Sunday, July 31, 2022

Masur’s Twentieth-Century Repertoire

The final account of the recordings made by conductor Kurt Masur collected in a 70-CD box set released by Warner Classics will address his twentieth-century repertoire. There is far less completeness in this portion of the collection than had been encountered in his nineteenth-century recordings. The only commitment to thoroughness can be found in the five piano concertos by Sergei Prokofiev, recordings made with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra featuring piano soloist Michel Béroff.

This provides a somewhat limited perspective on the composer, particularly since the only symphony included in the collection is the Opus 100 (fifth) symphony in B-flat major. This selection was recorded with the New York Philharmonic on an album that also included a not-particularly-satisfying collection of excerpts from the music for the Romeo and Juliet ballet. Somewhat better was the CD with the concert version of the music composed for Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky film and the Opus 20 Scythian suite, originally conceived as a score for “Ala i Lolli,” a ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev who rejected the music.

Mind you, there is a considerable diversity in nationalities among the other twentieth-century selections. Thus, Prokofiev’s symphony is complemented by two symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich: the Opus 60 “Leningrad” in C major and the Opus 113 “Babi Yar” (setting poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko) in B-flat minor, which is framed by recordings of Yevtushenko reading two of his poems (in Russian). There is also a recording of Gustav Mahler’s ninth symphony in D major, which provides a potentially viable context for the symphonic efforts of both Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

The only other concerto offering is the Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor by Jean Sibelius on an album which is filled out by three shorter compositions. This is a Leipzig CD featuring Thomas Zehetmair as the violin soloist. Nationalism can also be found in the contributions by Leoš Janáček and Zoltán Kodály. Curiously, Béla Bartók is absent from this collection.

Another coupling involves familiar works by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel on a single volume. The one departure from “the usual” is Debussy’s L. 104 “Rapsodie,” scored for alto saxophone and piano and orchestrated by Jean Roger-Ducasse. A more interesting coupling is that of Kurt Weill with Alban Berg. The Weill selection is the score for the ballet “The Seven Deadly Sins” with a libretto by Bertolt Brecht. This is followed by the symphonic movements that Alban Berg extracted from his score for the opera Lulu (which is not quite as systematic in exploring the deadly sins).

The only other vocal offering is the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. This is a New York Philharmonic recording featuring soprano Deborah Voigt. That performance is preceded by two familiar tone poems, “Don Juan” and “Death and Transfiguration.”

There is also a Philharmonic recording of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 66 War Requiem, featuring vocal soloists Carol Vaness (soprano), Jerry Hadley (tenor), and Thomas Hampson (baritone). Mind you, there will always be those that prefer the recording that Britten himself conducted with tenor Peter Pears and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. While I am definitely hooked on both of those vocalists, I cannot say the same for the soprano that Britten conducted, Galina Vishnevskaya. Apparently, no one took the trouble to coach her on the proper pronunciation of the Latin Requiem texts; and her account of “Liber scriptus” verges on the downright painful. Vaness is much more at home with singing Latin.

Then there is an album that is not, strictly speaking, a Mazur album. It presents pianist Fazil Say playing the music of George Gershwin, providing his own arrangements where necessary. Masur and the Philharmonic appear only for Ferde Grofé’s arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue” and the set of variations on “I Got Rhythm.”

That leaves only two offerings that can be classified as “bleeding edge” compositions. The older of them is the set of variations on “America” that Charles Ives composed for organ, which was then orchestrated by William Schumann. The more recent is the cello concerto by Alfred Schnittke, featuring cellist Natalia Gutman performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This left me wishing that Masur had conducted more Schnittke selections and that there had been a recording of his performance of the music by Sofia Gubaidulina that he led with the San Francisco Symphony.

Oratorio Night at the ABS Summer Bach Festival

Unless I am mistaken, every Summer Bach Festival presented by the American Bach Soloists (ABS) that I have attended included a full-evening dramatic offering towards the end of the Festival. (There were also two performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 setting of the Latin text of the Mass ordinary in B minor, but that tradition was elided this year, possible due to pandemic constraints.) Last night’s offering was George Frideric Handel’s HWV 61 Belshazzar, a landmark in Handel’s shift from opera to oratorio.

Rembrandt’s painting of Belshazzar seeing the writing on the wall, to be read vertically from right to left (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Handel composed this work in 1744, working with a libretto text by Charles Jennens, best known for having compiled the Biblical passages for Handel’s best-known oratorio, his HWV 56 Messiah. Jennens’ primary source was the book of Daniel, whose “keystone” episode involves the writing on the wall by a disembodied hand. (Situated in the middle of the second of the compositions three acts, this really is the “keystone” in the architecture of the overall score.) However, as title character’s go, the role of Belshazzar, sung by tenor Matthew Hill, is often upstaged by stronger personalities.

The duet of Belshazzar (Matthew Hill) and Nitocris (Maya Kherani) in Act I of Handel's Belshazzar (courtesy of Michael Strickland)

The strongest of these is probably Nitocris, the Queen Mother, sung by soprano Maya Kherani. Nitocris knows all about her son’s many flaws. She knows that fate will not be kind to him, even before everyone gets the message from the disembodied hand. Handel, on the other hand, seemed very kind to Élisabeth Duparc, who first sang the role of Nitocris, composing several coloratura airs for her that were clearly calculated show-stoppers. Kherani rose to the many challenges she encountered in Handel’s score, becoming the primary “magnet” for audience attention. While Nitocris never appears in the Old Testament, her place in history was affirmed by the Histories of Herodotus.

The Biblical characters that do appear are the title character, the prophet Daniel (mezzo Sarah Coit), and Cyrus, the Prince of Persia (countertenor Eric Jurenas). The other major character is the Assyrian Nobleman Gobrias (bass-baritone Mischa Bouvier), who has formed an alliance with Cyrus. Compared with many of Handel’s operas, HWV 61 provides a relatively straightforward cast with well-defined motives in service of a straightforward narrative. Indeed, the expressiveness of Handel’s music serves those motives so well that the handwriting episode, while central in the structure, is relegated to a recitativo accompagnato (a recitative with instrumental accompaniment).

In other words the most familiar part of the narrative is secondary to the personalities impacted by that episode. After all, through his experiences in composing opera, Handel had become an expert in writing music that disclosed key personality traits. It is those traits, rather than the disembodied hand, that motivate the overall narrative of HWV 61. Last night those in the audience had the benefit of appreciating a cast of vocalists, all of whom knew how to deliver vivid accounts of the characters involved in the entire narrative.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Rameau Leaps In (Apologies to Pres) at ABS

The title of last night’s Summer Bach Festival presented by American Bach Soloists (ABS) was Barococo; and the heart of the program amounted to an encounter between Johann Sebastian Bach (High Baroque) and Jean-Philippe Rameau (Rococo). This was the only Rameau offering in the Festival, but it was definitely a generous one. It was a suite of seventeen instrumental selections from Rameau’s opera Dardanus, whose score included a rich serving of both dances and symphonies.

This turned out to be a rather lengthy undertaking; and I must confess that, somewhere around the halfway mark, I was beginning to feel as if Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas was serving up too much of a good thing. Nevertheless, I perked up for the “Air gay en rondeau” movement. This had become a personal favorite thanks to Lalo Schifrin, who turned it into a jazzy harpsichord solo for the “Versailles Promenade” track on his album The Dissection and Reconstruction of Music From the Past as Performed by the Inmates of Lalo Schifrin’s Demented Ensemble as a Tribute to the Memory of the Marquis de Sade.

By way of contrast, the Bach offering was significantly shorter in duration. This was BWV 234, the second of four Missae breves (short Masses), also known as the Kyrie–Gloria Masses, since the music sets the texts of only the first two selections of the Mass ordinary. BWV 234 was scored for SATB chorus with solo movements for soprano (Maya Kherani), alto (Sarah Coit), and bass (Mischa Bouvier). They were joined by tenor Matthew Hill to sing the choral movements as a vocal quartet.

