Sunday, June 26, 2022

A Little Over Half a Century of Chamber Music

As programs go, the final Chamber Music Series concert, presented by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall, filled a relatively narrow temporal window. At one end was a piano trio by the Armenian composer Arno Babajanian, which was given its world premiere in 1952 and was performed this afternoon by violinist David Chernyavsky, cellist David Goldblatt, and pianist Yana Reznik. At the other end was the “Fantasy Duo” scored for cello and bass by Fred Bretschger, performed by Goldblatt and Scott Pingel on bass. Between these was situated a horn trio, somewhat in the spirit of the Opus 40 trio by Johannes Brahms, composed by John Harbison in 1985. This was performed by Dan Carlson on violin, Mark Almond on horn, and Marc Shapiro on piano.

Since this trio was a substitute for the originally-scheduled fifth string quartet by Béla Bartók, the original window of the program would have been decidedly wider. Nevertheless, the first two works on the program would have provided excellent preparation for listening to that Bartók quartet. Bretschger’s duo was the opening selection, and it did not take long to recognize that he was very fond of the harmonic tetrachord, whose intervals are one half-step, three half-steps, and one half-step. This has a very “Hungarian” sound; and the scale that consists of two harmonic tetrachords separated by a whole step is sometimes called the “Gypsy major” scale. Mind you, the Hungarian influence on Bretschger is not particularly strong; but it is strong enough to suggest a nod or two to Bartók.

Similarly, Babajanian’s Armenian rhetoric, which probably owes much to the mentorship of Aram Khachaturian, also draws heavily on the harmonic tetrachord. However, while that tetrachord weaves its way in and out of Bretschger’s duo, Babajanian’s trio is much more explicitly ethnic. This clearly reflects influence from Khachaturian, which, in turn, was probably motived by the desire to bring a distinctive “Armenian voice” to the concert hall. Nevertheless, it is interesting to speculate how that one tetrachord could establish an “implicit bond” between the two opening selections, which would have then prepared listeners for Bartók’s quartet.

Instead, Harbison’s trio was “something completely different.” Mind you, the notes he prepared (which were not provided as an extra sheet for the program book) never say anything about Brahms’ trio. Rather, he plays up the significant differences between horn and violin. However, if his goal was to guide the listener through a path of distinctively different sonorities, he never seemed to deploy his content in ways that would both seize and maintain listener attention. Instead, it almost feels as if, relatively early in the score, listeners might decide “Yep, those sure are different sounds! What else do you have to say?” That is the moment when even the most attentive and well-intentioned listener is likely to break with a composition that borders on the tedious (if not crossing the line).

Plans for 2022 ABS Summer Bach Festival

Yesterday’s mail brought my first news of the annual Summer Bach Festival to be held by American Bach Soloists (ABS). This will consist of seven concerts, two of which will not involve any member of the Bach family. However, as in the past, they will all offer consistently imaginative programming presented by engaging performers. Specifics will be as follows:

Saturday, July 23, 8 p.m.: The series will begin with a program entitled Flames of Love. This refers to George Frideric Handel’s HWV 170 secular cantata Tra le fiamme (in flames). The music is scored for soprano and instruments, and the vocalist will be Mary Wilson. She will also sing the HWV 99 cantata Il delirio amoroso (the amorous delirium). The instrumental portion of the program will present concertos by Georg Philipp Telemann, Antonio Vivaldi, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Sunday, July 24, 4 p.m.: The Harmonic Labyrinth is named after the last of the twelve concertos in the Opus 3 publication of Pietro Locatelli. The concerto was given the title “Il Laberinto Armonico, facilus aditus, difficilis exitus” (the harmonic labyrinth, easy to enter, difficult to escape); and it is notorious for the technical demands that confront the violin soloist. The other concertante selection will be a Telemann concerto for four violins in D major. Telemann will also be represented by his D major “Paris” quartet. Bach will be represented by his BWV 1067 orchestral suite in B minor and his BWV 202 “wedding” cantata, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (dissipate, you troublesome shadows). Wilson will again be the vocalist.

Tuesday, July 26, 7 p.m.: Classical Genius will be a program featuring two composers whose talents emerged at an early age. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart will be represented by his K. 285 flute quartet in D major and his K. 581 clarinet quintet in A major. The program will then conclude with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 string octet in E-flat major.

Thursday, July 28, 7 p.m.: Readers may recall that, in August of 2019, the Festival included a program entitled Bach to Bluegrass & Beyond. The program consisted of two sets. The first involved bluegrass curated by bass player Daniel Turkos, and it was followed by a jazz set curated by Kit Massey playing both piano and violin. Turkos and Massey will return with a new program entitled Bach & Jazz: Blowin’ the Blues Away.

Friday, July 29, 7 p.m.: Barococo is named after a term coined by musicologist H. C. Robbins Landon but best known to those of my generation through radio broadcasts by Seymour DeKoven (who disliked having his first name announced). As this program is described, “The galant styles of High Baroque and Rococo music join hands in the mature works by Bach and [Jean-Philippe] Rameau.” The program will also include concertos by Handel and Vivaldi.

Saturday, July 30, 7 p.m.: Prior to the COVID pandemic, the Summer Festival would feature a full-evening vocal work, usually by Handel. That tradition will return with a performance of Handel’s HWV 61 oratorio Belshazzar. The performance will include five vocal soloists, including tenor Matthew Hill in the title role.

Sunday, July 31, 4 p.m.: The title of the final program will be Bach, Barges, and a Burlesque. Those familiar with music history will probably recognize that the barges were involved in the performance of Handel’s Water Music, and ABS will play the first of those three suites, HWV 348 in F major. This will conclude the program, which will begin with Bach’s BWV 1068 orchestral suite in D major. The middle of the program will be devoted to Telemann, featuring his “burlesque,” an overture based on the narrative of Miguel de Cervantes’ epic novel Don Quixote.

Tickets are now on sale for all of the above events. The performances will be held in Herbst Theatre, which is located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Tickets will be sold for prices between $25 and $99. There will also be a VIP Section, whose tickets will cost $125. All seats will be reserved, and masks must be worn at all times. A single Web page has been created for purchasing all tickets to all of the concerts.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Left Coast Plans for 2022–2023 Season

The members of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (photograph by Bonnie Rae Mills)

Subscriptions are now on sale for the five concerts in the 30th season of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE). However, that almost-monthly series, being called “Season 30,” will be preceded by “something completely different.” Not only will the venue be different, the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center, but also the program will be structured around a guest storyteller with music interleaving within the narration of the tales. For the subscription series itself, venues have not yet been finalized for all of the performance. However, the full LCCE agenda in San Francisco will take place on the following dates and times with venue information as available:

Saturday, September 10, 11 a.m., SFJAZZ Center: In a program entitled Fairytale Pieces, storyteller Susan Strauss will narrate a series of tales including classics such as “Birds of Fortune” and “Coyote Goes to the Sky.” Her narration will be punctuated by three LCCE musicians, percussionist Loren Mach, joined by Leighton Fong on cello and Stacey Pelinka on flute. This will be a one-hour program that features live performance and a Q&A session, as well as the interplay of storytelling and music.

Monday, September 19, 7:30 p.m.: The title of the first subscription concert is Up Next! It will present three works written by young composers. The program will begin with the world premiere of “Canon Cadenza Cadence Cluster,” composed by Sky Macklay, which was made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This will be followed by the winner of the 2020 LCCE Composition Contest, Sarah Westwood, who submitted “Things You Don’t Yet Know You Feel.” The program will then conclude with Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 18 (first) string quintet in A major. Since Mendelssohn was seventeen years old when this music was composed, he, too, can be classified as a “young composer!”

Monday, October 24, 7:30 p.m.: The title of the second subscription concert will be Sounds Divine. Specific compositions have not yet been named, but the program will be a generous survey of sacred music. Contributing composers will be T. J. Anderson, Jonathan Harvey, Errollyn Wallen, Arvo Pärt, and Olivier Messiaen.

