Monday, February 28, 2022

Returning to the VoM Video Archives

It turns out that, under pandemic conditions, Sundays have turned out to be busy days for me, even if they only involve viewing streamed video performances. As a result I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that the Sunday Mornings at Ten videos created by Voices of Music (VoM) have escaped my notice. This is a series of weekly streams of video recordings past performances (mostly in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church), collected under a common title.

Ironically, yesterday’s compilation did not go “online” until this morning. At about a quarter to ten, I received an electronic mail “apology” for the glitch, informing me that yesterday’s program, entitled Et in Terra Pax, was finally available for viewing. This fit perfectly into my schedule; and, given my past interest in the VoM video archives, I looked forward to the opportunity to return to a “programmed account” of selections.

It turned out that the program title referred only to the opening selection. This was the second movement of a setting of the Gloria text from the Mass, which George Frideric Handel scored for soprano and strings. The entire Gloria setting cannot be found in the HWV catalog because it was lost for many years. It was discovered in the library of the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2001 and was subsequently attributed to Handel. The prevailing conjecture is that he composed the music in Rome, possibly for the soprano Margherita Durastanti.

The soprano for the VoM performance was Laura Heimes. She performed with “chamber accompaniment” by two violins (Carla Moore and Sara Usher), cello (Farley Pearce), violone (John Dornenburg), organ (Katherine Heater), harpsichord (Hanneke van Proosdij), and archlute (David Tayler). The program notes on the Web page (probably by Tayler) suggest that Handel may have been influenced by Antonio Vivaldi, specifically conjecturing one of the latter’s slow concerto movements. Personally, I was willing to accept the music on its own terms, having had few encounters with the music that Handel composed while in Rome.

The opportunity to “compare and contrast” arose when Tayler decided to follow this video with one of soprano Dominique Labelle performing a sacred motet by Vivaldi. This was the RV 627 “In turbato mare irato” (in the turbulence of the angry sea). Instrumental resources were only somewhat richer than those deployed by Handel. There were now four violins (Usher, joined this time by Katherine Kyme, Elizabeth Blumenstock, and Maxine Nemerovski), along with a single viola (Lisa Grodin). William Skeen played a five-string cello, while Pearce shifted over to violone. Proosdij took to the organ keyboard, while Tayler remained with his archlute. This video was recorded in March of 2012.

The program then shifted back to the Mass text with the setting of the Agnus Dei text from Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 (usually referred to as the B Minor Mass). Those familiar with the Mass setting probably know by now that most of the movements for solo vocalist are given “chamber music” accompaniment. As a result, the instrumental resources were basically the same as those for RV 627, albeit with different performers. The vocalist was mezzo Meg Bragle, and the recording was made in May of 2017.

The fourth video then shifted back to another Vivaldi sacred motet, the RV 607 “Laetatus sum” (I rejoiced). However, this video involved a less familiar gathering of resources. The work was originally composed for two sopranos and two altos, but Tayler provided a choral arrangement, which was sung by the San Francisco Girls Chorus, led by its director, Valérie Sainte-Agathe. Additional performers were added to the string sections to balance the choral setting. Moore served as Concertmaster, joined by violinists Blumenstock, Kyme, and Nemerovski, joined by Gabrielle Wunsch and Alana Youssefian. The violists were Maria Caswell and Tomà Iliev, while Skeen was joined by Adaiha MacAdam-Somer on cello. This performance was prepared for the Berkeley Early Music Festival, where it was performed in June of 2018.

The final selection shifted solo duties from the vocal to the instrumental. Marc Schachman played the oboe solo featured in the instrumental Sinfonia movement that begins Bach’s BWV 156 cantata, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (I am standing with one foot in the grave). That music would later resurface in one of Bach’s harpsichord concertos, BWV 1056 in F minor. Instrumental accompaniment included a bassoon, played by Anna Marsh. The other “new face” in this video was that of violinist Linda Quan. The recording was made in March of 2019.

According to my records, pandemic conditions forced the cancellation of this month’s VoM program. The original plan was that the final concert of the season would take place a little less than a month from today. Hopefully, that performance will proceed as originally intended.

The Bleeding Edge: 2/28/2022

Del Sol String Quartet members Sam Weiser, Benjamin Kreith, Kathryn Bates, and Charlton Lee (from their BayImproviser event page)

This week there seems to be only one Bleeding Edge offering within the San Francisco city limits. As was the case last week, it will be presented by the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). This time the performance will be by the Del Sol Quartet of Sam Weiser (violin), Benjamin Kreith (violin), Charlton Lee (viola), and Kathryn Bates (cello). Once again program specifics have not yet been announced. However, an “educated guess” will be that the ensemble will prepare selections to preview its Third Annual Pacific Pythagorean Music Festival, which they will perform for Old First Concerts this coming March 12.

This time SFPL will host two performances at two different branches, both of which will take place this coming Saturday, March 5. The first of these will again be hosted by the Richmond branch, which is located at 351 9th Avenue; and it will begin at 1:30 p.m. This will be followed at 3 p.m. by the second performance, which will take place at the Park branch at 1833 Page Street. Both of these offerings will be performed outdoors, and there will be no charge for attending.

Narrative Ballet Beyond the Need for Source

It is not often that a ballet is named after a secondary character in its scenario, particularly when that “secondary” character could not be more “primary” in the broader context of world literature. However, this was how the scenario for the ballet Don Quixote was first conceived by Marius Petipa in 1869; and that is how almost all subsequent stagings have treated Miguel de Cervantes “knight of the doleful countenance.” San Francisco Ballet (SFB) is currently performing this work in a version staged by Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov, drawing upon Alexander Gorsky’s 1900 revival of Petipa’s choreography.

Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco dancing the roles of Kitri and Basilio (photograph by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of SFB)

It would be churlish (not to mention inaccurate) to call the SFB production “a story ballet without a story.” However, the “core story” has little, if anything, to do with Cervantes. Kitri (danced yesterday afternoon by Wona Park) is an attractive young maiden in a Spanish village. She is in love with the local barber Basilio (Joseph Walsh); but her father, Lorenzo, is determined to marry her off to the aged nobleman Gamache. By the time the scenario has advanced to the third act, the village is celebrating the wedding of Kitri and Basilio.

Very little by way of narrative unfolds along the path to that third act. However, each episode seems to be packaged with its own corps de ballet and its own particular style for a divertimento of dances. As a result, this production serves up more imaginative dancing for its own sake than one is likely to encounter in any other story ballet. Indeed, the choreography was so imaginative and so deftly executed that there was little opportunity for attention to fret over the absence of plot. The only disappointment was that the program materials never took the trouble to call out by name all those dancers that delivered such splendid accounts of the Tomasson-Possokhov choreography.