Much of the music was appropriated (parodied) from earlier-composed cantatas. Those (like myself) without an encyclopedic memory of all of those cantatas can find the sources identified on the Wikipedia page for all four of the Kyrie–Gloria Masses. The performance itself was thoroughly engaging, and its brevity in the wake of Rameau was much appreciated.

Brevity was also served with two relatively short concertos by George Frideric Handel and Antonio Vivaldi, respectively. The Vivaldi selection was the A minor concerto for two violins, which was the eighth of the twelve concertos in the Opus 3 L’estro armonico (the harmonic inspiration) collection. This is one of several Vivaldi concertos that Bach transcribed for keyboard performance. However, violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Tekla Cunningham gave a thoroughly engaging account of the music as Vivaldi originally conceived it.

The Handel concerto was HWV 314 in G major, the third of his concerto grosso compositions collected as his Opus 3. This particular concerto grosso featured a flute in the ensemble. That part was taken by Bethanne Walker, performing on a period-appropriate instrument. This required a delicate balance between the subtlety of the instrument and the accompanying string ensemble. In his conducting work Thomas found just the right “sweet spot” for the interplay of soloist and accompanying instruments.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Ben Goldberg to Release Second “School” Album

from the Bandcamp Web page

Back in 2017 clarinetist Ben Goldberg released an album on his BAG Production Records label entitled Ben Goldberg School — Vol. 1: The Humanities. I had been listening to Goldberg’s music ever since my wife found a copy of Junk Genius and figured that it would interest me. Since it was a thoroughly engaging anthology of several of the adventurous (if also drug-addled) pioneers of the bebop movement, my wife definitely made the right call.

However, my interest did not result in writing until January 2011, when Clarinet Thing (which was founded by Beth Custer and included Sheldon Brown and Harvey Wainapel, as well as Goldberg) presented a Salons at the Rex program for San Francisco Performances. After that, I became more aware of Goldberg’s recordings and tried to collect as many of them as I could. Mind you, not all of them were as explicit in content as Junk Genius; but there was never any shortage of attention-prompting content.

2011 was also the year in which Goldberg founded the sextet called the Ben Goldberg School. The other five musicians were Kasey Knudsen on alto saxophone, Jeff Cressman on trombone, Rob Reich alternating between accordion and piano, David Ewell on bass, and Hamir Atwal on drums. Any connection between the seven tracks on that album and the humanities is left as an exercise for the listener. Goldberg served as composer, but it is clear that all the musicians had their own opportunities to invent. As Goldberg put it, the idea of a “school” involved “the role of musicians as gatherers and transmitters of value across time.”

One week from today, that spanning of time will advance to the second “volume” to be released by the Ben Goldberg School. This one is entitled Hard Science; and, as the hyperlink indicates, Bandcamp is currently processing pre-orders for both the limited edition compact disc and the digital offering, which includes both streaming and download. Once again, while Goldberg can be credited as composer, all the members of the sextet were encouraged to exercise in-the-moment spontaneity. Goldberg is still joined by Knudsen, Cressman, Reich (now only on accordion), and Atwal. However, Ewell has been replaced by Nate Brenner on electric bass.

The Bandcamp Web page also includes Goldberg’s background observations. That includes the following statement:

After this recording was made, I continued playing the material in solo concerts and with a trio of myself, Liberty Ellman, and Gerald Cleaver. I began calling the collection of tunes "Porch Concert Material."

As a result, while the seven tracks of The Humanities had titles that teased (if not defined) connections to the study of the humanities, all of the tracks on Hard Science carry the abbreviation “PCM” followed by a number, which may or may not relate to when that particular track was recorded. Perhaps this was Goldberg’s way of recognizing that “hard science” is more “abstract” than any of the branches of the humanities. On the other hand, Goldberg may have only been interested in stimulating the imagination, which would lead to sentences like this one’s predecessor!

Goldberg clearly draws his capacity for invention from a very deep well. As was the case with The Humanities,  Hard Science is all about those acts of inventions (assuming that it is “about” anything at all). Each track has its own birth through spontaneity, and it is up to the attentive listener to engage with the results of that spontaneity.

Happy listening!

Sidney Outlaw Wraps Up Schwabacher Recitals

Sidney Outlaw on the cover of his Lament album (from the Web page)

Last night in the Barbro Osher Recital Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's Bowes Center, baritone Sidney Outlaw, accompanied at the piano by Warren Jones, concluded this year’s Schwabacher Recital Series, presented by the San Francisco Opera Center and the Merola Opera Program. The program had been scheduled for the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall; but, due to a power outage at the 50 Oak Street building, the venue had to be shifted to the Van Ness Avenue building. The program consisted entirely of the selections that Outlaw and Jones had recorded for their Lament album.

Taken as a whole, the program was an uneven one. The most satisfying selections were all performed after the intermission. The first of these was an excerpt from Dorothy Rudd Moore’s Frederick Douglass opera. This included her composing music for what is probably Douglass’ best known speech, “What to the slave, is the Fourth of July?”

Readers may recall that John Adams composed music for this speech in his score for the Girls of the Golden West opera, given its premiere during the Fall 2017 season of the San Francisco Opera. However, Moore’s opera was composed in 1985. The composer died earlier this year, and Outlaw recalled that he was fortunate enough to sing this selection for her before her death.

The setting of prose can be a risky business; and, when the prose is polemical, the composer runs the risk of letting the soapbox rhetoric get out of control. However, Douglass’ best speeches drew upon the strategy of the slow burn, and Moore’s music seemed to capture that foundation in a thoroughly convincing manner. Outlaw, in turn, took the foundation of Moore’s rhetoric and brought it to life with his delivery of Douglass’ text. This was definitely the high point of the evening.

Nevertheless, it was followed by a second journey of discovery. Outlaw performed four of the songs from Harry T. Burleigh’s Five Songs of Laurence Hope. Laurence Hope was the pen name of Violet Nicolson, whose poetry could not be published until she assumed a male pseudonym. Burleigh, in turn, is best known for his settings of spirituals; so Outlaw’s program provided a valuable window on his approach to art song. This turned out to be as engaging a journey of discovery as that provided by Moore’s opera. Outlaw then delivered two a cappella spiritual performances, followed by one accompanied by Jones and a second duo account taken as an encore. (With the exception of the encore, all of the spirituals are included on the Lament album.)

The richness of the second half of the program compensated for the shortcomings of the first. Ricky Ian Gordon’s Genius Child was a song cycle of poems by Langston Hughes. Sadly, Gordon’s understanding of poetry was weak unto an extreme (almost as if he had his head buried in a counterpoint textbook while the teacher was discussing American poetry). One could almost say that he treated each poem as a string of words that needed to be matched by a string of notes.

The three Opus 41 songs composed by Robert Owens showed far greater awareness of the texts. Indeed, he was bold enough to take on three sonnets written by the Jamaican-American poet Claude McKay. McKay was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and his ability to harness an archaic structure to depict the horrors of racism during the early twentieth century was nothing short of awesome. Sadly, Owens never seemed to have developed an ear for the proper mixture of phonemes and musical tones.

I also wanted to observe in passing that this was one of my few encounters with a venue that had no COVID precautions. This may well have been the result of the last-minute change. The only real difficulty came at the end of the evening, when the elevator taking audience members from the eleventh floor to street level was far more densely packed than I would have preferred. My guess is that I shall be avoiding the Osher Recital Hall until the COVID risk lowers.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Music from the 1750–1850 Century from ABS

Many (most?) readers probably know by now that 1750 is the year in which Johann Sebastian Bach died. In many ways it also marks the final year of the primary repertoire of American Bach Soloists (ABS). However, past Summer Bach Festival performances have explored engaging ways to go beyond the boundaries of that period, exploring either later or earlier music. Last night’s program for the current Festival chose to look forward, exploring the century interval that began in 1750.

