Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Program Content of January E4TT Concert

The E4TT trio of Margaret Halbig, Abigail Monroe, and Nanette McGuinness (from an E4TT Web page)

The Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) trio of soprano Nanette McGuinness, pianist Margaret Halbig, and cellist Abigail Monroe will present its next recital at the end of this coming January. The title of the program will be Below the Surface: Music by Women Composers, and the trio will be joined by violinist Ilana Blumberg. The scope of the program is extensive enough that it should be sufficient simply to summarize the enumeration in the press release:

The highlight of the program will be the World Premiere of a COVID-delayed commissioned song cycle titled “Below the Surface,” by Canadian-born, Scotland-based Call for Scores composer, Emily Doolittle (b. 1972, pictured top) for soprano and piano, to texts by Bay Area poets Rachel Richardson (b. 1979) and Rella Lossy (1934-1996), along with ten other works by women composers: Chinese-American composer Du Yun (b. 1977); 2014 Guggenheim Fellow Elena Ruehr (b. 1963); Gabriela Ortiz (b. 1964); exciting emerging Puerto Rican-born composer Angélica Negrón (b. 1981…); 2020 Opera America Discovery Grant for Female Composers recipients Lisa Bielawa (b. 1968) and Sarah Kirkland Snider (b. 1973), and Gabriela Lena Frank Academic of Music alumnae Akshaya Avril Tucker (b. 1992), Korean Jungyoon Wie (b. 1990), Seo Yoon (Soyoona) Kim (b. 1988), and Manjing Zhang (b. 1991).

If that were not enough, Richardson will also contribute to the program with a reading of her poetry.

Those that may feel overwhelmed by the number of composers contributing to this program (not to mention the diversity of their respective approaches to composition) may wish to know that, while the concert will be presented to a “physical” audience, there will also be a live-stream of the performance. Presumably, once that video has been live-streamed, it will be archived for later viewing. This will allow serious listeners to set their own pace, so to speak, allowing for “breaks” between the individual selections long enough to prepare for the transition from one compositional style to another.

The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 29. There will also be a discussion with some of the contributing composers beginning at 7 p.m. However, as of this writing those participants have not yet been finalized. The performance will take place at the Center for New Music (C4NM), located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. All tickets may be processed in advance through the C4NM Events page. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members. The performance will be live-streamed to a YouTube Web page that will be linked to the C4NM YouTube Channel.

Harrison’s Concerto for Piano and Gamelan

courtesy of Jensen Artists

This past fall the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) released a recording of a previously presented concert performance. The concert took place at the CMA Gartner Auditorium on October 20, 2017 and was performed by pianist Sarah Cahill and the Gamelan Galak Tika under the direction of Evan Ziporyn and Jody Diamond. The ensemble presented Lou Harrison’s “Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan,” the composer’s rarely performed second piano concerto.

As of this writing, the album is available only in digital form. Amazon.com has created a Web page for MP3 download. The bad news is that the download is entirely devoid of program notes. The good news is that the Web page includes an extended review by “Canticle,” which was uploaded this past November 17. The review includes descriptions of the concerto’s three movements, preceded by extensive background material sure to warm the heart of anyone that enjoys Harrison’s music (present company included).

However, as the hucksters like to say, that’s not all. CMA has created its own Web page for this recording. The site includes a player for streaming all three movements of the concerto, followed by extended essays by Cahill, Diamond, and Ziporyn. Cahill, in turn, cites Lou Harrison: American Music Maverick by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, which, since its publication in 2017, has served me well as a primary reference for all-things-Harrison.

Harrison composed this concerto relatively late in life, when his primary focus was on just intonation and the integer ratios one encounters in the pitch classes of gamelan instruments. To bring these instruments together with a piano would require retuning the piano to honor those integer ratios in place of the “irrational” ratio (the twelfth root of two), which is the basis for equal tempered tuning. In reading the Alves-Campbell account of this concerto, one gets the impression that Harrison began by composing the gamelan music. The result would then guide how the piano would be retuned to fit into the “gamelan context.” Once the tuning had been finalized, the piano part could be developed around sharing thematic material. Actually, the concerto begins with an extended solo passage for the piano, allowing the ear to adjust to the intervals of the gamelan instruments before they join the piano.

The entire concerto is less than half an hour in duration. The first two movements are roughly ten minutes long, while the final movement is decidedly shorter. I must confess that my own listening habits are still adjusting the the concerto in its entirety, but the recording has left me eager to encounter this music in a concert setting. It also left me curious about what other joys may be lurking in the CMA recorded archives.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Sibelius Featured in RPO 75th Anniversary

The story of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) is, first and foremost, a story about its founder Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham was known to distinguish himself from his contemporary colleagues by reminding them that his title was inherited. He was the grandson on Thomas Beecham, founder of a major pharmaceutical business based on the creation of a laxative sold under the name “Beecham’s Pills.” Beecham’s son, Joseph, took over the business, expanding it on an international scale. Through his success, he was made a baronet, after which he was known officially as “Sir Joseph Beecham, 1st Baronet.” That title was then passed to his son, who became Sir Thomas Beecham, 2nd Baronet.

In 1932 Beecham founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), which enjoyed support by rich patrons until the outbreak of World War II. During wartime Beecham left England, working as a conductor in both Australia and the United States. He was welcomed back by the LPO in September of 1944, but the ensemble was now managed by all of the players. Beecham would not stand for being an employee; and, in 1945, he conducted the first concert of the Philharmonia Orchestra, founded by Walter Legge. However, when he learned that leading the ensemble would again be a salaried position, he set about to create a new ensemble on his own terms. The Royal Philharmonic Society allowed the new ensemble to replace the LPO at all of the Society’s concerts and was named the “Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,” which was officially founded in 1946.

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a month ago, SOMM Recordings released a new album to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the RPO. The title of the album is Thomas Beecham Conducts Sibelius; and the music consists primarily of Jean Sibelius’ Opus 39, his first symphony composed in the key of E minor. This is coupled with two of the movements from his Opus 66, his second Scènes historiques suite. If this strikes readers as a somewhat skimpy offering, they should be informed that the CD also includes a half-hour track entitled “Playing for Beecham.” RPO violist John Underwood and second violinist Raymond Ovens share their memories of working under Beecham with Jon Tolansky.

It turns out that this is my latest encounter with Amazon.com bungling its Web pages, since the search for this album will lead the seeker to “something completely different.” As a result once again, I find myself directing readers to the Presto Music Classical Web page. Presto is based in Royal Leamington Spa in the United Kingdom, which means that, between pandemic conditions and the seasonal rush, delivery time of the “physical version” is likely to be a bit up in the air. However, there are three download options with different levels of audio quality, all of which include the PDF booklet.

By way of disclaimer, I should make it clear that I have not followed the Beecham discography with the same enthusiasm I have devoted to a conductor like Wilhelm Furtwängler. As a result, my fondest memory of Beecham comes from his contribution to the second BBC Legends anthology, which I discussed on this site almost exactly four years ago. That collection included a recording of the second Sibelius symphony, Opus 43 in D major, conducted by Beecham. That recording was made on December 8, 1954, over two years after the Opus 39 recording; and the ensemble was the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Sibelius had accumulated an impressively extensive portfolio by the time he completed Opus 39 in 1899, subsequently revised the following year. Work on Opus 43 would then begin shortly thereafter in 1901. It would probably be fair to say that the symphonies share a common “rhetorical ground;” but I am sad to say that, under Beecham’s baton, the rhetorical approach to Opus 43 is much more full-blooded that what one encounters on the earlier recording of Opus 39.