Monday, January 30, 7:30 p.m.: The title of the third subscription program will be Wild Music. It will include a performance of the music that Igor Stravinsky composed for the ballet “The Rite of Spring” but in the arrangement for four hands on one keyboard. There will also be a solo piano performance of the ten compositions collected in the first book of Leoš Janáček’s cycle On an Overgrown Path. The program will conclude with a new work by a composer yet to be announced.

Saturday, April 29, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 21, 4 p.m., Bayview Opera House: This is the one subscription offering for which the venue has been announced. The program will consist of world premieres of two chamber operas. Anthony R. Green serves as his own librettist in his composition of “Tenderhooks,” which is basically a reflection on modern dating. His perspective is a personal one of a Black, gay cis-male. The second opera is a twenty-minute partnership of Kurt Rohde with the poet Donna Masini entitled “4:30 Movie.” These are settings of Masini’s poems scored by soprano, percussion, video mirror, and electronics. Masini’s poems reflect on the death of her sister from cancer, while Rohde’s score resonates with his own current treatment for cancer.

Monday, June 5, 7:30 p.m.: The season will conclude with a program entitled Starry Night. As might be guessed, the program will include Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 4 string sextet entitled “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night). In addition, flutist Stacey Pelinka will be soloist in “Night of South Winds,” a new flute concerto by Josiah Catalan. Finally, there will be two different takes on urban evenings in Madrid composed by Luigi Boccherini and Roberto Sierra.

Tickets for the SFJAZZ Center performance will be handled by SFJAZZ. A Web page has been created for online purchases. This is part of the Family Matinees series, and prices will be $5, $10, and $23. A single Web page has been created for all purchases of Season 30 tickets. These include both subscriptions and tickets to individual concerts.

The Operatic Overload of “Both Eyes Open”

Suchan Kim as a Japanese-American farmer from California, who has to endure American prejudices during World War II (photograph by Robbie Sweeny)

Yesterday afternoon the Presidio Theatre Performing Arts Center concluded its first season with the first of three performances of the one-act chamber opera “Both Eyes Open.” Lasting about 90 minutes, the opera’s libretto by Philip Kan Gotanda presents an uncompromisingly intense narrative of the brutal conditions that Japanese-Americans were forced to endure during World War II. The context behind the story itself was so rich in content, taking in both Japanese traditions and the full brutality of American politics (presented, ironically, in the context of the latest stage of brutality being meted out by the Supreme Court), that the program sheet provided two full pages of background information.

Indeed, the context was so rich that it basically overwhelmed every other element contributing to the performance. That included the staging directed by Melissa Weaver, the music composed by Max Giteck Duykers, the roles sung by soprano Kalean Ung, baritone Suchan Kim, and tenor John Duykers, and the instrumental quartet of violinist Emanuela Nikiforova, clarinet Cory Tiffin, pianist Marja Mutru, and Joel Davel playing his “all-purpose” Marimba Lumina. The advance material for this production called it a “haunting, hyperreal tale of love, ambition, injustice and betrayal in this entertaining, yet searingly honest, portrayal of the past, to bring to light the current anti-Asian xenophobia and violence that continues today.” That overloaded verbiage basically presaged the excesses of the overall production.

There is no questioning the motives behind the opera itself. In the midst of all the excesses of production, there remains a “hard nut” at the core of a national history that can be (but never is) mapped out by its acts of injustice. We should view this parade of injustices, past and present, with “both eyes open,” as the opera’s title suggests. Sadly, the view from the stage of the Presidio Theatre was obscured by trying to account for an abundance of details, distracting the viewer from the basic hard truths that need to be confronted.

Friday, June 24, 2022

James Gaiters Rethinks 1968 Blue Note Album

Composite photograph of Eddie Bayard, Robert Mason, Kevin Turner, and James Gaiters (courtesy of Jazz Promo Services)

A few months ago drummer James Gaiters self-released his latest album entitled Understanding Reimagined. The title refers to a pioneering organ trio album that Blue Note released in 1968 entitled Understanding. Organist John Patton led the trio, whose other members were Harold Alexander, alternating between tenor saxophone and flute, and Hugh Walker on drums. The album had only five tracks; and only the first of them, “Congo Chant,” was composed by Patton. The other tracks were “Alfie’s Theme” (Sonny Rollins), “Soul Man” (Isaac Hayes and David Porter), “Understanding” (Sam Gary and Mark Nash), and “Chitlins con Carne” (Kenny Burrell).

Understanding Reimagined is performed by the James Gaiters Soul Revival. This is a quartet, whose other members are saxophonist Eddie Bayard, guitarist Kevin Turner, and organist Robert Mason. All five Understanding tracks are included, along with “Ding Dong,” an original composition by Alexander.

I must confess that I have a soft spot for organ trios. In this case I enjoyed the trio expanding to a quartet. Since I never added Understanding to my album collection, I am not in a position to compare Mason with Patton. Nevertheless, I am perfectly satisfied with Mason’s work, both when he takes the lead and when he backs up solo improvisations by Bayard and Turner, a few of which turn into duo improvisations. These days I find that reflections on what Blue Note was matter more to me than most of the label’s current projects.

Sibelius Saves the Day as SFS Season Ends

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen led the first of three performances of the final subscription program in the 2021–22 season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). This was basically an overture-concerto-symphony program with both the overture and the concerto receiving their first SFS performances. These were, respectively, Steven Stucky’s “Radical Light” and John Adams’ “Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?” with pianist Víkingur Ólafsson. The symphony was Jean Sibelius’ Opus 82 (fifth) in E-flat major.

Salonen was clearly in his comfort zone conducting this symphony. There is a sense of a vast expanse that is so intricately crafted that, in 1919, the composer pared down the version he had completed in 1915 from four movements to three. While the overall duration of the symphony is half an hour, there is an intensity to the pace of all three of those movements through which one loses all sense of the passing of time. Indeed, the concluding coda is so meticulous in its extensive use of rests that time only “gets back into joint” with the concluding perfect cadence:

from the Wikipedia page for Sibelius’ Opus 82

If Salonen provided a first-rate account of Sibelius’ command of craft at its finest, whether it involved imaginative phrasing or ingenious instrumentation, neither of the preceding offerings rose to those same heights. Stucky composed “Radical Light” for Salonen during the latter’s tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was originally composed for a series of concerts planned as a Sibelius festival. Apparently, “Radical Light” was performed between Sibelius’ final (seventh) symphony, Opus 105 in C major, and his intensely ambiguous Opus 63 (fourth) in A minor.

Stucky’s rich instrumentation provided an excellent complement to Sibelius’ own approaches to orchestration. However, Stucky’s score was far richer in the percussion section while, ironically, ignoring the timpani entirely. It was decidedly briefer than any of the Sibelius symphonies. However, once the opening gestures had been established, the attentive listener could be forgiven for wondering if the composer had run out of things to say. Indeed, there was almost a sense of “enough is enough” that set in less than halfway through the performance.

Even more disappointing was Adams’ latest venture into music for piano and orchestra, composed for Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and first performed on March 7, 2019 with Yuja Wang as piano soloist. There has always been a prankish side to Adams’ work, the best example of which remains his raucous “Grand Pianola Music” with two pianos, abundant percussion, and three female vocalists channeling The Supremes. Where his latest concertante work is concerned, the question is not one of who has “all the good tunes” as it is one of when the piano will back off and let us listen to the rest of the orchestra.

Mind you, there is no shortage of good raucous humor in the score. Indeed, the gags play out from the very first measures, which are sure to remind anyone of my age that the theme music for the television detective series Peter Gunn first brought Henry Mancini to public attention. Nevertheless, none of Adams’ “good tunes” ever rise to the wit that abounded back in his “Grand Pianola” days; and, as a result, I came away from this music more with wistful melancholy than with a bounce in my step.