That century probably embraces far more familiar composers than are encountered prior to 1750. Last night ABS featured two of them in a program entitled Classical Genius. The first half of the program was devoted to two chamber music compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the K. 285 flute quartet in D major and the K. 581 clarinet quintet in A major. The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 octet in E-flat major.

The high point of the evening was the performance of K. 581, prior to which clarinetist Thomas Carroll introduced the audience to his basset horn. That possessive pronoun is actually a “double whammy,” since Carroll is an instrument builder as well as a performer. He could thus explain the nature of the instrument, including its extended lower register, and demonstrate his explanations, rather than just talk about them. Since K. 581 is a relatively familiar composition, many in the audience probably approached it with expectations of that familiarity. However, Carroll’s insights cast new light (and sonorities) on a performance that was a far cry from the “same old same old” and thoroughly engaging to boot.

The K. 285 flute quartet is also relatively familiar. However, here again the audience was introduced to a period instrument. Those that had attended Sunday’s Harmonic Labyrinth concert had already encountered Miller’s flute, but the music of Bach and Georg Phillip Telemann is a far cry from Mozart’s inventiveness. There was an intimacy in Miller’s account of Mozart that distinguished last night’s performance from Sunday’s. As can be seen from the catalog number, Mozart was just emerging from his teens when he composed this quartet; but there was much to engage listener attention. Joined by Jacob Ashworth on violin, Ramón Negrón-Pérez on viola, and Gretchen Claassen on cello, Miller’s account made for a stimulating “overture” for last night’s program.

The first thing one observed in the performance of Mendelssohn’s octet was the seating of the performers. The layout basically presented two string quartets, one the “mirror image” of the other. The quartet on the left side consisted of violinists YuEun Gemma Kim and Ashworth, violist Yvonne Smith, and Claassen on cello. They were “reflected” by violinists Tatiana Chulochnikova and Tomà Iliev, violist Negrón-Pérez, and Kenneth Slowik on cello. This disposition of the eight players tended to facilitate the listening process, sorting out the origins of each thematic contribution.

That bad news was that, in the course of that sorting, it became quickly apparent that Kim was “first among the equals.” More often than not, it seemed as if she was pursuing more of Mendelssohn’s flights of fancy than any of her colleagues. In other words, while Mendelssohn was clearly adventurous in working with this particular instrumentation, there were times when one felt he had composed a concerto for violin and very small orchestra. One consequence is that it was not hard to escape noticing that Mendelssohn’s capacity for inventiveness fell far short of Mozart’s, suggesting that the Opus 20 might have had more impact in less innovative company.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Noe Music Announces 30th Anniversary Season

Noe Music (formerly known as Noe Valley Chamber Music) has announced the programs for its 2022–2023 season. This will be the organization’s 30th anniversary; and, as might be expected, there will be a concert programmed to celebrate the occasion. There will also be a three-concert series of performances of all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sonatas for piano and violin (following the ordering of the cover page of the original publications). Finally, there will be four individual recitals, one for Mother’s Day and three to present an impressive diversity of performers. As usual, all performances will take place on Sunday afternoons, beginning at 4 p.m.

The Anniversary Concert will take place on March 26. Artistic Directors Meena Bhasin (viola) and Owen Dalby (violin) will be joined by four Bay Area artists: Angela Lee (cello), Nancy Zhou (violin), Katie Kadarauch (viola), and Emil Miland (cello). The entire ensemble will play Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opus 10 sextet in D major. The first half of the program will be devoted to the string trio in C major by Jean Françaix and Maurice Ravel’s sonata for violin and cello.

The cycle of Beethoven sonatas will bring Dalby together with pianist Stephen Prutsman; the recitals will take place on October 16, January 8, and April 16.

The Mother’s Day Celebration, which will be held on May 14, will be entitled She Who Creates. The performers will include the San Francisco Girls Chorus. They will be joined by three Bay Area artists: multidisciplinary musician, visual artist, and educator Cava Menzies, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Diana Gameros, and vocalist Jackie Gage.

The remaining three dates will be as follows:

  1. September 11: the San Francisco debut of the Merz Trio, featuring a performance of Ravel’s piano trio
  2. November 13: a pairing of Beethoven’s string quartet music with two of Jörg Widmann’s Beethoven-Study compositions performed by the Juilliard String Quartet
  3. February 26: a program of “modern folk music” performed by Sam Reider and the Human Hands

Subscription tickets are now on sale. A single Web page has been created with several options:

  • The Mainstage Package covers all performances except the Beethoven sonata cycle; general admission will be $200 and reserved seats will be available for $275.
  • The three Beethoven sonata concerts will be available for a general admission rate of $120.
  • Tickets for reserved seating for all eight of these programs (the Golden Ticket option) will be $350.

Single tickets will go on sale on August 29, all priced at $45. Those wishing further information may call 415-648-5236.

All performances will take place at the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street.

Nicolas Horvath’s Ambitious Catoire Project

Those that have been reading this site for some time probably know by now that I have done my best to follow the recording activities of pianist Nicolas Horvath. That interest dates back to my following his Glassworlds project, a series of six CDs surveying the solo piano music of Philip Glass, which was completed in September of 2019. That series was followed by two single-CD releases in 2021 devoted to Alvin Lucier and rare piano music by Claude Debussy, followed, in April of 2022, by the beginning of a three-volume account of the complete piano music composed by Germaine Tailleferre.

However, a week ago I learned that Horvath had initiated another project at the end of 2021. This involved an account of the complete piano works of Jean Catoire. When the project was completed this past July, it consisted of 31 hours of music that had been divided into eight volumes, most of which ran shy of four hours distributed across multiple CDs. Over the last couple of days, I experienced the first volume in this collection, which, given the scale of its content, is currently available from only through a Web page for MP3 download.

Given the scale of this content, it is more than a little unfortunate that the Wikipedia page for Catoire is currently labeled as a “stub,” whose content is practically microscopic. Basically, it consists of one sentence and one paragraph as follows:

Jean Catoire (1 April 1923 – 9 November 2005) was a French composer of contemporary classical music.

He studied with Olivier Messiaen and developed a personal style that was spiritual in outlook; in this regard his output is comparable to that of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. He was prolific, producing 604 opus numbers by 1996. The first recording of his music was released in 1999.

To put those catalog numbers in context, the earliest solo piano composition is Opus 134, and the latest is Opus 520.

The Wikipedia page also includes a hyperlink to a much more informative essay written by James D’Angelo on July 30, 1996. D’Angelo is cited as one of the sources for the booklet essay that accompanies Horvath’s recordings. The author of that essay is Lawrence Ball, who cites Catoire himself as another source, along with contributions from Catherine Catoire (the composer’s second wife) and Christine Turellier. While none of these sources accounts for Opus 1 in terms of either date or genre, one can deduce from the available data that Catoire had begun composing seriously around 1940; and by 1950 he had composed eight symphonies.

In that context the following excerpt from D’Angelo’s essay is particularly informative:

The evolution of his music was so rapid that he anticipated the now famous American minimalist composers LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass who first gained attention in the late 1960s. However, Catoire's style in its continuous static slowness and quietude cannot be truly compared with the pulsating rhythmic styles of these composers. Rather Catoire precursors such composers as Henryk Gorecki, John Tavener and most especially Arvo Pärt who often write sacred works in an archaic yet modern style and have been referred to as the 'sacred or holy minimalists.' In this sense the Catoire music echos the sacred compositions of the medieval Notre Dame school of Perotin and Leonin and, in relation to its unusual chromaticism, the works of Gesualdo.

Where the piano music is concerned, I am not sure that I would agree with any of the composers cited in that passage, the most viable exception being Young. Rather, I would say that the prevailing rhetoric across the five compositions I encountered in the first volume of Horvath’s collection is one of quietude and stillness. My own approach to listening tends to favor the horizontal to the vertical. More specifically, I was less interested in the content of chords and whether that content was consonant or dissonant and more interested in how the music was the result of “building blocks,” all of which involved stepwise movement. The blocks could be of different sizes; but, more often than not, the stepwise movement tended to involve only two notes. If the music “progressed,” then it did so through the interplay of rising and falling stepwise passages.

