Sunday, September 19, 2021

SFO Next Month: Beethoven’s Only Opera

The second half of next month will be devoted to six performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 72 Fidelio by the San Francisco Opera (SFO). This was the only opera that Beethoven composed, and its creation and production were probably the most frustrating that he experienced over the course of his entire life. One of his letters referred to the entire project as a “shipwreck.” However, if we are to understand how the opera came to be in the first place, it is worth beginning with one of its most successful predecessors.

When Beethoven was working on his Opus 55 (third) symphony in E-flat major, his intention had been to dedicate it to Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he saw as a champion of democracy in France after the Revolution had overthrown the monarchy. However, by 1804 Beethoven had realized that Napoleon had imperialist designs. He withdrew his dedication and replaced it with the single word “Eroica.”

Nevertheless, his frustration with the tyranny of imperialism continued to nag at him, particularly when Napoleon began to steer his troops in the direction of Vienna. Ironically, Beethoven decided to work with a libretto based on the work of Jean-Nicolas Bouilly, who experienced the French Revolution and was fortunate enough to survive the following Reign of Terror. HIs play Léonore; ou, L'amour conjugal dealt with the plight of a political prisoner and efforts to free him from the tyrannical authority responsible for his imprisonment. Ironically, by the time Beethoven had completed his opera, Vienna was under French military occupation; and most of the audience consisted of French military officers.

This is the context in which the libretto for Fidelio unfolds; and, in reviewing the narrative, we can also introduce the SFO vocalists that will take the roles in that libretto. The political prisoner is Florestan (tenor Russell Thomas). Leonore (soprano Elza van den Heever) is his wife. She disguises herself as a young man (Fidelio) in order to work as an assistant to the jailer Rocco (bass James Creswell). The prisoners themselves are apparently there due to an “enemies list” compiled by Don Pizarro (baritone Greer Grimsley). However, the King’s minister Don Fernando (bass Soloman Howard) opposes Pizarro and is instrumental in freeing all of the political prisoners, after which Leonore can shed her disguise and reunite with her husband. In the midst of all this drama, there is “comic relief” from Rocco’s daughter Marzelline (soprano Anne-Marie Macintosh), who is smitten with “Fidelio,” much to the frustration of Rocco’s assistant Jaquino (tenor Christopher Oglesby), who is madly in love with her.

Set design by Alexander V. Nichols for the prisoners’ chorus in the first act of Fidelio (courtesy of SFO)

SFO will present a new production of Fidelio staged by Matthew Ozawa. The eighteen-century prison has been replaced by a modern government “detention center,” endowing the opera with an ironic twist that elevates it above mere melodrama. Since one of the musical high points of Beethoven’s score is a chorus for the prisoners in the first act, it will be interesting to see how the music is reflected by a contemporary setting.

The conductor will be Music Director Eun Sun Kim. Those who saw her approach to Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca know that the first act of that opera provided the first opportunity to see her work with the SFO Chorus, prepared by Director Ian Robertson. Each of the two acts of Fidelio provides extensive sections for the Chorus, giving Kim even more opportunities to work with that ensemble.

Fidelio will be given six performances, five performances at 7:30 p.m. on October 14, 20, 22, 26, and 30 and one at 2 p.m. on October 17. The approximate running time will be two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. 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 $26 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 six of the 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. In addition, the performances on October 14, 17, and 20 will be live-streamed. Virtual tickets will be available for $25 at the beginning of next month. SFO has created a Web page for information about its streamed offerings.

Sunset Music and Arts Concerts Resume

Unless I am mistaken, the Klezmer-Jazz Project, presented by the Alon Nechushtan Jazz Quartet for Sunset Music and Arts on March 6, 2020, was the last Sunset offering before the imposition of lockdown conditions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As a result, there was a certain symmetry in Nechushtan returning to the Sunset, this time leading a trio, for the first Sunset Music and Arts concert since that imposition. Nechushtan led his trio from the piano, performing with Akira Tana on drums and Jeff Denson on bass.

The performance amounted to about 90 minutes of straight-ahead jazz. All the selections seemed to have been Nechushtan originals. However, as leader, he provided ample and generous slots in the performance for solo work by both Tana and Denson. In Denson’s case I was particularly impressed by the occasions when he took out his bow, with soulfully lyric results.

The only thing missing from the program was any sense of klezmer. Mind you, between the Veretski Pass trio and soloists such as clarinetist Ben Goldberg and violinist David Chernyavsky (when he is not playing with the San Francisco Symphony), there are a generous share of opportunities to experience the genre here in the Bay Area. Indeed, one of the CURRENTS programs streamed by SFSymphony+ was devoted entirely to klezmer. On the other hand, one had to go through a very long wait before an augmented second showed up in the Nechushtan Trio performance. Several of the tunes had Hebrew titles; but the “language of klezmer” is Yiddish.

Nevertheless, there was so much thematic inventiveness and mind-boggling technical display coming from all of the Trio performers that any shortage of klezmer spirit could be dismissed as a mere pilpul!

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Cal Bach to Return with “Multiple Bachs”

At the beginning of next month, the California Bach Society (Cal Bach) will present its first in-person concert since February of last year, the month before lockdown conditions were imposed in response to COVID-19. The title of the program will be Die Familie Bach: Three Generations of Great Composers. Johann Sebastian Bach will be situated in the middle of this “trinity” with two of his motets, Jesu meine Freude (BWV 227) and Ich lasse dich nicht (BWV Anh. 159). His generation will also be represented by his distant cousin Johann Ludwig Bach, who composed the motet Unsere Trübsal die zeitlich un leicht ist.

The program will conclude with the one selection by one of Bach’s sons, a chorale motet setting of a text frequently associated with Sebastian, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, composed by Johann Christoph Friedrich. Where the older generation is concerned, Cal Bach will perform three motets by Sebastian’s uncle, Johann Christoph Bach: Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener, Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben, and Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf. This last selection may have been performed at Sebastian’s funeral. The program will begin with the eight-part motet for two choirs Unser Leben is ein Schatten, composed by Sebastian’s great-uncle Johannes Bach.

The Cal Bach chorus in the Fall of 2017 (photograph by Will Toft)

All performances will be given by Cal Bach’s 30-voice chorus accompanied by Farley Pearce on cello, Roy Whelden on violone, and Yuko Tanaka on keyboard, all under the leadership of Artistic Director Paul Flight.

Cal Bach will return to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to launch its 2021–2022 season in San Francisco. The church is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of its intersection with Franklin Street. The performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 8. General admission will be $30 with a $25 rate for seniors. Students and those under 30 will be admitted for $10. There will be no sales at the door. A Web page has been created to process all ticket sales, and the alternative will be to call 650-485-1097. Sales should be finalized at least 24 hours before the concert.

Those wishing to plan for the future are invited to visit the Subscription Web page, which gives the dates and times for all four concerts in the season, as well as the full-season prices. Clearly, we are not yet “out of the woods.” Nevertheless, those interested in the Cal Bach repertoire may with to make note of the remaining three dates.

The Juilliard and “Modern American Music”

Yesterday Sony Classical released its latest anthology of historically significant recordings. The title of the collection, however, is slightly deceptive: Juilliard String Quartet: The Early Columbia Recordings 1949–56. While Juilliard performances can be found on each of the sixteen CDs, the quartet “shares space” with other performers, including one entirely different string quartet. The reason for this is that the Juilliard was a significant participant in an ambitious Columbia project entitled Modern American Music Series.

This project was launched in the early Fifties with a recording of William Masselos playing Charles Ives’ first piano sonata, a decidedly bold “first step.” Indeed, the effort was significant enough to draw the attention of the academic community; and the composer Vincent Persichetti wrote an article about the entire project, which appeared in the July, 1954 issue of The Musical Quarterly. By that time twelve albums had been released in the series, and the project was still going strong.

