good news is that there are now three venues, not only Union Square but also Embarcadero Plaza and a third venue that will be changing from one week to the next. The bad news is that the events at all three venues are simultaneous, all beginning at 4 p.m. This means that enthusiasts cannot spend the afternoon/evening cruising from one site to another. Also, only the names of the performing groups have been given without any additional information about repertoire. That said, here is the agenda that will run between today and the middle of next month:

July 28
Union Square: Classical Revolution
Embarcadero Plaza: Odissi Vila
Mint Plaza: Yiddish Combo

August 4
Union Square: Valverde Dance
Embarcadero Plaza: Fogo Na Roupa
Mechanics Monument Plaza: Bayonics

August 18
Union Square: American Jubilee Dance
Embarcadero Plaza: Noah and the Arkiteks
TBD: Tory Teasley

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Community Music Center: August, 2021

Next month the Community Music Center will present two concerts in its Shenson Faculty Concert Series. Both of these recitals will be presented by jazz combos. They will take place on Friday evenings at 6 p.m. More important, however, is that both will be performed for a virtual audience. Thus, each will have a hyperlink, attached to the date below, to an Eventbrite event page. That Web page will have a Register hyperlink. Registration will serve as an RSVP and provide a reply with the necessary link for viewing the concert. Specifics are as follows:

August 6: Pianist Erik Peralta will present a program entitled Chick Corea through the Afro-Cuban Perspective. Corea had a prodigiously diverse repertoire, and one of the last programs he prepared was entitled From Mozart to Monk. While his ancestry was southern Italian, Corea’s eclectic tastes often led him to Latin traditions. Peralta will prepare all the arrangements for this concert; and he will lead a combo, whose other members will be Ernesto Mazar-Kindelan on bass, Carlos Caro on percussion, and Colin Douglas on drums.

August 20: Saxophonist Charlie Gurke will give a debut performance of a suite of original compositions inspired by the images and characters of the iconic Mexican Loteria card deck. This project unfolded over the course of a year and a half, and the results were recorded just before COVID lockdown conditions were imposed. Gurke will lead a combo, whose other members will be Isaac Narell on both saxophone and flute, Luke Kirley on both trombone and tuba, David Flores on drums, and Marlon Aldana on percussion. Gurke will also discuss his sources of inspiration and the composition process that resulted.

Too Much Agenda; Not Enough Music

courtesy of Shuman Associates

The latest violinist to release a “Bach++” recording is Vijay Gupta. At the beginning of this month, he released an album entitled When the Violin through Bandcamp with a Web page that supports digital streaming and download and a limited edition compact disc. Unfortunately, it appears that the liner notes are only available through the “physical” release. That same Web page describes Gupta as “a violinist, speaker and citizen-artist dedicated to creating spaces of wholeness through music.” He then describes one of his achievements as follows:

He is the founder of Street Symphony, a community of musicians dedicated to engaging people in reentry and recovery living in LA's Skid Row.

The title composition of the album is a piece for unaccompanied violin by Reena Esmail that is not quite five minutes in duration. I know Esmail primarily through “Rang de Basant,” another relatively short composition that has become part of Sarah Cahill’s repertoire through that pianist’s efforts to present the diversity of efforts by women composers. I discovered that Esmail had prepared two separate sets of program notes, one for Western readers and the other for those from her native India.

Her notes for “When the Violin” were much briefer. She explains that the title is taken from a text attributed to the fourteenth-century Sufi poet and mystic Hafiz. The thematic material is based on the Charukeshi Raga of Hindustani classical music, which, to Western ears, would probably sound like a synthesis of the major and minor modes. The liner notes also include the English translation of Hafiz’ poem “The Gift,” whose first three words are the words of the album title.

The brevity of this music is compelling, since, over the course of a brief duration, Esmail establishes an intriguing dialectic of Eastern and Western influences. Furthermore, the transition to the second track, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Lachen verlernt” (laughing unlearned), feels almost like a segue. This is more than a little ironic, since Salonen’s music is unmistakably Western. Indeed, the title is the German translation of one of the poems by Albert Giraud that Arnold Schoenberg set in his Pierrot lunaire suite (which he called a melodrama since the vocal soloist has the opportunity to exercise her acting chops). While there is little sense of Schoenberg’s influence in Salonen’s score, “Lachen verlernt” is structured as a chaconne, possibly reflecting the ways in which Schoenberg drew upon historical sources for some of his twelve-tone compositions. At the same time Salonen was probably reflecting on the structure of one of the best-known movements for solo violin, which concludes Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 partita in D minor.

It should therefore be no surprise that Gupta turns to Bach after completing “Lachen verlernt.” However, rather than providing a platform for Bach’s chaconne, he plays the BWV 1001 solo violin sonata in G minor, which is particularly notable for presenting the polyphony of fugal structure realized by a single violin. Sadly, there is too much of a business-as-usual rhetoric in Gupta’s Bach performance, as if leaping gracefully over all the technical hurdles was all that matters. Indeed, his approach to Bach left me wondering whether Esmail and Salonen also deserved more expressive treatment, a shortcoming that would only be familiar to listeners with more intimate familiarity with their respective compositions. Such a shortcoming might suggest that Gupta is more interested in being a “citizen-artist” than a virtuoso violinist.

