Tuesday, May 31, 2022

A Recent Album Recorded at Yoshi’s

from the Bandcamp Web page

This past Sunday I wrote about my first encounter with Eastlawn Records. This is a Detroit-based blues and jazz label co-founded by percussionist RJ Spangler and pharmacist Frank Traum. This morning I encountered another Eastlawn release, whose full title (at least on its Bandcamp Web page) is Peck Allmond Quartet Live at Yoshi’s, ‘94 Featuring Ed Kelly.

As the title suggests, this is a recorded account of a performance at Yoshi’s in Oakland that took place on July 5, 1994. My wife and I did not make the move from Singapore to Palo Alto until about a year later; so, at the time this gig was recorded, we knew next to nothing about the Bay Area jazz scene. Furthermore, by way of a disclaimer, since we made that move in August of 1995, we have never attended a performance at either the Oakland Yoshi’s or the short-lived “cousin” in the Fillmore.

Thus, while I knew nothing about Allmond when this album was released, it did not take long for me to become aware of two members of his quartet. The first of these was drummer Bud Spangler (not to be confused with the Eastlawn founder), whom I quickly discovered on KCSM jazz programming. The other was bass player John Wiitala, who seemed almost always to handle the bass at any jazz concert presented under the auspices of Old First Concerts. Allmond himself was primarily a tenor saxophonist, although he shifted over to trumpet for two of the tracks on this album. The other member of his rhythm section was pianist Ed Kelly.

The concert also included a “guest appearance” by Kenny Brooks on tenor saxophone in a performance of Sigmund Romberg’s “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” (This was one of the two tracks on which Allmond played trumpet, the other being Chris Smith’s “Confessin’,” which became a favorite recording of both Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong.) The program also included two piano solos taken by Kelly, neither of which were originally conceived for piano. The first of these was John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice;” and the program closed out with a solo piano account of Miles Davis’ “All Blues.”

I would not be surprised if those that have been following my thoughts about jazz on this site would be quick to dismiss me as “old school.” While this may be true chronologically, I still find it hard to believe that anyone would call anything that Coltrane recorded for Impulse! Records as “old school,” not to mention the equally adventurous efforts of some of his contemporaries, such as Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor! The selections on this Yoshi’s album are certainly not out there on the “bleeding edge.” Nevertheless, there is no shortage of highly imaginative improvisation taken by all of the players; so I have no trouble stating categorically (and unabashedly) that this is jazz the way I like it.

Now that a recent high-rise has blocked my ability to receive KCSM in my San Francisco condominium, albums like this account of a Yoshi’s gig quickly become part of my regular jazz-listening practices.

LIEDER ALIVE! to Highlight Vocal Quartet

Amy Glenn, Thomas Glenn, and John Parr (upper row) and Kindra Scharich, Kirk Eichelberger, and Heidi Moss Erickson (lower row) (courtesy of LIEDER ALIVE!)

As a rule, LIEDER ALIVE! recitals usually provide a platform for a single vocalist (or, during this current season, a solo pianist). However, the “main attraction” of next month’s program will be Johannes Brahms’ Opus 52 Liebeslieder Waltzes, a collection of eighteen settings of Russian, Polish, and Hungarian dance songs, translated into German by Georg Friedrich Daumer and published in his Polydora collection. Those settings were scored for a quartet of vocalists (one for each of the usual four ranges) accompanied by four hands on a single piano keyboard. The vocalists will be soprano Heidi Moss Erickson, mezzo Kindra Scharich, tenor Thomas Glenn, and bass Kirk Eichelberger. The pianists will be Glenn’s wife Amy and John Parr.

Tenor Glenn will also be soloist in the other two selections on the program. Parr will accompany him in a performance of Brahms’ Opus 103 Zigeunerlieder (gypsy songs). His wife will then join him in a performance of Franz Liszt’s settings of three songs from Friedrich Schiller’s play William Tell.

This program will be performed on Sunday, June 26, at the Noe Valley Ministry, which is located at 1021 Sanchez Street, a short walk from the Muni stops at the corner of 24th Street and Church Street. (Sanchez is parallel to Church, one block to the west.) Tickets for this concert are being sold through an Eventbrite Web page. General admission is $35 with a $75 rate for reserved VIP seating. Students, seniors, and working artists will be admitted for $20.

Monday, May 30, 2022

The Bleeding Edge: 5/30/2022

This will be another week of relative quietude. However, it will include the first concert of the month at the Center for New Music (C4NM). Therefore, I shall use this article to summarize the other three events currently scheduled at that venue. The only other event this week will be the next installment in the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series. Specifics are as follows:

Wednesday, June 1, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): Apparently, the title of this Outsound Presents series of concerts has changed again; and it is now the Luggage Store Creative Music Series. This week’s concert will present two extended sets of free improvisation. The first will be a solo performance by Phillip Greenlief on tenor saxophone. This will be followed by the relatively unconventional quartet of Danishta Rivero (voice and electronics), Kanoko Nishi-Smith (koto), and both Kevin Corcoran and Jacob Felix Heule on bass drum. Those familiar with the Erosion album of Corcoran and Heule probably know that they are likely to be performing on the same drum. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $10 and $20. Because this is an indoor event, masks, vaccination, and booster shots are strongly recommended.

Friday, June 3, 8 p.m., C4NM: The C4NM schedule for this month will begin with a performance by the Citta di Vitti trio. The group performs music composed by Greenlief, who will again be playing tenor saxophone. He will be joined by the members of duo B.: Jason Levis on percussion and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass. The program will consist entirely of music inspired by the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.

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. Masks are still required for all in attendance, and those in the audience are required to be fully vaccinated. Tickets may be purchased online through the Eventbrite event page for this concert. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members and students. The remaining events for the month, with hyperlinks to their respective ticketing pages, are as follows:

  • Friday, June 10, 8 p.m.: Keyboardist Andrew Barnes Jamieson will present his 777th daily keyboard improvisation. In addition to improvising as a soloist, he will also perform with Zach Hazen and Roger Kim. General admission will again be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members and students.
  • Sunday, June 12, 4 p.m.: This will be the sixth installment in the Surround Sound Salon Series, the fifth having taken place at the beginning of this month. This series consists of informal shows in which electronic music composers present their fixed media and/or live electronic music through the 8-channel surround system, generously provided by Meyer Sound. The composers mix their sounds from the center of the space, and members of the audience are free to choose their own listening location(s) and to move within the space to hear the music from different vantage points. The Bay Area composers contributing to this program will be Andy Evans, Xopher Davidson, and Ted Allen, whose music will be presented in conjunction with a video of dance by Barbara Mahler. General admission will again be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members and students.
  • Sunday, June 26, 8 p.m.: The month will conclude with a jazz performance by the Marta Sanchez Quintet. As of this writing, information has not yet been provided about the individual players. However, the program will present music from the group’s latest CD, SAAM, which is the abbreviation for the Spanish American Art Museum. Admission for all will be $15.

John Wasson’s Big Band Nostalgia

from the Amazon.com Web page

A little over a week ago, MAMA Records released the album Chronicles, consisting of eight tracks of performances by John Wasson’s Strata Big Band. Since I was unfamiliar with this name, the Foreword in the accompanying booklet, written by jazz trombonist John Fedchock, provided me with some useful context. Both Fedchock and Wasson played in the trombone section of the Woody Herman Orchestra in the Eighties, and both of them provided arrangements for the ensemble.

