Monday, January 24, 2022

A New Beethoven Release of Local Interest

Cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of Naxos of America)

This past Friday Avie Records released The Conquering Hero, a three-CD album of a “complete” account of the chamber music that Ludwig van Beethoven composed for cello and piano. “Complete” amounts to five sonatas written during different period’s of Beethoven’s life: the two Opus 5 sonatas in F major and G minor, respectively, the Opus 69 sonata in A major, and the two Opus 102 sonatas in C major and D Major, respectively. To these can be added three sets of variations: the twelve Opus 66 variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute, the twelve WoO 45 variations on “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 63 oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, and the seven WoO 46 variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,” also from K. 620.

Those that have followed my work for some time, including my “beat” for Examiner.com, know that I have encountered a more-than generous amount of performances of this music by an impressive number of cellists. Given my unabashed preference for “historical” recordings, the Praga Classical release of the recordings made by cellist Pablo Casals and pianist Rudolf Serkin over the course of sessions in the summer of 1952 and 1953 probably remain at the top of my list. Nevertheless, this new release is likely to have strong “local interest.”

The cellist is Jennifer Kloetzel, and I am sure I am far from the only one to remember the days when she was the cellist for the Cypress String Quartet (CSQ), which gave its final recital on June 26, 2016 and released its final recording, also on Avie, early in January of 2017. Kloetzel left the Bay Area for the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where she is now on the Music faculty. She recorded The Conquering Hero with pianist Robert Koenig, her UCSB colleague. (“For the record,” however, all the recording sessions took place at Skywalker Sound in Marin County in August and December of 2019 and in September of 2020. They may say that you can’t go home again, but you can still visit for recording purposes!)

All of the selections on the three CDs in this album are convincing and engaging. The collection also includes the Opus 17 sonata in F major, originally composed for horn, which serves as a somewhat informative “partner” to the Opus 5 sonatas. Nevertheless, as I gradually learned over the many years of following CSQ performances, “being in the presence” of the performance of chamber music almost always trumps listening to recordings. Indeed, where Kloetzel herself was concerned, the only thing better than all of those CSQ recitals was when she gave a solo “Salon” concert for San Francisco Performances, back when the Rex Hotel used to have the perfect space for such occasions.

Nevertheless, this new release provided a thoroughly engaging account of Beethoven’s music for those wondering what Kloetzel has been doing since CSQ disbanded; and I am definitely interested in where future recordings may lead her repertoire selections.

Chinese New Year Concert Returns to Davies

Conductor Yue Bao (photograph by Pat Robinson, courtesy of SFS)

Following last year’s cancellation of the annual Chinese New Year Concert & Banquet presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) due to COVID-19, this year the concert will take place; but the banquet will not be held due to the surge in the Omicron variant and out of an abundance of caution. Next month SFS will celebrate the Year of the Tiger, marking the 22nd anniversary of an event that annually bridges East and West traditions with the universal language of music. Yue Bao will make her debut leading SFS; and the program will feature two soloists: SFS Assistant Principal Cello Amos Yang and violinist Bomsori.

Yang will be soloist in the “Eternal Vow” music from the score that Tan Dun prepared for the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Bomsori will be featured in an excerpt from the concerto The Butterfly Lovers, composed jointly by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. There will also be traditional selections arranged by Huang Ruo for his Folk Songs for Orchestra, first performed at the 2012 Chinese New Year Concert on an SFS commission. The Lunar New Year will also be explicitly celebrated with the opening of the program. the Overture movement of the Spring Festival suite by Li Huanzhi. The remaining composers on the program will be Texu Kim (“Spin-Flip”), Tyzen Hsiao (“The Angel from Formosa”), and Liu Yuan (“Train Toccata”).

As in the past, this concert will begin at 5 p.m. on Saturday, February 5, in Davies Symphony Hall, located at 201 Van Ness Avenue; and the main entrance is the Box Office lobby on Grove Street, about half a block to the west of Van Ness Avenue. Ticket prices for seating that is currently available range from $25 to $85. They may be purchased online through the seat selection Web page for this program, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Times Have Changed!

This past Wednesday I wrote about my mixed feelings about the composer Roy Harris after having read what Virgil Thomson had to say about Harris’ third symphony in his book of essays American Music Since 1910, which appeared in 1971. That was one of the chapters included in the second Library of America collection of his writings, edited by Tim Page. I have now finished this section, which concludes with an essay entitled “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” (without crediting either James Agee or Agee’s source, the Apocrypha book “Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach”).

What struck me is how Thomson’s perspective from over a quarter-century ago now seems questionable in ways that would not have occurred to him. Consider this sentence:

But for lieder in English I know of no model, excepting the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan, which are perfect.

These days, Gilbert’s words no longer seem as perfect as they used to be. One only has to cite the use of the N-word in Ko-Ko’s Patter song in The Mikado. Indeed, Lamplighters Music Theatre was so aware of the “political correctness” issue of proper British ladies and gentlemen pretending to be Japanese that the directors transplanted the entire narrative to Renaissance Milan for a production entitled The New Mikado: Una Commedia Musicale!

Mind you, the fact that Thomson had to turn to light opera, rather than art song, to account for “lieder in English” probably raised eyebrows even when his book first appeared. However, if that is the context that he wished to establish, then I suspect a good case can be made that Stephen Sondheim has displaced both W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan with his skills in crafting both music and lyrics. Indeed, the Wikipedia page for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has a section entitled “Opera house productions,” one of which was performed by our own San Francisco Opera during the fall of 2015.

Nevertheless, none of this has anything to do with the art song repertoire. The fact is that there is a glaring paucity of contemporary composers in the programs being presented by San Francisco Performances in its Art of Song series. Indeed, my most memorable encounters with that repertoire have taken place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with recitalists performing songs by Mark Adamo and Jake Heggie; and even those events have arisen seldomly.

It is also worth noting that the “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” essay was probably written quite some time after the “Looking Backward” essay that cited Harris’ “eloquent Third Symphony.” In the later essay, Thomson writes:

Roy Harris’s works, I am sorry to say, do not travel so widely or so well.

Those that have read my earlier account will recognize my sympathy with that sentence. Thomson’s enthusiasm is directed at other composers, and my strongest agreement probably comes from his acknowledgement of the work of Lou Harrison. However, when it comes to living composers, I am not sure where my own preferences reside. I suppose John Adams continues to hold the top spot on my own list of preferences; and, among those “on the rise,” i have had several memorable encounters with performances of the music of Amadeus Julian Regucera.

There is one line that Maurice Chevalier sang in the film Gigi:

Forevermore is shorter than before.

I have not the foggiest idea whether any of the music I listen to these days will enjoy even an approximation of permanence. Indeed, the risk of going hopelessly out of fashion probably applies as much to Johann Sebastian Bach as it does Adams. That just happens to be one of the side-effects in the world the Internet has made.

Old First Concerts: February, 2022

As of this writing, the schedule for next month’s Old First Concerts (O1C) will be a modest one, confined to the first weekend of the month with performances on both Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. Both concerts will continue to be “hybrid,” allowing both live streaming and seating in the Old First Presbyterian Church at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue. Seating will remain limited to 100 tickets, all being sold for $25 (no reduced rate for seniors or students). Hyperlinks to the event pages (which include hyperlinks for streaming) will be attached to the date and time of the performances as follows:

Friday, February 4, 8 p.m.: The Circadian String Quartet of violinists Monika Gruber and David Ryther, violist Omid Assadi, and cellist David Wishnia will return to O1C with a program entitled Fanny and Felix. As the title suggests, the program will be devoted to the Mendelssohn siblings, playing a string quartet by each of them. The opening selection will be Fanny’s quartet in E-flat major, and the intermission will be followed by Felix’s Opus 80 quartet in F minor.