Beethoven for the Fun of It on SFSymphony+

Regular readers probably know by now that my schedule has gotten a lot busier with the return of concerts being held in both Davies Symphony Hall and Herbst Theatre. As a result, it took me almost two weeks to catch up on the Chamber Music Series streamed by SFSymphony+. Listening to members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) playing chamber music has been one of my greatest delights; and I look forward to returning to Davies for those delights. That said, I have been consistently satisfied with the streamed offerings; and my last encounter was no exception.

The program was devoted to the first five movements of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 8 serenade in D major. This was scored for a string trio, whose performers were Victor Romasevich on violin, Wayne Roden on viola, and David Goldblatt on cello. Those who worship only at the Altar of Scowling Beethoven tend to dismiss this music as too lightweight for serious listening, but I continue to believe that anyone not willing to recognize Beethoven’s sense of humor will never appreciate the full scope of his expressiveness.

The context for Opus 8 was nicely set in a program note that George Jellinek wrote for the RCA recording of a performance by Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose, and Gregor Piatigorsky. Here is the relevant excerpt:

… at age 26, Beethoven was not yet storming the heavens, merely the portals of the publisher Ataria. His efforts bore fruit, because the serenade was published forthwith for the pleasure of Hausmusik cultivators. Aside from a virtuosic passage for cello in the polacca section, the work poses no great technical difficulty, though hearing the melody of the Andante movement passing from Heifetz to Primrose to Piatigorsky is anything but an everyday experience.

Sadly, that movement was not included in the SFSymphony+ video. This may simply have been a matter of preparation time. All I can do is hope that there will be an opportunity to listen to Romasevich, Roden, and Goldblatt play Opus 8 in its entirety while I am still around to write about it!

That said, it is important to observe that the video work definitely enhanced the listening experience. This past March I wrote about an SFSymphony+ video that superimposed images from two different cameras to supplement the counterpoint of the music with a “visual counterpoint.” For the Beethoven performance the video work used imaginative split-screen techniques to capture the interplay among the three musicians:

courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

This provided a first-rate visual interpretation of the trio performers as an “ensemble of soloists,” giving equal priority to both the individual voices and the techniques with which they interacted. With such a perspective, it is hard to dismiss Opus 8 as a “lightweight” undertaking.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Bleeding Edge: 7/26/2021

Last week this site discussed two “bleeding edge” options, both taking place over the weekend and on different days. This week there are four events of interest, none of which have been previously reported. The first of them will take place tomorrow evening. Unfortunately, the remaining three will all take place this coming Saturday evening. The good news is that, thanks to streaming, readers will not have to agonize about choosing. Each will be available for viewing for at least two days. Specifics are as follows:

Tuesday, July 27, 8:30 p.m., Palace of Fine Arts: This one is a bit of a wild card. The BayImproviser Calendar has an event page for a duo performance by saxophonists Phillip Greenlief and Nora Stanley taking place at the Palace of the Fine Arts. Unfortunately, the earliest event to appear on that venue’s schedule of events is for September 9; and, as of this writing, it has been cancelled. Greenlief’s own calendar page currently does not list any upcoming performances. Readers should probably wait until tomorrow before deciding whether to make any plans!

Saturday, July 31, 6 p.m., Oaktown Jazz Workshops: On the evening of this past July 17, I was fortunate enough to be one of the invited guests at the video recording session for guitarist Karl Evangelista’s Apura!. The title is the Tagalog word for “very urgent;” and the music was conceived to explore the relationship between jazz-based improvisation and social transformation in an era of worldwide political upheaval. Its first realization took place in recording sessions on October 14 and 15 in 2018 at the Fish Factory Studios in London. Evangelista partnered with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, the sole surviving member of the Blue Notes, a mixed-race group of South Africans exiled in London. They were joined by Alexander Hawkins on piano and Trevor Watts on saxophones; and the resulting recording now has a Bandcamp Web page.

However, only the opening track of that recording, also entitled “Apura!,” was performed at this month’s session, whose other performers were Francis Wong on saxophone and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass, with a special “guest appearance” by Andrew Cyrille on drums. The video will be available for screening for two days after its premiere. Admission will be $15 with a $10 student rate, managed through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. After the payment has been processed, Brown Paper Tickets will provide instructions for viewing the video.

Saturday, July 31, 7 p.m., Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA): BAMPFA is hosting a residence by the Thingamajigs Performance Group, which will include a series of online performances. One of those performances will be by Ensemble PHASE, which will be streaming from Seoul in Korea. The group will perform excerpts from Edward Schocker’s Self_Less, which incorporates live musical performance along with projected and pre-recorded audio of stories of people who have unique neuropsychological experiences. The livestream of this performance will be available at no charge through a BAMPFA event page. Readers should be aware, however, that the platform will be Zoom, which, as far as I can tell, has not yet resolved its problems with security leaks.

Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: This will be another event that will be available for both live performance and streaming. The music will be provided by the Darren Johnston Trio, led by Johnston on trumpet. The trio is more than a little out of the ordinary, since the other two members are Kasey Knudsen on saxophone and Jon Arkin on drums. However, as the event page for this concert says, these are “musicians well equipped to explore uncharted territory in the music.”