Fortunately, there were a few intimations of such bounce in Ólafsson’s encore selection. He played the three very brief selections that Béla Bartók collected under the title Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District. Simplicity and quietude were just the right antidote to assist recovering from the excesses of Adams’ concerto.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

NCCO Announces 2022–2023 Season

Daniel Hope with members of NCCO (photograph by Matthew Washburn, courtesy of NCCO)

Last month the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) concluded its 2021–2022 season by returning to Herbst Theatre for the first time since lockdown conditions were imposed to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic. Plans were announced a little over a month ago for the programs to be offered in the coming season, which will mark the ensemble’s 30th anniversary. While there are a few details that remain to be finalized, there is now enough information about the programs for the season to draw the attention of those beginning to make the next round of concert-going plans.

There will be four concert programs in the 2022–2023 season. Music Director Daniel Hope will lead all of them. Subscriptions are currently on sale for both the full four-concert series and for subscriptions limited to either three or two performances. A single Web page has been created for processing all subscriptions. Single tickets will not go on sale until August 1. Dates, times, and venues for the performances in San Francisco are as follows:

Friday, September 16, and Saturday, September 17, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, September 18, 3 p.m., Presidio Theatre: The season will begin with a program entitled Berlin 1938: Broadcasts  from a Vanishing Society. The program has not yet been finalized; but the composers will include Kurt Weill, Maurice Ravel, Erwin Schulhoff, and Hans Eisler. The guest artists will be two vocalists: Thomas Hampson and Horst Maria Merz.

Saturday, January 21, 7:30 p.m, Herbst Theatre.: The program will feature  a double concerto for violin, piano, and string orchestra with percussion composed by Tan Dun. The piano soloist will be Alexey Botvinov. The title of the program will be Cinematic Escapes, and there will be arrangements of film scores prepared by Paul Bateman. The most familiar of these (at least for those that have enjoyed NCCO concerts for some time), will be Bateman’s rescoring of the music that Bernard Hermann composed for the film Vertigo. The program will conclude with an arrangement for NCCO of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” prepared by Clarice Assad.

Sunday, February 12, The Lodge at The Regency: This will be the Gala Concert to celebrate NCCO’s 30th anniversary. Hope will be the soloist in a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 207 (first) violin concerto in B-flat major. This will be coupled with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/49 symphony in F minor, given the name “La Passione.” At the beginning of the program, Valérie Sainte-Agathe will lead the San Francisco Girls Chorus in works by Lili Boulanger, Claude Debussy, and Franz Schubert. Further details will be announced at a later date.

Saturday, May 13, 7:30 p.m., Presidio Theatre: The title of the final program will be Points of Origin. There will be two world premiere performances. The program will conclude with “Stranger,” composed by Nico Muhly on a joint commission by NCCO and the Palaver Strings. “Stranger” is scored for tenor and string orchestra, and the vocalist will be Nicholas Phan. There will also be a new work (as yet untitled) composed by Hannah Kendall on a commission by the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany. The program will also present three approaches to variation. The earliest of these will be Ralph Vaughan Williams’ fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis. This will be paired with one of Benjamin Britten’s earliest compositions, his Opus 10 set of variations on a theme by his teach Frank Bridge. Finally, the program will begin with Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner,” subjecting our national anthem to the logic of variation.

As its name implies, the Presidio Theatre is located in the Presidio at 99 Moraga Avenue. It is accessible by public transportation via PresidiGo Shuttle vehicles. The entrance to Herbst is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street.

Andris Nelsons’ Major Richard Strauss Project

The combined resources of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by Andris Nelsons (courtesy of Crossover Media)

At the beginning of last month, Deutsche Grammophon released a seven-CD anthology as part of a Strauss Alliance project conceived by conductor Andris Nelsons. The composer featured in this project is Richard Strauss; and the “alliance” involves the two orchestras that Nelsons is currently leading, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Given the prodigious number of operas that Strauss composed, this collection is hardly a “comprehensive” account of the his catalog. However, it does account for all ten of the tone poems, listed here (as on their Wikipedia page) in order of opus number:

  1. “Aus Italien” (from Italy), Opus 16
  2. “Don Juan,” Opus 20
  3. “Macbeth,” Opus 23
  4. “Tod und Verklärung” (death and transfiguration), Opus 24
  5. “Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Streiche” (Till Eulenspiegel’s merry pranks), Opus 28
  6. “Also sprach Zarathustra” (thus spoke Zarathustra), Opus 30
  7. “Don Quixote,” Opus 35
  8. “Ein Heldenleben” (a hero’s life), Opus 40
  9. “Symphonia Domestica,” Opus 53
  10. “Eine Alpensinfonie” (an Alpine symphony), Opus 64

Most of the remaining selections involve instrumental excerpts from the operas.

The recordings include performances by two major soloists. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma “assumes the role” of the title character in the Opus 35 tone poem. The other soloist is Yuja Wang. She does not play in any of the tone poems. However, she gives a dynamite performance as the soloist in the D minor “Burleske,” completed in the same year as Opus 16. The Wikipedia page describes this as “a composition for piano and orchestra;” but those willing to scroll down the page will soon discover that the timpani player is as significant a soloist as the pianist. “Burleske” shares a CD with not only Opus 20 but also the other major composition that is not a tone poem, the “Metamorphosen,” scored for 23 solo strings (ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three basses).

With the exception of Opus 20, all of the tone poems have multiple tracks. The track listings are a definite asset in guiding the listener through the narrative thread of each of those compositions. The only exception is Opus 23, which is not so much a tone poem as it is a more conventional sonata form that develops several of the darker aspects of William Shakespeare’s plot.

While, personally, I am not a great enthusiast of the Strauss tone poems, I find that collecting all of them in one album makes for a useful resource. When it comes to bringing two different orchestras (from two different continents) into the recording project, I am not so enthusiastic. Nevertheless, I am more than satisfied with the expressiveness that Nelsons brings to his performances. If he chose to spread that expressiveness across the two ensembles he currently leads, I find no grounds to question that decision!

Post:ballet Celebrates Summer with New Video

This past Tuesday afternoon Post:ballet premiered a new film on its YouTube channel. Lasting less than a quarter hour, “Seasons: Summer” used the San Francisco skyline as the setting for Robin Dekker’s latest choreographic achievement. The ballet followed the three short movements of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto from his Four Seasons collection; but the middle movement was composed by Anna Meredith, taken from her reflection on Vivaldi entitled ANNO: Four Seasons. This amounted to her take on the Phrygian half cadence, a chord progression that intervenes between two fast movements (Johann Sebastian Bach’s third “Brandenburg” concerto is the most familiar example), allowing the performer(s) an opportunity for extended improvisation. Each of the three movements was given its own title: “Heat,” “Haze,” and “Thunder.”

Equally important was the camera work by cinematographer (and co-director) Benjamin Tarquin. Because Dekker’s choreography involved a generous share of high-energy ensemble dancing, Tarquin realized that there were many opportunities to capture the geometry of the dancing with overhead shots:

Screen shot from the video being discussed

A single costume was designed by Mia J. Chong for both the male and female dancers, suggesting that the flow of full skirts (shown above) carried more signification than the group, duo, and solo sections of the choreography. It is also worth noting that, while the duo and solo passages reinforced the choreography with a sense of distinct personalities, it was the intensity of the group designs (particularly as viewed through Tarquin’s camera work) that seized and sustained attention over the course of this relatively brief “Vivaldi experience.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Morton Subotnick to Visit Gray Area Tomorrow

Electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick (from the Gray Area Web page for this event)

It is unclear why this item was overlooked in the BayImproviser Calendar (and, therefore, did not show up on this week’s Bleeding Edge article); but Morton Subotnick will be in San Francisco tomorrow. Those that prefer to bury history in order to ignore it may not know that Subotnick is one of the leading pioneers in interactive electronics and multimedia. He was one of the three co-founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (the other two being Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender). I came to know him as one of the first composers to work with the modular voltage-controlled synthesizer created by Donald Buchla. (I visited Subotnick’s studio in Greenwich Village when I was a graduate student.)