The fact is that Sibelius occupied a moderately extensive presence in the Beecham discography. However, those who consult the Wikipedia page for that discography will note the absence of Opus 39. This new SOMM album offers the first release of the only known live recording of Beecham conducting that symphony. The Wikipedia page does not account for any studio recording; but Beecham made such a recording a few months prior to the concert performance on the album, which was made during the 1952 Edinburgh International Festival. Having not encountered the studio recording, I do not feel equipped to try to diagnose why this newly discovered Opus 39 account falls so far short of the BBC recording of Opus 43.

The Bleeding Edge: 11/29/2021

In the wake of the usual annual slowdown that takes place around the Thanksgiving Holiday and its four-day weekend, “bleeding edge” events will resume at the beginning of next month. As of this writing, there will be only two events, one of which is a livestream. The other will take place at the Community Music Center (CMC), which, in the past, has tended to limit its most adventurous content to hosting the annual Outsound Summit (last held in July of 2019 due to pandemic restrictions). Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, December 1, 8 p.m.: Avant-garde guitarist Karl Evangelista had originally planned Unsolitary as a quarterly series of improvised music. However, as of this writing, following the launch of the series in November of 2020, there has been only one other Unsolitary program, which took place this past May. Continuing what now seems to be a semiannual series, Unsolitary III will take place this coming Wednesday, a little over a year since the series began. As usual, Evangelista will be one of the performers. Others include percussionists Kevin Corcoran and Suki O’Kane, Phillip Greenlief on saxophone, and Zachary James Watkins on both electronics and guitar. There will probably be both solo and ensemble sets, but specifics have not yet been finalized.

The program will be live-streamed through a YouTube Web page. There will be no charge for admission, but donations are warmly encouraged. All proceeds will be directed to Bay Area social causes, along with an ongoing fundraiser for the Milford Graves Memorial Fund. The simplest way in which to make a donation is through the Bandcamp Web page for Evangelista’s Grex duo. All digital albums may be purchased on a name-your-price basis; and proceeds will go to the support of both the Unsolitary series and the Graves Memorial.

Sunday, December 5, 7 p.m., Community Music Center: This will be a program of new sounds with original and familiar instruments shared by Anne Hege and Julie Herndon. Hege’s primarily offering will be excerpts from her first opera, The Furies: A Laptopera, which she scored for laptop orchestra and live vocalists. She will also perform works for her Tape Machine, a configuration of cassette recorders interconnected for live-looping. Herndon’s set will involve both an extended piano and a collection of electronic instruments, many of which are her own inventions. The performance will take place in 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. Admission will be $10 and $15, payable at the door.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

PBO to Present “Bonus” Program of English Song

Soprano Rowan Pierce (courtesy of PBO)

About a week ago the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) announced a “special addition” to its programming for the 2021/22 season. Since there will not be a concert in January, there will, instead, be an evening of English song spanning the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. The vocalist will be soprano Rowan Pierce, who made her PBO debut last July when the Orchestra was touring in New York. She will be accompanied by keyboardist Christopher Glynn, who recently released an album with Rachel Podger presenting newly completed fragments of compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for violin and fortepiano.

The program will be structured around four songs by Henry Purcell. The program will begin with his “Morning Hymn” and conclude with the “Evening Hymn.” These will frame performances of “Sweeter than Roses” and “Celia had a thousand charms,” along with a wide variety of selections by other composers. If I may be allowed to “play favorites,” I am particularly interested in the program preferring Frank Bridge to his best-known pupil Benjamin Britten. The Bridge selection will be “Go not, happy day,” which, thus far, I have experienced only through recordings. An event page has been created listing all of the selections on the program.

This recital will be given only one performance, at 8 p.m. on Saturday, January 22. The venue will be the Taube Atrium Theater, which is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building. Readers probably know by now that this building is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street, a corner with Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Seating will be general admission, and all tickets are being sold for $85. A Web page has been created for online purchase.

Ballet Music by Lord Berners on Naxos

courtesy of Naxos of America

About a month ago Naxos released an album of two ballet scores composed by Lord Berners. To be fair, this is actually a reissue of a Marco Polo album, which was released at the end of January of 1996. It is also worth noting, at the outset, that the composer had, indeed, inherited the right to sit in the House of Lords, his full title being Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners. He may have been known for his eccentricities, but his breeding was not one of them.

The earlier of the ballet scores was composed in 1930 for one of the revues prepared by the English impresario Charles B. Cochran. The title of work was “Luna Park,” subtitled a “fantastic ballet in one act.” This was also one of the earlier choreographic efforts of George Balanchine, working with a scenario conceived by Boris Kochno. The booklet notes by Philip Lane summarizes the scenario as follows:

The scene is set in a freak pavilion in Luna Park. A showman enters and bows to the audience. He raises the curtain of the first of four niches revealing a man with three heads; in the second stands a three-legged juggler, complete with billiard balls, while in the third a one-legged ballerina is posing, and in the fourth, a man with six arms. All the ‘freaks’ dance in their respective niches, after which the showman bows to the audience, turning down the lights as he retires.

The showman gone, the four performers appear from behind the curtain of their niches, revealing themselves as physically normal (the ‘freaks’ were fakes) and proceed to dance an Adagio followed by individual variations for the ballerina (Alice Nikitina) and the six-armed man (Serge Lifar). In the end they collectively decide to leave the circus and go out into the wide world; and so, they silently slip away. The showman returns, intent on giving a second performance. He opens the curtain mechanically, without even looking, and reveals, in turn, two heads, a set of billiard balls, a solitary leg and four arms waving wildly. Laughter from the stalls prompts the showman to turn around and see what has happened. Horrified, he leaps into the niche behind him and pulls down the curtain.

In terminology that would only begin to emerge about 35 years later, this ballet might be described as “Petrushka” on an acid trip. In that context Berners’ score is relatively tame. Nevertheless, he certainly does justice to the scenario. By way of context, both Balanchine and Kochno were working for Cochran because Sergei Diaghilev had died on August 19, 1929, after which their “home” at the Ballets Russes went bankrupt. One might almost say that Balanchine’s experiences with Cochran prepared him for subsequent undertakings on Broadway, the most memorable of which was the musical On Your Toes.

The better known ballet on this album is “A Wedding Bouquet.” This ballet was created by Frederick Ashton in 1936, and the music included a choral setting of a text by Gertrude Stein. This was not Ashton’s first encounter with Stein, since he provided the choreography for Four Saints in Three Acts, the result of a close partnership between Stein and composer Virgil Thomson. (The Wikipedia page for this opera claims that Ashton was recruited after Balanchine turned down the job. Thomson’s autobiography is not as dismissive in writing about Balanchine, saying only “There was no possibility of using Balanchine, new to America and busy with his school.”)

I am in no position to compare Ashton’s work for Thomson’s score with his approach to Berners’ music. However, I suspect that the text for “A Wedding Bouquet” was not the product of a partnership that was as close as the one that resulted in the Four Saints libretto. Indeed, on the Naxos recording the music tends to obscure the words with textures far thicker than those encountered in Thomson’s music. All of the music on the album is performed by the RTÉ Sinfonietta, one of the “house ensembles” for Raidió Teilifís Éireann, the national broadcaster of Ireland. The conductor is Kenneth Alwyn, working with the RTÉ Chamber Choir prepared by Colin Mawby. My guess is that neither Alwyn nor the recording crew were prepared for doing justice to the eccentricities of Stein’s libretto, but it may well be that Berners was in the same boat.

