Thursday, March 31, 2022

E4TT to Present Six World Premieres

Following up on last month’s performance at the Center for New Music which featured eleven women composers (Emily Doolittle, Du Yun, Elena Ruehr, Gabriela Ortiz, Angélica Negron, Lisa Bielawa, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Akshaya Avril Tucker, Jungyoon Wie, Seo Yoon Kim, and Manjing Zhang), next month Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) will present world premieres of six works commissioned by the group. Those compositions, their composers, and required resources will be as follows:

  1. Shimmer, Vivan Fung, percussion
  2. Four-Vectors, David Garner, cello, vibraphone, and bass
  3. HydroCosmic Echoes, Stephanie Neumann, cello, vibraphone, bass, piano, and fixed media
  4. Where the Sun Blazes Like an Immortal Being, Kim (again), solo cello
  5. A Mind in the Branches, Nicholas Denton Protsack, soprano, cello, bass, vibraphone, and piano
  6. Umbra, Andrew Harlan, solo bass and electronics

The performers will be the three E4TT musicians (soprano Nanette McGuinness, cellist Abigail Monroe, and pianist Margaret Halbig), joined by percussionist Mika Nakamura and Yuchen Liu on bass.

The program will also present the winning score from a competition held by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) for students in the Technology and Applied Composition Department. The remaining works on the program will involve solo performances. Monroe will play Milad Yousufi’s “Mystery;” and Halbig will play inti figgis-vizuetta’s “a bride between starshine and clay” and Eric Moe’s “Where Branched Thoughts Murmur in the Wind.” Given the prodigious size of this repertoire, the concert will be preceded by a panel discussion led by Jack Dumbacher, who will interview all six of the commissioned composers.

The performance will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 9, with the panel discussion beginning at 7 p.m. The venue will be the Cha Chi Ming Recital Hall in the new Bowes Center SFCM building, which is located at 200 Van Ness Avenue. There will be no charge for admission. However, those wishing to attend are advised to make reservations through the hyperlink on the SFCM event page for this concert. That Web page also includes a hyperlink for live-stream viewing.

Lang Lang Plays Bach; Bach Loses

Last night pianist Lang Lang returned to Davies Symphony Hall for the latest installment in the Great Performers Series presented by the San Francisco Symphony. The program book listed only one selection, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 variations on an aria theme, best known as the “Goldberg Variations.” In all likelihood the program was planned as a follow-up to Lang Lang’s “Deluxe Edition” album of BWV 988, released by Deutsche Grammophon at the beginning of this past September. This was a four-CD collection with two CDs allocated to a studio performance and another two containing a single-take recording of the music performed in recital at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, where Bach worked as Kapellmeister (music director) from 1723 until his death in 1750.

My first encounter with BWV 988 in performance took place when I was living in Israel in the early Seventies. However, since I have undertaken my writing gig, I have accumulated a fair number of recordings and attended a fewer number of recital performances. In that moderately rich context, the experience that stands out the most is the performance that András Schiff gave in Davies in October of 2013. The booklet for that recital included a variation-by-variation account of a “journey” for both performer and listener, and I now keep that booklet in the same folder as my CD recordings.

Listening to Lang Lang performing this music in Leipzig, I never had much of a sense of a journey. Nevertheless, there was a clarity to his account of the bass line that definitely fell in line with Schiff’s approach to the music. More important is that his overall rhetoric involved a sensitivity that I had not encountered in previous Lang Lang performances. His account of the 25th variation, given an explicit Adagio tempo marking, may have distinguished itself with a duration significantly longer than any of the other variations; but that duration did not disrupt any sense of overall flow.

Sadly, Lang Lang in San Francisco was a far cry from Lang Lang in Leipzig. Many of his familiar antics were back in play with exaggerated approaches to both dynamics and phrasing that ran the gamut from merely annoying to painfully aggravating. The duration of the Adagio variation may have filled the same clock time as it occupied in Leipzig; but, in last night’s rhetorical context, it felt as if it endured forever.

Indeed, duration seemed to weigh heavily on much of the audience over the course of the performance. The first signs of people leaving their seats to exit the hall arose long before the “Overture” variation that marks the halfway point. The rate of departure was never more than a modest flow; but it was clear that many (most?) in the audience felt that they had enough long before the performance of BWV 988 had concluded.

My guess is that Lang Lang was aware of this audience behavior. However, he probably also knew that the original title page stated that the music was composed (in English translation) “for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits” and accepted that no concert hall (at least in this country) is ever filled with connoisseurs! This may explain why he took his “first encore” before beginning BWV 988.

I call this an “encore,” because it was not listed in the program. The selection was Robert Schumann’s Opus 18 “Arabeske” in C major. To some extent it left the impression that Lang Lang was warming up his mannerisms before unleashing them on BWV 988, but at least the Schumann selection had the virtue of brevity.

The most pleasant surprise came at the every end of the evening. The encore that followed BWV 988 was the Chinese folk melody “Mo Li Hua” (jasmine flower). This is probably the most familiar citation of traditional Chinese music that Giacomo Puccini appropriated for his Turandot opera. (It is sung by a children’s chorus during the first act.) Lang Lang’s account was a bit heavy on the embellishment. However, the overall rhetoric was one of quietude, which was most welcome after such a heavy-handed and disconcerting approach to Bach.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

SFP Guitar Series to Conclude with Romeros

Pepe and Celin Romero with the “next generation” Romeros Lito and Celino (courtesy of SFP)

The San Francisco Performances (SFP) Guitar Series, presented in association with the OMNI Foundation for the Performing Arts, will conclude next month with the return of The Romeros. According to my records, this quartet last appeared in December of 2014. The ensemble was originally founded by Celedonio Romero, performing with his sons Celin, Pepe, and Angel. Celedonio died in May of 1996. Celin and Pepe are now the only remaining founding members, performing with Celin’s son Celino and Angel’s son Lito.

Readers may recall that, when this program was first announced, it included selections from the repertoire of Spanish songs with mezzo Isabel Leonard appearing as guest artist. Unfortunately, Leonard will not be able to appear next month. As a result, the entire program will be instrumental.

While The Romeros have given world premiere performances of many important additions to the guitar repertoire, much of the program involves arrangements of music for other resources. However, this program will conclude with an original composition by Pepe (“De Cádiz a la habana”), preceded by one by Celedonio (“Fantasia cubana”). As in the past, many of the arrangements will be based on piano music by Spanish composers, such as Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 8. It will take place in Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. This venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel.

Ticket prices are $70 (premium Orchestra and front and center Dress Circle), $55 (remainder of Orchestra, all Side Boxes, and center rear Dress Circle), and $45 (remaining Dress Circle and Balcony); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page. As available, single tickets will be sold at the door with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors. Single tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

SFS and Salonen Announce 2022–23 Season

As I write this, it is probably the case that all those holding any subscription package for the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) have already received electronic mail notifying them that subscription packages for the 2022–23 season are now on sale. (I assume that anyone reading this also receives and reads electronic mail!) The full scope of the season’s programming is now available for viewing through the Calendar Web page, but that site is not easily browsed. As a result, I always seem to find myself at a loss when it comes to finding the “sweet spot” between saying too much or saying too little. As a result, I shall try to take my guidance from the topical organization of this morning’s press release in order to inform readers of some of the more interesting aspects of the coming season.