Mind you, that abundance of choreography (not to mention diversity of costumes) filled the better part of the two-hour-and-40-minute performance (including two intermissions); but, for those enthusiastic about imaginative costumes and dancing, there is no doubt that this was time well spent.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Snapshot 2022 to Showcase Five New Operas

Tickets are now on sale for this year’s Snapshot program presented by West Edge Opera. This is the annual supplement to the West Edge summer season, which presents a showcase for new and developing works from West Coast composers and librettists. The production is a partnership between West Edge and the Earplay new music ensemble, which provides instrumental accompaniment that offers richer accounts of the scenes being showcased than a single piano can afford. This season’s program will showcase five operas as follows:

  1. Jean Ahn is both composer and librettist of Remembrance, depicting the haunting memories of a Korean boy who has lost both his mother and his sister in the Korean War.
  2. Gabrielle Rosse is both composer and librettist of Christina Doesn’t Need Saving, a contemporary depiction of a fifteen-year-old girl, estranged from her home, who seeks love and community in an uncertain environment of drugs and predation.
  3. The Dark Horse take a bold move in providing an operatic treatment of biography. The subject is Enzo Ferrari, who began his career competing in Italian motor racing. He would then go on to supervise the design and construction of new cars, both for racing and for more mundane driving experiences. He died in 1988, but his name is still firmly associated with high-quality automobiles. Scott DeTurk has created a libretto around the Ferrari biography, and the music for that libretto is being composed by Cesar Cancino.
  4. Michael Kaulkin is both composer and librettist of Lilith, an operatic treatment of the novel of the same name by J. R. Salamanca, which was published in 1961 and later made into a film starring Warren Beatty. The novel is set in a mental institution where a veteran of World War II (Beatty in the film) is recovering. The title character (Jean Seberg in the film) is a seductive, artistic, schizophrenic patient in the same institution; and the veteran becomes dangerously obsessed with her.
  5. The School for Girls who Lost Everything in the Fire is the latest partnership of composer Ryan Suleiman with librettist Cristina Friès, and it amounts to a surreal coming-of-age story about three homeless girls held hostage after a terrible fire.

This program will be given two performances, at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 9, and at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 10. As in the past, the performances will take place in the Diane and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, which is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. All tickets are being sold for $40. They may be purchased in advance online from a Tix event page. For both performances there will also be “Underwriter” tickets available for $200, which provide reserved seating in the front row.

Haimovitz Concludes SFP Sanctuary Series

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco Performances (SFP) concluded its Sanctuary Series with a solo recital by cellist Matt Haimovitz. The title of the program was Primavera (the Italian word for “spring”), which is named after a commissioning project that Haimovitz initiated, which will result in 81 new solo cello works, each around five to seven minutes in duration. Last night four of those works were given world premiere performances as follows:

  • Nico Muhly: Spring Figures
  • Tomeka Reid: Volplaning
  • Philip Glass: Philip’s Song
  • David Balakrishnan: Themes and Variants

These were interleaved with three other commissioned works, which had already been premiered:

  • Missy Mazzoli: Beyond the Order of Things
  • Gordon Getty: Spring Song
  • Vijay Iyer: Equal Night

As was the case in the previous two Sanctuary concerts, the program also included music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Haimovitz opened his program with the Prelude movement that begins the BWV 1008 solo cello suite in D minor. Towards the end of the program he played play the C major suite, BWV 1009, in its entirety. Some readers may recall that this was the opening selection performed by violinist Johnny Gandelsman to begin the second Sanctuary Series program last week.

Those that recall my annoyance with Gandelsman’s approach to Bach will be happy to learn that Haimovitz was far more convincing in his selections. Most important was that he treated all the movements named after dance forms as if they were dances. However, he knew how to allow the pulse to vary in such a way that each dance had its own approach to expressiveness, rather than providing a routine account of familiar (at least in Bach’s time) steps.

Similarly, the BWV 1008 prelude basically served as an “overture.” One might almost imagine that Haimovitz selected this music to introduce the entire evening, almost as if he were saying, “This is my cello, and this is what I can do with it.” He could then chart the course of “what he could do” through the new and recent works he had commissioned.

Charline von Heyl’s “response” to the “call” of Botticelli’s Primavera (from the home page for the Primavera Project)

The works created for the Primavera Project all take the visual arts as a point of departure. The “foundation” of the project is the massive canvas of Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera painting. This work inspired contemporary artist Charline von Heyl to respond with a large-scale painting of her own. All of the composers that Haimovitz commissioned were instructed to take both of these paintings as a common point of departure. Given that “first contact” encounters tend to be fleeting, Haimovitz has created a Web site for listening to his recordings of all of the results of his commissions.

This made for a wise strategy. While the program Haimovitz prepared for last night was relatively short (there being no intermission), the attentive listener definitely had to deal with “content overload.” Thus, as I am writing this morning, I have to confess that memories of last night dwell more on the Bach selections than on the Primavera compositions. To some extent I was drawn to Tomeka Reid’s contribution, “Volplaning;” but that was probably because I had seen the online cello recital she had performed at Mills College back in September of 2020.

However, if memory falls short of most of the details from last night, the overall upbeat rhetoric of the evening can still be recalled. Haimovitz never let ego get in the way of providing a clear and engaging account of the seven composers whose works were showcased. Coupled with just the right balance of technique and invention in the Bach performances, the spirit of the evening remains vividly memorable, even if the details of the new works require further acquaintance.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Tenor Ilker Arcayürek Cancels SFP Visit

Late yesterday morning San Francisco Performances (SFP) announced the cancellation of the recital by tenor Ilker Arcayürek, accompanied at the piano by Simon Lepper. Arcayürek was to be the third recitalist in the SFP 2021–2022 Art of Song Series. The performers were not able to visit the United States due to visa issues.

The options for those holding tickets for this event are the same as those for previous cancellations:

  • 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.

CMC Announces Next Concert with Conversation

Jazz drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. (courtesy of the Community Music Center)

Next month the Community Music Center (CMC) will present its next Concert with Conversation event. The featured artist will be jazz drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. Owens has contributed to GRAMMY Award-winning albums by Kurt Elling and the Christian McBride Big Band, and he has served as leader on seven successful albums. He has also written two books for Simon and Schuster, Jazz Brushes for the Modern Drummer: An Essential Guide to the Art of Keeping Time and The Musicians Career Guide: Turning Your Talent into Sustained Success. He is currently on the faculty at The Juilliard School. As is the case for other events in this series, there will be a combination of performance and Q&A engagement with the audience.

As usual, this will be a one-hour event. It will begin at 6 p.m. on Friday, March 4. The venue will be the CMC Concert Hall, which is located at 544 Capp Street, between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue and between 20th Street and 21st Street.

There will be no charge for admission. However, registration through an Eventbrite event page will be required. Due to high interest and limited-capacity seating, CMC expects this event to reach capacity quickly. Anyone that cannot attend is asked to contact the Mission District Branch at 415-647-6015 or through electronic mail to This will allow release of the reservation to other patrons. Alternatively, those without tickets will be able to experience the event through a livestream. The link required for online viewing will be added to the Eventbrite Web page closer to the date of the performance.

Cahill’s Survey of Women Composers to Launch

courtesy of Jensen Artists

This coming Friday First Hand Records will release the first of three volumes in a series entitled The Future is Female. Many readers will associate that title with past articles about the project undertaken with that title by pianist Sarah Cahill. When completed, the recording project will feature 30 solo piano compositions by 30 different women from a diversity of countries around the globe and a wide range of music history extending back to the seventeenth century. The title of the first volume is In Nature; and, as expected, is currently processing pre-orders.

To be fair, Cahill’s essay for the accompanying booklet states, in the very first paragraph, that this CD “is loosely based on the theme of nature,” “loosely” being the key modifier. That theme is most explicit in the selection by the Russian composer Leokadiya Kashperova. (Some may recognize that name, because she was Igor Stravinsky’s piano teacher.) Cahill performs “Le murmure des blés” (the murmur of the wheat), the third movements of a suite entitled Au sein de la nature (in the midst of nature). (This happens to be one of three Kashperova compositions available through the IMSLP database, the others being her two Opus 1 cello sonatas.)