The two ballet scores are separated by a short march. This was taken from a solo piano score that Lane discovered in the basement of Berners’ home. Lane’s booklet notes state that “it is unlikely that Berners saw the composition as a work for solo piano.” As a result, Lane prepared his own scoring for a brass ensemble for this brief selection.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

A New Album of Telemann’s Solo Violin Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

About a month ago Navona Records released a new album of the complete set of twelve fantasias for solo violin composed by Georg Philipp Telemann. There is, of course, the usual tendency to associate the solo violin repertoire from the Baroque period is Johann Sebastian Bach. Ironically, when the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig had to appoint a successor to Thomaskantor Johann Kuhnau after his death in 1722, the church administrators initially offered the position to Telemann. However, Telemann was more interested in a secular appointment in Hamburg; and the Leipzig position was offered to Bach. The rest, as they say, is history.

While Bach’s reputation advanced through his service to the church, Telemann was basically beholden to a “free city” administered by the merchant guilds of the Hanseatic League. In that setting he realized that he could become a prosperous capitalist through the publication of his music. One of those publications was the collection of those twelve fantasias, which appeared for sale in 1735 and are now listed as TWV 40:14–25 in the Telemann-Werke-Verzeichnis (Telemann Works Catalogue).

The fantasias themselves are multiple-movement compositions, four in four movements and all of the others in three movements. When compared with the collection of six sonatas and partitas for solo violin by Bach (BWV 1001–1006), the durations of Telemann’s movements are practically microscopic. However, it is likely that both collections were composed for pedagogical purposes. Thus, one will encounter as much polyphony in Telemann as one expects from Bach; and five of the fantasias include fugues.

The violinist on this new album in Thomas Bowes. His Wikipedia page makes it clear that he is not one of the flag-bearers for the “HIP” (Historically Informed Performance) set. Indeed, prior to this new release, he is probably best known for a recording of the violin concertos by William Walton and Samuel Barber. Nevertheless, his account of the Telemann fantasias is definitely an engaging one. His command of the many technical challenges is consistently secure enough that he can endow each individual movement with its own rhetorical expressiveness. The result is an engaging journey of discovery; and, while Telemann probably never expected that anyone would ever want to listen to all twelve of his fantasias played back-to-back, the one-hour account of Bowes’ performances of the full canon is consistently engaging.

Clerestory to Return to Live Performances

The Clerestory vocalists (from the gallery on the Clerestory Web site)

Earlier this week Clerestory, the professional all-male vocal ensemble, announced that it will be returning to live, in-person concerts this coming January. Consulting my archives, I discovered that the last time this group gave a public performance was almost exactly one month prior to the first round of cancellations imposed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The month of February in 2020 had begun with a program prepared to celebrate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, whose adoption was certified on August 26, 1920, with a program entitled Suffragist: Music Celebrating Women Trailblazers.

This week’s announcement was little more than a save-the-date notification. Here in San Francisco that date will be Saturday, January 15. The performance has been scheduled for 8 p.m. at the Noe Valley Ministry, which is located at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. This is a conveniently short walk from the Muni stops (north-south by trolley and east-west by bus) at the corner of 24th Street and Church Street. The only information about the program released thus far is that the title will be (appropriately enough) Phoenix Rising. Further information will be announced on this site as it becomes available.

Friday, November 26, 2021

Sunset Music and Arts: January, 2022

Things will pick up a bit when Sunset Music and Arts advances into the new year. Things will not get under way until after Epiphany, but four recitals have been planned for the month of January. Program content has not yet been entirely finalized. However, enough information is available for readers to start making plans. As was the case in December, all performances will take place on either a Friday or a Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Specifics are as follows:

Saturday, January 15: Guitarist Jack Cimo, currently based in San Luis Obispo, will give a guitar recital but has not yet announced program details.

Friday, January 21: The Shtrykov-Tanaka Duo consists of clarinetist Maksim Shtrykov accompanied at the piano by Misuzu Tanaka. While the catalog of music for clarinet and piano is a generous one, Shtrykov has prepared arrangements of two compositions by Robert Schumann intended for other resources. The first of these is the Opus 102 set of five “Stücke im Volkston” (pieces in folk style), originally composed for cello and piano. Shtrykov will honor the low-register rhetoric by playing the cello part on basset clarinet. This will be followed by the Opus 105 sonata in A minor, which was originally the first sonata for violin and piano. These arrangements will be the final selections on the program, which will begin with Carl Reinecke’s Opus 225 Fantasiestücke collection. This will be followed by Johannes Brahms’ sonata in F minor, the first of his two Opus 120 sonatas.

Saturday, January 22: A Northern California native of Portuguese descent, Ramana Vieira has established herself as one of the leading singers of contemporary Fado music. Fado is basically the blues style that emerged in Portugal, and Vieira has composed her own original Fados. She also accompanies herself at the piano. For this program she will lead a combo, whose other members will be David Parker on bass and Jeff Furtado on guitar.

Saturday, January 29: The month will concludes with a solo piano recital by Kevin Navarro. He has prepared a program of twentieth-century music by composers of three different nationalities. France will be represented by the original version of the suite Le Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel. This will be followed by two offerings by the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev. The first of these will draw upon his Opus 75, ten of the movements from his Romeo and Juliet ballet arranged for solo piano. Navarro will not play this collection in its entirety but has not yet announced his selections. Opus 75 will be followed by the Opus 84 piano sonata in B-flat major, the last of the three “war” sonatas. The program will then conclude with Kirke Mechem’s Opus 26 piano sonata, which was given its premiere performance here in San Francisco by William Corbett-Jones.

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

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

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

Houston Person’s Live Trio Album from Paris

Houston Person (right) with organist Ben Paterson (courtesy of HighNote Records)

This past September HighNote Records released Houston Person Live in Paris, featuring tenor saxophonist Person playing with a rhythm trio of Ben Paterson on a Hammond B-3 electric organ, Peter Bernstein on guitar, and Willie Jones III on drums. The title refers to a concert that was recorded at the La Villette Jazz Festival on September 8, 2019. Since most of Person’s albums are studio recordings, this is an opportunity to enjoy the spontaneity of a performance before an audience.

The album includes only one original Person composition, “Jean-Jaures Shuffle,” which is the last of the eight tracks. The hyphenation suggests that the title refers to the metro station in Paris, which was named after the pioneering socialist and antimilitarist Jean Jaurès, who was assassinated at a café on Rue Montmartre on July 31, 1914. Whether that was the station for the La Villette festival is left as an exercise for the reader! The music is too upbeat to reflect on its namesake’s assassination.

For this particular gig, Person seems more interested in honoring past masters, such as Lester Young, Johnny Griffin, and Benny Carter. He also has a way of taking over-trivialized movie music by Marvin Hamlisch (“The Way We Were”) and giving it an interpretation that has no trouble passing for sincerity. Furthermore, most of the tracks are long enough to provide opportunities for the rhythm players to exercise some of their own improvisational chops. (Person is far from the only player to “leap in” on the Young selection.)

I must confess that, over the course of my jazz listening experiences, I was more aware of Person’s name than I was of his performances. This new release allowed me to compensate for that gap in my perspective of jazz history. That said, if I am going to listen to more of his work, I shall probably want to consult his earlier recordings, made when his focus was on hard bop.

Confronting Richard Strauss’ Opacity with Video

The last of the three videos uploaded to SFSymphony+ at the beginning of this past week is also the most ambitious, as well as the most challenging. Like the previously released recording of Robert Schumann’s Opus 97 (third) symphony in E-flat major, the content was captured during a performance in Davies Symphony Hall this past June 24. The Schumann symphony was played after the seldom encountered “Metamorphosen” by Richard Strauss.