The first volume of Horvath’s release also makes it clear that Catoire could work with a significantly wide distribution of durational scales. Thus, the shortest composition in the album is Opus 145, whose duration is basically one minute and 45 seconds. (Was the work inspired by the opus number?) On the other hand, the duration of Opus 157 is somewhat over 90 minutes, meaning that the entire composition cannot fit on a single CD.

The good news is that listening to this particular composition is not problematic if one downloads the MP3 track. However, the bad news is that all that valuable booklet content is not available through the Amazon Web page! On the other hand it might be fair to say that this is music that invites (if not obliges) the listener to do little more than just pay attention and then find his/her/their own way as the music progresses. From a personal point of view, I would say that listening to this first volume has whetted my appetite for taking on the second.

Monday, July 25, 2022

The Bleeding Edge: 7/25/2022

This week the count of bleeding edge events drops down to two. One of them is not yet a “usual suspect;” but it may well be on the road to becoming one. The other is a site-specific event that is probably not going down that road! Details are as follows:

Friday, July 29, 7 p.m., David Ireland House: David Ireland was a sculptor, conceptual artist, and Minimalist architect until his death on May 17, 2009. In 1975 he purchased a Victorian house that was built in 1886. It was located in the Mission at 500 Capp Street at the corner of 20th Street. This became his venue for creating site-specific installation art pieces, an example of which can be seen in this photograph of the upstairs hallway:

Photograph taken on March 20, 2018 by Dreamyshade (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Composer Chris Brown will partner with performance artist Johanna Poethig to perform a full-evening composition entitled A Variation on 79, Side to Side Passes of a Dumbball, Dedicated to the Memory of John Cage (1912-1992). The performance will apply processes that Ireland used in creating his scores to activate the acoustics of his house. Brown’s composition will mix electronic tones of his own synthesis with live sampling of sounds from the house. Admission will be on a sliding scale starting at $20.

Sunday, July 31, 4 p.m., Salesforce Park: The next free performance to take place at this outdoor venue will be by the Music at Large quintet. This group was created by alto saxophonist Lewis Jordan. When they played for the Outsound New Music Summit in July of 2013, the other performers were India Cooke on violin, Karl Evangelista on guitar, John-Carlos Perea on bass, and percussionist Jimmy Biala. Any subsequent changes in personnel do not seem to have been announced. As was the case two week’s prior to this event, the performers will probably use the Amphitheater Stage, which faces a lawn with space for 1000 people. The park is located at 425 Mission Street on the roof of the Salesforce Transit Center.

Revived Interest in Vocalist Susie Thorne

This past Friday I learned from one of my reliable sources about a revived interest in the album Blue Skies, Clear Day, which is the second CD recorded by jazz vocalist Susie Thorne. I am not quite sure what constitutes revival; but, as of this writing, has a Web page for the CD, which is currently only available as used, currently from seven different sources. However, that Web page also has a hyperlink to an MP3 Web page, which probably did not exist when the album was first released in 2006. Sadly, that Web page does not include the liner notes that were included in the CD release. Also missing is the back label, which provides the personnel information, as well as the composition credits for the eleven tracks on the album.

For the most part, there is a satisfying clarity in Thorne’s vocal work. This is particularly important where the three Cole Porter tracks are concerned: “Blue Skies,” “Night and Day,” and “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” Porter was the most important contributor to the Great American Songbook that consistently paid as much attention to the words as to the music, and Thorne clearly honors that versatility. That same versatility can be found in Paul McCartney’s “Can’t Buy Me Love;” and there is a certain comfort in recognizing that McCartney gets just as much respect as Porter.

The only real disappointment arises on the final track. Thorne decided to record Joseph Kosma’s “Autumn Leaves” using the original French lyrics by Jacques Prévert, rather than the more familiar English version provided by Johnny Mercer. While there is consistent clarity across the English texts on the first ten tracks, negotiating the French account of “Autumn Leaves” requires more than a little creative imagination on the part of the listener.

On the instrumental side Thorne is accompanied by the “standard” trio with Christine Hitt on piano, Tom Kennedy on bass, and Miles Vandiver on drums. Kennedy is particularly engaging when accompanying Thorne’s interpretation of “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.”  Guitarist Rick Haydon contributes to six of the tracks, as does Jason Swagler on alto saxophone (but not the same six tracks). This amounts to highly satisfying accompaniment work, making for engaging listening (at least when the words are in English).

A Dazzling Account of Locatelli’s Labyrinth

Yesterday afternoon’s concert, the second in this year’s Summer Bach Festival presented by American Bach Soloists, saw the return of soprano Mary Wilson, this time singing a secular cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was also represented on the program by his BWV 1067 (second) orchestral suite in B minor. Those offerings were complemented by two chamber music compositions by Georg Philipp Telemann.

However, the high point of the concert came at the very end of the program, which had been given the title The Harmonic Labyrinth. “Il Laberinto Armonico, facilus aditus, difficilis exitus” (the harmonic labyrinth, easy to enter, difficult to leave) is the last of the twelve concertos in the Opus 3 publication of Pietro Locatelli, which was given the title L’Arte del Violino. To be fair, there is no shortage of finger-busting virtuoso passages for the violinist throughout all of those concertos; but, when Locatelli got to the last to them, he really outdid himself. Last night the violinist that entered the labyrinth was YuEun Gemma Kim, and her performance was never anything less than dazzling.

Nevertheless, there was more to her performance than pulling technically challenging rabbits out of a hat. Kim also consistently brought expressiveness to her engagement with the ensemble in those passages that prepare the listener for the over-the-top cadenzas that Locatelli fashioned for each of the concerto’s three movements. In other words Kim worked intimately with the ensemble conducted by Jeffrey Thomas to make sure that this concerto would not be dismissed as a mere circus act, and the overall dispositions of the music were consistently engaging for the attentive listener.

Kim was also one of the four violinists to perform Telemann’s TWV 40:202 concerto for four violins in D major. Unlike the concertos for four violins in Antonio Vivaldi’s Opus 3 L’estro armonico (the harmonic inspiration), Telemann’s concerto was scored for four violins without an accompanying ensemble. Thus, Kim shared the stage only with the three other violinists: Jacob Ashworth, Tatiana Chulochnikova, and Tomà Iliev. As might be guessed, the sonorities were strikingly different from those of the “usual” string quartet. However, there was a transparency to the account provided by these four violinists, allowing the attentive listener to appreciate not only the entire fabric but also the subtleties of each individual thread.

The other Telemann selection was a quartet that he called a quartet, the TWV 43:D3 “Paris” quartet in D major. Iliev was the only violinist in this ensemble, joined by Sandra Miller on flute, Kenneth Slowik on gamba, and Corey Jamason on harpsichord. This provided an engaging blend of sonorities that complemented Miller’s performance in Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1067 (second) orchestral suite in B minor, which can almost be taken as a concerto for flute and orchestra.

The other Bach selection was the BWV 202 “Wedding” cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (dissipate, you troublesome shadows). Wilson was clearly more comfortably situated with this music than she had been with the early Handel selections she performed on Saturday night. The sequence of arias also provided her with opportunities to engage with instrumental solos for both oboe (Stephen Hammer) and violin (Chulochnikova). This was the opening selection on last night’s program, and it provided a thoroughly engaging “welcoming gesture” for the stimulating instrumental offerings that would follow.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

ABS Summer Festival Explores Early Handel

Last night saw the opening concert in this year’s Summer Bach Festival presented by American Bach Soloists (ABS). The guest artist for the occasion was soprano Mary Wilson, singing two solo-voice secular cantatas by George Frideric Handel, both of which he composed in Rome in 1707. The program began with HWV 170, Tra le fiamme (among the flames); and the second half of the program opened with HWV 99, Il delirio amoroso (the lover’s delirium). (The HMV numbers of the cantatas follow alphabetical order.) Both cantatas set texts by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili.

