Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Duke Ellington in Berlin in 1959

Back in April of 2017, the Danish Storyville Records label released An Intimate Piano Session, the first commercial issue of some major solo work by pianist Duke Ellington. The tracks were recorded at Media Sound Recording Studios in Manhattan, all on August 25, 1972, at a time when Ellington was performing with a small group at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. Storyville has established itself as a major source of historical jazz performances, although most of those performances have taken place in Europe, rather than in the United States. Nevertheless, my personal opinions about the label have been decidedly variable, leaving me, as I put it at the beginning of this year, “significantly less than sanguine.”

courtesy of Naxos of America

As a result, when Storyville released its latest Ellington album, Berlin 1959, I was not quite sure what to expect. Note that the above hyperlink points to the Bandcamp Web page, since the one created by Amazon.com is pathetically devoid of useful background content (including the absence of a track listing). To be fair, this is a two-CD release; and Bandcamp enumerates the tracks from 1 to 28. For those interested in the physical release, the first CD accounts for the first eleven tracks; and the second includes the remaining seventeen.

It is also worth noting that, in July of 2013, Sounds of Yesteryear released a two-CD album entitled The Famous Berlin Concert 1959. These two albums overlap, but each has tracks that are not on the other! Sadly, I do not have production details for either of these albums, which means that I am not sure what was recorded when. My guess is that all of the recordings were made at the Sportpalast in Berlin, but I do not know if Ellington and his band gave only a single concert. Nevertheless, the Bandcamp Web page provides a bit of background about the venue that probably deserves repeating:

Berlin’s Sportpalast is not a concert hall and during the cursed Nazi reign often was the site of speeches by Hitler and his fellow criminals, but the hall can be said to have been thoroughly purified by sounds of jazz by the time of this concert.

“Purification” aside, the tracks on the Storyville album at least suggest that acoustic conditions were not particularly favorable. Indeed, if the tracks were recorded in the order in which they were performed, one could easily speculate that the recording team had not yet found the best placement for their microphones before the performance began. Fortunately, recording quality gradually improves as one advances from one track to the next.

That said, there is much to enjoy in the performances themselves. These include a generous number of vocals provided by Lil Greenwood. However, I was more interested in Ellington’s decision to include “Skin Deep” on the program.

This was composed by drummer Louis Bellson, presumably during the time when he was Ellington’s drummer. (As an aside, I was fortunate enough to see Bellson when he was a guest artist for the annual summer jazz festival held at Stanford University during the late Nineties. On that occasion he had supervised the reconstruction of the entire Black, Brown and Beige concert, which was first performed in Carnegie Hall in January of 1943. Bellson was not the drummer on that occasion.) The drummer in Berlin was Jimmy Johnson, but it was easy to appreciation Bellson’s spirit hovering in the background.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Weinberger’s Reger Project: Volume 7

This month began with the German label cpo releasing the seventh volume in Gerhard Weinberger’s project to record the complete organ works of Max Reger. As I have previously observed, each volume has consisted of two CDs. Since the OehmsClassics complete-works Reger project, recording performances by Bernhard Buttmann, consisted of sixteen CDs, it would be reasonable to expect that there will be only one more two-CD release from cpo. Both of these projects seem to have begun with initial releases in 2014. However, Buttmann’s project concluded in 2016, the year of the 100th anniversary of Reger’s death. Weinberger’s sixth volume was released early in 2020, before the COVID pandemic; but, given the overall sluggishness of the release schedule, I am not sure that COVID can be blamed for the delay of this latest release.

On the other hand pandemic weariness may be one of the reasons that my patience in following the cpo series is beginning to wear more than a bit thin. However, there are other factors, some of which may be more significant. More substantive has been Weinberger’s piecemeal approach to some of the publications.

This new release involves excerpts from both the Opus 56 collection of “easy” preludes and fugues and the Opus 79b collection of thirteen chorale preludes. Bearing in mind that there is little motivation to perform either of these collections in its respective beginning-to-end order, many will probably treat the results of this recording project as a reference resource. So, unless the final release includes a “universal” index across the entire corpus, listeners in search of a specific composition are likely to feel frustrated. That difficulty is made all the worse by a front cover that does not give a particularly accurate account of the contents.

Where the recordings themselves are concerned, Weinberger’s approach to performance is likely to strike many as problematic. His approach to dynamic range runs a wide gamut from almost inaudible to earthshakingly loud. (The latter, of course, perfectly aligns with the pull-out-all-the-stops epithet.) It is one thing to appreciate the breadth of that dynamic range in a concert hall or a church with good acoustics, but most of us do not listen to recordings with audio equipment that does justice to such breadth. As far as I am concerned, the primary asset of a recording project like this one is to serve as a resource to prepare for listening to a particular composition in performance.

These factors have left me more sympathetic to the results of Buttmann’s project, but I still hope to follow Weinberger to his final two-CD release.

Watching Eun Sun Kim at Work with SFO

SFO Music Direct Eun Sun Kim (photograph by Marc Olivier Le Blanc, courtesy of SFO)

Those that have been following this site for some time probably know by now that my wife and I have had subscription tickets to the San Francisco Opera (SFO), which we secured long before I took up the writing I am now doing. I treasure our seats because the view of the orchestra pit is as good as that of the stage; and I have found that it is often beneficial to keep track of both of those sites, rather than just watching the narrative unfold on that stage. Thus, for all the benefits that came with the seats we had for the beginning of the 2021–22 season, I was not in a position to observe the new Music Director Eun Sun Kim launching the season with her interpretation of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.

Mind you, there are no end of details in Shawna Lucey’s staging of this opera to keep attention firmly fixed on the stage over the course of all three of the opera’s acts, each of which amounts to its own dramatic journey. However, this is one of those operas whose text is almost entirely in prose, meaning that the traditional techniques for dealing with arias (not to mention duets or larger groups) are seldom encountered. As a result, every utterance has its own characteristic phrase structure, meaning that every phrase of the music has its own distinctive semantic baggage to carry.

As a result the conductor must deal with a level of “micro-management” that goes beyond the usual stand-there-and-sing aria deliveries. Mind you, SFO’s first encounter with Kim took place in June of 2019, when she made her SFO debut conducting Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 114 Rusalka, which is also dominated by prose rhetoric. This is another opera in which the music advances the progress of the narrative by adding new dimensions to the text and the staging. Kim clearly knew what those additional dimensions were and knew how to call them out for the benefit of the attentive listener. Similarly, she called out expressive techniques in Puccini’s score which are often overlooked by those just interested in following the narrative from one episode to the next.

It is also worth noting that, every now and then, one can catch Puccini reflecting back on his few ventures into chamber music. In the third act, which begins with Mario Cavaradossi (tenor Michael Fabiano) reflecting on his last hours of life, the score calls for four separate cello parts, which were taken by single instruments under Kim’s direction. This was almost a vocal quartet unto itself, with a melodic line in the “upper voice” that was an absolutely luscious account by Principal Cello Thalia Moore. Kim knew exactly how to convey the poignant intimacy of this moment; and, even if the episode is only about a minute in duration, last night’s account was firmly etched into memory.

Tosca is one of those operas in which the instrumental music carries as much of the “narrative weight” as is demanded of the vocalists; and Kim’s command of the full scope of the score registered in memory as securely as Fabiano’s account of Cavaradossi, soprano Ailyn Pérez in the title role, and bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Baron Scarpia.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Kevin Sun’s Disappointing Homage to Parker

Today is the 101st anniversary of the birth of Charlie Parker (also known as both “Bird” and “Yardbird”). I first appreciated the significance of this date back when I was living in Stamford, Connecticut, in a building tall enough that the rooftop antenna could pull in WKCR, the campus radio station at Columbia University. Every year at this time, WKCR would hold their version of a WHRB (at Harvard University) “Orgy,” which ran from August 27 to August 29. August 27 was the date of the birth of Lester Young (also known as “Pres” or “Prez”). On that day WKCR would play nothing by Young recordings, and Parker would get the same treatment on August 29. (August 28 provided a mix of both jazzmen in equal measure.)