This music is a far cry from the lush rhetoric that Strauss could evoke from a full orchestra, whether on a stage or in the pit of an opera house. It was composed for 23 solo strings (ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three basses) on a commission by Paul Sacher, the founder and Director of the Collegium Musicum Zürich, which gave the first performance on January 25, 1946. Indeed, it was composed during the final months of World War II; and, thanks to Sacher, Strauss was able to work in the safety of Switzerland.

My wife and I were in Davies on that June 24, and we were well aware of an abundance of video equipment, most of which was remotely controlled. Two of those remotely-controlled devices can be seen in this screen shot extracted from the resulting recording:

The video was directed by Frank Zamacona, working with a team specializing in robotic control, including Brian Shimetz, Paul Peralta, and Patrea Cheney.

It would probably be fair to say that the act of listening to “Metamorphosen” is as challenging as that of performing it. The very idea of thematic content emerges from little more than a stepwise descent from G to C in the minor mode. It is only during the coda of this half-hour composition that the attentive listener will associate that descent with the second (funeral march) movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major. That coda couples that descent with the opening measures of the funeral march, as if Strauss finally allows us to peek behind the curtain that conceals the Wizard of Oz.

However, the path from that opening statement to the “punch line” coda is thickly overgrown (if I may appropriate the title of Leoš Janáček’s cycle of fifteen piano pieces). Strauss’ skill at interleaving his phrases among 23 solo “voices” is nothing short of downright uncanny. However, half an hour of the complexity of those interleavings is likely to fatigue even the most sympathetic or enthusiastic listener. Thus, when I reflected on my own efforts the morning after the performance, I found myself wondering “whether the addition of video can enlighten the listening experience.”

Watching that video last night left me wondering whether Zamacona and his crew were as perplexed as I was. I remembered that, when Jordan Whitelaw directed telecasts of live performances of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he would call his cues while following the same score used by the conductor. The full score of “Metamorphosen” runs to about 90 pages, and the textures are as thick to the eye as they are to the ear. I have no idea whether Zamacona used that same score, but I can observe that there were many more instances of images that were not particularly consistent with the listening experience than I have encountered in Zamacona’s other skillfully-crafted videos.

Perhaps this is music that benefits from the distance between the performers and the audience. Perhaps, where this music is concerned, any attempt at video close-ups is likely to be more confounding than enlightening. As I discovered through my encounters with Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 9 chamber symphony in E-flat major (composed for fifteen solo instruments), the only way to get your head around the music is to listen to it frequently. Every time I return for another encounter with “Metamorphosen,” the listening experience tends to be less perplexing than it had been during past experiences.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

American Bach Soloists in December: Updates

At the end of this past May, when American Bach Soloists (ABS) announced its plans to resume performances, those plans included the December tradition of three performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah at Grace Cathedral and the return of A Baroque New Year’s Eve at the Opera. At that time, neither performers nor programming had been finalized for the New Year’s Eve concert. That information is now available, along with a slight change of plans for the Grace Cathedral schedule.

The first of the three concerts at Grace will be a special abridged performance. The program will begin with Part I (the Christmas portion) of Messiah and will conclude with the “Hallelujah” chorus, which concludes Part II. The ABS instrumentalists and the American Bach Choir will be joined by four vocal soloists: soprano Nola Richardson, mezzo Sarah Coit, tenor James Reese, and bass Alex Rosen. Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas will conduct.

Between these two selections, however, there will be two instrumental offerings. The first of these will be the eighth of the twelve concerti grossi in Arcangelo Corelli’s Opus 6 collection of twelve. This was given the title “Fatto per la notte de Natale” (made for the night of Christmas); and it is now best known as the “Christmas Concerto.” This will be followed by the two compositions by Marc-Antoine Charpentier entitled “Noël pour les instruments.” The remaining two concerts will be devoted to performing HWV 56 in its entirety with the same vocal soloists.

These three performances will all take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 15, Thursday, December 16, and Friday, December 17, respectively. Grace Cathedral is located at the top of Nob Hill at 1100 California Street, between Taylor Street and Jones Street. Ticket prices for all concerts range between $25 and $125. All tickets may be purchased through the same ABS Web page powered by Tix.


The interior and exterior of Herbst Theatre, which will host the ABS New Year’s Eve concert (from the event page for that performance)

Thomas will also conduct the ABS instrumentalists for the New Year’s Eve concert. They will be joined by soprano Liv Redpath and bass Alex Rosen. The program will consist of arias, duets, and instrumental music from the Baroque opera repertoire. Handel will again be the featured composer with selections from Giulio Cesare (HWV 17), Radamisto (HWV 12), “Terpsichore,” the prologue to the opera Il pastor fido (HWV 8), Semele (HWV 58), and the secular cantata Apollo e Dafne (HWV 122). The other composers on the program will be Henry Purcell (King Arthur), Jean-Philippe Rameau (Hippolyte et Aricie), and Antonio Vivaldi (La fida ninfa).

This performance will begin at 4 p.m. on Friday, December 31, and last for about two hours (leaving plenty of time to ring in the New Year). The performance will be held in Herbst Theatre, which is located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Ticket prices range between again range between $25 and $125. However, these are being sold through a City Box Office Web page.

Pianist Edward Simon’s First Solo Album

Last month Ridgeway Records released Solo Live, the first ever unaccompanied album performed by Venezuelan pianist, composer, arranger, educator, and bandleader Edward Simon. Apparently, the album has been released only for streaming or download. The above hyperlink is to Simon’s home page on Bandcamp. The content is also available from Amazon.com, but there is so much disinformation on the Web page that I figure anyone serious about listening to these tracks will prefer the more accurate information provided by the Bandcamp Info hyperlinks. Presumably, the album will remain on Simon’s Bandcamp home page until his next album is released.

This is Simon’s fifteenth release as a leader. As the title suggests, the five tracks were recorded during a solo concert that Simon presented on his 50th birthday in 2019. The performance took place at the Piedmont Piano Company in Oakland. The recording itself was unedited, and Solo Live is only Simon’s second album documenting a concert.

As a seriously attentive listener, I would say that the album’s only flaw is that it is only about half an hour in duration. That comes down to five tracks, only one of which, “Country,” is Simon’s original composition. The album opens with Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” This is followed by two Thelonious Monk tunes, “Monk’s Dream” and “Monk’s Mood.” Following “Country” the album concludes with a solo piano reflection on “I Loves You, Porgy,” Bess’ song from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess.

Simon is consistently imaginative in his approaches to interpretation. “Lush Life” begins with the “turn” embellishment, which is encountered more frequently in the keyboard music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart than in the twentieth-century jazz piano repertoire. Simon’s approach to “Monk’s Dream,” on the other hand, may have been inspired by Benjamin Britten’s Opus 70 “Nocturnal after John Dowland.” Britten composed a set of variations on Dowland’s “Come, Heavy Sleep,” which begins with the most elaborate variation and gradually simplifies the embellishments until the music concludes with the theme itself. Similarly, the “tune” of “Monk’s Dream” only emerges at the end of Simon’s performance.

COVID-19 struck when Simon was curating the 2020 Salon Series for San Francisco Performances. His first three programs presented an engaging blend of repertoire from both the classical and jazz genres. The last program was supposed to feature a performance of Simon’s own composition, Venezuela Suite. Since it was scheduled for April 15, it never happened. Now that we are emerging from pandemic conditions, I am hoping that Simon will provide more listening opportunities here in San Francisco.