Nature can also be found in “Un rêve en mer” (a dream at sea), described as an “Étude-méditation” by Venezuelan composer Teresa Carreño, which dates from 1868. This track is followed by “Birds at Dawn,” composed in 1917 by Fannie Charles Dillon. This is the second of eight works collected under the title Descriptive Pieces. That track, in turn, is followed by two of the preludes in the Opus 13 collection of Czech composer Vítězslava Kaprálová. The collection was entitled (in English) April Preludes; but the individual movements are identified only by tempo markings. The spirit of nature then occupies the final track, a piece completed by Mary D. Watkins in 2020 entitled “Summer Days.”

More of a stretch is the three-movement piano sonata by Hungarian pianist and composer Agi Jambor, written in 1949 and given the title To the Victims of Auschwitz. This constitutes a poignant reminder of the wide gulf that separates the nature evoked by composers such as Carreño and Watkins from human nature. Mind you, human nature subsequently emerges in a more favorable light in Eve Beglarian’s “Fireside.”

This piece was composed for Cahill in 2001 as part of a project to honor the centennial of the birth of Ruth Crawford Seeger. Performing this piece requires that the pianist narrate a poem written by the composer at the age of thirteen while playing Beglarian’s music at the same time. This synthesis of speaking and playing would also show up in Cahill’s performance (and recording) of Kyle Gann’s “War Is Just a Racket,” which was composed in 2008.

By now the reader has probably realized just how broad the content of this new release is. I would speculate that this is an offering that lends itself to “digital listening,” drawing attention to individual tracks rather than just playing the entire album from beginning to end. Indeed, those who prefer sitting in front of a large screen, rather than the confined window of a cell phone, will probably utilize the space in such a way that the player of the album track will be positioned alongside the page from the album booklet that presents Cahill’s thoughts about the composition. I suspect that I shall be engaging myself in this exercise while waiting for the release of the second album in Cahill’s collection.

Cal Bach Explores Vespers Music by Rovetta

Last night at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, the California Bach Society (Cal Bach) continued its 50th Anniversary season with a program entitled Venetian Vespers. During the seventeenth century St Mark’s Basilica was one of the most significant venues of sacred music. This was the period during which Claudio Monteverdi served as maestro di cappella, one of his major achievements being the composition of the Vespro della Beata Vergine (vespers of the Blessed Virgin).

Rather than undertake a presentation of this composition of epic proportion, Cal Bach Artistic Director Paul Flight chose, instead, to focus on Monteverdi’s successor, Giovanni Rovetta, presenting four of his settings of Vespers texts: “Dixit Dominus,” “Confitebor tibi,” “Lauda Jerusalem,” and “Laudate pueri Dominium.” Monteverdi himself was represented by a “Beatus vir” setting; and the program concluded with a Magnificat setting by Rovetta’s successor, Francesco Cavalli. (Those familiar with that name are more likely to associate it with his keen gift for creating ribald operas for the Venetian Carnival.)

There is a tendency to treat the Monteverdi Vespro as a work of major spectacle, complementing the many ornate details of the Basilica. Cal Bach provided the music in a much more intimate setting, with instrumental support provided by only a handful of musicians. These included two violins (Carla Moore and Cynthia Black), two cornetti (Alexandra Opsahl and Steve Escher), cello (Rocio Lopez Sanchez), theorbo and lute (Jon Mendle), and organ (Yuko Tanaka).

The entire program lasted only about an hour and a quarter, performed without an intermission. That framework further enhanced the intimacy of the occasion. Furthermore, while the emphasis was on the choral performance, “Lauda Jerusalem” was sung entirely by solo vocalists, one of whom was Flight himself. Thus, while the evening may have been modest in duration, it provided an impressively engaging diversity of intimate accounts of the efforts of three successive maestri di cappella: Monteverdi, Rovetta, and Cavalli. This modest lesson in music history could not have sounded better.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Claremont Trio Celebrates Twentieth Anniversary

courtesy of Christina Jensen PR

Today Tria Records released a new album to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Claremont Trio, a piano trio whose members are Emily Bruskin on violin, Julia Bruskin on cello, and Andrea Lam on piano. As of this writing the album is only available for MP3 download through Curiously, Google does not shine a particularly useful light on this release, since, as of this writing, the only hyperlink for album purchase directs one to the Amazon Web page for the Audio CD, which is listed as “Temporarily out of stock” and is not processing pre-orders! Even more ironic is the absence of any mention of this album in the Recordings section of the trio’s Web site. Apparently, pandemic confusion still rules.

The title of the new album is Queen of Hearts, which is also the title of the final track on the album. This was composed for the trio by Kati Agócs in 2017, when she was supported by a commission by Chamber Music Northwest. The title has nothing to do with Lewis Carroll; but it was inspired by a deck of cards, in which that specific card is sometimes referred to as the “mother of higher love.” The music was structured as a set of variations; but I have to confess that, even after several listenings, it left little impact on either the present or any memories of the past.

Indeed, of the six compositions on this album, only the opening section by Gabriela Lena Frank left any registration on attention. Her selection was composed in 2012; and, like much of her music, it explores her reflections on her Peruvian heritage. (Her mother was Peruvian but of Chinese descent. She met her father, an American descended from Lithuanian Jews, when he was working as Peace Corps volunteer in Peru.) Frank’s composition on the album reflects on four Andean folk songs; and, as usual, she has an engaging sense of rhythm to lead the listener through her indigenous thematic content.

The other composers on the album are Sean Shepherd, Judd Greenstein, Helen Grime, and Nico Muhly. Only Muhly’s repertoire is familiar to me; but I doubt that I shall work up any memories of the repetitive techniques he applied to “Common Ground” (which deserves credit for being a clever pun). Most disappointing was Greenstein’s “A Serious Man,” which falls into what I like to call the “family album” genre, clearly meaningful to the composer but with little impact on anyone else.

It is worth noting that Agócs’ composition is the most recent of the selections on the album. In other words all the music being performed is “pre-pandemic.” There does not seem to be any indication of when (or where) any of those selections were recorded. The trio is based in New York, but their touring schedule seems to include both the United States and Mexico. I have not been able to find evidence of their having performed in San Francisco. Apparently, the trio took its name from Claremont Avenue in Morningside Heights in New York City, one of the more attractive areas on the island. I am a bit disappointed that their music does not rise to the same level as their appreciation of New York geography.

Old First Concerts: April, 2022

As of this writing, Old First Concerts has announced three recitals for the month of April, two on Friday evenings and one on a Sunday afternoon. All of them 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, April 8, 8 p.m.: Mezzo Laure de Marcellus has prepared a vocal recital based entirely on the music of Pauline Viardot. She will be accompanied at the piano by Albert Urroz, and their selections will draw upon their album Pauline Inspired. I must confess that, to date, my knowledge of Viardot has been limited to a vocal line she composed in 1848 to add to the second (in the key of D major) of Frédéric Chopin’s four Opus 33 mazurkas. This was a vocal treatment that she applied to twelve of Chopin’s mazurkas. She also composed vocal arrangements of instrumental compositions by Johannes Brahms, Joseph Haydn, and Franz Schubert, as well as a generous selection (over 100) of original vocal compositions.

Sunday, April 10, 4 p.m.: Pianist Motoko Honda will present a solo recital entitled The Emergent Piano. She is a member of Hesterian Musicism, a jazz quartet led by Karlton Hester playing both flute and saxophone, along with David Smith on bass and Yunxiang Griswold on pipa, the Chinese version of a lute. Her piano repertoire extends beyond the instrument itself to both prepared piano and the use of a network of electrified pickups. The program will include both solo compositions and improvisational works.

