Sunday, October 31, 2021

Diverse Program from SFCM Baroque Orchestra

This afternoon in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Baroque Ensemble, led by Co-Director Corey Jamason at the harpsichord, presented an engaging diversity of “period” selections. The entire program was framed by concertos by Antonio Vivaldi, beginning with the RV 161 concerto for strings in A minor and concluding with the B minor concerto for four violins, RV 580, the tenth concerto in the Opus 3 publication known as L'estro armonico (the harmonic inspiration).

Within this framework there were two instrumental selections before the intermission, followed by two vocal selections. The vocalists were soprano Jayne Diliberto singing an aria from the opera Callirhoé composed by André Cardinal Destouches, followed by countertenor Kyle Tingzon singing the opening aria of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 170 cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul). The instrumental offerings were a suite, drawing upon a variety of sources by Henry Purcell, and the fourth (in the key of D major) of the twelve concerto grossi published by Arcangelo Corelli as his Opus 6.

Taken as a whole, the ensemble tended to be a bit on the scrappy side, particularly where intonation was concerned. Nevertheless, it is still early in the academic year; and it is reasonable to assume that the students are still coming up to speed. Whatever their shortcomings may have been, the students still exhibited a keen interest in the diversity of their repertoire; and it is reasonable to expect the refinement will begin to emerge with greater experience. For this particular program they could benefit from not only Jamason’s expertise as both keyboardist and educator but also a visit from Marc Schachman, best known as the oboist of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

Jennifer Meller performing her choreographic interpretation of Destouches’ music for his opera Callirhoé (screen shot from the video of the SFCM concert being discussed)

My only real peeve was with faculty member Jennifer Meller, who provided and performed solo choreography in conjunction with Diliberto’s aria performance. Working from four pages of dance notation, Meller performed a solo adaptation of “La Muszette a deux,” created in 1713 by Louis-Guillaume Pécour, both ballet master and dancer at the Paris Opera. Meller provided the following background for the program book:

The dance occurs in a pastoral Arcadian setting customary for a musette, and the dancer plays a follower of Pan. Playful and earthy with a touch of mischief, she uses her enchanted lyre to beckon all to forget their troubles and pursue the pleasures of uncomplicated love.

While Pan may have been the primary influence behind the choreography, I suspect that dancing barefoot was not socially acceptable in the early eighteenth century, particularly if the audience consisted of nobility, if not royalty! Thus, while the choreography may have been a plausibly faithful reconstruction, the execution was a bit too contemporary for my historical tastes.

Gidon Kremer on DG: Nineteenth Century

As previously planned, my second account of the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) 22-CD box set of concerto recordings featuring violinist Gidon Kremer will focus on the nineteenth-century repertoire. This category accounts for the fewest number of selections. The composers are the “usual suspects” associated with this repertoire:

  • Johannes Brahms: the Opus 77 concerto in D major along with the Opus 102 double concerto with cellist Mischa Maisky as the second soloist
  • Felix Mendelssohn: the early (1822) concerto in D minor and the 1823 double concerto with pianist Martha Argerich (but not the warhorse Opus 64 concerto in E minor)
  • Niccolò Paganini: the fourth concerto in D minor with cadenzas by Kremer
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: the Opus 35 concerto in D minor

Italian musicologist Pietro Spada, responsible for one of the less familiar compositions in Gidon Kremer’s repertoire (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The “non-concerto” selections are more interesting than the previously discussed Schubert offerings for a variety of reasons:

  • The Paganini CD includes the “Sonata Varsavia,” which was composed around the same time as the fourth concerto. This is a set of variations on a mazurka composed by Józef Eisner, also scored for violin and orchestra. However, the orchestral parts were lost, meaning that only the solo music for the violin survived. Kremer’s recording presents an orchestra arrangement by the Italian musicologist Pietro Spada, and Kremer supplies his own cadenza for the sonata’s third movement.
  • The Tchaikovsky concerto is coupled with the Opus 26 “Sérénade mélancolique” in B-flat major, also scored for violin and orchestra.
  • Somewhat in the spirit of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 26 is the Opus 25 “Poème” by Ernest Chausson, which I have come to appreciate for how well it fits the scenario of Antony Tudor’s ballet “Jardin aux lilas” (lilac garden).
  • A less familiar duo is the Opus 35 “Fantasia appassionata” composed by Henri Vieuxtemps; but none of his seven violin concertos, two of which (Opus 31 in D minor and Opus 37 in A minor) were recorded by Jascha Heifetz, are included in the Kremer collection.
  • Least expected is an arrangement of the so-called “Dante” sonata. This was composed for solo piano and included in the second volume of Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (years of Pilgrimage), the “Italian” year. This composition was arranged by violin and string orchestra by Sergei Dreznin. As might be guessed, Kremer performs this with his own Kremerata Baltica ensemble.

What I found particularly interesting was that the Mendelssohn selections were accompanied by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. There is a prankish side of me that would like to believe that Kremer’s experience with this ensemble, which performs without a conductor, may have planted a seed for him that would later grow into his own Kremerata Baltica. The other selections basically involve a “usual suspects” list of DG conductors: Leonard Bernstein (Brahms), Riccardo Muti (Paganini), Lorin Maazel (Tchaikovsky), and Riccardo Chailly (Chausson and Vieuxtemps).

That said, my personal preferences are based on how Kremer departs from the “beaten path;” and those departures will probably guide the choices I make in subsequent listening experiences from this collection.

Opera Parallèle’s Plans for Twelfth Season

Next month Opera Parallèle will launch its 2021–22 season, which will mark the company’s twelfth anniversary. Between November and July there will be three productions: a world premiere, a West Coast premiere, and the conclusion of a trilogy project that began in 2011. Not all the details have been finalized. However, many readers prefer to save dates sooner rather than later; so this is a good time to summarize the schedule.

Poster design for the opera “Harriet’s Spirit” (from the Eventbrite event page)

The season will begin with “Harriet’s Spirit,” a musical profile of nineteenth-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman composed by jazz bassist Marcus Shelby and a libretto by Roma Olivera. This is the latest in a series of operas for youth commissioned by Opera Parallèle through its Hands on Opera community engagement program. Those that have been following this site for some time may recall the account of an earlier Hands on Opera production first performed in November of 2016, “Xochitl and the Flowers.” Indeed, anyone with that much memory will probably also recall when “Harriet’s Spirit” was first launched as a Hands on Opera production in January of 2018. On that occasion the only instrumentalist was pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, who had also been part of a combo including flute and percussion at the “Xochitl” performances.

Since that time, Shelby has worked with Opera Parallèle to prepare a “main stage” production of “Harriet’s Spirit.” This will include new orchestration for ten musicians (flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, strings, and percussion). There will also be new staging the L. Peter Callender. The role of Tubman will again be sung by jazz soprano Tiffany Austin; and she will again be joined by soprano Christabel Nunoo as the young student Modesty. They will now be joined by Bradley Kynard in the role of Montgomery. Finally, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, led by Valérie Sainte-Agathe, will provided the voices for two choruses names “Say Nothing” and “Do Nothing.” General and Artistic Director Nicole Paiement will conduct.

The world premiere of this new version of the opera will be given three performances on Saturday, November 13, at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., and on Sunday, November 14, at 1 p.m. The venue will be the Bayview Opera House, located at 4705 Third Street. Tickets are being sold through an Eventbrite event page. General admission will be on a pay-what-you-can basis; and Eventbrite has created options of $10, $25, and $50. There is also an option for making a donation of any amount to the Opera House. Finally, tickets will be provided to those age 21 and younger at no charge.