The primary focus of each season is, of course, SFS itself and its Orchestral Series. Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen will take the podium in a variety of capacities:

  • He will lead world premiere performances of three new works. Titles have not yet been assigned, but the composers will be Samuel Adams, Magnus Lindberg, and Trevor Weston, the 2021 winner of the Emerging Black Composer Project competition. Salonen will also conduct the United State premiere of Daniel Kidane’s suite Precipice Dances.
  • Salonen will conduct two weeks of programming in October appropriate to the Halloween holiday. Selections will include the suite that Béla Bartók extracted from his score for the one-act pantomime ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin.” There will also be a suite based on the music that Bernard Herrmann composed for the film Psycho. The other selections will include Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique,” Heinz Karl (HK) Gruber’s “Frankenstein!!,” described as a “pan-demonium,” Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz,” and Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”
  • The soloists that Salonen will conduct include Collaborative Partner Julia Bullock. Returning guests will be Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Michelle DeYoung, Lang Lang, Igor Levit, and Yuja Wang. Soloists making debut performances at these Series concerts will be Bertrand Chamayou, Randall Goosby, Conor Hanick, Christopher Purves, and Golda Schultz.
  • Composers from the “general repertoire canon” will be (in alphabetical order) Bartók (“Concerto for Orchestra”), Ludwig van Beethoven (the Opus 55 “Eroica” symphony in E-flat major), Berlioz (as above), Anton Bruckner (sixth symphony in A major), Gustav Mahler (C-minor “Resurrection” symphony), Jean Sibelius (Opus 82 in E-flat major), Richard Strauss (“Also sprach Zarathustra”), and the complete score that Igor Stravinsky composed for the ballet “The Firebird.”

In addition this coming June will mark the beginning of a four-year partnership with director Peter Sellars, who will stage Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio “Oedipus rex.” One year later Sellars will stage Kaija Saariaho’s one-act opera “Adriana Mater.” Plans are in the works for the following two years and will be announced once more is known.

There will also be three offerings of a special nature:

  1. As may be guessed, one of these will be the Opening Night Gala, with festivities taking place both before and after the Opening Night Concert, which will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 23. The program has not yet been announced. This year that performance will again be preceded by the All San Francisco concert, which is offered to community groups and social service organizations by invitation only. Those interested in being invited should send electronic mail to, preferably prior to September.
  2. Lang will be the first of two “special guests,” serving as soloist in a performance of Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto on the same program at which Salonen will conduct Sibelius’ Opus 82 (fifth) symphony in E-flat major.
  3. The other “special guest” will also be a pianist. Wang will be the soloist in a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 30 (third) piano concerto in D minor. This program will also include Salonen conducting “Nyx,” one of his own compositions.

Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) will conduct four of the SFS subscription programs. Three soloists will perform with him. Of greatest interest is that Gautier Capuçon will be the solo cellist in the United States premiere of a cello concerto composed by Danny Elfman. The other visiting arts will be pianists. Emanuel Ax will perform Johannes Brahms’ Opus 15 (first) piano concerto in D minor; and Jean-Yves Thibaudet will perform Claude Debussy’s “Fantasie” for piano and orchestra. MTT’s repertoire for his visit will also include works by Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Olivier Messiaen, Mahler, and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

There will also be two premiere performances presented by other conductors:

  1. Giancarlo Guerrero will lead the West Coast premiere of Julia Wolfe’s “Her Story,” which was co-commissioned by SFS. This work includes a libretto, which invokes the words of historical figures and the spirit of pivotal moments to pay tribute to the centuries of ongoing struggle for equal rights, representation, and access to democracy for women in America. The vocal parts will be performed by the Lorelei Ensemble.
  2. Edwin Outwater will lead SFS in the premiere of another vocal selection. This will be Gabriel Kahane’s song cycle emergency shelter intake form. Kahane’s objective was to explore the perpetuation of systemic inequity and homelessness. He will be one of the vocalists, joined by Holland Andrews, Holcombe Waller and mezzo Alicia Hall Moran.

Finally, pianist Levitt will be this coming season’s Artist-in-Residence. He will perform two piano concertos with SFS with a wide difference in familiarity. Most likely the audience will already be familiar with Beethoven’s Opus 73 (fifth) concerto in E-flat major. On the other hand I suspect that only a handful know that Ferruccio Busoni composed a piano concerto (his Opus 39); and even fewer may know that the performance requires a male chorus. (For the record, as they say, I am only aware of this music through a CD; and I do not think I have encountered anyone who experienced this music in concert performance.) Levitt’s residency will also include a solo recital in the Great Performers Series and participation in an SFS Chamber Music program.

Further information about the Great Performers Series, as well as the Shenson Spotlight Series and the programs for the SFS Youth Orchestra, let by Wattis Foundation Music Director Daniel Stewart, will be forthcoming as the plans are finalized.

Single tickets will go on sale on July 16.

Maria Canals Winner Plays Soler: Volume 10

courtesy of Naxos of America

Almost two years have elapsed since this site reported on the Naxos release of the ninth volume in its current (and second) project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Antonio Soler. This project was organized around piano performances played by prize-winning pianists from the annual Maria Canals International Music Competition in Barcelona. The pianist featured on the ninth volume was Armenian-born Levon Avagyan, who won First Prize (as well as the audience prize and several further special awards) at the 2017 Competition.

Earlier this month Naxos released the tenth volume in this series, which is accounting for all 120 sonatas in numerical order. Readers may recall that the ninth volume marked a major shift in Soler’s approach to composition. While the first 90 sonatas were all single-movement compositions, the last two sonatas on that volume were structured in four movements, the first two in a collection published as Opus 4. Following conventions in both Italy and Vienna, Opus 4 was a collection of six sonatas; and the new recording consists entirely of the next three from this set: Number 3 in F major, Number 4 in G major, and Number 5 in A major. Structurally, all five of these sonatas follow a similar structural pattern for the four movements:

  1. Slow
  2. Fast
  3. Two minuets
  4. Fast

It would be fair to say that, from his “vantage point” at the royal palace of King Philip II of Spain, Soler was definitely influenced by the eighteenth-century practices to the east, particularly in Vienna. Nevertheless, he continued to exercise his own “Spanish rhetoric” and his characteristically challenging virtuoso technique. In that context, the pianist on this tenth volume, Evgeny Konnov (born in Uzbekistan), can be credited with “taking up the torch” of the pianists featured on the first nine volumes. Like his predecessors, he had won the first prize at the 64th Maria Canals International Music Competition in Barcelona, which took place in 2018; and his performances of these three sonatas were recorded for Naxos in December of 2019 in the Spanish city of Lloret de Mar.

In other words this new album was ready for release prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since the ninth volume had been released in April of 2019, Naxos had probably planned the new release to take place about a year later. Unfortunately, after those twelve months had elapsed, the pandemic had put an end to “business as usual,” which probably included the scheduling of the Canals Competition. Hopefully, this new recording is a sign that the overall project is back “on the road again;” and plans are being prepared for selecting the performers for the remaining 25 sonatas in the Soler canon.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Albany Consort: BWV 211 for JSB’s Birthday

In reviewing my archives I discovered that my “first contact” with a celebration of the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (JSB) took place at a Noontime Concerts™ event at Old St. Mary's Cathedral and also involved my “first contact” with the Albany Consort. That was in March of 2009, marking Bach’s 324th birthday; and the celebration involved a performance of Bach’s BWV 211 secular cantata “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” (once freely translated by a poet friend of mine as “All right, you guys, shut up;  and listen to me!”), known more familiarly as the "Coffee Cantata." PIcander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), better known for his texts for the sacred cantatas, prepared a text involving a father (Herr Schlendrian) who cannot abide by his daughter Liegen’s coffee fix; but she gets the better of him when she demands that her marriage contract include the right to drink three cups of coffee every day.