Fedchock introduces the Chronicles album as follows:

Chronicles takes the listener through a myriad of styles set through the big band prism, with a program moving from intense swing, infectious funk and driving clave, to lush ensemble sonorities, sensitive solo showcases and freshly reimagined classics, all culminating in a programmatic multi-movement tour de force. This album not only showcases top professionals with impressive ensemble skills, but also a group containing some very personalized and expressive solo voices. And those voices seamlessly meld with the fabric of John’s writing, exemplifying the true definition of a jazz orchestra.

There is clearly a lot of enthusiasm in that encomium. However, Fedchock and Watson were members of “The Young Thundering Herds,” the last group to be led by Herman until his death in October of 1987. This was a far cry from the “First Herd,” which was on the “front lines” of the bebop movement, playing arrangements prepared for them by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie. The closest Strata gets to that spirit is “Blues for Alice,” which was composed by Charlie Parker relatively late in his career in 1951. Ironically, this track follows on the heels of “Maria” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, whose presence is, at the very least, perplexing.

Four of the nine tracks are Wasson originals. They definitely reflect that “myriad of styles” that Fedchock admires. Sadly, however, this is not really music that keeps you on the edge of your seat, wondering what will be the next rabbit that Wasson pulls out of his hat. Instead, I found myself reflecting on the title of Simone Signoret’s memoir, Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. (Does anyone watch her films any more?) If I am going to indulge in nostalgia, I would prefer to do so through “primary sources!”

More “Three Centuries” SFS Chamber Music

One of the interesting features of Davies Symphony Hall programming this season is the emergence of “three centuries” programs that span from the 19th to the 21st century, rather than from the 18th to the 20th. Furthermore, the instances of the programming I have encountered this season all seem to unfold in reverse chronological order. Thus, this past February’s Chamber Music Series concert, featuring San Francisco Symphony (SFS) musicians, began with “Trio for Five Instruments,” recently completed by San Francisco composer David Garner, followed by Bohuslav Martinů’s H. 229 piano quintet, and concluding with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 88 (first) string quintet in F major. Then the first subscription series concert of this month, conducted by Xian Zhang, began with the first SFS performance of Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s “Primal Message,” which she completed last year. This was followed by Florence Price’s 1933 piano concerto; and the program concluded with Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (ninth) symphony in E minor, composed in 1893 and best known by its subtitle, “From the New World.”

The same plan guided this afternoon’s SFS Chamber Music program. The program began with the string quintet version of Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum,” composed in 2006, followed by Benjamin Britten’s Opus 55, the third of the five compositions in his Canticles collection entitled “Still Falls the Rain.” The intermission was then followed by Dvořák’s Opus 44, entitled “Serenade for wind instruments, cello and double bass” in D minor.

This all made for a uniformly engaging listening experience. Montgomery’s quintet included a double bass, rather than a second viola or cello. This allowed for a broader spectrum of sonorities. Those sonorities were achieved through not only strumming but also pizzicato and bowing techniques.

Montgomery described her music as follows:

Within Strum I utilized texture motives, layers of rhythmic or harmonic ostinati that string together to form a bed of sound for melodies to weave in and out. The strumming pizzicato serves as a texture motive and the primary driving rhythmic underpinning of the piece. Drawing on American folk idioms and the spirit of dance and movement, the piece has a kind of narrative that begins with fleeting nostalgia and transforms into ecstatic celebration.

This description was sufficient to guide the listener through the performance by violinists Wyatt Underhill and Jessie Fellows, violist Katie Kadarauch, cellist Barbara Bogatin, and Daniel G. Smith on bass. The musicians appeared to be enjoying themselves, and the audience seems to have followed suit.

Instrumentalists John Wilson and Daniel Hawkins, accompanists for tenor Nicholas Phan's performance of Benjamin Britten's “Still Falls the Rain” (courtesy of photographer Michael Strickland)

Tenor Nicholas Phan was joined by pianist John Wilson and Daniel Hawkins on horn for the Britten selection. He preceded the performance by explaining that, in the text by Edith Sitwell, the rain was metaphorical, referring to the World War II bombings that Great Britain had to endure in 1940. Sitwell’s capacity for metaphor also extended into images of the Crucifixion. All of her text was delivered clearly and expressively by Phan. Nevertheless, it would have been of greater benefit to include the words in the program, since this was a text that deserved reflection deeper than what arises during in-the-moment listening.

As might be guessed, Dvořák’s Opus 44 was an engaging unfolding of richly diverse sonorities, realized through structural forms that included a march, a minuet, a “classical” Andante movement, and an Allegro molto for a climactic finale. Sadly, the program sheet gave an inadequate account of the participating instrumentalists (overlooking entirely the inclusion of a double bassoon in the instrumentation). Still, one could appreciate the “lead” performances by oboist Russ de Luna, clarinetist Jeannie Psomas, and Hawkins again on horn. This is music that deserves more exposure than it gets, but assembling the necessary instrumentalists is seldom an easy matter. Rather than quibbling over problems with the program sheet, one could simply sit back and let this music work its magic!

Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Lure of South African Jazz

A little over two weeks ago saw the latest release from Detroit-based Eastlawn Records. This blues and jazz label was co-founded by percussionist RJ Spangler and Frank Traum, a pharmacist with a lot of jazz friends that he felt deserved more attention. The new album is the second to present the Paxton/Spangler Septet, which Spangler founded in partnership with trombonist John “Tbone” Paxton.

Ironically, the group seems to have expanded to an octet. The remaining six performers are Dan Bennett on tenor and alto saxophones, Kasan Belgrave on alto saxophone and flute, Phillip J. Hale on piano, Damon Warmack on electric bass, Kurt Krahnke on acoustic bass, and Sean Perlmutter on drums. The album also features three special guests: Salim Washington on tenor saxophone, oboe, and flute, Alex Harding on baritone saxophone, and John Douglas on trumpet.

from the Bandcamp Web page

The title of the new album is Ugqozi, a word in the Zulu language that translates as “inspiration.” Where Paxton and Spangler are concerned, that inspiration is the influence of South African jazz, an influence that dates back to the Seventies and involves influences such as Sun Ra’s Intergalactic Arkestra. There is also some Nigerian influence on the track “Water No Get Enemy,” composed by Fela Kuti.

My own awareness of this approach to playing jazz also dates back to the Seventies. However, it was not until the second half of the Eighties that I was living in Southern California, where I had my only opportunity to listen to a performance led by Sun Ra. On the other hand, my awareness of African influences dates back to my first job, teaching computer science at the Technion in Israel during the first half of the Seventies. Music worthy of serious listening was relatively sparse where Israeli radio was concerned, but tracks recorded in Africa tended to rise above what was otherwise a level of mediocrity. However, once I returned to the United States and had a much broader scope of listening opportunities, my interest in African sources never progressed much further than John Coltrane’s “Africa.”

As a result, while I feel there is little (if anything) to criticize about the tracks on Ugqozi, the moments that seize and sustain my attention are few and far between. The most memorable of these would have to be Harding’s over-the-top baritone work on the “Water No Get Enemy” track. Nevertheless, I shall probably return to this album for subsequent listening experiences; and the discovery of other highly inventive moments will probably not escape my attention.