The second production of the season will be the West Coast premiere of Lembit Beecher’s “Sophia’s Forest,” a one-act opera with a libretto by Hannah Moscovitch. If “Harriet’s Spirit” provides an operatic account of the abolitionist movement in the history of the United States, “Sophia’s Forest” reflects on the immigration experience. The title character, sung by soprano Maggie Finnegan, immigrated to the United States at the age of nine. The opera presents her as an adult reflecting on her childhood, which includes the chaos of civil war in her homeland and the traumatic journey that brought her to the United States. Other roles include Sophia’s mother Anna, sung by mezzo Kindra Scharich, and her sister Emma, sung by young sopranos Virginia Ko and Samantha Fung, who appear in flashback scenes. In addition, Sophia herself is performed as a child by actor Charlotte Fanvu. The music will be performed by the Del Sol Quartet joined by percussionist Divesh Karamchandani. The score will also include Sound Sculpture electronics created by the composer. Paiement will conduct.

The West Coast premiere of this opera will be given four performances, three at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 24, Friday, February 25, and Saturday, February 26, along with a 5 p.m. performance on Saturday. The venue will be Grace Cathedral, located at the top of Nob Hill at 1100 California Street. Tickets will not go on sale until Monday, November 15. At that time a hyperlink on the event page for this opera will be activated.

The final program will be a performance of Philip Glass’ “alternative soundtrack” for Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et la Bête (beauty and the beast). This will complete the trilogy of Glass operas based on Cocteau films. Opera Parallèle performed Orphée (Orpheus) in 2011, followed by Les Enfants Terribles (the terrible children) in 2017. Because Glass had conceived his music as a soundtrack for La Belle el la Bête, he planned the resources of four vocalists and a small instrumental ensemble to perform while the film was projected in the background. Some readers may recall that this was how Glass’ music was performed in the Lam Research Theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts when San Francisco Performance presented its Philip Glass at 75 “mini-festival” in May of 2013.

Opera Parallèle will take an alternative “hybrid” approach to its production. Permission has been granted by Glass himself, the Philip Glass Ensemble, and the Cocteau Estate. This new approach will be developed by Creative Director Brian Staufenbiel. He will draw upon the efforts of David Murakami (media designer), Yayoi Kambara (choreographer), Alina Bokovikova (costume designer), Sophia Smith (hair and make-up designer), and Mextly Couzin (lighting designer). Glass’ constraint of four vocalists will be maintained by Vanessa Becerra, Hadleigh Adams, Anders Frölich, and Shawnette Sulker. Paiement will conduct.

The performance dates will be Friday, July 15, Saturday, July 16, and Sunday, July 17. Performance times have not yet been announced, which means that tickets are not yet on sale. The venue will be the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center, located at 201 Franklin Street, on the southeast corner of Fell Street. The plan is for tickets to go on sale in March. Once again, this will involve activating a hyperlink on the event page for the opera.

Bird & Beckett Calls the Ghosts for Halloween

Ben Goldberg, David Boyce, Gerald Cleaver, and Darren Johnston at Bird & Beckett (screen shot from the video of the concert)

Last night Bird & Beckett Books and Records jumped the gun on Halloween by 24 hours with the latest installment in its jazz from the other side series. Appropriately enough, the performance was given by the Ghost Call Quartet, whose members are Darren Johnston on trumpet, Ben Goldberg alternating between clarinet and contra-alto clarinet, David Boyce alternating between tenor and soprano saxophones, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Since Cleaver is based in New York, he was the “guest artist,” since Johnston, Goldberg, and Boyce are familiar to local listeners seeking out adventurous jazz.

Over the course of two sets, dynamics tended to be kept at subdued levels, perhaps evoking voices telling scary stories in a dark room. On the rare occasions when the level rose to forte, however, the effect was less a matter of saying “Boo!” to the listener and more one of pulling back the shades to reveal a burst of sunlight. For the most part, though, the individual selections tended to assume a rhetoric of suggestion. Against an almost misty background from Cleaver’s drum kit, it seems as if each front-line player would tentatively offer thematic material to invite conversation with the others. More often than not, the individual parts tended towards the introverted. However, every now and then, a clear connection would be established; and the jamming would burst into life.

By way of disclaimer, I should note that I attended this concert through a YouTube live-stream. Technology being what it is, there may have been any number of subtleties that were missed due to bandwidth limitations. On the other hand, the opportunity to observe, rather than just listen, was definitely an asset. Without visual enhancement, there is a good chance that many of the subtler musical gestures would have eluded even the most attentive listening. Fortunately, the entire video of the performance is now available on YouTube, which should allow the curious to home in on the more subtle details with more control.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

MTT to Return to SFS with Two Concert Programs

SFS Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas (photograph by Brandon Patoc, courtesy of SFS)

Next month Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) will return to Davies Symphony Hall in his new capacity as Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). He has prepared two programs, which will be performed over the course of two successive weeks. He has included his own music in the program for the first week, and the second week will feature two premiere performances.

The MTT composition will be “Notturno,” scored for flute and orchestra. The soloist will be Demarre McGill, Principal Flute of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, making his debut at an SFS subscription concert. MTT has described “Notturno” as “a virtuoso piece evoking the lyrical world of Italian music.” He elaborates on that description as follows:

Its shape recalls concert arias, “études de concert,” and salon pieces—creations of a bygone world that I still hold in great esteem.…The piece has a subtext. It’s about the role music plays in the life of a musician and the role we musicians play in life.

“Notturno” will be framed by music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, respectively. The program will begin with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 605 set of three German dances, the last of which was given the title “Schlittenfahrt” (sleigh ride) and includes both sleigh bells and a post horn in its instrumentation. For the second half of the program, MTT will revisit his SFS Media recording of the four symphonies of Robert Schumann, performing the Opus 38 (first) symphony in B-flat major, known as the “spring” symphony.

This concert will be given three performances, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, November 12, and Saturday, November 13, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, November 14. A single Web page has been created with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for each of those dates. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Scott Foglesong one hour prior to each concert. Doors will open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $20 to $135 and may also be purchased by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000 or by visiting the Box Office at the main entrance to Davies on the north side of Grove Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.

The second week will feature the world premiere performance of a trombone concerto composed by Timothy Higgins, SFS Principal Trombone. This will be preceded by the SFS premiere performance of William Grant Still’s “Patterns.” The second half of the program will present the music that Aaron Copland composed for “Appalachian Spring,” a dance choreographed by Martha Graham, first performed at the Library of Congress on October 30, 1944.

This concert will be given three performances, all at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 18, Friday, November 19, and Saturday, November 20. A single Web page has been created with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for each of those dates. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Peter Grunberg one hour prior to each concert. Doors will open fifteen minutes before the talk begins.

These performances will be preceded by the next Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal of the season. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, November 18, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Grunberg at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the pieces rehearsed are at the conductor’s discretion. General admission is $30 with $40 for reserved seats in the Premier Orchestra section, Rear Boxes and Side Boxes, and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

Joe Chambers: Once and Future Blue Note

courtesy of Jazz Promo Services

Joe Chambers’ return to Blue Note Records, after Don Was became President following the label’s acquisition by EMI, resulted in the release of his album Samba de Maracatu this past February. Sadly, I only learned about this recording about a month or so ago. However, under pandemic conditions, “better late than never” often seems to figure significantly in the general order of things.