On this particular August 29, Endectomorph Music released the fourth recording led by saxophonist Kevin Sun. The title of the album is <3 Bird, the opening two characters serving as an emoticon representing a heart (as in “I <3 New York”). The tracks present thirteen compositions (two of which occupy two consecutive tracks), all inspired by Parker performances, for the most part of his own music. Sun plays tenor saxophone, clarinet, and, on one track, sheng, leading a sextet in which he shares the front line with Adam O’Farrill on five of the tracks. Rhythm is provided by Max Light on guitar, Christian Li, alternating between acoustic piano and Rhodes piano, Walter Stinson on bass, and Matt Honor on drums.

The album is basically an exercise in deconstruction and reconstruction. Sun mined the Parker “book” for many of his best known motifs and then proceeded to assemble them in different combinations. For example, he took a theme from a Parker track entitled simple “Segment” and interleaved it with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Be-Bop,” which was a favorite in the Parker repertoire. While this was an imaginative approach to reflect on the Parker legacy a century after his birth, the tracks themselves never rise to the compelling intensity that hooks jazz lovers into going back to Parker recordings the way classical music lovers tend to gravitate back to their recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Perhaps if my personal collection of Parker recordings was not as large as it is, I would have been more intrigued by Sun’s exercise; but I fear my time will be better spent emulating my past experience of listening to WKCR on this date.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Hilary Kole’s Vocal Style Overtakes Substance

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

After a few weeks of confusion, probably a side-effect of pandemic conditions, the latest album of jazz vocalist Hilary Kole has finally secured a page on Amazon.com. Sophisticated Lady is an eleven-track album devoted primarily to standards, with the title track introducing the album with one of Duke Ellington’s compositions. (To be fair, however, Ellington first composed this piece as an instrumental in 1932. Words were later added by Mitchell Parish; and that version, sung by Adelaide Hall, was not recorded until 1944 with Hall backed up by Phil Green And His Rhythm, rather than Ellington’s orchestra.)

That hiatus of about a dozen years should not be surprising. Bearing in mind that one seldom approaches Ellington in terms of a theoretical infrastructure, it is worth noting that Ellington had a prodigious command when working with sizable intervallic leaps; and “Sophisticated Lady” shows off that command at its best. However, if the tune itself is irresistible in its “sophistication,” it is a killer for vocalists, even those with rigorous classical training.

Kole’s Wikipedia page cites her attending the Manhattan School of Music but says nothing about when (if ever) she graduated. To be fair, however, she may not have graduated because, during her student days, she landed a gig at the Rainbow Room, which kept her busy six nights out of the week. Her successful command of the Great American Songbook led to subsequent bookings at the Blue Note, Birdland, and the Algonquin Hotel.

Nevertheless, readers may have noted that I can be very picky when listening to jazz vocalists. That is because, for better or worse, I expect any singer to make sure (s)he has nailed all the intervals (from the chromatic half-step all the way up) before adding stylizing tropes to the delivery. In that context, I have to confess serious disappointment in how Kole handles those aforementioned intervalic leaps in “Sophisticated Lady.” To be fair, her account of Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” takes a somewhat more secure account of those intervals (unless one is listening for the lapses, for which I plead guilty-as-charged).

Some of the difficulty may be due to the arrangements. These were made by Chris Bryars, who plays a variety of wind instruments. On “In a Sentimental Mood” he is playing flute, which has its own share of problems when one needs to establish intonation. On the other hand his command of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” on saxophone could not be more satisfying, while Kole’s approach to Irving Berlin’s intervals is even weaker than her approaches to Ellington; and, by the time the album closes with Richard Rodgers’ “The Sweetest Sounds,” she seems to have thrown any serious intentions regarding intonation to the wind.

The other instrumentalists are guitarist John Hart, pianist Adam Birnbaum, Paul Gill on bass, drummer Aaron Kimmel, and Tom Beckham on vibraphone. Whatever intonation difficulties Bryars may have had with this flute, his’ arrangements place all of these players in a perfectly good light. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, this is, after all, supposed to be a vocal album.

Julia Den Boer’s Impressionist Abstractions

Yesterday evening the fifth annual season of the San Francisco International Piano Festival continued with the second of two concerts presented as part of the Piano Break series under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation. The pianist was French-American Julia Den Boer, who specializes in challenging modernist compositions, a far cry from the first Piano Break recital, which was devoted entirely to Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Considering Den Boer’s adventurism, it was a bit ironic that all of her selections were taken from the twentieth century. Nevertheless, each of them was decidedly adventurous in its own way.

Indeed, her most enigmatic offering is now over a century old. Leoš Janáček’s In the Mists is a cycle of four “misty” compositions that was composed in 1912. That “misty” trait is reflected by key signatures with five or six flats; but the enigmatic qualities are further enhanced by the almost fragmented approach that the composer took to phrasing. The Wikipedia page for this composition notes that Janáček wrote this music “while his operas were still being rejected by the Prague opera houses.” Those familiar with his operas will probably recognize many of their rhetorical devices in this piano cycle, possibly even reflecting on how they might be orchestrated. This left me wondering if those operatic influences may have guided Den Boer through her interpretation of the enigmas in this piece.

The early twentieth century was also represented by “Oiseaux tristes” (sad birds), the second of the five movements in Maurice Ravel’s Miroirs (mirrors) suite. This is also the shortest movement, and Den Boer’s reading seemed to endow it with the quality of a passing moment. The referential qualities of Ravel’s title situated the piece following a much later compositions, Rebecca Saunders’ “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” composed in 1994.

The other selection from the second half of the twentieth century was Anthony Braxton’s “Composition No. 5,” completed in 1969. This is a collection of three pieces, published along with a composer’s note and instructions. The instructions are meant to guide the performer through the more enigmatic aspects of Braxton’s approaches to notation:

I am more familiar with Braxton’s work in different genres of jazz. This composition clearly does not fit into any of those genres. Indeed, the “composer’s note” refers to the last of the three pieces as “a sound arrangement that I devised.” This does not give the performer very much guidance, leaving me wondering whether Den Boer interprets the ambiguity of the score pages the same way with every performance or allows herself to take a freer approach to “sound arrangement” from one occasion to the next.

Through my familiarity with Braxton’s recordings, I found I could establish a receptive frame of mind for Den Boer’s performance. Sadly, I could not say the same for the Saunders composition. One could appreciate her efforts to explore different approaches to piano sonorities, but there was an opacity in Den Boer’s interpretation that almost suggested that the mirror Saunders had in mind did not admit of clear reflection. To be fair, this was my first encounter with anything that Saunders had composed; and I suspect that adjusting to her mind-set is going to take some time.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Nico Muhly’s “Throughline” on SFS Media Album

This past November, KQED presented the debut broadcast of Throughline: San Francisco Symphony—From Hall to Home. As I wrote at the time, this program was the closest that the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) had come to a full-length concert since all the public places of the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center were shut down on the previous March 7 to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. For those that follow SFS, this was a significant occasion, because it provided the first opportunity to see Esa-Pekka Salonen in his new role as SFS Music Director. However, Salonen was far from the only focus for the occasion. He was just as interested in introducing his eight Collaborative Partners to San Francisco audiences.

We first learned about this extended partnership when SFS announced the appointment of Salonen as its new Music Director. On that occasion he explained that he wanted to work with a team of partners to embark on a future of experimentation by collaborating on new ideas, breaking conventional rules, and creating unique and powerful experiences in and around the concert experience. He assembled eight artists from a variety of different creative domains:

  1. pianist, film producer, and composer of award-winning film scores, Nicholas Britell
  2. soprano and curator, Julia Bullock, who has made social consciousness and activism fundamental to her work
  3. flutist, educator, and advocate for new and experimental music, Claire Chase
  4. composer, new music curator, and member of The National, Bryce Dessner
  5. violinist, musical director, and artistic trailblazer, Pekka Kuusisto
  6. composer and genre-breaking collaborator, Nico Muhly
  7. artificial intelligence entrepreneur and roboticist, Carol Reiley
  8. jazz bassist and vocalist, esperanza spalding.