2022 Merola Opera Performance Schedule

At the beginning of July, the annual Summer Festival of the Merola Opera Program will be back to “business as usual.” In what may be an effort to “make up for lost time,” the training program associated with the Festival will have the largest class of artists in the Program’s history, 31 in all coming from China, Costa Rica, South Korea, Taiwan, and Uzbekistan, as well as across the United States and Canada. This will amount to nine sopranos, four mezzos, five tenors, one countertenor, two baritones, three bass-baritones, one bass, five pianists also serving as coaches, and one stage director. Ticketed events that will be open to the general public will be as follows:

Saturday, July 9, 3 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) Concert Hall: A Celebration of American Song will be a joyous tribute to music from the Great American Songbook and beyond. Featured composers will include Harold Arlen, Leonard Bernstein, Frederick Loewe, Frank Loesser, and Richard Rodgers. The program will be curated by pianist Craig Terry, Jannotta Family Endowed Chair Music Director of the Ryan Opera Center of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. All songs will be performed in English with supertitles. Ticket prices will be $80 and $55. The SFCM Concert Hall is located at 50 Oak Street, halfway between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street and a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station.

Thursday, July 14, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, July 16, 3 p.m., SFCM Concert Hall: This will be the annual Schwabacher Summer Concert with its usual program format structured around staged scenes. The program will focus on works by Latin American and Spanish composers. The performances will be sung in Spanish with English supertitles. Staging will be directed by Jose Maria Condemi, and Jorge Parodi will conduct. Ticket prices will again be $80 and $55.

Thursday, August 4, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, August 6, 3 p.m., Blue Shield of California Theater: The full-length opera of the Festival will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. The production will be staged by Gina Lapinski, and the conductor will be Kelly Kuo. The Theater is located on the grounds of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA). The entrance is at 700 Howard Street, on the southwest corner of Third Street. Ticket prices will again be $80 and $55, but YBCA will charge an additional one dollar per ticket as a facility fee.

Saturday, August 20, 7:30 p.m., War Memorial Opera House: This will be the annual Merola Grand Finale. Programming has not yet been finalized. As usual, it will involve staged performances of both arias and ensembles. Staging will be by Matthew J. Schulz, and Patrick Furrer will conduct. Ticket prices will be $50, $40, and $25. The Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue on the northwest corner of Grove Street, and tickets will be sold at the Box Office in the outer lobby.

As usual, there will be a post-performance reception. This will take place in the new Barbro Osher Recital Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's Bowes Center, which is located at 200 Van Ness Avenue. All tickets are $75 and may be purchased online through a separate Web page. All other tickets may be purchased online through the hyperlinks attached to the above dates.

Revisiting an SFS Conductor in Detroit

Yesterday evening I returned to the Live from Orchestra Hall Webcast of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The performance was led by guest conductor Xian Zhang. Thus, for my own listening experience, Zhang concluded the month in Detroit, having begun it in Davies Symphony Hall, where she had conducted the first week of subscription concerts by the San Francisco Symphony. 

The original title of the Detroit program was Saint-Georges & Mozart 39, the first name referring to the Opus 5 (first) violin concerto by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Due to an unexpected complication, that selection had to be cancelled. As a result, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 543 symphony in E-flat major was preceded only by Elizabeth Ogonek’s “In Silence.” Like the Saint-Georges selection, this was concertante music for violin and orchestra, meaning that visiting soloist Karen Gomyo remained on the program.

When Zhang visited Davies, the earliest work on her program was the concluding symphony, Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (ninth) in E minor, composed in 1893 and best known by its subtitle, “From the New World.” As a result, yesterday provided my first opportunity to listen to how Zhang would approach Mozart. As can be seen from the screen shot of the ensemble tuning up before beginning their performance, her performance was more “contemporary,” rather than “historical,” working with a generously-sized string section:

However, this seemed to be the “chemistry” that Zhang desired, and her engagement with the ensemble was so attentive that she did not need to consult the score:

All this made for a thoroughly engaging account of one of Mozart’s most familiar symphonies.

Gomyo’s performance of “In Silence” required two instruments, since Ogonek’s score involved scordatura tuning, dropping the pitch of the lowest (G) string down to F. Whether or not this had any significant impact on listening will be left to the tastes of the listener. Personally, I did not feel as if this new lowest tone offered much impact to the overall structure of the composition.

The title referred to the composer’s experiences of sitting in a church in silence. The score itself was structured in three movements:

  1. Nocturne
  2. Variations on Many Themes
  3. Aria with Suspensions

This struck me as having less to do with silence and more to do with different approaches to violin performance. I suspect that the scordatura tuning served those suspensions in the final movement, but Gomyo’s bowing technique in negotiating those suspensions was more than enough to seize and maintain “vision-based” attention.

The extent of her technical skills continued when she took her encore selection. This was “Violin Diptych,” composed by Samuel Adams in 2020. This would have been around the time that Adams was completing his score for Lyra, which was given its world premiere by San Francisco Performances this past October. The two “panels” of the diptych were presented in ABA form, providing an engaging opportunity for “comparative listening.” Gomyo clearly enjoyed playing this music, and her pleasure seems to have spilled over into the audience response.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Program Specifics for Eun Sun Kim’s Concert

SFO Music Director Eun Sun Kim (photograph by Kim Tae-hwan, courtesy of SFO)

Readers probably know by now that the two operas to be presented during the San Francisco Opera (SFO) Summer Season will be led by two guest conductors. Bertrand de Billy will make his SFO debut conducting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 Don Giovanni, and Darrell Ang will make his SFO debut conducting Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber. As a result, Caroline H. Hume Music Director Eun Sun Kim will make her sole appearance in the one-night-only program Eun Sun Kim Conducts Verdi.

This will be a concert program developed by Kim to honor the work of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi by offering excerpts from three of his operas. Kim will conduct the SFO Orchestra and SFO Chorus, now under the direction of John Keene. There will be four featured soloists: soprano Nicole Car, tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, baritone Etienne Dupuis, and bass Soloman Howard. Current Adler Fellows soprano Mikayla Sager, tenor Edward Graves, and bass Stefan Egerstrom will also contribute to the performance.

The program will begin with the overture to Luisa Miller, followed by excerpts from the first and third scenes of the opera’s second act. This will be followed by four selections from Il Trovatore. In “order of appearance” these will be taken from the second scene of the first act, the second scene of the second act, the first scene of the fourth act, and the second scene of the third act.

The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to selections from Don Carlo. This will include an instrumental performance of the ballet for the 1867 version of the score, which provides an interlude during the second scene of the third act. There will also be two finale performances. The more familiar of these is the auto-da-fé scene at the end of the third act. The other will be the conclusion of the fifth act. The selections will begin with the second scene of the second act.

[updated 6/25, 8:20 a.m.:

Yesterday, several changes to both personnel and program were announced. Tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz has developed a bilateral ear infection, which will prevent him from international air travel. As a result, he must withdrawn from the all-Verdi program. This means that the program itself will be updated. The featured soloists will still be soprano Nicole Car, baritone Etienne Dupuis, and bass Soloman Howard. However, the only participating Adler Fellow will be soprano Mikayla Sager.

The program will still begin with the overture to Luisa Miller, but it will be followed only by an excerpt from the first scene of the opera’s second act. The four selections from Il Trovatore will begin with the “Anvil Chorus” from the first scene of the second act. The remaining selections will be taken from the second scene of the first act, the second scene of the second act, and the first scene of the fourth act. The selections from Don Carlo will begin with the auto-da-fé scene at the end of the third act. This will be followed by an instrumental performance of the ballet for the 1867 version of the score, which provides an interlude during the second scene of the third act. The remaining selections will be the second scene of the fourth act and the first scene of the fifth act.]

The program will be performed at the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue on Thursday evening, June 30. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. and last for two hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission. Ticket prices range from $29 to $249. They will be available at the Opera House Box Office or through a Web page. The program will also be livestreamed. Admission to the livestream will be a one time charge of $25 payable through a Web page.