This performance is part of the jazz club series. There will be a cover charge of between $10 and $20, payable at the door, which will open at 7:20 p.m. Seating will be limited, so those planning to attend are advised to phone in a reservation at 415-586-3733. The live stream will be available for $10, payable through a Web page created for donations. Bird & Beckett will live-stream the performance through both its YouTube channel and its Facebook page. Any further information will be available on the Web page for this performance.

Sacred Madrigals by Barbara Strozzi on Tactus

courtesy of Naxos of America

According to my records, I have not reported on a recording on the Italian Tactus label since 2014, back when I was writing for Examiner.com. This label was founded in 1986 by Serafino Rossi, who was particularly interested in neglected music from the Renaissance and Baroque composers. The latest effort in this undertaking is a two-CD compilation the fourteen sacred madrigals collected under the title Sacri Musicali Affetti (sacred musical dispositions).This was the Opus 5 of Barbara Strozzi, published in Venice in 1655.

By way of a frame of reference, this would have been about a dozen years after the death of Claudio Monteverdi. Strozzi was born in 1619, which happens to be the year in which Monteverdi completed his seventh book of madrigals. While I have been unable to establish any personal connection between Monteverdi and Strozzi, her best-known teacher was Francesco Cavalli. According to her Wikipedia page, about three-quarters of her published compositions were written for soprano. That would include all of the Sacri Musicali Affetti madrigals, although two of them were scored for soprano and alto.

The performing ensemble on the Tactus album is Aurata Fonte. The alto is Andrea Arrivabene; and two sopranos share the entire collection, Miho Kamiya and Anna Simboli. Continuo is shared by Valeria Montanari on harpsichord and Giuseppe Monari on organ, often performing together. The other continuo player is Perikli Pite on gamba.

Here in San Francisco Strozzi may not be familiar to many; but it would be unfair to characterize her music as “neglected.” In October of 2019, she was featured in the Voices of Music program given the title Concerto della Donne (consort of women). More recently the eclectic program that the Chordless duo of soprano Sara LeMesh and pianist Allegra Chapman prepared for Old First Concerts in January of 2020 included one of her vocal duos (with LeMesh joined by mezzo Kate McKinney). During lockdown, the streamed performance by the San Francisco Girls Chorus of Antonio Vivaldi’s only surviving oratorio, Juditha Triumphans (Judith triumphant), also included one of Strozzi’s polyphonic madrigals from her Opus 1 collection and one of the fifteen cantatas in her Opus 7 collection, Diporti di Euterpe (Euterpe’s pleasure), scored for soprano and continuo. Another notable streamed offering involved the Aizuri Quartet (violinists Miho Saegusa and Emma Frucht, violist Ayane Kozasa, and cellist Karen Ouzounian), which arranged Strozzi’s music for their Shriver Hall Concert Series program, all of whose selections were written by women composers.

Nevertheless, even if Strozzi has become familiar to many local listeners, the availability of a recording of polished performances of one of her madrigal collections is likely to be appreciated.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Merola’s “Alternative Showcase” for Rising Talent

The Merola Opera Program was conceived as a summer workshop whose primary focus was on training and developing the finest young opera singers, coaches, and stage directors from around the world. In the past participants would be actively involved in the production of two full-length opera productions, preceded by a program of semi-staged arias. The workshop would then conclude with a Grand Finale of opera excerpts with a unified approach to staging created by a student stage director.

As was reported at the end of this past May, this plan had to be abandoned this summer due to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, the annual Summer Festival was planned around these limitations, beginning with a program entitled What the Heart Desires, co-curated by tenor Nicholas Phan and mezzo Ronnita Miller (Merola ’05), which served as a platform for a 90-minute program of art song performances by the “Merolini.” While I was not able to attend this performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, this afternoon I had the opportunity to view its video recording.

By way of a disclaimer, I must confess that, for my own personal tastes, the opera productions were the high points of every Merola season I have attended. The arias program that preceded the first opera always had more diversity than mind could manage and always felt that it was going on for too long. The same could be said for the Grand Finale, no matter how imaginative the staging was in its efforts to provide some unification of the diverse offerings.

In that context I must confess that What the Heart Desires may well be the longest 90-minute experience I have ever had to endure. The program presented a total of eighteen art songs, almost all of which involved awkward fits between words and music, often with those words and music coming across as clunky even in isolation. As a result none of the performances involved presented a well-formed coupling of words and music as one might find in Aaron Copland’s approach to Emily Dickinson or Benjamin Britten’s approach to W. H. Auden (not to mention Cole Porter’s prodigious invention of both words and music). Even the music of the most familiar composer on the program, Harry Burleigh, never came across as convincing, let alone compelling.

These problems may have been due to the fact that neither the vocalists nor their accompanists managed to find the “sweet spot” that connected with the intentions of the composer. However, there were clearly songs in which the composer did not seem to have any intention other than choosing the right notes to hang on each of the syllables of the text. Stacy Garrop, on the other hand, simply provided “background music” for a recitation of one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s newspaper columns, reflections that are so detached from current conditions that reading them (let alone listening to them recited) today would be a disquieting, if not painful, process.