Four of the twelve albums discussed in Persichetti’s article can be found in the new Sony Classical release. However, only one of them consists entirely of Juilliard performances, the most recent of the four, which couples Peter Mennin’s second quartet with Andrew Imbrie’s first. The Sony collection also includes three additional albums that were released after Persichetti had completed his article; and the Juilliard “shares space” on each of them.

I have mixed feelings about the fact that this new collection is not devoted exclusively to the earliest recordings of the Juilliard. I am also a bit curious about why 1956 was selected as the cutoff point. The first fifteen CDs all account for the founding members of the ensemble: violinists Robert Mann and Robert Koff, violist Raphael Hillyer, and cellist Arthur Winograd. However, Claus Adam replaced Winograd in 1955, meaning that he can be found on the final CD in the collection.

More disquieting is how little staying power can be found in the overall Modern American Music Series repertoire. Going all the way back to the project’s origins, I have to confess that, while I have had several satisfying encounters with recital performances of Ives’ second (“Concord”) sonata, I know the first only through the few recordings of it I have acquired. Indeed, the only composition in the Modern American Music Series CDs in this Sony release that I have heard in performance is Leon Kirchner’s first string quartet (thanks to the Telegraph Quartet); and in the Sony collection it is performed by the American Art Quartet of violinists Eudice Shapiro and Robert Sushel, violist Virginia Majewski, and cellist Victor Gottlieb!

I suppose the “punch line” of the Modern American Music Series and the role of the Juilliard String Quartet in the release of those recordings is: “Modernism is not what it used to be.” However, the fact is that it never was! What may be more interesting is that Telegraph brought a freshness to Kirchner’s music that never really “found its voice” in the Hollywood studio where the American Art Quartet made its recording for Columbia. Perhaps Columbia was more interested in establishing itself as a source of “highbrow content” without giving much thought to whether the “final product” was found satisfying by the composer and/or the performers.

Mind you, the Fifties was the decade in which I first embarked on “serious listening.” However, it was also a decade in which my tastes were pathetically narrow. I would like to think that there are new generations of listeners that are more open to diversity than I was at that early age. Will they be drawn to the Modern American Music Series recordings, or will their tastes turn to visions of modernism that have left the Fifties back in the dust?

Fruits of Collaboration at Old First Concerts

Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, Current: A Piano Festival, presented by the Ross McKee Foundation, continued with the second of its three installments in this month’s Old First Concerts schedule. The title of the program was Cross Rhythms, and it was the product of a weekly sharing of ideas among pianists gathered via Zoom and coordinated by Sarah Cahill during lockdown conditions. Six of those pianists performed last night, Cahill herself, along with (in alphabetical order) Allegra Chapman, Gloria Cheng, Monica Chew, Jerry Kuderna, and Regina Myers. The selections combined new music with works by women composers and composers of color.

Such programs often run the risk that too much diversity will ultimately overwhelm even the most attentive listener. Ironically, I encountered a brief ring of familiarity in one of the selections thanks to San Francisco Performances (SFP). This past July pianist Aaron Diehl made his SFP debut in a solo piano recital included in the Summer Music Sessions 2021 programming. Diehl concluded his recital with the delightfully upbeat “Dance (Juba)” from the In the Bottoms suite by Robert Nathaniel Dett. Last night Kuderna played that suite in its entirety. Even though the music was composed in 1913, he brought a stimulating freshness to the music’s jazzy rhetoric; and the familiarity of the final movement emerged as the icing on a thoroughly delicious cake.

Indeed, such freshness permeated the entire program. This was probably as much a matter of the personalized engagement of each of the pianists as it was of the variety of the selections. Cahill began the program performing the four-hand “Three-Day Mix” by Eleanor Alberga with Myers. This was the “repetitive structures” offering in the program, a genre that Cahill knows well through her performances of the works of composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams. However, Alberga (who is both a woman and a composer of color) had ideas of her own to make her selection an engaging listening experience.

The other recent selections were performed by Cheng: “Looking Above, The Faith of Joseph” by James Newton and “Recombinant” by the wife-and-husband team of Wang Lu and Anthony Cheung. There was a fair amount of name-dropping in introducing “Looking Above.” Newton’s program note acknowledged four pianists that inspired him: Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, and Yvonne Loriod (married to Olivier Messiaen and an authority in playing his piano music). Ultimately, Loriod’s was the only presence that registered during Cheng’s performance. Similarly, “Recombinant” was one of those “concept” pieces, whose text description made a deeper impression than the music itself.

Chapman presented two selections. The first of these consisted of three of the ten concert études that Grażyna Bacewicz composed in her late forties, having lived through both World War II and the death of Joseph Stalin. It is not difficult to detect a “rhetoric of relief” in her études. Sadly, however, Bacewicz herself died about a month short of her 60th birthday. Chapman’s other offering was the first scherzo composed by Adolphus Hailstork in 1996, which involved a variety of engaging rhetorical twists on a genre that many thought had become too familiar.

The program conclude with the first book in a collection of studies on African rhythms composed by Fred Onovwerosuoke. There were twelve pieces in the set. However, each glided into the next with a smoothness that recalled the sixteen waltzes collected in Johannes Brahms’ Opus 39. Chew’s performance also required her wearing ankle bells for a percussion supplement to the thematic material. As a result, a journey through an engaging diversity of rhetorics and styles was given a stimulating conclusion before any sense of fatigue could establish itself.

Friday, September 17, 2021

SFRV Announces 17th Season for 2021–2022

Early this month, Don Scott Carpenter, Music Director of San Francisco Renaissance Voices (SFRV), announced that the 2021–2022 season would be presented in memory of former Executive Director J. Jeff Badger. Four events have been planned, each of which will take place in a different venue; and only two of them will require the purchase of tickets. A Web page is now in place to summarize the entire season, including hyperlinks to Eventbrite event pages where necessary. Those hyperlinks will be attached to the date-and-time information in the following summary of events, all of which will take place on a Saturday:

October 23, 2 p.m., Marina Green - West: The City of San Francisco will be presenting a Renaissance Faire up on Marina Green, and SFRV will be one of the participants. They will contribute to the spirit of the occasions with a repertoire of madrigals. This setting will also provide the opportunity for the audience to engage with the singers and players contributing to the performance. Renaissance attire will certainly enhance the spirit of the occasion, but it is not obligatory. More important will be to enjoy the spirit of the music from picnic blankets and lawn chairs. Registration is required; and, because there is no charge for attendance, donations will be appreciated. These can be processed through Eventbrite using the above hyperlink.

December 18, 4 p.m., Episcopal Church of the Incarnation: This will be a traditional program of Lessons and Carols based on the original service first held in King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University. In addition to familiar carols, SFRV will perform motets by Tomás Luis de Victoria, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Jacobus Gallus (also known as Jacob Handl). The program will also be distinguished by the world premiere performance of a composition by A. Douglas Biggs, which has not yet been given a title. The church is located in the Sunset at 1750 29th Avenue, just north of Noriega Street.

February 26, 7:30 p.m., Most Holy Redeemer Church: The title of this program will be A Choral Renaissance. It will survey composers from England (such as William Byrd), Italy (Palestrina again), and Spain (Cristobal de Morales). This will be SFRV’s seventeenth season, and the program has been prepared to highlight many of the significant performances that were given during the first sixteen years. The church is located in the Castro at 100 Diamond Street on the southwest corner of Eighteenth Street.

April 23, 7:30 p.m., Lakeside Presbyterian Church: The title of the final program will be Renaissance Song. It will feature three vocalists, sopranos Christine Brandes and Liesl McPherrin and countertenor Kyle Tingzon. The instrumentalists will be Steven Lehning on gamba, Paul Holmes Morton on lute, and Carpenter at the keyboard. The featured composers will be John Dowland and Luca Marenzio. However, there will also be a performance of “Four Elizabethan Songs” by David Ashley White, currently teaching at the University of Houston. Finally, Lehning and Morton will present some duos with their respective instruments. The Church is located near the campus of San Francisco State University at 201 Eucalyptus Drive on the southwest corner of Nineteenth Avenue.