Tomorrow night Subotnick will give a special live performance of As I Live and Breathe. Subotnick himself describes this project as follows:

As I Live & Breathe” features live and sampled vocalizing along with some of my most advanced electronic performance techniques in a technological environment that I never expected, in my lifetime, to experience. It starts with my breath, moves through a vocalising cadenza of utterance gestures and ends with a sensitive and sequenced use of intricate oscillator rhythms and melodic fragments.

That performance will then be augmented with live visual animation provided by Lillevan.

This performance will be given a “preview teaser” with a screening of the 35-minute documentary Subotnick: Portrait of an Electronic Music Pioneer, produced by Waveshaper Media.

This performance will begin at 8 p.m. tomorrow, June 23. The venue will be Gray Area, and the doors will open at 7 p.m. The Gray Area Art And Technology Theater is located in the Mission at 2665 Mission Street. Tickets will be sold at the door for $30, but they can also be purchased online through the event page on the Gray Area Web site. This program is co-produced by Recombinant Media Labs, Waveshaper Media, and the Goethe-Institut San Francisco.

“Music Circus” Returns to Chapel of the Chimes

Yesterday evening I was fortunate enough to have a friend transport me over to the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland for the resumption of the annual Garden of Memory performance event to mark the summer solstice. This is not so much a concert in any traditional sense of the word as it is an experience in the spirit of what John Cage liked to call a Musicircus. This usually involves multiple performers and groups in a large space, creating an environment of listening experiences in which the listener is free to choose where to direct his/her/their attention. As might be guessed, Garden of Memory events had to be cancelled during pandemic conditions; but, to pull a moderately annoying play on words, the circus is back in town.

Consisting of three floors, the Chapel of the Chimes is a vast space. Much of the structure was designed by architect Julia Morgan; and the space is a visual feast, extended over three floors. Yesterday, 24 different performances were spread out over that space. Those situated in chapels provided audience seating. Other areas were available for the listener to wander in, explore, and remain to listen for as long as he/she/they saw fit.

For as long as I can remember, Sarah Cahill has been involved in planning these events; and yesterday she prepared a “sit-down-and-listen” program for a chapel setting, which she performed multiple times. The program began with “Movement Deep in my Heart,” composed in Ingram Marshall, who died this past May 31. The first word of the title referred to an elegant fabric of rhythmic textures into which were woven fragments of the Civil Rights song “We Shall Overcome,” accounting for the remaining words in the title. The remainder of the program continued Cahill’s The Future is Female project of recitals and recordings. The composers she presented on this occasion were Mary Watkins, Arlene Sierra, and Ann Southam.

Cahill’s set was followed by an uninterrupted piano solo by Dylan Mattingly. There was no indication whether this was improvisation or a through-composed score. The music itself began as a wall of aggressive dissonance. However, as the performance proceeded, the attentive listener became more and more aware of distinctive features emerging from that dissonance.

Since I listened to this music only once, any observations about structure are hypothetical. Nevertheless, that underlying concept of emergent shape suggests that Mattingly may have been exploring new approaches to sonata form. If this was an improvisation, it was clearly scrupulously managed. If it was a composition, I would be curious to listen to several more performances to gain more familiarity. To pull out Gertrude Stein’s tired old assessment of Oakland, I came away from listening to Mattingly’s performance with a clear sense that there was a “there there!”

The other extended performance that I experienced was presented by Paul Dresher and Joel Davel. They performed the music that they had jointly composed for the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company performance of Global Moves, which took play at the Presidio Theatre Performing Arts Center at the end of last week. As usual, Davel played his Marimba Lumina, an electronic instrument that affords extensive variety in how it can be performed to elicit a rich diversity of sonorities. Dresher played his Hurdy Grande. Like its medieval ancestor, the hurdy-gurdy, it involves a rotating wheel stroking a string to provide sounds extended over a significant duration. Dresher’s instrument is about four times as large as its ancestor, and there were times that both Dresher and Davel were playing it, standing on opposite sides.

My attention to these longer performances curtailed my checking out the spaces that did not provide seating. I wandered into the space occupied by The Living Earth Show duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson. For this performance there were joined by Guillermo Galindo, working with a configuration of electronic gear. I was also drawn to a brief encounter with cellist Theresa Wong, whose imaginative instrumental sonorities, and least some of which seem to involve integer-ratio harmonics, are enhanced by her own vocalizations. Both of these encounters were engaging; but I must confess that I would have preferred both to have been sit-down-and-listen experiences!

Since I do not drive,  this was my first encounter with a Garden of Memory event; hopefully, it will not be my last.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Omni Foundation Plans Full Season for 2022–23

For many the arrival of summer serves as a reminder that it is time to start making plans for the 2022–2023 concert season. This coming September one of the earliest (but not the first) concert series to launch will be Dynamite Guitars, presented by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. Omni has planned eleven programs taking place between this coming September and the end of April of next year. As in the past, five of those programs will be presented in partnership with the San Francisco Performances (SFP) Guitar Series. Only four of the Omni programs will be basic solo guitar recitals. Each of the other seven will present its own unique approach to a chamber ensemble.

Performances will take place in three different venues, all beginning at 7:30 p.m. The season will launch in the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, located in the Marina District at 3601 Lyon Street. The remaining concerts will take place at either St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street) or Herbst Theatre (on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue). Programs have not yet been finalized, but the participating performers will be as follows:

Friday, September 16, Palace of Fine Arts Theatre: Guitarist Robben Ford will begin the series with a special guest appearance by guitarist Joe Robinson.

Saturday, October 15, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Guitarist Tengyue Zhang will present a duo recital with violinist Strauss Shi.

Saturday, November 5, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Guitarist Sergio Assad will perform with his daughter Clarice, who is both vocalist and pianist (as well as composer).

Saturday, December 3, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: An Evening of Spanish Guitar will present two guitarists, each specializing in a different Spanish style. The selections by Andrea Gonzales Caballero will be in the classical genre. Grisha Goryachev, on the other hand, will offer flamenco performances. This will be the first program to be shared with SFP.

Saturday, January 28, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Zoran Dukic will present the first solo guitar recital of the season.

Friday, February 10, Herbst Theatre:  In the second program shared with SFP guitarist Sean Shibe will be joined by the members of the Van Kuijk Quartet: violinists Nicolas Van Kuijk and Sylvain Favre-Bulle, violist Emmanuel François, and cellist Anthony Kondo.

Friday, March 3, Herbst Theatre: In the third program to be shared with SFP Ale Carr will be the guitarist in a trio called Dreamers’ Circus, whose other members are pianist Nikolai Busk, and fiddle (not violin) player Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen.

Saturday, March 11, Herbst Theatre: The second solo recital will be given by Jiji, and the program will be shared with SFP.

Saturday, March 18, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: Xuefei Yang will be the third solo recitalist.

Saturday, April 8, Herbst Theatre: This will be the final recital to be shared with SFP. It is likely to attract many of the SFP concert-goers. Mezzo Sasha Cooke will take the stage, performing with guitarist Jason Vieaux.

Saturday, April 29, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The season will conclude with the final solo recital performed by Ana Vidovic.

Subscription packages for the 2022–2023 season are currently available by calling 415-242-4500. The price of the full series of eleven concerts provides a 20% discount over the purchase of eleven individual tickets. There is also the Create-Your-Own option. The subscriber can create his/her/their own package of four or more concerts and receive a 14% discount. Single ticket prices are $45, $55 and $65 for the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, $50 and $60 for St. Mark’s, and $45, $55, and $65 for Herbst Theatre. Single tickets may be purchased online from City Box Office through hyperlinks on the Concert Calendar Web page.