To introduce these artists, Muhly composed “Throughline” on an SFS commission. The score consisted of thirteen short movements that would involve performances by both Salonen and all of the Collaborative Partners. The KQED program provided the world premiere of the composition. The video associated with that score involved a rich synthesis of filming, recording, editing, and some highly sophisticated post-processing. Since the partners were geographically distributed, all of that post-processing took place on a global scale.

The “virtual cover” of the SFS Media album of Nico Muhly’s “Throughline” (from the Amazon.com Web page)

As of this writing, the resulting video is still available for viewing on a Web page on the SFS Web site. However, for those interested only in Muhly’s score, the music is now available for download as an MP3 SFS Media album from an Amazon.com Web page. That page also includes a “Listen Now” hyperlink for streamed listening. As can be seen on that Web page, the total duration of the composition is eighteen minuets and 46 seconds.

Marian Anderson Sings Spirituals and Carols

courtesy of Jensen Artists

Exactly one week ago this site discussed the nine CDs in Beyond the Music, Sony Classical’s fifteen-CD collection of all the recordings made by contralto Marian Anderson for RCA Victor. Today is the release date of this album, and the Amazon.com Web page has been updated accordingly. That makes this an appropriate time to discuss the rest of the musical content, five CDs devoted to spirituals and carols.

By way of disclaimer, I should begin by observing that I have been an atheist for over half of my life, after having been born Jewish. However, simply by virtue of being a citizen of the United States of America with both radio and television content at my disposal, it is almost impossible to avoid being bombarded by Christmas carols every December. For the most part I can endure this annual obsession. However, the selections on the CD of carols were arranged by Robert Russell Bennett, giving them a treatment that could not be more distant from the centuries-old tradition of neighbors singing carols at the doors of other neighbors. For better or worse, my guess is that RCA was more interested in a marketable commodity than in merely providing an opportunity to listen to Anderson take on a different genre.

On the other hand, while Anderson’s talents were best served by art song and occasional ventures into opera, the spirituals she recorded clearly accounted for a significant share of her “roots.” As a result, one can appreciate that every track she recorded rested on a bedrock of sincerity. That said, there is a fair amount of overlap across the first three of the four CDs of spirituals. My guess is that these releases had more to do with support technology, rather than content.

Thus, the tracks on the first CD were all released as ten-inch 78 RPM records between 1924 and 1947. The content of the second CD was released as 78s, 45s, and a single monaural LP, meaning the RCA was weaning their customers away from 78s in favor of the higher-quality 45s and LPs. Not only was the third CD, released in 1962, based entirely on LP content; but that content was part of RCA’s new “Living Stereo” offerings.

The fourth recording, however, departs from the usual approach to the preceding spiritual albums. Jus’ Keep On Singin’ consists of fourteen spirituals conjoined almost in the spirit of a song cycle. All of the offerings were arranged by Hall Johnson; but only the last of them, “Ride On, King Jesus,” is likely to be familiar to most listeners.

Recording sessions took place in the fall of 1964, and the album itself was the penultimate RCA release of Anderson performances. One gets the impression that Anderson herself planned the “program” of this album, while the RCA bean-counters probably provided input over the content of the three preceding releases. To some extent the result provides a reflection of not only Anderson’s personal approach to singing spirituals but also her dramatic experiences in singing opera.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Ars Minerva will Return to ODC in November

Some readers may recall that Ars Minerva was one of the eight organizations that participated in the Welcome Back to the Performing Arts program presented at the Yerba Buena Gardens Esplanade this past Sunday. This is the organization led by Executive Artistic Director Céline Ricci, which has specialized in resurrecting forgotten operas from the Italian Baroque. The last time one of these operas, Ermelinda, composed by Domenico Freschi, was presented was in November of 2019 at the ODC Theater. After a year’s hiatus due to pandemic conditions, Ars Minerva will return to ODC this coming November.

Once again the group will be presenting a North American premiere. Messalina, which was composed by Carlo Pallavicino, was first performed in Venice in 1679. The title character is the young wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who was old enough to be her grandfather. This will be the second Ars Minerva production of an opera composed by Pallavicino, the first having been The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles, which was presented in the spring of 2016. As might be expected, the libretto for Messalina provides a generous share of farce, most of which involves the romantic vicissitudes of the members of a relatively populous cast.

Aura Veruni in the title role of Carlo Pallavicino’s Messalina (photograph by Valentina Sadiul, courtesy of Ars Minerva)

The title role will be sung by soprano Aura Veruni, who had previously sung the title role in Giovanni Porta’s Ifigenia in Aulide, which Ars Minerva presented in November of 2018. The role of Claudius will be sung by mezzo Deborah Rosengaus. The other members of that “relatively populous cast” will be Kevin Gino, Patrick Hagen, Zachary Gordin, Marcus Paige, Kindra Scharich, and Shawnette Sulker. Ricci will direct the staging, and Jory Vinikour will conduct from the harpsichord. The other members of the instrumental ensemble will be violinists Cynthia Black and Laura Jeannin, violist Aaron Westman, cellist Gretchen Claassen, and Adam Cockerham on theorbo.

As has been the case with previous productions, there will be three performances taking place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, November 19, and Saturday, November 20, and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 21. The ODC Theater is located in the Mission at 3153 17th Street on the southwest corner of Shotwell Street. Ticket prices are the “Gold” rate of $98 and the “Silver” rate of $79. Students will be admitted for $27 and there is a special VIP rate of $250 that includes a post-performance reception with the artists and a tax-deductible contribution of $130. Tickets may be purchased through separate event pages for the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday performances.

A Questionable Birthday Present for Wikipedia

Today the Opinion section of the Al Jazeera Web site ran an article with the primary headline “Learning to trust the internet again” followed by the secondary headline “Wikipedia can serve as a model to combat disinformation and distrust online.” Given the recent beating that the very concept of truth has been taking, not only in the domain of politics but also, more recently, in that of health care, one might think that this article would be a breath of fresh air. Then the reader may proceed below those headlines to discover that the author of the article was Jimmy Wales, who founded Wikipedia twenty years ago. So the article amounts to a “birthday party” for Wikipedia with Wales as the Master of Ceremonies.

Those who read this site regularly know that Wikipedia has been a valuable tool for me. Where music history is concerned, the best resource in English remains what is now The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which is now available through the Oxford Music Online Web site. However, that site is not available without charge for general public access. My own ability to use it comes from the fact that I can get into the site once the San Francisco Public Library Web site has validated the identification code on my library card. As a result, I almost never provide hyperlinks into the Oxford site, since I prefer not to lead my readers into a paywall.

Instead, I provide hyperlinks into Wikipedia. When it comes to nuts-and-bolts data about composer biographies and lists of their compositions, I have rarely been disappointed. Indeed, in accounts of more arcane topics, such as the diversity of tuning systems, I have been just as satisfied; and, where ethnomusicology is concerned, it would not surprise me if Wikipedia was a better source than Oxford. My guess is that these assets of Wikipedia are due to a great abundance of contributors, probably consisting of graduate students and junior faculty members, that have been writing such content for other reasons and then appreciate being able to upload it to a site for the benefit of others. As one reads the Al Jazeera article, one quickly realizes that this is the world that Wales wanted Wikipedia to sustain.

However, it is important to acknowledge what Wales took (and continues to take) to be Wikipedia’s greatest asset:

Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and that means that hundreds of thousands of people are also involved in the integrity of protecting the knowledge that we find on it.