Handel had traveled to Rome to develop his skills in composing opera. Unfortunately, the public theaters had been shut down by papal decree. As the song goes, secular cantatas would have to do until the real thing came along. It would be fair to say that both of these cantatas present Handel at the beginning of his learning curve. He clearly had not yet grasped the challenge of establishing a suitable duration for each text being set by a single movement. As a result, while Wilson’s voice was as heavenly as ever, the time devoted to these two cantatas amounted to too much of a not-particularly-good thing. Rome did not do Handel any favors, and he seems to have repaid the city in kind.

The only music by Johann Sebastian Bach was the final work on the program, the BWV 1049 fourth of the six “Brandenburg” concertos. This concerto features three solo instruments, two recorders (Aldo Abreu and Stephen Hammer) and one violin (Jacob Ashworth). As might be guessed (if not already known), much of the concerto is a study in the rhetoric of parallel thirds, which account for most of the duo flute work. However, in both the opening and closing movements, the violinist is confronted with some dazzling rapid-fire passages, as well as some engaging double-stop bowing. Thus, by the conclusion of the concerto, all of the soloists have had more than their fair share of a say in the matter, making the music a thoroughly absorbing experience for wrapping up the program.

The instrumental selections following the HWV 170 cantata presented the two “usual suspects” to provide Bach with company. The first selection was by Georg Philipp Telemann, his TWV 52:a1 concerto in A minor for recorder and gamba, with Abreu again as recorder soloist, joined this time by Kenneth Slowik. As might be guessed, the other concerto composer was Antonio Vivaldi, represented by his RV 208 violin concerto in D major, given the title “Il grosso mogul” (the great Mogul). The soloist was Ukrainian-born Tatiana Chulochnikova, who received the Jeffrey Thomas Award in 2016. Both of these concerto offerings were engaging accounts that rose above the less-stimulating Handel offerings.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Old First Concerts: September, 2022

September marks the beginning of a new season, and that beginning usually takes place during Labor Day Weekend. While there will be only three recitals presented by Old First Concerts during that month, the first of those involves a tradition that was sustained even under pandemic conditions. For this particular month, all of the performances will take place on a Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m.

All of the offerings will continue to be “hybrid,” allowing both live streaming and seating in the Old First Presbyterian Church at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue. 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:

September 4: The Labor Day tradition will continue with the return of jazz pianist Mike Greensill. This year he will lead a trio, whose other members will be Ruth Davies on bass and Brad Buethe on guitar. The title of the program will be High Standards – Swinging the Great American Songbook. As usual, the Songbook will provide the “bread and butter” of the program; but Greensill inevitably adds a hefty dose of his own original compositions.

September 18: Pianist Lynn Schugren is a fervent promoter of new music. The title of her program will be Treasures from the Mother Lode, and it will focus entirely on composers from the Sierra Nevada. There will be three world premiere performance, a nocturne by Mark Vance, “Elements” by Dennis Lauderdale, and a piano sonata by Durwynne Hsieh. She will also play the seventh book in Terry Riley’s The Heaven Ladder collection. (Riley composed this music before he moved to Japan. Schugren will be playing from the score he personally autographed to her.)

September 25: Regular readers probably know by now that the Ives Collective is 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. For this program they will be joined by violinist Hrabba Atladottir, violist Clio Tilton, and pianist Gwendolyn Mok. The selections will all be by female composers from the current and preceding centuries. The most recent of these will be Missy Mazzoli’s string trio entitled “Lies You Can Believe,” which was completed in 2006. The twentieth-century compositions will be Germaine Tailleferre’s piano trio and Amy Beach’s Opus 67 piano quintet in F-sharp minor.

Scriabin Rubs Shoulders with Joplin at O1C

Pianist Lee Alan Nolan (from his O1C event page)

The title of last night’s solo piano recital by Lee Alan Nolan for Old First Concerts (O1C) was From Rags to Mystics. That title could be appreciated in terms of the two best-known composers on the program Scott Joplin and Alexander Scriabin. What could be gained from this juxtaposition is best decided in the mind of the listener.

The Scriabin selection was the Opus 64 (“White Mass”) sonata. After completing his fourth sonata (Opus 30 in F-sharp minor), Scriabin dispensed with key signatures and explicit segmentation into separate movements. The fifth sonata (Opus 53) was composed in 1907; and Opus 64 was one of two sonatas composed in 1911 (preceded by Opus 61). Without trying to be disparaging, Opus 64 is an eruption of notes, flooding the keyboard with such a density that, even with the assistance of the score, the ear can barely sort out anything on a scale larger than a brief motif. In the absence of any frame of reference, the listener must depend on how the pianist shapes all those notes to gain even the slightest hint of any underlying patterns.

Nevertheless, there was an intensity to Nolan’s keyboard style that propelled the attentive listener through that flood of notes. If Scriabin’s intention was to sever the mind of the listener from any sense of logic and, instead, shroud that listener with a mystical fog that dispensed with conventions such as any evidence of progression, then Nolan’s performance can be said to be true to the composer. Indeed, his commitment to Scriabin’s worldview was preceded, during the first half of the program, by a similarly ambiguous composition on a relatively large scale. This was Bruce Christian Bennett’s “Schematic Nocturne,” which was composed for Nolan in 1997. Last night was thus the work’s 25th anniversary, leaving me wondering how often this piece has been played since its premiere performance.

The remaining “mystical experience” was the opening selection, “Pockets of Light” by Lubomyr Melnyk. The composer described this as an example of what he calls “pure Continuous Music,” drawing upon an alternate notation to allow for a sense of improvisation. Nolan may have decided to begin his program with this selection because Melnyk is of Ukrainian origin.

While Joplin was represented on the program by two of his rags (and a third taken as an encore), Nolan also included two of his contemporaries, both of whom were female. While I do not think I have encountered either Irene M. Giblin or May Aufderheide on any of Sarah Cahill’s Future is Female programs, I do recall that, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Corey Jamason performed their music at a Historical Performance concert in September of 2018. Both of them have Wikipedia pages (hence the hyperlinks). Nolan concluded his program with “Chicken Chowder,” described as Giblin’s “biggest success” on her Wikipedia page; and Aufderheide’s Wikipedia page includes the cover art of the selection that Nolan played, “The Thriller.” Since “Chicken Chowder” was performed immediately after Scriabin’s Opus 64, it provided a well-appreciated change of scene!

Friday, July 22, 2022

SOMM Launches RWV 150 Recording Project

Cover of the album being discussed showing Malcolm Sargent (right) consulting with Ralph Vaughan Williams during a rehearsal of the composer’s ninth symphony on March 9, 1958 (courtesy of Naxos of America)

Readers may recall that, this past February, SOMM Recordings released an album entitled William Walton: A Centenary Celebration, which had nothing to do with the dates of either Walton’s birth or his death. One week from today SOMM will launch a series or recordings that celebrate a composer’s anniversary. RWV 150 will involve multiple recordings in recognition of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1872, this being the year of the 150th anniversary of that birth.

Vaughan Williams is yet another composer that wrote nine symphonies. Sadly, he would die four months after the last of those symphonies was given its first performance. It was composed in the key of E minor, which was also the key of his sixth symphony. Taken together, they are the darkest of the Vaughan Williams symphonies; and they fill most of the first RWV 150 CD, which will be released one week from today. Fortunately, the album has an upbeat beginning with the overture composed for a performance of Aristophanes’ play The Wasps. As usual, is processing pre-orders for this new recording.

The recording of the ninth symphony is the most historically significant, since it captured the premiere performance, which took place the the Royal Festival Hall in London on April 2, 1958. On that occasion Malcolm Sargent conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The other two selections on the album were recorded at the Royal Albert Hall. On both of those occasions, Sargent conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The earlier of these was the performance of the Wasps overture on September 12, 1957. The sixth symphony performance was recorded much later, on August 4, 1964.