This year marks Bach’s 337th birthday; and, once again, The Albany Consort is celebrating with a Noontime Concerts™ program concluding with BWV 211. This time, however, the celebration is on a YouTube video recorded to an “empty house” in Old St. Mary’s, due to pandemic conditions. Jonathan Salzedo is still the director, leading the performance from his harpsichord. The vocalists are bass Ben Kazez as Schlendrian, soprano Rita Lilly as Liegen, and tenor Corey Head as the narrator delivering the opening lines and sporting a Starbuck’s-style apron. The instrumentalists are flutist Lars Johannesson, violinists Joe Edberg, Rachel Hurwitz, and Daria D’Andrea, violist Alisa Stutzbach, cellist Farley Pearce, Roy Whelden on violone, and Marion Rubinstein at the organ.

BWV 211 was preceded by two instrumental selections by Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann, respectively, each represented by a concerto. The program began with Bach’s BWV 1044 concerto in A minor for flute, violin, and harpsichord, all three of whose movements were appropriated from other sources. The first and last movements are the keyboard prelude and fugue from BWV 894 in A minor, while the middle movement comes from the slow movement of the BWV 527 trio sonata for organ in D minor. Salzedo observed that the harpsichord is the leading soloist in this concerto, leaving it to other instruments to provide accompaniment.

Lars Johannesson and Marion Rubinstein as soloists on flute and recorder, with violinist Rachel Hurwitz and Jonathan Salzedo at the harpsichord (screen shot from the video being discussed)

The Telemann concerto was TWV 52:e1 with recorder (Rubinstein) and flute as the soloists. Salzedo observed that there are few compositions in which both recorder and flute perform at the same time. In that context it is worth observing that the sonorous blend of these two instruments could not have been more satisfying. This may have been Telemann’s way of showing off his skills with an unanticipated technique. In that respect it is probably slightly ironic that his ingenuity should have been harnessed in the celebration of Bach’s birthday!

Haimovitz’ First PRIMAVERA Album

Having written about the album PRIMAVERA II - the rabbits at the beginning of this month, I decided that the end of the month would be a good time to catch up on things and listen to PRIMAVERA I - the wind. Taken together, these are the first two releases in THE PRIMAVERA PROJECT, conceived by cellist Matt Haimovitz to commission 81 new solo cello works, each around five to ten minutes in duration. Like PRIMAVERA II, PRIMAVERA I consists of fourteen compositions, meaning that 28 of the 81 commissions have now been fulfilled.

Each of those compositions serves as a “response” to the “call” of a region of a large canvas by Charline von Heyl, itself as “response” to Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera painting. The region of the canvas addressed by PRIMAVERA II was entitled “the rabbits,” while PRIMAVERA I “responds” to the region entitled “the wind,” illustrated on the “album cover” as follows:

Once again, the “scare quotes” refer to the fact that both recordings are currently available only for download. Also once again, the most reliable download site is the Web page on the Presto Music Web site, which includes an image of the “cover” with a hyperlink for enlarging. Once again (for the third time), no digital booklet is included with the download; and, while there is a Web page with both track listing and program notes, the notes do not adequately account for all of the tracks (which was also the case for the second album).

Readers may recall that I first became aware of this project through a solo cello recital that Haimovitz performed for San Francisco Performances, entitled, appropriately enough, Primavera. That recital accounted for five of the tracks on PRIMAVERA II. PRIMAVERA I includes one of the compositions that he played at this recital, Vijay Iyer’s “Equal Night.” In all fairness, however, given that the recital took place at the end of February, I cannot claim any flashes of familiarity that struck while I was listening to PRIMAVERA I.

The fact is that, when I listened to PRIMAVERA II, that performance had not yet faded from memory. As a result, there were at least a few flashes of familiarity that struck while I was listening to the album. Sadly, PRIMAVERA I was not similarly reinforced. As a result, that first album did not hold or sustain my attention particularly well; and, by the time I had worked my way through half of the fourteen tracks, attention had begun to lapse into one-damned-thing-after-another mode.

This is more than a little regrettable. After all, composers are supposed to compose; and commissions supply them with the means to focus on composition, rather than worrying about paying the rent. The more critical question is: What happens after the composition is finished? In this particular case what were Haimovitz’ “work practices” after he received a new work? How much of it involved communicating with the composer? How much involved the composer listening to the music being performed? Providing useful answers to these questions requires time, most likely a generous share, rather than a merely adequate one.

One can appreciate the potential value of this project, particularly if it was launched under pandemic conditions. However, (to evoke some physics lingo) the transition from “potential” to “kinetic” (as in active performance) is rarely an efficient one. The musicologist in me wonders whether or not Haimovitz has been keeping a diary as this project continues to proceed. Those of us committed to listening to these new compositions have our work cut out for ourselves, but how much work did Haimovitz put in before invoking our commitment as listeners? For that matter, what was the nature of that necessary work?

There is a lot more to listening that clicking a PLAY button!

The Bleeding Edge: 3/28/2022

Apparently, there has not been a Bleeding Edge column since the beginning of this month, perhaps because that article also included this month’s schedule of performances at the Center for New Music. Ironically, now that we have come to the final Monday of the month, the most important Bleeding Edge item was already announced yesterday, given the significance of an evening of three adventurous sets hosted by Adobe Books. Fortunately, there is one other event taking place this week that deserves attention.

The gig is not only on the Bleeding Edge but also off the beaten path, since it will be hosted by the Bayview Opera House. It will be a performance by the MCS Trio, whose name is based on the last names of the three players: David McFarland on electric guitar, Edo Castro on seven-string bass, and Zendrum master E. Doctor Smith (not to be confused with the science-fiction author E. E. “Doc” Smith). The Zendrum is basically a MIDI controller that is used as a percussion instrument, and Smith has a Web page with a photograph of different form factors for his performances:

courtesy of E. Doctor Smith

The Bayview Opera House is located at 4705 Third Street and is easily accessible from the Third Street (T) trolley line. The performance will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, April 2. The price of admission will be $15.

Catching Up with the Met Opera on PBS

For several years I have set up my Xfinity service to record broadcasts of Great Performances at the Met. These are “live” performances by the Metropolitan Opera captured on high-definition video. Usually, that video is first transmitted to select venues, primarily movie theaters, for the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series. However, the videos are recorded, archived, and then usually turned over at a later date to PBS for the aforementioned broadcast.

This season marked the return of performances by the Metropolitan Opera, and the first of the productions to be transmitted as Live in HD was a new staging of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov produced by Stephen Wadsworth and conducted by Sebastian Weigle. The Met decided to present the version based on the original score, which Mussorgsky completed in 1869. The music subsequently went through a series of revisions, first by Mussorgsky himself in 1872, followed by two revisions by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov in 1896 and 1908. (Dimitri Shostakovich would later take his own approach to revision in 1940.)

The original version consisted of four “Parts;” and Wadsworth’s staging presented them without any intermissions. The overall duration was about two and one-quarter hours. Part 1 consists of two scenes, the first involving an anxious crowd receiving reports of extended deliberations over the choice of a new tsar and second presenting Boris’ coronation. Part 2 is a subplot about Grigorly, a novice in the Chudov Monastery, who imagines that he is the rightful heir to the throne and flees across the Lithuanian border to lay plans for usurping the throne. (In the original version that is the last we see of him.) Part 3 consists of a single scene devoted to “family life” in the Kremlin and Boris’ uneasy head that bears the crown. The final part also consists of two scenes. The first, which takes place before the Cathedral of the Intercession, involves a yuródivyy (Holy Fool), who accuses Boris of having murdered the rightful heir to the throne, followed by the second scene in which Boris dies, apparently of grief and/or guilt.