While this may be true of the global community of music scholars, we all know that they amount to a rather small minority of the community of “citizen editors” that sustain Wales’ project. The fact is that, as recently as 2008, Wales’ ideal vision was taking a serious beating.

In February of that year, Mary Spicuzza wrote an article for SF Weekly, which was published in print as “Wikipidiots” and can still be found archived on the SF Weekly Web site under the title “Wikipedia Idiots: The Edit Wars of San Francisco.” By way of endorsement, I wrote an article of my own on this site in which I offered my own take on Wales’ idealization of “citizen editors:”

While it is true that Plato tried to enhance the readability of his dialogs by providing his “characters” with (often contentious) personalities, I doubt that he would have appreciated the extent to which the discussion of entries in a would-be encyclopedia that has become a major Internet resource has assumed all the personality traits of WWE Friday Night Smackdown!

Hopefully, at least some of my readers were able to observe that my hyperlink pointed to a Wikipedia page!

To be fair, things have improved since then; so I have no desire to rain on Wikimania 2021, Wales’ “all-virtual celebration” of the efforts of all those writers and editors that contributed content on a strictly voluntary basis. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the current century has emerged as one in which marketing has prevailed over truth in ways that those of my own generation could not have imagined, let alone anticipated. Wales’ ideal is one of “a collaborative movement of knowledge seekers;” but, in the “real world,” the very concept of “informed action” is on life-support and has been for longer that we would like to admit. So, while I can thank Wales with providing me with a tool that has become essential to my current work, I am more than a little skeptical that his ideals will be realized.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

E4TT Announces 2021/22 Season Plans

A week ago Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) released its plans for the coming season. All four of last season’s programs were live-streamed through YouTube. However, with the return of “in-person” audiences, E4TT has planned a five-concert series that will continue to provide live-streaming but will also admit “physical” audiences. The “core” E4TT ensemble is a trio led by soprano Nanette McGuinness. Last season the pianist was Season Guest Margaret Halbig; and, when she returns for the coming season, she will no longer be a “guest.” On the other hand cellist Anne Lerner-Wright has left the group and will be replaced by Abigail Monroe. Guest performers, however, will include violinist Ilona Blumberg, percussionist Mika Nakamura, bassist Yuchen Liu, and pianist Tin Yi Chelsea Wong.

Five programs have been planned for the coming (fourteenth) season. As of this writing, a venue has been arranged for each of them, as well as a hyperlink for live-streaming to YouTube. Each event has its own Web page, which will provide the necessary hyperlink for its respective live-stream. Any information about performing in the presence of an audience will be provided at a later date. Plans for each of the programs, along with the hyperlink to its Web page, are as follows:

Friday, October 15, 8 p.m., Alchemy: This is the concert that has already been announced on the October schedule for Old First Concerts. The theme involves the relations between identity and transformation. The program will feature two world premieres:

  1. The Unseen, a song cycle by Bay Area composer Brennan Stokes, setting poems by Sara Teasdale, which will be sung by coloratura soprano Chelsea Hollow
  2. “Cello Solo by Abby” by Mary Bianco to be performed by Monroe

The program will also include “Etudinal Caprice,” a solo piano composition by Darian Donovan Thomas, given its world premiere in 2013. Other works on the program will present transformations through the “voices” of underrepresented composers.

Saturday, November 13, 7:30 p.m., Piano Recital: The Center for New Music (C4NM) will host a solo piano recital by Wong. The program will contrast three renowned composers from the twentieth century (György Ligeti, Henri Dutilleux, and Grażyna Bacewicz) with three currently active composers (Gabriela Lena Frank, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Zosha Di Castri, and Viet Cuong). The above hyperlink provides information for both physical and virtual attendance.

Saturday, January 29, 7:30 p.m., Below the Surface: Music by Women Composers: The “core trio” of E4TT will be joined by Blumberg on violin. The title of the program is also the title of a song cycle by Emily Doolittle, whose world premiere was delayed due to COVID. Commissioned by E4TT, Scotland-based Doolittle set texts by Bay Area poets Rachel Richardson and Rella Lossy. The other women composers on the program will be Eleanor Alberga, Du Yun, Elena Ruehr, Gabriela Ortiz, Angélica Negrón, and four alumnae of the Gabriela Lena Frank Academy of Music: Akshaya Avril Tucker, Jungyoon Wie, Seo Yoon Kim, and Manjing Zhang. Again, physical and virtual attendance will be managed through the above hyperlink.

Saturday, April 9, 7:30 p.m., Dark Universe/Mysterious Spaces: This will be a performance given in collaboration with the Technical and Applied Composition Department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The program will be the 2022 commissions concert, with commissions inspired by both outer and terrestrial space. The performance will take place in the new Jewel Box Recital Hall, located in the SFCM Bowes Center at 200 Van Ness Avenue. There will be no charge for admission or for YouTube viewing. However, in both cases, an RSVP is recommended. The above hyperlink enables registration through an Eventbrite Web page.

Saturday, June 18, 7:30 p.m., Émigrés & Exiles in Hollywood: Encore!: This will revisit both composers and content from last season’s Émigrés & Exiles in Hollywood program. Once again the performance will be by the E4TT “core” trio. The performance will again take place at the Berkeley Piano Club, but it will also be live-streamed on YouTube. The above hyperlink again enables registration through an Eventbrite Web page.

New Account of Complete Albéniz Piano Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

At the beginning of this month, BIS Records released a nine-CD album of the complete piano music composed by Isaac Albéniz. Each of the CDs had been previously released as a “single,” which is similar to the approach that Naxos took in releasing its own set of nine CDs as a series of eight volumes. (The first volume consisted of two CDs to account for the entirety of the four books of the Iberia collection.) It took roughly two decades for Naxos to complete their project, drawing upon different pianists for different volumes. The BIS collection, on the other hand, provides a more unified approach to performance as defined by a single pianist, Miguel Baselga. However, it, too, emerged from single CDs released over the course of two decades.

I suspect that there is a general consensus that one collection of the complete piano music of Albéniz is sufficient. However, since I am a sucker for musicology, I was drawn to Baselga through his partnership with Jacinto Torres, an Albéniz scholar, who was able to provide access to original editions and scores. These included the composer’s two major works for piano and orchestra, the Opus 70 “Rapsodia española” and the Opus 78 three-movement concerto with the subtitle “Concerto fantástico” (fantasy concerto). Neither of these orchestral selections were included in the Naxos series, although that series did include the solo piano version of Opus 70. Baselga’s repertoire also includes three spontaneous improvisations that Albéniz recorded in 1903. These were transcribed by Milton R. Laufer and were published by G. Henle Verlag in 2010. It is also worth noting the inclusion of the “Marcha militar,” which Albéniz composed at the age of nine; but, to be fair, this is also included in the Naxos collection.

Albéniz died relatively young, just eleven days short of his 48th birthday. He was basically a contemporary of Claude Debussy and probably influenced Debussy’s own ventures into “Iberian idioms.” What may be more interesting is that Olivier Messiaen identified Albéniz (as well as Debussy) as a significant influence in his own early approaches to piano music. Ironically, almost all of my awareness of Albéniz piano music has been through either recordings or guitar recitals. According to my records, the last time I wrote about a pianist playing Albéniz was when Javier Perianes gave a solo recital for San Francisco Performances in May of 2017! At the risk of sounding too jaded, I have come to believe that the concert-going world would be in a better-balanced place if pianists served up a bit less of the music of Frédéric Chopin and a bit more Albéniz.

Graham Lynch’s Serious Playfulness

Paul Sanchez playing Graham Lynch’s “Absolute Seriousness” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

Last night’s installment in the fifth annual season of the San Francisco International Piano Festival was a solo recital by Paul Sánchez consisting entirely of premiere performances of works by Graham Lynch. The program was framed by two world premieres, “Absolute Inwardness” and “White Book 3.” Between them Sánchez played the United States premiere of “The Couperin Sketchbooks.”

