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!

Saturday, May 21, 2022

National Brass Ensemble Coming to Davies

Current members of the National Brass Ensemble (courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony)

The National Brass Ensemble (NBE) was formed in 2014 as a joint venture involving the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and the Green Music Center of Sonoma State University. The idea was to bring together major brass, percussion, and timpani players from major venues in the United States in order to present and record “joint” performances. I first became aware of the ensemble about a year later when Oberlin and SFCM jointly released an album entitled simply Gabrieli.

As might be guessed, the album was devoted almost entirely to the music of Giovanni Gabrieli. This consisted of sixteen selections from that composers’s 1597 volume entitled Sacrae symphoniae (sacred symphonies). All of those selections were arranged for NBE resources by Timothy Higgins, then (and still now) Principal Trombone with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). These were followed by a “bonus track” entitled “Music for Brass,” composed for NBE by John Williams. At that time the ensemble consisted of 26 players, most of whom held principal positions in the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, SFS, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

About eight years have elapsed since the “birth” of NBE. Since that time, brass players from Los Angeles and Detroit have left the group. On the other hand there are now players from Indiana University, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the Nashville Symphony, along with the Principal Trumpet for both the San Francisco Opera (SFO) and the San Francisco Ballet. Current membership also includes two harpists and an organist. As might be expected, the repertoire has expanded.

Almost exactly a month from today, NBE will perform here in San Francisco at Davies Symphony Hall. The ensemble will be conducted by Eun Sun Kim, SFO Music Director. The program will present world premiere performances of compositions by Jonathan Bingham and Arturo Sandoval, as well as Higgins’ latest venture into arrangement (which may also be his most ambitious undertaking).

The opening selection will, appropriately enough, be a fanfare. Richard Strauss composed his “Wiener Philharmoniker Fanfare” (Vienna Philharmonic fanfare) in 1924, scored for brass and timpani. This will be followed by “DEIFIED,” Bingham’s premiere composed on a commission from the Emerging Black Composers Project. The title of the new Sandoval composition is simply “Brass Fantasy.” The program will then conclude with “The Ring,” Higgins’ effort to extract and develop themes from the four operas of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung). (Hey, it worked for Anna Russell, whose distillation took a little over twenty minutes!)

This performance will begin at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 20. Ticket prices range from $20 to $110. Tickets are being managed by the SFS Box Office, which is located at the entrance to Davies on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Tickets may also be purchased through a Web page on the SFS Web site, which has a display showing which price categories apply to which areas in the hall. Finally, tickets can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 415-864-6000.

As of this writing, Davies Symphony Hall is operating at full audience capacity. A face covering is required for entry into Davies Symphony Hall and must be worn at all times. The SFS strongly recommends that patrons wear a non-vented respirator, such as an N95, KN95, or KF94 face mask. SFS also requires proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 for everyone entering Davies Symphony Hall ages 12 and up who is eligible—including patrons, performers, volunteers, and staff. “Full vaccination” is defined as two weeks after completion of the two-dose regimen of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine, or other WHO authorized COVID-19 vaccine. At this time, proof of booster shots is not required. Patrons under age 12 must show proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test (PCR test taken within 2 days of event entry or antigen (rapid) test taken within one day of event entry.

For those patrons under age 12 who wish to show verification of a negative COVID-19 test result, the following are acceptable as proof: a printed document (from the test provider or laboratory) or an email, text message, Web page, or application (app) screen displayed on a phone or mobile device from the test provider or laboratory. The information should include person’s name, type of test performed, negative test result, and date the test was administered. A photo verifying negative test results from a self-administered antigen (rapid) test taken within one day of event entry is also acceptable. Additionally, patrons may bring unopened at-home rapid tests with them to Davies Symphony Hall to take with a verified EMT present. Further information is available at the “Patron Safety at Davies Symphony Hall” Web page.  

Further Quartet Adventures with Saint-Georges

Some readers may recall that, this past February as part of the Uncovered concert series that the Catalyst Quartet prepared for San Francisco Performances, the ensemble played two of the string quartets from the collection of six published by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The report of that performance provided key biographical background, including the composer’s mixed-race parentage and his reputation as a prodigious polymath in eighteenth-century France. What it did not mention was that this collection was Saint-Georges’ Opus 1, published in 1773. It was followed by two further sets of six quartets, one published in 1779 without and opus number, and the Opus 14 collection published in 1785.

Arabella String Quartet members Alexandre Lecarme, Sarita Kwok, Julie Eskar, and Ettore Causa (from the booklet for the recording being discussed, courtesy of Naxos of America)

This coming Friday Naxos will release an album of the six 1779 quartets. The performances are by the Arabella String Quartet, whose members are violinists Julie Eskar and Sarita Kwok (alternating in first and second chair positions), violist Ettore Causa, and cellist Alexandre Lecarme. All tracks were recorded at the Fraser Performance Studio of WGBH in Boston. For some (not necessarily unexpected) reason, Amazon.com is not yet aware of this release. However, those interested in pre-ordering will be able to do so through a Barnes & Noble product page, which is probably the best option for delivery from a source in the United States.

Like the quartets that Catalyst played, all six of the quartets on this album consist of two movements. Only one of the quartets, the second in G minor, does not begin with an Allegro movement. The opening movement is an Adagio, and it is followed by an Aria andantino. This is also the only quartet in the set in a minor key.

Brevity pervades the entire collection. The opening movement of the final quartet is the longest, about fifteen seconds short of seven minutes. Ironically, it is followed by the only theme-and-variations movement in the set. That movement is slightly longer than three minutes, meaning that the variations are significantly few in number!

Nevertheless, the Arabella players know how to endow even the briefest of the movements with engaging expressiveness. Presumably, Saint-Georges wanted to please his fellow nobles. This probably meant making it a point not to strain their modest attention spans! However, if the quartets on this album did not necessarily rise to heights of sophistication, the thematic diversity of the individual selections are still likely to appeal.

Labadie’s Delightful Mozart-Haydn Program

Conductor Bernard Labadie (photograph by Dario Acosta, courtesy of SFS)

As most readers probably know by now, Ton Koopman was unable to conduct this week’s series of subscription concerts given by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall due to visa difficulties. He was replaced by Bernard Labadie, who made his SFS debut in 2005; and, unless I am mistaken, has not performed here since April of 2013, when he presented a program of sacred music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and George Frideric Handel.

Koopman had prepared a secular program for this week, coupling Mozart this time with Joseph Haydn. Labadie kept the Mozart selections scheduled for the first half of the program, the K. 239 serenade in D major, known as the “Serenata notturna,” and the K. 425 (“Linz”) symphony in D major. For the Haydn half of the program, Labadie replaced Koopman’s selection (Hoboken I/80 in D minor) with Hoboken I/103 in E-flat major, which turned out to be a more entertaining offering.