What the Heart Desires was clearly a road paved with good intentions, but we all know where that road leads.

Plans for Chanticleer’s 2021–22 Season

Late this past week Chanticleer announced the programs it has prepared for the 2021–22 season. There will be four offerings; and, as has been the case in the past, each of the performances in San Francisco will take place at a different venue. In addition, the first two of those programs will be presented twice in San Francisco. Subscriptions will go on sale on August 10, and single tickets will be available for purchase as of September 1. Web pages for ticket purchases have not yet been created, but the Chanticleer Web site will be updated to conform to those two dates. Similarly, program details have not yet been finalized; but all performances in San Francisco will begin at 7:30 p.m. Currently available information about the programs and their San Francisco dates is as follows:

Sunday, September 26, and Saturday, and October 2, the Green Room of the San Francisco War Memorial: Awakenings is a metaphorical response to the return to “the usual” concert conditions in the wake of the limitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program will feature new works by Steven Sametz and Ayanna Woods created through commissions. Other composers whose music will be performed will be William Byrd, Claudio Monteverdi, and August Read Thomas.

Saturday, December 18, and Sunday, December, 19, St. Ignatius Church: A Chanticleer Christmas is the traditional seasonal program featuring Renaissance gems and traditional holiday carols.

Saturday, March 26, San Francisco Conservatory of Music: Chanticleer describes its Rumors program as “an evening of intrigue and mystery,” during which the performers “will try to separate fact from fiction.” The selected composers will be Josquin des Prez, Thomas Tallis, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and George Walker. There will also be new arrangements of music by Fleetwood Mac.

Saturday, June 11, Mission Dolores Basilica: The title of the final program will be “No Mean Reward”: Chanticleer and the Golden Fleece. The ensemble will return to its “roots” with a program of fifteenth-century polyphony. The featured composers will be Guillaume Du Fay, Johannes Ockeghem, Antoine Busnois, and Cristóbal de Morales.

SFP Concludes Summer Series as it Began

Jennifer Koh, Timo Andres, and Jay Campbell (from their SFP event page)

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the last of the programs it prepared for its twelve-concert Summer Music Sessions 2021 series. Whether or not by design, the music featured the same composer that had figured significantly in the opening recital, Leoš Janáček. The core of the program consisted of two of his duo compositions. The first of these was a suite of four pieces for cello (Jay Campbell) and piano (Timo Andres) entitled Pohádka (fairy tale). This was followed by his four-movement violin sonata played by Jennifer Koh, also accompanied by Andres. These offerings were framed by Andres’ own compositions. The evening began with solo pieces performed by both Koh and Campbell, and it concluded with Andres’ three-movement piano trio, composed in 2018.

Andres began the evening with a few remarks about Janáček. He observed that his thematic material could often be traced back to speech patterns; and my own reflection on that idea is that, where the chamber music is concerned, one can often recognize the extent to which individual instrumental parts tend to sound like narration. This is particularly evident in his first string quartet, which was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata. Indeed, it does not take much of a stretch of the imagination to associate the four instruments with the four “voices” of the novella, the husband, the wife, the wife’s lover, and the narrator. Of course, given that Janáček composed eleven operas, he was no stranger to the musical potential of verbal content.

That said, I was more that a little concerned that what Andres could express verbally did not carry over into his performance of the two selections on the program. He seemed more fixed on the notes than on what the notes were trying to express. Thus, while Campbell and Koh had developed their own expressive interpretations of the music, they received little, if any, reinforcement from Andres’ accompaniment.

This shortcoming of expressiveness was even more apparent in Andres’ own compositions. Both of the solo pieces tended to unfold as abstract patterns of notes; but, in each case, both Koh and Campbell developed their own techniques to shape those notes into phrases with linguistic overtones. The trio was another matter. Unfortunately, the notes for the program book (written by Andres) never got around to mentioning that the trio consisted of three movements, each of which had a title:

  1. Music Against Itself
  2. Muscle Memory (Scherzo)
  3. Coda (made of wood)

Mind you, there was an opacity to the music that would have benefitted very little from knowledge of these titles, making the journey through the entire composition more of an ordeal than an engaging listening experience. Both Campbell and Koh did their best to seek out their own strategies to benefit the listener, but the piano part was too overwhelming (not to mention percussive) for them to make any noticeable progress.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Old First Concerts: September, 2021

September will be a somewhat different month for the performances being offered in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series. O1C will serve as the host venue for a new concert series supported by the Ross McKee Foundation. The title of the series will be Piano Current, and the intention is that the programs will be guided by the diversity of contemporary perspectives. The plan is to present three concerts over the course of the month, each with its own approach to contemporary repertoire.