Counterproductive Media Overload at SFJAZZ

Githinji Wa’Mbire, Omar Sosa, and Amaury Acosta taking a bow at the conclusion of Motherland Journey with Wa’Mbire’s “motherland” creation in the background (screen shot from video of last night’s performance)

Last night Cuban pianist Omar Sosa returned to the SFJAZZ Center, having presented there, three months earlier, the first public event since lockdown conditions were imposed in March of 2020. That earlier occasion was a solo concert. Last night, on the other hand, involved roughly two uninterrupted hours of Sosa at a diversity of keyboards (along with an African xylophone) accompanied only by percussionist Amaury Acosta, who had an electronic keyboard of his own.

However, this performance, entitled Motherland Journey, was not so much a concert as it was a multimedia happening, somewhat in the spirit of the happenings of the Sixties but with far richer technology. In the spirit of the Sixties, however, center stage was occupied by Kenyan-born visual artist Githinji Wa’Mbire, suggesting that the music was there primarily to establish an environment in which Wa’Mbire could “do his thing” (as we used to say in the Sixties). That “thing” was basically a bricolage assembled from the array of materials that Wa’Mbire had laid out in the center of the stage; and his acts of assembly were supposedly inspired by the music improvised by Sosa and Acosta.

Relatively early in the process, one realized that the shape of the object resembled that of the African continent (presumably the “motherland” of Sosa’s title). That shape began to emerge about half an hour into the performance with no suggestion that roughly 90 minutes remained until its completion. After about an hour I found myself sympathizing with Pope Julius II (at least as portrayed by Rex Harrison in The Agony and the Ecstasy), who commissioned the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and then spent at least half of the next three years nagging Michelangelo about when it would be finished.

Under better circumstances, an uninterrupted two hours of improvising by Sosa and Acosta might have been more appealing. However, that improvisation deserved attentive listening unimpeded by distractions from the breadth of inventions deployed by both musicians. Those distractions came not only from Wa’Mbire but also from the conversion of the Miner Auditorium into a venue for a monstrous light show. For those in the audience, this probably amounted to an “immersive environment,” which may have been intended as context for the three artists on stage.

My own vantage point, however, was through my computer screen. Over the course of two hours, I was able to establish a relatively thorough catalog of the many visual effects that were being experienced by those in the audience. Nevertheless, this was no easy matter, because the video direction for the live-stream was, at best, haphazard, meaning that, at its worst, it was little more than irritating distraction. Indeed, even efforts to appreciate what both Sosa and Acosta were doing with their respective instruments were undermined; and, if that were not enough, too much of the overall duration involved audio levels that made many of Acosta’s polyrhythms virtually inaudible.

I am sure that Sosa had the best of intentions in conceiving Motherland Journey. Indeed, there was something visibly joyous in how he executed his keyboard work. Unfortunately, little of that joy could permeate through the overloaded multimedia treatment. Should Sosa choose to revive this project for another performance, he might do well to dwell on the less-is-more precept.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Plans for One Found Sound’s Ninth Season

Readers may recall that pandemic conditions did not prevent One Found Sound (OFS) from presenting their eighth season in the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021. This involves some highly imaginative approaches to the use of streaming technology, much of which involved the inventive use of video created by Max Savage, Video Producer for the Noisy Savage video production house. Yesterday OFS announced that it would return to live performances for its ninth season, which will begin next month. Inventive approaches to media will still contribute to the listening experience, but the physical immediacy of both orchestral and chamber music offerings will return.

The overall theme of the season will be Constellations. Each program will have its own title, which will serve as a reflection on that theme. There will be three orchestral concerts, two chamber music recitals, and the annual fundraising gala, which will feature a world premiere performance. All of the events will take place on Saturday evenings at Heron Arts, which is located in SoMa at 7 Heron Street on the block between 7th Street and 8th Street. In order of occurrence, the programs will be as follows:

October 16, 8 p.m., constellations: phoenix: The return to live performance will feature female composers from two different centuries. The earlier music will be the Opus 36 (third) symphony in G minor written by Louise Farrenc in 1847. This will be preceded by Jessie Montgomery’s “Records from a Vanishing City,” which was given its world premiere by Orpheus in Carnegie Hall on October 27, 2016. The program will then conclude with Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate’s “Chokfi’,” which he had prepared for the CURRENTS program, which he curated for streaming by SFSymphony+ this past April. The program will feature immersive multimedia experiences involving film, light, and sound crafted by both Savage and cinematographer Yuito Kimura.

November 13, 8 p.m., constellations:helios: The first chamber music offering will feature two recent compositions for string quartet. The first of these will be “American Mirror” by Derrick Skye. The second will reflect on the program’s title, “Warmth From Other Suns” by Carlos Simon.

December 11, 8 p.m., constellations:terra: This program will begin with the world premiere of “Ecosystem.” Composed for string orchestra by Joel Hoo, this work was the winner of the inaugural OFS Emerging Composer Award, which was made possible by the Richardson family. The program will conclude with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 385 (“Haffner”) symphony in D major. Between these two selections, OFS will present “Tree Line,” composed by Tōru Takemitsu in 1988.

February 5, 8 p.m., constellations:aurora: Mozart in December will be followed by Ludwig van Beethoven in February. The program will conclude with his Opus 93 (eighth) symphony in F major, particularly significant for reminding us all that this composer had a rich sense of humor. The program will also feature Vietnamese-American soprano Bích-Vân Nguyễn in a performance of Thu Điếu by Viet Cuong. Between these two selections will be a performance of “Primal Message” by Nokuthula Ngwenyama.

March 12, 8 p.m., constellations:mars: The second chamber music offering will feature music for woodwind quintet and percussion. It will begin with “Homage to Duke” by Jeff Scott, the horn player of Imani Winds. This will be followed by “Aires Tropicales” by Paquito D’Rivera, one of the composers that figures significantly in Imani’s repertoire. The final selection will be music from the third volume in Ivan Trevino’s Song Book series scored for wind quintet and percussion. This selection was performed as a music video created by Savage featuring choreography by Babatunji Johnson this past March, and it will be given an encore presentation.

May 21, 6:30 p.m., constellations:GALActic!: The season will conclude with the annual fundraising party. The music will feature the world premiere of a clarinet concerto composed by Mary Kouyoumdjian, jointly commissioned by OFS and the Minnesota Philharmonic Orchestra. The clarinet soloist will be Jeff Anderle.

Admission to all of these events will be by individual tickets. As of this writing there do not appear to be any options for subscriptions. All tickets may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to the above dates.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Mills to Live-Stream Annual Milhaud Concert

Darius Milhaud surrounded by his students at Mills College (from the Mills Performing Arts event page for the annual Darius Milhaud Concert)

Some readers may recall that roughly a year ago is when I announced the annual Darius Milhaud Concert, which was live-streamed from the Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Concert Hall on the campus of Mills College. This year’s event will focus on four works that Milhaud composed for a solo instrument. These will be:

  1. Sonatina Pastorale, Opus 383, performed by violinist Kate Stenberg
  2. Ségoviana, Opus 366, performed by guitarist David Tanenbaum
  3. The Opus 437 sonata performed by harpist Jennifer Ellis
  4. The four Romances san paroles, Opus 129, performed by pianist Belle Bulwinkle

The other soloist for the evening will be percussionist William Winant, who will play works for solo percussion by former Mills faculty composers: Roscoe Mitchell, Alvin Curran, Lou Harrison, and Chris Brown. The Brown composition will be a world premiere performance.

The concert will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 24. There will be no charge for admission, but those living in San Francisco will be more interested in viewing the live stream. This can be arranged by registration through an Eventbrite event page. There will be no charge for registering; and, once the viewer has been registered, (s)he will receive the hyperlink to the live stream presentation on the day of the event.