National Brass Ensemble at Davies

Last night the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented a concert by the National Brass Ensemble (NBE) in Davies Symphony Hall. This group consists of the finest brass players in major orchestras across the United States. In last night’s performance they were joined by two harpists, three percussionists, and one organist. Those resources were mustered for The Ring, an arrangement by Timothy Higgins (SFS Principal Trombone) that constitutes a synopsis of the four operas of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (the ring of the Nibelung). The score was structured in four movements, one for each of the operas.

Skeptics might compare this undertaking with the trick of getting a dog to walk on its hind legs. However, those familiar with Wagner’s version would probably acknowledge that Higgins had clearly familiarized himself with the underlying narrative, as well as the score that Wagner himself had written. Personally, I suspect that anyone that has become acquainted with Wagner’s version would not have faulted Higgins for the excerpts that he extracted and wove together to offer a musical account of the basic narrative that cuts across all four operas. Last night’s performance also benefited from the talents of a first-rate opera conductor. The entire evening was led by Eun Sun Kim, Music Director of the San Francisco Opera.

The first half of the program served up two world premieres. One of these, entitled simply “Brass Fantasy,” was composed by Arturo Sandoval, who was in the audience for the occasion. The music was relatively short but consistently engaging. Sandoval took his bow from his seat in the audience, allowing the performers to enjoy the center of attention.

The other world premiere was “DEIFIED,” composed by Jonathan Bingham. The music was basically a study of palindromes, the title being the first of them. The idea of forward-and-backward reflections was an appealing one, which Bingham explored at a variety of different levels. Nevertheless, the result came across as music that may have looked very good on paper but never quite registered with attentive listening. To be fair, however, listening to palindromes is not a particularly easy matter. There is even a mathematical argument, based on automata theory, that explains the difficulty; but that argument is beyond the scope of those interested only in listening to the music!

The program began with a stimulating account of the fanfare that Richard Strauss composed for the first benefit ball to be held by the Vienna Philharmonic in 1924. At the other end of the program, NBE turned to their only album released thus far, consisting entirely of music by Giovanni Gabrieli. They selected the final track of the album, the second composition entitled simply “Canzon per Sonar.” The next album will be forthcoming, since all of its content was being recorded last night in Davies.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Bleeding Edge: 6/20/2022

This month got off to a busy start. Last week, however, was so quiet that there was not even content for a Bleeding Edge article! This week is not quite as sparse. As already reported, the last concert of the month at the Center for New Music will be taking place this coming Sunday evening with a jazz performance by the Marta Sanchez Quintet.

That leaves only one other event for this week, which will be the next installment of Jazz at the Make-Out Room, since tomorrow, June 21, will be the third Tuesday of this month. This month’s program will consist of two sets, each somewhat less than an hour in duration. Both sets will be trio improvisations, but the instrumentation for the first will be more than a little out of the ordinary. The 7 p.m. set will be performed by Raffi Garabedian on saxophone, Ben Goldberg on clarinet, and Dany Lubin-Laden on trombone. The second set at 8 p.m. will be performed by the Levitator Trio with rhythm provided by Safa Shokrai on bass and Kjell Nordeson on drums, both backing up Mark Clifford on vibraphone.

The Make-Out Room is located in the Mission at 3225 22nd Street. Doors will open at 6 p.m. There is no cover charge, so donations will be accepted.

A Second Look at Sheng’s Opera

Last week, when I wrote about the San Francisco Opera opening night revival performance of Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber, my operative adjective was “torpid.” Revisiting the production yesterday afternoon left me with more positive impressions, but I suspect that those impressions had more to do with technical matters than either the interpretation of the music or the staging of the narrative. Some readers may recall that my wife and I have box seats for our subscription, and I always relish the opportunity to view what is happening in the orchestra pit along with what is happening on the stage. On this particular occasion, both those sites benefitted from my “elevated” perspective.

Where the music is concerned, Sheng has composed for a large ensemble that borders on massive. As might be expected, this included a richly diverse assortment of both Asian and Western percussion instruments, so many that most of them were out of view in the orchestra pit. Nevertheless, being above the pit enhanced the perception of the full palette of sonorities that rose “vertically” to the upper-level seating than “horizontally” to the orchestra rows. This turned out to involve more than just percussion diversity. One of the more intimate moments on stage was accompanied by a ravishing cello solo played by David Kadarauch; and the “vertical aspect” may have had a hand in reinforcing that instrumental moment. Similarly, when experiencing the performance from above, one was more aware of the interplay of brass and winds to evoke the “Chinese rhetoric” of Sheng’s score.

The screen-painting imagery of one of the Dream of the Red Chamber sets (set designed by Tim Yip, (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

Where the stage itself was concerned, an elevated viewpoint afforded an enhanced impression of how three-dimensional the action was. Mind you, sitting at orchestra level frequently registered convincing impressions of images of both the characters and their settings that could have been painted on a screen. However, that sense of a screen vanished when one could rise above ground level. One could then appreciate interplays among the characters that brought more impact to the staging by Stan Lai.

Thus, for better or worse, this was a situation in which what met both the eye and the ear depended heavily on one’s vantage point. Once both of those senses have been duly engaged, mind is in a better position to negotiate all the convolutions in the libretto that Sheng prepared in working with David Henry Hwang. That said, the narrative still leaves the impression of a soap opera; but there is never a well-defined line that separates literary fiction from soap opera!

This experience reminded me of the adaptation of the Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, by Jean-Claude Carrière, a drama roughly nine hours in duration that was staged by Peter Brook in three segments. Carrière’s text was subsequently translated into English by Brook, and my wife and I saw that version during the Los Angeles Festival back in the Eighties. About five years later, when we were living in Singapore, we discovered that an Indian television company had turned the whole thing into a soap opera with half-hour episodes. Since we entered those broadcasts in the middle, it was good to recall the full scope of the narrative; but the soap-opera technique worked surprisingly well. This left me wondering yesterday whether Dream of the Red Chamber could be presented just as effectively through the “bite-sized chunks” of soap opera as through the extended durations of grand opera!

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Old First Concerts: August, 2022

August will be the busiest month of the summer for Old First Concerts. There will be six programs. Three of them will involve the annual visit to the Old First Presbyterian Church by performances in the San Francisco International Piano Festival (SFIPF), and the month will conclude with a special production provided by the Greek Chamber Music Project.

All of the offerings will continue to be “hybrid,” allowing both live streaming and seating in Old First at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue. All tickets will still be sold for $25 (no reduced rate for seniors or students). Hyperlinks to the event pages (which include hyperlinks for streaming) will be attached to the date and time of the performances as follows:

Friday, August 5, 8 p.m.: The month will begin with a duo performance by distinguished members of the young generation of North Indian Classical music in the tradition of the great maestros Ali Akbar Khan and Swapan Chaudhuri. Those performers will be Arjun K. Verma on sitar and Nilan Chaudhuri on tabla. Verma is well-versed in traditional practices, but he has been recognized for this fresh approach to repertoire.

Sunday, August 7, 4 p.m.: This contemporary approach to traditional Indian music will continue with a solo recital by Vishnu R on the navtar, a unique nine-string plucked instrument that he has invented and patented. His program will honor two South Indian composers of the past, Thyagarja and Purandara Dasa. However, Vishnu also performs contemporary works by jazzmen such as John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola. Finally, the program will include some of his own original compositions.

Sunday, August 21, 4 p.m.: The first SFIPF recitalist will be Rachel Breen. The major work on her program will be Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 111 sonata in C minor, which will be complemented with Robert Schumann’s Opus 18 arabeske. The program will begin with a fantasia by John Bull. The program will also include preludes selected from Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 11 and Opus 16 collections. The other sonata on the program will be Nikolai Medtner’s Opus 22 in G minor.