Finally, there will be an After-Party in the Green Room on the second floor of the Veterans Building, located at 401 Van Ness Avenue, next door to the Opera House. All party tickets are being sold for $250. These have a separate Web page for online purchase and may also be ordered by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330.

For all ticket purchases the Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; it is open on all performance days from 10 a.m. until the first intermission.

Mitropoulos in the Early Nineteenth Century

This second article about the performances offered in Sony Classical’s Dimitri Mitropoulos: The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection will focus on composers active during the first half of the nineteenth century. This is a period in music history that often has many serious listeners cringing over the prospect of another same-old-same-old performance. More often than not, I tend to be one of those listeners; but it did not take long for me to appreciate that Mitropoulos was not one to follow the beaten path of others.

I suppose that the portion of this repertoire that had the greatest impact on my listening practices involved the music of Felix Mendelssohn. Just about any Mendelssohn performance I have experienced, in concert as well of on recordings, has left me with the impression of an interpretation that was skilled but glib. This has definitely been the case in past encounters with the symphonies, only two of which are included in the Mitropoulos anthology. One of these, however, has two different performances, one with the Minnesota Orchestra and the other with the New York Philharmonic. This is the Opus 56 (“Scotch”) symphony in A minor. On the Philharmonic album it is coupled with the Opus 107 (“Reformation”) symphony in D major.

All three of these recordings convey a sense a sense of urgency in Mitropoulos’ intense (but never over-the-top) approaches to tempo. These are interpretations that leave the serious listener on the edge of his/her/their seat. However familiar the score may be, one attends to the recording intently, wondering what Mitropoulos will do to each successive episode in the score. To some extent that urgency also arises in his approach to conducting the Opus 64 violin concerto in E minor with Zino Francescatti as his soloist.

The “seeds” of Mitropoulos’ rhetoric also emerge in his Minnesota recordings of Robert Schumann symphonies. These account for Opus 61 (the second) in C major and Opus 97 (the third “Rhenish”) in E-flat major. Recordings from this period also include Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 11 (first) piano concerto in E minor, as well as Carl Maria von Weber’s “Jubilee” overture. These recording also hold the attention, but the grip is not as compelling.

After his move to New York, Mitropoulos shifted his recording attention to Hector Berlioz. Once again, this involves placing the all-too-familiar Opus 14 “Symphonie Fantastique” in a refreshingly new perspective. Most important is that Mitropoulos brings to light ventures into unconventional instrumentation that were clearly intended by the composer but are often “smoothed over” by too many conductors. Mind you, this may well have involved a first-rate working relationship between the conductor and his engineering team; but the results are eyebrow-raising, however they came to be!

That relationship also surfaces in his recording of the Opus 17 “Romeo and Juliet.” Probably because of limitations of space, the album consists only of the orchestral score, meaning that the vocal movements have been elided. Having listening to Opus 17 in its entirety in concert, I cannot complain about those elisions. There is something disheartening about watching vocalists (particularly favorite vocalists) just sitting there twiddling their thumbs over most of the course of the evening!

On the other hand the one remaining album features soprano Eleanor Steber. It includes the Opus 7 “Les nuits d’été” (summer nights), followed by a selection of songs with orchestral accompaniment. This is definitely a satisfying approach to music that deserves more attention than it tends to get. The one problem is that the sleeve for this CD only includes the texts for the Opus 7 songs (and those are barely legible). The accompanying book has the information about the remaining songs on the album, but no texts are provided anywhere.

Finally, on the Minnesota recording of Mendelssohn’s Opus 56, rather than coupling the symphony with another symphony, there is a performance of the Opus 22 Capriccio Brillant in B minor. The solo pianist is Joanna Graudan. The final track of the album is then devoted to Mendelssohn’s own orchestral arrangement of the Scherzo movement from his Opus 20 octet in E-flat major. The tempo for this movement is Allegro leggierissimo, and Mitropoulos is particularly impressive in how he can elicit that leggierissimo from a full ensemble. To some extent that effect arises from his almost breakneck pace, making this performance as stunning as the original setting for eight strings (if not more so).

Friday, May 27, 2022

Leonhardt Recordings Beyond Sebastian Bach

Gustav Leonhardt taking a bow at a recital at the Cité de la Musique in Paris in September of 2008 (photograph by Paul Ruet, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license)

As promised, my examination of The New Gustav Leonhardt Edition released by Warner Classics this past April, has advanced from a focus on Johann Sebastian Bach to the other German composers, whose music was performed for recordings made by Leonhardt. Those performances are realized in a variety of capacities, which include both conductor and instrumentalist. The instruments, in turn, are both harpsichord and organ, as well as cello on an album of sonatas for recorder composed by George Frideric Handel.

I am afraid that this is not the best organized of collections, particularly since one of the CDs includes three tracks of music by Henry Purcell. As might be guessed, the “extended” Bach family gets a generous amount of attention. Two CDs is devoted entirely to Carl Philipp Emanuel, one for three cello concertos and one for five symphonies. The symphonies are particularly interesting due to the number of attacca transitions from one movement to the next. More important, however, is that one can appreciate how these symphonies paved the way for the symphonies subsequently composed by the First Viennese School composers, Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in particular. The other members of the Bach family one encounters are Johann Christian and Wilhelm Friedemann. However, their offerings in the collection are too modest to allow for establishing much of an acquaintance.

The other composer to receive more than one CD of attention is Johann Kuhnau. He is probably best known for having composed six Biblical Sonatas for solo keyboard. Each of these amounts to program music based  a story from the Old Testament. Leonhardt alternated between harpsichord and organ in playing these selections, each of which was introduced with his own narration of the story being represented. Sadly, neither those texts or versions translated into English are available. The best one can do is negotiate the movement titles, that basically guide the listener through each of the narratives. These are printed in German, and I must confess that I have not tested Google Translate on any of this content.

This raises an annoying element in Warner Classics packaging. The only background text is found in a booklet that is too skimpy to be of much use. For much of this content, Wikipedia turned out to be a rather useful source; and it is more readily accessible than the online version of Grove, which is “protected.” (Fortunately, I have access to that site through my public library card; but, since I like to provide hyperlinks for my readers, I find that Wikipedia satisfies more needs than I would have originally guessed!)

From a more positive point of view, I have found myself consistently satisfied with the performance technique, at least on the basis of what I have learned about performance practices by going to concerts and recitals. More often than not, even when the name of the composer may be unfamiliar, both structure and style tend to reflect my experiences of listening to more familiar composers. Nevertheless, such a background only satisfies the most superficial aspects of the content. Those wishing to approach Leonhardt’s recordings as “informed listeners” will not find very much useful guidance in the packaging of this collection.

Jazz Coming to Red Poppy Next Month

According to my records, the Red Poppy Art House reopened with its first post-pandemic program at the beginning of this past December. I learned about this event through Facebook, after which things went back into radio silence. This morning, however, I was directed to a new Facebook Web page for the Poppy announcing a concert that will take place next month.

The four improvisers of The Supplicants (from the Eventbrite event page for their performance at the Red Poppy Art House)

The performance will be presented by The Supplicants. This is a multicultural quartet of Bay Area improvisers with different backgrounds. Sameer Gupta, who specializes in tabla and jazz drumming, uses his Web site to provide information about the ensemble. The other members of the quartet are more committed to straight-ahead improvised jazz. They are David Boyce (saxophone and bass clarinet), David Ewell (bass), and Richard Howell (percussion and a diversity of wind instruments). None of these musicians is a “lead player.” Instead all four members take a collective approach to making music. The music they will be making at the Poppy will be presented under the title Freedom Sounds for the Liberated.