The “Classical” Side of Pianist Satoko Fujii

Pianist Satoko Fujii is one of those rare composers whose work shows up in both the “classical” and “jazz” categories in the classification of my recordings. Ironically, I first became aware of her not through a recording but through a performance she gave in February of 2015 of improvisations with trumpeter Kappa Maki in a program at the Center for New Music (C4NM) curated by Larry Ochs entitled Existence: Quartet Music for Improvisers. Fujii and Maki had come to San Francisco for the New Frequencies Fest at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, after which they visited C4NM to perform with percussionist Jordan Glenn and Bruce Ackley on a diversity of single-reed instruments.

A little over two years later, I downloaded my first Fujii album, entitled June. This also involved a quartet with Fujii performing with her husband, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. In this case, however, the other two performers were French, rather than American: trumpeter, Christian Pruvost, and drummer Peter Orins. The quartet was called Kaze; and the album included two additional French performers, Sophie Agnel on a second piano, and Didier Lasserre serving as a second drummer. The expanded group called itself Trouble Kaze.

Over the course of about four years, Fujii albums have become a significant sector in my jazz collection. Every now and then, however, a release would arise, which presented solo piano music that did not seem to “fit” the jazz category particularly comfortably. Indeed, one of those albums involved another pianist performing Fujii compositions: Diary 2005–2015: Yuko Yamaoka plays the music of Satoko Fujii, which was the November installment in Fujii’s “Kanreki Cycle” of month-by-month releases to honor the year of her 60th birthday (2018). This was followed, in June of 2019, by Stone, Fujii’s own solo performance of fifteen short piano pieces. Each of these pieces struck me has having less to do with jazz and more to do with the affordances of the piano itself, which I described as “the latest disciplined investigation of how a piano can be ‘more than a piano.’”

Those investigations have continued in Fujii’s latest solo album, entitled simply Piano Music. The album was released this past April on Libra Records, which is Fujii’s “home” label; and that release has a Bandcamp Web page. It is available only for streaming and download, and the price is given in Japanese yen. My understanding is that there will be a United States release this coming Friday, which may lead to a change on the Bandcamp Web site that will provide a price in United States dollars.

While Stone served as a document of experimentation through a series of performances, each involving different approaches to execution, Piano Music  consists of only two longer compositions, the first, “Shiroku,” about nineteen minutes in duration and the second, “Fuwarito,” lasting 27 minutes. Both of these are “collage” compositions, created through the inventive editing of pre-recorded snippets. In other words Fujii chose to explore synthesis as an alternative for performance. As she put it:

I thought I could put together small parts to make a big work, fitting the pieces together the way I wanted to. I could make music like building with Legos. This may not be a new thing for many creators, but for me it was new because I am a very analog piano player.

Indeed, I know from my experience that this is not “a new thing.” My interest in musique concrète and tape music goes all the way back to my student days, when I first captured computer-generated sounds based on frequency-modulation synthesis and took the tapes to the campus radio station to experiment with different approaches to editing and superposition. (These days I am more content to be just part of the audience for the San Francisco Tape Music Festival!) However, both of the tracks on Fujii’s new album are definitely “new things” because they are informed by her rich background as a performer, which is decidedly different from the “design-based” approaches that one encounters in most of the tape music repertoire. As an attentive listener, I would never confuse either of the Piano Music tracks with anything I had previously encountered in the tape music genre; and I was delighted with the originality of Fujii’s techniques and the results that they yielded.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Chanticleer’s San Francisco Opening Plans

The War Memorial Green Room (courtesy of Chanticleer)

Readers may recall that Chanticleer will launch its 2021–22 season with a program entitled Awakenings, which will serve as a metaphor for the return to “the usual” concert conditions. The San Francisco performances of this program will take place in the Green Room. They will differ from the opening concerts in Sacramento and Santa Clara by using the Green Room space in an imaginative way. Details have not been released, other than to say that the performance will provide “an intimate way to experience Chanticleer up close and in surround sound.”

As was previously announced, the program will feature new works by Ayanna Woods and Steven Sametz created through commissions. The Sametz composition will be based on birdsongs, meaning that it is likely to be one of the offerings that will exploit the spatial affordances of the Green Room. This may also be the case for the ensemble’s presentation of some of Claudio Monteverdi’s more raucous approaches to polyphony. The program will also include “Renaissance dreamscapes” by Orlande de Lassus.

This program will be given two performances, both at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday evenings, September 25 and October 2. Ticket prices are $62 with a $57 rate for seniors over the age of 65 and students. Tickets may be purchased on line through separate City Box Office Web pages for September 25 and October 2. Tickets may also be purchased by calling City Box Office at 415-392-4400. The Green Room is located on the second floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located 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.

Chanticleer has formulated its policy for performing under the current pandemic conditions as follows:

  • Everyone in attendance will be required to provide proof of vaccination.
  • You and your guests must be fully vaccinated to attend; proof of vaccination is required upon arrival. Full vaccination is defined as completion of the two-dose regimen of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine administered two weeks or more in advance of the event.
  • Given these precautions, all performances will be seated at full capacity.
  • Unfortunately, due to vaccination status, children under the age of 12 will not be able to attend Chanticleer concerts at this time.

Further Reflections on Antonio Adolfo

My first encounter with a recording of Brazilian jazz pianist Antonio Adolfo was not a particularly conducive one. He had released Rio, Choro, Jazz: a tribute to legendary Brazilian pianist & composer Ernesto Nazareth on his own AMM (Antonio Adolfo Music) label through CD Baby in March of 2014, back when I was writing for Examiner.com; and I was skeptical about whether he had caught Nazareth’s spirit in his music. Mind you, my knowledge of Nazareth was heavily influenced by the appropriation of his music by Darius Milhaud; but, as I put it at the time, I came away from Adolfo’s treatments as “more readily classified as ‘smooth jazz’ than as ‘gritty Brazilian.’”

However, since the movement to my current site, I have found myself more sympathetic to more recent AMM albums, Samba Jazz Alley, which was basically a tribute to Rio de Janeiro as the birthplace of Brazilian jazz, and, this past July, Jobim Forever, focusing on the impact of Rio-based jazz master Antônio Carlos Jobim. As a result, I decided to continue to pursue my interest in Adolfo’s recordings by going back to two earlier releases, Encontros, which features the large ensemble Orquestra Atlantica, and BruMa: Celebrating Milton Nascimento. Encontros is the earlier album, released in November of 2018 and, as of this writing, only available for download or streaming through Amazon.com. BruMa then followed in June of last year.

“Encontros” is Portuguese for “meetings,” and it reflects influences of the Atlantic Ocean serving as the east coast of both South and North America and the west coast of the Iberian peninsula and Africa. North American influences are particularly interesting, since they include Miles Davis’ “Milestones” and Adolfo’s own “Partido Samba-Funk.” Equally appealing is the three-way meeting entitled “Africa Bahia Brasil,” as well as “Capoeira Ya,” which puts a flamenco twist on a Brazilian dance based on a martial art. Adolfo was clearly comfortable working with a large ensemble, drawing upon arrangements and orchestrations that were prepared by Jessé Sadoc and Marcelo Martins.

BruMa, on the other hand, had educational value for me. While I was familiar with a fair number of Jobim tunes, I basically knew Nascimento only by name. Ten tracks of his compositions seemed to be a good way for me at least to begin to fill that gap. My education was facilitated by a useful set of liner notes by Chris McGowan. Those preferring to download this album through the Amazon.com Web page should, however, be warned that the booklet is not included as part of the download. Fortunately, the liner notes can be found on a Web page on the AAM Web site.