Sunday, February 6, 4 p.m.:  The Sierra Ensemble is a trio consisting of violinist Matthew Vincent, Janis Liberman on horn, and pianist Marc Steiner. Their program will begin with the world premiere of a trio they commissioned, composed by Richard Aldag with support by the InterMusic SF Musical Grant Program and with additional support from the Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and San Francisco Grants for the Arts. The other trio for this combination of instruments to be performed will be the Opus 44 trio by English composer Lennox Berkeley. In addition, Steiner will play selections from the Opus 61d collection of twelve short pieces by Charles Koechlin. Vincent and Stein will conclude the program with Johannes Brahms’ Opus108 (third) violin sonata in D minor.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Chanticleer to Stream from Minneapolis

Members of the Cantus vocal ensemble hosting a visit from Chanticleer (from the Cantus home page)

In 2016 Chanticleer joined forces with the all-male a cappella ensemble Cantus, based in Minneapolis. That sold-out concert was so memorable that Cantus will host a second performance at the end of this month. As was the case during the first event, the two ensembles will first perform separately and then join forces for a richly diverse repertoire.

Program details have not yet been released; but, on the basis of the composers whose names have been cited, there will be considerable breadth to the repertoire. The offerings will reach back at least as far as Claudio Monteverdi, and the nineteenth century will be represented at least by Antonín Dvořák. More recent composers will include Franz Biebl, Melissa Dunphy, and Craig Hella Johnson.

The performance will take place in Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis at 3 p.m. on Sunday, January 30. Fortunately, Bay Area followers of Chanticleer performances will be able to “attend” this concert through a livestream. Since Minneapolis is on Central Standard Time, here in the Bay Area the performance will begin at 1 p.m. Admission will be on a pay-what-you-can basis, with a suggested price of $34. Cantus has created a Web page for the purchase of tickets for on-line access.

“Her Verse” Given Voice by Golda Schultz

Soprano Golda Schulz (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances launched its Art of Song series with a recital by South African soprano Golda Schulz, accompanied at the piano by Jonathan Ware. The performance served as the San Francisco recital debut for both Schulz and Ware, but Schulz had already made her San Francisco debut with the San Francisco Opera in the fall of 2018. On that occasion she sang the role of the angle Clara in the San Francisco premiere of Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

The title of the recital was This be her verse, which was also the title of a cycle of three songs composed by Kathleen Tagg on a commission from Schulz. The texts were provided by Lila Palmer, and last night’s performance was the cycle’s West Coast premiere. This cycle concluded a program based entirely on art song by female composers.

The first half of the program was devoted heavily to songs by Clara Schumann and Emily Mayer, the latter having been a major figure as a composer during the nineteenth century. (The reputation of her contemporary Schumann had more to do with her keyboard performances.) The twentieth century was also devoted to two contemporaries, Rebecca Clarke and Nadia Boulanger, born within a year of each other and both dying at the end of a fruitful life in the same year, 1979.

For many this was probably a “first contact” experience for all of the selections on Schulz’ program. Nevertheless, there was some familiarity in the texts being set. Thus, for those that attend vocal recitals regularly, Schultz cast a new light on Friedrich Rückert’s “Liebst du um Schönheit” (I love you for beauty). This text is better known for Gustav Mahler’s setting, but Schumann composed hers at the other end of the same century!

Mayer’s setting of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Erlkönig” (the second of two) has a particularly interesting history. Her teacher was Carl Loewe, who had composed his own setting before he encountered the more familiar version by Franz Schubert. Mayer’s first setting of “Erlkönig” was composed while she was Loewe’s student, while the second was written a year after Loewe’s death. Loewe’s version had another significant influence: The opening gesture would find its way into Mahler’s “Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer” (I have a gleaming knife), the third of the four songs in his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (songs of a wayfarer).

Another “anchor of familiarity” could be found in the Boulanger selections. The first and last songs of Schultz’ set, “La mer est plus belle” and “Cantique” were recently recorded by tenor Nicholas Phan. His Clairières album showcased the music of both Boulanger and her younger sister Lili.

However, if the occasions of familiarity were few, Schultz’ delivery brought a clear sense of the dispositions underlying each of her selections. (Perhaps through her opera experience she cultivated a sense of how expressiveness involves just the right blend of the musical with the physical.) The result was that each of her selections, both individually and how they were grouped, left the attentive listener with a confident sense of satisfaction. That satisfaction continued into the novelty of Schulz’ encore selection, Amy Beach’s setting of Robert Browning’s “I Send My Love Up to Thee.” (Was this one of the songs that Beach composed when she was living in San Francisco?)

Friday, January 21, 2022

Cellist Steven Isserlis Cancels SFP Recital

This afternoon San Francisco Performances (SFP) announced the cancellation of the opening recital in the 2021–2022 Great Artists and Ensembles Series. That series had been scheduled to begin on Saturday, January 29, with a recital by cellist Steve Isserlis, accompanied at the piano by Connie Shih. The cancellation was due to travel and visa issues related to the pandemic.

  • The options for those holding tickets for this event are as follows:
  • Apply the value of the tickets towards another single performance in the current season.
  • Request a full refund.

Patrons may contact SFP regarding their chosen option either through electronic mail to tickets@sfperformances.org or by telephoning 415-677-0325. For those wishing to phone, SFP business hours are between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Blomstedt to Return with Two-Symphony Program

Conductor Herbert Blomstedt (photograph by Martin Lengemann, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

San Francisco Symphony Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt last visited Davies Symphony Hall almost exactly two years ago. At that time there was no thought that concert programming as we knew it would be disrupted. Always stimulated by the conductor’s imaginative inventiveness, I described that performance as an “alternative ‘Three Bs’” concert. The familiar “B composer” was Johannes Brahms, represented by his Opus 90 (third) symphony in F major. That symphony was complemented by the first symphony in G minor composed by the “Swedish B,” Franz Berwald. The “third B” was Blomstedt himself!

At the beginning of next month, Blomstedt will make his first visit to the Davies podium since the onset of the pandemic. Once again he will present a two-symphony program, but only the second of the two will involve a “B” composer. The program will conclude with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 67 (fifth) symphony in C minor. The first half of the program will be devoted to Carl Nielsen’s Opus 29 (fourth) symphony. This symphony was not assigned a key. However, it was given a name: “The Inextinguishable.” Composed during World War I, Nielsen chose the name as a reference to (in his words) “the elemental will to live.”

This concert will be given three performances, at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 3, and Friday, February 4, and at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 6. A single Web page has been created with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for each of those dates. Tickets are priced between $20 and $165. There will be an Inside Music talk, free to all concert ticket holders, given by Alexandria Amati 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. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, February 3, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Amati 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.

Pinna Records Releases Wild Rumpus Album

A little over a month ago Pinna Records released what is likely to be the only album of performances by Wild Rumpus. This ensemble served as a platform for new compositions with a repertoire they described as “an ambitious melding of contemporary chamber music and avant-rock.” The group had at least some of its roots in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which, unless I am mistaken, is the last place they performed before merging with Composers, Inc. to form the new ensemble, Ninth Planet.

The title of the new album is Vestige, and it features compositions by two of the founding members of Wild Rumpus: Jen Wang (“Adrogué”) and Dan VanHassel (“Incite!”). Also included on the album is a work presented at the debut recital of Ninth Planet, “Reflect Reflect Respond Respond (Echo and Narcissus in Reverse),” composed by Jenny Olivia Johnson on a Wild Rumpus commission. VanHassel is also represented by his arrangement of “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” which was a track on the 2007 Radiohead album In Rainbows. The other composers represented on the album are Joshua Carro (“Spectral Fields in Time”) and Per Bloland (“Solis Overture”).

