Monday, January 31, 2022

Old First Concerts: March, 2022

As of this writing, Old First Concerts (O1C) has planned twice as many performances for the month of March than have been scheduled for February. There will be two Sunday afternoon concerts, as well as one program presented on a Saturday evening and another on a Friday evening. All events 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:

Saturday, March 12, 7 p.m.: March offerings will begin with the Third Annual Pacific Pythagorean Music Festival. The second of these festivals took place in April of 2021, hosted by O1C and organized by the Del Sol Quartet of Sam Weiser (violin), Benjamin Kreith (violin), Charlton Lee (viola), and Kathryn Bates (cello). For those unfamiliar with the terminology, Pythagorean tuning is a system in which all intervals are represented by rational numbers with both numerator and denominator being multiples of the integers two and three, although “Pythagorean Music” often generalizes to both numerator and denominator simply being any integers. This year’s festival will focus on Persian scales; and the program will begin with Reza Vali’s fifth string quartet, given the title “Gavesht.” Del Sol will also premiere Madeline Ashman’s “Gravitation.” The remainder of the program will involve performances by Ken Ueno, Viola Yip, Hafez Modirzadeh, and Keshav Batish.

Sunday, March 13, 4 p.m.: Pianist Hadley McCarroll will present an “equal-tempered” piano recital. She will present the West Coast premiere of “How Come That Blood – seven variations and a canonic rhapsody on a local band,” composed by Brian P. Herrington to establish a “middle ground” between a Texas approach to the Gothic and a European approach to atonality. McCarroll will also play Reena Esmail’s “Rang De Basant,” which has been performed here in San Francisco by both Nicholas Phillips and Sarah Cahill. The first half of the program will be devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 90 sonata in E minor, followed by selections from the short pieces that Leoš Janáček collected under the title On an Overgrown Path.

[updated 3/17, 1:45 p.m.: The following event has been cancelled:

Friday, March 18, 8 p.m.: The Friction Quartet will return to O1C, performing with mezzo Melinda Martinez Becker as guest artist. The featured quartet will be Fanny Mendelssohn’s quartet in E-flat major. Becker will present selected songs by Clara Schumann with accompaniment arranged for string quartet.]

Sunday, March 27, 4 p.m.: This will be the annual Junior Bach Festival, showcasing performers under the age of 21 that have met both the technical and expressive challenges involved in performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

A New Live Trio Album from Ben Goldberg

Having filled the better part of this month with his werewolf project, this past Friday jazz clarinetist Ben Goldberg released a live trio album. Playing clarinets of different sizes (with particularly interesting ventures into the bass register), Goldberg performs with Nels Cline on electric guitar, and Tom Rainey on drums. The title of the album is THE ART SPIRIT and Bandcamp has created a Web page for both streaming and downloading. The three tracks of the album were recorded at a concert that took place on May 26, 2016 at The Owl Music Parlor in Brooklyn.

The entire album is a little more than 45 minutes in duration. In the spirit of my one encounter with a solo piano performance given by Cecil Taylor, that duration is divided into a long track that accounts for about half of the album, followed by a pair of shorter tracks to fill out the remainder. If the title of the album suggests the etherial, the titles of the individual tracks are very much down-to-earth:

  1. tree from the root
  2. branch from the trunk
  3. blossom from the twig

It may take me a while to identify any association between these titles and the spontaneity of the improvisations that one encounters on each of the tracks. For that matter, I am not sure that there was any motivation behind the album cover beyond the possibility that the three-dot motif suggests a multiplicity of trio jams:

More important is the diversity of dispositions that emerge from the immediacy of the players inventions. A trio tends to be just the right size for free improvisation, allowing each player to attend continually to the other players for prompts to venture into new directions. Furthermore, since the instrument sonorities are so distinctive, one does not need a “visual channel” to keep track of who is doing what. Most interesting is the breadth of diversity one encounters in that first extended movement, suggesting that the tree benefits from a generous number of roots exploring a rich variety of directions.

Sasha Cooke’s Davies Recital: Prima le parole

Mezzo Sasha Cooke (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

Last night mezzo Sasha Cooke returned to Davies Symphony Hall as recitalist in the latest installment of the Great Performers Series produced by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). She was accompanied at the piano by Kirill Kuzmin, currently Principal Coach for the Houston Grand Opera, making his debut under SFS auspices. The title of the program was how do I find you, a cycle of seventeen songs, each with music by a different composer and all receiving world premiere performances.

The only composer with whom Cooke had previously worked by Nico Muhly, since she had performed the title role in his Marnie opera. All of the composers were in their forties or younger. The idea of a cycle of songs by multiple composers emerged during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020. All but one of the resulting songs involved a partnership between composer and librettist. The one exception was Muhly, whose source was the seventeenth-century English poet Thomas Traherne. Nevertheless, Traherne’s reference to “Those hidden Plagues which/Souls may justly fear” was as relevant to living through pandemic circumstances as were the the texts by the sixteen contemporary authors.

Indeed, relevance was a key feature (if not the key feature) of all the texts that were set to music. It would not be exaggeration to say that every member of the audience could find reflections of the words Cooke sang with the recent past and current situations. All of the texts were printed in the program book and were also projected as supertitles. I should confess that, personally, I spent more time looking at the pages of the program book than I did looking up at the stage or the titles.

I like to think of a poem as an architecture to be “viewed” both in-the-large and in-the-small. My awareness of the overall structure of the text then guides me through my auditory awareness of how the music unfolds. However, I must confess that, last night, I was so drawn into the interplay of semantics and rhetoric in each poem that my attention to the music itself was significantly diminished. For what it is worth, I do not think I was the only one to experience the performance this way. Four of the contributing composers participated in a post-performance panel discussion; but almost all of that discussion tended to focus on the words themselves, rather than the contributions of the music.

Fortunately, the music will not be totally lost on me. Prior to preparing last night’s recital, Cooke and Kuzmin recorded all of the songs on an album with the same title as the program. That album became available on this past Friday. Currently, availability is limited to an MP3 album; but the download includes the booklet with the texts of the poems, affording an auditory experience comparable to that enjoyed by everyone in last night’s audience.

I plan to listen to this new release in the near future; and I am hoping that, having become familiar with the texts behind the seventeen songs in last night’s program, I can begin to cultivate a similar acquaintance with the music.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Catalyst “Uncovers” its Second Composer

courtesy of Crossover Media

At the beginning of next month, Azica Records will release the second volume in the UNCOVERED series of albums recorded by the Catalyst Quartet. That release will take place about a year after the appearance of the first volume, which was devoted entirely to the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The second volume will also focus on a single composer, Florence Price.

The duration of the new release is about twice that of the first and will present all of Price’s currently known chamber music compositions. Those works include a piano quintet in A minor, a string quartet, also in A minor, two sets of contrapuntal realizations of folk songs, and two (probably) unfinished works: a string quartet in G major and a piano quintet. Once again, this album will only be available for MP3 download; and the Web page created for pre-orders does not include any accompanying booklet of program notes.

Those in the Bay Area probably know by now that there is also an Uncovered concert series taking place this season presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). The Catalyst performers are violinists Karla Donehew and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez. Second violin on the Coleridge-Taylor album was Jessie Montgomery, but the new album has Fayette occupying that chair. That album also includes pianist Michelle Cann.

Next month’s recital, the third installment in the recital series, will include Price’s A minor quartet. That quartet is one of the two selections on the new album that is not being given a world premiere recording. The other is the set of five Folksongs in Counterpoint, which has enjoyed several opportunities for streamed listening during pandemic times. It was also included in the second recital in the SFP Uncovered series.

For Bay Area listeners, those contrapuntal settings probably constituted “first contact” with Price’s chamber music. However, those listeners have also had a generous share of opportunities to experience some of the composer’s other genres. She is one of several Black composers whose music has been championed by pianist Lara Downes, and John Jeter has recorded two albums of her symphonies for Naxos American Classics. Furthermore, the first of those symphonies was performed here in San Francisco by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony in March of 2019.

However, the chamber music reveals itself as a distinctive genre unto itself. This is most evident in Price’s richly imaginative approaches to counterpoint. On the other hand the chamber music offerings share with the symphonies a preference for replacing the European scherzo with a “Juba” movement. However, like the scherzo, this is a genre that can fit comfortably into any instrumental setting. Price’s consistent use of it almost seems to reflect the application of a hallmark by a goldsmith or silversmith.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the discovery of all of those Price manuscripts that turned up in 2009 in an abandoned dilapidated house, describing this new album as a complete account of Price’s chamber music may be jumping the gun. Nevertheless, there is more than enough on this new release to satisfy the attentive listener, even if some of those offerings may be little more than fragments. The good news is that Price’s music is enjoying a generous number of musicians advocating its performance. I, for one, am glad that those musicians include Catalyst and the latest album they recorded.

SFRV Will Review Sixteen Years of Repertoire

As was observed this past September, this will be the seventeenth season of San Francisco Renaissance Voices. As a result, the first full concert of this season, entitled A Choral Renaissance, will highlight many of the significant performances that were given during the first sixteen years. That program has been finalized as the following eleven selections:

  1. Adrian Batten: O Sing Joyfully
  2. Cipriano de Rore: Jubilate Deo omnis terra
  3. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Jubilate Deo à 8
  4. William Byrd: Mass in Four Parts
  5. Cristóbal de Morales: Lamentabatur Jacob à 5
  6. Hildegard of Bingen: Alleluia, O virga mediatrix
  7. Hildegard of Bingen: O Pastor Animarum
  8. Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla: Exsultate Iusti in Domino
  9. Philippe de Monte: Super flumina Babylonis
  10. Orlando Gibbons: Hosanna to the Son of David
  11. Orlando Gibbons: O Clap Your Hands

The sanctuary space of Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church (from a Web page on the church’s Web site)

This program will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 26. The venue will be the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church, located in the Castro at 100 Diamond Street on the southwest corner of Eighteenth Street. Ticket prices will be $28. Tickets may be purchased online through an Eventbrite event page.

Russian Telegraph at Bird & Beckett

Last night I returned “virtually” to Bird & Beckett Books and Records, thanks to the fact that the concerts they host on Friday and Saturday evenings are live-streamed. The program announcement caught my attention, because I realized that it had been some time since I had listened to jazz clarinetist Beth Custer in performance. The performing group was called Russian Telegraph and it was a “synthesis” of combos led, respectively, by Custer and guitarist David James, both of whom doubled as vocalists. The front line also included violinist Alisa Rose; and rhythm was provided by Jordan Glasgow on keyboards, Keith McArthur on bass, and John Hanes on drums.

from the Bird & Beckett Web page for the concert being discussed

As the above poster shows, the group’s name has nothing to do with either technology or countries that span two continents. It is a whimsical nod to a geographical vision of San Francisco where the only thing you can see in the Bay is Alcatraz. The distance between the two hills in the cartoon suggests the differences in styles associated with Custer and James. The latter has sharper edges venturing into soul, funk, and African jazz. Custer, on the other hand, cultivates the impression of jazz as classical music by other means (unless it is the other way around). The presence of Rose’s violin reinforces the classical side of the mirror, but she is no stranger to jazz rhetoric. Having followed her for several years, I have enjoyed experiencing the ways in which her approaches to improvisation have gradually become more adventurous.

Bird & Beckett is not the most conducive setting for a six-player combo, particularly when the space also has to accommodate all the technology for live-streaming. Indeed, I was a bit disappointed that Rose did not have her own microphone, but it did not take long for me to appreciate her capacity for making herself heard. Similarly, the rhythm section was barely visible behind the front line; but that was no serious impediment when Hanes launched into an extended drum solo.

As in past videos, microphone placement did little for any spoken introductions. Fortunately, those were kept to a minimum. To this listener all the selections spoke for themselves with no need for introduction. One could simply sit back and take in the diversity of tunes that reflected the different styles and rhetorics that unfolded through the interplay of the six performers. The program was planned as a two-set evening, but I must confess that I was already too saturated by the inventive diversity of the first set to come back for more after the break.

Hopefully Russian Telegraph will sustain long enough for me to experience them in their physical presence, rather than through streaming.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Sanctuary Series to Continue with Solo Violin

Violinist Johnny Gandelsman (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

The second of next month’s three Sanctuary Series concerts presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP) will be a solo violin recital by Johnny Gandelsman. Gandelsman is a founding member of the Brooklyn Rider string quartet and a former member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Perhaps as a nod to Ma, he will begin his recital with a violin transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1009 suite for solo cello in C major.

The remainder of the program will be devoted to new works commissioned through Gandelsman’s This Is America project, conceived to celebrate our country’s rich cultural tapestry and myriad perspectives.

That project will include the world premiere of “O,” composed by Clarice Assad on a joint commission shared by This Is America with SFP. The other composers on the program that have contributed to This Is America are as follows (in “order of appearance”):

  • Conrad Tao: Stones
  • Ebun Oguntola: Reflections
  • Tyshawn Sorey: For Courtney Bryan
  • Angélica Negrón: A través del manto Luminoso
  • Rhiannon Giddens: New to the Season

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 18. The venue will again be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 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.

The “New Complete” Shostakovich Piano Works

Back in July of 2012, when I was writing for, I wrote about a five-CD collection of the complete piano works of Dmitri Shostakovich recorded by Boris Petrushansky, born in Moscow in 1949 and teaching at the Imola Piano Academy in Italy. What I did not know at that time was that DSCH, the Moscow Publishing House of the Association Internationale Dimitri Chostakovich had launched a New Collected Works publication project in 2000. The entire collection will, when completed, consist of 150 volumes; and volumes 109 through 115 are devoted to the piano compositions. As of this writing, only Volume 112 has yet to be released.

This coming Friday Stradivarius will release the first volume in a new project to record all of Shostakovich’s compositions for solo piano. The recordings were made by Italian pianist Eugenio Catone. It is clear from examining the track listing that Catone was working from the DSCH publications, since there are a generous number of tracks that one will not find on the Petrushansky recordings. It is also worth noting that now lists that Petrushansky collection as “Currently unavailable.” More importantly, has created the Web page for pre-ordering Catone’s first CD.

There are two key differences in content that distinguish Catone’s more comprehensive project. One is the inclusion of nine tracks of juvenilia composed between 1918 and 1920. There is often a tendency to dismiss those first youthful stabs at composition as being hopelessly naive. In this case, however, there is evidence that Shostakovich was already flexing his capacity for prankishness before his teens and before he encountered the risks of rubbing authority the wrong way.

Ironically, that prankishness surfaces in a funeral march. The deceased were two members of the Constitutional Democratic Party, known as Kadets. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the Kadets consisted of intellectuals and professionals trying to steer their country towards the advantages of a liberal democracy. Shostakovich’s march was written as a memorial for two Kadet leaders that had been murdered by Bolshevik sailors. (The words of Lucy Van Pelt come to mind: “He was beginning to make sense, so I hit him.”)

Whether or not Shostakovich saw the irony in the factionalism that emerged after the overthrow of the monarchy is left for others to decide. However, the composer gave his funeral march an ironic twist by appropriating a fragment of the funeral march that Ludwig van Beethoven had composed for his Opus 26 piano sonata in A-flat major. (The funeral march itself is the third movement in the key of A-flat minor.) While this sonata was dedicated to Karl Alois, Prince Lichnowsky, Beethoven’s thoughts about political authority were probably more consistent with the Kadets than with the Bolsheviks!

The more significant distinction in Catone’s album concerns the Opus 2 collection of preludes. Petrushansky’s recording treats this as a collection of five, but DSCH now lists this as a set of eight, published for the first time in 2018. That updated version is the one on the new Catone album. Sadly, the booklet notes (whose author is not identified), translated into English by Claudia Marchetti, says almost nothing about the emergence of these three additional preludes; and Google is not any more helpful.

However, if the search for background information is frustrating, Catone’s performances are consistently engaging. It would not surprise me if he were the first pianist to record all eight of the Opus 2 preludes, since my Google searches have not (yet) turned up any other recordings (or videos, for that mater). Sadly, the DSCH site does not allow for browsing anything other than tables of contents; so we shall just have to wait until more informative sources choose to write about the discoveries encountered in the contents of the new publications.

Too Much Talk Undermines Unsatisfying Music

On the surface last night’s Old First Concerts program, Cycles of Resistance, showed promising qualities. Soprano Chelsea Hollow commissioned a series of compositions that (according to the program book) “explores poetry and texts of resilience and rebellion throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.” Back in my student days, as well as during the first half of the twentieth century, those poems, texts, and songs were the domain of folk music: music “of the people” and “by the people.” These days the currency of poems, texts, and songs has been undermined by tweets, blogs, and friending, all of which seem more than a little feeble in the context of a past century that sustained two world wars, epidemic, and economic depression.

By way of disclaimer, I viewed Hollow’s program through live-stream, rather than sitting in Old First Presbyterian Church. I was so dissatisfied with the works of the four composers that preceded the intermission that I was thankful to be able to depart “virtually” without making any fuss. To a great extent those four offerings were all undermined by an overabundance of commentary, none of which registered with much permanence. Some of that commentary came from Hollow herself, while others were provided through recordings made by the composers. None of that verbiage did very much to prepare the audience for the experience of listening to these new compositions being offered (all world premiere performances); and, while there is no questioning Hollow’s skills as a vocalist, the execution of the scores seemed to be more a matter of technique than one of engaging the attentive listener.

Clearly, a lot of thought went into preparing this program; but the results that I sampled only reminded me of Gertrude Stein’s there-is-no-there-there epithet.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Lamplighters to Mark G&S Sesquicentennial

A poster showing scenes from (top to bottom) The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore (with the name “Kendrick” printed in the lower left-hand corner), and “Trial by Jury” (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Late in 1871 the British producer John Hollingshead wanted to present a Christmas entertainment. He wanted this to be a farce about what would happen if the gods in the classical Greek pantheon would trade places with a troupe of present-day actors. He was familiar with W. S. Gilbert through sources such as the latter’s book of illustrated poems Bab Ballads. For music, he knew about Arthur Sullivan, probably through his one-act comic opera “Cox and Box.” Hollingshead decided that Sullivan’s approach to music would be a good match for the wit in Gilbert’s texts, and he recruited them to create his Christmas farce.

The result was Thespis, whose text survived but whose music was lost except for the five numbers of a ballet divertissement, a recording of which was reissued by Naxos roughly a year ago. There was also a “Climbing over rocky mountain” chorus that subsequently found its way into The Pirates of Penzance. If most of the music for Thespis was lost to history, the partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan had been launched, resulting in fourteen comic operas produced between 1871 and 1896, the remaining thirteen of which have survived more robustly than could possibly have been imagined.

In that context the 2021–2022 season marks the sesquicentennial of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. Next month Lamplighters Music Theatre will celebrate this occasion with a survey of the complete canon of those comic operas. The program will be staged by Nicholas Aliaga Garcia with a blending of both familiar and the seldom heard selections. Sixteen of the Lamplighters performers will participate in the production accompanied by the 21-member Lamplighter Orchestra conducted by David Drummond.

This production will be given two performances in San Francisco, both at 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 19, and Sunday, February 20. Sunday’s performance will also be given a live-streamed simulcast. The performances will take place in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Blue Shield of California Theater, which is located at 700 Howard Street on the northwest corner of Third Street. A single City Box Office Web page has been created for purchasing tickets to both of these performances with a third option for livestream viewing on Sunday afternoon. Ticket for seats in the theater are being sold for $70 and $80. Seniors aged 62 can purchase tickets for $65 and $75. Groups of ten or more are entitled to a discounted per-ticket price of $60 or $70. Tickets will be sold to students for $31. The fee for access to the livestream will be $50.

SOMM Celebrates Walton Centennial

Cover of the album being discussed with Michael Ayrton’s 1948 portrait of William Walton (courtesy of Naxos of America)

One week from today, SOMM Recordings will release an album entitled William Walton: A Centenary Celebration. This has nothing to do with the dates of either Walton’s birth or death. Rather, it marks the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Façade, an “entertainment” setting 21 eccentric poems by Edith Sitwell, given rhythmic recitation reflected by music that Walton composed for a chamber ensemble, along with an opening fanfare. This is coupled with the music that Walton composed for the film that Laurence Olivier directed (and starred in) based on the text of William Shakespeare’s play Henry V. On this recording all of the Walton segments, arranged by Edward Watson, are interleaved with recitations of Shakespeare’s words, all delivered by Kevin Whatley. As usual, is processing pre-orders for this new recording.

This is a useful document of music that is seldom performed and probably just as rarely recorded. Back in my student days, I was fortunate enough to attend a (free) concert performance of Façade at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. By that time I had listened to a recording, so I was prepared for the outrageous eccentricities of the texts. However, there was a rather strong streak of conservatism among those that visited the Gardner Museum; and I have to confess to prankish amusement in watching them squirm at the outrageousness of the texts and the “pop” rhetoric of the music.

Nevertheless, 21 is a rather large number of poems; and 40 minutes amounts to a considerable amount of time to spend sitting and listening to them, however engaging the music may be. Experiencing Façade in its entirety cultivates an appreciation for the much shorter instruments-only suite that Walton extracted from the original score. To be fair, however, this particular recording brings two reciters to the Sitwell texts, Roderick Williams and Tamsin Dalley. Their interplay often reinforces the humor in those texts with more dimensions than might be provided by a single reciter. Nevertheless, even that dose of dramatics still cannot contend adequately with the overall 40-minute duration.

The Olivier Henry V also figured significantly during my student days. Quite honestly, I have lost track of the number of times I have seen it; and the impact was such that I have never been able to stomach Kenneth Branagh’s attempt to follow in Olivier’s footsteps. Nevertheless, the impact of Olivier’s direction was so strong that I must confess that, when I listened to the suite on this album, even with the recitations from Shakespeare to guide my way, I realized that none of the music was familiar to me. This was clearly a situation in which “incidental music” was truly incidental! As a result, there is little to draw me to Watson’s efforts to turn that incidental music into a concert listening experience.

MTT’s Mahler with SFS: as Robust as Ever

Last night definitely marked the high point in the return of Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in his new capacity as Music Director Laureate. The program marked not only the return of MTT’s presence but also a revisiting of one of his most frequently-performed offerings, Gustav Mahler’s first symphony in D major. I have lost count of the number of times I have experienced this music in Davies Symphony Hall, but every MTT performance has emerged as a journey of discovery. Mind you, discovery was also experienced with changes in orchestral personnel as new performers encountered their first experiences with MTT’s Mahler insights; and, in that capacity, last night was no exception.

From a compositional point of view, even in this first symphony, Mahler was breaking from any number of “symphonic” conventions. The Inside Music Talk by John Platoff called out several instances of those departures from the beaten path; and, in many respects, he did an excellent job of “priming the pump” to prepare the attentive listener for just how radical this music was. The thing about MTT’s approach to this symphony, however, was that he did not try to underscore any of those instances. It was sufficient to let the score speak for itself, making sure that every phrase was “uttered” with just the right rhetorical expression. From a metaphorical point of view, MTT’s interpretation allowed an extraordinarily large number of pieces to reveal gradually the image behind a vast jigsaw puzzle.

Piano concerto soloist Yuja Wang (photograph by Julia Wesley, courtesy of SFS)

Sadly, the heights of the second half of the program had to rise above the nadir of the first half. If MTT has been consistently at his most engaging when taking on Mahler, his approaches to Franz Liszt have been frustrating to the same extreme degree. From my first encounter with one of his Liszt performances, I was aware of his efforts to portray Liszt as if he were the heavy metal rock star of his day. Last night’s program began with Liszt’s first piano concerto in E-flat major with pianist Yuja Wang as the soloist, and the experience was disappointingly misguided from the very opening gesture.

I have been following Wang’s visits to Davies pretty much since I moved to the Bay Area in 1995. That makes for over a quarter-century of experiences, and she has been one of the most consistently satisfying performers I have encountered. As a result, to say that I was disappointed to sit there and listen to her bang away at the opening keyboard gestures of Liszt’s concerto would be the height of understatement. The whole affair reminded me of my favorite corollary to Murphy’s Law: If brute force is unsuccessfully applied, that means you are not applying enough of it.

To be fair to Liszt, the score is not entirely about flamboyant virtuosity from start to finish. If the concerto has any virtue at all, it is the was in which he has the piano soloist engage with instrumental soloists from different sections of the orchestra. These are the rare moments when both pianist and ensemble pull back form all the sound and fury and get to indulge in a well-executed phrase or two. (Even the triangle gets to engage in a witty exchange.) The fact is that, while Liszt’s comfort zone was definitely the keyboard, he had more than a few good ideas when it came to composing for an instrument ensemble. Had a few more of them been summoned for his first piano concerto, the listening experience would probably have been far less agonizing.

After all, it is not about being “hip” (or even “cool”); it’s just about providing an engaging listening experience.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Burton to Perform in Next Catalyst Program

Catalyst Quartet members Abi Fayette, Paul Laraia, Karla Donehew, and Karols Rodriguez with Dashon Burton (courtesy of SFP)

Next month the Catalyst Quartet, whose members are violinists Karla Donehew and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez, will return to Herbst Theatre to present the second of the four programs prepared for the Uncovered concert series presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). Bass-baritone Dashon Burton has joined the ensemble, not only as a guest artist but also as a co-curator, providing background material about both the overall goal of the series and specific works being performed. His first appearance in that latter capacity took place at the conclusion of the second program in the series this past November.

For the third program Burton will serve as guest artist. He will perform a selection of art songs composed by Florence Price, arranging their accompaniment for performance by string quartet. Following his performance Catalyst will then conclude their program with a performance of Price’s second quartet in A minor.

The first half of the program will be devoted to two entirely different composers of African descent. The program will begin with two of the string quartets collected by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges for his Opus 1 publication, the fourth in C minor and the sixth in D major. This will be followed by music composed after Price’s death, William Grant Still’s “Lyric Quartette,” which was completed in 1960.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 11. It will take place in Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. This venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel.