Chambers was a major percussionist during the Sixties, contributing to many of the Blue Note sessions that had been produced by co-founder Alfred Lion. More often than not, these led to highly adventurous albums. Where my own listening has been concerned, I probably first became aware of Chambers through his contributions to three of pianist Andrew Hill’s albums, Andrew!, One for One, and Compulsion. Andrew! saw him as a co-percussionist, complementing the vibraphone work of Bobby Hutcherson with the inventive rhythmic patters of his drum kit.

Samba de Maracatu, on the other hand, sees Chambers sharing his drum kit work with playing the vibraphone, as well as additional percussion resources appropriate for selections such as the title track. Throughout the nine tracks on the album, he leads a trio whose other members are Brad Merritt on keyboards and Steve Haines on bass. Vocalist Stephanie Jordan joins the trio for a “standards” performance of Jay Livingston’s “Never Let Me Go” (words by Ray Evans). The other “standards” track is the opening, “You and the Night and the Music” composed by Arthur Schwartz (without anyone singing the lyrics by Howard Dietz).

The remaining vocal track is “something completely different.” “New York State of Mind Rain” is a rap selection, composed by Chambers and his son Fenton and vocalized by MC Parrain. Since I have never really taken to rap, I view this track as an “outlier.” Fortunately, most of the tracks revive the spirit of Lion’s Blue Note productions. The title track is by Chambers, preceded by another of his original compositions, “Circles.” The other composers from the “Blue Note School” are Hutcherson (“Visions”), Horace Silver (“Ecaroh”), and Wayne Shorter (“Rio”). The remaining track is “Sabah el Nur” (Arabic for “wishing you a morning full of light”), composed by the Austrian jazz guitarist Karl Ratzer.

I have to confess that listening to Samba de Maracatu inspired me to seek out Chambers’ contributions to the Lion-produced Blue Note tracks already in my collection. Nevertheless, there is more than enough to satisfy the attentive listener on this new album. While I have not been completely sold on the new directions pursued under Was’ management, I am glad that he has not tried to exorcise Lion’s spirit. I have already expressed my delight in Was’ 5 Original Albums project, having recently focused on the retrospective Shorter collection. In many ways Samba de Maracatu is a bridge between jazz-as-it-was and jazz-as-it-is-now; and Chambers deserves credit for his effort to lead some of us old-timers across that bridge.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Telegraph Quartet to Play in Bi-Continental Gig

Poster design for the Musical Call for Climate Action (from the Eventbrite event page for live streaming)

Yesterday morning I learned that the Telegraph Quartet of violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw will contribute a concert taking place in both San Francisco and Vienna. The program will be co-presented by the ClimateMusic Project, based here in San Francisco, and a Viennese concert series called Friday Nights with Yury Revich. The title of the entire event will be Live! From San Francisco and Vienna: A Musical Call for Climate Action.

Telegraph’s contribution will be a performance of Richard Festinger’s “Icarus in Flight.” This composition was given its premiere at the Noe Valley Ministry on June 9, 2018. The performance involved visualization of climate conditions over a 200-year period that reaches back to 1880 and projects forward to 2080. The data being visualized involved three human drivers of climate change – population growth, carbon emissions, and land-use change – based on widely accepted data collected and provided by the United Nations.

Telegraph will perform in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall in the 50 Oak Street building of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. This venue will be linked in real time to the venue hosting Revich’s Friday Nights program. Content will be prodigiously eclectic, complementing classical offerings with pop and hip-hop. Other participating artists will include Revich himself, Khafre Jay, Martin Luther McCoy, James Cottriall, and 009.

Here in San Francisco the entire event will be streamed, but one may also attend by being part of the audience in the Concert Hall. Tickets for the latter option are being sold through an Eventbrite event page for $50 for reserved seating, $30 for general admission, and $15 for students. Eventbrite has also created an event page for the live-streaming of the entire concert. There will be no charge for viewing the live-stream; but registration will be required through a hyperlink on that event page. The registration window is set up also to allow for voluntary donations of any amount. The entire program is expected to last for two hours, beginning at 11 a.m. in San Francisco on Friday, November 12.

An Uneven Falla Collection from Brilliant Classics

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a month ago, Brilliant Classics released its latest budget-priced anthology of a single composer. The composer is Manuel de Falla, and the anthology consists of five CDs. These include complete accounts of music composed for three staged performances, La vida breve, an opera in two acts, the one-act ballet “El amor brujo” (love, the magician), and the one-act puppet opera “El retablo de maese Pedro” (Master Peter’s puppet show). Sadly, what is missing is a complete account of The Three-Cornered Hat, the two-act ballet created by Léonide Massine on a commission by Sergei Diaghilev. This is a farcical ballet with music that is as funny as the choreography.

There is an almost complete account of the piano music. This was not Falla’s “strong suit;” but two of the compositions were dedicated to serious pianists that provided debut performances. The earlier of these was a collection of four “Spanish pieces” dedicated to Falla’s most distinctive predecessor, Isaac Albéniz. The other, “Fantasía Bética,” was written for Arthur Rubinstein, an evocation of the early Roman times in a region of the Iberian peninsula that is now Andalusia. The other major piano offering is the three-movement suite Nights in the Gardens of Spain, scored for piano and full orchestra.

Of greater interest (at least in my opinion) is the harpsichord concerto that Falla wrote for Wanda Landowska. The harpsichord is accompanied by a chamber ensemble, consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello. The blend of those instruments places the harpsichord in a setting that oscillates between consonance and dissonance. I have been hooked on this music since I first encountered it in my undergraduate years.

What struck me as perplexing was the absence of the original version of the Siete canciones populares españolas (seven Spanish folk songs), originally scored for voice and piano. This is given one arrangement with orchestral accompaniment provided by Luciano Berio and a second version for cello and piano, whose arranger is not named but is probably Maurice Maréchal. Even more confusing is the Homenajes (homages) suite, which was composed for full orchestra but is listed as having been arranged by “G. Pekkera.”

I have now had enough experience with Brilliant to put expectations aside and take what I can get; and, in that context, there are any number of satisfying reasons for listening to all of the performances on the five CDs of this recent release.

The Once and Future Beethoven at Davies

“Page de garde” (cover page) from the first edition of the score for Beethoven’s Opus 37 (third) piano concerto (provided by the International Music Score Library Project, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Yesterday afternoon pianist Yefim Bronfman returned to Davies Symphony Hall to serve as concerto soloist for the final San Francisco Symphony (SFS) program for the month of October. The conductor was SFS Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen; and the concerto was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 37 (third) in C minor. This was not my first encounter with Salonen conducting Beethoven. That took place in February of 2020, shortly after he had assumed Music Director Designate status; and he began his SFS program with the overture from Beethoven’s Opus 117 commemorative cantata King Stephen.

Nevertheless, yesterday afternoon was my first encounter with Salonen conducting a Beethoven piano concerto and my first opportunity to listen to his work with concerto soloist Bronfman. Beethoven himself was the soloist at this concerto’s first performance on April 5, 1803; but he had completed the composition in 1800. Beethoven also served as conductor, and the program included the first performance of his Opus 36 (second) symphony in D major. In terms of “biographical perspective,” Beethoven was first aware of the onset of deafness in 1802, reacting by sending a letter to his brothers now known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.

If that confrontation with deafness marked a dark time in Beethoven’s life, one would not know it from the Opus 37 concerto. The outer movements could not be more energetically optimistic, while there is a rhetoric of serenity behind the middle Largo movement. Bronfman thus captured the full spectrum of Beethoven’s dispositions in his solo work, and Salonen was keenly aware of every one of Bronfman’s rhetorical devices, making sure that the SFS musicians were there to meet him at every turn.