Mussorgsky wrote his own libretto, drawing upon both Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and the History of the Russian State by Nikolay Karamzin. His decision to structure the opera as a series of disjointed episodes suggests that he was more interested in reflecting on history, rather than narrating it. The subsequent versions of the score and libretto were basically efforts to provide clearer narration. Presumably, Mussorgsky originally assumed that audiences would be familiar with the basic history behind the narrative, while later versions of the libretto compensated for unfamiliarity with that “basic history.”

Thus, appreciating the original version would probably be problematic for contemporary audiences, even those in Russia. Rather than trying to figure out how to provide explanatory background, Wadsworth decided to focus on the wide spectrum of dispositions that unfold during the four Parts of the score. Primarily, this involves the wide gulf between Boris himself and the vast number of Russian people for whom governance was an obtuse mystery. Wadsworth establishes this imbalance of perspectives by bringing the yuródivyy into the very opening scene and making a presence in every subsequent crowd scene. This builds up an inertia when the yuródivyy finally comes face-to-face with Boris, beginning the monarch’s path of steep descent.

From a musical point of view, Boris is at the center of the narrative, even when he is not on stage. Bass René Pape’s realization of this character was so intense that memories of his presence would reverberate even when he was not on stage. Thus, when we see Boris overcome by guilt during Part 4:

we realize that even during his coronation, he was anticipating a tragic conclusion to this reign:

Both images taken from the Metropolitan Opera Web page for this opera production

Wadsworth thus took a mere skeleton of a narrative and realized it through a plot-line of gradual, but inevitable, descent, expressed primarily through development of the title character. As a result, while the libretto itself may be more fragmented than one expects, Wadsworth’s staging was consistently compelling in its coherence. There could not be a better reminder that opera only lives though a healthy engagement between the music and the staging.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Adobe Books to Host Another Adventurous Gig

Jacob Felix Heule and Tom Djll (from the Facebook Events page for the event being discussed)

Readers may recall that, prior to the onset of pandemic conditions, Adobe Books was a major venue for hosting adventurous musical performances, frequently with electronic gear and far-out approaches to improvisation. The spirit of those gigs seemed to return to life this past December, when Tom Djll performed “INDETERMINACY,” reviving the spirit of John Cage performances based on personal storytelling. This Thursday Djll will return to Adobe, performing in one of the three adventurous trios that will be allocated sets. He will play trumpet with attachments to electronic gear in a trio, whose other members will be percussionist Jacob Felix Heule and Clarke Robinson on electronics.

Another set will be taken by the Evidence Trio, whose members are Kersti Abrams (alto saxophone and flute), Andrew Joron (theremin), and Thomas Harrison (bass). The third trio to perform will double its size with three guest artists. The members of the Diaspora Focii Trio are Kersti (alto saxophone and flute), Jaroba (bass clarinet and tenor saxophone), and Mika Pontecorvo (guitar and electronics). They will be joined by Eli Pontecorvo on bass, Colleen Kelly T on cello, and Zach Morris on percussion.

This performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Thursday, March 31. Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street. This is one of those venues where no one will be turned away for lack of funds. However, donations of $10 are suggested and will all go directly to the performing artists. 

Snowden Marks Omni’s Return from Pandemic

Last night Richard Patterson, Founder and Director of the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts, welcomed the audience in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to the first public concert to be offered since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was one of the concerts that Omni shared with the San Francisco Performances Guitar Series. That Series was originally scheduled to begin this past February 12, but the Dublin Guitar Quartet had to be cancelled due to travel concerns related to the pandemic.

Guitarist Laura Snowden (photograph by Ioannis Theodoridis, courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Last night’s concert was a solo recital by guitarist Laura Snowden, marking her San Francisco debut. Born in York to a French mother and English father, her first influences were Celtic music. Her Wikipedia page describes her as “one of the leading classical guitarists of her generation since being handpicked by Julian Bream to continue his legacy of performing new commissions by leading contemporary composers.” Sadly, that legacy was not in evidence on her program, which, instead, included four of her own compositions.

The high point of the program came at the very beginning of the evening with her performance of Fernando Sor’s Opus 9, “Introduction and Variations on a Theme by Mozart.” Ironically, the theme is taken from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute, where it is played by Papageno on his magic bells accompanying the chorus “Das klinget so herrlich” (that sounds so splendid). Sor prefaced the theme with an extended introduction and livened up Mozart’s rhythms with dotted-eighth-sixteenth couplings. However, the variations are demanding; and Snowden found just the right expressive rhetoric for each of them.

Sadly, none of the remaining selections were as engaging as that set of variations. Snowden’s first offering of her own music, “The changing sky,” seemed to involve her vocalizing along with her playing, making for some haunting sonorities. However, like the other three of her offerings, this piece was limited in expressiveness. Sadly, that included her first performance of “Home,” which she composed as a memorial for Bream. Similarly, the other composers on the program, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Johann Kaspar Mertz, Lennox Berkeley, and Agustín Barrios, were given dutiful, but not particularly compelling, accounts.

Nevertheless, her audience was appreciative and was rewarded with an encore, her own arrangement of the folk tune “The Parting Glass.”

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Monteiro Ventures into Less Familiar Repertoire

courtesy of Etcetera Records

According to my records, I have been following recordings made by violinist Bruno Monteiro and pianist João Paulo Santos since I wrote about their Brilliant Classics album of the complete music for violin and piano composed by Karol Szymanowski in April of 2015. Since that time Monteiro has led me into domains of repertoire about which I knew little, if anything. His latest album, released by Etcetera Records, amounts to a “sandwich” of “familiar meat” enclosed by two “slices” of the unfamiliar.

This is the second album he has recorded after moving from Brilliant Classics to Etcetera Records. As I had observed when I wrote about his first Etcetera release of music for violin and piano by Igor Stravinsky, this is a bit disadvantageous for those interested in Monteiro’s recordings. According to Google, these albums are available on the Web only through the Etcetera Web site. Fortunately, an Etcetera Web page for purchasing Monteiro’s latest album shows up on a Google search. However, Etcetera is based in Belgium, meaning that payment is in euros; and, given that pandemic conditions still prevail, it is unclear how efficient delivery will be.

This is unfortunate, since the album is a delightful journey of discovery. The “familiar meat” of the “sandwich” is Maurice Ravel’s second violin sonata in the key of G major, a composition that continues to receive far less attention than it deserves. It is followed by another “second sonata,” this one composed by Heitor Villa-Lobos in 1914. (The composer actually called this composition a “sonate-fantaisie.”) The Brazilian Villa-Lobos is complemented by the opening selection by the Portuguese composer Luís de Freitas Branco, the first of his two violin sonatas, composed in 1907.

The Villa-Lobos sonata is likely to be as much of a journey of discovery as is the Freitas Branco sonata. He had recently married the pianist Lucília Guimarães; and, since he had not learned to play piano himself, he was probably influenced by both her technique and her style. That said, the music is unlikely to remind most listeners of the more familiar works in the Villa-Lobos catalog, making the composition an engaging journey of discovery.