Ticket prices are $65 (premium Orchestra and front and center Dress Circle), $55 (remainder of Orchestra, all Side Boxes, and center rear Dress Circle), and $45 (remaining Dress Circle and Balcony); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page. As available, single tickets will be sold at the door with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors. Single tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

SFS Subscription Concert for Chinese New Year

Regular readers will probably know by now that the annual Chinese New Year Concert, presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), will take place on the first Saturday of next month, February 5. This year, however, that celebratory offering will be followed by a subscription concert that will focus on both Chinese repertoire and the pipa, sometimes called the “Chinese lute.” The conductor will be Perry So, who was mentored by Esa-Pekka Salonen and will be making his SFS subscription series debut. The pipa soloist will be Wu Man, who has previously performed with the Kronos Quartet and will also be making her SFS subscription series debut.

1997 photograph of Wu Man with Lou Harrison (courtesy of Shuman Associates)

For that matter all five of the compositions on the program will be given SFS premiere performances. “First among these equals,” so to speak, will be Wu’s appearance as soloist in Lou Harrison’s concerto for pipa and string orchestra. All of the other composers on the program are Asian as follows:

  • Texu Kim: Bounce!!
  • Younghi Pagh-Paan: NIM
  • Takashi Yoshimatsu: The Age of Birds
  • Zhou Long: The Rhyme of Taigu

Some readers may recall that Kim’s “Spin-Flip” will be performed the previous Saturday at the Chinese New Year Concert.

This concert will be given only two performances, both at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 11, and Saturday, February 12. A single Web page has been created with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for each of those dates. Tickets are priced between $20 and $125. There will be an Inside Music talk, free to all concert ticket holders, given by Laura Stanfield Prichard one hour prior to each concert. Doors will open fifteen minutes before the talk begins.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

An All-Mozart Subscription Concert from PBO

Readers probably know by now that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale (PBO) will begin next month with a non-subscription concert devoted entirely to Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 B minor setting of the Mass text in a side-by-side performance with members of the Historical Performance division of the Juilliard School in New York. Subscribers will be happy to know that the subscription season will continue the following week with Mozart the Radical a program devoted entirely to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Music Director Richard Egarr will both conduct and serve as keyboard soloist in a fortepiano performance of the K. 491 keyboard concerto in C minor.

The program will begin with the concerto and conclude with a symphony, K. 504 in D major, often known as the “Prague” symphony. These symphonic offers will serve as “bookends” for two “concert scenes” for soprano voice. K. 505, couples the recitative “Ch’io mi scordi de te” with the aria “Non temer, amato bene.” It will be followed by K. 528, which similarly couples “Bella mia fiamma” and “Resta, o cara.” The vocalist for these performances will be Elizabeth Watts.

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 10. As usual, the performance will take place in Herbst Theatre, which 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 prices range 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.

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.

PBO has also created a more detailed Web page, which was last updated this past January 6.

Dublin Guitar Quartet Cancels SFP Visit

Readers may recall that, at the end of last week, San Francisco Performances (SFP) announced the cancellation of the opening recital in its 2021–2022 Great Artists and Ensembles Series. Sadly, yesterday afternoon SFP announced that the launch of another series will also be cancelled. The 2021–2022 Guitar Series had been scheduled to begin on Saturday, February 12, with a concert by the Dublin Guitar Quartet of Brian Bolger, Pat Brunnock, Chien Buggle, and Tomas O’Durcain. Once again, the cancellation was due to travel concerns related to the pandemic.

The options for those holding tickets for this event are the same as those for the Great Artists program:

  • Apply the value of the tickets towards another single performance in the current season.
  • Convert the value of the ticket purchase into a tax-deductible donation to SFP.
  • Request a full refund.

Patrons may contact SFP regarding their chosen option either through electronic mail to 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.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Ben Goldberg Among the Werewolves

For the better part of this month, jazz clarinetist Ben Goldberg occupied himself with recording a series of nine mini-albums, all organized around the topic of werewolves. The shortest of these was only ten minutes long, and the lengthiest filled a little more than twenty minutes. Each was recorded on a different day of the month, after which it was uploaded to its own unique Bandcamp Web page. The titles of the albums, the recording dates, and the Bandcamp hyperlinks are as follows:

  1. January 4: The Werewolf of January 4
  2. January 6: Werewolf of Today
  3. January 8: Another Werewolf
  4. January 9: Werewolf in Therapy
  5. January 12: Lonesome Werewolf
  6. January 14: Werewolf Ah Um
  7. January 15: Good and Bad Werewolf
  8. January 17: Story of a Werewolf
  9. January 22: Werewolf Awareness

All of the tracks on all of the albums are solo clarinet performances by Goldberg without any “digital effects processing.”