Indeed, Labadie even took the time to provide some introductory remarks about the Haydn selection. The “nickname” for this symphony is “Drumroll;” and, in her Inside Music Talk, Alexandra Amati played a recording of the timpani drumroll that begins the first movement and recurs near the end of that same movement. Labadie told a slightly different story. Apparently, recent research has made the case that the notation of a whole note with a trill sign was to be interpreted as an opportunity for a cadenza. After Labadie had gone on for a while to make this case, Assistant Principal Timpani Bryce Leafman interrupted with a drumroll, which then unfolded into a virtuoso cadenza; and the symphony then got under way. A similar cadenza was performed at the end of the first movement.

The fact is that Labadie found just the right sweet spot between affability and technical rigor to make last night one of the most absorbing accounts of both Haydn and Mozart that I have experienced in several years. I suspect the impact had much to do with a sense of personality that included the full ensemble, rather than just the conductor. Mind you, after Leafman had his say for the second time, Assistant Concertmaster Wyatt Underhill had his own solo opportunity during the double-variation second movement (Andante più tosto allegretto). (Both themes were apparently based on Croatian folk songs.) Taken as a whole, this was far from a business-as-usual account of a Haydn symphony (not that any Haydn symphony deserves a business-as-usual approach!), leaving me to wonder why we had to wait almost a decade for a return visit by Labadie.

There was also no shortage of upbeat rhetoric in Labadie’s approach to the Mozart half of the program. The Wikipedia page for K. 239 states that it was scored for “Two small orchestras.” This was not quite the case last night. Rather, the music was performed by one small ensemble coupled with a quartet of four soloists. Underhill led this quartet, joined by Principal Second Violin Dan Carlson, Associate Principal Viola Yun Jie Liu (a change from the listing in the program book), and Principal Bass Scott Pingel. The music itself lasted less than a quarter-hour with only three short movements.

Most likely, K. 239 had been composed “on spec” for one of the social affairs of Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo. The Prince-Archbishop wanted “background music;” but last night’s “foreground” presentation could not have been more engaging. Those high spirits then extended smoothly into a vigorously delightful account of the K. 425 symphony.

This was an evening when both “spirit” and “flesh” were as able as they were willing, leaving this listener hoping that it will not be such a long wait before Labadie makes his next return to San Francisco!

Friday, May 20, 2022

E4TT to Revisit “Émigrés & Exiles” Program

In about a month’s time, the Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) will conclude its 2021/22 season by revisiting its Émigrés & Exiles in Hollywood program. Once again the performance will be by the E4TT “core” trio of pianist Margaret Halbig, soprano and co-founder Nanette McGuinness, and cellist Abigail Monroe. The performance will again take place at the Berkeley Piano Club. However, for those preferring to remain within the San Francisco city limits, the program will be live-streamed at no charge. All that will be necessary will be registration through the Eventbrite event page, which has a free “Online RSVP” options for ordering tickets. (That event page also provides a list of the composers whose works will be performed.) Once the RSVP has been registered, the link to the livestream will be provided. This will be a one-hour performance beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 18.

Neoclassicism? It Is What It Is!

courtesy of PIAS

One week from today, Rubicon Classics will release a new album of performances by Norwegian concert pianist Oda Voltersvik. The title of the album is NEO, intended as a reflection on neoclassicism. As expected, Amazon.com has created a Web page to process pre-orders of this new release.

Lexico.com, the Web site managed by the dictionaries division of Oxford University Press, says the following on its “neoclassicism” Web page:

In music, the term refers to a return by composers of the early 20th century to the forms and styles of the 17th and 18th centuries, as a reaction against 19th-century romanticism.

Taking that definition as context, the composers represented on NEO are, in “order of appearance,” Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Sofia Gubaidulina.

Given that Gubaidulina was born in 1931 and is still very much alive, I am not sure she counts as an “early 20th century” composer. Indeed, as a music student during the Communist days of the Soviet Union, she cultivated skills in smuggling scores of composers like Charles Ives and John Cage, apparently with Shostakovich’s sympathy. At the other end of the timeline, so to speak, Voltersvik’s Scriabin selection (which opens the album) is a relatively early work, which seems more focused on extending the rhetoric of Frédéric Chopin than in reacting against it.

That said, my own reaction as a listener has been to dispense with Voltersvik’s “agenda” and deal with each of the four compositions on its own terms. Thus, I have no problems listening to her approaching Scriabin’s Opus 28 “Fantaisie” in the spirit of “Chopin on steroids,” so to speak. On the other hand, I would say that the Prokofiev selection, his Opus 14 (second) piano sonata in D minor, can be approached in the spirit of endowing an eighteenth-century structure with unmistakably twentieth-century rhetoric. Ironically, this is followed by Shostakovich’s second solo piano sonata, his Opus 61 in B minor. This was composed shortly after the Nazis had begun the siege of Leningrad, and any signs of influence from eighteenth-century classicism can probably be dismissed as mere coincidence. More likely, this is music that may have inspired Gubaidulina to seek out her own new directions with compositions like the chaconne that concludes the album. (The label may reflect the seventeenth century, but the music definitely does not!)

Each of the four compositions on this album definitely deserves serious attentive listening. Voltersvik presents each one of them to inspire such a response on the part of the listener. Whether the title of her album is relevant is hardly worth consuming time to argue!

Opera Presented as Ballet with Vocalists

This past January I used my xfinity service to save a copy of a Great Performances broadcast of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice (Orpheus and Eurydice). The performance was presented by the Lyric Opera of Chicago in collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet. John Neumeier served as director, choreographer, and production designer. Last night I finally set aside time to watch this program.

Like many in this country, I first became aware of Neumeier through the Stuttgart Ballet when its founder John Cranko brought the company on its first tour of the United States in 1969. Neumeier was one of the company’s leading male dancers with a specialty in narrative ballets. Indeed, while with Stuttgart he added a ballet version of A Streetcar Named Desire to the repertoire. In 1973 he moved to Hamburg to lead the Hamburg Ballet, creating the Hamburg Ballet School five years later. He became Ballet Director for the Hamburg State Opera in 1995.

Gluck’s opera was structured in three acts, but the libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi was relatively slim. (It also reworked the original myth to provide a happy ending.) As a result the narrative lends itself to “dance interludes,” giving Neumeier the opportunity to turn the narrative into a story about a lot of dancers, one of whom is killed in an automobile accident and comes back to life after her ballet master (and, presumably, lover) rescues her from the underworld. Other than the title characters, the only vocal part in Gluck’s opera is given to Amore (love), who basically coaches Orfeo’s efforts to recover Euridice.