SFS: Holiday Season Off to Rocky Start

These days it seems as if the end-of-year holiday season has come to begin with Thanksgiving, particularly where shopping is concerned. Thus, while the annual “seasonal” programming of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) does not get under way until next month, this week Thanksgiving Day is flanked on either side by a “prologue” to the season in the form of a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor. (Think of December as Der Ring des Nibelungen and this week as Das Rheingold.)

Conductor Daniel Stewart (from the SFS event page for the program being discussed)

This week the conductor is Daniel Stewart, Wattis Foundation Music Director of the SFS Youth Orchestra, which gave its first performance of the season this past Sunday. Similarly, last night marked the first performance of the season by the SFS Chorus, prepared for the occasion by Assistant Director David Xiques. They were joined by the quartet of vocal soloists consisting of  soprano Michelle Bradley, mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Mario Chang, and baritone Rod Gilfry. All vocal resources were placed in the Terrace, allowing for the Chorus vocalists to be properly distanced to deal with COVID-19 conditions. The soloists took front-and-center positions, also in the Terrace.

Sadly, what could have been an invigorating festive occasion in advance of today’s holiday turned out to be a disconcerting slog. Stewart’s conducting was energetically spirited; and his approach to tempo was entirely suitable, not only for the overall duration but also for pacing the “journey” through the contrasting dispositions of the four movements. Unfortunately, his keen sense of tempo was not matched by particularly adequate balancing of his resources. Indeed, for the better part of the performance, it seems as if the timpani were leading the way, giving the impression of a concerto for timpani and orchestra, rather than a symphony. (Mind you, Beethoven provided any number of rhetorically significant moments for the timpani; but he was just attentive to the roles played by the rest of the ensemble.)

The vocal side got off to an equally disconcerting start with a prevailing uncertainty of pitch in Gilfry’s solo. Once the other soloists joined the mix, the blend was more convincingly solid. However, the soloists then had to deal with the full force of the Chorus, as much a dominating force as the timpani were for the instrumentalists. The overall result was thus an abundance of sound and fury with too little evidence of meaningful signification.

Ironically, the program began with the West Coast premiere of Anna Clyne’s “Sound and Fury.” William Shakespeare’s Macbeth was one of the two sources that inspired the composition of this tone poem, which lasted only about a quarter of an hour. The other was Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/60 symphony in C major. This symphony is known as “Il Distratto,” the Italian title of a play originally written in French, for which Haydn composed incidental music. As a result, the “symphony” is in six movements, accounting for an overture, four entr’actes, and a finale, which begins with the roaring dissonance of retuning in the string section.

None of the context of Haydn’s music figures in Clyne’s tone poem. Basically, she cherry-picked moments from the score that interested her and then wove them into a rhetoric of “skittish outbursts” (in the composer’s own words). The program book included a full page of background material, most of which was provided by Clyne herself. That was all distilled into a summary paragraph on the program page. If that were not enough, the audience got to listen to a recording of Clyne providing introductory remarks, which did little more than echo what she had already written.

What mattered most, however, was the intensely wild abandon of the overall rhetoric and the skills of the entire string section to provide a crisp and clear account of that rhetoric. Considering that the composer began to run out of ideas about halfway into her score, the precision of the string players was pretty much the high point of the performance. There is always a danger when a composer spends more time talking about the music than making it. Sadly, “Sound and Fury” succumbed to that danger.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Voices of Music Announces 2021–2022 Season

A little over a week ago, Voices of Music announced its return to an “in-person” concert season. In the past this early music ensemble has presented a season of four concerts beginning in the fall. However, the 2021–2022 season will begin with the annual Holiday Celebration, followed by two concerts in 2022. As in the past, all San Francisco performances will take place on a weekend at 8 p.m. Voices of Music will return to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street, for all three events.

Subscriptions for the entire season will be $145 with a reduced rate of $130 for seniors and members of SFEMS, EMA, or ARS. A Web page has been set up for processing subscription orders, and they also can be purchased by phone at 415-377-4444. Single tickets for each concert will go on sale two weeks in advance of the performance. Online purchase may be made through the respective Tickets hyperlinks on the season summary Web page or by calling the same telephone number. Dates and program plans for the three concerts are as follows:

  1. Sunday, December 19: As in the past the Holiday Celebration is more about virtuoso concertos than about sacred music. The concerto soloists will both be violinists: Rachell Ellen Wong in Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1041 concerto in A minor and Elizabeth Blumenstock in Giuseppe Tartini’s concerto in A major, D 91 in the catalog compiled by Minos Dounias. Percussionist Peter Maund will join the full ensemble in a performance of Georg Philipp Telemann’s TWV 55:G10 Burlesque de Quichotte, a suite which may have drawn upon music from the TWV 21:32 score for the one-act comic serenata “Don Quichotte auf der Hochzeit des Comacho.” The program will also include virtuoso music by “usual suspects” such as Arcangelo Corelli, Francesco Geminiani, and Antonio Vivaldi.
  2. Saturday, February 19: This will be a program of chamber music from Italy and England entitled Musica Transalpina. The origins of the violin as we now know it can be traced by to the early sixteenth century in northern Italy. Those origins will be celebrated with more music by Corelli, along with works by Nicola Matteis, Marco Uccellini, and Biago Marini, all “early adopters” of the instrument. On the other side of the Alps, so to speak, there will be violin music by Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel. Blumenstock will again be one of the solo violinists, joined this time by Cynthia Miller Freivogel and Augusta McKay Lodge.
  3. Saturday, March 26: Attention to the violin will continue, advancing into the eighteenth century with solo and ensemble concertos by Handel, Geminiani, and Vivaldi. The program has not yet been finalized. However, Lodge will return as soloist in Vivaldi’s RV 356 concerto in A minor; and Chloe Kim will take the solo part in the RV 277 concerto in E minor, given the title “Il Favorito.”

Video Account of “The Unanswered Question”

Last night my wife and I returned to SFSymphony+ to view another of the recently uploaded videos. This time Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in a performance of Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” Many still tend to shy away from Ives’ music, which remains a “stylistic outlier” in the symphonic repertoire over half a century after his death. Nevertheless, “The Unanswered Question” tends to be one of his more accessible compositions, if only for its brevity and its narrative infrastructure.

That infrastructure amounts to a “conversation” between two instrumental resources which takes place before the “backdrop” of string players (which may be either a quartet or a larger ensemble). The question is posed by a solo instrument, which is usually a trumpet (Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye on the video):

courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

The “reply” comes from a wind quartet (two flutes, oboe, and clarinet in this video performance). The scare quotes are meant to convey that the trumpet is not satisfied and repeats the question. This back-and-forth exchange repeats several times, but the trumpet is never satisfied as the winds get more agitated and dissonant. Ultimately, the winds give up, leaving the trumpet to ask the question one last time.

Salonen’s conducting scrupulously maintained the overall rhetoric of quietude. However, the video account of the performance was interleaved with a diverse assortment of “natural” images, possibly suggesting that the “question” being posed has something to do with the nature of our role in a vast cosmos:

screen shot from the video being discussed

This video “interpretation” leaves the viewer with the impression that, however simple the trumpet’s question may be, any answer is beyond the scope of what any mere mortal can conceive.

Sadly, the video director was not identified, either on the Web page for viewing the video or on the video itself. This was, to say the least, more than a little frustrating, as was the failure to identify all of the performing musicians by name. This video account of “The Unanswered Question” is as compelling as the music itself, and such a blatant failure to give credit where credit is due seriously undermines such a brilliant partnership of music and video.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

SFCMP Continues Collaboration with CNMAT

Readers that follow the activities of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) probably know that the ensemble has developed a partnership with the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) at the University of California at Berkeley. The concerts based on that partnership have been given the name Sound Encounters, and the second collaboration in that series will take place next month as this season’s in the COMMUNITY event. The entire program will be organized around music for percussion and electronics, and SFCMP percussionist Christopher Froh will be the featured artist.