Friday, August 26, 8 p.m.: Jan Bartoš  will use SFIPF as a platform for his West Coast debut. Each half of his program will begin with a composition by Leoš Janáček. He will begin with the piano sonata whose title is a date “1.X.1905.” The second half of the program will begin with the four-part cycle entitled In the Mists. The Janáček sonata will be followed by eight preludes by Miloslav Kabeláč. The program will conclude with the six-movement suite Dreams by Bedřich Smetana.

Saturday, August 27, 8 p.m.: The final SFIPF recital at Old First will be an all-Schumann program prepared by Bobby Mitchell. The program will include the Opus 4 collection of intermezzi and the Opus 5 collection of impromptus. The program will conclude with the Opus 82 cycle entitled Waldszenen (forest scenes). It will begin with one of Schumann’s last compositions, the five-movement Opus 133 entitled “Gesänge der Frühe” (songs of the morning).

Sunday, August 28, 4 p.m.: The Greek Chamber Music Project will present a revival of the eight-movement suite entitled Talos Dreams. The music was composed by Costas Dafnis and named after a figure in Greek mythology that was probably the first imagined automaton. Working with Tom Nunn, Dafnis also invented an instrument for the performance of this composition. The ghostplate is an acoustic instrument that evokes sonorities that sound as if they came from electronic sources. Dafnis himself will play the ghostplate, joined by Ellie Falaris Ganelin on flute, Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Ariel Wang on violin, and Lewis Patzner on cello. The program will also include excerpts from Medea: Rebirth and Destruction, given its premiere on the same program as Talos Dreams. Each of the movements of this suite was written by a different composition student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The remaining work on the program will be Greek Dances, composed by Thanos Ermilios to weave traditional folk melodies into the rich language of chamber music.

Masur’s Early Nineteenth-Century Repertoire

As I continue to work my way through the Warner Classics 70-CD box set of recordings made by conductor Kurt Masur, I realize that I had neglected to add Franz Schubert to what I had called my “Beethoven+Mozart” category. This may have been because Schubert’s music was limited to a single CD, one of whose tracks consisted on Franz Liszt’s transcription of the D. 760 “Wanderer” fantasy. This was one of the New York Philharmonic recordings featuring pianist Boris Berezovsky as the soloist. Masur had previously recorded this music with pianist Michel Béroff performing with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on an album devoted entirely to Liszt. The only other composer represented on that CD was Carl Maria von Weber, whose Polonaise brillante was also transcribed by Liszt.

This may be a lame excuse for coupling Schubert with Weber, rather than Beethoven and Mozart. However, that is how things turned out in my efforts to classify all of the content over such a large collection of CDs. The fact is that, in trying to establish the early nineteenth century as a category, both Weber and Schubert emerged. in this particular collection, as “bit players.” Setting aside the Liszt transcriptions, Weber is represented only by his two clarinet concertos, Opus 73 in F minor and Opus 74 in E-flat major; and that CD has “bonus tracks” of clarinetist Sharon Kam playing the Opus 48 Grand duo concertant with pianist Itamar Golan. (The concertos were recorded with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.) In addition to Berezovsky playing Liszt’s take on D. 760, the Schubert CD frames that selection with two symphonies, D. 200 in D major and D. 759 in B minor, best known as the “Unfinished.”

These are all engaging performances that deserve multiple listening experiences. However, Masur’s real attention was drawn to three composers born on three successive years: 1809 (Felix Mendelssohn), 1810 (Robert Schumann), and 1811 (Franz Liszt). Mendelssohn is represented by all five of his symphonies, his two piano concertos, the Opus 22 Capriccio brillant, and the incidental music composed for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Opus 21 overture and the Opus 61 collection of the rest of the music.

Where this repertoire is concerned, I had the advantage of listening to Masur conduct an all-Mendelssohn program with the San Francisco Symphony in March of 2011. This included both the Midsummer music (with chorus and vocal soloists) and the Opus 90 (“Italian”) symphony in A major. That was a memorable evening for me in Davies Symphony Hall; and, to a great extent, the Gewandhaus recordings in this collection reawakened those memories.

Schumann is given a somewhat more modest account, which is still comprehensive. The four symphonies are coupled with two of the three concertos, the Opus 54 piano concerto in A minor and the Opus 129 cello concerto, also in A minor. The soloists are Cécile Ousset and Natalia Gutman, respectively. All of the Schumann recordings were made with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This may strike some as a rather modest share; but, taken as a whole, these six compositions give Schumann’s approach to orchestral composition a fair shake.

Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s 1856 portrait of Franz Liszt (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The fact is that the lion’s share of this portion of the collection goes to Liszt. Most of that share is devoted to the thirteen symphonic poems; and they basically earn Liszt the status of one of the “founding fathers” of program music. The collection also includes the two piano concertos and a modest assortment of other compositions, most of which have narrative connotations. There is more than enough here to convince the listener of just how adventurous Liszt could be. Nevertheless, Mazur’s commitment to being comprehensive is likely to require more than the usual degree of patience where the attentive listener is concerned. This is music that is better sampled in pieces; and, even at the piece-by-piece level, some of the works go on for longer than most listeners might prefer.

Quite honestly, when confronted with this Liszt collection, I was reminded of the motto that used to be associated with the Sunday edition of The New York Times: “You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there!”

SFGC to Cancel Final Performances of Season

Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) announced the cancellation of its four performances of Tomorrow’s Memories: A Little Manila Diary. This was intended to be the world premiere performance of the choral-opera composed by Matthew Welch on a commission from SFGC. Due to confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the cast, SFGC made the decision to cancel all performances in order to protect the health and safety of the cast. These performances will be rescheduled with details to be announced at a later date.

Two options are available to those holding purchased tickets:

  1. They can be donated to SFGC, and the ticket holder will receive a tax deduction for the total value.
  2. The value of the tickets can be fully refunded.

Ticket holders will be contacted by electronic mail with details on how to request a donation or refund. They can also contact the Magic Theatre Box Office by calling 415-441-8822. The Box Office also has the following electronic mail address: boxoffice@magictheatre.org.

SFO Announces Two Cast Changes for Afternoon

Late yesterday afternoon San Francisco Opera (SFO) announced two changes in the cast for this afternoon’s performance of Dream of the Red Chamber. Soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho, who sings the role of Princess Jia, is indisposed. She will be replaced by soprano Yulan Piao. Similarly, soprano and Adler Fellow Esther Tonea, one of the two “voices” of Flower and the second Lady-in-Waiting, will not be performing this afternoon. She will be replaced by Liesl McPherrin, who is currently a member of the SFO Chorus.

Second Bartók Subscription Concert at Davies

Readers may recall that, over the course of this week’s four performances in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony is presenting two different piano concertos by Béla Bartók. The first concerto was played on Thursday and Friday evenings. Last night the third concerto was played for the first time, and the second performance will take place this afternoon.

Bartók was still living in Europe when he composed the first concerto in 1926, which was given its first performance the following year in Frankfurt am Main. He died before he could complete the last seventeen measures of the third concerto in 1945. He had been living in New York in poor health and dire financial straits. He had hoped that the concerto would serve as an “insurance policy” for his pianist wife Ditta Pásztory-Bartók.

The second movement of the third concerto has the tempo Adagio religioso. At the time he worked on this movement, Bartók’s health had improved somewhat. As a result, he seems to have been influenced by the middle movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 132 string quartet in A minor.

Beethoven gave a title to that movement: “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” (holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode). One of Bartók’s favorite devices involved stating a theme subject and then following it by the same sequence in inversion (rising intervals become falling ones and vice versa). With that as context, the attentive listener should be able to detect the inversion of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” theme in Bartók’s Adagio religioso movement. This movement is also punctuated by a generous share of bird calls, and Bartók lovers will probably encounter a few reflections on the concerto for orchestra that he had recently completed.

Regardless of Bartók’s health, both the first (Allegretto) and last (Allegro vivace) movements abound with optimism. Seventeen measures were left unfinished when he died. (His son Peter had already ruled out the bar lines on the manuscript paper.) Those measures were completed by Bartók’s friend and colleague Tibor Serly.