The Supplicants will perform this program twice on the same evening, Sunday, June 12, at the Poppy. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m. for the first show, which will begin at 6 p.m. and last for an hour and fifteen minutes. After a fifteen-minute break to rearrange, the doors will open for a second time at 7:30 p.m. for a performance that will begin at 7:45 p.m.

The Poppy is located at 2698 Folsom Street on the northwest corner of 23rd Street. Ticketing for both shows is being handled through a single Eventbrite event page. “Early bird” tickets, purchased in advance before the end of the day on Thursday, June 9, will be sold for $25. After that, the price of general admission tickets will be $30. Seating is limited, and the Eventbrite site provides information about how many tickets are still available for purchase.

In accordance with San Francisco's city health ordinance, the Poppy is requiring proof of full vaccination and a photo ID at the door. Face coverings are required inside at all time. The Eventbrite page provides additional information about COVID-19 precautions.

Choral Brahms and Symphonic Tchaikovsky

Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann (photograph by Simon Fowler, courtesy of SFS)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Nathalie Stutzmann made her debut conducting the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Her program coupled the choral music of Johannes Brahms with the symphonic work of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. For the Brahms half of the program, the SFS ensemble was joined by the SFS Chorus directed by Valerie Sainte-Agathe.

The three choral works were last performed by SFS in May of 1989, when they were led by then Music Director Herbert Blomstedt. In order of presentation, the selections were “Nänie” (Opus 82 composed in 1881). “Gesang der Parzen” (song of the fates, Opus 89 composed in 1882), and “Schicksalslied (song of destiny, Opus 54 composed in 1871). These are dark compositions setting texts by three major poets in the German language. In “order of appearance” these were Friedrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Friedrich Hölderlin. Opus 89 was composed for six-part choir, while the other two selections had four-part settings. All three were given rich instrumental accompaniment. By way of context for instrumentation, the Opus 83 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major was composed between 1878 and 1881; and the two orchestral overtures, “Academic Festival” and “Tragic,” were composed in 1880.

Stutzmann was clearly in her comfort zone in leading these three choral offerings. She arranged seating for the choristers suitable for both four-part and six-part arrangements. The rich vocal sonorities blended consistently with the diverse instrumental resources. If the texts (given English translations for the program book by Chorus member Noam Cook) tended towards pessimistic rhetoric, one could still appreciate the interweaving of the rich textures provided for both chorus and orchestra.

Those instrumental resources were put in play just as effectively in the Tchaikovsky selection for the second half of the program, the Opus 74 (sixth) symphony in B minor, given the title “Pathétique.” I am sure that I am not the only reader that has had to endure a performance of this symphony that indulged in excessive rhetoric of pathos. The fact is that the music speaks perfectly well for itself and does not need a conductor to underscore every emotional declaration in the score.

Stutzmann was clearly deeply involve in this music at a personal level. However, her priority was to make sure that all of the dark expressiveness would emerge from the clarity of an ensemble placing the marks on the score pages ahead of any heart-on-sleeve indulgence. As a result, SFS found the sweet spot between technical attentiveness and dramatic intensity.

The late nineteenth century never sounded so aesthetically satisfying.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Summer with the Symphony at Davies

As in the past, Summer with the Symphony involves San Francisco Symphony (SFS) programming that goes beyond the repertoire of the subscription concerts. The summer season will run from early July through early August. The more traditional classical music offerings will consist of four programs to be performed at Davies Symphony Hall and one that will take place as one of the events in the Stern Grove Festival. This year, however, will see a departure from tradition. Stern Grove will not host a Fourth of July program. Instead, SFS will give a Sunday afternoon program at Stern Grove at the end of July, along with four programs that will be performed in Davies. Specifics (with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets) are as follows:

Thursday, July 7, 7:30 p.m.: The title of this program is Night in Bohemia. This actually refers to the second half of the program, which will be devoted entirely to Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 88 (eighth) symphony in G major. This will be an overture-concerto-symphony program. The concerto soloist will be cellist Johannes Moser, playing Édouard Lalo’s only cello concerto. The “overture” will be Kareem Roustom’s “Ramal.” The conductor will be Erina Yashima.

Thursday, July 14, 7:30 p.m.: The guest artists for this program will be the members of the Time for Three trio, violinists Nicolas Kendall and Charles Yang, and bass player Ranaan Meyer. Both Kendall and Yang also perform as vocalists. They will be featured in a performance of “Contact,” a concerto for two violins, bass, and orchestra, which was co-commissioned by SFS. The program will get off to a rousing start with Aaron Copland’s “El Salón México.” The remainder of the program will be devoted to “Viennese nostalgia.” The first selection following the intermission will be the overture to Johan Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus (the bat). The baton will then be passed from the “Viennese Strauss” to the “German Strauss,” Richard. The program will conclude with a suite of music from the opera Die Rosenkavalier (the knight of the rose). The conductor will be Paolo Bortolameolli.

Thursday, July 21, 7:30 p.m.: The title of this program is Rapture & Reverie. The soloist will be pianist Inon Barnatan, performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” This will follow the “overture” selection, “Tidalwave Kitchen,” composed by Gabriella Smith. The second half of the program will be based on the friendship between George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel. Appropriate to that context, the first selection will be Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” This will be followed by Ravel’s “Boléro.” The conductor will be Ludovic Morlot.

Sunday, July 31, 2 p.m.: The soloist for this program will be violinist Benjamin Beilman. He will perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 19 (first) violin concerto in D major. Russian music will be performed at the beginning, middle, and end of the program. Igor Stravinsky will lead the way with his “Scherzo à la russe,” which was given its premiere performance by SFS in March of 1946. The final selection will be Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio Espagnol.” Stravinsky’s playfulness will be followed by a less familiar playful composition, Dinuk Wijeratne’s “Polyphonic Lively,” which won the 2017 Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award. The second half of the program will introduce two contrasting works preceding “Capriccio Espagnol.” The first of these will be “Coincident Dances” by Jessie Montgomery. This will be followed by Johannes Brahms Opus 81 concert overture given the title “Tragic Overture.” The conductor will be Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser. This will be a free concert, but advance reservations will be required. Reservations will be made through the Stern Grove Web site, but the hyperlink will not be posted until July 19. The SFS event page (hyperlinked above) includes a hyperlink for making reservations, which will be activated on that date.

Thursday, August 4, 2 p.m. and Friday, August 5, 7:30 p.m.: The final program will be given two performances. Teddy Abrams will not only conduct but also begin the program with one of his compositions, the overture to The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, which Abrams describes as “a 90-minute opera-rap-oratorio mashup.” (In addition to composing the music, Abrams wrote the libretto.) Abrams overture will be followed by “Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra” composed on an SFS co-commission by Mason Bates. The second half of the program will begin with Angélica Negrón’s “Fractal Isles.” It will then conclude with the “Symphonic Dances” music that Leonard Bernstein arranged from his score for the musical West Side Story.

Learning about Carl Sanders from Summit

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

Until the beginning of this week, I had never heard of Carl Saunders. Through his Wikipedia page I learned that he had “worked with Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Bill Holman, and Clare Fischer, in addition to Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, and Paul Anka.” Ironically, my two Fischer CDs are both classified as “classical” in my collection, meaning that, in that list of names, the only “jazz” recordings in my collection are those of Fitzgerald. I feel it necessary to begin with this “opening statement” as an act of “full disclosure.”