The program will begin with the world premiere of a composition by Edmund Campion, Director of CNMAT. “Solving for M” was scored for marimba and electronics, bringing Froh together with Campion’s score of electronics. The program will also feature the electronic inventions of four of the CNMAT artists, Hallie Smith, Jon Yu (whose performance will include Froh on percussion), Andrew Harlan, and Didem Cockunseven. The last of those four compositions will be performed with a dance film. The program will then conclude with Froh playing Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint” in the composer’s 2010 arrangement of the score for vibraphone and tape.

Like all SFCMP events, members will be admitted at no charge. The membership fee is $75 per year. A Web page has been created for both annual and monthly payment. For others, admission to the performance will be $15; and tickets can be purchased through the concert’s event page. Finally, a video will be made; and, within five days of the performance, that video will be available for seven days of streamed access. The rental fee for that access will be $5. The performance will take place in the Root Division Gallery, beginning at 3 p.m. on Sunday, December 19. The gallery is located at 1131 Mission Street.

Liszt’s “Other” Cycle of Solo Piano Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

Franz Liszt tends to be best known for individual compositions for solo piano. There are, of course, the nineteen “Hungarian Rhapsody” works; but these were conceived and composed separately between 1839 and 1847. Where a “cycle” of compositions is concerned, most listeners would think of the three suites with the common title Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage), each suite accounting for a different “year.” Ironically, the first two of those “years” were composed during a single span of time between 1837 and 1859, the latter being the year in which the second Italie (Italy) suite was extended with the three pieces in the Venezia e Napoli (Venice and Naples) collection. The final “year” was then composed between 1872 and 1877.

However, in 1847 Liszt divided his time between Italie and the final version of another cycle, Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (poetic and religious harmonies), which had occupied his attention on and off from 1833. That cycle tends to be known only for the seventh of its ten pieces, “Funérailles” (funeral). At the beginning of last month, Steinway & Sons released a two-CD album of the complete collection. The entire recording was captured in Steinway Hall on September 19, 2019.

One would probably be justified in wondering whether a single pianist could do justice to these ten technically demanding compositions over the course of one day. Indeed, this occurred to the album’s producer, Jon Feidner. His solution was to take a “tag team” approach to recording those ten works. Pianists Jenny Lin and Adam Tendler each recorded five of the compositions over the course of that single day in September.

The result is a little over 80 minutes of Liszt’s solo piano music given a highly satisfying technical account. Both pianists also knew how to capture the different dispositions of expressiveness that cut across the entire cycle. The good news, however, is that neither of them tried to carry that expressiveness “over the top.” Everyone involved with the project seemed to appreciate that, even when limited to only five of the ten pieces, the pianist had to hold back any urges to overplay the emotional undercurrents.

Nevertheless, I suspect that few listeners will take the trouble to listen to all ten of these compositions in a single sitting. Each of the two CDs has an overall duration that will probably be at least tolerable for most listeners. However, there is much to recommend taking a long break before advancing from one CD to another.

SFSymphony+ Streams Montgomery’s “Strum”

SFS Assistant Concertmaster Wyatt Underhill playing the opening measure of “Strum” (screen shot from the video being discussed)

One week ago the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) uploaded a new round of videos to the SFSymphony+ streaming site. All of these are available for viewing free of charge. The content includes both SFS performances and chamber music played by SFS musicians.

Since this Thursday’s holiday has made this a relatively quiet week, my wife and I made our first visit to this new collection last night. We opted for the chamber music selection, a performance of Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum.” This music was originally composed for string ensemble; but Montgomery subsequently prepared a chamber version for two violins (Wyatt Underhill and Jessie Fellows). viola (Matthew Young), cello (Barbara Bogatin), and bass (Daniel G. Smith). The video document of this performance was recorded this past January.

Montgomery’s name will probably be familiar to those that follow this site regularly. Her “Starburst” was performed by the SFS Youth Orchestra this past Sunday afternoon. Joseph Young conducted SFS in a performance of “Banner” during the summer series of concerts in Davies Symphony Hall this past June. In October One Found Sound launched its ninth season with a performance of “Records from a Vanishing City;” and the Left Coast Chamber Orchestra is scheduled to play her “Peace” this coming April.

Montgomery will turn 40 at the beginning of next month, and it is clear that she has been building an impressive repertoire. Over the course of my own reading, “Strum” was probably the first of her compositions whose title I encountered; and it would recur many times, providing the title for her 2015 album released by Azica, Strum: Music for Strings. However, last night was my first opportunity to listen to the music, albeit in its chamber version.

The title declares itself in the very opening measure. However, over the course of only about eight minutes, the score unfolds through a panoply of different techniques engaged by string performers. By virtue of the transparency of the chamber version, one was keenly aware of not only the diversity of those techniques but also the skillful interplay among them. Having previously played second violin in the Catalyst Quartet, appearing on their Azica UNCOVERED album of the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Montgomery’s command of composing for those techniques is grounded in her own experience as a violinist.

The video, in turn, leads the attentive listener through that diversity with a skillful progression of camera angles that guides that listener through thematic statements and developments. There is no shortage of wit that unfolds during the listening experience, but each of the five players is clearly focused on that clarity of presentation without out which those witty turns would not be evident. In its chamber version “Strum” serves up a stimulating listening experience; and the SFS musicians deliver a thoroughly engaging account of that experience.

Monday, November 22, 2021

SFCA Announces Plans for 2021–22 Season

San Francisco Choral Artists in Concert (photograph by Jennifer Nixon, from the SFCA Web site)

About a week and a half ago San Francisco Choral Artists (SFCA) announced the plans for its 2021–22 season. As usual, the season will begin next month with the annual focus on holiday music from around the world. However, that performance will be videotaped for later streaming. The remaining two concerts of the season, however, will be “physical,” rather than “virtual.” Nevertheless, as of this writing, tickets are only being sold for next month. Specifics are relatively modest as follows:

  1. December 18: This will be when streaming will begin of the videotaped seasonal program entitled out of darkness… light! Selections will include works by contemporary composers including Alice Parker, Hyun Chul Lee, and Abbie Betinis. Composers from the past include Francis Poulenc from the twentieth century  and seventeenth-century composers Antonio de Cabezón and William Byrd. Cabezón was a keyboardist; but his works included settings for liturgical texts, some of which may have influenced Byrd. Access to the video will require a ticket, but that ticket is acquired on a “pay what you wish” basis through an SFCA Web page. Once the payment has been processed, directions for viewing the streamed video will be provided through electronic mail. The video will be available through January 6 (the last of the twelve days of Christmas).
  2. Sunday, March 13, 4 p.m., Sha’ar Zahav: The full title of the second program will be joyful voices, stomping feet: song and dance in the Jewish tradition. Once again the Klezmer trio Veretski Pass will appear as guest artists. The program will include long-awaited premieres of works by Composer-in-Residence Alexis Alrich and Composer Not-in-Residence Timothy Kramer. There will also be music by a leading twentieth-century Jewish composer, Darius Milhaud, and the sixteenth-century madrigalist Salamone Rossi. Sha’ar Zahav is located in the Mission at 290 Dolores Street on the northwest corner of 16th Street.
  3. Sunday, June 5, 4 p.m., St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The final program is a musical tribute to transportation machinery entitled boats & trains & flying machines. Music by winners of the New Voices Project will be included in the program, along with more premieres from Alrich and Kramer. Twentieth-century composers on the program will include Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern, and Gavin Bryars. St. Marks is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street.