Sánchez also gave his program a title: Seria Ludo: New Piano Music by Graham Lynch. “Seria” is Latin for “serious,” while “ludo” provides the Latin root on the adjective “ludicrous.” The juxtaposition appears in a sentence by Horace that involves putting jokes aside in favor of more serious matters. In that context I have to confess that, at least in Sánchez’ account, there was an intensity of seriousness that dominated any attempt at a sense of humor. After all, the very title of the first composition was drawn from the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, hardly known for any turns of wit in his writing.

To be fair, however, all three of Lynch’s scores were technically demanding unto an extreme. At the very least Sánchez deserves not just credit but accolades for the confident interpretation he brought to each of these pieces, However, in spite of the pianist’s prodigious technical capacities, it was difficult for any “first-contact” listener to establish orientation in the midst of an onslaught of dense textures overwhelming any sense of either thematic material or the development of that material.

Mind you, a century ago even the most liberal of serious listeners would have been voicing the same difficulty when encountering the music of Charles Ives. Nevertheless, those who bothered to read the notes that Lynch prepared for the YouTube Web page of Sánchez’ performance probably came away thinking that Lynch’s capacity for describing his own music was as opaque as the music itself. If there was anything ludic in his compositions, one could barely grasp it within the onslaught of the serious.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

San Francisco Performances: November, 2021

Having addressed the November schedule for Sunset Music and Arts, this site can now proceed to account for the concerts that will be presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP) during than same month. There will be four offerings, three of which will involve string quartets in different settings, followed by a solo piano recital. Single tickets will not go on sale until next month on September 13. At that time all of the Web pages for individual concerts will be updated to include a hyperlink for concert-specific purchases. Single tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545, the telephone number for the Box Office. However, it is still the case that there will be no “physical” box office service.

All of the November performances will take place in Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. This venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. That said, here is the chronological list of the performances that will take place in November, each with a hyperlink to the SFP Web page for that event, which will include the prices for single-ticket purchases. All performances will take place on weekday evenings at 7:30 p.m. as follows:

Tuesday, November 9: The first string quartet to perform will be the Dover Quartet, whose members are violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. The program will be framed by two quartets composed during the late nineteenth century. The opening selection will be Alexander Zemlinsky’s Opus 4 (first) quartet in D major; and the program will conclude with the second of Joannes Brahms’ two Opus 51 quartets in the key of A minor. Between these two selections, bass-baritone Davóne Tines will join the quartet in two compositions, Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach” and Caroline Shaw’s “By and By.” This will be the first concert in the Shenson Chamber Series.

Thursday, November 11: That concert will be followed by the second program to be curated by the Catalyst Quartet of violinists Karla Donehew and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez. Like the first program, the emphasis will be on works from the African American tradition of chamber music; and there will again be a guest artist. That artist will be clarinetist Anthony McGill, joining the quartet to perform Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Opus 10 quintet in F-sharp minor. This will be the final selection, preceded by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s first (“Calvary”) string quartet, and Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint.

Wednesday, November 17: The final string quartet recital of the month will be the second offering in the Shenson series. The Castalian Quartet consists of violinists Sini Simonen and Daniel Roberts, violist Ruth Gibson, and cellist Christopher Graves. Their program will consist of three quartets from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They will begin with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 80 in F minor. This will be followed by György Ligeti’s first quartet, given the title “Métamorphoses nocturnes.” The final quartet also has a title, “Voces Intimae,” Jean Sibelius’ Opus 56 in D minor.

Tuesday, November 30: The concluding piano recital will mark the solo SFP debut of Joyce Yang, who has already performed in a concert by given by the Alexander String Quartet. On that occasion, in February of 2019, they presented the West Coast Premiere of “Quintet with Pillars,” recently completed by Samuel Adams and scored for string quartet and piano with digital resonance. Yang’s solo recital will focus on more familiar selections. She will begin with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 816 (“French”) suite in G major. She will then complete the first half of her program with the ten preludes in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 23 collection. She will begin the second half with the “June” movement from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 37a suite The Seasons. She will then conclude with Franz Liszt’s B minor piano sonata.

Monday, August 23, 2021

ABS Launches a Video Series on YouTube

Tomà Iliev, first violin soloist in the performance of Bach’s 1064R concert (screen shot from the video being discussed)

At the end of last week, American Bach Soloists (ABS) announced the release of a new series of music videos to be uploaded to its YouTube channel. The first video to be made available presents a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s 1064R concerto for three violins in D major. The soloists are Tomà Iliev, one of the three recipients of this years Jeffrey Thomas Award, who was first soloist when this concerto was performed at the ABS Triples Alley concert at the beginning of this month, Jude Ziliak, recipient of the 2018 Jeffrey Thomas Award, and David Wilson, who was third soloist in the Triples Alley performance. The ensemble parts were also taken by single performers: Cynthia Keiko Black (first violin), Gail Hernández Rosa (second violin), Ramón Negrón Pérez on viola, William Skeen on cello, Steven Lehning on violone, and Corey Jamason on harpsichord.

Artistic Director Thomas conducted. Filming took place in the Great Hall at the Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga. Eddie Frank provided the video capture, and Chris Landen was responsible for the audio.

Assigning a single player to every part brought an impressive transparency to the listening experience. In addition Frank’s video work provided an excellent guide to how the individual soloists smoothly alternate between “foreground” and “background” roles in executing their respective parts. What was missing, however, was any visual sense of the entire ensemble.

Every camera angle was limited to the image of a single performer. Furthermore, the relationship of each performer to the tapestry behind the performance space suggested that there was no camera angle that had the potential to capture the entire ensemble. Rather, it seemed as if the process began by making the audio recording, after which videos would be captured of each performer playing his/her respective part, most likely while listening to that “complete” audio recording.

If this was, indeed, how the video was made, then I have to confess that it thoroughly rubbed me the wrong way. The very idea of any concerto is the interplay it provides between soloist(s) and ensemble. Removing the ensemble from the field of view undermines an opportunity to appreciate that interplay.

By way of comparison, consider the Voices of Music video made by David Tayler of Bach’s BWV 1048 (third) “Brandenburg” concerto in G major. In this case the music has solo parts for three violins, three violas, and three cellos; but what makes the composition so interesting is how Bach commands a fluidity in requiring each soloist to alternate between foreground and background. The increase in the number of players makes this a more sophisticated concerto setting than that of BWV 1064R. However, the fluidity behind the execution of each individual part can only be appreciated when one views the entire ensemble; and, to reinforce that point, Tayler’s video seldom homes in for any close shots over the course of the entire performance.

I have enjoyed enough ABS programs to appreciate how video can add to the insights that emerge from just about anything they have played in concert. However, those insights can only arise if the video production team is aware of what those insights are and can then develop a production design that will honor them. No musical offering should be subjected to a video account that runs contrary to the listening experience. Even the creative team behind Fantasia knew that!

The Bleeding Edge: 8/23/2021

This week will offer three “bleeding edge” options. One of them is a “usual suspects” offering, which was already announced in accounting for this month’s performances at the Center for New Music (C4NM). The final concert of the month, on Saturday, August 28, at 7 p.m., will be a quartet gig by trumpeter Darren Johnston, saxophonist Larry Ochs and Madalyn Merkey and Tim Perkis on electronics. The performance will be streamed via the C4NM YouTube channel after the admission charge of $10 is processed through the C4NM event page. The other two events of this week will also be streamed as follows:

Thursday, August 26, 7 p.m.: Ochs will join his Rova Saxophone Quartet colleagues, Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin, and Steve Adams in a streamed broadcast of the first set of the group’s 40th Anniversary Concert. This performance was recorded at The Lab in January of 2018. This set included collaborations with two of the quartet’s favorite artists. The first of these was vocalist and movement artist Dohee Lee, who joined Rova in a performance of “Slowville,” which had been composed by Ochs. The second was Jon Leidecker, the prodigious improviser of sound collages performing under the name “Wobbly.” The quintet will perform “Luau Axe Quiz,” composed by Adams for the quartet and electronic improviser. The performance will be streamed through a YouTube Web page.