However, this week began with an unsolicited package from Summit, which included the fifth volume in a series of releases entitled New Jazz Standards: The Music of Carl Saunders. Fortunately, the accompanying booklet included a statement by Saunders about that title:

I have been writing tunes all of my life. I had many of them sitting by the piano, unorganized and looking like a bit of a mess. I finally decided to print them out and organize them in a folder and finally publishing them into a book which I called New Jazz Standards which has over 300 songs.

Each volume consists of selections from that book performed by a different soloist and/or leader. The four previous volumes involved the following jazzmen:

  1. Sam Most
  2. Scott Whitfield
  3. Roger Kellaway Trio
  4. Larry Koonse

The latest release is another trio album led by pianist Christian Jacob. Rhythm is provided by Darek Oles on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. The only name that registered with me was that of LaBarbera through his work as a member of a Bill Evans trio.

Sadly, there really was not anything on the twelve tracks of this new album that drew my attention, let alone hold it for the duration. Rather, the experience reminded me of past encounters when I would meet a few friends for dinner and then discover that there was a jazz trio performing in the restaurant. More often than not on these occasions, conversation took precedence over serious listening. When one reads the descriptions of the individual tracks in the booklet, one is likely to approach those tracks with optimistic curiosity. However, there is too much of a sense of the “same old same old;” and attention does tends not to hold for any serious duration.

Mind you, thanks to my Music Choice service, my day begin with the Charles Mingus track “Better Get Hit In Your Soul.” So I was loaded for bear at the beginning of my working day and was not prepared for a well-domesticated house cat! The best I can say is that I felt that Jacob and his trio colleagues gave each track their all, but that was not enough to make for a satisfying listening experience.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

New Date Announced for “Contrapassos” in SF

The Telegraph Quartet (above) with Abigail Fischer and Robert Sirota (below) (courtesy of Jensen Artists)

After several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Telegraph Quartet announced this morning the dates of the two world premiere performances of Robert Sirota’s “Contrapassos.” This music was scored for string quartet and soprano, setting a libretto written by Stevan Cavalier. As had been noted previously on this site, Cavalier explained his text as follows:

Contrapasso is an Italian term from Dante's time meaning a punishment made by inversion of a sin. For example, one who in life was mired in the vain pursuit of worldly goods, is condemned after death to wander eternally in boiling mud. In this poem, dreams may be regarded as the contrapassos of waking life.

In that context Sirota explained the structure of his composition:

The piece begins with memories of the quotidian joys of childhood, quickly turning to darkness and thoughts of early death by suicide, heart attacks in middle age, and final judgment. And yet throughout, there is the vigorous embrace of abundant life, of the beauty of our world, and of our striving for faith.

Soprano Abigail Fischer will join the members of the Telegraph Quartet (violinists Joseph Maile and Eric Chin, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw) to present the first two performances of this composition. The second of those performances will take place in San Francisco. The program will also present Grażyna Bacewicz’s fourth string quartet and Maurice Ravel’s only string quartet, written in the key of F major.

The San Francisco performance will be presented by Noontime Concerts, the series that takes place regularly at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays. This particular program will be performed on June 21. The performance will take place in the sanctuary of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, which is located in Chinatown at 660 California Street, on the northeast corner of Grant Street. There is no charge for admission, but this concert series relies heavily on donations to continue offering its weekly programs.

Tom Collier’s Solo Marimba Album on Summit

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

Someone at Summit Records was kind enough to send me a copy of The Color of Wood, a marimba album that was released at the beginning of last month. This is a solo album, of sorts, of fifteen tracks performed by percussionist Tom Collier. The Amazon.com Web page offers a useful description of the content:

While marimba albums are quite common in the classical world, only a scant few jazz marimba albums have been released over the years making "The Color Of Wood" a very unique recording in the jazz canon. While many of the tracks on "The Color Of Wood" were made in one single pass, several other compositions incorporated two, three, or four overdub passes to enrich the sound and artistic intent of the music. In any case, the music was performed entirely on marimba by a single performer (except for the use of a tambourine also played by Collier on one track).

My knowledge of the marimba owes much to Jack Van Geem, formerly Principal Percussion and Assistant Principal Timpani for the San Francisco Symphony and currently Chairman of Percussion Studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). My most recent experience of listening to him perform was in that latter capacity, when he gave a Faculty Artist Series recital in the SFCM Sol Joseph Recital Hall in November of 2019. This marimba recital was one of those occasions in which what they eye saw frequently informed what the ear heard.

The fact is that a skilled performance on this instrument can unfold a rich tapestry of polyphony even without overdubbing. (At the SFCM recital there was no overdubbing; but, when the polyphony got really rich, Van Geem was joined by Raymond Froehlich, another former SFS percussionist, on a second marimba.) Collier’s tracks on The Color of Wood serve up that same wealth of polyphonic rhetoric. While it will probably not be very difficult for most listeners to identify when a track is the result of overdubbing, that technique serves primarily to provide Collier with a “ground bass” against which he can take greater liberties in unfolding improvisations.

Almost all of the tracks are relatively brief. Five of them are collected as a suite entitled Five Reflections on Wood. Those “reflections” are preceded by the title track, which begins the album. All but three of the tracks are Collier originals. His sources for those three tracks could not have been more eclectic: Freddie Hubbard (“Little Sunflower”), Hank Williams (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), and Ray Charles (his version of “Crying” by Roy Orbison and Joe Melson). “Little Sunflower” is one of those instances of overdubbing a “ground bass,” while “Crying” comes across almost as if it were a vocal solo.

The album notes claim that three different marimbas were used to make this recording. Personally, I would have liked to know which instruments were involved with which tracks. It would be interesting to reflect on when the instrument inspired the performance and when it is the other way around (when the approach to performance led to the selection of the instrument). Mind you, if one gets too  cerebral about listening to this album, one might miss out on some of the fun!

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Trinity Alps to Bring Festival to San Francisco

Next month the Trinity Alps Chamber Music Festival, founded in 2011 by Director Ian Scarfe, will celebrate its twelfth season of public concerts taking place across Northern California.Twelve different guest artists will come together from across the country for two weeks of community residencies, recording projects, and nine concerts in Trinity, Shasta, and Humboldt Counties, as well as the San Francisco Bay Area. After three weeks of touring those three counties, the Festival will conclude with a performance in San Francisco.

The program prepared for the San Francisco audience has been given the title Centuries of Sound. The title could not be more appropriate, since the repertoire for the program will reach back to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and forward to the premiere performance of a work commissioned by the Festival. The Mozart selection will be the K. 493 piano quartet in E-flat major. This will be followed by an entirely different quartet, the five bagatelles of Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 47, scored for two violins, cello, and harmonium. That same instrumentation will then be featured in Danny Clay’s “Ocean Park,” written on a Festival commission in 2016. Violinist Rochelle Nguyen will then perform John Adams’ “Road Movies,” accompanied at the piano by Scarfe. This will be followed by the premiere performance of a work by this season’s composer-in-residence, violinist Roseminna Watson. Watson will join Scarfe and clarinetist James Pytko in the performance of her “Triptych, A Priori: Logic of the Interior.” The program will then conclude with John Mackey’s string trio “Wrong Mountain Stomp,” a fortuitous encounter between the traditions of both classical chamber music and bluegrass.

As has been the case with Festival-related concerts in the past, the venue will be The Century Club of California, which is located at 1355 Franklin Street, between Post Street and Sutter Street. The performance will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 26. Admission will be by the suggested donation of $25, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. Reservations are highly recommended and may be made through a hyperlink on the Festival home page.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Aucoin’s Rethinking of Orpheus Myth

Readers may recall that this past Thursday I used my xfinity service to view a saved copy of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice) presented by the Lyric Opera of Chicago on a Great Performances broadcast. This was intended as “homework” before viewing my saved copy of Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice opera, composed on a joint commission by the Metropolitan Opera and the Los Angeles Opera. What made the Chicago Gluck performance interesting was that the casting included the Joffrey Ballet with John Neumeier serving as both director and choreographer.