A 2012 group shot of the members of Wild Rumpus (taken from a Web site that no longer exists and extracted from the first article I wrote about the ensemble)

My own “first contact” with Wild Rumpus seems to have been in June of 2012. This was a concert of five world premieres, one of which was the Johnson composition that would later be performed as part of the Ninth Planet debut. Readers probably know by now that I have discussed problems of attention that arise when too much novelty is delivered in a single sitting. The good news is that five seemed to be a “workable number” when I was faced with writing about that concert. However, as I discovered while listening to the new Vestige album, listening to new tracks on a new recording is not the same as encountering new music in concert. More often than not, the “visual channel” contributes to the “parsing” of the auditory signal that results in appropriately attentive listening.

In other words, in the absence of that “visual channel,” listening to an album is less compelling than being in the presence of a performance. More important is the question of how many of the compositions on Vestige are now actively a part of the Ninth Planet repertoire. If one is likely to encounter any of these pieces at a Ninth Planet gig, then Vestige may well provide the would-be listener with some “initial orientation.” However, with all of the selections on the album, being in the presence of a performance will always take priority over listening to a recording.

Gautier Capuçon Returns with Shostakovich

Cellist Gautier Capuçon (photograph by Anoush Abrar, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night saw the returns of two major visitors to the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall. Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) launched his second pair of programs for this and next week, and his concerto soloist was French cellist Gautier Capuçon. For this occasion MTT prepared an all-Russian program, coupling a concerto by Dmitri Shostakovich with a symphony by Sergei Prokofiev.

By the end of his life, Shostakovich had composed three pairs of concertos, although it is clear that he did not conceive any of these as pairings in the strict sense of the word. In the chronological order, there is an alternating between piano concertos and violin concertos. However, between the second concertos for piano and violin, he composed the two cello concertos, both of which were written for Mstislav Rostropovich. However, these were separated by more than half a decade. The first, Opus 107 in E-flat major, was completed in 1959; but Opus 126 in G major was not completed until 1966.

Capuçon prepared Opus 126 for this week’s program. This counts as a “late work,” and the overall structure is daringly adventurous. This is another Shostakovich composition that begins with an extended slow movement and only gradually picks up the pace with two Allegretto movements, the first shooting by like lightning (usually less than five minutes in duration) and the second on the same quarter-hour time scale as the opening Largo. Taken as a whole, the concerto is a wild ride through a funhouse filled with contrasting dispositions, suggesting, possibly, that the composer had finally gotten beyond being haunted by the ghost of Joseph Stalin.

MTT clearly had thoroughly internalized every twist and turn of that wild ride, while Capuçon jumped through every hoop that Shostakovich had placed in his path with what may best be described as graceful energy. The overall instrumentation was rich; and, with apologies to P. D. Q. Bach, the ensemble involved “an awful lot of winds and percussion.” More often than not, however, Shostakovich was going for a rich palette of sonorities, rather than an overall grand sound. Indeed, having recovered the sense of wit that he had enjoyed before his first run-in with Stalin, the orchestra side of this concerto is almost a romp through different combinations of instrumental sonorities.

While most cellists tend to prefer Opus 107 when playing a Shostakovich concerto, both Capuçon and MTT made it clear that Opus 126 serves up one hell of a listening experience and merits far more than the occasional encounter.

Presumably, MTT put the better part of his effort into preparing the performance of this concerto. This is because the remainder of the program, Prokofiev’s Opus 100 (fifth) symphony in B-flat major, never came close to rising to the same height. This is another awful-lot-of-instruments composition; and, more often than not, it seemed as if MTT had given little attention to any passage with a dynamic level of less than fortissimo. Mind you, we have every reason to believe that the composer intended this as an expression of intense emotions; but intensity often has its greatest impact when the dynamic levels descend. In MTT’s reading of Opus 100, those descents were few and far between; and any significant sense of expressiveness rarely surfaced.

Beyond the popularity of the first symphony (Opus 25, “Classical,” in D major), Opus 100 tends to be the favored choice of Prokofiev’s “serious” symphonies. In spite of what is almost “mass appeal,” I have always felt that the most expressive of his symphonies was his last (the seventh), Opus 131 in C-sharp minor, with its clever nod to Ludwig van Beethoven’s coupling of opus number and key. Yes, this is a dark composition, haunted by shadows of a steady pulse, sounding, for all the world, like a ticking clock marking the seconds before death comes to the composer. Perhaps I prefer Opus 131 to Opus 100 because it challenges the performers to avoid overstatement. Sadly, MTT often lapses into indulging in overstatement; and Opus 100 gave him the resources he needed to exercise that indulgence.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

C4NM to Host Next SSSS Concert

This has been a very quiet month at the Center for New Music (C4NM). Until this morning it seemed as if the only concert to take place would be Below the Surface: Music by Women Composers, presented by the Ensemble for These Times. That program is still “on the books;” but C4NM has announced that there will be a second offering taking place the following afternoon. That offering will be the fourth installment in the Surround Sound Salon Series (SSSS), the third having taken place almost exactly a month ago. Three compositions will be presented utilizing the eight-channel surround system provided by Meyer Sound.

The program will begin with John Bischoff’s “Bitplicity.” This involves an imaginative blend of analog circuity with the more predictable qualities of digital synthesis. The work was composed for twelve electronic sources, and performance involves the real-time projection of those individual parts into the spatial dimensions defined by the surrounding speakers of the Meyer system. Those parts are conceived as interruptions, each involving either silence or a disturbance in a continuous tone.

The second offering will be “All Vessels,” a new work created jointly by Sally Decker and Brendan Glasson. An earlier composition, “An Opening,” was based on a rethinking of the concept of harmony. Instead of pitches, that concept involved opposing forces, such as weak/strong, energetic/subdue, and steady/chaotic. Their performances usually involve a combination of acoustic and electronic instruments.

The final work will be Chris Brown’s “Vav.” This was a sound installation that Brown created on a commission by the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The installation was realized by The Hub, which calls itself a “computer network music band.” Vav is the sixth letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and the installation consisted of sound emanating from six “spatial pillars of three-dimensional space.” Performance then involves projecting sounds to those pillars, which are then played through six loudspeakers. That performance requires six players. On this occasion Brown will be joined by Bischoff, as well as Tim Perkis, Mark Trayle, Phil Stone, and Scot Gresham-Lancaster.

This performance will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 30. C4NM is 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 purchased in advance through the C4NM Events page. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Given the physical nature of the performance, it will not be live-streamed to a YouTube Web page. Masks will be required for all in attendance, and all attendees must show proof of full vaccination. Audience capacity will be reduced, so early purchase of tickets is recommended.

SFO Announces 2022–23 Season Repertory

One sign that things are, at least gradually, getting back to normal is that yesterday San Francisco Opera (SFO) announced plans for its next season. This will be the Centennial Season, honoring the company’s first 100 years. As in the past, Tad and Dianne Taube General Director Matthew Shilvock presented those plans to an audience that included both donors and the press. However, due to current pandemic conditions, that presentation was realized through a livestream. Also as in the past, I have used this as an occasion to reflect, rather than report, identifying “points of interest” for each of the eight main-stage productions (five in the fall and three in the summer). In “order of appearance,” the operas to be presented are as follows:

Antony and Cleopatra by John Adams: This will be Adams’ latest opera, commissioned and produced jointly with Liceu Opera Barcelona, Teatro Massimo di Palermo, and the Metropolitan Opera. It also marks a shift from Adams’ “historical” projects with Peter Sellars, working instead with the play by William Shakespeare as a point of departure. There is an interesting parallel here, since Samuel Barber’s Anthony and Cleopatra opera was written for the very first performance in the new Metropolitan Opera building in Lincoln Center. Adams’ opera will mark the post-pandemic return of a full SFO season. Where casting is concerned, I suspect the most attention will be given to soprano Julia Bullock as Cleopatra, paired with Gerald Finley in the role of Antony.

Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: SFO has not performed this opera since December of 2004, meaning that it predates the first subscription taken out by my wife and myself. I have seen a variety of different productions of this opera, both on film and on video. I am curious to see what Robert Carsen does in his approach to staging it.

Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc: This is likely to be the most intense opera of the season. Unless I am mistaken, my only encounter to date has been through video. [corrected 1/21, 6:45 a.m.: SFO first performed it in the fall of 1957, when the opera was given its United States premiere, about eight months after the world premiere in Milan. The most recent performance was in the fall of 1982.] In many respects this is a libretto of reflective philosophy, rather than narrative; so I am very curious as to how the staging by Olivier Py will moderate the prevailing tone of the opera.

La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi: This repertoire favorite will be given a new staging by Shawna Lucey. Personally, however, I am looking forward to seeing soprano Pretty Yende for the first time on a stage, rather than a television screen. This will be her first performance of the role of Violetta Valéry in the United States.

Orpheus and Eurydice by Christoph Willibald Gluck: This is another opera that has been out of repertoire for some time. It was first performed by SFO in 1959, and this will be only its second presentation. Once again my interest will be primarily in the staging, which will be directed by Matthew Ozawa, working with choreographer Rena Butler.

Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini: The summer season will begin with another new staging of a repertoire favorite. The production by Amon Miyamoto (making his SFO debut) will be shared with the Tokyo Nikikai Opera Foundation, Semperoper Dresden, and Det Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen. Soprano Karah Son will be making her SFO debut in the title role. The more familiar faces will be tenor Michael Fabiano (Pinkerton) and baritone Lucas Meachem (Sharpless).

Die Frau ohne Schatten by Richard Strauss: This is Strauss at his most enigmatic. It is basically a parable about childbirth in which the supernatural rubs shoulders with the mundane. The production will mark the return of two favorites. The sets will be designed by David Hockney, and the conductor will be Donald Runnicles.

El Ultimo Sueño de Frida y Diego by Gabriela Lena Frank: The season will conclude, as it began, with a new work co-commissioned by SFO. The commission involves several sources, and the San Diego Opera will be giving the world premiere. If Strauss’ opera reflects on childbirth, Frank’s reflects on the death of Frida Kahlo, during which she encounters Diego Rivera, who had preceded her in death, during her “last dream.”

One departure from tradition is that the first performance of Antony and Cleopatra on Saturday, September 10, will be preceded by an “Opening Night Concert” on Friday, September 9. This will feature four familiar vocalists: soprano Nadine Sierra, tenors Michael Fabiano and Pene Pati, and baritone Lucas Meachem. Caroline H. Hume Music Director Eun Sun Kim will lead the SFO Orchestra.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

SFS Extends Safety Protocols for Entering Davies

Readers may recall that this month began with San Francisco Symphony (SFS) announcing updated safety protocols for audiences attending live performances in Davies Symphony Hall. Those protocols will be extended further beginning tomorrow, Thursday, January 20. As of that date all patrons will be required to wear a non-vented high-filtration respirator, such as an N95, KN95, KF94, or equivalent face mask while inside Davies. Because this is short notice for tomorrow evening’s concert, there will be a limited number of KN95 or equivalent masks available for patrons that require them.

The Naxos Roy Harris Project

Back in June of 2002, Naxos launched a projected cycle of recordings to account for the thirteen symphonies composed by Roy Harris, which would be released under their American Classics rubric. I had not given this twentieth-century American composer much thought for some time. However, I am currently reading those chapters from Virgil Thomson’s American Music Since 1910 that were included in the second Library of America collection of his writings, edited (like the first) by Tim Page. In the chapter entitled “Looking Backward,” Thomson cited Harris’ “eloquent Third Symphony.”

Back in my student days there seemed to be a general consensus that this symphony was a veritable icon of twentieth-century music. My own composition teacher, Ezra Sims, swore by it; and I treasured my Desto vinyl album of a performance by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Hendel. Sadly, that album never seemed to migrate to the CD medium; so, when I gave up all my vinyls due to lack of space in my current San Francisco condominium, I pretty much lost touch with the symphony. In the years since settling in San Francisco, I was never reminded in any way about that symphony or, for that matter, any other Harris composition. It took Thomson to shake that particular tree.

So it was that I discovered the Naxos project. One might have guessed that the cycle would begin with Harris’ third symphony. However, it did not appear until the second album was released in March of 2006. On that album it was coupled with the fourth, given the title “Folksong Symphony.” True to that name, the music was scored for orchestra and chorus, meaning that, in five of the seven movements, the songs were actually sung. There were also two instrumental interludes providing what were called “dance tunes.”

The performers on this album consisted of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra Chorus. They were conducted by Marin Alsop. The fourth symphony reflects back on a time when folk singing was more popular, but there were a generous number of imaginative twists in Harris’ arrangements. As a result, the fourth symphony left the listener with a deeper impression than was registered by the third. To the best of my recollections, Hendel’s reading of this symphony took the orchestral genre and endowed it with just the right balance of grit and moxie, neither of which established much of a presence in Alsop’s reading. This should not surprise anyone with a sense of history. After completing a Master’s degree in violin at Juilliard in 1978, Alsop entered a world that had definitely moved beyond Thomson’s mindset.

The first album, on the other hand, came across as rather remote from the enthusiastic Americana of the fourth symphony. Theodore Kuchar conducted the Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra in performances of the seventh and ninth symphonies, separated by a meditative interlude entitled “Epilogue to Profiles in Courage - J.F.K.” The three movements of the ninth symphony are named after phrases excerpted from the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. The seventh, on the other hand, is another one-movement symphony. Kuchar was born in New York City, less than seven years younger than Alsop. He is of Ukrainian descent, which explains his having become Principal Guest Conductor of that Ukrainian ensemble. Like Alsop, however, his mindset is too detached from the spirit behind Harris’ music.

In January of 2010 Alsop made her second Harris recording for Naxos, this time with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The major offering on this album was the sixth symphony, entitled “Gettysburg.” It began with a bucolic portrait of this Pennsylvania borough before launching into an intense account of one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The symphony then advances to the famous address delivered by Abraham Lincoln, concluding with a movement entitled “Affirmation,” presumably acknowledging “lessons learned” from the Civil War and Lincoln’s address. Thematically, the symphony emerged from a short piece entitled “Acceleration,” which concludes the album. However, it is preceded by Harris’ fifth symphony, which was composed during World War II.

As of this writing, Naxos has not yet accounted for any more of Harris’ symphonies. One could be forgiven for assuming that none of the recordings made much of a splash. Given that Alsop never seemed to warm up to Harris’ spirit, however out of fashion that spirit may be, one can appreciate why Naxos has not been more proactive in advancing their project. Meanwhile, in September of 2010 Naxos released an American Classics release of Geoffrey Burleson playing Harris’ complete piano music. Much of the content was inspired by Harris’ wife Johana. Burleson brings just the right touch to music that is highly affectionate without taking itself too seriously. Those curious about this composer’s music may find more satisfaction in the brevity of his piano compositions than in any of the more “inflated” orchestral offerings.