As was the case for the first concerto, the piano soloist last night was Pierre-Laurent Aimard. From a rhetorical point of few, he found just the right “sweet spot” to contrast the second movement with the outer movements. Indeed, there was so much positive energy that he and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen shared during the final movement that one could give little attention to the tragedy behind the writing of that movement.

As the program book observed, the performances of both concertos were being recorded for future album release. They will be joined by the second concerto, which is scheduled for performance during the next season. All three of the concertos have received comparably little attention recently, so the appearance of the album will be a welcome one.

While the rest of the program was the same as it had been this past Thursday, there were two significant changes in the performances. Luciano Berlo’s “Quattro versioni originali della ‘Ritirata notturna di Madrid,’” (four original versions from Luigi Boccherini's “Withdrawal by Night in Madrid”) begins with a call-and-response between two snare drums. On Thursday night the drummers played side-by-side. Last night they were separated across the left and right portions of the entire stage. That made for a more engaging sense of give-and-take between the two performers.

The buccina that inspired Respighi’s instrumentation for “The Pines of Rome” (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The second change involved the two trumpets and four trombones playing the music scored for buccine (ancient Roman instruments) in the final section of Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome.” On Thursday they were in the upper balcony; and given how loud things were on stage, they were barely audible. Last night they were transplanted behind the left Terrace seats. Seeing them greatly facilitated listening to their contributions!

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Schwabacher Summer Concert Details Announced

Regular readers probably know by now that, in a little less than a month’s time, the Merola Opera Program will present two performances of the Schwabacher Summer Concert. This is an annual event structured around staged scenes. This year the production will consist of extended performances of four selections, each drawing upon an opera by a Latin American or Spanish composer. Specifics are as follows:

  1. The Spanish composer Manuel de Falla will be represented with selections from his two-act opera La vida breve (life is short). The librettist was Carlos Fernández-Shaw, who drew upon the Andalusian dialect. While the opera won first prize in a Spanish competition in 1905, Falla could not get the opera produced until he took it to France, where it was first performed (with a French translation of the libretto by Paul Millet) in Nice on April 1, 1913. The complete opera is only about an hour long, but it tends to be best known for instrumental excerpts.
  2. Florencia en el Amazonas (Florence in the Amazon), by the Mexican composer Daniel Catán working with librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain, was jointly commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Seattle Opera. This made it the first Spanish-language opera to be commissioned by a major American opera company. The libretto was based on characters in the novel Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. Scenes from the second act of this opera will be performed.
  3. The third source of excerpts will be the three-act Spanish zarzuela Doña Francisquita, composed in 1923 by Amadeo Vives. The libretto was provided by Federica Romero and Guillermo Fernández-Shaw, based on the play La discreta enamorada (the ingenious lover) by Lope de Vega.
  4. The program will conclude with selections from Ainadamar (fountain of tears), the first opera by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. The title of the opera is an Arabic word. David Henry Hwang provided a Spanish-language libretto. The plot involves the relationship between Federico García Lorca and his lover and muse, Catalan actress Margarita Xirgu. The music was scored almost entirely for female voices.

These selections will all be staged by Jose Maria Condemi, currently the Carol Franc Buck Distinguished Chair and the Director of Opera and Musical Theater at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The conductor will be Jorge Parodi, General and Artistic Director of Opera Hispánica.

As has already been announced, the two performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 14, and at 3 p.m. on Saturday, July 16. Ticket prices will be $80 and $55. San Francisco Opera has created a single event page from which tickets for both performances can be purchased.

Friday, June 17, 2022

O1C to Host Ukrainian Benefit Concert

Ukrainian-American pianist Stanislav Khristenko (from the O1C event page)

At the end of this month, Old First Concerts (O1C) will present a special Ukrainian benefit concert. The program will be a solo recital featuring Ukrainian-American pianist Stanislav Khristenko. His program will be framed by the music of Frédéric Chopin, beginning with the Opus 53 (“Heroic”) polonaise in A-flat major. At the other end the program will conclude with all four of the ballades: Opus 23 in G minor, Opus 38 in F major, Opus 47 in A-flat major, and Opus 52 in F minor. Between these “bookends” Khristenko will play music by two Ukrainian composers, Borys Lyatoshynsky and Valentyn Silvestrov, as well as the Opus 3 set of variations by the Polish composer Karol Szymanowski.

This recital will not be live-streamed. There will only be in-person attendance. The performance will take place in Old First Church at 1751 Sacramento Street, on the northeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. It will begin at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 25. General admission will be $25 with a $20 rate for seniors. Students with identification will be admitted for $5. Tickets may be purchased online through the Web page for this concert. That Web page also includes a gofundme window for making donations. The goal is $2000; and, as of this writing, $400 has been raised. O1C is presenting this concert in collaboration with the Ross McKee Foundation, which presented Khristenko’s local debut at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

New Coleridge-Taylor Album from Kaleidoscope

courtesy of WeTransfer

Today the British Chandos label released a new album of performances by the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective. Roughly a year ago, this ensemble released an album entitled American Quintets, showcasing works by American composers Amy Beach, Florence Price, and Samuel Barber. The new album shifts attention to England and focuses on only a single composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Readers may recall that the Catalyst Quartet released its own Coleridge-Taylor album in February of last year, but Kaleidoscope’s resources extend significantly beyond the Catalyst repertoire.

The one selection that Kaleidoscope shares with Catalyst is Coleridge-Taylor’s Opus 1 piano quintet in G minor. However, there has been a minor change in quintet players since the release of American Quintets. Elena Urioste is still one of the two violinists; but the other is now Savitri Grier, replacing Melissa White. The remainder of the quintet still consists of violist Rosalind Ventris, cellist Laura van der Heijden, and pianist Tom Poster.

Like Catalyst, the Kaleidoscope players are not shy about convincing the attentive listener that the Opus 1 quintet shows clear signs of influence by the chamber music of Antonín Dvořák. However, those signs of influence include a vigorous account of the rhetorical diversity across the quintet’s four movements. Opus 1 is the “bookend” that concludes this new album.

Curiously, the “bookend” at the beginning is Coleridge-Taylor’s Opus 2. This is a nonet with the title “Gradus ad Parnassum.” A piano quartet of Urioste, Ventris, van der Heijden, and Poster is extended with four wind players, Armand Djikoloum on oboe, Matthew Hunt on clarinet, Amy Harman on bassoon, and Ben Goldscheider on horn, as well as Xavier Foley on bass. The instrumentation alone distances this composition further from Dvořák than Opus 1 does. Nevertheless, the attentive listener will probably not have too much difficulty identifying at least some of the Dvořák tropes that surface over the course of this nonet’s four movements.

It would also be fair to say that, where the more general nature of development is concerned, both of these compositions show a dutiful nod to Dvořák. Between these two works, however, is a significantly shorter three-movement piano trio. Grier is the violinist for this selection. Ironically, all three of the works on this album seem to have been composed on or about the year 1893. However, the trio was not given an opus number, suggesting that Coleridge-Taylor may have viewed it as an exercise. Nevertheless, this is the selection that tends to steer away from Dvořák, the only signs of influence surfacing in the final Allegro con furiant movement.

In spite of the trio’s modest scale, there is more than enough to engage the attentive listener on this new album; and the imaginative instrumentation of Opus 2 definitely makes this a “must listen” offering.

The Penultimate SFS Subscription Program

Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (photograph by Julia Wesely, courtesy of SFS)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall marked the first of four performances of the next-to-last subscription program in the 2021–22 season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen was again on the podium, and the concerto soloist was pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Over the course of the four appearances, Aimard is performing two different piano concertos by Béla Bartók. Last night and tonight are devoted to the first concerto, composed in 1926. The remaining two concerts will present the third concerto, which Bartók composed (and did not quite complete) on his deathbed.