Saturday, August 28, 7:30 p.m.: This will be another event hosted by Bird & Beckett Books and Records that will be available for both live performance and streaming. The duo of Thollem McDonas and André Custodio will present a two-set program entitled jazz from the out side. The first set will present Custodio on drums with McDonas playing a diversity of keyboard instruments, including organ, Rhodes piano, the portable Clavier™ Folding Piano, and others. The second set will be more adventurous, working with both electronics and unconventional approaches to performing acoustic instruments.

For those wishing to attend the performance, there will be a $20 cover charge (cash only). In addition proof of vaccination will be required for admission. Doors usually 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 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.

Nicholas Phillips Second SFIPF Recital

Yesterday afternoon Nicholas Phillips presented his second solo piano recital in the fifth annual season of the San Francisco International Piano Festival (SFIPF). While the first recital was devoted entirely to three works by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, the second showcased works by eight composers, all born during the second half of the twentieth century. Furthermore all the music had been composed during the current century, the oldest having been written in 2009. Finally, the program concluded with selections by three composers involved with the Bay Area, Mark Winges, Sahba Aminikia, and Gabriela Lena Frank. The host for this performance was Old First Concerts, allowing Phillips to perform for both the audience in Old First Presbyterian Church and those viewing the video stream.

Winges was one of three composers on the program whose music was given its world premiere performance. His piece was entitled “Year End Nocturne;” and, as might be guessed, he worked on it at the end of last year. I must confess that this was my first encounter with Winges’ solo piano music, since my primary exposure to his work has been through the Volti a cappella vocal ensemble. More recently I had written about the world premiere of his “Spun Light,” an ingenious conception of a “distanced concerto,” scored for violin accompanied by flute, viola, cello, bass, and piano. Presented by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, this involved separate recordings (video as well as audio) made by all six performers, which were subsequently mixed and presented through split-screen displays.

In such a context I was curious as to how Winges would approach solo piano music, composed under the same pandemic conditions that had inspired “Spun Light.” The music definitely took its own unique approach to the “nocturne” title, which has allowed for considerable flexibility where genre is concerned. Winges’ own note for the program book described the piece as “a hopeful contemplation of the year’s turning;” but, from the listener’s point of view, the music established itself through a subtle rhythm of quietude, which served effectively to calm the mind in the midst of tumultuous thoughts about dealing with COVID.

Winges’ “Year End Nocturne” was followed by Aminikia’s “Lullaby,” a perfect successor in an overall context of such quietude. However, Aminikia’s piece was longer in duration. Thus, he could take a single dispositional stance and then unfold a variety of thematic settings, each of which “examined” that stance from a different “point of view.” As a result, the juxtaposition of these two pieces had all the aesthetic judgement of a fine wine-pairing.

Frank’s “Karnavalito No. 1” then concluded the program with a livelier rhetoric. In her note for the program book, Frank declared her interest in cultures that “can co-exist without one subjugating another.” My favorite metaphor is that of a well-cooked gumbo in which one can recognize every contributing flavor while also appreciating the overall blend. Since Frank’s background is Andean, I realize that she might object to gumbo-as-metaphor. However, the virtue of that metaphor is that mind is required to tease out the individual flavors in gumbo; and the same can be said of recognizing the different layers of expression in Frank’s score. This is music that deserves multiple listening experiences and a freshness of attention not worn down by an entire concert program.

The other premiere offerings were not quite as engaging as “Year End Nocturne.” One was the recently completed “Sonata ’21” by Quinn Mason. Mason’s program note suggested that this was a response to the challenge of composing a piano sonata for the current century in the context of a genre that emerged in the eighteenth century. Personally, I found little to engage in Mason’s contemporary perspective. It seemed as if he was more interested in the legacy of durational scale than in guiding the attentive listener through the resulting durations of the individual movements.

The other premieres involved three short pieces by Mark Olivieri, all of which were probably composed under pandemic conditions. Here, again, there was little to draw or cultivate attention, although, to be fair, this music may hold up when one has the luxury to listen to it more than once. More appealing were the first two selections by Reena Esmail and Mary Kouyoumdjian, respectively. Each of these involved a personal reflection on the composer’s cultural background. In both cases that reflection emerged through well-defined thematic material and easily appreciated development techniques. I suspect that a similar cultural background sustained the Appalachian-inspired “She Steals Me” by Carter Pann; but the nuts-and-bolts of his own development techniques were never as engaging as the selections by Esmail (“Rang De Basant”) and Kouyoumdjian (“Aghavni”).

Sunday, August 22, 2021

War Memorial Opera House “Back in Business”

Last night the War Memorial Opera House once again opened to the public for the first time after eighteen months of hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The San Francisco Opera (SFO) began its 2021–22 season with a revival of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca. This could not be a more appropriate selection. It was originally staged by Armando Agnini for the very first season in the fall of 1923. That production was then selected for the first SFO performance in the Opera House. The opera was then selected to launch the return of SFO to the Opera House in the fall of 1997 after having been closed for eighteen months due to earthquake retrofitting.

Last night’s return of SFO also marked the beginning of a new era under Music Director Eun Sun Kim. The production was directed by Shawna Lucey, whose staging was introduced as a new production in 2018. Soprano Ailyn Pérez made her role debut as Floria Tosca, a celebrated singer with an enthusiastic Roman audience. The other role debut was taken by bass-baritone Alfred Walker as the menacing Baron Scarpia. Tosca’s lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi was sung by tenor Michael Fabiano, who had delivered a dynamite account of the title role of Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo in June of 2016. He has been singing for SFO since the fall of 2011, and his most recent appearance was as the Chevalier des Grieux in Jules Massenet’s Manon in November of 2017.

Those who “know the score” probably know that the orchestra has the first word with a menacing chord progression that will emerge as Scarpia’s leitmotiv. (Yes, Richard Wagner was not the only composer to use this device. To Puccini’s credit, no one would confuse his score with any of Wagner’s operas.) The challenge to the conductor is to make sure that the orchestra does not fire all of its guns on the very first shot. The chord is there to get the audience’s attention but also to encourage them to dwell on what is about to happen. Indeed, after that chord concludes, the music launches into Cesare Angelotti’s attempt to escape from Scarpia, having just broken out of the latter’s prison. In other words the curtain rises on a Rome dominated by its Chief of Police while Napoleon is advancing his troops down the Italian peninsula.

Scarpia (Alfred Walker) being stabbed to death by Tosca (Ailyn Pérez) during the second act of Tosca (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)

In this context Luigi Illica’s libretto weaves a love story between Tosca and Cavaradossi. Unfortunately, Cavaradossi is a friend of Angelotti and becomes an accomplice in the latter’s escape from Scarpia’s prison. Scarpia uses Tosca as a “falcon” to help him in hunting down Angelotti, and that hunt also leads to his arresting Cavaradossi. Furthermore, when she is not his “falcon,” Tosca is also the latest target of Scarpia’s lusts. This all makes for a rough ride through the second act, during which Cavaradossi is tortured and Tosca stabs Scarpia to death with his own knife. (Are we having fun yet?) By the time the opera has concluded, death has also taken Angelotti, Cavaradossi, and Tosca herself, leaping from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo while singing text that can be loosely translated as “See you in Hell, Scarpia!”

As one might guess, Puccini’s score is a roller-coaster of wildly varying dispositions. Kim knew just how to lead the orchestra through that wild ride. (The end of the first act also includes a full chorus, prepared by Chorus Director Ian Robertson, who will be retiring at the end of the season. If last night was a “welcome back” occasion, the Chorus played a significant role in the welcoming!) Indeed, the relationship between what was happening in the orchestra pit and everything that Lucey conceived to take place on stage could not have been better. If the narrative is the spirit brought to life in Tosca, then one might say that the flesh of Lucey’s direction was consistently nourished by the blood of Kim’s musical leadership.