PBO to Present Latest Partnership with Juilliard

“Poster” for next month’s PBO-Juilliard concert, showing the vocal soloists, the Juilliard ensemble, and a bit of the Juilliard School building (design by Dennis Bolt, courtesy of PBO)

Those that have been following the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) for some time are probably aware that one of the more interesting achievements of former Music Director Nicholas McGegan involved establishing a partnership with the Historical Performance division of the Juilliard School in New York. From the audience point of view, this partnership was most evident in arranging concerts of side-by-side performances bringing PBO musicians together with instrumentalists and vocal soloists in Juilliard’s J415 ensemble. That partnership is continuing under the “new administration” of PBO Music Director Richard Egarr; and, at the end of this month, he will lead one of those side-by-side performance in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The program will consist entirely of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 B minor setting of the Mass text.

It goes without saying that, for a performance like this, New Yorkers can’t have all the fun. So, at the beginning of next month, this “show” will “go on the road” with three performances in the San Francisco Bay Area. As will probably be expected, the performance within the San Francisco city limits will take place at Herbst Theatre. The vocal soloists will be soprano Mary Bevan, countertenor Iestyn Davies, tenor James Gilchrist, and baritone Roderick Williams. Those holding subscriptions should be informed that this will be a “special event,” meaning that it was not included as part of the 2021/22 subscription season.

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 8 p.m. on Friday, February 4. 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. Tickets are available for $65 and $85. 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.

Readers probably know by now that precautions due to pandemic conditions are changing. As a result, PBO has updated the statement regarding attendance that can be found on the event page as follows:

Beginning February 1, 2022 and until further notice, PBO is requiring proof of FDA or WHO authorized vaccination AND proof of a COVID-19 booster shot administered at least two weeks prior to attendance at any PBO event. Patrons must present a vaccination card, a clear photo of the card, or a Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record at their time of entry. This applies to all patrons ages 12 and up at all of our venues across the Bay Area, as well as PBO staff and musicians.

Audience members under the age of 12 must show either proof of vaccination (a two-dose vaccine or J&J vaccine, completed at least two weeks before the concert) or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 48 hours of the event. Unfortunately, guests under the age of 5 are not permitted at PBO events right now.

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.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A Second January Concert at The Lab

At the end of this month, The Lab will present a second concert. This will involve three musicians, all of whom work out on the “bleeding edge.” Whether the evening will consist of three solo sets or of performances in different combinations remains to be seen. However, the contributing performers will be as follows:

  • Marshall Trammell is based in Oakland and calls himself a Music Research Strategist. His research takes him into both percussion work and composition. However, he also designs sound installations and seems to be interested in compiling an archive of music-making that ventures significantly off most of the usual beaten paths.
  • Tashi Dorji is a guitarist that was born in Bhutan. However, education migrated him from Asia to North America, and he attended college in Asheville, North Carolina. It would be fair to say that his approach to making music is highly politicized, and his politics are unabashedly anti-capitalist and anti-hierarchical. As might be guessed, his first album was self-produced.
  • Aaron Turner is based in Vashon, Washington. He was a founding member of two metal bands, SUMAC and Isis. At the present time he is still working with SUMAC, but an album of solo guitar performances will be released later this year. He has also collaborated in the past with both Trammell and Dorji.

This concert (however it turns out to be organized) will take place on Friday, January 28. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. with doors opening half an hour in advance. The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street. The venue is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station. Prior to the pandemic it was usually the case that a long line would accumulate before the doors open. The event page provides both background material and hyperlinks for ticket purchases. General admission will be $15, and members of The Lab will be admitted for free.

Masks, proof of both vaccination and a booster shot (or negative COVID-19 results from a test taken within 48 hours) will be required for entry. For those feeling sick or preferring not to be part of the audience, the program will also be given a live broadcast. Information necessary for live-stream viewing will be provided closer to the date of the performance through the home page for The Lab.

SFSymphony+ Should Let Ligeti be Ligeti

This morning the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) released its first video of the year for on-demand streaming through the SFSymphony+ Web site. The title of the program was LIGETI: PARADIGMS and the performance, conducted by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, required both SFS and the SFS Chorus. The program consisted of three compositions by György Ligeti: “Lux Aeterna,” “Ramifications,” and “Clocks and Clouds.” The first two of these were actually more artifact that performance.

The sounds of the performance of “Lux Aeterna” were processed in such a way as to create a binaural mix, whose sounds had spatial qualities best appreciated by listening with standard stereo headphones. This performance was prefaced with a rather generous exposition of background material. Media artist Refik Anadol set out to create a “virtual data sculpture,” which he called a “data crystal.” This crystal was “seeded” by 32 separate vocal tracks provided by the individual voices of sixteen members of the Chorus singing Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” score. The collected data were then processed by Carol Reiley, who deployed what she called “artificial intelligence” (AI) software. (I use scare quotes because I doubt that any of the dozen or so “founding fathers” of AI that met at the 1956 Dartmouth Workshop, from which the term “artificial intelligence” first emerged, would have recognized Reiley’s efforts as having much to do with intelligence.)

However, quibbling over terminology is the least of the problems that arose from what amounted to a real-time artifact, which happened to have “Lux Aeterna” as part of the mix. More serious was the sensory overload that was more likely to distract from the music than to enhance it. Those that read the background information, which appeared on this site at the beginning of this month, know that the intentions of both Anadol and Reiley had been to enhance listener awareness of the thick textures in Ligeti’s score. For this listener, however, Salonen’s conducting was more than sufficient in itself. Close observation of both Salonen and the individual vocalists was all one needed to appreciate (and hopefully enjoy) Ligeti’s imaginative and stimulating techniques.

Technology was more useful in contributing to the performance of “Ramifications.” The music is composed for twelve individual string parts divided into two sextets. The reference frequency for one of those sextets was 453 Hz, a quarter tone higher than the 440 Hz standard taken by the other. As might be imagined, it is no easy matter for two different tuning references to be on the same stage at the same time, particularly when the number of instruments involved is the same for both of them. As a result, the “detuning” of the quarter-tone separation was actually realized through digital processing, allowing all of the performers to play their parts under a common tuning pitch. This performance was then enhanced with a “background” of images taken from the Hubble Space Telescope; and, once again, the visual element tended to distract from Ligeti’s music, rather than providing new ways of listening to it.

Natural or synthesized? Only the programmer knows for sure. (screen shot from the video being discussed)

The presentation of the final composition, “Clocks and Clouds,” only extended the disadvantages of distraction. Ligeti was interested in opposing predictable and mechanical (clock-like) music with thematic lines that were unpredictable (cloud-like). This was the one case in which Anadol paid more attention to the music than to his technology. He provided visuals that interleaved cloud images with synthesized ones (once again described as products of AI). These were definitely the least intrusive extensions to the musical performances. Nevertheless, they, too, distracted from the many subtleties in Ligeti’s score that make listening to his music such a rich experience.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Revised SFS Chamber Music Still Delightful

Just as, this past Thursday, COVID-19 led to the replacement of the announced program by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) with a one-hour piano recital, there were major alterations in this afternoon’s Chamber Music Series concert. Once again a two-hour program was replaced by a one-hour offering without an intermission. The compositions by Jennifer Higdon and Frank Bridge were replaced by a far more modest offering, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 423 duo in G major. The remainder of the program was devoted entirely to the originally programmed D. 667 “Trout” quintet in A major by Franz Schubert.