There is a tendency among those trying to simplify everything to dismiss Opus 37 as too “superficial” when cast in the shadow of the Opus 58 (fourth) concerto in G major. Such trivializations arise from looking through the telescope the wrong way. In both structure and rhetoric, Opus 37 was a “great leap forward” from the two earlier concertos, Opus 15 in C major and Opus 19 in B-flat major (numbering omitted to avoid the usual first-second confusion). Those concertos validate Beethoven’s imaginative command of eighteenth-century techniques; but Opus 37 sees him staking out new foundations that would guide him through his productivity during the early nineteenth century. Mind you, there are any number of pianists and conductors that cannot get beyond what they see as superficiality. Fortunately, Bronfman is not one of those pianists; and his chemistry in working with Salonen could not have done better justice to Beethoven’s achievements in composing Opus 37.

Following the concerto performance, Bronfman acknowledged audience appreciation with an encore. He selected the second of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 27 nocturnes, this one in the key of D-flat major. His account could not have been more disciplined or more sensitive. For some of us, this made a welcome relief from the account of that nocturne given this past Wednesday night in Herbst Theatre!

Beethoven’s Opus 37 was complemented by the very first selection on the program, Anders Hillborg’s “Kongsgaard Variations.” The music was inspired by John Kongsgaard, co-founder of the Arietta winery in Napa Valley. The name of the winery was taken from the labeling of the second of the two movements in Beethoven’s Opus 111, his final piano sonata in the key of C minor. That movement is a highly inventive set of variations on a theme of uncanny (and deceptive) simplicity. Rather than reflecting on those variations, Hillborg composed his own perspective on Beethoven’s theme through a series of episodes that are almost too sophisticated to be called variations. The Beethoven theme only emerges toward the end of the composition in a context which may have also reflected on at least one of the “late period” string quartets.

“Kongsgaard Variations” was originally composed for string quartet in 2006. However, earlier this year Hillborg created a new version for full string ensemble. Today’s concert marked the first SFS performance of this version. Under Salonen’s baton one could appreciate Hillborg’s subtle technique through which the simplicity of Beethoven’s theme emerges from the thick complexity of the composer’s approach to writing for strings. This was music that demanded keenly attentive listening, but those taking the trouble to focus on all that was happening up on stage were definitely well rewarded.

This all-strings selection was followed by a composition by Richard Strauss for sixteen wind musicians. This was the second of two sonatinas composed for those resources. Strauss gave this particular sonatina the title “Fröhliche Werkstatt” (happy workshop). Unfortunately, this was one of those projects that looked better on paper than it sounded in performance. My personal conjecture is that Strauss did not have the ear for blending wind sonorities as skillfully as in his writing for strings. At the risk of rubbing readers the wrong way, I would like to suggest that, if Strauss really wanted to write for a wind ensemble, he would have done well to study how Gustav Holst worked with such resources. (In the early twentieth century, Strauss had been a key influence in Holst’s orchestral compositions.)

The Strauss sonatina was also receiving its first SFS performance. Salonen should be credited with his imaginative approach to complementing music for strings with music for winds. Sadly, however, in spite of his extensive experience as a composer, Strauss was clearly not in his comfort zone; and, even with Salonen’s attentive efforts as conductor, it was hard to get beyond the weaknesses of this sonatina.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Jonathan Cohen to Return to Lead PBO

PBO guest conductor Jonathan Cohen (photograph by Marco Borggreve, courtesy of PBO)

Next month’s program to be presented by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) will see the return of Jonathan Cohen as guest conductor. According to my records, Cohen last visited PBO in March of 2017 with a program entitled Operatic Heroes. This time the title of his program will be Something Old, Something New, Something Mad.

The “new” part of that program will be the world premiere performance of “Giving Ground” by the Australian composer Paul Stanhope. This will be a contemporary (given some of the efforts of local composers, I probably should say “the latest”) encounter with “La Folia,” perhaps the best-known, if not earliest, instance of a ground bass theme supporting embellished upper voices. Stanhope’s composition will also account for the “mad” aspect of the program, since the literal translation of the theme’s title depicts madness. That madness will also be represented by Francesco Geminiani’s H. 143 concerto grosso in D minor, which will be performed immediately after the Stanhope premiere to conclude the program.

The preceding offerings on the program will represent the “old” with generous diversity. The guest soloist will be cellist Keiran Campbell, an alumnus of the early music curriculum developed jointly by PBO and The Juilliard School. He will be featured in a performance of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Wq 172 cello concerto in A major. Bach will share the program with his father, Johann Sebastian, with ensemble performances of four of the fugues taken from the last music he wrote, The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080). The other composers to be represented will be Pietro Locatelli, George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, represented by his K. 405/2 transcription for string ensemble of BWV 876, the prelude and fugue in E-flat major from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier.

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, November 12. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, located on the first two floors of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue. This is the southwest corner of Van Ness and McAllister Street, making it convenient for both north-south and east-west Muni bus lines. Ticket prices are between $32 and $130. They may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page. Subscription options for three, four, or five concerts are also still available. Prices range from $90 to $545. A single Web page has been created for all of those options. Further information may be obtained by calling Patron Services at 415-295-1900, which is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Since we are still under pandemic conditions, PBO has released the following statement regarding attendance:

All patrons will need to be fully vaccinated with an FDA or WHO authorized vaccine in order to attend and must present a vaccination card, a clear photo of the card, or a Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record. “Fully vaccinated” is defined as completion of the second dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine, administered two weeks or more in advance of the concert.

All patrons are required to wear a well-fitted mask at all performances. Gaiters, scarves, and masks with valves are not permitted. Masks must be worn at all times unless actively drinking water in the lobby area.

Brutality Still Dominates Jan Lisiecki’s Chopin

2019 photograph of pianist Jan Lisiecki (photography by Sideralis, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched its 2021–2022 Piano Series with the return of Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki. Lisiecki made his San Francisco debut almost eight years ago under the auspices of the former SFP Young Master Series in December of 2013. Ironically, one of his major offerings at that recital was revisited in last night’s program, entitled Poems of the Night. That was Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 10 collection of twelve études. However, while in 2013 Chopin’s études served to complement the first four of the eight preludes that Olivier Messiaen composed in 1928, this time they were interleaved with eleven Chopin nocturnes selected from five of the six published collections, Opus 9, Opus 15, Opus 27, Opus 32, Opus 48, and Opus 62, as well as two of the posthumously published nocturnes in the keys of C minor and C-sharp minor, respectively.

In 2013, when I was writing for Examiner.com, I observed that Lisiecki’s approach to performance “tended to focus, almost entirely, on technical display, often hammered out with an intensity that bordered on brutality.” This was particularly evident in his account of the Opus 10 études. Sadly, almost eight years later, his rhetorical technique has not changed; it has, instead, spilled over into his approach to Chopin’s nocturnes. As a result the entire evening barreled from one selection to the next with a level of intensity dialed all the way up to eleven. Mind you, cultivating dexterity, particularly at a rapid tempo, may have been one of Chopin’s objectives in composing Opus 10; but it is hard to imagine that he had overlooked the need for expressive rhetoric in the execution of these twelve short pieces. Similarly, rhetoric is paramount across the full scope of his nocturnes, yet Lisiecki performed his selections as if all that mattered was making sure that even the lengthiest of embellishments would fit into his rhythmic infrastructure.