A New Setting of Eastern Orthodox Vespers

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

This past Friday Cappella Records, which specializes in recordings of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music performed by the Saint Tikhon Choir, released a new album of music for the Vespers service composed by Benedict Sheehan. The advance material described this music as “Inspired by the great All-Night Vigil setting by Rachmaninoff.” Readers that have been following this site for a while may recall that, almost exactly have a decade ago, this site discussed the Musical Concepts reissue of a Russian recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 37, whose title in English is All-Night Vigil, on its alto label.

In Sheehan’s version all of the liturgical texts have been translated into English. I have to confess that I was easily drawn into Opus 37, simply because, as I put it, it “is so remote from what one expects from Rachmaninoff.” Apparently, Rachmaninoff himself declared it to be one of his favorite compositions. When I learned of that preference, I decided it was significant, particularly since it had absolutely nothing to do with his virtuosity as a pianist. He even left instructions that the fifth movement, based on the Kievan chant setting of “Now let Thy Servant depart” be sung at his funeral.

That text surfaces as the tenth movement in Sheehan’s setting, which also draws upon that Kievan chant. (At least two other Russian composers preceded Rachmaninoff in drawing upon the same chant: Alexander Gretchaninov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Apparently, the chant is as familiar to Russian composers as the “Dies irae” chant is to those in the Western world!) Sheehan called his movement a “vocal concerto for basso profondo;” and the recording features the solo work of Glenn Miller. While I have been an atheist for about 40 years, I have to say that I tend to feel that “concerto rhetoric” tends to act at cross-purposes to liturgical practices, perhaps suggesting that Rachmaninoff was more sincere in his devotions than Sheehan was.

Indeed, Cappella Records seems to be a cottage industry for promoting liturgical music of Eastern origins and reflecting on those origins through new compositions. Ultimately, I could not warm up to Sheehan’s efforts. Rachmaninoff seldom works his way to the top of any category list; but where this liturgical repertoire is concerned, I would say that his Opus 37 composition and its choices of original sources continues to maintain his place at the top.


SFO Mozart Cycle Advances to 20th Century

Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, Director Michael Cavanagh’s San Francisco Opera (SFO) project to stage the three operas that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed to set libretto texts by Lorenzo Da Ponte finally continued after the unanticipated interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. The original plan had been to present The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492), Così fan tutte (thus do all women, K. 588), and Don Giovanni (K. 527) over the course of three successive seasons. K. 492 had launched the project in the fall of 2019; and, now two years later, the project is “back on track” with this season’s performance of K. 588. To compensate for that interruption, K. 527 will be performed this coming June.

Mozart and Da Ponte look down on the members of the Wolfbridge Country Club (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

To present these three operas as a “cycle,” Cavanagh decided that they would share a common setting. Calling it “the Great American House of Mozart and Da Ponte,” Cavanagh situated K. 492 in the early nineteenth century, turning the estate house of Count Almaviva into a grand structure that could well have been designed by the Great American Polymath Thomas Jefferson. K. 588 then advanced the timeline over a century to take place in the Thirties. The building is now the Wolfbridge Country Club, but the embossed images of Mozart and Da Ponte still look down on the activities. (“Bridge,” of course, translates into the Italian “ponte;” and “Wolf” is you-know-who.)

From a narrative point of view, K. 588 shares with K. 492 the theme of dalliance; and what begins as frivolous becomes more and more serious as the plot unfolds. In K. 492 Count Almaviva has lost interest in his wife, the Countess Rosina Almaviva, in favor of her maid Susanna; but Susanna is soon to be married to Almaviva’s valet Figaro, who is determined not to let his master have his way with his fiancée. The theme of K. 588 is also one of fidelity, this time involving a pair of sisters, Fiordiligi (soprano Nicole Cabell) and Dorabella (mezzo Irene Roberts), both vocalists making role debuts, and their respective sweethearts, Guglielmo (baritone John Brancy) and Ferrando (tenor Ben Bliss, making his SFO debut). However, the aging cynic Don Alfonso (bass Ferruccio Furlanetto) decides to put their fidelity to a test with results that are, to say the least, disquieting.

Cavanagh’s staging never explicitly recognizes that this diversion of “girlfriend-swapping” among the leisure class is taking place while the rest of the country (including the President) is struggling to deal with the Great Depression. There is an underlying harsh reality that is perhaps best expressed by paraphrasing Rick Blaine (the protagonist of Casablanca) in recognizing that “the problems of [four] little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” While Mozart’s music does not lead us into any dark places, there are any number of twists in the libretto text that make it clear that this opera is not a diverting entertainment.

Nevertheless, under the baton of Henrik Nánási, it was clear that the music clearly establishes the emotional score of the journey experienced by the protagonists in this opera. Readers may recall that Nánási had previously conducted K. 492, and his approaches to tempo and dynamics again reflected the rich palette of dispositions emerging from the stage. I also came away with the impression that the more mature Mozart of K. 588 was more sensitive in how he deployed winds and brass to underscore those dispositions. (Think of how each of his piano concertos has its own combination of those resources to set the emotional tone of the music.)

Taken as a whole, K. 588 is an ambitious journey. However, Cavanagh helps us along that journey with richly imaginative designs for each of the episodes that unfold the complex narrative. Through the diversity of his settings, he encourages us to focus on how each of the characters develops. Those developments lie at the heart of Da Ponte’s libretto, and Mozart unfailingly provides the music through which we can comprehend each of them.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

San Francisco Opera Announces Adler Showcase

The next annual tradition to resume after having been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic will be the annual end-of-year performance by the current Adler Fellows of the San Francisco Opera. As in the past, the title of this concert will be The Future is Now, since it was conceived to introduce the next generation of opera stars. The vocalists will be sopranos Anne-Marie MacIntosh, Elisa Sunshine, and Esther Tonea, mezzo Simone McIntosh, tenors Zhengyi Bai, Christopher Colmenero, and Christopher Oglesby, baritone Timothy Murray, and bass Stefan Egerstrom. Eun Sun Kim will conduct members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra; and, when necessary, piano accompaniment will be provided by Adler Apprentice Coaches Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad and Andrew King.

The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, December 10. The venue will be 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. Ticket prices will be $69 for premium Orchestra seating, $59 for Orchestra Rear and Side Boxes, $49 for the Dress Circle, and $34 for the Balcony. All student tickets will be sold for $15. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a San Francisco Opera event page.

American Themes from a Berlin Point of View

courtesy of PIAS

At the end of last month ONYX Classics released a new album entitled Transatlantic. That title reflects the selections on the album and how they were performed. The album marks the recording debut of the Berlin Academy of American Music, founded about a year ago by its Artistic Director and Conductor Garrett Keast. (Yes, this ensemble was formed in the midst of pandemic conditions.)

This is one of those groups that was created for the performance of a specific composition. In this case the work was “Lamentation,” created by the American composer Craig Urquhart and originally scored for flute and piano. The work was first performed in the summer of 2020 at the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, where it was honored with the 2020 Leonard Bernstein Award. The following November Keast discussed with Urquhart and flutist Stathis Karapanos, who had given the premiere performance, the possibility of recording a new, orchestrated version. Recruiting an ensemble for that recording project resulted in the creation of the Berlin Academy. That project culminated in selecting and performing the repertoire for the Transatlantic album.