Monday, September 13, 2021

San Francisco Performances: Opening Night

Stewart Goodyear (right) with the members of the Catalyst Quartet (from the event page for the SFP Opening Night performance)

Those that have been following this site regularly probably know that today is the day that single tickets go on sale for all San Francisco Performances (SFP) events in the 2021–2022 season. They may also recall that the season will begin with a new series entitled Uncovered, curated by the Catalyst Quartet, the string quartet whose members are violinists Karla Donehew and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez. The series was conceived to bring to a broader audience compositions from the African American tradition of chamber music, presenting the work of composers whom history has overlooked due to their race or gender. Each of the four programs in the series will feature a guest artist, and commentary prior to each performance will be presented by bass-baritone Dashon Burton.

UNCOVERED is also the name of a series of recordings that Catalyst has planned for release on Azica Records. The first release took place at the beginning of this past February with an album devoted entirely to the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. At that time the second violinist was Jessie Montgomery, and only one of the three recorded compositions was a string quartet, the Opus 5 “Fantasiestücke” (fantasy pieces), which Coleridge-Taylor completed in 1896. That collection of five short pieces was flanked on either side by a quintet, beginning with the Opus 1 piano quintet in G minor, composed in 1893, and concluding with the Opus 10 clarinet quintet in F-sharp minor, composed in 1895. The musicians that joined Catalyst were pianist Stewart Goodyear and clarinetist Anthony McGill.

The program for the first SFP Uncovered recital will include two of these compositions, Opus 5 and Opus 1, the latter again with Goodyear as pianist. However, the remaining work on the program will present another African American composer, born in 1922, almost a decade after the death of Coleridge-Taylor. While the earlier composer was sometimes referred to as the “African Mahler,” Walker is remembered not only for his music but also for having been the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in music. To be fair, though, he did not win that award until 1996! Catalyst will play his first string quartet, composed half a century earlier in 1946. (Walker was a graduate student at the Curtis Institute of Music at that time.) The second movement of this quartet was subsequently repurposed for string ensemble in 1990 under the title “Lyric for Strings.”

This program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 7. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located 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.

Ticket prices are $65 (premium Orchestra and front and center Dress Circle), $55 (remainder of Orchestra, all Side Boxes, and center rear Dress Circle), and $45 (remaining Dress Circle and Balcony); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page. In addition, since this is the first concert of the series, subscriptions are still available to cover all four concerts. The respective prices are $240, $200, and $160. Single tickets can also be purchased at the door as available with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors. Subscription orders may be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets may be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

Matthew Whitaker’s “Pandemic” Album

This coming Friday, Resilience Music Alliance will release the album Connections featuring keyboardist Matthew Whitaker. This sixteen-track collection is his third album, and almost all of the recording took place between this past March 2 and March 4. As usual, the album is available for pre-order from an Amazon.com Web page; but readers should be aware that this Web page is almost entirely devoid of useful content. Those interested in a track listing will not find it unless they follow the hyperlink to the Web page for streaming and MP3 download. For further information, including the identify of those performing with Whitaker, the most accessible source is Whitaker’s Web page on the Resilience Music Alliance Web site.

There is an impressive breadth to Whitaker’s repertoire. At one end there is an approach to Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” that features violinist Regina Carter as guest artist. At the other there is an account of Chick Corea’s “Spain,” which was recorded a little less than a month after the composer’s death. Between these extremes the most impressive track (at least for me) was a piano duet interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya” with Jon Batiste as the second pianist. Finally, there are four tracks of Whitaker’s own compositions.

For all the virtues of the music itself, however, it is hard to avoid the nagging frustration that comes in trying to acquire any background knowledge. My “press download” included text file that included a little over four pages of track-by-track comments written by Whitaker. Sadly, I have yet to find a site that will include this file as part of the download. That file also accounts for all of the musicians that joined Whitaker in performances of the individual tracks and even a few interesting tidbits about the recording processes. Some of that information is included on Whitaker’s Web page; but, given the impressive approach to programming this album, those wishing to learn more deserve better treatment.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

SFS to Present “Re-Opening Night” Program

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen (photograph by Minna Hatinen, courtesy of SFS)

Next month will begin with the return of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to Davies Symphony Hall to kick off its 2021–22 Season, which was announced at the end of this past June. As expected, the ensemble will be conducted by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen; and the performers will also include one of his eight hand-picked Collaborative Partners, vocalist and bassist esperanza spalding. In addition there will be a jazz trio of guest musicians and members of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

King will create original choreography for a suite extracted from Alberto Ginastera’s Opus 8 score for the ballet Estancia. Both spalding and the jazz trio will contribute to the performance of excerpts from Wayne Shorter’s “Gaia.” These two selections will be framed by orchestral selections. The program will begin with John Adams’ “Slonimsky’s Earbox.” The concluding selection will be “Noches de encantamiento,” the theme-and-variations final movement of a four-movement suite that José Yves Limantour extracted from the score that Silvestre Revueltas composed for the film The Night of the Mayas.

This program will be given three performances. The first of these will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 30. This will be the annual All San Francisco Concert, which is offered to community groups and social service organizations by invitation only. Those interested in being invited should send electronic mail to allsf@sysymphony.org by this coming Friday, September 17.

The “Re-Opening Night” concert will take place the following evening, Friday, October 1, at 7 p.m. Doors will open at 6 p.m. for complementary sparkling wine served in the lobbies. The program will last for about 90 minutes, after which ticket holders are invited to attend an After-Party at the corner of Grove Street and Franklin Street. There are also VIP packages, which include admission for sparkling wine at 5:30 p.m., the best reserved seats, and an invitation to an Encore Reception with Salonen, the guest artists, and SFS musicians. A Web page has been created summarizing the different VIP packages, their respective prices, and the amount of that price that is tax deductible. Tickets for those attending the concert will range from $225 to $425; and the charge for VIP packages begins at $1000.

The first subscription concert of the season with then take place the following day, Saturday, October 2, beginning at 7:30 p.m. The program will be the same as the one performed on October 1 but without any of the Gala festivities. Ticket prices will range from $35 to $200.

Tickets for Davies are available online through the hyperlinks at the beginning of the above two paragraphs. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at 415-864-6000. Also, according to current news, the Box Office Lobby will again be open for in-person ticket sales and exchanges. Davies is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of Grove Street. The main entrance (which is also the entrance for the Box Office) is located on the south side of Grove Street, halfway between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.

Because we are still under pandemic conditions, SFS has released the following statement:

The San Francisco Symphony requires proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 for everyone ages 12 and up entering Davies Symphony Hall. All patrons are required to wear a face mask while attending performances and post-concert events. These protocols are in accordance with policies enacted by the City and County of San Francisco and follow the advice of the San Francisco Symphony Health & Safety Task Force. Details about health and safety protocols at Davies Symphony Hall can be found here.

Dropzone Records Releases Jazz Trio Album

courtesy of Karl Latham

Those wondering whether or not the “classic jazz trio” (piano, bass, and drums) is still alive and well would do well to check out the album Together, which was released by Dropzone Records this past June. The album was produced by drummer Karl Latham, performing with pianist Alex Collins and Ryan Berg on bass. The overall duration is relatively modest (52 minutes); but that period of time discloses a generous account of inventiveness over the course of six standards: “Stella by Starlight” (Victor Young), “Alone Together” (Arthur Schwartz), “On Green Dolphin Street” (Bronisław Kaper), “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” (Jimmy Van Heusen), “Night Dreamer” (Wayne Shorter), and “Invitation” (Kaper).

The album itself seems to have been compiled from live-streamed performances, which originated at Firefly Studios in Warwick, located in Orange County, New York, just north of the border with New Jersey. The streamed events took place on November 13, 2020, December 4, 2020, and February 12, 2021. Latham served as recording engineer for these three sessions. Regular readers may know by now of my aversion towards what I have called “music that has responded to COVID-19 by blunting sharp edges, rather than seeking them for stimulation.” There is no shortage of keenly sharpened edges in the improvisations that unfold on Together, making this an album that lifts the spirits rather than bemoaning lockdown conditions.