All of these recordings would not have been suitable for listening were it not for the assiduous efforts of audio restoration engineer Lani Spahr, whose remastering talents figured significantly in the release of historical recordings of the music of Edward Elgar. Spahr is clearly a leading individual in the community of those committed to restoring recordings of historical significance. Many readers probably know by now the extent to which SOMM Recordings has benefitted from his talents and how I have then benefitted from listening to those releases. Vaughan Williams was already beginning to go out of fashion when his ninth symphony received it first performance, and I am looking forward to Spahr’s efforts with SOMM to revive interest in the composer’s achievements.

Morlot’s Stimulating Account of Warhorses

San Francisco Symphony Visiting Conductor Ludovic Morlot (photograph by Lisa Maria Mazzucco, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony presented a Summer with the Symphony program that really got the juices flowing. The ensemble was led by Ludovic Morlot, last seen in Davies this past November when he shared the podium with Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas. Morlot was also one of the conductors that contributed to the Centennial Season, leading two programs performed by the visiting Boston Symphony Orchestra. Ironically, this took place at the beginning of his tenure as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony. Now he has become their Conductor Emeritus as he moves on to serve as Music Director of the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and National Orchestra of Catalonia.

The soloist on the program that Morlot had prepared was pianist Inon Barnatan, performing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 43 “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” Both soloist and conductor knew how to pull out all the stops for a rip-snorting account of music that tends to run the risk of being too familiar. Most important was that both conductor and soloist realized just how playful Rachmaninoff had been in creating this composition, and that sense of humor threw a new and refreshing light on all the technical challenges that the pianist had to surmount. Thus, as the episodes (most of which were variations) unfolded, a listener could be forgiven for the occasional grin, followed by cracking a smile, and erupting into a belly laugh at the conclusion of the final measure. Yet those gags could only emerge by virtue of the many ways in which both Morlot and Barnatan teased out details that go unnoticed in more mediocre performances.

Barnatan kept the spirits high with his encore selection. This was an account of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” which was probably the version in Earl Wild’s Virtuoso Etudes after Gershwin. This music was over the top in its technical demands, but Barnatan glided through every challenging turn of phrase as if it were as easy as falling off a log.

He may have made his encore choice knowing that the second half of the program would celebrate the friendship that formed between Gershwin and Maurice Ravel. In that context the first selection was Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” which bubbled over with all the excitement of an enthusiastic tourist, pausing only a few times to catch his/her breath or linger over a few brief thoughts of home. The program then concluded with Ravel’s “Boléro.” This turned out to be a highly disciplined account of what Ravel probably had in mind, the ways in which a single tune can assume a wide variety of dispositions, each reflecting different instrumental sonorities. This is music that only really registers on the strength of its details, and Morlot knew exactly how to give a clear and convincing account of every one of them.

The program began with the West Coast premiere of Gabriella Smith’s “Tidalwave Kitchen.” The composer was on hand to introduce her composition. She explained that she had written it during her undergraduate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music, a time when she was very homesick for Northern California.

The work was written for a very large ensemble, which displayed an understanding of all of the instruments and the ways in which their sonorities can be blended. Nevertheless, it is beginning to feel as if these “overtures” in Davies by young composers all seem to be exercises in large-scale instrumentation that often run out of steam after the requisite combinations of sonorities have been explored. While I appreciate the need to provide the new generation of composers with platforms for their creations, I am beginning to wonder whether there is a paucity of inventiveness behind many of those creations.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Operas to be Excerpted for Merola Grand Finale

The programming for the annual Merola Grand Finale has not yet been totally finalized. However, the Merola Opera Program has now released the list of operas that will provide excerpts for the program. That list includes the following:

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro (K. 492)
  • Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly and La bohème
  • Georges Bizet: Les pêcheurs de perles (the pearl fishers) and Carmen
  • Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette and Faust
  • Pietro Mascagni: L’amico Fritz
  • George Frideric Handel: Amadigi di Gaula (Amadis of Gaul, HWV 11)
  • Hector Berlioz: L’enfance du Christ (the childhood of Christ)
  • Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale, L’elisir d’amore (the elixir of love), and Lucia di Lammermoor
  • Jeanine Tesori: Blue
  • William Grand Still: Highway 1, USA
  • Benjamin Britten: Albert Herring
  • John Adams: Doctor Atomic
  • Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff
  • Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

All of this season’s Merolini will participate. In alphabetical order they are:

  • Veena Akama-Makia (Mezzo-soprano)
  • Amanda Batista (Soprano)
  • Cody Bowers (Countertenor)
  • Le Bu (Bass-baritone)
  • Andres Cascante (Baritone)
  • Shawn Chang (Pianist/Coach)
  • Edwin Jhamaal Davis (Bass)
  • Daniel Luis Espinal (Tenor)
  • Adia Evans (Soprano)
  • Gongming Jiang (Pianist/Coach)
  • Chance Jonas-O'Toole (Tenor)
  • SeungYun Kim (Bass-baritone)
  • Maggie Kinabrew (Soprano)
  • Scott Lee (Baritone)
  • Chelsea Lehnea (Soprano)
  • Yang Lin (Pianist/Coach)
  • Celeste Morales (Soprano)
  • Artyom Pak (Pianist/Coach)
  • Jonghyun Park (Tenor)
  • Olivia Prendergast (Soprano)
  • Nikola Adele Printz (Mezzo-soprano)
  • Maggie Reneé (Mezzo-soprano)
  • Deborah Robertson (Pianist/Coach)
  • Ashley Marie Robillard (Soprano)
  • Arianna Rodriguez (Soprano)
  • Sahel Salam (Tenor)
  • Moisés Salazar (Tenor)
  • Matthew J. Schulz (Stage Director)
  • Olivia Smith (Soprano)
  • William Socolof (Bass-baritone)
  • Erin Wagner (Mezzo-soprano)

The conductor will be Patrick Furrer, who has been a staff member of the Metropolitan Opera since 2011. As observed above, the staging of the entire production will be directed by Schultz. The performance will begin at 7:30 pm. on Saturday evening, August 20. Ticket prices will be $53, $43, and $28. The performance will take place in the War Memorial Opera House, which is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue on the northwest corner of Grove Street.

Tickets will be sold at the Box Office in the outer lobby, and they can be purchased online through a Web page on the San Francisco Opera Web site. The hyperlink for tickets leads to a Web page that displays which sections of the Opera House are available at which prices. This will facilitate seat selection through a hyperlink to a Web page that finalizes the purchase. For those wishing to purchase tickets at the Box Office, it is open on Monday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets can also be purchased by calling the Box Office telephone number, which is 415-864-3330.

Wenting Kang Debuts on Blue Griffin Records

courtesy of Classical Music Communications

Not too long ago Blue Griffin Records released Mosaic, the debut album of violist Wenting Kang. (She had previously appeared as soloist on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project album of serenades composed by George Perle.) As of this writing, this new offering is only available for MP3 download. Sadly, none of the “usual suspects” sources include the accompanying booklet as part of the download. The good news is that, for the most part, the music speaks for itself.

Two of the tracks on the album are solo performances. The less familiar of these is Akira Nishimura’s “Fantasia on Song of the Birds.” This refers to “El cant dels ocells,” a Catalan song that serves as both a Christmas carol and a lullaby. Pablo Casals gave this tune recognition on a larger scale when he arranged it for cello and piano. Kang’s performance of Nishimura’s fantasia is followed by Casals’ arrangement, in which she plays the cello part with her piano accompanist Sergei Kvitko.

Kang’s other solo track is one of her most technically challenging offerings. She performs Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” whose tremolo rhetoric continues to be a major challenge to all serious guitarists. Violinist Ruggiero Ricci was bold enough to arrange the score for solo violin, and the result become one of his more popular encore selections. Kang basically performs Ricci’s arrangement, offering an interpretation that reflects on both Tárrega’s reflection on the palace in Granada and Ricci’s equally challenging arrangement of that reflection.