Aucoin’s undertaking also departed from convention, beginning with the decision to prioritize Eurydice. In fact the libretto was prepared by Sarah Ruhl, using her Eurydice play as a point of departure. Furthermore, the production was staged by Mary Zimmerman, who won a 2002 Tony Award for Best Direction of her own play, an adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In other words this was a production that had “Greek mythology power team” written all over it.

Unfortunately, the result might be described as all power without any team. Both Ruhl and Zimmerman had their own agendas about Eurydice, and it seemed as if both the libretto and the staging kept bumping into each in squirm-inducing ways. My only previous knowledge of Aucoin was his New York Review of Books article about the book Music Lessons, documenting lectures delivered at the Collège de France by Pierre Boulez. That article was probably the most devastating attack I had encountered in my many years of reading the New York Review. While I welcomed his alternative perspective on Boulez, I have to say that his own efforts at composition left me as annoyed with him as he seemed to be annoyed with Boulez.

I suspect that the primary problem was that there were too many inventive perspectives that kept bumping into each other. The primary casualty was a well-defined approach to narrative. Perhaps that approach was neglected under the assumption that everyone already knew the story. However, this was not the case, since I am pretty sure that not everyone was familiar with the past achievements of either Ruhl or Zimmerman. Indeed, if Aucoin’s music came out sounding as if it was doing little more than following the words, it may have been because he was in the uncomfortable position of a servant of two masters.

Sadly, this left me in a position in which I find that I have almost no recollection of any of the Metropolitan Opera vocalists, let alone their conductor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It takes a lot of power to distract attention from the high-quality musicians that contributed to this production. This was particularly disappointing when considering that at least two of those distractions did not seem to know very much about opera.

The Bleeding Edge: 5/23/2022

This has been an on-again-off-again month of bleeding edge activities. Last week’s column accounted for a busy week of six options, five of which had been previously previewed. This week, on the other hand, has only one performance of note, which will be the latest offering at Adobe Books. The program will consist of three sets, all of which will involve electronic gear. Two of the sets will be duo performances, with a solo set between them.

The solo set will be taken by Danishta Rivero, who is primarily interested in the use electronics to post-process her vocal work. When she is not doing solo work, she accounts for half of her Voicehandler duo performances with percussionist Jacob Felix Heule. She is also half of Las Sucias, a feminist tropical noise duo with Alexandra Buschman-Román. Her solo work explores the artifacts resulting from heavy processing of the voice and their relationship to its acoustic resonating presence.

The first duo set will present Jason Kahn and Kevin Corcoran, both of whom work with analog electronics. Corcoran also plays percussion and incorporates field recordings. As a percussionist he is focused on techniques emphasizing textural sound, friction, sympathetic vibration, sustained tones, and the use of found objects with a preference for freely arranging sounds in duration rather than marking time by rhythm. Kahn’s work with electronics involves chaotic (in the mathematical sense of non-linear transfer functions) feedback systems and placing his body in the circuit flow.

The other duo will be an all-electronics performance by Gabby Wen and Jorge Bachmann. Wen is an electroacoustic music composer and improviser, working with synthesizers, electronics, guqin (seven-string plucked Chinese instrument), field recordings, and miscellaneous instruments and objects to create captivating auditory experiences and narratives. Bachman takes a minimalist approach to his work with analog modular synthesizers, but he has also created musique concrète soundscapes.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 29. 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 are encouraged and will all go directly to the performing artists.

Early Reich Tape Music Without the Tape

Steve Reich’s earliest “serious” compositions came out of his work here at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. HIs first major work, “It’s Gonna Rain” involved multiple copies of a loop taken from a sermon by a black Pentecostal street-preacher known as Brother Walter that moved in and out of phase with each other. This led to a whole new repertoire of sonorities organized around principles that had little to do with past techniques in music history.

“It’s Gonna Rain” was composed in 1965. By 1967 Reich had begun to shift his attention to phase techniques based on performing instruments, rather than “concrete” tape sources. Yesterday afternoon, at the final concert of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) entitled Synergy & Synthesis, the program concluded with one of those 1967 compositions, “Violin Phase.” This involved a “live” violinist (Hrabba Atladottir) performing with three recordings of violin performances of a single pattern subjected to phase shifting.

In 1967 those recordings were made on magnetic tape, which involved serious difficulties where precise timing was concerned. Fortunately, those problems no longer arise thanks to digital technology. As a result, Jeremy Wagner was able to create digital tracks for yesterday’s performance, working at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) at the University of California at Berkeley.

What interested Reich most about his technique was the way in which the ear would recognize (synthesize?) patterns that were not in the notation but emerged through the “interference patterns” of phase-shifting. Those patterns resided solely “in the ear of the listener.” Where “Violin Phase” was concerned, the “primary listener” was the violinist. Rather than contributing to the repeated patterns on the tapes, the violinist was instructed to listen to the patterns emerging through interference and then perform repetitions of them. This not only added to the overall “phase texture” but also guided the listener into and through those processes of emergence. Thus, what might initially strike the unfamiliar listener as little more than obsessive repetition turns out to be a diversely variegated “playing field” in which new melodic patterns are discovered and exploited.

Yesterday afternoon was my first opportunity to listen to this music in performance, rather than on recording. Watching Atladottir at work greatly facilitated my awareness of the emergent patterns she would discover and distinguish from the textured patterns of the tape music. The fact is that, when one listens to a recording of “Violin Phase,” separating the violinist from the recorded patterns is no easy matter. However, during yesterday’s performance in the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center, the eye was capable of sorting out the textures in ways that the ear could not. The result was a journey of discovery that no mere recording could begin to approach.

The other “historical” offering on yesterday’s program was the opening selection. Percussionist William Winant performed Lou Harrison’s “Solo to Anthony Cirone.” This was scored for a metallophone of Harrison’s own design based on the integer ratios of just intonation tuning. One could thus follow not only Winant’s approaches to striking these metallic bars but also the resonances emerging from sympathetic vibrations.

Winant then accompanied tenor Eric Dudley (also SFCMP Artistic Director) in a performance of the three-movement song cycle entitled [where late the sweet] BIRDS SANG. Composer Steed Cowart worked with three texts by Stephen Ratcliffe, each of which involved deconstructing and reassembling strings of words from the sonnets of William Shakespeare. As might be guessed, the strings of words for each song lacked what one might expect in the coherence of semantics. However, between the music itself and Dudley’s deliveries of the text settings, what might be called “dispositional meaning” emerged from his interpretation of each song. That left more than enough for mind to consider both during and after the performance.

The remaining two works on the program were solo performances by Kyle Bruckmann, the first on oboe and the second on cor anglais. The oboe selection was entitled “Arachne,” composed by Helen Grime in 2012. It was a relatively brief piece evocative of the weaving of a web (at least to those that “got” the title). Orlando Jacinto García’s “Separación” was composed in 2001 for cor anglais and electronics. This involve a thickly textured “background” provided by the electronics within which the cor anglais would weave its own path. The title suggests that the music is, among other things, an exercise for the listener in recognizing the separation between the  “physical” instrumental sounds and the “virtual” synthesized ones.

Taken as a whole, the program was true to its title, dealing not only with synthesis but also with the synergies that emerge on the borderline between the physical and the virtual.