The Freitas Branco sonata, on the other hand, is more difficult to classify. He studied music in both Berlin and Paris; and his best-known teacher (at least according to his Wikipedia page) was Engelbert Humperdinck. My own first encounter with the first measures of this music left me wondering if he had been familiar with César Frank’s A major violin sonata. Nevertheless, Freitas Branco definitely forges his own path while respecting the overall framework of a four-movement sonata; and Monteiro’s performance left me curious about what other pieces are lurking in this Portuguese composer’s catalog.

Catalyst to Highlight New Album in SFP Recital

Readers may recall that, when San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched its Uncovered series curated by the Catalyst Quartet (violinists Karla Donehew and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez), the first recital was based on their recently released UNCOVERED album on Azica Records devoted entirely to music composed by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Since that time, Azica has released the second volume in this series, focusing again on a single composer, this time Florence Price.

The new album was conceived to present all of Price’s currently known chamber music compositions. This amounts to twice as much content as had been recorded for the first volume, meaning that there are two CDs in the second volume. This accounts for six compositions, four of which were given world premiere recordings.

Pianist Michelle Cann, who will join the Catalyst Quartet for their final Uncovered series program (photograph by Steven Mareazi Willis, courtesy of SFP)

Next month Catalyst will give its final Uncovered series recital for SFP, and the program will consist entirely of selections from their recently-released album. The first three offerings will be devoted to those world premiere recordings. These will be the first (unfinished) string quartet in G major, the three-movement piano quintet in E minor (possibly unfinished), and the composition entitled “Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet.” The program will then conclude with the A minor piano quintet, which has been previously recorded. The pianist will be Michelle Cann, who was also the pianist on the UNCOVERED recording.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 7. 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.

VoM Ends Season with Virtuoso Violins

Last night, after having to cancel the second concert in its three-concert season, Voices of Music (VoM) gave its final San Francisco performance of the season in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. The full title of the program was The Art of the Violin: Music of Handel, Vivaldi, Corelli & Geminiani. There was a bit of irony in that title, since a contemporary of those four composers, Pietro Locatelli, had published his own collection of twelve violin concertos under the title L’arte del violino; and Vivaldi was one of his major influences.

In fact, of the six selections on the program, four were composed by Antonio Vivaldi. Two of them were taken from his twelve publications: RV 356, the sixth concerto, in the key of A minor, in the Opus 3 collection, and RV 277, the second concerto, in the key of E minor, in the Opus 11 collection, known as Il favorito (the favorite). The other two were based on manuscripts. RV 208 in D major was known as the “Grosso mogul” (Great Moghul), which included cadenzas which found their way into Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo organ version of this music, his BWV 594 in C major. The program then concluded with RV 564 in D major, a concerto with solo parts for two violins and two cellos.

Title page of Geminiani’s arrangements of Corelli’s Opus 5 sonatas (from IMSLP, available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License)

George Frideric Handel was represented by his HWV 320, the second of the twelve concerti grossi in his Opus 6 publication. This particular concerto grosso incorporated solo parts for two violins and cello. The astute reader will notice that two composers have not yet been taken into account. That is because both of them contributed to the remaining work on the program. The concerto in F major for two violins and cello had its origin as the tenth, in the key of F major, of the twelve violin sonatas that Arcangelo Corelli published as his Opus 5. Francesco Geminiani then arranged all twelve of these sonatas as concerti grossi, and that was the version in which the F major concerto was performed.

Such an abundance of concertos involved an abundance of soloists. The featured violinists were Augusta McKay Lodge, Kati Kyme, YuEun Gemma Kim, and Chloe Kim. The participating cellists were William Skeen and Elisabeth Reed. As a result, the diversity of the selections also afforded the opportunity to appreciate different performance styles. Most important, however, was the consistently upbeat rhetoric of the music being performed. Those spirited accounts made the listening experience particularly refreshing, even when the concertos themselves may have been familiar to the listener.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Wilhelm Kempff on APR: Beyond Beethoven

courtesy of Naxos of America

Back in 2017 I wrote an article about the efforts of Appian Publications & Recordings (APR) to remaster 78 RPM recordings of German pianist Wilhelm Kempff made between 1925 and 1943 (both before and during World War II). All of those recordings involved performances of the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, both concertos and sonatas. Where the concertos were concerned, information about anyone other than Kempff was a sometime thing, particularly in the earliest remastered recordings. Apparently, those documenting these performances were only interested in the soloist.

Earlier this month APR released its latest CD of solo piano performances by Kempff. This is the first APR release that does not involve Kempff playing Beethoven. Rather, these are recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert, and Robert Schumann, all originally released by Polydor between 1927 and 1936 (the same time-frame as that of the earlier releases).

As his career matured, the focus of Kempff’s attention gradually expanded from Beethoven to Schubert. Thus, after World War II, when Kempff was recording for Deutsche Grammophon (DG), he became one of the earliest pianists to provided a recorded account of all of Schubert’s solo piano sonatas (bearing in mind that the semantics of “all” has gone through a fair number of changes thanks to progress in Schubert scholarship). Sadly, Polydor was not as adventurous as Kempff when it came to exploring the Schubert repertoire. As a result, this new album of remastered recordings accounts for Schubert through only two of the movements from the D. 780 collection entitled Moments musicaux and the third (in the key of B-flat major) of the four impromptus collected as D. 935. There is also a recording of the D. 889 serenade, which amounts to Kempff’s arrangement of Liszt’s previous arrangement of the Schubert song.

The composer that received the most attention on this new release is Bach. However, the only composition to be given a complete account is the BWV 816 “French” suite in G major. The BWV 971 “Italian” concerto in F major is represented only by its first movement, while The Well-Tempered Clavier is represented by only two prelude-fugue couplings from Book I: C-sharp minor and D major. (The D major pairing was recorded twice, once in 1928 and again in 1931.) Finally, there are four Kempff transcriptions of Bach works that were not originally composed for keyboard.

Mozart fares somewhat better with a complete account of the K. 331 piano sonata in A major. However, this is a case where APR has to compete with their own “product.” In January of 2021, I wrote about the APR release of its final album of recordings by Wilhelm Backhaus entitled The complete 1940s studio recordings. The recording of K. 331 was made after World War II in March of 1948. Given his relationship with Adolf Hitler, Backhaus probably had to go through a de-Nazification process, after which he would have been cleared to participate in recording sessions with HMV. Under the circumstances, it may surprise some that, having jumped through all of those hoops, Backhaus still knew how to capture Mozart’s prankish spirit; but, in my own opinion, that (hopefully sincere) disposition has it hands-down over the recording that Kempff made for Polydor in 1935.

What remains on the Kempff album are two very brief excerpts from two of Robert Schumann’s “cyclic” suites. The first of these is the “Aufschwung” movement from the Opus 12 Fantasiestücke, followed by the more familiar “Träumerei” from the Opus 15 Kinderszenen. Given that Kempff moved on to DG after the War, I would not be surprised if this new APR release will be the last one devoted to him. Personally, in spite of the historical significance, my Kempff preferences remain with his approaches to Beethoven.