Friday, April 22, 8 p.m.: The month will conclude with a performance by the piano trio whose members are Miles Graber on piano, Mary Artmann on cello, and Kate Stenberg on violin. The program will consist of three piano trios, all composed within the decade between 1914 and 1924. The earliest of these will be Maurice Ravel’s trio, completed in 1914. At the other extreme will be Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 8 (first) trio in C minor, completed in 1923. Between these will be the opening selection on the program, the piano trio that Rebecca Clarke composed in 1921.

SFS Presents Beethoven’s Two-Act Ballet

Salvatore Viganò, who created the scenario and choreography for Beethoven’s Prometheus ballet score (from the Archivio Storio Ricordi, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented its first performance of the entire score of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 43 ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus. This marked the return of Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen for the first of three weeks of subscription concerts. Opus 43 was the product of Beethoven’s partnership with choreographer Salvatore Viganò, who, at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, was serving as ballet master in Vienna. Viganò is sometimes credited with introducing narrative ballet, consisting of the interleaving of pantomime and classical dance movements.

Viganò’s narrative for Opus 43 involved playfully toying with the early episodes of Greek mythology. The title denotes the legend that, before he got into trouble playing with fire, Prometheus molded a mass of mud into the shapes of two human figures (presumably one male and one female). (Anyone that recalls Figures of Earth at this point will receive an appreciative nod!) The narrative then follows these “creatures” as Prometheus introduces them to his Olympian colleagues and how, over their course of their experiences, they gradually acquire the spirit of humanity.

Filled with a moderately generous-sized ensemble, the Davies stage had little room for this choreographic narrative to be properly danced. Instead, Hillary Leben created an animation projected on screens on either side of the stage, which provided a visual account of the narrative. That narrative was written by Gerard McBurney and delivered by Keith David. For the most part, the animations followed each of the episodes narrated by David, after which the realization of that episode in music was performed. Audience members thus got to follow both narrative and music through a succession of events based on Viganò’s scenario.

Leben’s style of imagery was imaginatively child-like. Perhaps that was her way of emphasizing that the ballet amounted to a “coming of age” story set, ironically, in a land of immortals. Each of her images had its own stamp of humor, the perfect complement to Beethoven’s music during a period when wit played a key element in the rhetoric of his compositions.

Salonen was clearly aware of that infrastructure of wit. I am not sure I have ever seen so much good nature emanating from the Davies podium prior to last night. The ensemble was clearly aware of Salonen’s high spirits and responded in kind through each of the many episodes that unfolded through Beethoven’s score. My only disappointment emerged during an Adagio near the beginning of the second act, which served up a ravishingly extended cello solo. Sadly, the cellist, whose face was unfamiliar, was never named. [added 2/26, 7:35 a.m.: The cellist was identified in Joshua Kosman’s San Francisco Chronicle review as “Rainer Eudeikis, who currently serves as principal cello of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.”]

Taken as a whole, however, this approach to presenting one of the less familiar items in the Beethoven catalog could not have been more engaging, leaving me wondering what other surprises from the Classical era Salonen might have in mind for future performances.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Brooklyn Rider to Bring Eclectic Program to SFP

Next month the Brooklyn Rider string quartet of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas will return to San Francisco Performances (SFP), having given a PIVOT Festival performance this past October with tenor Nicholas Phan. Their second appearance of the season will also include a guest artist, mandolinist Avi Avital, who has previously performed in Herbst Theatre as a guest soloist with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in 2010. Readers probably also know that Gandelsman was the second solo recitalist to perform in the SFP Sanctuary Series this past Friday.

The program will be an eclectic one, featuring the world premiere of “Arum der Fayer,” composed for mandolin and string quartet by Osvaldo Golijov. Avital will also give a solo performance of a prelude by the contemporary Italian composer Giovanni Sollima. The quartet repertoire will also be diverse, beginning with “La Musica Notturna Ritratta di Madrid” by Luigi Boccherini and recent compositions by Caroline Shaw and Clarice Assad.

This program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 12. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel.

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

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

“Physical” Kronos Festival to Resume in April

Kronos Quartet members David Harrington, Hank Dutt, Sunny Yang, and John Sherba (courtesy of the Kronos Performing Arts Association)

According to my records, the last time that the Kronos Quartet of violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang presented a “physical” version of its “hometown” festival was at the end of May of 2019. (This was followed by a festival in the summer of 2021, but that consisted entirely of streamed digital programs.) Similar to the case in 2019, the performances will take place from Thursday, April 7, through Saturday, April 9. The venue will again be the SFJAZZ Center, with three evening concert programs being held in Minor Auditorium and two Kronos Lab offerings in the Joe Henderson Lab, both on Saturday afternoon.

This year the Artist-in-Residence will be composer, arranger, and trombonist Jacob Garchik, who has had a long and fruitful artistic relationship with the quartet. Garchik will contribute to programming on all three of those “fronts.” There will be five world premieres, three of which were commissioned as part of Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire. Guest artists will include Rinde Eckert, with his own innovative approaches to vocal delivery, multi-instrumentalist Vanessa Vo, haegeum master Soo Yeon Lyuh, vocalist Mahsa Vahdat, and pipa virtuoso Wu Man.

Kronos has created a single Web page with up-to-date information summarizing performances in both Minor Auditorium and the Joe Henderson Lab. Ticketing will again be handled by the SFJAZZ Center on a performance-by-performance basis. So each event will have its own hyperlink for purchasing tickets. There will be reserved seating for all three of the evening concerts with prices ranging from $20 to $65. The first Henderson event at 2 p.m. will be general admission at no charge. Tickets for the following performance, at 5 p.m., will all be sold for $20.  Tickets may also be purchased by calling 866-920-5299 or by visiting the Box Office on the ground floor of the SFJAZZ Center. The SFJAZZ Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street.

Getting Beyond the Bad Old Days of Early Music

courtesy of Naxos of America

During both my undergraduate and graduate years as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there were almost no opportunities to encounter engaging performances of repertoire that pre-dated Johann Sebastian Bach. That was a time when membership in the Musical Heritage Society provided a generous number of recordings, and the ones originating in Europe tended to rule over any performances in the United States. Indeed, about the only American group that provided recordings was the New York Pro Musica; and in 1966 Everest Records released a seven-record set entitled New York Pro Musica: An Anthology of Their Greatest Works. After I acquired this anthology, I discovered that the contents did not include any useful booklet notes for any of the records. It was only after I became an Assistant Professor of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania that I began to dig up useful information sources to compensate for Everest’s negligent packaging, and that was because my office was in a building that was right next to the Music Department!

The one record in the collection that interested me when I first acquired the collection was an album entitled Festino, a cycle that constituted the third book of madrigals in five voices composed by Adriano Banchieri, which was published in Venice in 1605. It was only much later that I learned that the full title could not fit on a record label: Festino nella sera del giovedì grasso avanti cena (party on the evening of Shrove Tuesday before dinner). In other words the madrigals were to be sung as part of the last festive occasion prior to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lenten solemnity. As might be expected, there was more than a little raucousness associated with Banchieri’s music and texts, the most obvious of which was the eleventh, entitled “Contrappunto bestiale alla mente” (bestial counterpoint for the mind). One did not need program notes to relish the imitations of barnyard sounds in the text of this madrigal.

Over the many years that followed, I lost touch with the music of Banchieri; and the Festino became a distant memory. Thus, when I learned that, at the beginning of this month, Tactus released an album of this music, it was impossible for me to resist adding it to the queue I maintain of recordings I plan to cover. To my surprise, there was much more to this album than a cycle of nineteen madrigals. The Dramatodia theatrical company, directed by Alberto Allegrezza, reconstructed an entire Shrove Tuesday feast, interleaving the madrigals with narrations of texts by Giulio Cesare Croce, while also leading both vocal and instrumental resources. As the advance material for this album (which can be found on its Web page) observes, the entire performance serves up “an irreverent and paradoxical triumph of hyperbole, satire, jokes, and double meanings.”