While this program may have been foreshortened, it could not have been more engaging. K. 423 was performed by violinist Jessie Fellows and violist Katie Kadarauch, and there was an unmistakable freshness to their interpretation of the score. It is important to remember that, when Mozart played string quartets with his friends Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Joseph Haydn, and Johann Baptist Wanhal, he played the viola part. He clearly believed that the viola should not be treated as an “accompanying” instrument, and K. 423 is very much a conversation between equals. Indeed, this music is rich with the wit of the exchanges between the two instruments; and both Fellows and Kadarauch knew full well how to let the attentive listener in on the jokes. The performance may have lasted for only about a quarter of an hour, but the brevity of it all was unmistakably the soul of wit.

There was also no shortage of wit in the playfulness of Schubert’s quintet. Pianist Yana Resnick was the “visiting artist,” performing with violinist David Chernyavsky, violist Yun Jie Liu, cellist Sébastien Gingras, and bassist Charles Chandler. (Here I must confess that all four of them are “personal favorites” that draw my attention during SFS performances.) What is particularly interesting is that, because each instrument has its own unique sonorities, Schubert engages in a wide variety of approaches to blending them. Some of those approaches are humorous, particularly when the bass is involved. Indeed, when the bass takes on the melody for its own variation of the “Trout theme” (from the D. 550 song), I have a lot of trouble not thinking of Elmer Fudd singing about catching a fish!

D. 667 is such a popular piece of chamber music that it almost demands that each performance provide its own individual take on the rhetorical stances that can be taken during execution. This afternoon’s ensemble had no difficulty finding delightfully unique stances for their interpretation of the quintet. Today’s approach to chamber music may have been more limited in duration than originally planned, but it could not have been more enjoyable.

A Tribute to Cecil Taylor on TUM

Those that follow this site regularly probably know that the Helsinki-based TUM Records has been serving as the “house label” for the inventive jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. However, the latest album, which is scheduled for release this coming Friday, is entitled 2 Blues for Cecil. The album features Andrew Cyrille, who was drummer for the Cecil Taylor Unit between 1964 and 1975. He is joined by  bassist William Parker, who played in the Unit between 1980 and 1991. The third player on the album is Enrico Rava on flugelhorn, who was part of two of Taylor’s larger ensembles, the Orchestra Of Two Continents and the Cecil Taylor European Orchestra. As usual, Amazon.com has created a Web page for pre-ordering this new album.

As might be suspected, two of the tracks are given the title “Blues for Cecil,” assigned the numbers one and two. All three of the players contributed to creating both of these tracks. I use the progressive “creating,” rather than “composing,” because these are two of four extended collective improvisations on the album. The other two are more explicitly titled “Improvisation No. 1” and “Improvisation No. 2;” and the “Blues for Cecil” tracks alternate with them.

Of the remaining tracks, two are composed by Cyrille, “Top, Bottom and What’s in the Middle” and “Enrava Melody.” The latter was clearly created with solo passages for Rava in mind, but it also involves thoughtful exchanges, first with Parker and subsequently with Cyrille himself. Two of Rava’s own compositions, “Ballerina” and “Overboard,” contribute to the album, along with Parker’s “Machu Picchu.” The album wraps up with a meditative (and slightly hesitant) account of Richard Rodgers’ “My Funny Valentine,” with Rava carrying the theme. There is a bit of irony here, since that particular show tune (taken from Babes in Arms) is associated more with Miles Davis than with Taylor.

Andrew Cyrille, Enrico Rava, and William Parker performing at Sons d’hiver in December of 2020 (photograph by Luciano Rossetti)

The album itself was recorded at Studio Ferber in Paris at the beginning of February of last year. It followed up on a New Year’s Eve concert that the trio had given at the Sons d’hiver (sounds of winter) festival in Paris during the previous December. The festival concert had been entitled Tribute to Cecil Taylor.

I was fortunate enough to listen to Taylor perform with a combo during my student days. Then, after my wife and I settled in Palo Alto, we went up to listen to him do a solo piano recital in Herbst Theatre, which began with an uninterrupted half hour of keyboard inventions. That first encounter was one of those sessions calculated to melt the wax in your ears, while the Herbst solo was far more meditative and introspective. Introspection is clearly the prevailing rhetoric on 2 Blues for Cecil, recalling the quietude that pervaded much of Taylor’s solo work towards the end of his life.

Personally, I tend to be drawn more to that solo work than to the ensembles of different sizes that Taylor would lead. That said, there is an intimacy in the trio work on 2 Blues for Cecil that recalls Taylor as a solo artist. All three of the performers on the new album clearly drew upon their personal understanding of Taylor at work; and I suspect that, in the future, I shall turn to this trio performance as much as I reflect back on Taylor’s solo piano tracks.

Johanna Hedva to Perform Solo at The Lab

Johanna Hedva (photograph by Oscar Rohleder, courtesy of The Lab)

The next concert offering to be hosted by The Lab will be a solo vocal performance by Johanna Hedva. She will present a new work (whose title has not yet been announced) based on the drone sonorities of an electric guitar. Her vocal work involves lyrics that quote Clarice Lispector, but her delivery goes beyond simply accounting for a text. Her technique involves pushing her voice into the muscles of the throat until it breaks. That style emerges in the context of that drone background of her guitar, which drags and pulls as it continues. The result is not a “song cycle.” as such, but, in Hedva’s words, “a ritual to bring communal exhaustion and rage into corporal [sic, probably intending “corporeal”] space.” This will be Hedva’s first live performance since January of 2020.

This performance will take place on Saturday, January 22. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. with doors opening half an hour in advance. The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street. The venue is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station. Prior to the pandemic it was usually the case that a long line would accumulate before the doors open. The event page provides both background material and hyperlinks for ticket purchases. General admission will be $15, and members of The Lab will be admitted for free.

Masks, proof of both vaccination and a booster shot (or negative COVID-19 results from a test taken within 48 hours) will be required for entry. For those feeling sick or preferring not to be part of the audience, the program will also be given a live broadcast. Information necessary for live-stream viewing will be provided closer to the date of the performance.

Disappointing Vocal Polyphony from Atlanta

One of my feeds led me to check out the “a cappella+” vocal ensemble Kinnara. The group consists of four vocalists (soprano Chelsea Helm, alto Wanda Yang Temko, tenor Cory Klose, and bass Steven Berlanga) accompanied only by a percussionist, Caleb Herron. The vocalists are all graduates of the Westminster Choir College, and they formed their group in Princeton, New Jersey. They are now based in Atlanta, led by Artistic Director J.D. Burnett, who is Associate Director of Choral Archives at the University of Georgia.

Last night the ensemble performed and live-streamed a concert entitled Passion at the Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta. The title reflected the first of the two works on the program, David Lang’s “the little match girl passion.” This was followed by the world premiere performance of Heather Gilligan’s cycle Southern Dissonance: Portraits of a New South.

For the performers this was probably a “first encounter” with video streaming. As a result, there were “speed bumps” with different levels of seriousness. Probably the most damaging was the inability of microphones to pick up the sinister bass drum rumbling that opens Lang’s treatment of a dark tale by Hans Christian Andersen. However, any problems with the percussion were secondary to the problematic nature of the vocal work.

The good news was that those on the streaming end had the opportunity to download the program book, which included the full texts for both compositions. Because Lang composed in a world consisting entirely phonemes, the emergence of words from those phonemes was only possible with the assistance of the libretto. One could appreciate Lang’s attempt to “update” Johann Sebastian Bach’s passion genre, interleaving narrative and reflection on the events of the narrative; but both of those components demand a solid appreciation of the semantic infrastructure. In Lang’s composition, semantics are obscured by that focus on phonemes and the awkward contortions of the individual vocal lines.

Sadly, Gilligan’s approach creating Southern Dissonance seems to have been inspired by Lang’s techniques, but her libretto did not deserve such obscurantist techniques. In place of Holy Writ, there were poems by Langston Hughes, while the underlying narrative unfolded through texts by Stacy Abrams, Jimmy Carter, Alice Walker, Martin Luther King, and John Lewis. These were all vivid texts, none of which deserved to be muddied by phoneme-based rhetoric. For those on the streaming end, insult was added to injury when it turned out that Walker’s text (very much the centerpiece of the libretto) lacked permission for streaming over YouTube.

Burnett needs to come to grips with the fact that it takes more than good intentions to deliver a convincing program of new and recent music for an a cappella quartet.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

NCCO Cancels all January Performances

Yesterday afternoon the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) announced the cancellation of all four of the performances of this month’s Hope Leads Appalachian Spring concert. Here in San Francisco that had been intended as a somewhat special occasion. The usual evening at Herbst Theatre had been changed to an afternoon performance at the Presidio Theatre. In addition, the Stanford Live performance at the Bing Concert Hall had been scheduled for filming the performance; and, as of this writing, any plans for filming have been cancelled.

Last year readers become familiar with these cancellations and how they were handled. For this occasion there are what we may now call “the usual options” for those holding tickets, either through subscriptions or single purchases:

  • Exchange the tickets for another NCCO performance during the current season.
  • Make a tax-deductible donation of the total value of the tickets.
  • Request a full refund.

Those wishing further information may contact Manager of Office and Patron Services Alan Williams. He may be reached by calling 415-357-1111, extension 303, or by sending electronic mail to awilliams@ncco.org.

San Francisco Opera Updates Safety Protocols

San Francisco Opera (SFO) will not resume performances at the War Memorial Opera House until the beginning of June. Nevertheless, like the previously reported performing arts organizations utilizing both Davies Symphony Hall and the Veterans Building, SFO has announced the updated safety protocols for attending its live performances. As is the case for the other War Memorial venues, full vaccination will be required for entering the Opera House as of February 1.

For those that may have missed the earlier announcements, “full vaccination” is defined as completion of the two-dose regimen of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine plus a subsequent booster shot administered at least seven days in advance of the performance. These requirements apply to all patrons aged twelve and older. (Note that this summer’s performances are most appropriate for those in that age bracket.) Proof can be provided by a photo ID along with either a physical vaccination card, a photo of that vaccination card, or the QR code generated by the Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record website.  All patrons aged 5 and up must show proof of full vaccination, defined as two weeks after the final shot. The Box Office will get in touch with any ticket-holders planning to attend with children under the age of five.

As in the past, patrons will be required to wear a face mask at all times while attending the performance. All protocols are in accordance with policies enacted by the San Francisco Department of Public Health. SFO has updated its Safety First Web page, which provides a detailed account of all health and safety protocols.

Friday, January 14, 2022

SFP to Present “Physical” Sanctuary Series

Bass-baritone Dashon Burton (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

In June of 2020, when we were all doing our best to adjust to shelter-in-place conditions in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched a series of four streamed performances under the overall title Sanctuary Series. In a little less than a month’s time, that series will “migrate” from the “virtual” to the “physical” with a series of three weekend concerts taking place over the course of the month of February. In the spirit of the series title, these will be presented at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church at 7:30 p.m., two on Saturday and one on Friday.

The series will be launched by bass-baritone Dashon Burton, who will be accompanied by pianist Robert Mollicone. Burton is currently SFP Vocal Artist-in-Residence. All the composers on the program will be American, either by birth or through immigration. With one exception, all of the songs will be sung in English. The contributing composers will be (in order of appearance) John Jacob Niles, Kurt Weill, Paul Bowles, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Margaret Bonds, William Grant Still, and Marques L. A. Garrett. The program will then conclude with a selection of traditional spirituals arranged by Moses Hogan.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 5. St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. The eastbound Geary Bus (number 38) stops within a block of the church after it leaves Geary Boulevard to proceed along O’Farrell. There are also nearby stops for buses on Van Ness Avenue.

Ticket prices are $60 for the main floor and $45 for the balcony. All seating will be general admission. All tickets 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 for all three concerts are still on sale for $165 and $120. 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).

Benny Goodman Orchestra on SWR JAZZHAUS

courtesy of Naxos of America

Those that have been following this site for some time are probably aware of my interest (facilitated by Naxos of America) in the SWR JAZZHAUS albums of recordings of jazz performances taken from radio broadcasts in Germany. (SWR is the South-Western Broadcasting network in that country, previously known as SWF for Südwestfunk.) Indeed, since the onset of the COVID pandemic, my spirits have been lifted by two releases in the Jazz Heroes series, the “heroes” being Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford.

This past November I learned that SWR JAZZHAUS also had a Big Bands Live series, which had released an SWF Jazz-Session program from October 15, 1959 performed by the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Probably because of distribution problems, the CD version only appears to be available from overseas sources, such as Presto Music; but, as of this past January 7, the album has been available for download from an Amazon.com Web page. Furthermore, the full-album download includes the PDF of the accompanying booklet (eight pages, two of which are in German).

The program consists of two sets, each of which would fit comfortably on a single CD. The first consists of nine tracks, the first of which is a very brief, but obligatory, account of Goodman’s “theme song,” “Let’s Dance,” composed by Gregory Stone and Joseph Bonime. (For those unfamiliar with this tune, it is a jazzed-up version of one of the waltz themes in Carla Maria von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance.” Given that Hector Berlioz had orchestrated Weber’s original piano version, a jazz account of that source strikes me as fair game!) The remaining seven tracks would fill a second CD. The last of them is a medley of seven tunes from the Goodman Band repertoire, including favorites, such as Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” (With a Swing).”

This session also featured Anita O’Day as guest vocalist. Indeed, one might even say that Goodman’s own clarinet work tended to take second place to O’Day’s vocal interpretations. As a result, Goodman comes across as graciously modest in his performances as a soloist, paying more attention to leading an ensemble to support O’Day.

Mind you, that ensemble had some familiar members that, these days, tend to be better known for their combo work. The most notable of those would be Red Norvo on vibraphone and Flip Philips on tenor saxophone. Indeed, Goodman’s “orchestra” is actually more of a “large combo” of ten instrumentalists (including Goodman himself). In the context of my own preference for the combos on the Jazz Heroes album, I found this account of Goodman more engaging than what I expect from “big band” performances.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

SFS Concert Replaced by Solo Piano Recital

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, the Inside Music Talk by Laura Stanfield Prichard was followed by an announcement that the scheduled San Francisco Symphony (SFS) concert would be cancelled due to members of the ensemble testing positive for COVID-19. By way of compensation, the concerto soloist, pianist Jan Lisiecki, volunteered to give a short (roughly one hour) piano recital. That performance would have been familiar to those that attended Lisiecki’s program for the San Francisco Performances (SFP) 2021–2022 Piano Series, which took place this past October.

The October program was structured around Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 10 collection of twelve études, which were interleaved with a selection of Chopin nocturnes. This afternoon’s program was structured around the first six of the études and probably reproduced the first half of Lisiecki’s SFP recital. Once again, there was a strong sense of brutality in his interpretations. Nevertheless, for a “second encounter” there was more opportunity to speculate on how Lisiecki had selected the interleaving nocturnes. He concluded his performance with an encore selection of the posthumously published nocturne in C-sharp minor.

Style aside, this was a generous act of compensation for the need to cancel the orchestra performance. For the most part the audience seemed to welcome Lisiecki’s efforts. As of this writing, information about any further performances at Davies is forthcoming.

DSO Launches New Year with Live Stream

Following the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) was one of the first ensembles to provide streamed concerts at a time when all performance venues had been closed. Its Live from Orchestra Hall video archive provided a wealth of online concert experiences. That resource also provided the opportunity to observe Jader Bignamini, due to become Music Director by launching the 2020–2021 season, through an archived video of his DSO concert on October 18, 2019.