As of this writing, all three of these performances will be live-streamed. However, the concerts themselves will continue to be “hybrid,” allowing seating in Old First Presbyterian Church limited to 100 tickets, all being sold for $25 (no reduced rate for seniors or students). As of this writing O1C has created event pages for only two of the three concerts. This site will be updated when the event page has been created for the remaining concert, and notification of that update will be provided through the Facebook shadow site. All performances will begin at 8 p.m., and hyperlinks will be attached to the date and time of the performances for which event pages have been created as follows:

Saturday, September 11: This will be a decidedly unique approach to contemporary thinking about concert programming. Last year was the centenary of the birth of science fiction author Ray Bradbury, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of the eighteen stories that Bradbury collected under the title The Illustrated Man. Pianist and composer Nicole Brancato will mark this occasion with a program entitled The Illustrated Pianist. She and six other composing pianists will create and perform works inspired by Bradbury’s stories. The other contributors will be Nicholas Pavkovic, Jed Distler, Monica Chew, Dee Spencer, Tin Yi Chelsea Wong, and Keisuke Nakagoshi. The performances will be supplemented with a video installation by Cory Todd.

Friday, September 17: Pianists Sarah Cahill and Regina Myers will give a joint recital, whose details have not yet been announced.

Saturday, September 25: Pianist Stephen Prutsman will present a program entitled Prog to Bach and Bach Again. In spite of my semantic association of “Prog” with the LISP programming language, Prutsman intended the term as an abbreviation of “Progressive Rock.” Selections from that genre first performed by Gentle Giant, Yes, and Genesis will be interleaved with two keyboard compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, the BWV 971 “Italian” concerto and BWV 870, the first coupling of a prelude and fugue in C major in the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

Richter Recitals of Haydn and Mozart

courtesy of Naxos of America

This has been a good month for attentive listeners following the recordings of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. As I reported this past Thursday, Profil released its latest “anthology album” of Richter recordings, which I called the “assorted Russians collection.” At the same time Stradivarius released its latest CD of recital performances of compositions by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Haydn performances were recorded in the French city of Jouques at the Abbaye Notre-Dame-de-Fidélité de Jouques on February 22, 1992. The Mozart selections were performed at the concert hall in the Swiss city of Zug on October 2, 1991.

The music performed at each of these recitals will probably be familiar to most of those interested in the First Viennese School repertoire. However, it is still interesting to observe that only one of the four pieces was not in the key of C minor. Personally, I think that the preference for the key is more significant in the Mozart recital, but readers can draw their own conclusions.

The reason for my opinion is that Richter decided to couple the K. 475 fantasia with the K. 457 three-movement sonata. He is far from the first pianist to perform this coupling. The basic idea is that K. 475 provides a sort of “free-form overture” to introduce the more structured movements of the K. 457 sonata. Whether Mozart himself considered this coupling is anybody’s guess, but Richter certainly makes a convincing case for it.

Personally, however, I tend to be drawn to the Haydn sonata, Hoboken XVI/20. The mere fact that the tempo of the first movement is Moderato alerts my “Spider-Sense” that this will not be any ordinary piano sonata. Furthermore, I like to believe that Johannes Brahms knew about this sonata, played it for himself, and probably reacted the same way. Indeed, the opening phrase of the sonata may well have inspired the solo cello passage that begins the third movement of Brahms’ Opus 83 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major.

Indeed, Brahms was so taken with the theme that he repurposed it for the second of his Opus 105 songs, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer” (my slumber grows ever more peaceful). For that matter, Haydn was enough of a prankster that one can wonder whether he intended this movement to be soothly peaceful and nervously disquieting at the same time! That same sense of disquiet can be found in the F minor theme for the Hoboken XVII/6 set of variations, which may explain why Richter chose to couple these to pieces for his French recital.

I suppose one of the reasons that I chase after Richter recordings when I learn that they have been released is that, one way or another, he tends push me into new perspectives in listening to music that I previously thought was totally familiar, if not a bit shopworn. These days I do not encounter many performers or recordings that trigger such a response, particularly where Haydn is concerned. (The one Haydn performer that seems to get my attention consistently these days is Emanuel Ax.) I suspect that I shall be drawn to revisit this new Stradivarius release when I feel that my “little grey cells” are in need of a workout.

Michael Morgan’s Diverse SFS Program

Michael Morgan conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony in 2013 (photograph by Eoswalt, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Michael Morgan returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that this was my first opportunity to see him conduct. However, because I keep my schedule manageable by confining myself (with very few exceptions) to the San Francisco city limits, I have yet to listen to him conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony, where he is Music Director. Mind you, with the onset of the pandemic, Morgan was the first curator of the CURRENTS series, an exploration of the music of diverse cultures presented through the SFS streaming service SFSymphony+; but he kept a low profile in his work for that project.

Morgan’s approaches to programming can be highly imaginative. Last night he confined himself to the period from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth, but the selections themselves are not encountered very often. The most familiar of those offerings came at the very beginning, the overture to Gioachino Rossini’s opera La gazza ladra (the thieving magpie).

Like most of Rossini’s operas, this is known by its overture and little else. The overture follows Rossini’s usual technique of lining up a series of accessible tunes and then repeating them all. However, this particular overture seizes the attention with the sort of snare drum roll that makes you wonder if you should be standing for the national anthem. However, even the snare drum roll gets repeated; and Morgan deployed two drummers, one on either side of the stage, to give the repetition the “stereophonic” effect of an echo. After that, the rest of the ensemble gets down to business; and Morgan’s scrupulous account allowed the attentive listener to relish the many comic turns in the score.