That said, I have to confess that I came away feeling that this was a package that would have been better served by video, preferably with subtitles. There is no doubt that Allegrezza captures the orgiastic spirit of the music; but, when it comes to interleaving the madrigals with Croce’s texts, a well-staged visual account would have been far superior to simply reading the texts being declaimed. Fortunately, Tactus created a Web page for a PDF of all of the texts, both sung and spoken, the only down-side being that it is only in Italian! However, if the creative team behind this album really wanted to do justice to the indulgent extremes of a pre-Lenten feast, a visual account would have had far more impact than an audio recording, on which the impact of the music rises high above the spoken interjections.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Salonen Brings Early Nielsen to SFSymphony+

This morning the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) released its second video of the year for on-demand streaming through the SFSymphony+ Web site. Readers may recall that last month’s release, LIGETI: PARADIGMS was an ambitious production in which the music itself was supplemented by highly creative video techniques, some of which depended on imaginatively-designed software technology. The result was a 40-minute experience of three of Ligeti’s compositions that may have left some viewers concerned about sensory overload.

Today’s release was decidedly more modest in nature. Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen led an ensemble of fourteen string players: six violinists (probably divided evenly into firsts and seconds), three violas, four cellos, and one bass. These were the resources for a performance of Carl Nielsen’s Opus 1, a suite for string orchestra often known as the “little” suite.

That adjective is definitely “on the money.” The suite consists of three movements, each one somewhat longer than its predecessor. The movements are identified only by genre: “Präludium,” “Intermezzo,” and “Finale.”

The score itself is an impressive one, particularly when one takes into account that the composer was 22 years old when it was completed. Mind you, all of the richly interleaved polyphony that the listener encounters in this suite may have been the deliberate effort of a young composer seeking out just the right moves to attract attention. In that context the suite benefits from Salonen’s non-nonsense approach to conducting the score, bringing clarity to all of that polyphony without conveying the impression that the composer was merely preening.

screen shot from the video being discussed

My own guideline for assessing polyphonic composition for strings involves the amount of attention allotted to the violas. The three violists were led by Assistant Principal Katie Kadarauch (in the above screen shot). By way of disclaimer, I should note that I have had a soft spot for her after I experienced a solo recital she presented for San Francisco Performances at the Hotel Rex. Nevertheless, in this case, she was very much the leader of the three violas with several generous expressive passages, providing just the right balance among those playing violin, cello, and bass.

Most important is that Salonen established a straightforward delivery of Nielsen’s score, which I found highly preferable to all of that technology that did little more than get in the way during the Ligeti performances.

The Lab: March, 2022

After a relatively dry spell, The Lab will be offering a variety of different approaches to making music during the coming month. Most likely the schedule will be “subject to change without notice;” but this site will do its best to keep up with the current state of affairs. Also, as of the present, masks will be required for entry, as will either proof of vaccination or the results of a COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours.

For those who do not already know, The Lab is in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street. The location 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. Doors open half an hour before the concert is scheduled to begin; and, back before the pandemic, it was usually the case that a long line had accumulated prior to the opening. Specific information, including when the performance begins and a hyperlink to the event page that provides both background material and hyperlinks for ticket purchases, is as follows:

Tuesday, March 1, 7:30 p.m.: Senyawa is the duo of vocalist Rully Shabara and Wukir Suryadi, who creates his own instruments based on the traditional music of Indonesia. The result is a genre of experimental music informed by Indonesian traditions. The group is based in Yogyakarta, a major tourist attraction for the ancient temple structures at both Borobudur and Prambanan. The duo released its latest album, Alkisah, during the pandemic. Three of their recordings are available through their Bandcamp Web page.

Saturday, March 12, 8 p.m.: This will be a two-set evening of performances that, like those given by Senyawa, build on traditional sources with intense contemporary rhetoric. Duma is the duo of Martin Khanja (who has performed as Lord Spike Heart) and Sam Karugu. Both of them were part of the underground metal scene in Nairobi, performing with Lust of a Dying Breed and Seeds of Datura. In Duma Karugu provides guitar accompaniment for vocals by Khanja. The other set will be taken by Kush Arara, performing as Only Now. His compositions involve a synthesis of tradition percussion with industrial field recordings and electronic synthesis based on physical modeling software.

Tuesday, March 29, 8:30 p.m.: The month will conclude with another two-set evening, this time presenting two solo performances. Fennesz creates lush soundscapes based on electronic synthesis techniques that process the sounds of his electric guitar. The other set will be taken by KMRU, born in Nairobi and currently based in Berlin. He is pursuing a Master’s degree in Sound Studies and Sonic Arts are the Universität der Künste Berlin. His creative techniques involve field recordings, improvisation, noise, machine learning, radio art, and drones.

Jennifer Koh’s Ambitious “Pandemic Project”

courtesy of Naxos of America

At the beginning of this month, Cedille Records released its fifteenth album of performances by American violinist Jennifer Koh. Alone Together is the name of a project she launched in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the financial hardship it placed on so many in the arts community. 39 composers each contributed a single short composition (all less than six minutes in duration, a few less than a minute), which Koh added to her repertoire for solo recital performances. Participants included established composers such as Du Yun, Vijay Iyer, Tania Léon, George Lewis, Missy Mazzoli, Ellen Reid, and Wang Lu. They, in turn, recommended that Koh approach emerging composers, including Katherine Balch, Nina Shekhar, Lester St. Louis, Rajna Swaminathan, Darian Donovan Thomas, and Sugar Vendil.

Given the broad extent of participants, it is not surprising that, as of this writing, lists this item as “Temporarily out of stock.” (Think of how many “friends and family” purchases were made!) What is disconcerting, however, is that the hyperlinks for digital content (both MP3 and streaming) link to an Amazon Music Web page that contains only the first track of the album. (The same problem arises when one tries to use the Buy & Stream Here hyperlink on Cedille’s own Web page for the recording.)

Personally, while I am not a big fan of “digital listening,” I would say that there are advantages to having all 39 tracks at one’s disposal in digital form. I am not sure how the ordering of the 39 compositions across two CDs was decided; but the “program” determined by that ordering does not do any of the contributed works any favors. The sympathetic listener would probably be better off by first browsing the descriptions of the works in the accompanying booklet (which can be downloaded in PDF from the Cedille Web page). As specific descriptions pique curiosity, one can then pull up that particular track to see whether any expectations were satisfied.

Clearly, this is not how I have approached listening to Koh at any of her recitals that I have attended. Nor have I taken this approach with any of her previous recordings (my favorites of which have been the Bach & Beyond releases). However, different approaches to composition sometimes call for different approaches to listening; and one should consider how attention will best be facilitated, rather than perplexed.

To some extent my own approach to listening involved connotations of the album title. “Alone Together” was a popular song from the Thirties with music by Arthur Schwartz and words by Howard Dietz. In the booklet notes, Iyer (with his jazz background) was the only composer to pursue that connection; but his inventions pretty much concealed that source in both substance and style. Indeed, the only appropriation that registered with me involved a quotation of the opening theme from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 24 (“Spring”) sonata for piano and violin in F major. That phrase was appropriated by Joungbum Lee for his contribution, entitled “hovering green,” which definitely goes well with Beethoven’s rhetoric in that sonata.

Most likely, further insights will arise during further listening.