Three Guest Conductors to Lead SFS in April

The calendar for next month at Davies Symphony Hall is a busy one with a generous share of visiting recitalists in both the Great Performers Series and the new Spotlight Series. By way of balance, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will be presenting only three subscription concerts next month, each led by a different guest conductor. These will include debut performances by both conductors and soloists, along with a generous number of compositions being given premiere performances. Specifics are as follows:

The first program will see the Orchestral Series debut of conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, Music Director of both the Nashville Symphony and the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic in Poland. There will be two soloists, both of whom will also be giving Orchestra Series debut performances. Saxophonist Timothy McAllister will perform the world premiere of “Triathlon,” a concerto for saxophone and orchestra composed by John Corigliano. The other soloist will be Daniel Binelli, playing bandoneon in the SFS premiere of Astor Piazzolla’s “Sinfonía Buenos Aires.” The remaining two works on the program will also be SFS premiere performances. The Piazzolla selection will be preceded by “Mediodía en el Llano,” a tone poem composed by Antonio Estévez evoking the Llanos, the central prairie region of Venezuela. The program will begin with “An American Port of Call” by Adolphus Hailstork, currently a Professor of Music and Composer-in-Residence at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

This program will be given three performances, taking place at 2 p.m. on Thursday, April 7, and at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 8, and Saturday, April 9. A single Web page has been created with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for each of those dates. Ticket prices range from $20 to $135 and may also be purchased by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000. The free pre-concert talk will be given by Sarah Cahill one hour prior to the beginning of the performance. Doors open fifteen minutes before the talk begins.

The second program will see the return of Gustavo Dudamel, Music and Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This will be Dudamel’s first visit to Davies since his last SFS performance in March of 2008. The major work on the program will be Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony in the key of C-sharp minor. This will be preceded by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 504 symphony in D major, generally known as the “Prague” symphony, since it was first performed in that city on January 19, 1787.

This program will be given four performances, taking place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 21, Friday, April 22, and Saturday, April 23, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 24. A single Web page has been created with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for each of those dates. Ticket prices range from $30 to $189 and may also be purchased by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000. The free pre-concert talk will be given by Peter Grunberg one hour prior to the beginning of the performance. Doors open fifteen minutes before the talk begins.

The final program of the month will see the Orchestral Series debut of Finnish conductor Klaus Mäkelä, currently Chief Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris. His concerto soloist will be Norwegian Vilde Frang in a performance of Alban Berg’s violin concerto. Unless I am mistaken, Frang’s last visit to Davies took place in May of 2019, when she  performed Edward Elgar’s Opus 61 concerto in B minor. The symphony selection for this program will be Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 93 (tenth) symphony in E minor. The “overture” will be the SFS premiere performance of “Perú Negro,” a fantasy on Afro-Peruvian folk songs composed by Jimmy López.

This program will be given three performances, all taking place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 28, Friday, April 29, and Saturday, April 30. A single Web page has been created with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for each of those dates. Ticket prices range from $20 to $165 and may also be purchased by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000. The free pre-concert talk will be given by Laura Stanfield Prichard one hour prior to the beginning of the performance. Doors 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, April 28, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Prichard 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.

Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain at SFP/Omni

UOGB at the Barbican in 2018 in a group including several of last night’s performers; the 2018 players were, left-to-right Dave Suich, Peter Brooke Turner, Hester Goodman, Ben Rouse, Richie Williams, George Hinchliffe, Leisa Rea, Will Grove White, and Jonty Bankes (photography by JodiOne, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Almost exactly a year ago, George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (UOGB) contributed their Ukulele Lockdown series of YouTube videos to San Francisco Performances (SFP) to provide the first of three streamed concerts to compensate for the cancellation of the 2021 PIVOT Festival. The group was founded in 1985 by Hinchliffe and Kitty Lux, the latter of whom died in 2017 due to a variety of chronic health issues. Last night UOGB made its transition from the virtual to the physical, presenting a Guitar Series recital in Herbst Theatre under the joint auspices of SFP and the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Hinchliffe himself did not appear with his ensemble. The performers were (in alphabetical order) Jonty Bankes, Peter Brooke Turner, Laura Currie, Leisa Rea, Ben Rouse, Dave Suich, and Ewan Wardrop. They played instruments in a wide variety of different sizes, but the bass line was consistently maintained by Banks. Their repertoire is, for the most part, pop with occasional ventures into jazz and bluegrass. Their delivery tends to be deadpan situated on a foundation of characteristically British whimsy (assuming that whimsy still has currency on the other side of the pond).

Every now and then, however, the ensemble pulls off a stunt that is positively jaw-dropping in its intricacy. Last night’s offering began with one of the players insisting on playing the music of George Frideric Handel. This turned out, however, to be little more than a repeated ground bass line. Over the course of the performance, each of the other players superposed a popular tune on top of that bass line. The result was one of the most sophisticated quodlibets I had ever encountered with each of the seven members playing something distinctively different (and, for the most part, familiar).

Readers probably know by now that I am not particularly big on the pop genre, but it did not take long for me to get enthusiastically hooked on the UOGB approach to that repertoire.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Next Month’s Schwabacher Recital Details

Full program details are now available for the two Schwabacher Recital Series concerts that will take place next month. I have to confess that, in the context of both personal curiosity and personal favorites, I have far more than one dog in this hunt. Particularly where the “novelty factor” is involved, one might even say that I have a litter of puppies. It is also worth nothing that both of these programs have been organized into sections, and there are signs that considerable thought has gone into how the repertoire has been grouped to form those sections.

The first of next month’s recitals will be a program of solo songs performed by mezzo Ashley Dixon. Her accompanist will be pianist Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad. It will be clear from her very first selection that Dixon is not interested in a recital devoted entirely to “the usual suspects.” That song is “Triste está la infanta” (the infanta is gloomy), the first song in Alberto Hemsi’s Opus 18, the fourth in a set of ten volumes entitled Coplas Sefardies (Sephardic songs), published in Thessaloniki (in Greece) in 1932.

Hemsi’s ethnomusicological study of Sephardic melodies began as a result of inquiries into his family origins, and his research paralleled that of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály in Eastern Europe. He could only collect words set to melodies. Coplas Sefardies was the overall title of the piano accompaniments he wrote for those songs. Baritone Cantor Assaf Levitin and pianist Naaman Wagner recorded all of these songs as part of the three-CD release entitled Coplas Sefardies.

Taken as a whole, Dixon’s recital will focus on music from France and the Iberian peninsula. None of the selections will be sung in German (or, for that matter, English). Thus, the set that begins with Hemsi will continue with Maurice Ravel (“Chanson espagnole”), Franz Liszt setting a text in French (“Comment, disaient-ils”), and Reynaldo Hahn (“L’heure exquise”).

The second set will be framed by two of the songs that Manuel de Falla collected as his Siete canciones populares españolas (seven Spanish folk songs). These will serve as “bookends” for three songs by Carlos Guastavino, Jesús Guridi, and Alberto Ginastera, respectively. (Guridi was Basque, while Guastavino and Ginastera were both Argentinian.)

The third set will shift from Iberian sources to the French. All of the composers are likely to be familiar to most of the audience: Cécile Chaminade, Gabriel Fauré, Claude Debussy, Ernest Chausson, and Francis Poulenc. The final set will begin with the five songs by Joaquín Turina collected for his Opus 19 entitled Poema en forma de canciones (poem in the form of songs). The program will then conclude with “La Mort d’Ophélie” (the death of Ophelia), the second of three songs that Hector Berlioz collected as his Opus 18 entitled Tristia (sorrows).

This program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on the evening of Wednesday, April 6. Like this month’s offering, the performance will take place in the Taube Atrium Theater, part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which is located in the Veterans Building (on the fourth floor) at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. General admission will be $30. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an event page on the San Francisco Opera Web site. Note that it is possible to select the option of Wheelchair Accessible seats for both performance venues. In addition, subject to availability, student rush tickets will go on sale at 7 p.m. at the reduced rate of $15. There is a limit of two tickets per person, and valid identification must be shown.