He then turned to the “Pas de six” movement in the first act of Rossini’s William Tell opera. This is a very brief interlude in a very long opera, which deploys a delightful assortment of tunes all suitable for skilled ballet dancers. Benjamin Britten liked the music so much that he appropriated some of it for his Matinées musicales suite in 1941. The music subsequently found its way back to the ballet stage when George Balanchine choreographed Britten’s version for his “Divertimento” ballet. Rossini’s original ballet music tended to follow the same repetitive practices as his overtures; but Morgan shaped his interpretation of the “Pas de six” music in a way that, again, appealed to the attentive listener.

The longest and most ambitious work on the program was Louise Farrenc’s Opus 36 (third) symphony in G minor, composed in 1847. Prior to this symphony, my only encounter with Farrenc had been her Opus 33 piano trio in E-flat major, which the Neave Trio included on their Her Voice album. The trio was completed in 1844, a time when her most inventive contemporary would have been Robert Schumann. The outstanding feature of her Opus 36 symphony was her highly imaginative approaches to instrumentation, an inventiveness that definitely sets her apart from Schumann and contemporaries such as Felix Mendelssohn. On the other hand her overall capacity for working with symphonic forms falls short of the achievements of both of these composers. Thus, once one gets beyond the innovative sonorities, one is left with a journey that meanders more than following a well-defined course from beginning to end.

If one had to maintain some degree of dutiful patience through the four movements of Farrenc’s symphony, that patience was rewarded with the final selection. This was an arrangement by Nicholas Hersh of “The Charleston,” probably the best known composition by stride pianist James P. Johnson. Hersh’s arrangement was then orchestrated for a large ensemble by David Remilis. In the midst of the generous SFS resources, there were still opportunities for several free-wheeling jazz licks, most evident in the solo work of Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye, clarinetist Jerome Simas, and Principal Trombone Tim Higgins. Morgan clearly knows his jazz (he is on the Board of the Oaktown Jazz Workshops); and he knew how to capture the spirit of the music, even when working within the more formal constraints of a full symphony orchestra.

Friday, July 23, 2021

MOR to Stream Heggie’s Violin of Hope Cycle

Readers may recall that February of 2020 was the month devoted to the Violins of Hope project. The name referred to a priceless collection of instruments recovered from the Holocaust era, meticulously restored through the efforts of Amnon Weinstein and his son Avshalom, both Israeli luthiers. Many of these instruments were displayed in a well-organized exhibit on the ground floor of the Veterans Building. Some of them were included in a series of concert performances, two of which took place in San Francisco, one in the Koret Auditorium of the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library and the other in Davies Symphony Hall during a Chamber Music Series concert presented by members of the San Francisco Symphony.

The concert series also included the world premiere of Intonations: Songs from the Violins of Hope, composed by Jake Heggie with a libretto prepared by Gene Scheer. This work was commissioned by Music at Kohl Mansion, and that performance also included Violins of Hope instruments. Subsequent performances were scheduled for the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco and Benaroya Hall in Seattle, the latter under the auspices of Music of Remembrance (MOR). Neither of these performances took place due to pandemic restrictions, but MOR prepared a video which will be made available for streaming at the beginning of next month.

Instrumentalists Mikhail Shmidt, Artur Girsky, Elizabeth Phelps, Zoe Lonsinger, Walter Gray, and Susan Gulkis Assadi and mezzo Laura Krumm (from the event page for the performance being discussed)

The work is scored for a small string ensemble and mezzo. The vocalist for the video is Laura Krumm. The instrumentalists are led by violinist Mikhail Shmidt, one of two soloists, the other being Zoe Lonsinger. The remainder of the group is a string quartet whose members are violinists Artur Girsky and Elizabeth Phelps, violist Susan Gulkis Assadi, and cellist Walter Gray.

The video will be made available for streaming on August 1. Tickets for this performance will be $30. Ticket-holders will be given on-demand access for one week. An event page has been created for this offering, and beginning on August 1, it will serve as the gateway for purchases. The site will be available through August 31.

David Russell’s Debut Album on Azica Records

courtesy of Naxos of America

This month began with guitarist David Russell making his debut on Azica Records with an album entitled Cantigas de Santiago. The entire album consists of music written for him by three composers. The album title is also the title of a seven-movement suite by Stephen Goss, which accounts for the opening tracks. This is followed by the three-movement suite by Matthew Dunne entitled Landmarks. The remainder of the album is devoted to three “Portrait” compositions by Sergio Assad.

Russell was born in Glasgow, but his family moved to Menorca when he was five years old. Since that time he has been based in Spain, now residing in Santiago de Compostella, the capital of Galicia. The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is the reputed burial place of Saint James the Great, the apostle of Jesus Christ; and it is the goal of a pilgrimage whose path is known as the Way of St. James and is supposedly guided by the stars in the Milky Way. When San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented its Front Row Travels series of streamed videos, the first “trip” was to Russell’s “home town.”

Cantigas de Santiago was the only contemporary composition that Russell played on his program. Goss structured his suite around three medieval sources. The central movement is based on the so-called “Kyrie Trope,” based on plainchant from the Missa cunctipotens genitor Deus. On either side of this movement are instrumental interludes included in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a lengthy monodic cycle of songs all describing miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary. These, in turn are flanked by two of the songs in the Cantigas de Amigo collection; and the entire cycle begins and ends with songs from the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Those not familiar with Spanish music from the Middle Ages may not appreciate the themes that constitute this telescoped structure; but Russell’s performance still makes for an absorbing listening experience, even for those that do not appreciate the finer details.