The title roles on the video are sung by tenor Dmitry Korchak and soprano Andriana Chuchman, joined by soprano Lauren Snouffer singing the role of Amore. Led by conductor Harry Bicket, they deliver consistently convincing vocal performances, often joined by an out-of-sight chorus. Nevertheless, Neumeier never misses an opportunity to bring the corps de ballet on stage; and, unless I am mistaken, he appropriated additional Gluck music for a grand finale involving multiple corps.

The fact is that, regardless of approaches to staging, Gluck’s opera is relatively slim. (Those that remember Amadeus may recall that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart blew away a reference to Gluck with a single dismissive sentence. That may have been rude, but it had a ring of truth to it.) Neumeier certainly knew how to keep his dancers busy, even if there were signs of influence from Robert Joffrey, Gerald Arpino, and, for that matter, Alvin Ailey. The video direction by Matthew Diamond allowed the attentive viewer to appreciate the details in Neumeier’s choreography, the expressiveness of the three vocalists, and Neumeier’s inventiveness in working with a single abstract set. This is a video document that can probably hold up to multiple viewings.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Salonen to Conduct Last Two SFS Season Programs

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), will conduct the final two subscription programs of the 2021–22 season. The first of these will feature a visit from pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard to perform piano concertos by Béla Bartók. The following week will see two SFS premiere performances of music by Steven Stucky and John Adams, respectively, as well as a debut performance by pianist Víkingur Ólafsson.

Those wondering about the use of the plural in the second sentence of the above paragraph should be informed that this is not a typographical error! Aimard will perform Bartók’s first concerto on Thursday and Friday and then shift to the third concerto for the remaining two performances. All four performances will continue with Jessie Montgomery’s string orchestra version of “Strum” and Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem “Pines of Rome.” The program will begin with Luciano Berio’s “Quattro versioni originali della ‘Ritirata notturna di Madrid,’” (four original versions from Luigi Boccherini's “Withdrawal by Night in Madrid”). This amounts to four arrangements of one of the movements from “Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid” (night music of the streets of Madrid), originally performed by two violins, one viola, and two cellos, which Boccherini composed (probably around 1780) during his service to the Spanish Court.

The performances on Thursday, June 16, Friday, June 17, and Saturday, June 18 will take place at 7:30 p.m., and the Sunday, June 19 performance will begin at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $20 to $165 and may be purchased by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000. The pre-concert talks will be presented in partnership with the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism. The speaker on June 16 will be Classical Music Critic of The New York Times, Zachary Woolfe. The speaker for the remaining three performances will be John Platoff. As usual, these talks will take place one hour prior to the beginning of the performance. Doors open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Tickets may also be purchased online through the Web page for this program.

The first SFS premiere on the final subscription program of the season will be “Radical Light” by Steven Stucky. This single-movement composition was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with contributions from Lenore and Bernard Greenberg. The premiere performance took place in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles on October 18, 2007. Salonen conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the occasion. The second SFS premiere was also performed for the first time by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This was John Adams’ three-movement piano concerto, “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?,” named after words attributed to Martin Luther. The piano soloist was Yuja Wang, and the conductor was Gustavo Dudamel. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Jean Sibelius’ fifth symphony.

This program will be given three performances, all at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, Friday, June 24, and Saturday, June 25. Ticket prices again range from $20 to $165 and may 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. Tickets may also be purchased online through the Web page for this program.

These performances will be preceded by the final Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 23, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Cahill 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.

Sony Classical Releases Mitropoulos Collection

Towards the end of last month, Sony Classical released its latest historically-significant anthology of past recordings. The title of the release is Dimitri Mitropoulos: The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection. To the extent that he is known at all in our current history-is-bunk culture, Mitropoulos is probably best known as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic that took on Leonard Bernstein as a protégé. Mitropoulos began his association with that orchestra in 1949, becoming full-time Music Director in 1951. In 1958 he “passed the baton” (literally) to Bernstein. The album covers all of the recordings Mitropoulos made for Columbia with the Philharmonic, as well as recordings made during his tenure with the Minnesota Orchestra (then the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra) from 1937 to 1949, when he was succeeded by Antal Doráti. (An anthology of Doráti in Minneapolis would probably be as extensive and informative as the Mitropoulos anthology.)

When Mitropoulos first moved to New York, he shared the Philharmonic podium with Leopold Stokowski. Like Stokowski, he had adventurous tastes in repertoire. However, Stokowski was more of a showman, satisfying his audience with familiar favorites while maintaining a judicious balance of tastes when venturing into the unknown. Mitropoulos was bolder in departing from tradition; and the selections of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven in this new collection are extremely modest, particularly when compared with anthologies of other conductors discussed on this site.

One result is that only two of those composers, Mozart and Beethoven, enjoy the benefit of full-album recordings. Ironically, the Mozart album does not feature either of the Minneapolis and New York ensembles. Rather, the focus is on the duo-pianists Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin performing the K. 365 two-piano concerto and the K. 242 three-piano concerto joined by Josef Lhévinne. The ensembles for these performances are, respectively, the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra (the “summer version” of the Philadelphia Orchestra, named for its outdoor venue) and The Little Orchestra Society conducted by Thomas Scherman. (This is clearly a Vronsky-Babin album, rather than a Mitropoulos album; but it is still a useful document of performance practices in the post-WWII Forties.) That said, Mitropoulos was clearly sensitive to the breadth of Mozart’s rhetorical skills; and, while these are not “historically-informed” performances, they still shine a more-than-favorable light on Mozart.

Beethoven definitely gets more attention. There is a recording of the Opus 68 (“Pastoral”) symphony made in Minneapolis and a Philharmonic recording of the Opus 73 (“Emperor”) concerto with the Philharmonic and pianist Robert Casadesus. There is also a memorial album for Casadesus’ son Jean, who died in a car crash at the age of 45. This couples a Philharmonic performance of Beethoven’s Opus 37 (third) concerto in C minor with a solo piano performance of Mozart’s K. 573 set of nine variations on a minuet theme by Jean-Pierre Duport.

Bach, on the other hand, is limited to arrangements of organ music for large orchestral ensembles. The selections are the BWV 564 C major toccata (arranged by Leo Weiner), Mitropoulos’ own arrangement of the BWV 542 fantasia and fugue in G minor, and the BWV 680 chorale prelude setting of “Wir glauben all an einen Gott” arranged by “H. Bösenroth.” Finally, as a brief nod to seventeenth-century France, BWV 564 is followed by a minuet movement from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s ballet Le temple de la paix (the temple of peace). All these recordings we made during Mitropoulos’ tenure in Minnesota.

While these selections are limited, one should not assume that Mitropoulos was only comfortable out on the “bleeding edge.” For example, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky gets roughly the same attention as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven combined; and Mitropoulos was certainly generous in his overall repertoire from the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, his heart was very much in the twentieth century, both in Europe and the United States. Future articles will discuss each of these domains in its own right.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Choices for June 10–12, 2022

As we approach this month’s “busy weekend++,” it looks like the first weekend of choices in June will be the second one. As of this writing, that weekend will not be quite as rich with alternatives as the one we are about to confront. Nevertheless, there will be an appealing diversity of alternatives. Here are the options to consider:

Friday, June 10–Sunday, June 12, Davies Symphony Hall: This will be the weekend when the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will present its program of two major works by Igor Stravinsky [added 5/19, 11:05 a.m.: conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen]. Those works will be the opera-oratorio in two acts, Oedipus rex, and the three-movement “Symphony of Psalms.” Both will be given new staged productions directed by Peter Sellars. Casting for Oedipus will consist of tenor Sean Panikkar in the title role, mezzo J’Nai Bridges as Jocasta, bass-baritone Willard White as Creon, the Messenger, and Tiresias, tenor Jose Simerilla Romero as the Shepherd, and actor Breezy Leigh in the silent role of Antigone. Bridges, Romero, and Leigh will all be making debut appearances with SFS. Dancer Laurel Jenkins, also making her debut, will participate in the staging of “Symphony of Psalms.” The performances on June 10 and 11 will take place at 7:30 p.m., and the June 12 performance will begin at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $35 to $165 and may be purchased through a single Web page (which includes further program details) or by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000. The entrance to Davies is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.

Friday, June 10, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 12, 2 p.m., War Memorial Opera House: This will also mark the first weekend of the summer season of the San Francisco Opera. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 Don Giovanni will be performed on both of these dates with the second evening performance on Friday and the first matinee on Sunday. Separate Web pages have been created for purchasing tickets for the Friday and Sunday performances. Tickets may also be purchased in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue or by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330. Box Office hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on Monday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. The Box Office will also open at 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, and remain open through the intermission.

Friday, June 10, 9 p.m., The Lab: This will be a solo recital by Japanese multi-instrumentalist Eiko Ishibashi. She has also produced albums as a singer-songwriter. Her instrumental compositions have been created for film, television, theater, and exhibitions; and she is also in improviser. The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street. The location is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station. Doors open half an hour before the concert is scheduled to begin; and, back before the pandemic, it was usually the case that a long line had accumulated prior to the opening. General admission will be $20. The price will be discounted or free for members of The Lab. A Web page has been created for others to purchase tickets online.

Saturday, June 11, 7 p.m., Cowell Theater: Post:ballet will present the world premiere of a not-yet-titled work by choreographer Mia J. Chong in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist and composer Vân-Ánh Võ. This will be part of an eclectic evening, which will present additional premiere performances by Teatro Nagual, singer/songwriter Will Hammond, Jr., animation artist Jaroslav Baran, and poets Aileen Cassinetto, Tureeda Mikell, Kim Shuck, Maw Shein Win. The entire program is part of the Breaking Down Walls project commissioned by J & J Arts Initiative. Proceeds will be applied to raising funds for Ukraine. The Cowell Theater is located in Fort Mason (2 Marina Boulevard) at Pier 2. All tickets are being sold for $25, and they may be purchased through an Eventbrite event page.

Saturday, June 11, 7:30 p.m., Mission Dolores Basilica: Following a triumphant national tour, Chanticleer will present its next series of concerts entitled No Mean Reward: Chanticleer and the Golden Fleece. The title refers to the Order of the Golden Fleece, founded by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. The Order supported the creation of some of Europe’s most exquisite polyphony. The program will include selections by Guillaume Du Fay, Johannes Ockeghem, Antoine Busnois, and Cristóbal de Morales. Mission Dolores Basilica is located in the Mission at 3321 16th Street on the southwest corner of Dolores Street. Ticket prices are $20 for general admission, $52 for preferred seating, and $62 for premier seating. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office Web page, which includes a floor-plan showing where the different levels of seating are situated.

New Winkler Album Deserves Better Production

courtesy of Play MPE

Last month jazz vocalist and songwriter Mark Winkler released his latest album Late Bloomin’ Jazzman. Given the number of jazz releases that have disappointed me, particularly since the onset of the COVID pandemic, a basic nuts-and-bolts account of straight-ahead jazz vocals should have been a welcome arrival. However, there are production values that arise once the recording sessions have finished; and little attention seems to have been given to them.

For the most part these failings have been remedied through the rather extensive notes provided on the Amazon.com Web page for the CD. The text accounts for the instrumentalists that provide backup for Winkler’s vocals. However, where multiple players are involved for piano and bass, there is no account of which tracks involve which performers. There is also no basic track listening, but that information can be found on the digital download Web page.

Eight of the twelve tracks are Winkler originals. These are unabashedly personal. Pessimism tends to rule over optimism; but, if the prevailing mood is a dark one, Winkler deftly avoids descending into the mere maudlin.

Winkler credits Barbara Brighton as his producer. Apparently, she has little interest in satisfying the needs of those of us interested in the nuts and bolts behind individual jazz tracks. On the other hand, it is probably the case that there are so few of us that we no longer merit such attention.

Julia Bullock Gives Black History a Voice

Julia Bullock, Carolyn Yarnell, Allison Loggins-Hull, Pamela Z, and conductor Christian Reif taking bows (courtesy of SFS)

Last night vocalist Julia Bullock brought her History’s Persistent Voice project to Davies Symphony Hall in her role as San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Collaborative Partner. She performed with a reduced ensemble (strings and percussion) of SFS musicians conducted by her husband, Christian Reif. The performance took place in a setting of immersive video installations designed by visual artist Hana S. Kim and projected across multiple screens.

History’s Persistent Voice began as the product of a season-long residency that Bullock spent at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018. It was inspired by an anthology of 136 lyrics and melodies sung by communities of people who had been enslaved prior to the Civil War. The “main event” in Bullock’s New York performance was the premiere of Freedom Songs, composed by Jessie Montgomery with texts taken from that anthology. The music was co-commissioned by SFS, and last night it received its SFS premiere. The songs were interleaved with spoken texts, which included an extended recitation of a text by Craig Anthony Ross, who was executed at San Quentin Prison on December 13, 2005.

Other songs that had first been performed in New York included Pamela Z’s “Quilt,” commissioned by SFS, “Mama’s Little Precious Things” by Allison Loggins-Hull and “Green Pastures” by Tania León. The program also included world premiere performances of two songs by Carolyn Yarnell, “I Come Up the Hard Way” and “ain’t my home.” Except for León, all of the composers were presented in Davies for last night’s performance.

This was a program built on a solid foundation of the rich lode of semantics involving the experiences of people of color in the United States. The texts selected for performance approached those experiences through both denotation and connotation, and the expressiveness of those words could easily have been lost were it not for the clarity of Bullock’s vocal deliveries. Nevertheless, the experience was definitely one of a highly compelling performance, rather than the pedantry of a graduate seminar. Bullock clearly had a message to communicate; and, unlike the old (and now outmoded) joke, she needed more that Western Union to deliver that message.

That message built up its impact through each selection of words, sung or spoken, that provided the spinal cord for the entire program. In that context the inclusion of all of the texts in the program book was not just a convenience; it was a necessity, as much a part of the performance as the music being presented. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the printed content was so valuable that the the audience suffered a major injustice with lights turned down too low to read that content. The dimming of the lights, of course, was due to the projection of Kim’s images, a small slice of which was set aside for supertitles.

This physical layout was clearly a product of people unfamiliar with reading poetry. Anyone that has attended a more “traditional” vocal recital that provides a text sheet knows that the eye does not follow the vocalist word by word. Rather, while the words are being sung, the eye tends to explore “regions” of words, allowing the listener to appreciate how context informs both the composer and the vocalist. Presumably, all of the composers (not to mention Bullock herself) were sensitive to that role of context; but those sitting in the darkened Davies space were deprived that contribution to the listening experience. (I say “deprived” because any awareness of context on the part of Kim’s visuals never seemed to be anything more than coincidental.)

As a result I left Davies last night hoping that an audio recording of the performance would eventually become available. I felt that being deprived of my usual poetry reading skills put the contributing composers at more than a bit of disadvantage. I would give anything to revisit the entire program, this time with the benefit of the poetry-reading skills that I have acquired over so many decades.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Islandia Music Records to Launch Schick Series

Composer John Cage (photograph by Rob C. Croes for the Dutch National Archives, from Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

This Friday Islandia Music Records (the label managed by cellist Maya Beiser) will launch a multi-album series of recordings of performances by percussionist Steven Schick, collectively entitled Weather Systems. The title of the first album is A Hard Rain. Most of the release is devoted to innovative approaches to percussion that were explored during the Fifties and Sixties. The contributing composers from that period are (in order of appearance) John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman, Charles Wuorinen, Helmut Lachenmann, and William Hibbard. The album then concludes with an “electronic augmentation” of Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate.” Amazon.com has created a Web page for this new album, which is processing pre-orders. Unfortunately, it is only being distributed for digital release; but, fortunately, the download includes the accompanying booklet.

Where the content of this recording is concerned, anyone of my generation will probably see the elephant in the room. That elephant is the album Electronics & Percussion - Five Realizations By Max Neuhaus, a vinyl album released by Columbia Masterworks in 1968. That album is still available through an Amazon.com Web page at what may described politely as “collectors’ prices.” To the best of my knowledge, the CD version has only been produced by Sony Music Japan International, meaning that the price on the Amazon.com Web page will probably also only appeal to serious collectors. Two of the selections on A Hard Rain also appear on Electronics & Percussion: Feldman’s “The King of Denmark” and Stockhausen’s “Zyklus für einen Schlagzeuger” (cycle for a percussionist), given the number 9 in the composer’s catalog.

Now, to be fair, I enjoy the fact that anyone interested in either of these compositions has an opportunity to choose between performances or even listen to both of them. Nevertheless, I have to say that David Behrman tended to make better programming decisions than those made jointly by Schick and his recording engineer Andrew Munsey. As a case in point, consider the opening tracks on A Hard Rain.

The first of these is Cage’s “27 minutes 10.554 seconds” (I have chosen the headline used on the Wikipedia page for this composition to clarify the meaning of the title) scored for a solo percussionist. That meticulous approach to duration suggests that for this piece (and others titled only by the span of the duration), Cage was particularly interested in the interplay of sounds and silence. As a result, there are extended periods of silence in the performance, one of which occurs very early in Schick’s performance (so early that even I wondered whether there might have been a defect in the recording medium). The good news is that Cage was more interested in the general qualities of the passing of time than he was in how time is shared through the alternation of sounds and silence.

However, this becomes problematic on Schick’s new recording when the Cage selection is followed by “Zyklus.” The latter also involves the alternation of sound and silence, since the percussionist has to rotate himself in a circle, surrounded by the instruments he is playing. Stockhausen’s silences tend not to endure as long as Cage’s, but they are just as much a part of the music-making process. The problem, however, is that any listener that is not watching the clock while listening to Cage’s composition will probably have a hard time recognizing when the Cage piece ends and the Stockhausen piece begins! Behrman, on the other hand, ordered the selections on his album in such a way that one could detect significant qualitative changes in progressing from one piece to another.

Is this a matter of picking insignificant nits? Personally, I do not think so. I believe that every composer has a right to have his music recognized as such, even if the indeterminacy of that music is a significant element in the behavior of listening. Thus, while the performer may have to contend with watching both clock and notation at the same time, the listener should only have to focus on listening. In other words, while I can appreciate A Hard Rain as a valuable catalogue of compositions from the middle of the last century, I feel that the production has overlooked the fact that the listener also has a “point of view,” which tends to be even more important when indeterminacy is involved.

The good news for Schick is that the prevailing “digital mindset” is no longer constrained to honor the “program” defined by a recording. One can listen to any track in isolation as easily as one can shuffle the ordering of all of the tracks. (When the tracks are digital, one no longer has to worry about whether or not they are on the same CD!) Were Cage still alive, I suspect that he would relish the ways in which one may take a more creative approach to the act of listening. (On the other hand, I am not sure that either Stockhausen or Feldman would agree with him on this matter!)

Nevertheless, perhaps because my values seem to become more old-fashioned as I get older, the Neuhaus album still appeals to me more than the Schick album does. However, that is just my state of mind in the immediate present. If I spend more time listening to A Hard Rain, who knows where or how my tastes will shift!

LCCE to Conclude Season with Folk Songs

At the beginning of next month, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) will conclude its subscription season with a program entitled Myth & Memory: Berio Folk Songs with New Companions. Folk Songs is the title of a cycle of eleven songs that Luciano Berio composed for the American mezzo Cathy Berberian. She was married to Berio between 1950 and 1964, the latter being the year in which he composed his folk song arrangements. (She continued to collaborate with Berio after their divorce.)

Visiting contralto Emily Marvosh (photograph by Tatiana Daubek, courtesy of LCCE)

Those arrangements involved rather rich instrumentation for chamber music, consisting of flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet, harp, viola, cello, and percussion (two players). The sources for the songs included the United States (arrangements by John Jacob Niles), Italy (including Sicily), France (with particular attention to the Auvergne region), Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Contralto Emily Marvosh will join the LCCE musicians to perform this collection.

She will be followed by LCCE soprano Nikki Einfeld, who will present a set of “new folk song companions.” Composers Linda Catlin Smith, Hiroya Miura, Chris Castro, Seong Ae Kim, and Ingrid Stölzel will each contribute two songs to the program, all of which will be receiving their world premieres. Einfeld will then conclude the program with Carl Schimmel’s “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut,” which had been scheduled for its world premiere on March 9, 2020 but was cancelled due to COVID-19. This is a setting of a chapter from Howard L. Chace’s book Anguish Languish, now out of print but available from Amazon.com at collector’s-item prices. The text only makes sense when it is read aloud. For example, Chase describes the story that Schimmel set to music as a “ladle furry starry toiling udder warts—warts welcher altar girdle deferent firmer once inner regional virgin.”

The San Francisco performance of this program will take place at 7:30 p.m. on June 6. The venue will be the  San Francisco Conservatory of Music building at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. Tickets are being sold for $30 with a $10 rate for students. A Web page has been created for purchasing both categories of tickets.

Monday, May 16, 2022

The “New” Gustav Leonhardt Anthology

Gustav Leonhardt with one of his harpsichords on the cover of the box for The New Gustav Leonhardt Edition

A little over a month ago Warner Classics released The New Gustav Leonhardt Edition, described on the back of the box as an “abundant legacy of Gustav Leonhardt’s recordings,” taken primarily from Das Alte Werk, the “historical” division of the Telefunken label. The “new” modifier distinguishes the collection from the Sony box set Gustav Leonhardt: The Edition, which draws upon lesser-known European labels. Sony released its collection in May of 2008, and it provided a little over fourteen hours on music on fifteen CDs. The Warner collection, on the other hand, consists of 35 CDs, which definitely merits that “abundant” adjective; but I shall not speculate on how comprehensive the contents are.

Nevertheless, it is definitely worth noting that the first sixteen CDs consist almost entirely of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Over the course of listening to them, one encounters Leonhardt as both a conductor and a keyboardist; and, in the latter capacity, as a performer on both harpsichord and organ. To be fair, however, many of those recordings can also be found in the monumental Bach 2000 complete-works release by Teldec, which has been one of my most treasured acquisitions from when I purchased it and traversed the entirety CD by CD.

Regular readers probably know by now that I like to deal with any large collection by dividing it into what mathematician, computer scientist, and educator Seymour Papert liked to call “mind-sized chunks.” For better or worse, I have decided to deal with all of those Bach albums as a single “chunk.” After discussing those recordings, I shall move on to other articles on the basis of country, first dealing with German composers and then turning to their English counterparts. However, because the collection gives relatively little attention to the French and the Italians, I shall combine them in the concluding chunk.

All of those Bach albums may, in turn, also be divided into separate categories. The largest of those categories consists of seven CDs of solo harpsichord performances. These include all six of the “English” suites, all six of the partitas, and the BWV 988 set of “Goldberg” variations. Those that enjoy the “French” suites will quickly appreciate that this collection is far from comprehensive!

Similarly, there are four CDs of harpsichord concertos, including concertos for multiple instruments. However, BWV 1052, often numbered as the first solo harpsichord concerto, is not included in the collection. The last three of the sixteen CDs account for Leonhardt as conductor with a selection of cantatas. Finally, there are two CDs presenting BWV 1014–1019, the six sonatas for accompanied violin, with Lars Frydén playing the violin part.

I think it would be fair to say that no performance in this collection left me dissatisfied. I continue to be interested in how different performers bring different points of view to their approaches to execution. Thus, when, several years ago, I was given the gift of the Brilliant Classics complete Bach collection, I had no problem with keeping it side-by-side with the Bach 2000 collection. Thus, in the context of my recent encounters with Lang Lang playing BWV 988 both on recording and in Davies Symphony Hall, I was only too happy to listen to how Leonhardt approached the music.

The fact is that between Bach 2000 and Brilliant Classics, I was not a stranger to any of the Bach selections on the sixteen CDs in the Leonhardt collection. Nevertheless, I felt that each of those selections had its own distinctive way of “speaking to me.” Thus, I shall continue to alternate from one performer to another when it comes to listening to recordings of Bach’s music; but I expect that Leonhardt will receive as much attention in the future as I have allocated to my other Bach sources in the past.

The Bleeding Edge: 5/16/2022

This will probably be the busiest Bleeding Edge week since the beginning of this year, if not since the onset of the COVID pandemic. There are ten entries in this week’s newsletter from BayImproviser.com, and seven of them take place within the San Francisco city limits. (To be fair, two of those entries are for the first and last events in a four-event series, leaving me wondering why the two “middle” events did not show up in the newsletter). In any event, all but one of the entries was not accounted for in an earlier article on this site. That being the case, let me begin with hyperlinks to the articles already written:

  • May 18: the return of the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) New Music Series (formerly known as the LSG Creative Music Series)
  • May 19–22: Gravity Spells II, co-presented by the San Francisco Cinematheque and The Lab
  • May 20: the Friction Quartet performance presented by Old First Concerts
  • May 20: the debut of Ensemble in Process at the Center for New Music
  • May 22: Synergy and Synthesis, presented by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players

The remaining event of this week will be the next installment of Jazz at the Make-Out Room on the third Tuesday of this month. This will be a three-set program, beginning at 7 p.m. with Black Edgar, a solo performance by David Boyce. This will be followed at 7:45 p.m. with a duo improvisation bringing alto saxophonist Beth Schenck together with keyboardist Motoko Honda. The final set will be taken by the Citta di Vitti trio beginning at 8:30 p.m. The members of this trio are Phillip Greenlief on alto saxophone, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass, and Jason Levis on drums. Doors will open at 6 p.m.. There is no cover charge, so donations will be accepted. Once again, the Facebook Web page for this event explicitly requires proof of vaccination and masks worn at all times unless drinking.

Ives Collective: Music That Merits More Attention

Yesterday afternoon at Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts hosted the latest program prepared by the Ives Collective. This is basically a “pickup” chamber music group managed by cellist Stephen Harrison and Susan Freier, who plays both violin and viola. They then recruit other musicians based on the selections planned for the program.

Yesterday’s program was devoted entirely to twentieth-century music. However, the works came from different periods in the lives of their respective composers. Benjamin Britten was nineteen years old when he composed his Opus 2 “Phantasy” quartet for oboe and string trio. Rebecca Clarke’s piano trio was composed about a decade earlier, but she was in her mid-thirties at that time. Only a couple of years earlier, Edward Elgar composed his piano quintet in A minor, when he was in his early sixties.

I have to confess that the Elgar quintet had the strongest pull on my attention for personal reasons. Back when we were living in Los Angeles, my wife and I took a road-trip up the Pacific Coast to Santa Maria, which included a detour, because I wanted her to see Solvang. We had no real plan for what we would do in Santa Maria, but it turned out that the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts was hosting a chamber music performance. I cannot remember anything about the performers; but that event provided my “first contact” with the Elgar quintet. I was hooked from the darkness of the opening gesture, and my attention never waned over the course of the work’s three movements.

The fact is that, prior to that evening, I had no idea that Elgar had composed any chamber music. In fact, he is known for only three works in that genre, all of which were composed after the end of World War I. Given that Elgar had been subject to depression before that war, there is a sense that the quintet provided him with a means to work through his latest bout with this malady. The result might almost be called “a long night’s journey into day,” with the Allegro of the final movement finally allowing the composer to raise his spirits.

For yesterday afternoon’s account, Freier took the second violin part, performing with first violinist Jeremy Preston. Harrison’s cello work was paired with Melissa Matson on viola. The piano was played by Keisuke Nakagoshi. All five of the players clearly appreciated that Elgar had crafted an emotional roller coaster, but they could not have done a better job in taking command of all of the music’s rhetorical twists and turns. The program book included the following sentence by Dr. Derek Katz:

George Bernard Shaw felt the Piano Quintet was in the same vein as Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, and was the finest thing of that sort since Beethoven’s Overture.

I am no great fan of Shaw’s writings about music, but Elgar’s quintet needs all of the boosting it can get. I should not have to measure the temporal distances of my encounters with this music in decades!

This past Friday this site wrote about how Rebecca Clarke’s name was mistakenly assumed to be a pseudonym for Ernest Bloch when it was entered in a 1919 competition sponsored by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. Clarke’s identity was finally established, but she still placed second behind Bloch when the awards were announced. At the next competition in 1921, Clarke’s piano trio again placed second.

In introducing this trio yesterday afternoon, Harrison suggested that one could detect passages reminiscent of Bloch’s music. I am not sure I agree. As those who read Friday’s article know, I have been more than happy to take Clarke’s music on its own terms.

Listening to the piano trio yesterday afternoon was no exception. Freier played violin for this selection, joined by Harrison and Nakagoshi. This was my “first contact” with Clarke’s trio in performance; and I definitely hope that my second opportunity comes sooner, rather than later.

Some readers may recall that the Britten centennial year (2013) was celebrated with London releasing its recordings of the composer’s complete works. Unless I am mistaken, that was my “first contact” with his Opus 2. Like Clarke’s trio, this piece was entered in a competition, this time funded by Walter Willson Cobbett.

Both Britten and his teacher, Frank Bridge, had submitted works to Cobbett’s competitions. Curiously, the program notes say nothing about whether either of them received any awards. What is cited is Britten’s skill in developing a relatively short single-movement composition that follows the usual four-movement structure. The music may lack the attention given to the more mature Britten compositions; but it was definitely given an engaging reading yesterday afternoon with Kyle Bruckmann taking the oboe part, joined by Preston on violin and Freier on viola.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

SFCA to Return to “Physical” Performance

from the SFCA Web site

Given that June is shaping up to be a busy month, particularly in the “physical” (rather than virtual) world, this is probably a good time to let readers know that the next San Francisco performance by San Francisco Choral Artists (SFCA) will take place early next month. The title of the program will be Boats & Trains & Flying Machines. Details regarding the works to be performed have not yet been finalized; but there will be four world premieres, including the winners of the New Voices Project competition. Featured composers will include Clara Schumann, Frederick Delius, Bohuslav Martinů, Chen Yi, Anton Webern, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 5. The venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, which is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of its intersection with Franklin Street. Ticket prices at the door will be $35 for general admission with a discounted $30 rate for seniors. However, online purchases will be on a pay-what-you-can basis.

The season summary Web page includes the interface for buying tickets online. Online sales will close at 11 p.m. on Saturday, June 4. Note that there will not be any “physical” tickets. Online purchases will be on the Will Call list at the door.

As of this writing, masks covering the nose and mouth without gaps will be required at all times. In addition, proof of full vaccination, with at least one booster, and proof of identification will be required for entry. All SFCA performers, staff, and volunteers are fully vaccinated and will be masked for the entire event.

NCCO’s Uneven Evening of Mozart

NCCO Music Director Daniel Hope with guest violist Paul Neubauer (courtesy of Michael Strickland)

Last night the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) returned to Herbst Theatre to conclude its 2021–2022 season. The title of the program was Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante. In fact, the entire program was devoted to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Three selections were presented in early-middle-late chronological order. The K. 364 sinfonia concertante in E-flat major held the “middle position” with solo work by Music Director Daniel Hope on violin and guest violist Paul Neubauer. The music was flanked on either side by symphonies, beginning with K. 45b in B-flat major and concluding with the K. 550 “warhorse” in G minor.

The NCCO string section provided just the right size, which suited all three selections. Different combinations of winds were required for each of the pieces. These were not period instruments. For the most part, however, they provided the right balance with the strings, although the horns came across as scrappier than one would have wished. The full complement was required for K. 550, and the solo clarinet work by Sarah Bonomo was particularly memorable for its polished expressiveness.

Hope introduced K. 364 by noting that Neubauer would use scordatura tuning for his instrument. His explanation went by like lightning. Fortunately for those that could not keep up with him, that explanation can be found on the Wikipedia Scordatura page:

Mozart wrote the solo viola part for his Sinfonia Concertante a semitone lower, with the viola strings to be tuned a semitone higher to D, A, E, B. Thus [sic] part is written in D major (the key of the work is E major). A common practice of the time, changing the pitch of the open strings was primarily intended to make the viola sound louder, and so better discernible in the symphonic orchestra: indeed, increasing the tension in a string, not only sharpens the pitch, but also makes it sound louder, the loudest sound being obtained just before breaking.

Hope observed that, while most violists do not retune their instrument for K. 364, Neubauer decided it would be more suitable. Between the limited ensemble resources and the Herbst acoustic, there was no reason for Neubauer’s viola to be any louder than usual; and, as a result, I am not sure that the change made very much difference. The only other departure from “business as usual” involved Hope playing an over-the-top cadenza by Joseph Hellmesberger Sr. at the conclusion of the first movement; but this was entirely consistent with Mozart’s own tendencies to show off his skills!

Hope and Neubauer also offered an encore, which departed from Mozart. They performed “Idylle,” the Opus 155 bis of Charles Koechlin originally composed for a pair of clarinets. Hope suggested that the music evoked an ideal world, which is certainly a proposition devoutly to be wished in current times; but I suspect that the composer was more interested in a “real world” take on the amorous pastoral qualities of the music.

Where the symphonies were concerned, K. 45b was probably a novelty for much of the audience. Mozart was not yet a teenager when he composed this symphony, but it is often referred to has his seventh. Sadly,. the second violin section was all but inaudible during last night’s performance. Considering all the effort that went into the audibility of the viola in K. 364, it is a bit ironic that the only real audibility issue arose at the very beginning of the program.

At the other end of the program Hope led K. 550 at a brisk pace. Fortunately, the string section came off as better balanced. As a result, even at a rapid tempo, one could still relish the richest diversity of sonorities of the evening in Hope’s interpretation of the score.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Luggage Store Gallery Concerts to Return

Last month saw the return of the SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series of concerts held under the auspices of Outsound Presents. Next week the other Outsound concert series will return to the Luggage Store Gallery (LSG) to resume (hopefully) regular performance of the LSG New Music Series (formerly known as the LSG Creative Music Series). Programming will resume following the (once) usual format of two improvisations. The first set will be taken by Alphastare, which presents experimental sound collage and “forays into dark places.” The second set will be performed by the Diaspora Focii Trio, whose members are Jaroba (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet), Kersti Abrams (alto saxophone and flute), and Mika Pontecorvo (guitar and electronics). They will be joined by Zae Tinaza (saxophones), Elijah Pontecorvo (bass), and Colleen Kelly T (cello).

Each of the two sets is expected to have a duration of somewhat less than an hour. The first set is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, May 18. 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.

Catone’s “Complete” Shostakovich: Volume 2

courtesy of Naxos of America

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about the launch of a project to record a more thorough account of Dmitri Shostakovich’s compositions for solo piano. The recordings are being made by Italian pianist Eugenio Catone and released by Stradivarius. When I learn about a project like this, I tend to assume that the individual albums will be released at a snail’s pace. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the second volume will be released this coming Friday and that, as expected, Amazon.com has created a Web page for processing pre-orders. The not-so-good news is that, as of this writing, the album will distributed only for digital download; and I have yet to encounter any specific information about a “physical” release.

Readers may recall that there were only two instances of content not previously recorded in the first volume. The more significant of these is the addition of three preludes to the Opus 2 collection. The other consisted of nine tracks of juvenilia composed between 1918 and 1920.

Where the second volume is concerned, it turns out that the “new content” has nothing to do with Shostakovich. The two piano sonatas, Opus 12 and Opus 61, remain as they have always been. The same can be said of the seven pieces in the Opus 69 Children’s Notebook. The only difference is that the new release accounts for all eleven of the “Variations on a Theme by Glinka,” composed in 1957. This was a “collective” project for which Shostakovich provided only three variations, the eighth, the ninth, and the eleventh. The remaining variations were composed by Eugen Kapp, Vissarion Shebalin, Andrei Eshpai, Rodion Shchedrin, Gregory Sviridov, and Dmitri Kabalevsky; and they have all been recorded by Catone.

I am not sure how advantageous it was to include this in a complete-works project for Shostakovich. On the other hand, after having poked around both Amazon and Google, I found myself wondering if the complete set had ever been previously recorded (particularly since this music has nothing to do with the Glinka variations composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov). The project took place in 1957, which was a relatively good time for artistic innovation as the innovators became less fearful of Joseph Stalin’s ghost. The fact is that all the contributors seemed to have had fun with this project at a time when “fun” was only gradually returning to their working vocabulary. At the very least, this “complete” set of variations provides the attentive listener with some sense of the company that Shostakovich was keeping at that time.

SFS: The Best Things Come in Small Packages

Visiting conductor Karina Canellakis (photograph by Mathias Bothor, courtesy of SFS)

Last night the first of three San Francisco Symphony (SFS) performances conducted by Karina Canellakis was framed by two large-scale full-ensemble compositions. The first half of the program was devoted entirely to Richard Strauss’ Opus 35 tone poem “Don Quixote” with visiting cellist Alisa Weilerstein assuming the role of the “knight of the doleful countenance’ and Principal Viola Jonathan Vinocour as the knight’s squire, Sancho Panza. At the other end the program concluded with a vigorously full-throated account of Witold Lutosławski “Concerto for Orchestra.”

However, sandwiched between these two auditory spectacles was the first SFS performance of “D’un soir triste” (of a sad evening), composed originally for piano trio by Lili Boulanger. Lili was the younger sister of Nadia, one of the leading teachers during the first half of the twentieth century with particular impact on American composers too numerous to itemize in this article. (The itemization can be found on a Web page.)

Lili was sickly for most of her life, which was only about 24 and a half years. Nevertheless, she was a productive composer. As James M. Keller’s note for the program book observes, “By the time she died, on March 15, 1918, her catalogue included forty-three extant works, plus twenty-two more whose existence was documented but that have not survived.” “D’un soir triste” was composed after an unsuccessful surgery in July of 1917, coupled with a less melancholy work entitled “D’un matin de printemps” (of a spring morning).

The orchestral version of “D’un soir triste” is as rich in instrumentation as the works performed both before and after it. However, its duration was roughly eleven minutes. Once again I am reminded of Buckminster Fuller’s injunction to make more and more with less and less, Listening to “D’un soir triste,” it was impossible to overlook just how skilled Boulanger was in managing such rich instrumentation.

Indeed, she included an instrument untouched by both Strauss and Lutosławski, the sarrusophone, designed to substitute for oboes and bassoons, particularly in outdoor band music. The program book stated that a contrabassoon would substitute for the sarrusophone, but anyone that knew were Steven Braunstein sat could see that he was playing a sarrusophone! One might almost say that the rich sonorities of Boulanger’s music provided excellent preparation for how Lutosławski deployed his own rich sonorities with a much more aggressive rhetoric that kept the attentive listener on the edge of his/her/their seat. Canellakis’ management of this side-by-side contrast was a reminder of why her return visit was so welcome.

“Don Quixote” was another matter. Strauss composed ten tone poems between 1886 (when his “day job” was as a conductor) and 1915. “Don Quixote” was composed in 1897 after he had honed his narrative skills to produce “Tod und Verklärung” (death and transfiguration) in 1889 and “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” (Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks) in 1895. However, Miguel de Cervantes’ novel was on an epic scale; and, while Strauss certainly knew how to muster instrumentation on an epic scale, a narrative of epic scale was, sadly, “above his pay grade.”

A case in point will acknowledge this shortcoming while, at the same time, suggest that even the best recording technology cannot do justice to Strauss’ ingenious instrumentation. This was my first encounter with the tone poem in a concert setting. Listening to recordings, I always thought I could differentiate the solo sonorities of cello and viola. Sadly, in watching Vinocour at work, I realized that several solo passages I had taken to be for cello were actually for the viola. In my defense I would argue that Strauss was better at portraying the many facets of Till Eulenspiegel’s character than he was in distinguishing Don Quixote from Sancho Panza! I would probably even doubt that he read the novel in its entirety. (He was in the wrong year and the wrong country for Classics Comics!)

The good news was that Canellakis manage Strauss’ full-scale orchestra resources as deftly as she had taken on the Lutosławski concerto. Her chemistry with both ensemble and soloists was consistently attentive. However, she was at her best with her Boulanger selection, making a solid case that the best things come in small packages!