The second program next month will feature three vocalists: soprano Elisa Sunshine, baritone Timothy Murray, and bass Stefan Egerstrom. They will be accompanied by pianist Andrew King, and the program will be divided into two sets. The first of those sets will begin with another round of music that has piqued my curiosity for quite some time. It will consist of a selection of seven art songs composed by Jean Sibelius during different periods in his life. All of the texts will be in Finnish. Those songs will then be followed by Try Me, Good King, a song cycle by Libby Larsen consisting of five songs, each named after a wife of the English King Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Catherine Howard. (Catherine Parr, who outlived Henry, is not included in the cycle.) The second half of the program will present works by composers from three different nations: England (Jonathan Dove and Cyril Scott), Austria (Erich Wolfgang Korngold), and France (Poulenc).

This program will also begin at 7:30 p.m. on the evening of Wednesday, April 27. The performance will again take place in the Taube Atrium Theater. Ticket prices will be the same but with a different event page for online purchases.

Drew Petersen Launches SFS Spotlight Series

Pianist Drew Petersen (courtesy of SFS)

Last year’s announcement of the 2021–22 season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) included a new addition to the programming. Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen added a new Spotlight Series, which would consist entirely of debut performances in Davies Symphony Hall. That Series was launched last night with the first of four recitals. The recitalist was pianist Drew Petersen, and things could not have gotten off to a better start.

His program could have been entitled Three Ways of Looking at Virtuosity. Each of the three composers on that program demanded a high level of virtuosic skill, but each composer has established his own unique skill set as foundation. The composers were Frédéric Chopin, Maurice Ravel, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, each known for his keyboard technique as well as his inventiveness.

Chopin was represented by four of his études, the first three from his Opus 25 collection, followed by the eighth in the Opus 10 collection. The Ravel offering was the three-movement suite Gaspard de la nuit, probably the most finger-busting of his solo piano compositions. The program then concluded with the revised version of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 36 (second) piano sonata in B-flat minor.

The Ravel offering was the most interesting, not only for its technical demands but also for the grotesque narratives behind each of the three movements. Each of those movements is based on a poem by Aloysius Bertrand from his collection Gaspard de la Nuit – Fantaisies à la manière de Rembrandt et de Callot. The first poem, “Ondine,” depicts a water nymph that lures sailors to visit her at the bottom of a lake (where, of course, they die of drowning). This is followed by “Le Gibet,” named for a scaffold bearing the corpse of a hanged man accompanied by the sound of a single tolling bell (the ostinato of a B-flat octave). The final movement is named for the vicious goblin Scarbo, the king of all nightmares.

Each of the movements is technically demanding unto an extreme. As a result, there are too many performances that focus on little more than getting the notes right (no mean feat), leaving little room for the expressive dispositions behind each of Bertrand’s poems. Petersen’s command of technical details could not have been more comprehensive. In addition, however, through his performance he could establish his own “images” for each of the poems, giving narrative as much attention as the marks on paper. From a personal point of view, I have to say that too many of the recital performances I have encountered of Gaspard de la nuit have reduced Ravel’s music to tedious technical exercises. Petersen knew how to find the sweet spot in which both technique and expressiveness rule.

The Rachmaninoff sonata was originally composed in 1913, a few years after his 1909 Opus 30 (third) piano concerto in D minor. It was subsequently revised in 1931, and that was the version that Petersen played. The score is as thick with virtuosic demands as is Ravel’s suite. However, there is a sense that Rachmaninoff was focused much more intently on raw discipline, rather than establishing any narrative qualities. Thus, while one can be guided through Ravel’s suite by a narrative thread, Rachmaninoff’s sonata comes across as a series of unrelenting technical demands that leave little room for expressive interpretation.

That said, Petersen did his best to interpret those demands with some sense of an adventurous (rather than arduous) journey. This was my first encounter with this sonata in performance, rather than on recording. I left with an appreciation for why the music seldom shows up on recital programs and admiration of the degree of sense-making that Petersen brought to his interpretation.

On the other hand, the Chopin études can be admired simply for the specific technical demands posed by each individual composition. Nevertheless, here, too, Petersen did not overlook the need to seek out an expressive interpretation. As a result, each étude had its own engaging qualities, as did the one from Opus 10 that he saved for an encore, sadly, without mentioning its key. This was coupled with the G major prelude, the third in Chopin’s Opus 28 collection. Those Chopin encores were preceded by a more satisfying Ravel encore: the second (minuet) movement from his three-movement sonatina. Petersen’s interpretation served as a sun rising to dispel all the nightmares of Gaspard de la nuit.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Ébène Quartet to Balance Classical and Jazz

The members of the Ébène Quartet (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Next month will begin with the return of the Ébène Quartet, whose current members are violinists Pierre Colombet and Gabriel Le Magadure, violist Marie Chilemme, and cellist Raphaël Merlin, to Herbst Theatre. As has previously been observed, this ensemble has performed in two different Series offered by San Francisco Performances (SFP), the Shenson Chamber Series and the Jazz Series. This season there is no Jazz Series, so the concert will be the fourth of the Shenson Chamber Series concerts.

Nevertheless, the second half of the program will be devoted entirely to arrangements of jazz standards; and, consistent with most jazz gigs, the selections will be announced from the stage. The first half of the program, on the other hand, will couple two radically different offerings widely separated by time. Like the Pavel Haas Quartet this past weekend, Ébène will begin with a quartet by Joseph Haydn. However, while Pavel Haas performed one of the Opus 76 quartets, Ébène will feature the much earlier Opus 20 collection with a performance of the Hoboken III/34 quartet in D major. This will then be followed by Leoš Janáček’s first quartet, based on Leo Tolstoy novella The Kreutzer Sonata.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 5.  It will take place in Herbst Theatre, which is located on the first two floors of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, convenient to public transportation on both Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Ticket prices will be $70 for premium seating on the Orchestra level and in the front of the Dress Circle, $55 for the Boxes, the remainder of the Orchestra, and the remainder of the center Dress Circle, and $45 for the Balcony and the remainder of the Dress Circle. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an SFP event page. Conditions according to the Health and Safety Factsheet, which was updated on February 15, still prevail.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

More New SFSymphony+ Stravinsky Videos

Ironically, exactly one week ago today, the day after I had written about two new videos of performances of the music of Igor Stravinsky that had been uploaded for streaming from the SFSymphony+ Web site, the San Francisco Symphony uploaded two more Stravinsky performances to that site. While the first round of videos presented two solo performances, the second served up two different approaches to chamber music. Both of them involve some interesting “ancestral history.”

The earlier of these involves Stravinsky’s relationship with the string quartet genre. HIs earliest chamber music composition was entitled “Three Pieces for String Quartet.” It was originally written for the Flonzaley Quartet, completed in 1914 and given the title “Grotesques.” That original title probably accounted for Stravinsky’s attitude towards string quartet music. However, he revised it in 1918; and it was then published in 1922. Since then it has been performed by any number of reputable string quartets willing to give the audiences a taste of Stravinsky without worrying about that original title.

Nadya Tichman, Amy Hiraga, David Kim, and Peter Wyrick playing the original (and rambunctious) concertino that Stravinsky composed for string quartet

Meanwhile, Stravinsky thought that he had composed the music in such a way that his dislike for string quartets would be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. Sadly, the Flonzaley Quartet did not “get the message;” and they asked Stravinsky for another composition! The result was the concertino that has now been performed and saved as an SFSymphony+ video.