Landmarks may be approached as Dunne’s efforts to capture in music his personal impressions of Russell. The title of the first movement is “Camilliola;” and it refers to the jazz club where Dunne used to play. The second movement is the obligatory lyric interlude entitled “Canción.” Things then pick up again in the final movement, “Reel Variations,” which reflects of Russell’s origins in Scotland.

The three Assad portraits are performed in the order in which they were composed. The first was a portrait of the Austrian/Canadian guitar teacher Eli Kassner, written to celebrate his 80th birthday; and the thematic material is based on the spelling of Kassner’s name. The second was a three-movement homage to Sandy Bolton, who was a major supporter of the Guitar Department of the University of Arizona in Tucson. This piece was composed using the same technique based on the spelling of Bolton’s name. Both of these compositions were performed for the first time by Russell. The third portrait is for Russell himself. This time the spellings were based on the names of members of his immediate family. The piece also includes reflections on dance themes from both Scotland and Spain. Once again the first performance was given by Russell.

Taken as a whole, this album has much to offer the attentive listener, particularly those of us that have enjoyed experiences of Russell in performances here in San Francisco, thanks to the consistent attention he has received from SFP.

Another Evening of a Memorable Encore

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee (from the SFP event page for this performance)

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances followed up on three consecutive piano recitals in its Summer Music Sessions 2021 programming with a vocal recital by tenor Lawrence Brownlee, accompanied at the piano by John Churchwell. As had been the case on Monday evening, this turned out to be an evening in which the most compelling performance came with the encore. In a program entitled Songs of my Youth, Brownlee surveyed selections of songs with Italian, German, and French texts, as well as a set of spirituals, to review his development as a vocalist.

However, just when the audience thought the journey had concluded, Brownlee discussed an early encounter with George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 Messiah oratorio and the opportunities for embellishment in the opening selections for tenor, “Comfort ye my people” and “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted.” He then delivered a jaw-dropping account of this music, allowing each embellishment to unfold gracefully among the notes that Handel had already committed to paper. This was then followed by the plain-spoken delivery of the African American spiritual “All Night, All Day,” reminding the listener that the sublime can be presented in many different packages.

Fortunately, the programming that preceded these encores was far more satisfying than what I had encountered on Monday. Regardless of genre, Brownlee consistently found a “comfort zone” for his vocal qualities in each of the selections he performed. He began with his early encounter with the collection 24 Italian Songs and Arias, a single volume of extracts from the three-volume collection Arie antiche (ancient arias) compiled by Alessandro Parisotti. Compiled in the late nineteenth century, “ancient” to Parisotti meant seventeenth-century; and Brownlee consistently honored the rhetorical styles of that period. He then shifted gears to the more familiar texts of German (Franz Schubert and Richard Strauss) and French (Gabriel Fauré, Francis Poulenc, and “honorary member” Franz Liszt) art song, providing equally engaging interpretations. Finally, his spiritual set drew upon arrangements by Harry Burleigh and Hall Johnson, both consistently authoritative sources.

This was Brownlee’s second SFP appearance. He had previously made his San Francisco recital debut as part of the SFP 2017–2018 Vocal Series. Before that he made his debut with the San Francisco Opera in Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, a 2016 production that was streamed this past April. He has established convincing comfort zones in both opera and art song, and his breadth in the latter category is engagingly impressive. Hopefully, his schedule will allow him to make frequent returns to our city.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

More Russians from Richter on Profil

courtesy of Naxos of America

At the beginning of this month Profil released its latest collection of performances by Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter. As I observed a little over a year ago, these releases have been organized around “composer pairings.” This new release departs from that convention; and I have been referring to the set of thirteen CDs as the “assorted Russians collection.” In “order of appearance” those Russians are Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Alexander Borodin, Anatoly Lyadov, Alexander Glazunov, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Mikhail Glinka, and Alexander Dargomyzhsky. Chronology does not seem to matter very much in this release, nor does the fact that Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev were “paired” on the last release. Indeed, the selections on the new album overlap those of its predecessor, the only difference being that the recordings were made on different dates.

That said, there is much to admire in the diversity in this new collection. Much of the content is likely to be unfamiliar to most listeners, even when the composer is well-known. A primary example can be found on the second disc, which presents back-to-back recordings of two performances of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 37 (“Grand”) piano sonata in G major. The same can be said of The Nursery, Mussorgsky’s cycle of nine songs, only seven of which were published. Those seven songs are sung by soprano Nina Dorliak, who was Richter’s close companion from 1945 until his death in 1998. Where Mussorgsky is concerned, the opportunity to listen to a Richter performance (recorded at a concert in Kiev in November of 1958) of the Pictures at an Exhibition suite is most welcome.

On the other hand Richter tends to avoid performing or recording “comprehensive cycles.” I was particularly disappointed that he did not give a complete account of Shostakovich’s Opus 87 set of 24 preludes and fugues in all the major and minor keys, clearly inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. There is clearly a lot of thought behind the preludes and fugues that he did record; but it is hard to avoid feeling short-changed, particularly for the recordings made under studio conditions. Even more perplexing is his excerpting of Prokofiev’s Opus 22 Visions fugitives cycle of twenty miniatures, such a compelling overall model of brevity that one wonders why Richer resorted to “selections.”

The closest thing to a complete set can be found on the CD of the three Prokofiev “War” sonatas, Opus 82 in A major, Opus 83 in B-flat major, and Opus 84, also in B-flat major. These were not meant to be performed consecutively, and each of the three was recorded on a different date, two in concert settings and one in a studio. Unfortunately, around two or three minutes of the beginning of Opus 82, recorded at a concert in Kiev in July of 1960, are missing. This makes for a seriously impoverished listening experience, but invites gratitude for a movement structure with a recapitulation.

I would therefore suggest that this release will probably appeal to only the most enthusiastic listeners of Richter’s performances.

SFO Announces Ian Robertson’s Retirement

Ian Robertson and the SFO Chorus at the conclusion of their 2016 recital (photograph by Matthew Washburn, courtesy of SFO)

Yesterday morning Matthew Shilvock, the Tad and Dianne Taube General Director of the San Francisco Opera (SFO), announced that Chorus Director Ian Robertson will retire and the end of this calendar year. Robertson began his tenure in 1987; and, over the course of 35 seasons, he established the SFO Chorus as one of opera’s finest vocal ensembles. There is a tendency among many opera lovers to focus attention only on the vocal soloists; but there are any number of scores in which the choral parts play a significant role in a libretto’s narrative, often reflecting the same function provided by the chorus in Ancient Greek drama. Composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Verdi appreciated that role and knew how to deploy it to the advantage of the opera as a whole.

I had the good fortune to establish a mildly passing acquaintance with Robertson, primarily through eating at the same places at the same time. Contact often consisted of little more than friendly nods. However, in the summer of 2019 I remember crossing paths with him in the park between the two War Memorial buildings on Van Ness Avenue. After the usual exchange of nods, he could barely contain himself and burst our saying, “We’re doing Billy Budd!” With my own appreciation of the operas of Benjamin Britten, I could share his enthusiasm. When it came time to me for give an account of the SFO production itself, I put a lot of my descriptive writing into the many characters that figure in the narrative and the relationships out of which the narrative emerges. However, my “last words” shifted to Britten’s choral writing, which I described as “the foundation upon which that plethora of individual character types are developed.”

Robertson’s career will be celebrated with an all-choral concert in which he will lead the SFO Chorus. Program details have not yet been announced; but beloved choruses from the operas of Mozart, Verdi, and Giacomo Puccini will be performed. These will be balanced with more contemporary selections of works by Florence Price (who often set her own texts but also drew on sources such as Vachel Lindsay), Joan Szymko (who specializes in music for the theater and choral ensembles), and the English folk singer Kate Rusby.

This program will be given two performances at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 11, and 2 p.m. on Sunday, December 12. The venue will be the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera on the top (fourth) floor of the Veterans Building. The street address is 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Admission will be $39 for general seating at both performances. Tickets may be purchased by calling the San Francisco Box Office at 415-864-3330.

Aaron Diehl’s Delightfully Jazzy SFP Debut

Pianist Aaron Diehl (from the SFP event page for this performance)

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the last of three consecutive solo piano recitals as part of the current Summer Music Sessions 2021 programming. The pianist was Aaron Diehl, making his SFP debut. However, readers that also follow the San Francisco Symphony may have seen him at the beginning of this month in Davies Symphony Hall, where he joined conductor Edwin Outwater in launching the summer season.

Diehl was soloist in what I called a “historically informed” performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” The “history” had to do with the fact that Gershwin had not yet written out the piano part when this piece was first performed. Most likely there was a fair amount of improvising on that occasion, and Diehl displayed an engaging approach to interjecting his own improvisations without compromising what was now printed in the piano part.

Last night Diehl prepared a program that explored a generous diversity of jazz piano styles that emerged during the first half of the twentieth century. He also provided a more “classical overture” in the form of a seven-movement suite composed by William Grant Still in 1940 entitled Seven Traceries. Diehl was clearly as much at home with Still’s transparent textures as he would be in the rest of his program’s tour of past jazz masters. Those iconic figures were, in order of appearance, Roland Hanna, Willie “The Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson, and Duke Ellington. The Johnson offering was coupled with the one contemporary composition, “J-Walking” by Wynton Guess. (The title was a play on the Johnson selection, “Keep Off the Grass.”) The program concluded with Nathaniel Dett’s “Juba Dance.”

Diehl was consistently at home with the diversity of jazz styles he had selected. Most impressive was Ellington’s “New World A-Comin’,” which was first performed in Carnegie Hall in 1943. Ellington conceived this piece as a piano solo, and that it the way he incorporated it into the first of the Sacred Concerts he prepared for performance on December 26, 1965. The music is practically a concerto for solo instrument, and Diehl’s account was as absorbing as the interpretation he had given to “Rhapsody in Blue.”

At the end of his program, Diehl continued his tour of “iconic figures” by selecting Scott Joplin for his encore, playing “Solace.”