The second half of the program was devoted primarily to Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem “Pines of Rome.” However, both the Bartók and Respighi offerings were preceded by an “overture” of sorts. The program began with Luciano Berlo’s “Quattro versioni originali della ‘Ritirata notturna di Madrid,’” (four original versions from Luigi Boccherini's “Withdrawal by Night in Madrid”), while the Respighi selection was preceded by the string orchestra version of Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum,” given its first SFS performance. (Some readers may recall that Montgomery’s string quintet version of “Strum” was included on the most recent SFS Chamber Music program at the end of last month.)

It would be fair to say that Bartók’s first piano concerto reflected the composer’s awareness of the work of Igor Stravinsky. Most likely he had experienced the flamboyant primitivism of “The Rite of Spring;” but he was also aware of the concerto for piano and wind instruments, which Stravinsky had completed in 1924. Both of these compositions may have encouraged Bartók to pay as much attention to instrumentation as he did to the virtuosity of the solo piano work in his first concerto.

That attention is most evident in the second movement, most of which involves the piano being accompanied only by a prodigious variety of percussion instruments. It is only after the halfway point in this movement that Bartók gradually introduces relatively brief motifs for the wind players. All of the movement is executed with the sort of hushed quality one might expect in the soundtrack for a horror movie; and Bartók’s instrumentation skills were so acute that one really does sit in suspense wondering what will happen next. Mind you, that suspense owes much to the interaction between soloist and conductor, and the chemistry between Aimard and Salonen could not have been better. (They are currently working on a joint project to record all three Bartók concertos with SFS.)

On the other hand suspense never really figured in Respighi’s playbook. His skills lay in his deep understanding in the capacity of every individual instrument. He could then blend those sonorities with the same skill that a fine painter can blend his colors. Nevertheless, while Respighi could tease out dark shadings in moments of quietude, his favorite dynamic level was fortissimo (if not louder). Salonen’s interpretation of “The Pines of Rome” was thus a lush overflow of sonorities coming from every corner of the Davies stage, along with an offstage trumpet behind the terrace seating and, during the final climax, two trumpets and four trombones in the upper balcony. (Mind you, by the time the instruments on stage were going full at it, one could barely hear those six brass players up in the rafters.)

Far more satisfying was the string ensemble version of “Strum.” As I observed last month, Montgomery explores a prodigious variety of sonorities emerging from the different instruments in the string family. Her command of rhetoric makes this “guided tour” of sonorities as compelling as it is diverse. Expanding the score from individual string instruments to an ensemble just made that tour all the more engaging for its extended scope of variety. Given all that diversity, it is a bit difficult to remember that the original version of “Strum” was composed for a cello quintet.

Diversity of sonorities also figures in Berlo’s treatment of Boccherini. Part of the fun of listening to this rethinking of eighteenth-century music is that those “four original versions” are superimposed on each other, after having been unfolded for the listener one-by-one. Nevertheless, by putting all of his cards on the table relatively quickly, there is a bit of a sense that Berio is showing off a one-trick pony. Nevertheless, the trick is clever enough that one does not mind the pony hanging around for a bit longer than one might have expected.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Schwabacher Recitals to Conclude Next Month

The end of next month will see the conclusion of this year’s Schwabacher Recital Series, presented by the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program. The vocalist will be baritone Sidney Outlaw, and he will be accompanied at the piano by Warren Jones. The program will focus on the album they released at the beginning of this year entitled Lament. This is a concert recording made during a performance at the Brevard Music Center. As of this writing, it is only available on Amazon as an MP3 download.

The album begins with Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Genius Child, a song cycle setting ten poems by Langston Hughes. This is followed by Robert Owens’ Opus 41, settings for baritone of texts by Claude McKay. Dorothy Rudd Moore contributes to the collection with her setting of the Fourth of July speech given by Frederick Douglas. Finally, there is a setting by Harry T. Burleigh of four poems by Violet Nicolson, who wrote under the pseudonym of Laurence Hope.

This program will begin at 7:30 p.m. on the evening of Thursday, July 28. The final performance will take place in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which is located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. General admission will be $30. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through an event page on the San Francisco Opera Web site. Note that it is possible to select the option of Wheelchair Accessible seats. In addition, subject to availability, student rush tickets will go on sale at 7 p.m. at the reduced rate of $15. There is a limit of two tickets per person, and valid identification must be shown.

Bokyung Byun: The Latest Naxos “Laureate”

courtesy of Naxos of America

In 1994 Naxos Records decided to make a commitment to focus on recordings of the classical guitar and launched what is now called the Guitar Collection. That collection, in turn, includes a Laureate Series, which provides a recording platform for competition winners that are just beginning their careers. This past Friday saw the release of the latest Laureate Series album. This is a solo guitar recital by Bokyung Byun, who won the 2021 Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) Competition.

Byun’s recital reaches back to the early eighteenth century with transcriptions of keyboard sonatas by Carlos Seixas. However, the better part of the album is devoted to works composed in 2010 and later, the most recent of these having been written last year. As a result, the overall chronology elides the entire nineteenth century and includes only two twentieth-century compositions.

That latter offering accounts for the first three tracks on the album. This is the Opus 176 of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, three short pieces collected under the title Preludi mediterranei (Mediterranean preludes), composed in 1955. This is highly affable music, allowing the listener to appreciate the intricacies of Byun’s finger-work in settings of engaging melodic content. A bit more ambitious is the following track, a set of variations composed by Manuel Ponce in 1926.

At the early end of the timeline, Byun performs a successive pair of keyboard sonatas by Seixas, arranged for guitar by Rebeca Oliveira. Both sonatas are in the key of D minor. This follows the same approach that can be found in some of the many keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Seixas was based in Lisbon, where he served as court organist and harpsichordist to John V of Portugal. At that same time Scarlatti was serving as director of the court cathedral; and he seems to have established a “mutual admiration society” with Seixas. Many listeners are probably familiar with the Scarlatti sonatas that Andrés Segovia arranged for guitar, and Byun has done us a service by giving Scarlatti’s colleague the attention he deserves.

The recent works are the ones that most deserve repeated listening encounters. In “order of appearance” on the album, the composers are João Luiz, Celil Refik Kaya, Angel Lam, Leo Brouwer, and Clarice Assad. Brouwer is probably the best known of these. He composed “La Gran Sarabanda” for the 2018 GFA Competition; and he used the opportunity to join the ranks of the many past composers that had explored approaches to variations on the “Folia” theme.

Personally, I have enjoyed following Assad’s efforts as a composer. “The Last Song” has been given an impressive number of different instrumental settings. These include, piano and orchestra, two guitars, and solo piano. The solo guitar arrangement seems to be the result of a “committee,” whose members are Byron Fogo, David Russell, and Ondrej Veselý. Assad’s engaging rhetoric of quietude provides the perfect way to conclude the rich diversity of selections on this album.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

SIMM Series to Resume Next Month

Brett Carson and Zell Morris (from the Facebook Event Web page)

Unless I am mistaken, the SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series of concerts held under the auspices of Outsound Presents seems to be taking a break this month. However, as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy advises us, “Don’t panic!” The series will resume next month with its usual format of two sets, each somewhat shorter than an hour in duration.

The first set will be a solo piano performance by Brett Carson. Carson will be followed by the Zell Morris Trio, named after its founder, drummer Zachary “Zell” Morris. He will be joined by Rent Romus playing both alto and C-melody saxophones, as well as flute. The remaining member of the trio will be Chris Amberger on bass. The trio was formed for the recording of their debut album, The one time they met. The album title reflects the fact that they had not played together as a trio until they gathered to make this recording.

This performance will take place on Sunday, July 10, beginning at 7:30 p.m. As usual, the venue will be the Musicians Union Hall, located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. General admission will be  $20 with a $15 senior rate for those age 62 or older. Seating will be limited, so it is desirable to use the Eventbrite event page for purchasing tickets. Masks are strongly recommended, and proof of vaccination will be required for entry.