I was particularly glad to encounter “Night Dreamer” “rubbing shoulders” with the more familiar standards on the album. As I wrote yesterday about the release of the “Lost Session” album of vocalist Sheila Jordan, I appreciate any encounter that reminds me of the many gaps in my knowledge of jazz. Where Shorter is concerned, there is still a major gap in my knowledge of his years of recording with Blue Note; and Night Dreamer was a significant album from that period. Sometimes I think that the best thing a jazz album can do is trigger interest in other jazz albums; and, in that context, I have been delighted to add Together to my growing collection.

Old First Concerts Piano Festival Begins

Nicole Brancato performing at the New York City premiere of The Illustrated Pianist (from her Old First Concerts event page)

Last night marked the beginning of Current: A Piano Festival, a series of three programs presented by Old First Concerts (O1C) with support by the Ross McKee Foundation. Each of those programs will focus on contemporary repertoire, but each will take its own unique approach to presenting that repertoire. That strategy was clearly evident last night in a program produced and curated by Nicole Brancato entitled The Illustrated Pianist.

The cover page of the O1C program book also had a subtitle: “A Concert of Imaginative New Works for Piano and Visual Installation, inspired by science fiction.” That inspiration involved the fact that last year was the centenary of the birth of Ray Bradbury, and this year marks the 70th anniversary of the eighteen stories that Bradbury collected under the title The Illustrated Man. The new works were composed by Brancato herself, Nicholas Pavkovic, Jed Distler, Dee Spencer, Monica Chew, and Keisuke Nakagoshi. All the composers played their own music with the exception of Chew, whose “Pitter Patter” was performed by Jerry Kuderna.

The “visual installation” was created by Cory Todd, consisting of video projections that accompanied each of the works on the program. Since I “attended” this concert through a live-stream, I am not sure where the images were projected in the Old First sanctuary; but in the streamed version they were strategically superimposed on the images of the pianists giving their performances. The entire program lasted a little more than an hour, and the video seems to be available for additional viewing on its YouTube Web page.

That availability is decidedly advantageous. A program consisting entirely of nine new compositions puts a strain on even the most focused attention. When the music itself is part of a larger mix that also includes real-time video and an itemization of Bradbury titles serving as “inspiration,” there is far more than enough for mind to manage.

However, as one that has enjoyed a generous share of Bradbury’s work, I have to confess that I have long been uncomfortable with his having been classified as a science fiction writer. Yes, he was inspired by the Astounding Science Fiction periodical, as well as authors such as Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. However, Bradbury’s real interest was the complexity of human nature; and situating a narrative in a setting that involved a distant planet or advanced technology that had not yet been invented was his strategy for exploring that complexity. (We should also remember that one of his best explorations of that complexity can be found in the screenplay he wrote for the film version of Moby Dick.)

As a result I found myself hard-pressed to identity a “Bradbury connection” to any of the new works on the program. Indeed, I am not sure that Bradbury was ever mentioned in any of the verbal introductions provided by the composers. Only the O1C program sheet specified links of each of the compositions to Bradbury’s writings. Thus, in my capacity as a listener, it did not take long to me to put Bradbury out of my mind. The inventiveness of the music provided more than enough to keep that mind occupied.

The visuals, on the other hand, seemed to supplement the dispositional nature of the music itself. Unfortunately, there was more diversity in the musical selections than there was in the techniques that Todd engaged to create his videos. Mind you, in order to create a visual context, he would have had to begin with an understanding of the content being visualized. Since all of the works were new, Todd could only begin to arrive at that understanding through awareness of how the piano performances were being prepared. Given how much content there was in this program, that would have been quite a tall order for Todd to follow.

Where the music itself was concerned, I was impressed by the wide extent of technical challenges behind the works being presented. I was also pleasantly amused by the number of instances in which snippets of quotation would pop up, almost as if the composer wanted to check on whether the listener was actually paying attention. The advantage of having a video available is that the attentive listener has greater control of how (s)he devotes her/his attention. With such an abundance of content, “piecemeal” viewing will probably allow for attention that is both more consistent and more focused. Having sat through all of the “live” encounter, I would now advocate getting to know the nine compositions on this program through that “piecemeal” approach to viewing.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Flower Piano to Return This Month

A spontaneous Flower Piano performance (from the Flower Piano Web site)

Last year the annual Flower Piano event, presented by Sunset Piano and the San Francisco Botanical Garden (SFBC), had to be postponed due to the pandemic. However, this coming Friday, a dozen grand pianos will be installed on the 55 acres that SFBC occupied in Golden Gate Park. This will be the sixth incarnation of the event, an interactive music festival with each of the twelve pianos in a beautiful garden setting where anyone can play them. In addition there will be five days of scheduled performances, some of which will be full recitals, distributed across the different gardens in the SFBC space. A Web page has been created with the full schedule of all events, and all one needs to do is show up at the right place at the right time.

Performances will be held every day between Friday, September 17, and Tuesday, September 21. A few events are worth highlighting:

  • Friday, September 17, noon, Great Meadow: The San Francisco Conservatory of Music will present an Emerging Artist Showcase.
  • Saturday, September 18, 4 p.m., Zellerbach: Antonín Dvořák's Opus 81 (second) piano quintet in A major will be performed by five Ensemble SF musicians. Ensemble SF is composed of members of the San Francisco Symphony and the orchestra for San Francisco Ballet. For this performance the pianist will be Elizabeth Schumann, joined by violinists Wyatt Underhill and Rebecca Jackson Picht, violist Matt Young, and cellist Sebastien Gingras.
  • Tuesday, September 21, 4 p.m., Zellerbach: Sarah Cahill, who performs regularly at Flower Piano, will give a duo performance with Regina Myers. As is often the case, the program will present recent compositions. These will include works by Eleanor Alberga, Terry Riley, and others yet to be announced.

The Flower Piano Web page also includes a section for frequently asked questions and their answers.

Capri Records Releases Early Sheila Jordan

Since my primary area of expertise is on the “classical” side, I have gotten used to encounters that remind me of how many gaps there are in my knowledge of jazz. One of the most recent reminders took place last month, when I was informed that Capri Records would be releasing an album of a previously unheard studio session by vocalist Sheila Jordan. Jordan will turn 93 this coming November 18, and reviewing her Wikipedia page left me feeling somewhat perplexed that I had not learned about her sooner.

Jordan was born in Detroit; and, while her family moved to Summerhill, Pennsylvania, she returned to Detroit to begin her career with jazz club gigs. She was an “early adopter” of bebop in the Forties with her own approach to scat singing. She also worked with Skeeter Spight and Leroi Mitchell to write lyrics for Charlie Parker’s music. She moved to New York City in 1951 and got to know Parker well enough to claim him as one of her teachers. Her other teachers included Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus. Blue Note released her debut album, Portrait of Sheila, in January of 1963, performing with Barry Galbraith on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass, and Denzil Best on drums.

The new Capri release is entitled Comes Love: Lost Session 1960. All eleven tracks were recorded at Olmsted Sound Studios, which is probably better known for recording sessions of both The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. The recordings were made on a single day, June 10, 1960. The album will be released this coming Friday; and, as tends to be the case, Amazon.com is currently processing pre-orders. This is a trio album; but there is no documentation of the other two musicians, nor can Jordan herself recall who they might be.

Since this was a “first contact” experience for me, I cannot compare it with any of the albums listed in the Discography section of Jordan’s Wikipedia page. However, in the context of many of the more recent vocal albums I have encountered, I have to say that I am more than merely satisfied with her command of pitch and her prodigious repertoire of embellishment techniques. This is a vocalist with highly inventive stylistic devices in her toolbox. However, she also has a solid grip on the substance of each song she presents, and she never lets style undermine the foundations of that substance.