This past October Bignamini finally launched his first full season in Detroit, and the performance in Orchestra Hall was also live-streamed. Last night, in the context of the latest phase of COVID outbreaks, Bignamini and the DSO decided to launch the new year with another live-streamed performance. The soloist for this overture-concerto-symphony program was cellist Joshua Roman performing Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 104 concerto in B minor. This concerto was flanked on either side by familiar repertoire. The overture was the one that Gioachino Rossini composed for his William Tell opera, and the “symphony” selection was Maurice Ravel’s orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s extended suite, Pictures at an Exhibition.

Roman is familiar to San Francisco concert-goers. He made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS)  in February of 2010 with Herbert Blomstedt conducting Joseph Haydn's 1765 cello concerto in C major, Hoboken VIIb/1. San Francisco Performances then presented his recital debut through its Young Masters Series in January of 2012. This past July Roman returned to Davies for the first round of post-lockdown concerts performed before an audience in Davies Symphony Hall. With Colombian conductor Lina González-Grandos making her debut on the SFS podium, Roman performed Robert Schumann’s Opus 129 cello concerto in A minor.

Joshua Roman performing with DSO (screen shot from the performance being discussed)

The Dvořák concerto has played a major role in Roman’s repertoire. He performed it with SFS in October of 2017 under the baton of visiting conductor Krzysztof Urbański. However, this seems to be a case in which familiarity breeds intimacy, rather than contempt. Thus, there was as much freshness to his engagement with DSO last night as there had been when he played with SFS. Furthermore, through the camera work of the video crew, one could appreciate how Bignamini established connection with (seemingly) every member of the ensemble.

Indeed, the breadth of Bignamini’s connection to his ensemble was evident throughout the entire program and frequently clarified by video accounts of both his “signals” and their “recipients.” As a result there was a refreshing immediacy in his account of Rossini’s all-too-familiar overture. The camera work allowed one to appreciate the richness of the cello choir that begins the overture, an ingenious approach to instrumentation that is frequently overlooked. Similarly, there was an intimacy in the exchange in which the flute echoes the phrases introduced by the English horn. The finale, of course, was the usual wild ride; but Bignamini never let that outpouring of energy run off the rails.

Similarly, the video work for Pictures provided an opportunity to appreciate just how inventive Ravel’s approach to orchestration had been. Indeed, the breadth of instrumental resources allowed the viewer to become acquainted with more of the DSO musicians than would have been encountered from the distance of the seats in the concert hall. (There was also an “intermission feature” about how different sections of the ensemble were elevated to different heights to improve audience view.) Thus, as had been the case with the Rossini overture, video avoided any sense of tired familiarity by providing intimate glances of the individuals responsible for the rich outpouring of sonorities.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Isserlis to Launch SFP Great Artists Series

Cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Connie Shih (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

At the end of this month, cellist Steven Isserlis will return to San Francisco Performances (SFP) to launch this season’s Great Artists and Ensembles Series. According to my records, his last SFP recital took place in April of 2017, when he and his piano accompanist Connie Shih presented the final program in the Virtuosi Series. Since that time Isserlis has been making regular visits to San Francisco, performing with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in February of 2018, Chamber Music of San Francisco in March of 2019, and the San Francisco Symphony Great Performers Series in May of the same year, giving an “all-star” piano trio recital with violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Jeremy Denk.

For his return to SFP, pianist Shih will again accompany Isserlis. They have prepared a program of three Russian sonatas. The opening selection will be Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Opus 71 sonata in B-flat major, followed by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 40 sonata in D minor. The second half of the program will be devoted to the longest of the three sonatas, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 19 in G minor.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 29. 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 $250, $200, and $160. 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).

Daniil Trifonov’s “Bach Family” Album on DG

At the beginning of this past October, Deutsche Grammophon released its latest album of solo performances by pianist Daniil Trifonov. By my reckoning, this is his third “themed” two-CD release, following up on Silver Age, which was released in October of 2020, and the first of his projects, Chopin Evocations, which was released in August of 2017. The title of the new album is Bach: The Art of Life.

Those familiar with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach will have no trouble associating that title with Bach’s final composition, The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, which was left unfinished at the time of his death on July 28, 1750. The contents of this work consists of fourteen fugues (the last being the one left unfinished) and four canons all based on the same D minor subject theme. The best one-sentence description of this final achievement can probably best be found in Christoph Wolff’s book, Johann Sebastian Bach, the Learned Musician as follows:

The governing idea of the work was an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.

In other words, while Bach’s career was devoted almost entirely to composition and performance, BWV 1080 suggests that, at the end of his life, he had shifted his attention to a more intellectual pursuit.

Indeed, the manuscript pages give no indication of how his monumental collection of marks on paper should be performed. For the most part, each voice in a fugue or canon was assigned its own staff in both Bach’s manuscript and the first published edition, prepared by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel. On the other hand, on the final page of that unfinished fugue in Bach’s own hand, he was notating a fugue in three voices on only two staves:

The page that Bach was writing when he died. The text following the music is by Emanuel, stating, in translation into English, “on this fugue, where the name B A C H is introduced in the countersubject, the composer died” (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

When I first decided to explore this music, I used the performing edition for piano that was prepared for Edition Peters by Carl Czerny. In all likelihood Trifonov used the same source for his recording sessions. The only exception would have been the final unfinished fugue, for which he composed his own completion. Those visiting the Wikipedia page for BWV 1080 will see that it has been kept up to date, including Trifonov’s version among past efforts by keyboardists and conductors. This amounts to a rather generous share of attention being given to a manuscript that was not intended for performance!

In the context of all that attention, I am happy to say that I find Trifonov’s approach to the music about as satisfying as one can expect. Mind you, there is something dramatic in breaking off the performance of that fourteenth fugue with the final vestiges of Bach’s own notation. However, the listening experience tends to run the gamut from annoyingly disconcerting to just plain silly. Trifonov’s “performing version” makes for a more engaging listening experience, even if much of it is speculative.

On his album the performance of BWV 1080 is preceded by what the “advance material” describes as “a family portrait.” This is devoted primarily to relatively brief accounts of music composed by four of Sebastian’s sons. Emanuel is represented by the fourth of the six short pieces cataloged as Wq 59, a rondo in C minor. Wilhelm Friedmann’s offering is the eighth (in the key of E minor) of the twelve polonaises catalogued as F. 12. The album begins with a two-movement sonata in A major by Johann Christian Bach, the fifth in his Opus 17 publication of six keyboard sonatas. However, most listeners will probably be drawn to the selection by Johann Christoph Friedrich, a set of variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman,” which makes a lovely complement to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s set of variations on the same theme.

Trifonov also includes twelve selections for the 1725 Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. These include transcriptions of another one of Emanuel’s polonaises (in G minor), Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel’s song “Bist du bei mir” (if thou be near), and a G major minuet by Christian Petzold. The other nine selections are taken from Sebastian’s own music.

The album also includes two “latter day” accounts of “Bach the father.” The first of the two CDs in the collection concludes with Johannes Brahms’ piano arrangement of the concluding Chaconne movement from the BWV 1004 solo violin partita in D minor. This is a particularly impressive undertaking, because Brahms explicitly composed it to be performed by the left hand alone. The second CD concludes with Myra Hess’ arrangement of the chorale movement from the BWV 147 cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (heart and mouth and deed and life), best known under the title “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Taken as a whole, the album serves up a more than generous account of Sebastian’s music set in the context of four of his sons and two arrangements from the future, all given well-informed and satisfying accounts through Trifonov’s execution technique.