Monday, February 21, 2022

The Bleeding Edge: 2/21/2022

Last week I observed that there had not been a Bleeding Edge article since the end of November of last year. I failed to mention that there had only been three of those articles during that one month, two at the very beginning and the other at the very end. In other words that November also marked the last time there were articles in two consecutive weeks.

Not only is this article being written exactly a week after its predecessor; but also, as has been so often in the past, it includes an event at the Center for New Music (C4NM) that was already reported as part of the February schedule of concerts. The C4NM offerings in February will conclude this Sunday with a two-set concert honoring saxophonist Tim Berne. Berne will give a duo performance with guitarist Gregg Belisle-Chi, which will be preceded by Gordon Grdina playing Berne’s music on guitar and oud.

Thomas Dimuzio working with Buchla synthesizer gear (courtesy of BayImproviser)

The other major event this week will performed outdoors. That means it will not take place if we get some well-deserved rain! Thomas Dimuzio will give a solo recital on a Buchla synthesizer, one of the earliest commercial products based on modular synthesis technology. Don Buchla, working in Berkeley, developed several different families of instruments based on this technology, distinguished for supporting real-time performance, rather than just providing inputs for tape-based compositions. Dimuzio has not yet announced which of the Buchla products he will use for this week’s performance.

That performance behind the Richmond branch of the San Francisco Public Library. It will begin at 2 p.m. on Saturday, February 26. The building itself is located at 351 9th Avenue, and the performing area will be adjacent to the children’s playground. (A delightful metaphor may be lurking in that juxtaposition!) There will be no charge for attending the concert.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

SFS Chamber Music: Brahms Saves the Day

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this afternoon’s Chamber Music Series concert in Davies Symphony Hall, presented by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), was the fact that one can now prepare a “three centuries” program that spans from the 19th to the 21st century. The “extremes” of this span provided the most interesting subject matter, while the 20th-century selection came off as more than a little short-changed. Furthermore, in the overall scope of the program, the 19th century still commanded that One Ring to Rule Them All.

That century was represented by Johannes Brahms’ Opus 88 (first) string quintet in F major. Composed in 1882, it stands in the Brahms chronology between the Opus 87 (second) piano trio in C major, completed earlier in the same year, and the Opus 90 (third) symphony in F major, composed in 1883. These are all major-key compositions that present Brahms’ rhetoric at its sunniest.

However, what makes Opus 88 particularly interesting is the intricacy of its textures. It is only when the eye can observe which instrument is playing which passage that one can begin to revel in Brahms’ capacity for inventiveness. Fortunately, seating facilitated such observation. Second violinist Polina Sedukh was situated behind first violinist Leor Maltinski in such a way that the eye could keep track of how passages were exchanged between them. On the opposite side of the performing space, second violist Katie Kadarauch could be observed as clearly as first violist Jonathan Vinocour; and, more often than not, their “accompanying” passages were anything but. Then, centered behind these four musicians, Sébastien Gingras provided the foundational content of the cello part.

In other words, this was a performance in which following the musicians themselves could be more informative than trying to follow a printed score. In that setting the chemistry among those musicians could not have been better. Clearly, all five of them appreciated the rich expressiveness of Brahms’ music, and they were determined to pass their appreciation on to their audience. The general consensus on audience side was that they could not have succeeded more effectively.

The program began with the most recent composition, “Trio for Five Instruments” by San Francisco composer David Garner. The reason for the title is that Stephen Tramontozzi was the only member to play a single instrument, double bass. Russ deLuna alternated between oboe and cor anglais, while Jerome Simas divided his efforts between clarinet and bass clarinet. The result made for a wider spectrum of sonorities than one usually expects from a trio.

The work was also distinguished for pursuing some of the affordances of serial techniques applied to a tone-row while, at the same time, designing that tone-row to favor consonant intervals. This made for a surprisingly interesting listening situations. This was probably due, in part, to the extent to which phrasing emerges through dissonance resolving into consonance. Thus, while there were some innovative approaches to developing thematic lines for each of the instruments, the overall rhetoric favored a relatively tonal framework. Nevertheless, considering how much Garner packed into his score, one could appreciate the need to follow up with an opportunity to listen to this music a second time.

Between these two offerings was situated the one disappointment of the afternoon, Bohuslav Martinů’s H. 229 piano quintet. Marc Shapiro took the piano part, performing with the quartet of violinists Jessie Fellows and Mariko Smiley, violist Gina Cooper, and cellist Anne Pinsker. This quintet was composed in 1933, when Martinů was living in Paris. It was a time when a wide diversity of composers were all exploring ways to “liberate” dissonance. Martinů’s quintet abounded with such dissonances, but the SFS players never really caught on to how they still served underlying chord progressions through which one could sort out core thematic material from embellishments. This was one of those disappointing cases in which the players seemed to be making a dutiful effort to read the notes from the page, without paying attention to the syntax structuring all those notes. Thus, while the composer’s dissonances offered a generous supply of shock value, the intensity of the shock quickly diminished, leaving the listener with little else to draw attention.

Naxos Concludes Pfitzner Song Project

courtesy of Naxos of America

This coming Friday Naxos will release the fifth and final volume in its project to record the complete songs composed by Hans Pfitzner. This will again be a CD featuring a single vocalist: baritone Uwe Schenker-Primus, who was also the vocalist in the fourth volume. As on all four of the previous volumes, the pianist is Klaus Simon. As usual, is taking pre-orders for this new release.

Advance material from Naxos described this recording as “the final volume in a series that restores Pfitzner’s place amongst the most important Lieder composers of the late Romantic period.” Having completed the entire journey, I would like to offer an alternative perspective. Where the nineteenth century is concerned, I would say that the attentive listener is likely to experience some “reverberations” of songs composed by Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf. On the other hand I would be reluctant to add Richard Strauss to that list, while also recognizing him as one of “the most important Lieder composers of the late Romantic period.”

Instead, I am more interested in how art song progressed during the early decades of the twentieth century. In that context I suspect it would not be out of place to identify Pftizner as a “fellow traveler” along with Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, as well as the early efforts of Anton Webern. If that “fellow traveler” epithet is too extreme, then I think it would still not be out of place to conjecture that this German composer was more than slightly aware of rumblings emanating from Vienna!

Mind you, much of this album consists of songs composed after 1920, by which time those Second Viennese School rumblings were developing sharper edges. Pfitzner clearly did not want to venture into that territory. However, this was also a time when Pfitzner seemed to be gravitating away from vocal music, focusing more on instrumental music instead.

Sunset Music and Arts: April, 2022

Readers probably know by now that there has been a generous amount of variation in schedules for the current concert season. This site has done its best to keep up with those changes. However, the word does not always come through in time for it to be distributed to others. Nevertheless, since yesterday provided a “save the date” article about events at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in April, it seems appropriate to give the same consideration to Sunset Music and Arts, which often takes adventurous and innovative approaches to concert programming. With the usual subject-to-change-without-notice caveat, here are the current plans for dates, times, and performers in the coming month of April:

Sunday, April 3, 7 p.m.: Trio 180, which gave its last Sunset performance in March of 2019, will return. The members of this group are violinist Ann Miller, cellist Vicky Wang, and pianist Sonia Leong; and, as a group, they serve as the faculty piano-trio-in-residence at the University of the Pacific’s Conservatory of Music. During their last visit to Sunset, they performed Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 66 trio in C minor. For their return they will play his earlier trio, Opus 49 in D minor. They will begin the program with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 121a, known as the “Kakadu Variations,” which was the last of the composer’s works for piano trio to be published. Between these two selections, Trio 180 will play Frank Martin’s three-movement trio based on themes taken from popular Irish tunes.