SFO has presented Tosca 188 times over the course of 41 previous seasons. My “first contact” with an SFO production was in September of 1997. Since then my feelings about the opera have tended to vary. Last night, however, I came away feeling that SFO could not have done a better job of welcoming opera lovers back to the Opera House.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Sunset Music and Arts: November, 2021

I have been receiving information about what will be happening in concert series in November. Given that my own Calendar is beginning to get filled with events, I suspect that a heads-up for what will be happening in November is likely to benefit from notifications that are sooner, rather than later. As of this writing, there will be only two recitals for the month of November. However, there will be far more participating performers than the four recitalists that will be giving solo concerts in October. The programs for the concerts, both of which will take place at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday, have been announced as follows:

November 6: Duo Smirnov is the husband-and-wife couple of pianists Anton and Angelica Smirnov. They have built up a four-hand repertoire that ranges from the Classical and Romantic literature to modern pop selections enhanced with a comic twist or two. Program specifics have not yet been finalized.

November 13: Much larger will be Brazzissimo, a ten-piece brass chamber music ensemble. The “upper voices” are taken by four trumpeters, all of whom alternate among different sizes of trumpets and flugelhorns, along with the piccolo trumpet, which drew the attention of Johann Sebastian Bach for his BWV 1047 (second) Brandenburg Concerto in F major. The trumpeters are complemented by four trombonists, occasionally with a shift to euphonium. The remaining two members of the ensemble play French horn and tuba, respectively. The program specifics have not yet been finalized, but the repertoire features arrangements for the ensemble of classical, jazz, Latin, and contemporary works.

All performances will take place in the Sunset district at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices are $25 for general admission with a $20 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. Tickets may be purchased online through Eventbrite. Each of the hyperlinks on the above dates leads to the event page for single ticket purchases. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

Finally, because we are still under pandemic conditions, all health and safety guidelines provided by the City and County of San Francisco must be honored. That means that a face covering is required for admission to all concerts, and it must be worn at all times. Face masks must completely cover the nose and mouth and have ear loops or similar to hold in place. Gaiters and bandanas are not acceptable.

In addition, proof of vaccination will be required for admittance. This may be provided with either a paper copy or a digital image. Children under the age of twelve are exempted from the vaccination requirement. Finally, Sunset has provided a Health and Safety Web page with a self-assessment based on ten easily answered questions. Those entering the building will implicitly acknowledge that they have answered “no” to all ten questions. Anyone that has answered “yes” to a question will be asked to return for another concert or offered a refund for paid tickets.

In Memoriam: Michael Morgan

Michael Morgan on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (photograph by Kristen Loken, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Readers may recall the somewhat apologetic stance I took in writing about Michael Morgan conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) almost exactly a month ago. The apology had to do with my decision to keep my workload manageable by confining myself to the San Francisco city limits. That meant that I had not yet experienced his conducting work with the Oakland East Bay Symphony. As a result, his visit to the SFS podium provided my first opportunity to experience his work. I came away with considerable satisfaction, reinforced when I learned that he would return to the SFS podium in February with a program that would feature Florence Price’s third symphony.

Sadly, that first opportunity turned out to be my last. Last night Joshua Kosman filed an obituary for Morgan, who died yesterday at the age of 63. This was one of those cases in which reading the San Francisco Chronicle online was far more advantageous than waiting for a print version to be left at my door.

It was clear from last month’s performance that Morgan prioritized the music itself over the music-makers. His chemistry with the SFS musicians could not have been better. This was most evident when he concluded the program with Nicholas Hersh’s arrangement of “The Charleston.” Since this is one of those iconic compositions in the history of jazz, Morgan knew how to allow and encourage free-wheeling improvisation from three of the SFS musicians, Mark Inouye on trumpet, Jerome Simas on clarinet, and Tim Higgins on trombone. As Duke Ellington once said, “It’s all music;” and Morgan’s scope of that “all” consistently found the right mix of balancing “the letter of the text” with the expressiveness of performance.

In the nineteenth century there were an artist named Otto Böhler that specialized in silhouettes. Back in my Examiner.com days, I would sometimes lead an article about Anton Bruckner with Böhler’s silhouette of Bruckner arriving in heaven, where he is greeted by Franz List, Richard Wagner, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and (seated at an organ) Johann Sebastian Bach. My wife later found a similar silhouette of Brahms’ heavenly entry. I suspect that Morgan has already been greeted by the Duke and James P. Johnson (who composed “The Charleston”). However, judging by the only Morgan performance I experienced, I am sure that Gioachino Rossini was also part of the welcoming party; and I wish I knew more about Morgan’s repertoire to add more names to that list.

Nicholas Phillips Launches 2021 SFIPF

Pianist Nicholas Phillips (from the Ross McKee Foundation event page for the concert being discussed)

The fifth annual season of the San Francisco International Piano Festival (SFIPF) got under way yesterday evening with a streamed solo recital by Nicholas Phillips. The performance was the first of two concerts to be presented as part of the Piano Break series under the auspices of the Ross McKee Foundation. The program consisted of three works by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, all composed during the second decade of the twentieth century. (Griffes would die at the end of that decade, in 1920, at the age of 35, a victim of the Spanish Flu pandemic.)

The program was framed by two suites. It began with the four movements of the Opus 7 Roman Sketches and concluded with the three pieces in the Opus 6, collected under the title Fantasy Pieces. Between these was the more extended tone poem “The Pleasure-Dome of Kubla Khan,” composed in 1912, revised in 1915, and orchestrated in 1917, that last version published as Griffes’ Opus 8. It was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux on November 28, 1919.

In a brief introduction Phillips remarked that Griffes was sometimes referred to as “the American Debussy.” This might be taken as either laudatory or critical. In the latter case anyone familiar with many of the works of Claude Debussy would probably be struck by the resurfacing of several themes and motifs. It is hard to believe that these incidents were coincidental, since Griffes was well aware of much of that music during his visit to Europe.

Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that Debussy had a firmer command of the architecture of duration than Griffes ever did. The American could spin out masses of technically challenging passages (all of which were skillfully dispatched by Phillips); but he never quite caught on to the subtle relationship between duration and attention span, which Debussy had mastered far more skillfully. Thus, while Phillips’ recital lasted only an hour, by the time half of that hour had elapsed, even the most sympathetically attentive listener had likely succumbed to an emerging sense of tedium. For better or worse, any one of Phillips’ three selections was already straining the capacity for attention in its own right. Presenting three such pieces consecutively was clearly asking too much.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Sunset Music and Arts: October, 2021

As of this writing, Sunset Music and Arts plans to begin its 2021–2022 season with three recitals over the course of next month. As of this writing, there will be four recitals for the following month of October. These will all be solo performances performed by three pianists and one guitarist. The programs for those concerts have been announced as follows:

Saturday, October 2, 7:30 p.m.: Italian-Egyptian pianist Francesca Khalifa has prepared a program organized around an axis defined by Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Liszt. She will begin with two of the “big three” sonatas that Beethoven composed between 1820 and 1822. These will be Opus 109 in E major, followed by Opus 110 in A-flat major. Her primary Liszt offering will be the two “Concert Études” (S. 145), “Waldesrauschen” (forest murmurs) and “Gnomenreigen” (dance of the gnomes). These will be preceded by Liszt’s S. 555 transcription of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Danse Macabre.” This “French turn” will then conclude the program with a performance of Maurice Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales.”