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Sampling William Grant Still’s Orchestral Work

courtesy of Naxos of America

Yesterday this site discussed the forthcoming Naxos release of string quartet music from the eighteenth century by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prodigious polymath of mixed-race parentage. At the end of this week Naxos will also be releasing an album that surveys orchestral music by William Grant Still, known as the “Dean of Afro-American Composers.” Ironically, Google has been even less cooperative in finding Web pages about this new release than it was when I wrote yesterday’s article. After several different search strategies, the only site I found that is taking pre-orders of the Naxos Still album is CeDe.ch, which calls itself “Switzerland’s largest multimedia shop.” They have created a Web page that accounts only for an audio CD, giving a price in Swiss francs; and, yes, they are processing advance orders!

Ironically, all of the performances on this album are by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Avlana Eisenberg. Six of the tracks include solo violin performances by Zina Schiff. Those familiar with the recent work of violinist Randall Goosby, both on his Roots album and the recital he gave last month at Davies Symphony Hall, know that his repertoire includes a three-movement suite for violin and piano that Still composed in 1943. Three of the tracks on the new Naxos album provide the version of that suite for violin and orchestra. Sadly, the booklet notes say nothing about when the orchestral version was composed. On the basis of the “Selected compositions” section found on Still’s Wikipedia page, I would conjecture that the suite was originally composed as chamber music; but I have not yet found a viable clue about the origins of the orchestral version.

I have to say that I admire the good intentions of both Eisenberg and Schiff. Both of them clearly appreciate Still’s repertoire, and all thirteen of the tracks present convincing accounts of the music. However, those wishing to learn more about that music will probably be frustrated. Notes are provided in the booklet on a track-by-track basis; but the content is, at best, variable. Ironically, the longest paragraph is about the violin suite. However, it says next to nothing about the music itself or its relationship to the chamber music version.

Personally, I feel as if my efforts to “listen beneath the surface structure” have been thwarted by the production values behind this new release. Having listened to him both on recording and in recital, I have to say that I find Goosby a more “reliable source,” even if his Still repertoire is currently somewhat modest. As the song goes, I am willing to wait “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.”

SFGC to Conclude Season with “Choral-Opera”

Members of SFGC (photograph by Carlin Ma)

One month from today the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) will conclude its season with the first of four performances of Tomorrow’s Memories: A Little Manila Diary. This will be the world premiere presentation of a choral-opera composed by Matthew Welch on a commission from SFGC. The title is taken from a book by Filipina immigrant Angeles Monrayo entitled Tomorrow’s Memories, A Diary, 1924–1928. Monrayo’s account of those five years reflects on the importance of the Filipino diaspora and its cultural impact on the United States, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Welch’s composition will be given a semi-staged interpretation by SFGC conducted by Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe. The production will be staged by Sean San José, who is of Filipino descent. He is working with an extensive support team, which includes Associate Stage Director Melvign Badiola, Video Designer Joan Osato, James Faerron designing scenery and props, Lighting Designer GG Torres, Costume Designer Kyo Yohena, Movement Designer Patricia Barretto Ong, Sound Designer Christopher Sauceda, and Audio Engineer Zach Miley. Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by Florante Aguilar on both guitar and ukulele, violinist Patti Kilroy, and Levy Lorenzo on percussion.

This production will be given four performances at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason. They will all take place at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 22, Thursday, June 23, Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25. General admission will be $45 with a student rate of $25. Tickets are being handled by the Magic Theatre, which has created a single secure Web page for purchasing tickets for all four dates. Tickets may also be purchased by calling the Box Office at 415-441-8822.

A Better Approach to “Don Quixote” from DSO

Yesterday evening the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) presented its latest Live from Orchestra Hall webcast. Music Director Jader Bignamini prepared a program that featured both “resident” soloists and one visitor. The “residents,” cellist Wei Yu and violist Eric Nowlin, were first-chair DSO players. However, in this program they were the soloists portraying Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in Richard Strauss’ Opus 35 tone poem “Don Quixote.” The visitor was pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, serving as soloist in a performance of Maurice Ravel’s piano concerto in G.

Readers may recall that last weekend Karina Canellakis presented the Strauss tone poem during her visiting conductor appearance with the San Francisco Symphony. They may also recall that my account of that performance was not particularly enthusiastic. While Canellakis gave a convincing interpretation of the score, I came away with the impression that Strauss never really succeeded in interpreting Miguel de Cervantes’ novel as a tone poem.

Sancho Panza’s “other” instruments (screenshot from the performance video)

Last night, however, Bignamini decided that the performance deserved some introduction. Most important was how he observed that the “character studies” were not limited to the solo parts for cello and viola. He began by calling attention to the duo of tenor tuba and bass clarinet, which frequently portrays another side of Panza’s character. Ironically, he never said anything about the solo violin part, performed by Guest Concertmaster Robyn Bollinger, perhaps because it was unclear what, if anything, that extensive solo work had to do with the overall plot.

Equally important was that the video team used the lower left-hand corner of the screen to “announce” each of the sections of the tone poem. This began with the “Introduction,” followed by the first statements of the themes for both the Don and Panza. Next were the labels for each of the ten “fantastic variations,” each of which had a short descriptive title, whose English translation was included on the label. The concluding Finale was also displayed with text to mark the death of the title character.

All of those “labels” were as helpful as they were unobtrusive. More important was how the camera work managed to account for the wealth of inventive instrumental activity permeating the entire ensemble. There was also a clever twist, which could only be achieved through video, during the seventh variation, entitled “The Ride through the Air” in English. One of the cameras was situated in the highest-level balcony. It provided a screen-filling image of the orchestra, after which it “pulled back,” giving the impression that the viewer was, indeed, riding through the air from the “ground level” of the stage to that top balcony.

Nevertheless, the overall structure of this tone poem is far weaker than that of Strauss’ shorter ventures into this genre. The Opus 28 “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” probably offers Strauss’ capacity to present narrative at its best; and Opus 35 never comes close to that standard. Most important may be the fact that not only are the variations not really variations but also the overall management of section-by-section durations is more than a little erratic. In fact the “Introduction” is the second longest section in the entire poem. Only the third variation is longer, while most of the other sections fly by in only a few minutes. (The overall sense is a bit like “Pictures at an Exhibition” as observed by a jogger, rather than someone pausing to reflect over each of the images.)

Fortunately, the Ravel concerto was far more satisfying. As I have previously observed, there is an interesting “companionship” between Ravel’s two piano concertos and George Gershwin’s two major concertante works, the “Rhapsody in Blue” and his “Concerto in F.” As in the Strauss tone poem, there is an abundance of dazzling solo parts in the ensemble to complement the piano work; however, through that “Gershwin connection” Ravel’s rhetoric is far jazzier than anything Strauss could have conceived. The camera work keeping track of both keyboard and ensemble could not have been better. The result was a dazzling experience, which clearly had an impact on the Detroit audience as well as on my own screen viewing.

As expected, the Detroit crowd would not let Thibaudet leave without an encore. He stuck with Ravel, performing the original solo piano version of the “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (pavane for a dead princess). The quietude of his interpretation was the perfect complement to all the razzle-dazzle in his concerto work.

The program began with Carlos Simon’s “Fate Now Conquers,” which was given its premiere performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra in October of 2020. (No information was provided by the webcast.) The title comes from an entry in Ludwig van Beethoven’s journal written in 1815. Simon’s music takes the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 92 (seventh) symphony as background from which he then develops his own foreground. Perhaps this information was included in the program books for the audience, but it would have been nice if webcast viewers were given their own bit of introduction!