[added 3/27, 9:20 a.m.:

Friday, April 22, 7:30 p.m.: Two bandoneon players, Ramiro Boero and Heyni Solera, will be joined by pianist Sumi Lee to present a program entitled A Tango Concert; program details have not yet been finalized.]

[deleted 3/27, 9:25 a.m.:

Saturday, April 23, 7:30 p.m.: Joseph Kingma, currently Assistant Professor of Piano at Palm Beach Atlantic University, will present a solo piano recital. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Sergei Rachmaninoff. The original version of his Opus 36 (second) sonata in B-flat minor will be preceded by three of his Études-Tableaux (study pictures) compositions. Two will be taken from the Opus 33 set, the second in C major and the fifth in E-flat minor. The remaining selection will be the ninth (final) movement, in D major, from Opus 39. These twentieth-century selections will be preceded by music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the first half of the program. Kingma will begin with Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 816, the fifth, in the key of G major, of his “French” suites. This will be followed by Beethoven’s Opus 57 (“Appassionata”) sonata in F minor.]

Friday, April 29, 7:30 p.m.: Two of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) divisions will share a program for their visit to the Sunset. Program details have not yet been announced. However, the roughly 40 girls between the ages of nine and thirteen will represent the Chorus School Level III, which is directed by Terry Alvord. They will be accompanied at the piano by Katelyn Tan. The Soloist Intensive singers are at the high school level and are part of the SFGC Premiere Ensemble. They are directed by Justin Montigne, and their piano accompanist will be Taylor Chan.

Saturday, April 30, 7:30 p.m.: The month will conclude with a duo recital by Egyptian-born violinist Basma Edrees and Iranian-American pianist Ava Nazar. They have been performing as a duo ever since they met at The Juilliard School, where both of them were pursuing Masters degrees. They have prepared a program celebrating the legacy of Astor Piazzolla, performing both arrangements and music explicitly composed for violin and piano.

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

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

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

DSO Live-Streams Imaginative Diversity

Because there are still times when I have to contend with disappointing cancellations here in San Francisco, I sometimes use the time available to revisit live-streamed performances by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). The ensemble has an impressive Live from Orchestra Hall video archive that was one of my first valuable resources in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. When I found out that my plans for last night involved a cancelled program, I decided to take advantage of the latest live-stream offering from DSO.

The program was prepared and conducted by Music Director Jader Bignamini; and, on this particular occasion, I was struck by the informative nature of spoken remarks he delivered to the audience. Usually, such editorializing tends to rub me the wrong way; but then I realized that those watching the live-stream did not have the program books that had been given to the audience in Orchestra Hall. Bignamini did not provide oral accounts of “learned essays;” but he did prepare those with little (if any) background for each of the three works on the program.

Those three works followed the usual overture-concerto-symphony plan. However, only the symphony was familiar to most of the audience (in Orchestra Hall, as well as cyberspace). That was Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major. With the advantage of video direction, it was possible for the viewer to become better acquainted with Bignamini’s techniques as a conductor. One came away with the impression that he had endowed each of the four movements with its own set of dispositions while also maintaining a sense of the whole emerging from those four parts.

Most interesting was when he set aside his baton for the second movement. This is the “slow movement” to which Beethoven gave the tempo marking Allegretto. This inconsistency seems to have been conceived by the composer as a means of calling attention to rich embellishments that emerge over a more stately and steady pace. Bignamini knew that maintaining that underlying pace could be left to the Concertmaster and section leaders; so he used both of his hands (and a generous amount of body language) to guide the ensemble through the shaping of those embellishments. Thus, while some may claim that there was too much repetition on the score pages, Bignamini focused on the immediacy in the details of every moment.

Mind you, that sense of immediacy prevailed over all four of the symphony’s movements. However, the spontaneity of tempo was more critical in the first, third, and fourth of those movements. Bignamini’s baton work allowed him to communicate that spontaneity to the entire ensemble, providing in-the-moment freshness to one of Beethoven’s most familiar symphonies.

Because Opus 92 is so familiar, Bignamini planned the first half of the program with “opportunities for discovery.” They began with the “overture,” which was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Opus 63 “Symphonic Variations on an African Air.” This may have been composed for one of his visits to the United States, where New York musicians came to refer to him as the “African Mahler.” (Bignamini shared that epithet with his audience, probably drawing upon the same Wikipedia resources as the rest of us!) One could readily appreciate the composer’s “free” approach to his variations and the rich diversity of his instrumentation. (The video direction did much to expose the video viewer to the richness of those approaches.)

Trumpeter Hunter Eberly playing Arutiunian’s concerto (screen shot from the performance being discussed)

The concerto soloist was DSO Principal Trumpet Hunter Eberly, performing a concerto composed by Alexander Arutiunian at the middle of the twentieth century. This was my first encounter with any trumpet concerto composed in the twentieth century. The structure followed the usual three-movement form; but the movements flowed into each other with no interruption. Thus, the concerto was “whole cloth,” which was easily “parsed” into “components.” Eberly discussed the popularity of this concerto when he was interviewed during an “intermission feature” for the video. Since I did not even know that it existed prior to yesterday, I clearly have much to learn about the brass repertoire!

Taken as a whole, the program that Bignamini prepared had just the right blend of familiarity and discovery, and I suspect that this will be far from my last encounter with DSO video offerings.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

SFCM Highlights: April, 2022

April promises to be a very busy month at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). For those that plan ahead for attending performances, sooner is almost always better than later. As usual, performances will be divided between the 50 Oak Street building, now known as the Ann Getty Center for Education, and the new Ute and William K. Bowes Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, located at 200 Van Ness Avenue. As in the past, all the events enumerated below will be identified by date, time, and venue, all of which will be hyperlinked to the appropriate Web page in the online Performance Calendar. It appears that live-streaming will continue to be an option. The specific Web page will provide a hyperlink if that option is available, as well as another hyperlink if tickets are required for attendance. Specifics for this month’s events are as follows:

Friday, April 1, 7:30 p.m., Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, 50 Oak Street: Brad Hogarth, Director of the SFCM Wind Ensemble has prepared a program that will feature vocal participation. Faculty member and soprano Rhoslyn Jones will be the soloist in the final selection, Songs from the End of the World, composed by John Mackey. This will be preceded by John Adams’ “Grand Pianola Music,” a delightfully raucous composition that requires (to paraphrase Peter Schickele) an awful lot of winds, brass and percussion, along with two pianos and three sopranos, who, for my generation at least, are likely to sound as if they are channeling The Supremes. The program will begin with “Driven!,” composed by Kenneth Amis. Hogarth will share the podium with student conductor David Baker.

Saturday, April 9, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, April 10, 2 p.m., Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, 50 Oak Street: This Historical Performance program, led by cellist Elisabeth Reed and keyboardist Corey Jamason, will draw upon vocalists from the Opera and Musical Theatre program for a performance of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 17 opera Giulio Cesare.

Tuesday, April 12, 7:30 p.m., Barbro Osher Recital Hall, 200 Van Ness Avenue: Chamber Music Tuesday will feature the usual side-by-side performances of students in the Chamber Music Program with faculty members. The participating faculty members will be violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, both members of the Telegraph Quartet, and Ian Swensen, and violist Dimitri Murrath. The program will begin with “Lyric for Strings,” the second movement of George Walker’s first string quartet. This will be followed by Fanny Mendelssohn’s only string quartet. The second half of the program will consist only of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 81, his second piano quintet in the key of A major.