Saturday, October 16, 7:30 p.m.: Liana Paniyeva will also include Liszt transcriptions in her program. In this case the sources will be two of the songs of Franz Schubert, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the spinning wheel, D. 118) and “Ständchen” (serenade), the fourth of the fourteen songs in the D. 957 Schwanengesang, first published about half a year after the composer’s death. The program will begin with three of the preludes in Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 23 collection. The Liszt transcriptions will be followed by Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 52, the fourth (and final) ballade in the key of F minor. The program will then conclude with Mieczysław Weinberg’s Opus 56 (fourth) piano sonata.

Saturday, October 23, 5 p.m.: Lyle Sheffler will the one solo guitarist of the month. Readers may recall that he was an “early adopter” of video streaming as a means of reaching out to audiences. This site documented its “first encounter” through his recital in the Manny’s Musical Sundays concert series, which took place on July 12, 2020, followed by his debut recital for Old First Concerts about two months later. He has prepared an extensive program for Sunset, whose Hispanic offerings will be contrasted by Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Farewell to Stromness.”

Saturday, October 30, 7:30 p.m.: The final pianist will be Frank Huang. He has not yet finalized his program. However, the composers he will represent include both Chopin and Liszt, as well as Nikolai Medtner, Frederic Rzewski (who died two months ago at the age of 83), and Florence Price.

All performances will take place in the Sunset district at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices are $25 for general admission with a $20 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. Tickets may be purchased online through Eventbrite. Each of the hyperlinks on the above dates leads to the event page for single ticket purchases. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

Finally, because we are still under pandemic conditions, all health and safety guidelines provided by the City and County of San Francisco must be honored. That means that a face covering is required for admission to all concerts, and it must be worn at all times. Face masks must completely cover the nose and mouth and have ear loops or similar to hold in place. Gaiters and bandanas are not acceptable.

In addition, proof of vaccination will be required for admittance. This may be provided with either a paper copy or a digital image. Children under the age of twelve are exempted from the vaccination requirement. Finally, Sunset has provided a Health and Safety Web page with a self-assessment based on ten easily answered questions. Those entering the building will implicitly acknowledge that they have answered “no” to all ten questions. Anyone that has answered “yes” to a question will be asked to return for another concert or offered a refund for paid tickets.

Sony to Release Marian Anderson Anthology

One week from today Sony Classical will release Beyond the Music, a fifteen-CD collection of all the recordings made by contralto Marian Anderson for RCA Victor. As expected, Amazon.com has already created a Web page for pre-orders. Ironically, at the beginning of this week, one of the San Francisco Public Television channels aired the PBS documentary Once In A Hundred Years: The Life And Legacy Of Marian Anderson. The good news is that this film provided a reasonably informative biography of Anderson, with particular attention to her involvement with the civil rights movement during the twentieth century. The not-so-good news was that all of that attention left opportunities to listen to Anderson in performance to a painful minimum; and the really-bad news involved two interminable pledge breaks that disrupted the compelling flow of the account of Anderson’s biography.

While I am not sure why Sony Music Masterworks scheduled the release of this anthology for this particular month, for those of us in San Francisco it definitely is the perfect way to balance the experience of watching Once In A Hundred Years. Indeed, the last of the fifteen CDs is an audio documentary about Anderson. The Lady from Philadelphia was originally released as the “original soundtrack” of a See It Now television program produced by Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly. Five of the CDs present the more “popular” side of Anderson’s repertoire, consisting of spirituals and carols. That leaves nine CDs in the “serious music” category; and, while there are some disappointments and shortcomings, the tracks on these albums serve well as the “mother lode” of opportunities of appreciate Anderson’s talent.

Some may argue that the scope of these opportunities is narrower than one might wish. They may question whether one really needs three performances of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 53 “Alto Rhapsody.” For my own part, I am happy to engage in “side-by-side” listening to appreciate how Anderson worked with three different conductors: Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Orchestra (January 8, 1939), Pierre Monteux with the San Francisco Symphony (March 3, 1945), and Fritz Reiner with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra (October 20, 1950). Similarly, there are art songs that recur in different settings, such as Franz Schubert’s D. 550 “Die Forelle” (the trout). On the other hand there is a 1936 recording of two songs by Jean Sibelius, which are (thankfully) performed in the original Finnish texts. (It probably helped that Anderson’s accompanist for these two tracks, Kosti Vehanen, was Finnish.)

For the most part my disappointments do not involve the performances themselves. However, thanks to The Lady from Philadelphia, I could appreciate the ironic subtext of the recording of Anderson’s Farewell Recital, which took place at Constitution Hall in Washington on October 24, 1964. The irony has to do with the fact that Constitution Hall was owned and managed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). When Sol Hurok wanted to book Anderson for a concert in Constitution Hall on April 9, 1939, he was denied permission, because the DAR had a “white-performers only” policy.

The audience for Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial (provided by the United States Information Agency, photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

As one might guess, the backlash was formidable. It included First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigning from the DAR and the beginning of her enduring friendship with Anderson. The result was that the concert took place on the arranged date, but it was held outdoors on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Looking at the photograph of the audience for that performance today, it is hard not to associate it with Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963, when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the same venue to an equally massive audience.

Nevertheless, this collection is not about either politics or race relations. It is about the prodigious contralto talent of an American vocalist, whose only basis for comparison would probably be Lancashire-born Kathleen Ferrier. In that context I find myself disappointed that Anderson does not seem to have crossed paths with Bruno Walter, who played such as significant role in Ferrier’s career. However, when there are so many engaging listening experiences in the Anderson collection, why quibble about what might have been?

M. Lamar’s Spirituals for Our Time

Late yesterday afternoon I decided to take my own advice and view the PROTOTYPE streaming of M. Lamar’s “Funeral Doom Spiritual.” PROTOTYPE calls this series of free streams Opera | Theatre | X. “Funeral Doom Spiritual” was more of a song cycle than an opera with male soprano Lamar providing his own piano accompaniment. “Doom Spiritual” is a phrase that Lamar himself coined. It amounts to a more contemporary genre of Negro Spirituals with apocalyptic connotations.

The assimilation of musical performance and video projection in “Funeral Doom Spiritual” (screen shot courtesy of PROTOTYPE)

Those connotations were realized through a rich context of accompanying video. On the basis of the overall camera work, these videos appear to have been projected on either side (in front or behind) the performers; but, in the streamed version, they were assimilated into an overall viewing experience alternating between the world of the projected images and the world of the concert hall. In addition to Lamar, the performers consisted of a violinist, a cellist, two bassists, and electronics provided by composer Hunter Hunt-Hendrix. All of these musicians were hooded with black robes, suggesting connotations of both the Spanish Inquisition and the Ku Klux Klan.

It would be fair to say that Lamar’s sense of apocalypse is tightly coupled to the many events of recent years that have made it clear that, for all of the progress made in civil rights movements, race-based segregation is back on the rise. The prevailing images are those of a Negro in his coffin and another Negro carrying the coffin on his own back without any assistance from others. (Possibly both of these roles were taken by Lamar himself. Also, it is worth noting that, in the advance material I received, Lamar seems to prefer “Negro” to “African American.”) Presumably, this is a journey to a graveyard; but, within the scope of “Funeral Doom Spiritual,” that journey is never completed. This may have been a contemporary reflection of early Civil Rights songs, which also talked about the “journey to freedom” with little, if any, indication of that journey arriving at a conclusion.

However, “Funeral Doom Spiritual” is structured around a narrative that is more enigmatic than the narratives of any of those Civil Rights songs. Indeed, given that this is an entirely different genre of music (not to mention theater), the overall sense seems to be one of an enigma far too challenging to be resolved. Even the fact than much of Lamar’s vocal work comes across as idiomatic phrases repeated too many times seems to suggest that resolving that enigma is going to require more than merely groping at possible solutions. Thus, if the listener/viewer begins to feel some strain from an excess of repetition in both what is heard and what is seen, this may simply be a matter of reflecting the sense of helplessness arising from the current retrogression of attitudes towards civil rights.