This is not the first time that Goldberg has undertaken a major project of what might be called “solo reflections.” Readers may recall this site’s coverage of his PLAGUE DIARY project, which began on March 19, 2020 and continued on almost a daily basis through March 13, 2021 (with “gaps” increasing towards the end of the series). However, while the motivation behind the PLAGUE DIARY tracks could not have been clearer, the idea of motivation based on werewolves is much less clear.

One clue may reside in the fact that the noun “werewolf” only appears in the singular in all nine of the movement titles. Wolves tend to be social animals, known for packs that form for hunting and possibly for looking after the young. However, a wolf that “migrates” between “wolf behavior” and “human behavior” is probably far more solitary, a trait that surfaces in passing in the citing of wolf behavior in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. Alternatively a clue may reside in the title of the final composition, which suggests that the entire cycle amounts of a werewolf’s journey to Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization.

On the other hand I know too well from experience that overthinking an intellectual construct does little more than distract from listening. As was the case in PLAGUE DIARY, each day provided Goldberg with opportunities to explore different sonorities and the different techniques that give rise to those sonorities. Listening is likely to be most engaging if taken simply at the auditory equivalent of “face value.” If each of the tracks in this collection is a product of Goldberg’s own self-actualization, then each listener is free to find his/her own self-actualization simply by accepting the content of each “auditory stimulus.”

Center for New Music: February, 2022

This turned out to be a very sparse month for performances at the Center for New Music (C4NM). As of this writing, the only scheduled concert for the month will be presented by Ensemble for These Times this coming Saturday, January 29. A second concert, the fourth installment in the Surround Sound Salon Series (SSSS), had been announced for the following afternoon; but, as of this morning, it has been rescheduled for next month. According to the current schedule of events, that SSSS event will be the last of four concerts taking place at C4NM during that month.

For those that do not already know, 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 processed in advance through the C4NM Events page. Masks are still required for all in attendance, and those in the audience are required to be fully vaccinated. Furthermore, since those pandemic conditions still prevail, the audience capacity will be reduced; so purchasing tickets early is desirable. Specifics are as follows with hyperlinks for the respective event pages, each of which has a “Buy Tickets Online” hyperlink to the appropriate Eventbrite event page:

Sunday, February 6, 4 p.m.: The Symbiotics Quartet consists (in alphabetical order) of Chris Brown (piano and electronics), Ben Davis (cello), Danishta Rivero (sound artist), and Marshall Trammel (drums). This will be the first time that these four improvisor/composers will join forces. For each selection the musicians will employ a simple algorithm to play one of all of the possible combinations of solos, duos, trios, and a quartet. The focus will always be on continuous listening and interdependence of the music created spontaneously by every player.

Friday, February 11, 8 p.m.: This will also be a program of improvisations involving four performers (again in alphabetical order): Evelyn Davis (keyboards), Phillip Greenlief (saxophone), Motoko Honda (piano), and Beth Schenck (saxophone). In this case, however, all of the improvisations will be duos. The primary pairings wil involve Davis-Greenlief and Honda-Schenck. However, other pairings may be engaged “in the spirit of exploration and joy.”

Saturday, February 12, 8 p.m.: This will be the latest showcase of new works written by members of the Bay Area Chapter of the NACUSA (National Association of the Composers of the United States of America), usually referred to as NACUSAsf. As of this writing, the program will present music by nine composers scored for different combinations of voice, winds, guitar, and piano. This program will be live-streamed from the C4NM facility. Ticket holders will receive electronic mail for viewing the performance through a link to YouTube.

Sunday, February 20, 4 p.m.: This will be the rescheduled SSSS concert, and the program will be the same as the one that was announced this past Thursday. [added 2/11, 7:45 a.m.:

Sunday, February 27, 7:30 p.m.: February will conclude with a recently-announced two-set concert to honor saxophonist Tim Berne. The first set will be a solo performance by Gordon Grdina, alternating between guitar and oud. He will play selections from his latest album, The Music of Tim Berne: Oddly Enough, which is scheduled for release one week from today. This will be followed at 8:30 p.m. by Berne himself giving a duo performance with guitarist Gregg Belisle-Chi. They will play a set of selections from their new album, Mars. This performance will not be live-streamed but only performed before an audience.]

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, 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? [question answered 1/28, 7:25 a.m.: The Beach settings of Browning poems were published in 1900. She did not come to San Francisco until 1916.])

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.
  • Convert the value of the ticket purchase into a tax-deductible donation to SFP.
  • Request a full refund.

Patrons may contact SFP regarding their chosen option either through electronic mail to 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.