This time the score practically shouts out: “I really had string quartets!” Ironically, in 1952 Stravinsky rescored this composition for an ensemble of twelve instruments consisting of winds, brass, and strings. This is the version that Columbia decided to record. There is still an aggressive stubbornness in the parts assigned to the strings; however, the rhetoric of the entire composition has now shifted to the strings fussing about the winds and brass having too much fun. Personally, I rather enjoy the tantrums that Stravinsky throws in the original string quartet version. However, the performers, violinists Nadya Tichman and Amy Hiraga, violist David Kim, and cellist Peter Wyrick, were all wearing masks; so I could not see what sorts of facial expressions they were hiding.

The other new video presents music that Stravinsky originally composed for his one-act opera “Mavra.” He later transcribed the opening aria, sung by the heroine Parasha, as a duet for cello and piano. I do not know if he prepared this transcription in response to a request by Mstislav Rostropovich, but I do know that Rostropovich is the only cellist I have heard play this arrangement! The new SFSymphony+ video probably used that arrangement as a point of departure and revised the transcription for violin and piano, performed by violinist Leor Maltinski with Avi Downes at the piano. This is definitely Stravinsky at his most lyrical, even if the aria serves as a calm before a storm of farcical activities.

Center for New Music: April, 2022

Once again things seem to be quieting down at the Center for New Music (C4NM). As of this writing, the Events page lists only two concerts in April, taking place, respectively, on the first Sunday and first Friday of that month. It goes without saying that this list may grow; and, to be fair, any changes are likely to show up on that Events page before they appear on this site!

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 that aforementioned 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, April 3, 7:30 p.m.: Guitarist Aaron Larget-Caplan will return to C4NM with a new solo concert entitled Inward Expanse. He will perform both acoustic solos and music for guitar and electronics. He conceived his program to explore one’s position in daily life from mystical, scientific, and cerebral perspectives. The program will include “Steps and Leaps,” composed by Tom Flaherty to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing. On a more pessimistic note, Lainie Fefferman’s “Carousel” reflects the confusion and worry brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Composer Lou Bunk may not have have intended his “Being and Becoming” to be “about” phenomenology; but the idea of composing an exploration of a single note can be traced back to a thought experiment first documented by Edmund Husserl in The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, based on lectures he delivered between 1893 and 1917. Inward Expanse will be the “blanket title” of a selection of six acoustic solos written for Larget-Caplan’s New Lullaby Project. The contributing composers will be Antonio Celso Ribeiro, Brian Schober, Laurie Spiegel, Anthony Green, Štěpán Rak, and Ken Ueno. Finally, Larget-Caplan will perform his own arrangement of John Cage’s solo piano composition “Dream.”

Friday, April 8, 7:30 p.m.: This will be the debut performance of the Stolen Time ensemble. This is a local ensemble, whose Artistic Director is Bryan Lin. The group’s title is intended to evoke the radical, revolutionary act of reclamation that is artistic creation in modern life. The performers are Jessie Nucho on flutes, Andrew Friedman on clarinets, Jamael Smith on bassoon, Timothy Sherren on guitars, Mika Nakamura on percussion, Yunyi Ji on keyboards, Samuel Weiser on violin, and Justine Preston on viola. The program will begin with Missy Mazzoli’s “Still Life,” followed by Christopher Cerrone’s “Double Happiness,” which was originally written for The Living Earth Show. Coral Douglas’ “line, ray, point” was written on a commission by Stolen Time. It will precede the concluding selection, Lin’s reimagining of the classic Miles Davis album In a Silent Way.

[added 3/31. 3:35 p.m.:

Saturday, April 9, 8 p.m.: The next 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, will be entitled In Just—Spring. The program will present both instrumental and vocal chamber music as follows:

  • John Bilotta, “Scattering Poems,” scored for oboe, clarinet, and bassoon
  • Allan Crossman, “Streaming Audio,” scored for flute and viola
  • Mary Fineman, “Three Songs,” sung by the composer accompanying herself at piano
  • Greg A. Steinke, “Santa Fe Trail Echoes,” cello solo
  • Sheli Nan, “Father’s Poor Excuses,” scored for baritone and piano, an excerpt from the song cycle SAGA of the 21st Century Girl
  • Karl Schmidt, “At the County Fair,” scored for violin, clarinet, and piano
Unlike previous performances, this one will not be streamed.]

[added 4/18, 11:10 a.m.:

Saturday, April 23, 8 p.m.: The objective of The Opus Project is to present an entire program structured around a single catalog number. That is usually the published opus number, but there are notable exceptions, such as the catalog numbers for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Schubert. Nineteen composers will be represented on a program organized around the number 94. The performance will involve five pianists, two of whom will also perform as vocalists. There will also be three other instrumentalists playing horn, trumpet, and tenor saxophone.

Friday, April 29, 7:59 p.m.: The title of this program is Night of Solos, Duos and a Quartet of Creative Music. As the title suggests, there will be three sets. The opening set will be a solo performance by the highly adventurous violinist Gabby Fluke-Mogul, who will be visiting from New York. The duo set will be performed by Las Sucias, whose members are Danishta Rivero and Alexandra Buschman. The final set will be a quartet improvisation with Fluke-Mogul joining Jean Carla Rodea, Gerald Cleaver, and Moe Staiano.

Saturday, April 30, 5 p.m.: The month will conclude with a performance by Non Tactus. The performers are Lenny Gonzalez, Rich Graff, and Robert Nance; and they have organized their program around the newly installed Meyer Sound System at C4NM. Using this technology, the artists will engage in a concert-length dialogue; alternating pieces one at a time until culminating in a mutual sharing of the sonic expanse.]

Chamber Music for Riley’s Trippy Storytelling

courtesy of Jensen Artists

This Friday, March 25, Cantaloupe Music will release Autodreamographical Tales, a composition composed and performed by Terry Riley in a new arrangement for chamber ensemble prepared for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Riley called this piece a musical dream diary. It was created in 1996, when Riley recorded himself telling stories from his unconsciousness while accompanying himself at a keyboard. In 2010 Tzadik released a CD of his performance, which has an Web page.

Riley is about nine years older than I am. My guess is that we both took pleasure in listening to Al “Jazzbo” Collins, whose narration of familiar fairy tales was delivered with an eccentric abundance of hip lingo. My guess is that Collins had been inspired by the nonsense verse of Lewis Carroll. By 1967 Carroll had surpassed the hip qualities of Collins when Jefferson Airplane used his verse as a point of departure for the lyrics of “White Rabbit.” Riley’s approach to narrating the surreal is much cooler than Jefferson Airplane’s delivery, making his ancestral tie to Collins stronger than the Airplane’s acid tripping.

The move from piano accompaniment to chamber ensemble was a smooth one. The first seven tracks of the Cantaloupe album were arranged by Riley’s son, Gyan; and Riley himself arranged the remaining three tracks. As of this writing, the album is available for pre-ordering from; but it is only being sold for digital download. The good news is that the download will include the accompanying booklet, which includes the texts of all of Riley’s trippy tales.

The participating Bang on a Can performers are Ken Thomson (clarinet and bass clarinet), Ashley Bathgate (cello), Robert Black (bass), Mark Stewart (guitar), David Cossin (percussion), and Vicky Chow (keyboards). They are joined by Bruce Gremo, who plays glissando flute on the opening track (“Dwarf”) and shakuhachi on “Black Woman” and “The Faquir.” While I cannot complain about the new instrumentation, I fear that, to some extent, Riley’s role as a “teller of unreliable tales” has lost the sharper edge that arose when he was the only performer. The Bang on a Can All-Stars may have approached this project as an anthropological effort, but it is unclear that they appreciate either the flesh or the spirit of anthropology.