Saturday, April 23, 7:30 p.m., Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, 50 Oak Street: Edwin Outwater will conduct the Orchestra in a performance of the longest and biggest of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. The third symphony requires not only a large orchestra but also an alto solo and two choirs, one of women and the other of boys. The soloist has not yet been named. However, both the San Francisco Girls Chorus and the San Francisco Boys Chorus will perform alongside the members of the Conservatory Chorus. This will be the final Orchestra concert of the season.

Sunday, April 24, 7:30 p.m., SFJAZZ Miner Auditorium, 201 Franklin Street: Because this performance will not be taking place at an SFCM facility, it will not be live-streamed. SFJAZZ will be presenting a Joe Henderson Festival, honoring the four-decade career of one of the most valued musicians to record on Blue Note during the Sixties. (As I write this I am listening to his contribution to the moderately large ensemble that pianist Herbie Hancock assembled in 1969 to record “The Prisoner.”) As in the past, the students in the Roots, Jazz, and American Music Department (RJAM) will perform with the members of the SFJAZZ Collective.

Thursday, April 28, and Friday, April 29, 7:30 p.m., Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, 50 Oak Street: The month will conclude with the latest opera to be staged by Heather Mathews. The Enchanted Pig is an opera composed by Jonathan Dove with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton. The narrative is basically an amalgam of Romanian and Norwegian folk tales about the complexities of love. The conductor will be Curt Pajer.

Another “Sullivan without Gilbert” Naxos Reissue

courtesy of Naxos of America

Readers may recall that, a little less than a year ago, this site reported on the reissue by Naxos of a Marco Polo recording of music for ballet composed by Arthur Sullivan. The album had been produced through Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), the public service broadcaster based in Dublin, Ireland, with Andrew Penny conducting the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. This coming Friday Naxos will reissue a second album produced under the same circumstances with the same resources, this time presenting works that Sullivan had written as incidental music for stage performances. As is usually the case, is currently taking pre-orders for this reissue.

The album consists of three sets of such incidental music. It begins with a concert suite of music for William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which includes two choral settings of Shakespeare’s words from the fourth act, both involving witches and spirits. The final set provides music for the fifth act of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, augmented with text by Algernon Charles Swinburne. Between these two offerings is a set of choruses for a King Arthur play with texts by J. Comyns Carr. These selections were edited for performance as a choral suite by Wilfred Bendall after Sullivan’s death.

My guess is that this reissue will not draw a flood of enthusiastic listeners. Nevertheless, there are any number of passionate followers of performances of the Sullivan operettas for which W. S. Gilbert supplied the words. Many of those enthusiasts may well have memorized every note that Sullivan ever set for Gilbert. Chances are that at least some of them will be curious about what Sullivan composed without Gilbert and will want to know what else is available beyond the ballet music he had composed. Those avid Sullivan fans will probably be all too happy to add this new album of incidental music to their collections.

Gandelsman Never Fires on a Single Cylinder

Violinist Johnny Gandelsman (photograph by Shervin Lainez, courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

There is much to be said for how, at the launch of the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Sanctuary Series at the beginning of this month, bass-baritone Dashon Burton turned a problematic situation (recent recovery from a non-COVID related illness) into a memorable, albeit foreshortened, one. Such prevailing over adversity was so absent during the second Sanctuary Series program, a solo recital by violinist Johnny Gandelsman, that one could not help but wonder if his “secret mission” had been to create adversity. While his technical skills were, for the most part, straightforward, it was hard to avoid wondering whether his approach to performance had been calculated to provoke, if not offend, his audience. (To be fair, from my vantage point in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, I saw only one member of the audience make a discreet exit, which took place before Gandelsman’s program had hit its halfway mark.)

Gandelsman used most of that program to showcase six new works he commissioned through his This Is America project. One of those pieces, “O,” composed by Clarice Assad, which was jointly commissioned by Gandelsman and SFP, was given its world premiere performance. Sadly, to get to “O” the listener had to negotiate compositions by Conrad Tao (“Stones”), Ebun Oguntola (“Reflections”), and Tyshawn Sorey (“For Courtney Bryan”), the first two of which were given rambling (and often inchoate) introductory recorded accounts by the composers.

In other words, by the time Gandelsman turned his attention to “O,” mind had pretty much lost the capacity to tease signal out of noise. A similar fate befell the following offering, “A través del manto Luminoso” (through the luminous mantle) by Angélica Negrón. Only the foot-stomping fiddling of “New to the Session” by Rhiannon Giddens provided a comfort zone to wrap up the evening’s ordeal.

At the other extreme, Gandelsman warmed up his provocations with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Ironically, he selected his own transcription of the BWV 1009 solo cello suite. (Spoiler alert: Matt Haimovitz will play this music on the cello one week from this evening at the final Sanctuary Series concert.) Gandelsman’s attention seemed to be an intense focus on technical challenges. It does not seem to have occurred to him that, following the Prelude, all the movements are named after dance forms; and, as Elizabeth Blumenstock observed at a Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Bach really knew his dances. For Gandelsman the music seemed to be little more than a string of notes, one of which deliberately enabled a segue from one movement to its successor without the slightest pause.

As the old joke goes: Gandelsman played Bach last night, and Bach lost!

Friday, February 18, 2022

Sometimes Words Just Get in the Way

courtesy of Unison Media

One week from today Erato will release its latest album of performances by mezzo Joyce DiDonato. The title of the album is EDEN (caps part of the title); and it is the latest product of an artist seriously concerned with how to cope in the midst of a pandemic. As usual, has created a Web page for processing pre-orders.

Those that have followed this site over the last two years know that I have encountered any number of performances, physical as well as virtual, by artists determined to cope with pandemic conditions by drawing upon their creative talents. The Amazon Web page includes the following quote from DiDonato:

EDEN is an invitation to return to our roots. It is an overture to engage with the sheer perfection of the world around us, to consider if we are connecting as profoundly as we can to the pure essence of our being. It is a clarion call to contemplate if our collective suffering isn't perhaps linked to the aching separation from something primal within and around us. This is a vivid musical exploration through the centuries to remember and to create a new EDEN from within.

I am afraid that I do not respond well to such verbiage. At my most irritable, I tend to refer to it as “granola logic” (which is probably unfair to granola, which at least has nutritional value). More fundamentally, however, I have come to belief that, in such uncertain times, the music that has the greatest impact tends not to be burdened down by words. Thus, while there is no denying that EDEN is a product of good intentions, we know the usual cautionary advice about such intentions.

Fortunately, most of the tracks provide vocal works from different past periods of music history, with Giovanni Valentini (seventeenth century) at one end and Aaron Copland (twentieth century) at the other. However, the second track is a world premiere recording of “The First Morning of the World,” composed by Rachel Portman working with a text by Gene Scheer. When compared with all of the other tracks on the album, this is the one offering that feels as if it is going on forever; and I am not about to conjecture how much of the blame is due to words and how much to music. By the time I had hit the halfway mark in the text, I could think only of that series of albums released by Frank Zappa under the general title Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar!

The sad thing is that the album gets off to a splendid start. DiDonato’s accompanying ensemble, Il Pomo d’Oro, plays Charles Ives “The Unanswered Question.” However, the “inquisitive” trumpet part is taken over by DiDonato. Fortunately, she vocalizes with the same deadpan delivery that one encounters in the original score, in which the persistent neutrality of the trumpet “question” is met with annoyed frustration among an ensemble of flutes. In planning out the overall program of this new CD, DiDonato seems to have overlooked Ives’ point that the only “answer” to the trumpet’s question is a still silence.