Too Many SFO “Homecoming” Shortcomings

Last night San Francisco Opera presented its only performance of Live and In Concert: The Homecoming, presented in the War Memorial Opera House with a simulcast relay to Oracle Park. The guest artists were soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen and mezzo Jamie Barton, but this was also an occasion to appreciate the SFO Orchestra under the leadership of its new Caroline H. Hume Music Director Eun Sun Kim. The performance also include the “debut” of a new Concert Shell, completed this past spring, which would provide the proper acoustics for the Orchestra on the stage, rather than in the pit. Those attending the concert also saw a generous array of microphones (along with those worn by the vocalists) to make sure that Oracle Park received the audio signal it deserved.

The high point of the evening came when lightning struck for a second time, so to speak. In the spring of 2019, Willis-Sørensen had sung the title role in Antonín Dvořák’s best known opera, his Opus 114 Rusalka. This opera is probably best known for the “Song of the Moon,” sung by the title character during the first act. Willis-Sørensen delivered a dynamite account of this poignant meditation, particularly impressive since her performance was a role debut.

Most readers know by now that the occasion was also Kim’s debut in leading the Orchestra. Thus, both of them had an opportunity to shine once again in the performance of Dvořák’s music. Willis-Sørensen reprised her account of the “Song of the Moon” (reminding many of us that lightning can strike twice in the same place); and, by way of an “overture,” Kim conducted the second-act Polonaise.

Barton was also in the cast of that 2019 performance, singing the role of the witch Ježibaba; but she did not contribute to the Rusalka excerpts. Instead, the “Song of the Moon” was followed by Barton singing Delilah’s seductive aria “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” (my heart opens itself to your voice) from the second act of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 47 opera Samson and Delilah. For many this is the only vocal selection from the opera that is recognizable; but Barton knew how to tap into every twist of seductiveness in the composer’s score, making her delivery far more compelling than a mere rehash of an all-too-familiar theme. Indeed, given how much of the program was dominated by Italian composers, the French ones tended to be more memorable with Willis-Sørensen’s compelling account of “Depuis le jour” (since the day) from the third act of Gustave Charpentier’s Louise.

Sadly, the Italian side of the evening was far less satisfying. As might be expected, the program followed the trajectory from Gaetano Donizetti through Vincenzo Bellini and up to Giuseppe Verdi. The first two of those composers were the leaders of the bel canto movement, which had a strong consistency to prioritize style over narrative substance. Verdi broke with this trend in favor of less trivial narratives; but both trends hold up much better in the context of a full opera, rather than through excerpts. Personally, I would have traded the entire set of nineteenth-century Italian offerings for the opportunity to listen to Willis-Sørensen take on “Ain’t it a pretty night” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah opera.

I also feel it necessary to observe that this was one of those occasions when sitting in the Orchestra section turned out to be sub-optimal. While the Concert Shell certainly provided the right acoustic setting for the ensemble on the War Memorial Opera House stage, the full power of that setting was impeded by having almost all of the musicians on the same level. Anyone who has crossed Grove Street to observe the San Francisco Symphony is probably aware of the tiered seating that provides just the right physical layout for balancing (visually, as well as acoustically) the different instrumental resources. The absence of such a tiered approach on the Opera House stage meant that those with seats on “the ground floor” could not see most of the performers themselves. (From my particular vantage point, the entire second violin section was obscured.)

The limited view of those with Orchestra seating (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

I have written in the past about the ways in which what one sees contributes to what one hears. Those seated above the Orchestra level probably experienced those contributions. Most likely there were even some that could relish the interactions of all those musicians with their conductor. I suspect it would have been possible to provide a “reasonable facsimile” of the seating used in Davies Symphony Hall; but it appears that this possibility received little, if any, attention.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Alto’s Frustrating David Oistrakh Anthology

courtesy of New Sounds Consulting

A little less than a month ago, Ukrainian violinist Igor Oistrakh died at the age of 90. Sadly, word seems to have reached this side of the Atlantic Ocean only earlier this month, which is yet another sign of the extent to which his talents have been overlooked. This was due to the fact that his father was David Oistrakh, who was such a major presence in the Soviet Union that he enjoyed more opportunities for travel than just about any Soviet citizen that was not in the diplomatic service (either explicitly or “under cover”). There is thus a certain amount of irony in the fact that Alto released a ten-CD collection of David Oistrakh playing 24 different violin concertos on a date that was so close to Igor’s death.

To be fair, I would not want to detract from the older Oistrakh’s reputation for no better reason than “bad timing.” As violinists go he had a repertoire so extensive that, in some respects, his recording legacy was comparable to that of the abundance of sessions that Jascha Heifetz made with RCA. Furthermore, while the Alto recordings capture Oistrakh performing in Vienna, London, Paris, and even Philadelphia; Heifetz never performed as a visiting artist in the Soviet Union.

As a result, the Alto collection provides a rich account of not only the extensive diversity of Oistrakh’s repertoire but also the breadth of the many different ensembles and conductors with whom he worked. Furthermore,  his achievements were as important in his own “immediate present” as they were in his interpretations of music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus, both of the violin concertos that Dmitri Shostakovich composed, as well as Aram Khachaturian’s only violin concerto, were dedicated to him; and, in this collection, the recording of that latter concerto was conducted by the composer.

Given the richness of content in Alto’s anthology, it is more than a pity that the music itself should be so poorly packaged. One can appreciate that, in the interest of economy, Alto should direct listeners to a URL, should they wish to consult the booklet prepared for the release. However, the PDF that I downloaded numbered all of the tracks from 1 to 48 with no indication of which tracks were associated with which CD! Also, because many readers know how historically-minded I am, I find the lack of dates associated with all of the performances to be an unpardonable sin.

My guess, however, is that most readers will not pick as many nits as I do in these matters. Nevertheless, I suspect that readers that take their listening seriously will find Oistrakh’s Wikipedia page to be far more satisfying in content, particularly when it comes to establishing the context for many of the selections included in the Alto anthology. Alternatively, one may wish to ignore everything but the music itself, in which case one is likely to be more than consistently satisfied with the ten CDs in this collection.

NCCO to Return to Herbst Theatre Next Month

Following up on the three streamed performances that the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) prepared for its “virtual spring season,” the ensemble will return to Herbst Theatre at the beginning of next month with Music Director Daniel Hope serving as Concertmaster. Appropriately enough, the title of next month’s program will be New Century Returns; and it will begin with the United States premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Lament,” scored for solo violin and string orchestra and co-commissioned by NCCO. This will be the same instrumentation for the Opus 42 concertino by Mieczysław Weinberg. The program will conclude with Joseph Suk’s Opus 6 serenade for string ensemble.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 2. Herbst Theatre is located on the first two floors of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located 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. Single tickets may be purchased through a City Box Office event page. Ticket prices are $30 (Balcony and Rear Orchestra), $55 (Dress Circle, Boxes, and Side Orchestra), and $67.50 (Center Orchestra). In addition, because this is the beginning of the season, subscriptions are available for both the entire season and for three concerts. The price of a full subscription in San Francisco will be between $108 and $248, and the price for only three of the concerts will be between $81 and $187. NCCO has created a Web page for all subscription options.

Thursday, September 9, 2021

SFJAZZ to Present and Stream Omar Sosa

Omar Sosa at his array of keyboards (from his SFJAZZ event page)

Three months ago SFJAZZ presented its first public event since lockdown conditions were imposed in March of 2020. On that occasion Cuban pianist Omar Soar gave a solo concert. This month he will return to SFJAZZ for the world premiere of a full-length composition entitled Motherland Journey. The music will be provided by Sosa and drummer Amaury Acosta, but the production will be a wildly innovative multimedia happening performed in collaboration with Kenyan-born visual artist Githinji Wa’Mbire.

Wa’Mbire will create a sculpture on stage inspired by the spontaneous performance by Sosa and Acosta on both acoustic and electronic instruments. Wa’Mbire will contribute his own sonic elements through the use of his sculpture tools, his voice, and his body. Those sonic elements will then trigger electronic audio and video components in real-time. Wa’Mbire’s interaction with the musicians will provide the first opportunity to employ the advanced new stage lighting and projection system to be employed by SFJAZZ for the first time.

This performance will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 16. It is expected to last for one hour. The venue will be the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center, which is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street. Tickets are being sold for $30, $40, and $50 and may purchased online through an SFJAZZ Web page. In addition, there will be two opportunities to view a video stream of the performance. The first of these will be a livestream coinciding with the performance itself. That stream will then be saved for an encore broadcast, which will take place at 6 p.m. on Sunday, September 9, beginning with a live chat with the artist. Online tickets are being sold for $10 for SFJAZZ members and for $20 for non-members. The Web page for purchase includes access to a hyperlink for those wishing to become members.

Debut Album by Dudek’s Scenic Route Trio

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

A little over a month ago BMI CrossCurrents Jazz released Flight of Life, the debut album of The Scenic Route Trio produced by the trio’s leader, bassist Ollie Dudek. This album should not be confused with The Scenic Route, a British free improvisation album performed by the trio of saxophonist John Butcher, violinist Phil Durrant, and guitarist John Russell. Flight of Life is more in the vein of straight-ahead piano trio jazz with pianist Javier Santiago and drummer Genius Wesley joining Dudek. Furthermore, all the improvisations are structured around eight tunes composed by Dudek. Also, one can almost say that The Scenic Route Trio is on the other side of the world from the Butcher-Durrant-Russell trio, since it is based here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I have to say that I was a bit surprised to encounter this album, since it was the first time I was aware of Dudek’s “local presence.” Checking my archives, I discovered that, in August of 2018, he was playing bass for a quartet called “Swings Left,” created and led by pianist Rob Reich and including Ben Goldberg on clarinet and Andrew Stephens on trumpet. That gig took place at Bird & Beckett Books and Records; and, while I have previewed several of Reich’s jazz gigs, Dudek has not reappeared on my radar over the last three years.

Having just listened to Flight of Life, I have to say that I rather regret that absence. Considering that the nine tracks (the last being an alternate of one of the tunes) were conceived and recorded under pandemic conditions, this is a strikingly upbeat album; and readers probably know by now that I much prefer this rhetorical stance to that of the more “meditative” albums influenced by COVID-19 that I have encountered. Indeed, Dudek’s track entitled “Pandemia” gets off to a joyous start that is the perfect antidote for “pandemic blues;” and all three members of the trio serve up their own take on that joyousness. Dudek saves his quieter rhetoric for “Fog Waltzin’,” which “locals” like myself are likely to interpret as a love song for Karl the Fog.

As a result of my encounter with Flight of Life, I hope that Dudek will update the Gigs Web page on his Web site. Bird & Beckett still seems to be on his radar, as is the lobby of the Balboa Theatre, where I remember listening to a combo play the music of Lee Morgan prior to the screening of the film I Called Him Morgan in July of 2019. (The drummer for that combo was Wesley, who also played in a trio with pianist Adam Shulman and bassist Marcus Shelby in the film The Marcus Shelby Trio: Harriet Tubman and the Blues, which was streamed by Stanford Live this past March.) Keeping up with local jazz has been more difficult than following the classical scene; but, having listened to Flight of Life, I certainly hope my schedule can make room for a “live” performance by The Scenic Route Trio.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Opening LIEDER ALIVE! Program to Change

Readers may recall that the 2021/22 Liederabend Series presented by LIEDER ALIVE! will begin at the end of this month with the first of three Songs Without Words solo piano recitals. Jeffrey LaDeur had planned a program that would couple the four ballades composed by Frédéric Chopin with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 53 (“Waldstein”) sonata in C major. This morning I received word that the entire program will be changed.

LaDeur’s Web site identified the program as “Works by Clara & Robert Schumann;” but the Eventbrite event page, which is probably the most up-to-date source, describes the content as “Schumann and friends.” Hopefully, further details will be forthcoming, in which case this article will updated accordingly. More important is that this offering will be “strictly physical,” taking place, like past Liederabend offerings, at the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street.

The Eventbrite page will be processing tickets priced at $75 for reserved seating, $35 for general admission, and a $20 discounted rate for students, seniors, and working artists. In addition, because this is the beginning of the season, the event page for full subscriptions is still operative with prices of $350 for reserved seating, $250 for general admission, and a $150 discounted rate for students, seniors, and working artists. Finally, there is the option of a three-concert mini-subscription with prices of $150 for reserved seating and $150 for general admission. These can be purchased through a separate Eventbrite event page; and, after the purchase has been finalized, the choice of concerts can be sent by electronic mail to jjordan@liederalve.org. Those interested in both subscriptions and single tickets may also call LIEDER ALIVE! at 415-561-0100.

Trio Accanto’s Christian Wolff Album on WERGO

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

Last month WERGO released a new album devoted entirely to compositions by Christian Wolff. My interest in WERGO dates all the way back to when I was collecting vinyl releases. Where Wolff was concerned, one of those albums was reissued as a compact disc, which I wrote about in August of 2012 during my tenure with Examiner.com. The recordings for that release had been made in August of 1971 (right around the time that I received my doctoral degree); and they involved some impressive performers including David Tudor, Frederic Rzewski, David Behrman, and Gordon Mumma, as well as Wolff himself.

The new release consists of performances by Trio Accanto, which is based in Freiburg in Germany. The group was formed in 1994 by saxophonist Marcus Weiss and pianist Yukiko Sugawara joined forces with percussionist Christian Dierstein. In 2013 Sugawara was replaced by Nicolas Hodges. The album is the trio’s fourth CD; and it features “Trio IX – Accanto,” which the group commissioned from Wolff with funding from the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation. Trio Accanto gave the premiere performance on November 3, 2018; and the recording is based on sessions in 2020 between January 31 and February 2. The album also includes six of the compositions in Wolff’s Exercises collection.

Back in the early Seventies, I did all I could to keep up with performances of music by the New York School, which included John Cage and Morton Feldman. Wolff studied with Cage and became part of this group until he left to begin his freshman year at Harvard University. He majored in Classics and eventually received his doctoral degree, after which he taught Classics at Harvard until 1970. He then moved to Dartmouth College, where he taught Classics, Comparative Literature, and Music, retiring in 1999.

Reading what others have written about Wolff, I have consistently been reminded of the parable of the three blind men trying to describe an elephant. Each feels a different part of the elephant’s body, asserting a description that differs significantly from that of the other two. In that respect I would say that my own efforts to understand Wolff have been “blinded” by my paying too much attention to score pages and not enough attention to listening.

More useful is a Wolff quotation on his Wikipedia page. He asserts a desire “to turn the making of music into a collaborative and transforming activity (performer into composer into listener into composer into performer, etc.), the cooperative character of the activity to the exact source of the music. To stir up, through the production of the music, a sense of social conditions in which we live and of how these might be changed.”

That assertion leaves me with mixed feelings about any recording of Wolff’s music. At the end of the day, listening to a “real-time” performance by Trio Accanto probably provides a better account of Wolff’s work than any “frozen document” of a “captured” performance. Indeed, even trying to describe the experience of listening to this new Wergo album probably runs contrary to the composer’s intentions. On the other hand, opportunities to listen to Wolff’s work are depressingly few. In my own case, my last encounter with a Wolff performance took place in February of 2019 when Adam Tendler gave a Piano Talks concert presented by the Ross McKee Foundation.

Ultimately, the act of listening to this album is determined (almost?) entirely by the dispositions of the listener. Because that act is so dependent on the “immediate present,” the experience of listening to a recording will probably never prompt the same dispositions. Perhaps Trio Accanto will provide an opportunity to listen to the immediacy of performance once we get over current pandemic conditions and European performers will once again be able to tour the United States.