Kvitko accompanies Kang on all of the remaining tracks. Several of the selections are further performances of music for cello. These include two compositions by Gabriel Fauré, his Opus 24 “Élégie” and the Opus 77 “Papillon,” as well the arrangement by cellist Emilio Colón of the complete cycle of the seven Canciones populares españolas (popular Spanish songs) composed by Manuel de Falla. Similarly, Kang seems to be playing directly from the clarinet part for the rhapsody that Claude Debussy composed for that instrument; and she takes the same approach to the vocal line In Maurice Ravel’s Opus 51 “Vocalist-étude en forme de habanera.

One of my fellow undergraduates liked to say that the viola was what a violin aspired to be when it grew up. There is, in that respect, a sense of maturity that pervades Kang’s approach to compositions, including those that were not written with the viola in mind. That approach rises above the familiar rhetorical stances we encounter in both violin and cello recitals, reflecting, instead, on the rhetorical richness that lies between these two extremes. Writing as one that has long enjoyed that richness in performances by Kim Kashkashian, I welcome another violist in my list of favorites!

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Nomad Session to Perform at Yerba Buena

According to my records, the Nomad Session octet gave its last performance on the evening of March 6, 2020, the same time that San Francisco Ballet was giving the first performance in its revival of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, George Balanchine’s choreographed interpretation of William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. That was the same evening when Mayor London N. Breed ordered that all public performances, events, and gatherings at the San Francisco War Memorial & Performing Arts Center would be cancelled to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus (coronavirus). Needless to say, it did not take long before smaller performance groups, such as Nomad Session, followed in obeying the Mayor’s constraints.

Over two years have passed since then, and yesterday I saw my first announcement of a performance by Nomad Session since the beginning of lockdown conditions. For those unfamiliar with the name, the ensemble is an octet. Four of its members each play a different wind instrument. They are Christy Kim (flute), Jesse Barrett (oboe), Jonathan Szin (clarinet), and Kris King (bassoon). The other four play four respective brass instruments: Stephanie Stroud (French horn), Ian Cochran (trumpet), Matt Carr (trombone), and Jonathan Seiberlich (tuba).

As might be guessed, much of their repertoire involves arrangements of familiar compositions to accommodate the instrumentation. However, the season that was cancelled in 2020 was to include three new works composed on commissions. Tomorrow, July 21, Nomad will be featured in one of the programs presented by the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. Like all of the other programs, this will be held in the outdoor space of Yerba Buena Gardens; and there will be no charge for attendance.

Yerba Buena Gardens is a guest on traditional, unceded Ramaytush Ohlone Land. The performance will take place outdoors in the space south of Mission Street between Third Street and Fourth Street. The duration of the performance will be one hour, lasting between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Masur’s Late Nineteenth-Century Repertoire

I have now traversed the full extent of late nineteenth-century music accounted for in the Warner Classics 70-CD box set of recordings made by conductor Kurt Masur. Had I realized how many recordings this would entail, I probably would have taken the same approach I took with the Dmitri Mitropoulos anthology and separate the music of Tchaikovsky as a separate category, as I had already done with Masur’s Brahms recordings.

Masur is definitely more thorough than Mitropoulos had been. He accounts for all six of the numbered symphonies, as well as the Opus 58 “Manfred” symphony, all performed with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. On the other hand his New York Philharmonic recordings include all three of the piano concertos, all performed with pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja. There is also a second recording of the first concerto, Opus 23 in B-flat minor, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Cécile Ousset as the soloist.

Finally, there is an album entitled Pas de Deux: Famous Waltzes. I have to confess that I found this one more than a little gratuitous. As anyone that knows more than beans about the ballet will quickly recognize, there are no pas de deux selections on the album. The waltzes come from a variety of sources, not just the ballets but also the Opus 24 opera Eugene Onegin, the last two symphonies, the Opus 48 serenade for string ensemble, and the incidental music composed for a production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. All of these waltzes are gems in their own respective rights, but enough is enough!

In terms of quantity, the music of Antonín Dvořák comes in at a distant second. The only symphonies are the two most popular, Opus 88 (the eighth) in G major and Opus 95 (“From the New World”) in E minor. There are samples of shorter works, including three of the Slavonic dances. More interesting is the trilogy of overtures collectively titled Nature, Life and Love. These are Opus 91 (“In Nature’s Realm”), Opus 92 (“Carnival”), and Opus 93 (“Othello”). Opus 93 is a rather odd candidate for “love;” but, since it receives so little attention, one can appreciate its presence in Masur’s repertoire. Finally, there is a New York Philharmonic performance of the Opus 53 violin concerto in A minor with Maxim Vengerov as soloist.

Vengerov also appears with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in a performance of Max Bruch’s Opus 26 (first) violin concerto. This is the only Bruch selection in the collection, but it gets a second performance by Sarah Chang with the Dresden Philharmonic. Somewhat more generous is the share for two symphonies by Anton Bruckner, WAB 104 (the fourth in E-flat major) and WAB 107 (the seventh in E major). Both of these were recorded with the Philharmonic, and that was probably as much as the New York audiences could take of Bruckner. The only other composers to be allotted an entire CD are César Franck, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and early compositions by Gustav Mahler. Max Reger and Modest Mussorgsky have to make to with sharing their respective albums with other composers, not necessarily making the best of company.

Thus, while there is much to appreciate in Masur’s accounts for this impressive diversity of repertoire, one might have argued for a better balance of the contributing composers.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

SFCS to Bring Verdi to Davies Symphony Hall

SFCS performing with a full orchestra in Davies Symphony Hall (photograph by Kristen Loken)

Readers may recall that, this past April, the San Francisco Choral Society (SFCS) launched its first season in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by Artistic Director Robert Geary, the program presented the world premiere performance of “To a Lost Year,” composed by Chiayu Hsu. The California Chamber Orchestra provided the string ensemble that accompanied the SATB choir.

Next month SFCS will continue its season with more familiar music. The program will be devoted entirely to one of the best-known compositions of sacred music, the setting of the Requiem text by Giuseppe Verdi. The four vocal soloists will be soprano Clarissa Lyons, mezzo Buffy Baggott, tenor Christopher Bengochea, and bass Eugene Brancoveanu. The instrumental ensemble will be the California Chamber Symphony. The conductor will be SFCS Associate Director Bryan Baker.

This program will be given only one performance beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday, August 19. The venue will be Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Tickets can be purchased online through a City Box Office Web page. Prices range from $40 to $60 with reduced rates for seniors and students between $36 and $54.

New “Pandemic” Gato Libre Album

Gato Libre is a trio I encountered for the first time in July of 2020, even though the group itself was founded in 2003. The founder was trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. He formed a trio which has gone through a variety of personnel changes. Currently the other members are Tamura’s wife, Satoko Fujii, playing accordion, and trombonist Yasuko Kaneko.

The title of the latest album is Sleeping Cat (and, as can be seen from the above image of the cover, it is in English, rather than Japanese). All five tracks are “about” that cat on the cover; but they account for different aspects of how the cat spends a typical day. Thus, the track titles, in order of appearance, are:

  1. Sleeping Cat
  2. Walking Cat
  3. Running Cat
  4. Eating Cat
  5. Laughing Cat

I have to say that this is the first time I found myself laughing spontaneously (if not uncontrollably) at recordings made by either Tamura or Fujii. This has less to with the final track and more with Kaneko’s prodigious imagination in using her trombone to summon up a rich account of the many noises the cat makes while sleeping (and, presumably, dreaming). Those “sound effects” are hysterically funny, and I am pretty much certain that they were intended to be.

Ironically, due to the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, this album was the product of mixing recordings made at different times. The initial recordings were made this past April by Tamura and Fujii at their home in Kobe City. Those tracks, as well as Tamura’s sheet music, were then sent to Kaneko, who lives in Okayama City. She realized her part on each track in May, sending those recordings to Tamura, who created the final mix of all three parts later in that month. In other words Tamura provided the cat of the title with a setting, and Kaneko realized the cat’s behavior by providing a “foreground” to Tamura’s “background” content. Since Kaneko has been a member of Gato Libre since 2012, one can appreciate her ability to engage with Tamura and Fujii even when they were all not in the same place at the same time.