Ironically, about two and one-half years after his debut, Lisiecki returned to San Francisco, this time as soloist in a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 482 piano concerto in E-flat major. This was his debut with the San Francisco Symphony, playing under the baton of James Conlon. On that occasion I suggested that “Lisiecki had learned that there was more to playing the piano than technical display;” but I also observed that Conlon may have had a hand in the pianist’s rhetorical shift. After last night I would say that Conlon definitely held the upper hand and that brutality still rules over Lisiecki the solo recitalist.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

CMC Announces 2nd Concert with Conversation

Guitarist Jason Vieaux (from his Eventbrite event page)

Next month the Community Music Center (CMC) will present its second Concert with Conversation event, made possible through a partnership with San Francisco Performances (SFP). Following up on this month’s offering with Cuban pianist and composer Alfredo Rodríguez, next month’s performer will be guitarist Jason Vieaux. Vieaux was one of the artists that contributed a streamed video to the SFP Front Row Premium Series through its Front Row Web Site.

He had made his SFP debut in October of 2017 in a duo recital with Julien Labro, alternating between bandoneon and accordina, a variant of the melodica using an array of accordion buttons, rather than a piano-like keyboard. (This was also a debut performance for Labro.) Vieaux made his solo debut almost exactly two years later. That program featured selections from his recently-released Play album. Details for his performance at CMC have not yet been announced, but they will include music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Leo Brouwer, Pat Metheny, and Jorge Morel, as well as Vieaux’ own original compositions. This will be Vieaux’ second Concert with Conversation appearance.

As usual, this will be a one-hour event. It will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday, November 12. The venue will be the CMC Concert Hall, which is located at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street.

There will be no charge for admission. However, registration through an Eventbrite event page will be required. Due to high interest and limited-capacity seating, CMC expects this event to reach capacity quickly. Anyone that cannot attend is asked to contact the Mission District Branch at 415-647-6015 or through electronic mail to info@sfcmc.org. This will allow release of the reservation to other patrons.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Gidon Kremer the Concerto Soloist on DG

Gidon Kremer performing at his 2008 Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival (photograph by Guus Krol, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

This coming November 12, Warner Classics will release a 21-CD box set entitled Gidon Kremer: The Warner Collection. This will provide a complete account of recordings that Kremer made on three labels that are now Warner “properties,” Teldec, EMI Classics, and Erato. However, the bulk of the Kremer discography can be found on the Deutsche Grammophon (DG) label, which celebrated his 70th birthday (February 27, 2017) with a 22-CD box set of the concerto recordings he had made for that label. (ECM also marked the occasion, since that label is the “home” for recordings by Kremer’s chamber ensemble, Kremerata Baltica; and it has served as his platform for introducing many listeners to the music of Mieczysław Weinberg.)

Having already written about Kremer’s “Weinberg connection,” I decided that, by way of preparation for the Warner release, I would familiarize myself with the DG concerto collection. While this is not a new release, I feel that the context would be valuable; and I shall take the usual “piecemeal” approach to accounting for these recordings. Roughly half of that collection is devoted to twentieth-century music. The nineteenth-century offerings are more modest. The earlier composers can then be assembled in a single group: Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. My account will be chronological, beginning with the grouping of those five composers.

Mozart is given the most attention with two CDs that account for all five of the violin concertos as well as the K. 364 sinfonia concertante in E-flat major. The violist for that performance is Kim Kashkashian, who will probably be familiar to followers of ECM releases. There are single CDs for both Beethoven (the Opus 61 violin concerto in D major) and Schubert (primarily short works taken from the D. 89 collection of minuets and the D. 90 collection of German dances); and they share a CD which is also devoted to relatively short compositions.

As probably expected, the Vivaldi CD consists primarily of the “four seasons” concertos, along with one other violin concerto, RV 582 in D major, given the title “Per la Santissima Assuzione di Maria Vergine” (for the most holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary). In addition, Kremer is joined by oboist Heinz Holliger for a performance of RV 576 in G minor, which was dedicated to Augustus II the Strong, the Prince Elector of Saxony. Holliger also served as conductor for both RV 576 and RV 582. The Bach CD has all three of the violin concertos, with Kremer recording both parts of the BWV 1043 concerto for two violins in D minor. Holliger is also present on this album with a performance of the BWV 1060R concerto for oboe and violin in C minor.

The Mozart performances were recorded with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. Harnoncourt was an early champion of historically informed performances, having founded the Concentus Musicus Wien in the Fifties. These recordings were made in the Eighties, by which time Harnoncourt had expanded his repertoire to music from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus, while the instrumentation may not be “historically informed,” there is no questioning that the spirit of the music has been honored. Most of the cadenza’s have been provided by musicologist (and Mozart expert) Robert Levin with Kremer himself providing the “bridge music” leading to the third movements of K. 211 (the second concerto in D major) and K. 216 (the third concerto in G major).

Most of the other recordings were made in London, with the major share going to the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Unless I am mistaken, Neville Mariner appears only for the Beethoven concerto in this particular selection of CDs. However, this recording is primarily distinguished for the cadenzas, which were composed by Alfred Schnittke. Kremer was very much a champion of Schnittke’s work, and his own compositions received considerable attention in this collection. The Beethoven cadenzas are, to say the least, eyebrow-raising, suggesting that Schnittke was trying to situate Beethoven is the broader context of music history. My own first experience of the cadenza for the first movement was jaw-dropping. Decades have elapsed since that “first contact;” and I still cannot get enough of those cadenzas.

Where Bach is concerned, Kremer is far from the first to have recorded both of the solo parts for BWV 1043. My guess is that Bach’s spirit would have been miffed by any of those recordings, since he was clearly more interested in the immediacy of performance. On the other hand, if that spirit has really been following all the ways in which Bach’s music has been performed, I suspect that this duo recording by Kremer (as well as the one made by Jascha Heifetz) has been far less annoying than its encounter with Switched-On Bach! Basically, Kremer’s approaches to both Bach and Vivaldi are consistently credible; and I have no difficult taking them on their own terms.

The one outlier in this collection is Schubert. The closest he ever came to composing a violin concerto was the single-movement D. 345 in D major. All the other brief selections do not count as concertos. Nevertheless, they make for engaging listening. As we shall see in examining the remaining CDs in this collection, the Schubert offerings are far from the only tracks that do not really count as “concerto recordings.”

Catalyst to Present Second “Uncovered” Recital

Next month the Catalyst Quartet, whose members are violinists Karla Donehew and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez, will return to Herbst Theatre to present the second of the four programs prepared for the Uncovered concert series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). Readers may recall that Catalyst launched the SFP season at the beginning of this month with the first Uncovered program. “Uncovered” is also the title of a planned series of recordings to be released by Azica records, conceived by Catalyst to “uncover” works that history has overlooked due to the race or gender of their composers. This month’s concert presented two of three compositions by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor that appeared on Catalyst’s first recording in this series: the Opus 5 “Fantasiestücke” and the Opus 1 piano quintet in G minor. The pianist on both the album and at the SFP recital was Stewart Goodyear.

Clarinetist Anthony McGill (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

The remaining selection from the album will conclude the program for next month’s recital. This is the Opus 10 clarinet quintet in F-sharp minor. It was composed in 1895, situating it between the Opus 1 piano quintet and the Opus 5 “Fantasiestücke.” The clarinetist will be Anthony McGill, who, like Goodyear, also appeared on the Azica album. The program will begin with the 1956 “Calvary” string quartet composed by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, born in 1932 and named after Coleridge-Taylor, who had died in 1912. Between these two compositions Catalyst will perform Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint. Those that were following the performances by San Francisco Symphony (SFS) musicians streamed through the SFSymphony+ Web site may recall that this composition was presented this past March and is still available for viewing.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 11. It 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.

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. As available, single tickets will be sold at the door with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors. Single tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Bleeding Edge: 10/25/2021

Adventurous jazz drummer Gerald Cleaver (from the event page for the concert being discussed)

Once again, the only “bleeding edge” event to take place within the San Francisco city limits will be presented by Bird & Beckett Books and Records. This time the program is part of the jazz from the other side series. It will honor the spirit of Halloween with a performance by the Ghost Call Quartet, whose members are Darren Johnston on trumpet, Ben Goldberg on clarinet and contra-alto clarinet, David Boyce on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Johnston, Goldberg, and Boyce are all well-known by those that like their jazz on the adventurous side; and they have all performed at Bird & Beckett in the past. Cleaver is based in New York and has both led and performed in an impressive variety of combos that are decidedly situated on the “bleeding edge.”

Once again, this is a performance that will begin at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday, this time October 30. It will take place in the shop but will also be live-streamed to the Bird & Beckett sites on both YouTube and Facebook. The shop is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station that serves both BART and Muni.

For those planning to visit, doors will open at 7:20 p.m. There will be no charge for admission, but $20 will help pay the trio. There is also a donations Web page for those watching the live-stream. Given that only a limited number of people will be admitted, reservations are necessary and can be made by calling 415-586-3733. The phone will be answered during regular store hours, which are between noon and 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Sunday. Proof of vaccination will be required for entry, and masks will be necessary in the shop. Visitors may bring a beverage, as long as masks are lowered only for sipping.

Ives Collective’s “Incremental” Programming

Ives Collective leaders Stephen Harrison and Susan Freier (from the Old First Concerts event page)

Yesterday afternoon saw the return of the Ives Collective to the Old First Presbyterian Church to offer the final performance in this month’s Old First Concerts programming. The Ives Collective is managed by cellist Stephen Harrison and Susan Freier, who plays both violin and viola. They are joined by guest artists to meet the instrumentation demands of their programming. Yesterday’s additional performers were violinist Roy Malan and pianist Gwendolyn Mok.

The “incremental” programming involved a one-by-one increase in the number of performers as the program unfolded. Freier and Harrison began the concert with a performance of a duo for violin and cello composed by Erwin Schulhoff in 1925. They were then joined by Mok for settings of five “Negro Melodies” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. After an intermission, Malan joined the group to conclude the program with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 60 (third) piano quartet in C minor. This “sequence” of compositions was “unified” because all three of the composers had benefitted from encouragement from Antonín Dvořák.

I must confess that the Schulhoff selection was what drew me to this particular concert. About a decade ago, there was a revived interest in his music, due in no small part to Daniel Hope’s promotion of music by composers who perished in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Following up on a recital that Hope gave in San Francisco with Jeffrey Kahane, I began to accumulate (and write about) a moderately generous collection of recordings. However, that source began to run dry by the spring of 2019. Ironically, my last prior encounter with Schulhoff’s music took place on February 9, 2020, when the Apollon Musagète Quartet launched the 2020 season of Chamber Music San Francisco. Almost exactly a month later, lockdown conditions began to be imposed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Schulhoff’s Wikipedia page organizes his music into four periods. His earliest compositions reflected influences from composers such as Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin, and Richard Strauss. This was followed by the influence of Dadaism. Thirty years prior to John Cage composing 4’33”, Schulhoff wrote “In futurum,” whose score consisted entirely of rests. Beginning in 1923 his interests shifted to jazz and neoclassicism, and this was the period in which he composed his duo. His final period reflected his interest in Communist ideology, a factor that led to his imprisonment in the Nazi’s Wülzburg prison during World War II, where he died of tuberculosis.

The duo is a product of upbeat rhetoric without Dada prankishness. The music does not reflect Schulhoff’s interest in jazz, and the second of the four movements has distinct gypsy influences. The movements are relatively brief and were given thoroughly engaging accounts by Freier and Harrison. That similar rhetoric of engagement continued into the Coleridge-Taylor settings.

The weakest part of the program was the “all hands” performance of the Brahms piano quartet. There were serious problems of intonation, which only surfaced during the entire program after Malan joined the group. Opus 60 is the darkest of the Brahms’ three piano quartets, and it deserves a rhetorically intense account. However, because the four musicians never managed to come together as a unified quartet, there was little room for rhetoric to shape the performance. The result emerged as a discouraging slog through music that was intended to draw listeners to the edges of their respective seats.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Dover Quartet to Launch SFP Chamber Series

Dover Quartet members Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, Camden Shaw, Bryan Lee, and Joel Link with bass-baritone Davóne Tines

Next month San Francisco Performances (SFP) programming will begin with the launch of this season’s Shenson Chamber Series. The program will be a recital by the Dover Quartet, whose members are violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, and cellist Camden Shaw. The ensemble made its SFP debut on October 30, 2016; and it launched the SFP 2018–2019 season following the opening gala festivities.

For this season’s program, they will appear with a guest artist. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines will be the vocal soloist in a performance of Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach.” This will be preceded by a performance of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Opus 4 (first) quartet in A major. Tines will then return after the intermission as the vocalist in a performance of Caroline Shaw’s “By and By.” The program will then conclude with the second of Johannes Brahms’ three string quartets, Opus 51, Number 2, in A minor.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, November 9. It 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.

Ticket prices are $70 (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. As available, single tickets will be sold at the door with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors. Single tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

Finally, because this is the first program of the series, subscriptions are still on sale for $405 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $315 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $245 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may also be purchased online in advance through a different SFP Web page. Orders may also be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325 (also different from the number for single tickets).

Words for Charlie Parker’s Flights of Fancy

from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording

At the end of last March, this site discussed the reissue of the debut album of vocalist Roseanna Vitro, entitled Listen Here. Exactly one month ago, Vitro’s label, Skyline Records, released her latest (fifteenth) album, Sing a Song of Bird. The title refers to taking the recordings of saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and selecting tracks from that discography for vocal performance. While Vitro organized the contents of this album, she did not sing on all the tracks. Instead, she shared these arrangements with three bebop jazz legends, Bob Dorough, Sheila Jordan, and Marion Cowings.

The tracks were recorded over the course of two sessions. At the first session Vitro was joined by Dorough and Jordan, while Cowings partnered with her during the second session. Accompaniment was provided by a quartet at both sessions but with different performers. The first session included Mark Gross on alto saxophone (Parker’s instrument) with a rhythm section of Jason Teborek on piano, Dean Johnson on bass, and Bill Goodwin on drums. Johnson is the only musician to play also in the second session. He was joined by saxophonist Gary Bartz with Alan Broadbent on piano and Alvester Garnett on drums. It is also worth noting that Dorough was 94 and Jordan was 89 when they recorded their tracks, and Dorough subsequently died shortly after his session with Vitro on April 23, 2018.

There is no doubt that this was an honorable undertaking. Nevertheless, some of the vocal arrangements work better than others; and the same can be said of the saxophone solo work. The fact is that Parker’s contemporaries tended to capture the spirit of his music better than the others. Turning improvised jazz into vocals with newly invented lyrics has been around for quite some time; and Dorough created a vocal version of “Yardbird Suite” with his own lyrics in 1956, not long after Parker’s death. Personally, I would prefer to spend my time with my many archival recordings of Parker, allowing me to focus on the music without any words getting in the way.

Koh and Mazzoli Share Final PIVOT Program

Jennifer Koh on the cover of her Bach & Beyond album that includes music by Missy Mazzoli (from the Amazon.com Web page for this recording)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the final program prepared for this season’s series of PIVOT Festival concerts. (The final performance will take place this afternoon, when Lyra will be performed a second time in the Taube Atrium Theater.) The program marked the thirteenth appearance of Jennifer Koh with SFP, having made regular visits since January of 2003.

Koh presented a program consisting entirely of music by Missy Mazzoli. Most of her selections were solo violin compositions, sometimes with computer accompaniment. A few of the pieces required keyboard accompaniment, either on piano or an electronic device. For those performances Koh was joined by Mazzoli herself, serving as accompanist.

The two of them seem to have had a long and beneficial partnership. Indeed, my own serious listening experience of Mazzoli’s music dates back to the first of the three Bach & Beyond albums that Koh released, in which Mazzoli’s “Dissolve, O My Heart” served as a “prelude” to Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor. Thus, in my own personal context, it seemed fitting that last night’s program should begin with “Dissolve, O My Heart.”

Here in the Bay Area Mazzoli is probably best known as the composer of Breaking the Waves, which was performed by West Edge Opera in the summer of 2019. Opera has figured heavily in Mazzoli’s catalogue, but my experiences with her chamber music have not gone much further than Koh’s Bach project. For better or worse, the brief note in the program book, written jointly by Koh and Mazzoli, said nothing about any of the selections they had prepared for performance. All one had were the titles on the program sheet, which were, at best, enigmatic.

What was far from enigmatic, however, was the dexterous virtuosity that Koh brought to the technical demands of each of Mazzoli’s compositions. All of those pieces were relatively short in duration, a point that Mazzoli discussed during the post-performance discussion moderated by Sarah Cahill. I found myself thinking of the opening text phrase that Charlotte Elliott wrote for the hymn “Just as I Am,” suggesting that each piece amounted to a gesture that that disclosed some personal perspective on the part of the composer.

How that perspective is established, however, seems to be left to how the listener experiences the performance. Ironically, Mazzoli seems to have her own inspirations drawn from hymnody. Her “A Thousand Tongues” is a clear reference to Charles Wesley’s “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”

While Mazzoli may not have expected listeners to probe the semantic denotations and connotations of her titles, there was no questioning her understanding of violin technique that seems to have emerged from a long-standing friendship with Koh. Mazzoli’s compositions may have been short, but they imposed prodigious technical demands. Koh rose impressively to every challenge that Mazzoli had set for her; and, in the process, she may have endowed the music with a layer of subjectivity that reflected her own personal impressions, rather than those of the composer.

It would probably be fair to say that a program of nine unfamiliar short pieces (followed by an encore) provided the attentive listener with a path along which acquaintance would begin to form. Koh’s mastery of Mazzoli’s technical demands meant that there was always a point of focus. Getting to the music behind the technique, however, required gradual assimilation. In my case I felt that, by the end of the program, I was beginning to appreciate rhetorical elements in Mazzoli’s instrumental music that had been more explicit in my encounter with her opera.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Merola to Continue its Virtual Recital Series

Raehann Bryce-Davis (courtesy of the Merola Opera Program)

At the beginning of next month, the Merola Opera Program will present the next installment in this year’s Virtual Recital Series. The recitalist will be mezzo Raehann Bryce-Davis, a 2015 Merola alumna. The title of her program is simply (and accurately) An Autumn Afternoon with Raehann Bryce-Davis. She will be accompanied at the piano by Jeanne-Minette Cilliers.

The program will include a world premiere offering, “I Am Not an Angry Black Woman,” composed by Maria Thompson Corely, who is a published novelist, as well as a Juilliard-trained concert pianist. This selection will be flanked on either side by compositions by other black women. The set will begin with “The Crescent Moon,” Florence Price’s setting of a text by Louise Charlotte Wright. This will be followed by Margaret Bond’s setting of Langston Hughes’ “Birth.” Corley’s premiere will then be followed by “We Wear the Mask,” a text by Paul Laurence Dunbar set by Brittney Boykin (B.E. Boykin).

The program will begin with four settings of German texts as follows:

  1. Richard Strauss, “Heimliche Aufforderung,” Opus 27, Number 3
  2. Robert Schumann, “Die Lotosblume,” Opus 25, Number 7
  3. Johannes Brahms, “Von ewiger Liebe,” Opus 43, Number 1
  4. Richard Wagner, “Schmerzen,” the fourth of his Wesendonck Lieder collection of settings of poems by Mathilde Wesendonck

The final selections will be settings of Spanish texts. “Maria La O” is Ernesto Lecuona’s setting of the words of Gustavo Sánchez Galarraga. This will be followed by “De España vengo” from the zarzuela El niño judio, composed by Pablo Luna.

This streamed performance will begin at 1 p.m. (Pacific Standard Time, note the emphasis!) on Sunday, November 7. Tickets are $25 for individuals and $40 for households. A limited number of $80 VIP tickets are available that include a virtual reception with Bryce-Davis after the performance. Eventbrite has created an event page that will handle all three of these prices. Once the payment has been processed, Eventbrite will provide the information necessary for viewing the stream. Viewing will be available through November 30.

Kenny Garrett Reflections on African Influences

courtesy of DL Media

At the end of this past August, Mack Avenue Records released an album of compositions and performances led by jazz saxophonist Kenny Garrett entitled Sounds from the Ancestors. Through the seven works presented on this recording, Garrett remembers the spirit of the sounds of African ancestors from church services, recited prayers, songs from the work fields, Yoruban chants, and African drums. In addition, there is a track entitled “Hargrove,” a tribute to jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove (who died on November 2, 2018) evoked, in Garrett’s combo, by trumpeter Maurice Brown.

A richer path of influence can be found in “For Art’s Sake.” Through the drum-work of Ronald Bruner, the music explores how the bebop drumming of Art Blakey influenced Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. Bruner then blended both of these influences into his own contemporary performance techniques.

Those concerned that this album might be an ethnological treatise on African influences have nothing fear. Whatever those influences may be, Garrett’s music consistently follows through on the contemporary performance techniques. In addition, he chose to frame the entire album with complementing accounts of “It’s Time to Come Home.” Thus, his reflections on African sources are revealed during the opening track, reinforced by the following six tracks, and then summarized as a “closing argument” in the final track.

This is clearly music for attentive listening, but those who accept that premise are likely to find the overall journey an entirely satisfying one.

TLES Returns to SFP for PIVOT Series

It is hard not to take a personal approach to any performance by The Living Earth Show (TLES) duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and drummer Andrew Meyerson. My wife and I have been following their work since we first encountered them in April of 2012, when they prepared a program for the Tangents Contemporary Guitar Series. That may well also have been our first encounter with the music of Samuel Adams (then named on the program as “Samuel Carl Adams”).

Last night in the Taube Atrium Theater, the third program in the current San Francisco Performances (SFP) PIVOT Festival brought Adams back together with TLES. This time they partnered for the world premiere performance of Lyra, a full-evening composition performed over the course of 65 minutes with no intermission. However, the program was far more than a duo performance of a new score for TLES resources. The musicians were joined by the dancers of Robert Dekkers’ Post:ballet performing an extended dance interpretation of the Orpheus myth choreographed by Vanessa Thiessen. Furthermore, the choreography was created and executed in the outdoor settings of the arid landscapes of Eastern California, where it was captured on video by filmmaker Benjamin Tarquin. The projection of that video filled the entire wall of the Taube Theater behind the space for the TLES musicians and their instruments.

However, as the television hucksters keep saying, that’s not all. Those familiar with the Theater know that it has no natural acoustics. Any performance can only be heard and appreciated thanks to the Constellation® technology developed by Meyer Sound, which was built into the space. My first serious appreciation of this technology took place in January of 2019 when Earplay performed the world premiere of Flutter, Pulse, and Flight, composed by Charles Nichols. This was created for the amplified sounds of flute, clarinet, violin, and cello. Those sounds were subjected to real-time digital processing involving spectral analysis and resynthesis, the results of which were then “projected” into the Atrium space. The physical trajectories of that projection were realized by Nichols himself using the Meyer control panel as his own “instrument.” Last night Adams’ score was as much a product of his working behind that control panel as it was of the TLES performers, whose sounds were being captured.

Mia J. Chong, Colleen Loverde, and Anthony Pucci depicting the three-headed Cerberus in Benjamin Tarquin’s film for Lyra (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

According to the program book, Adams’ composition was structured as twelve movements, each of which was distinguished by the dancers involved in performing the respective movements. There was also a “cast listing” with the familiar names of Orpheus (Babatunji Johnson), Eurydice (Moscelyne ParkeHarrison), Hades (Cora Cliburn), and Persephone (Landes Dixon). However, there were less familiar characters, such as the three goddesses of fate and destiny (two embodied by the musicians), Atropos (Emily Hansel), Clotho (Andrews), and Lachesis (Meyerson). (For those wondering why the musicians were given roles, Clotho and Lachesis provided the threads that Atropos then used to manage the fate of mortals. In this case those threads are spun from musical phrases!) There was also a personification of Cerberus, the three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the Underworld, realized through the intricate interleaving of three dancers (Mia J. Chong, Colleen Loverde, and Anthony Pucci). For the most part, however, the narrative unfolded through suggestion, rather than explicit depiction, with the suggestions reinforced by the rhetoric of Adams’ score and the body language of the dancers.

All this made for a more than generous supply of content all packaged into a little more than an hour’s duration. Indeed, any effort to align the viewing and listening experience with mythological details would probably result in cognitive overload. This world premiere encounter probably fared best for those content to take the surface structure for what it was and go along for the ride. Given how much of the experience resided in Tarquin’s film, I could imagine the creation of a video for subsequent viewing, perhaps as a hypertext document with “footnote links” to account for the many details worthy of further explanation. Mind you, it might be tricky to account for the conclusion during which Orpheus, now alone, departs from the video and makes a physical appearance in front of the TLES musicians. However, I suspect that, if Tarquin wishes to provide such a hypertext document, he will have the resources to do so.

Friday, October 22, 2021

SFS Announces Latest SFSymphony+ Releases

SFS Associate Principal Flute Robin McKee (courtesy of SFS)

Yesterday morning the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) announced plans to release three new videos to SFSymphony+, the “on demand” Web site for streamed performances by SFS musicians. Tuesday appears to be the release date for such offerings. One of the videos will be made available this coming Tuesday; and the other two will be “in the system” the following Tuesday. Each video involves a single piece of music as follows:

  1. The video to be released on October 22 will be the divertimento that Igor Stravinsky created based on the music he had composed for the one-act ballet “Le baiser de la fée” (the fairy’s kiss).
  2. The first video to be released on November 2 will be a performance of Charles Ives “The Unanswered Question.” This music is performed by three distinct instrumental groups. The first is a solo instrument (usually a trumpet, although Ives seems to have allowed for performance by cor anglais, oboe, or clarinet), which “asks the question.” The response comes from a wind quartet (usually four flutes), which never provides a satisfactory answer. The final group is a string quartet or string orchestra, which serves as a continuo for the exchanges between the first two groups. The recorded performance will be conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.
  3. The second November 2 release will be Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum.” This was composed in 2018 for a string orchestra. However, it can also be performed by the more limited resources of a chamber ensemble; and the latter version will be the one recorded for video by SFS musicians.

All three of these videos will be available for viewing free of charge. Hyperlinks will not be created until they have been released for viewing. At that time it should be possible to find each video by browsing the SFSymphony+ home page or by using the search tool available at the top of that page. All programs are usually available for viewing beginning at 10 a.m. on the date of release.

Nico Muhly’s “Ghost Story” of Immigration

As has already been observed, the overall theme of the current PIVOT Festival presented by San Francisco Performances is Ghost Stories. At the opening concert this past Wednesday, that theme emerged through the title song of Theo Bleckmann’s program, “Elegy,” which he described as speaking to “a yearning for those I have lost.” At last night’s program the ghosts were more abundant as the haunting spirits behind the West Coast premiere of Nico Muhly’s song cycle Stranger.

Drawing upon prose texts that provide different aspects of the immigrant experience, the seven songs evoke the spirits of those that moved to the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a particular focus on an emerging Chinese population. Between documents of the past and, in one case, a transcript of an oral history, Muhly’s texts revealed a darker side of immigration history that had previously been hidden by dint of what might be called the “mythology of the melting pot.”

Of course the genre of the song cycle was not intended to serve as a political tract. If Muhly began his project by selecting his texts, then he imposed on himself a major challenge in composing vocal lines to deliver those texts. For the most part, both the denotations and the connotations emerged clearly through his musical settings, probably due in part to the informed interpretation of those vocal lines by tenor Nicholas Phan. (As was observed during the Q&A following the performance, moderated by Sarah Cahill, Phan’s personal history has his own take on immigration.)

The accompaniment for the vocal lines was composed for string quartet, specifically for the Brooklyn Rider ensemble of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen (sharing leadership over the course of the evening’s program), violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas. The instrumental textures were not quite “background music;” but they tended to establish context, rather than adding alternative perspectives to the vocal writing. Nevertheless, the overall experience was decidedly rich in content, suggesting that this is the sort of music likely to benefit from multiple listening encounters, rather than one of those “premiere experiences” that dissolves into the background of memory after it has completed.

Ironically, Stranger was preceded by a song whose composer had her own immigrant experience. Rebecca Clarke was born in London to an American father and a German mother in 1886. Clarke made frequent visits to the United States after her studies at the Royal Academy of Music, which terminated in 1905; and she eventually settled here in 1916. She lived in Massachusetts, where her neighbor was Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. She completed “Daybreak,” a setting of the first stanza of a love poem by John Donne, in 1941. The music amounts to a distillation of a rich text source, and Phan knew how to mine all of that richness for the benefit of an audience that was probably encountering this music for the first time.

“Daybreak” was preceded by the opening selection, Thomas Campion’s setting of his own poem, “Never weather-beaten sail.” This was also a relatively brief offering. Most interesting was Brooklyn Rider’s attention to intonation, capturing the natural harmonic intervals of the 3:2 (perfect fifth) and 5:4 (major third) ratios. This allowed Phan to adjust his own intonation to follow the lead of the instrumentalists.

The only real disappointment of the evening came after Phan left the company of the Brooklyn Rider quartet. They remained to perform Franz Schubert’s D. 810 (‘Death and the Maiden”) quartet in D minor. This is highly dramatic music that unfolds over an interval of time considered lengthy in its day (close to 40 minutes). Sadly, Brooklyn Rider played this highly dramatic music as if the only connotations involved extreme intensity. As a result, Pierre Boulez’ metaphor of a landscape involving peaks of different heights was rather brutally undermined during the opening movement and never recovered during the remaining three movements.

Apparently, Brooklyn Rider is more comfortable (and satisfying) when working in shorter durations.