That said, the “American Music” modifier is likely to confound the usual expectations. The only other American-born composer on the album is Aaron Copland. The album begins with Igor Stravinsky’s E-flat chamber concerto given the title “Dumbarton Oaks,” which was first performed (at Dumbarton Oaks) in 1938. Stravinsky became a naturalized citizen of the United Stated, but not until December of 1945. Avner Dorman, who currently teaches Theory and Composition at the Sunderman Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, maintains his Israeli citizenship. His contribution to the album is the song cycle Nofim, setting texts in Hebrew. Tōru Takemitsu, on the other hand, was born in Tokyo and died there; but his Toward the Sea suite was inspired by the American novel Moby Dick.

Copland is represented by “Appalachian Spring;” and it is a bit ironic and a bit more disappointing that I should be writing about this music so soon after having listened to Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conduct the San Francisco Symphony in a full-orchestra arrangement of Copland’s complete score. The music was composed for a dance choreographed by Martha Graham and was scored for only thirteen players. I had previously written that instrumentation was probably determined by “limitations in both space and capital,” since Graham and her company of dancers first performed the work at the Library of Congress. Copland subsequently extracted a suite from the score to be played by a full orchestra. Keast decided to have the suite performed by the original thirteen-instrument resources. While this is a satisfactory solution for a chamber ensemble, it elides over the most visceral qualities of Copland’s score, resulting in a somewhat feeble account of the sentiment-laden rhetoric pouring out of a full orchestra in the suite version.

Taken as a whole, I must confess that I find the overall repertoire of the album a bit on the weak side. Stravinsky towers above all the other tracks on the album, not only through the “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto but also In soprano Chen Reiss’  account of Anne Truelove’s aria at the conclusion of the first act of The Rake’s Progress. Indeed, both of these selections provide excellent examples of Stravinsky’s “neo-classical” approach to composition, since the concerto is a nod to Johann Sebastian Bach, while Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart overshadows Anne’s aria. In that context even Takemitsu comes across as somewhat diminished, and Copland definitely deserved better.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

The Gift of Bach for Christmas from PBO

Next month the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) will launch the holiday season with a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 248 Christmas Oratorio. Note the ampersand sign: Here in San Francisco the program will mark the first appearance of the Philharmonia Chorale in Herbst Theatre after a two-year hiatus.

There is a good chance that Bach never intended BWV 248 to be performed as a single event. The composition is actually a sequence of six cantatas, each intended for a different date in the liturgical calendar. This requires more time than is usually encountered at a concert performance; and, as will be seen below, the concert will begin one hour earlier than usual to compensate for the overall duration. The Philharmonia Chorale will be joined by soloists Lydia Teuscher (soprano), Avery Amereau (contralto), Gwilym Bowen (tenor), and Ashley Riches (bass-baritone). Music Director Richard Egarr will conduct.

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 7 p.m. on Thursday, December 9. Herbst Theatre is 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. 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.

Rediscovering the Guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima

courtesy of Jazz Promo Services

This morning, after listening to the latest release of performances by Brazilian guitarist and arranger Carlos Barbosa-Lima on the ZOHO Music label, I discovered that this had not been my first encounter with him. Back when I was writing for Examiner.com, I had the opportunity to use my “pulpit” to discuss the music of composer Leo Brouwer. In 2013 ZOHO released an album of compositions scored for solo guitar, two guitars, and guitar and string quartet. The title of the album was Beatlerianas, a seven-movement suite of Brouwer’s arrangements of favorite Beatles songs for guitar and string quartet with a clearly playful nod to Heitor Villa-Lobos. A little less than a decade later, I find myself embarrassed to discover how long it has been since I listened to another album of Barbosa-Lima.

The object of my discovery is Manisero, Barbosa-Lima’s latest duo encounter on the ZOHO label, this time with German classical guitarist Johannes Tonio Kreusch. This marked Barbosa-Lima’s first album to be recorded in Munich in order to work with Kreusch, and the thirteen tracks on the album were recorded between 2019 and 2021. On four of the tracks the duo expands to a trio with the addition of Kreusch’s brother, the pianist Cornelius Claudio Kreusch.

The album title is the Spanish word for peanut, and it serves to introduce the first track. Written in 1927 by the Cuban composer Moisés Simon, “El Manisero” is better known in this country as “The Peanut Vendor.” Its Wikipedia page asserts: “Together with ‘Guantanamera’, it is arguably the most famous piece of music created by a Cuban musician.” It was whistled by Groucho Marx in Duck Soup, and Judy Garland sang a fragment of it in A Star is Born. The tune seems to have prodigious staying power, having shown up in an instrumental version of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Supernova album in 2001.

Brouwer is not one of the contributing composers on this new album; but there are three arrangements of the music of Alberto Ginastera, which Barbosa-Lima created as a thank-you gesture after the composer had written his Opus 47 guitar sonata for him in 1976. Two of the arrangements are taken from the Opus 15 Suite de Danzas Criollas, scored for solo piano; and the final arrangement is “Gato,” (cat), one of the five songs in the Opus 10 collection Canciones Populares Argentinas. Barbosa-Lima then continues his skills as an arranger with “Sentimental Melody,” the third movement of the symphonic poem “Floresta do Amazonas” (forest of the Amazon) composed by Villa-Lobos.

When I first encountered this new Manisero album, my initial reaction was to classify it in my collection of jazz recordings. However, as was the case on the Beatlerianas album, all of the tracks are through-composed. As a result I see no reason why I cannot assign someone like Simon to the same “classical” category occupied by Ginastera; and I would certainly enjoy encountering “El Manisero” at a guitar recital!

An “Anti-Fidelio” Opera from 17th-Century Venice

Some of those attending this season’s performance by the San Francisco Opera of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 72 opera Fidelio may know that the original version included the subtitle The Triumph of Marital Love or that the final chorus of the opera is basically a joyous hymn in praise of the faithful wife Leonore. Last night at the ODC Theater, Ars Minerva, led by Executive Artistic Director Céline Ricci, presented a seventeenth-century opera from Venice entitled Messalina with music composed by Carlo Pallavicino. Those familiar with the history of the Roman Empire or, perhaps, the fictionalized account in Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, may know that Messalina was the wife of the Emperor Claudius and that he was old enough to be her grandfather. In just about every respect, Messalina is an “anti-Leonore” character; and the Ars Minerva production is a joyous romp through sexual infidelities and dalliances among at least half a dozen different characters.

As Stage Director, Ricci displayed a rich repertoire of comic turns that those regularly attending Ars Minerva productions have come to expect of her. The synopsis for Messalina occupies less than two full pages in the program book, but it accounts for so many different convoluted relationships that one would do better to set it aside and just enjoy the ride. More important is Ricci’s skill in endowing each of the characters with identifiable traits and then leaving it to the viewer to account for who is doing what to whom. Those traits are often identified through the costumes designed by Marina Polakoff, who displayed an uncanny gift for providing the title character (soprano Aura Veruni) with one wacky outfit after another.

The entire production clocked in at about two and one-half hours. Nevertheless, Ricci consistently knew how to keep things moving; and much of her momentum drew its energy from the spirited accounts of the instrumental accompaniment. Those resources were conducted from the harpsichord by Jory Vinikour with consistent continuo support from Gretchen Claassen on cello and Adam Cockerham on theorbo. The more melodic passages also drew upon two violins (Cynthia Keiko Black and Laura Jeannin) and one viola (Aaron Westman).

Thus, between the wealth of physical comedy of dalliance and Pallavicino’s abundance of engaging music, the duration of the entire program proceeded at a spirited clip, resulting in an audience leaving the ODC Theater in high spirits.