As can be seen from the above hyperlink, Sleeping Cat is available through a Bandcamp Web page. In fact, as of this writing, the album is available exclusively from Bandcamp. However, at the present time, it is available only for digital distribution. Purchasing the album provides the buyer with downloads of all five of the tracks, as well as unlimited streaming through an app provided by Bandcamp at no extra charge. Sadly, there is no discount for cat lovers; but anyone that has ever owned a cat will readily recognize the five aspects of cat behavior provided by the tracks on this album with little difficulty.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Maria Canals Winner Plays Soler: Volume 11

courtesy of Naxos of America

Readers may recall that, this past March, Naxos resumed its project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Antonio Soler after a hiatus of almost two years, which was probably due to pandemic conditions. It now appears that Naxos is trying to make up for lost time, because this Friday will see the release of the next volume (the eleventh) in the series. However, if Naxos is getting back on the ball, the same cannot be said for Once again, those interested in pre-ordering the album will do better to consult the Presto Music Web page, which, as has been the case with previous Naxos releases, is processing pre-orders for both the CD and three formats of digital downloads, all of which include the accompanying booklet. 

Like the preceding tenth volume, this new album consists of three four-movement sonatas, most likely influenced by the First Viennese School. The first sonata on the album completes the Opus 4 set of six sonatas, a grouping that may, itself, have been influenced by First Viennese School composer Joseph Haydn. The remaining two sonatas are the first two from the Opus 8 collection, which departs from the format of Opus 4 by having only three sonatas.

There is probably much that can be said about Soler’s “journey,” which was originally influenced by Domenico Scarlatti, that led him to Haydn as a new influence. Sadly, the booklet notes by Keith Anderson has nothing to say on that matter. Nevertheless, I cannot be overly critical of Anderson, since Frederick Marvin’s contribution to Grove Music Online is also not particularly informative on this matter.

As is the case with all of the albums in this series, the pianist is a winner of the first prize in the Maria Canals International Music Competition of Barcelona. That pianist is the young Latvian Daumants Liepiņš, who won the 65th competition in 2019. He brings a light touch to all three of the sonatas on the album, which may reflect Soler’s shift from some of the more aggressive Hispanic influences to the refinements of Viennese society. Given that Soler composed 120 of these sonatas, those that have been following these Naxos releases since the very first volume are likely to look forward to future releases to see if any further dispositional shifts will arise.

The Bleeding Edge: 7/18/2022

Things are quieting down on the bleeding edge again. This week there are three events to consider, all of which involve “the usual suspects.” One of them has already been reported. As was the case last week, this is a program at the Center for New Music, which will again be a double bill. The “main attraction” will be a release concert by the trio of guitarists consisting of John Angel, Salvatore Barra, and Brent Miller, whose latest album is entitled Nocturnus: Dreaming. The opening set will be performed by Adam Fong. The other two events also involve familiar venues:

Tuesday, July 19, 7 p.m., Make-Out Room: Once again, Jazz at the Make-Out Room will take place on the third Tuesday of the month. There will be three sets, each a little over half an hour in duration. The evening will open with a solo guitar set performed by Amy Reed. She will be followed at 7:45 p.m. by a duo set with Scott Amendola on drums and Karl Evangelista on guitar. The final set will be taken by the Chris Trinidad Trio, beginning at 8:30 p.m. However, bassist Trinidad has not yet announced the other two members of his trio. 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 and appreciated.

Wednesday, July 20, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): The next installment in the Outsound Presents LSG Creative Music Series will consist of two sets, each somewhat less than an hour in duration. The first set will feature guitarist David R. Molina, who incorporates electronics into his performances. His current project is Transient, in which he explores electro-acoustic, ambient, noise, industrial, free improvisation, and experimental music. He uses electronics to capture sounds, filter them, add pedal-controlled effects, and create loops, which are then sampled in real time. The second set will be taken by Guinea Pig, a quartet conceived and led by saxophonist Tony Passarell. The other members of the quartet are Rent Romus, also on saxophones, Robert Kuhlman on bass, and Eli Knowles on drums. LSG is located at 1007 Market Street, across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street; and admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $20. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.

A Global Journey for Violin and Piano

Yesterday’s Old First Concerts recital at Old First Presbyterian Church was presented by the duo of violinist Basma Edrees and pianist Ava Nazar. The title of their program was somewhat convoluted: From Brahms to Piazzolla through Reza Vali. What this meant was that selected Vali compositions served to introduce more familiar offerings by Johannes Brahms, the Opus 100 (second) violin sonata in A major, and  Astor Piazzolla, “Le Grand Tango.”

Vali was born in Iran in 1952 and first studied music at the Conservatory of Music in Tehran. However, by 1985, he had received a doctoral degree in music theory and composition from the University of Pittsburgh, and he is now a faculty member in the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University. His contributions to the program consisted of short movements, many of which reflected Persian folk influences. However, there was also a brief reflection on the “Silent Night” Christmas carol; and the Piazzolla selection was preceded by a “limping” tango in 7/8 time. The music could be appreciated for its novelty, but its substance was relatively thin.

Sadly, the more familiar selections both received weaker accounts in their respective performances. While Nazar presented, for the most part, a confident interpretation of the Brahms selection, Edrees tended to seem consistently hesitant in accounting for the violin part. Since this was Brahms, one could definitely enjoy the keyboard passages; but the spirit of a duo never established itself with much security. On the other hand, neither of the musicians managed to “get the spirit” of “Le Grand Tango,” whether it involved Piazzolla’s many unconventional tropes or the vigorous spirit that one encountered when Mstislav Rostropovich first recorded his performance of the composition, which was written for him.

Edrees and Nazar were both Masters candidates at the Juilliard School when they first began performing as a duo; but yesterday afternoon’s performance suggested that they are not yet “ready for prime time.”

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Catalyst Quartet to Curate SFP PIVOT Series

Catalyst Quartet members Abi Fayette, Paul Laraia, Karla Donehew Perez, and Karlos Rodriguez (courtesy of SFP)

Readers may recall that, last season, San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched a new series, which was entitled Uncovered. The series was curated by the Catalyst Quartet, a string quartet whose members are violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez. Four programs were presented, each of which featured the work of composers whom history has overlooked due to their race or gender. Each program also included a guest artist; and bass-baritone Dashon Burton contributed to some (but not all) of the programs serving as an interlocutor.

The title of the series was taken from Catalyst’s UNCOVERED recording project with Azica Records. Each release was planned to focus on a single “uncovered” composer. The first two albums presented compositions by Samuel-Coleridge Taylor and Florence Price, respectively; and the album content contributed to the four SFP recitals.

The Uncovered series will return to SFP this coming season but in a slightly different guise. Last season presented four programs, two in the fall and two in the spring. In the coming season the series will be folded into the annual PIVOT Festival. Instead of four programs, each presenting its own distinctive approach to making music, the 2023 PIVOT Festival will consist of three consecutive evenings of performances by Catalyst.

All of the programs will begin with string quartets having the same composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Saint-Georges composed three collections of six string quartets, which were published in 1773, 1779, and 1785, respectively. As of this writing, all that is known is that the first PIVOT program will begin with two of those quartet, followed by a single quartet beginning the second program, and three quartets opening the third. The remainder of each program will present a unique “uncovering” of different composers as follows:

  1. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Miguel Bernal Jiménez, Rebecca Clarke, Amy Beach
  2. Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Teresa Carreño, Ethel Smyth
  3. Germaine Tailleferre, Antônio Carlos Gomes, Fanny Mendelssohn

The performances will take place on Tuesday, February 21, Wednesday, February 22, and Thursday, February 23, all beginning at 7:30 p.m. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel.

Subscriptions are now on sale for $180 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $150 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $120 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through an SFP Web page. Orders may be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets are also now on sale. The ticket prices will be $65, $55, and $45. All single tickets may be purchased by visiting the specific event pages. The above dates provide hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages.