Monday, October 31, 2022

The Bleeding Edge: 10/31/2022

In the spirit of Halloween, this week will serve up a large bag of treats. Ironically, none of treats will be available until tomorrow, after Halloween has given way to November. However, as they say, it’s the thought that counts; and this week’s Bleeding Edge schedule will provide food for thought in abundance. Only one event has been previously reported: this week’s two-set program presented by the LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) Creative Music Series this coming Wednesday, November 2. Specifics for all other events are as follows:

Tuesday, November 1, 7:30 p.m., Audium Theater: Performances in this venue usually involve listening to recordings projected through 176 loudspeakers in total darkness. However, this particular evening will be an “all-acoustic show” performed by the four tenor saxophonists that play together under the name Battle Trance. The saxophonists themselves are Travis Laplante, Patrick Breiner, Matthew Nelson, and Jeremy Viner; and they will perform music from their new release, Green of Winter. What is particularly important about their performances are the ways in which they use circular breathing to build continuous and hypnotic waves of sound, layer multiphonics to create intricate textures, and execute blistering fast lines that seem to liquefy into each other. Doors open at 7 p.m. Admission will be $30, and City Box Office has created a Web page for online purchase of tickets. Audium is located at 1616 Bush Street.

Friday, November 4, 8 p.m., Center for New Music (C4NM): While I have not yet received any information about a finalized schedule for the month of November, C4NM will present two concerts during the coming week. The first of these will be a concert marking the 30th Anniversary of International Recognition of the Republic of Croatia with a duo performance by Gordan Tudor on soprano saxophone and Mislav Režić alternating between classical and electric guitars. There will be no charge for admission, but a Web page has been created for making reservations. C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street.

Saturday, November 5, and Sunday, November 6, 12 p.m., Developing Environments: This year is the 50th Anniversary of Developing Environments, which has created a powerful legacy of effectively safeguarding the arts in San Francisco by providing truly affordable live-work spaces for locally-based artists. During the first weekend of November, the venue hosts an Open Studios (as in “open house”) event, inviting the public to visit and experience the efforts of those artists. One of those artists is Pamela Z, and she will be both showing her media work and giving live performances over the course of the weekend. The venue is located in the North East Mission Industrial Zone at 540 Alabama Street. There will be no charge for admission.

Saturday, November 5, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: The next “bleeding edge” concert at Bird & Beckett will present Filipino-American guitarist and composer Karl Evangelista, who will present the latest installment of his Apura project. Some readers may recall that Evangelista made a video recording of a performance of this music, which took place in July of 2021 and was available for viewing for a limited time at the beginning of the following month. He will be joined by two of the performers that participated in the video shoot, Francis Wong on tenor saxophone and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass. The drummer on the video was Andrew Cyrille, but the percussionist for this latest concert will be Donald Robinson.

As in the past, this is a performance that will take place in the shop but will also be live-streamed to the Bird & Beckett sites on both YouTube and Facebook. For those planning to attend “physically,” the shop is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station that serves both BART and Muni. Doors will open at 7:20 p.m. Admission is usually $20 in cash for the cover charge. There is also a donations Web page for those watching the live-stream. Given that only a limited number of people will be admitted, reservations are necessary and can be made by calling 415-586-3733. The phone will be answered during regular store hours, which are between noon and 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Sunday. Proof of vaccination will be required for entry, and masks will be necessary in the shop. Those holding reservations must claim them by 7:30 p.m. After that anyone waiting for a seat will be allowed to take what is available.

Sunday, November 6, 4 p.m., C4NM: The second event of the week at this venue will be the eighth installment in the Surround Sound Salon Series (SSSS). The program will present three recent works, each by a different composer, all performances utilizing the eight-channel surround system provided by Meyer Sound. Rivero will perform the premiere of a live composition for voice and electronics. Nathan Corder will present three pieces that focus on translational procedures, transduction, and process-based composition. Finally, Cheryl Leonard will draw upon her field recordings form Antarctica to present an eight-channel version of her 2013 composition “Meltwater.” General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members and students. Tickets may be purchased online through an Eventbrite event page.

Francis Poulenc’s Opera of Devout Anonymity

Yesterday afternoon San Francisco Opera (SFO) concluded its five-performance run of Francis Poulenc’s only full-evening opera, Dialogues des Carmélites (dialogues of the Carmelites). Having seen to the basics of the production in my account of the opening night, I wanted to discuss an element of context, which distinguishes Poulenc’s efforts (since he also provided his own libretto) from those of just about any other opera, that of personal identity.

That element is strongest in the protagonist, Blanche de la Force (soprano Heidi Stober). The Reign of Terror has placed her aristocratic family under a threat that can only be diverted by leaving France. Blanche, on the other hand, sacrifices her comfortable upbringing by seeking admission to the Carmelite Order in Compiègne. The casting for this opera accounts for seventeen nuns, whose company she joins. As the narrative unfolds, we begin to appreciate a tension between her own sense of identify and the anonymity of the convent itself.

Poulenc himself seems to have appreciated this context of anonymity. It is not that individuals never address each other by name. Rather, the setting is one in which such ordinary conversation does not take place. The nuns go about their business of service attending only to their practices and not to each other. Even the most attentive viewers of this opera may be forgiven for losing track of Blanche on the stage as the narrative unfolds.

The one exception is the Prioress of the order, Madame de Croissy, sung by mezzo Michaela Schuster. The first act concludes with her death in the convent’s infirmary. Olivier Py took a particularly imaginative approach to this scene, providing the audience with an overhead view of the Prioress:

photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO

Some readers may recall a similar approach to an episode from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, which SFO presented in the spring of 2005. In that case the view was of the old Countess in her bed, looking even more haggard than usual because, for that scene, she was depicted by a Lunatique Fantastique puppet.

The only intermission for Poulenc’s opera took place after the death of the Prioress. The remaining two acts were performed separated only by a short pause. This made for a symmetry that may have guided Poulenc’s approach to the narrative. The death of the Prioress is reflected by the guillotining of the Carmelite nuns in the final scene. Each of these episodes assumes a transcendent character in which the pain of life on earth is discarded with the admission to Heaven. (In that final scene Py conceived a representation of each nun’s soul entering Heaven, which turned out to be remarkably effective, if not reassuring after the horrors of the guillotine.)

In spire of its origins as a film, this is a narrative that does not lend itself readily to narration. Perhaps one of the advantages of opera is that music can assume the duties of narration when words are not readily available. Poulenc seems to have recognized the need for just the right interplay between music and words, resulting in a dramatic experience like no other we are likely to encounter.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

E4TT’s Guernica Project Disappoints

Album cover showing a photograph of Guernica after it had been bombed (courtesy of Crossover Media)

On April 8, 2017, the San Francisco contemporary classical chamber group Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) gave its premiere performance of The Guernica Project at the Noe Valley Ministry. The program was conceived to mark the 80th anniversary of the completion of the monumental Guernica painting by Pablo Picasso in June of 1937. For those unfamiliar with the background, Picasso saw his work as a response to the bombing of the Basque village of the same name by Nazi German and Fascist Italian warplanes to provide support for Francisco Franco’s Nationalists.

This past summer E4TT released its fourth album, also entitled The Guernica Project, via Centaur Records. This album accounted for most, but not all, of the content of the program that was presented in 2017. Since five years have elapsed, this release marks the 85th anniversary of Picasso’s undertaking. The centerpiece of the album is the four-movement “Guernica” composed by Jeffrey Hoover and presented by the full complement of E4TT performers at that time: soprano Nanette McGuinness, violinist Ilana Blumberg, cellist Anne Lerner, and pianist Dale Tsang. The album also includes Hoover’s “Burning Giraffe,” composed a year prior to “Guernica” and scored for cello and piano.

The other major composer on the album is David Garner co-founder of E4TT and Senior Artistic Advisor. El Alma y la Memoria (soul and memory) is a song cycle of settings of four poems by Antonio Machado, one of the casualties of the Spanish Civil War, which was composed in 1995. This is preceded by two short piano compositions played by Tsang. The first of these is a ricercar, composed in 2017, based on an encryption of letters from parts of Picasso’s full name. This is followed by the “Albeniz” movement from Garner’s Cinq Hommages collection in its revised (1987) version. McGuinness also sings Mario Carro’s “Alta mar” (high seas) accompanied only by Lerner on cello. Finally, the album begins with Mercedes Zavala’s Colección de Haikus, brief Spanish texts, each serving as a “call” for a solo piano “response.”

This is clearly a major undertaking based on the best of intentions. However, the listening experience is not a particularly compelling one. Tsang’s piano work is dutiful; but she never seems to account for the intense narrative qualities of the compositions she performs. McGuinness’ performances are similarly weak, focusing almost entirely on text without accounting for the context that makes the words themselves so intense. Given the overwhelming significance of the Picasso canvas that inspired this album, one has to wonder whether the performers bit off more than they could chew.

Zhang to Return to SFS for Major Warhorse

When Xian Zhang returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) this past May, the most familiar offering on her program was Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (ninth) symphony in E minor, composed in 1893 and best known by its subtitle, “From the New World.” She will return at the beginning of December, presenting another “ninth symphony” from the other end of the nineteenth century. That symphony is often regarded as one of the most monumental works in the history of Western music, known for both the breadth of its content and its extended resources.

Soprano Gabriella Reyes, making her SFS Orchestral Series debut in the program being discussed (courtesy of SFS)

Readers have probably guessed by now that the symphony in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (ninth) in D minor. In my day this was usually called the “Choral” symphony, because the instrumental resources are joined in the final movement by a full chorus and four vocal soloists. As a result, this program will present the next appearance by the SFS Chorus; and the soloists will be soprano Gabriella Reyes, mezzo Kelley O’Connor, tenor Issachah Savage, and bass Reginald Smith, Jr. Reyes, Savage, and Smith will all be making Orchestral Series debuts. As is usually the case, the symphony will be the concluding offering on the program.

It will be preceded by two SFS premieres, both orchestral. The first of these will be the single-movement Opus 33 “Ballade” in A minor, composed by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor about a year after he completed his education at the Royal College of Music. This will be followed by “Emerge,” an orchestral composition by Michael Abels, who is better known for his film scores. Zhang gave the world premiere performance of this work with the New Jersey Symphony on October 20, 2021. Abels conceived this work as a story of musicians returning to their art and rediscovering the joy of making music together.

This program will be given three performances, all taking place at 7:30 p.m. at Davies Symphony Hall, on Thursday, December 1, Friday, December 2, and Saturday, December 3. Ticket prices range from $69 to $209. They may be purchased through a single Web page or by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000. The entrance to Davies is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.

Noertker Brings Beckett to Bird & Beckett

Brett Carson, Jason Levis, Bill Noertker, and Annelise Zamula at Bird & Beckett (screenshot from the video of the performance)

Last night bassist Bill Noertker brought his combo to Bird & Beckett Books and Records. The two-set show was “recorded in anticipation of an upcoming ‘Noertker’s Moxie Live at  Bird and Beckett’ CD.” “Noertker’s Moxie” is the name of the combo Noertker has formed with wind player Annelise Zamula to perform his own compositions. Last night’s rhythm section consisted of Brett Carson on piano and Jason Levis on drums.

Noertker tends to have a prankish disposition which surfaced last night in his focus on Samuel Beckett, rather than Bird (Charlie Parker). The purpose of recording was to document a work-in-progress, which Noertker described as “a series of odd little ditties inspired by Samuel Beckett’s odd little novel Watt.” Since almost all of my Beckett experiences have involved his staged works, I must confess that my knowledge of Watt never reached beyond the Paperback Booksmith store in Harvard Square. Needless to say, Noertker’s introduction of one of those ditties, “Hunchy Hackett,” named after the hunchback in Watt, had the playful opacity of Beckett’s way with words.

Beckett was not the only influence on last night’s first set (which was the only set I live-streamed from home). “Traced in the Shadow” appropriates a phrase from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird;” and “Do You Know My Aunt Eliza?” is the title of a 1941 painting by Leonora Carrington. Noertker clearly enjoys making music with inspirational sources. His inventive thematic material undergoes imaginative realizations through both Zamula’s diversity of wind styles and Carson’s intense focus at the piano keyboard. Listening to these pieces requires focus, but that focus is readily rewarded.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Grand Piano to Record Farrenc’s Piano Works

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over two week’s ago, Grand Piano released the first album in a project to record the complete piano works of nineteenth-century composer Louise Farrenc. This is a two-CD release that accounts for four sets of études composed between 1833 and 1863. This accounts for 87 études, from which one may readily deduce that Farrenc had a keen passion for brevity. Once again is not the best source for this new album. Instead, one is advised to refer to Presto Music, which has created a Web page for both the compact disc and three download formats, the latter including a PDF file of the accompanying booklet. As of this writing, however, the CDs are out of stock; and Presto admits that orders may not be processed for six weeks or more.

The études are divided across four published sets:

  1. Opus 26, 30 études composed between 1833 and 1838
  2. Opus 41, twelve “études brillante” composed in 1853
  3. Opus 42, twenty “moderately difficult” études composed in 1854
  4. Opus 50, 25 “easy” études, probably composed between 1859 and 1863

My only previous contact with any of this music involved a performance of the tenth and only F-sharp minor étude in the Opus 26 collection. Ironically, this took place during mezzo Nikola Printz’ Schwabacher Recital Series concert this past March. Her accompanist, Erica Xiaoyan Guo, played the étude while Printz was changing outfits between the first and second acts of her program. The pianist on this new recording is Maria Stratigou, who made her recordings as part of her doctoral research at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England.

On the other hand, I had the good fortune to become aware of Farrenc through other genres. The late Michael Morgan presented her Opus 36 (third) symphony in G minor during what turned out to be his final visit to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony. In addition I had written about her Opus 33 piano trio in E-flat major when the Neave Trio included it on their Her Voice album. In other words my listening experience had only been devoted to long-scale compositions; and, somewhat ironically, Guo’s selection was the longest of the Opus 26 études.

Having so many almost minuscule compositions packed into a single CD is another matter. Presumably, Farrenc was not interested in anyone choosing to sit back and listen to a pianist work his/her way through 30 études in a single sitting. The fact is that what any of these pieces lack in duration is made up for in technical challenges. This is as true of the final set of “easy” études as it is of the contents of the earlier publications. Performing any of these publications as a “set” is asking more of any pianist than would be considered appropriate. Nevertheless, this collection definitely makes for an impressive “reference resource;” and listeners are advised to approach it with the same mindset one brings to an encyclopedia or dictionary.

BARS to Perform at SFCM Tonight

Once again I find myself making a last-minute announcement of the next program to be presented by the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS). Soprano Melody Moore will be the guest soloist. She is currently celebrating the centennial of the birth of soprano Renata Tebaldi and is now in San Francisco to sing the role of Mother Marie in Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites (dialogues of the Carmelites). She is honoring Tebaldi by recording an album featuring selections from the Italian repertoire. She will sing four of those selections with BARS:

  1. Giuseppe Verdi, Aida: Ritorna vincitor!
  2. Giuseppe Verdi, La forza del destino: Pace, pace, mio Dio!
  3. Giacomo Puccini, La bohème: Donde lieta uscì
  4. Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur: 'Io son l'umile ancella

She will then cap off her set with “Over the Rainbow,” which Harold Arlen wrote for Judy Garland to sing in The Wizard of Oz.

The program will begin by setting the operatic tone with the grand march that begins the second scene of the second act of Aida. The second half of the program will begin with Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum,” followed by Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 60 (sixth) symphony in D major. Music Director Dawn Harms will conduct the entire program.

The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m., this evening (Saturday, October 22). The performance will take place in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk form the Van Ness Muni station. Tickets are priced between $40 and $15. Both telephone and Internet sales have ended. However, tickets are still available for purchase in person at the venue starting at 7 p.m. Payment will be cash only, and tickets will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Choices for November 18–20, 2022

As we get closer to Thanksgiving Day weekend, the need to make choices begins to abate. Thus, the number of choices for the third weekend of this month is significantly less than that of its predecessor. However, even if those choices are few in numbers, enquiring minds deserve to know about them! Here is the current state of play:

Friday, November 18, 7:30 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music: During the height of lockdown conditions in the fall of 2020, the Telegraph Quartet of Eric Chin and Joseph Maile sharing the first violin chair and joined by violist Pei-Ling Lin and cellist Jeremiah Shaw shifted their attention to cyberspace. They launched an online video project called TeleLab, whose mission was to enable “lay persons” to acquire some understanding of “what makes the music tick” without drowning in a flood of technical jargon. Sadly, I did not learn about this effort until the second installment in this series, which was uploaded to Facebook on July 17, 2021. The composition presented for that installment was the first movement of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Opus 34 (third) quartet.

Now that concerts are once again taking place in the presence of audiences, the TeleLab experience will open up, being presented before an audience and live-streamed before the video account is archived. The first composition to be examined in this new setting will be Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 7 (first) string quartet in D minor. To say that this is a tough nut to crack would be the height of understatement.

The quartet consists of a single movement, whose duration tends to exceed 45 minutes. While the music is episodic, it took many listening experiences with a recording and my first encounter with a performance before I could begin to get my head around just what those episodes were! The goal of TeleLab will be to provide listeners with a clearer sense of how the music is structured prior to giving a performance of the quartet in its entirety.

This performance will take place in the Sol Joseph Recital Hall, which is located at 50 Oak Street. There will be no charge for admission.  However, reservations are recommended; and a Web page has been created that will accept up to ten such reservations. There will also be a Vimeo Web page for the livestream of the performance.

Friday, November 18, 8 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Nicholas McGegan, now Music Director Laureate, will return to the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra to present a program entitled The Surprises of Love. This will be his 1000th performance with the ensemble. The program will be devoted entirely to dance music from the French baroque. The title is also the title of an opéra-ballet by Jean-Philippe Rameau, which will be the major offering on the program. The remainder of the program will be devoted to two of Rameau’s contemporaries, André Campra and François Francoeur. The program will last approximately 100 minutes with one intermission.

Herbst Theatre is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Ticket prices are $32, $53, $75, $108, and $130. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office Web page.

That Web page also includes the following statement for dealing with pandemic conditions:

Beginning February 1, 2022 and until further notice, PBO is requiring proof of FDA or WHO authorized vaccination AND proof of a COVID-19 booster shot administered at least two weeks prior to attendance at any PBO event. Patrons must present a vaccination card, a clear photo of the card, or a Digital COVID-19 Vaccine Record at their time of entry. This applies to all patrons ages 12 and up at all of our venues across the Bay Area, as well as PBO staff and musicians.

Audience members under the age of 12 must show either proof of vaccination (a two-dose vaccine or J&J vaccine, completed at least two weeks before the concert) or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 48 hours of the event. Unfortunately, guests under the age of 5 are not permitted at PBO events right now.

All patrons are required to wear a well-fitted mask at all performances. Gaiters, scarves, and masks with valves are not permitted. Masks must be worn at all times unless actively drinking water in the lobby area.

PBO has also created a more detailed Web page, which was last updated this past October 4.

Saturday, November 19, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 20, 4 p.m., ODC B. Way Theater: Some readers may recall that the Volti a cappella choir resumed performing before an audience this past June. The ensemble will open its 2022–2023 season with a double bill of world premieres by Caroline Shaw and Pamela Z. The Shaw composition is entitled “Ochre,” which the composer describes as an exploration of “how we consider and care for the ground beneath our feet, the Earth, ourselves, our histories, and our sense of the scale of our lives in the context of geological history. It is also about color, and the sensation of music as color or as a complex concoction of materials that we perceive as a kind of color.” Z’s selection will be “Ink,” which was originally designed for Web-based performance and premiered in that form on April 24, 2021. The work will now be given its in-person premiere. The entire program will be led by guest conductor Valérie Saint-Agathe, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

The ODC B. Way Theater is located at 3153 17th Street on the northwest corner of Shotwell Street. Ticket prices are between $19 and $59. ODC has created a single Web page with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets to both performances.

Saturday, November 19, 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre: Finally, as was announced on this site this past Saturday, the second of the four debut recitals to be presented by San Francisco Performances before the end of this calendar year will be the Shenson Piano Series program performed by pianists Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin to celebrate Philip Glass’ 85th birthday.

SFS Celebrates Halloween at Davies

Some of my fondest Halloween memories involve going to Davies Symphony Hall to see a holiday-appropriate silent movie with live organ accompaniment. This year, however, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen prepared a full-length subscription program. I am happy to report that both the works he selected for the program and the performances of those works fired on all cylinders, running the gamut from darkly sinister to comically grotesque.

HK Gruber (photograph by Johnny Volcano, from the booklet for his Chandos album)

The latter filled the second half of the program with a performance of a composition by Heinz Karl Gruber (who prefers to be known as “HK Gruber”) with the full title “Frankenstein!! a pan-demonium for chansonnier and orchestra after children’s rhymes by HC Artmann.” Gruber himself served as chansonnier delivering Artmann’s German texts with the BBC Philharmonic for a Chandos album recorded in 2017. Last night Harriet Watts’ English translations of those texts were delivered by Christopher Purves as chansonnier. The score required that he supplement his vocal work with toy instruments, which were also provided to many of the players in the large instrumental ensemble. The English texts were also projected, allowing attentive listeners to relish every last absurd grotesquerie that Artmann had devised.

The result was probably the most raucous event I have ever experienced in Davies. Considering that it came on the heels of the no-holds-barred performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 522 (“A Musical Joke”) at last Sunday’s SFS Chamber Music program, complete with powdered wigs, eighteenth-century finery, and an abundance of physical comedy, the use of that adjective “raucous” was definitely put to the test. (The full complement of SFS musicians and their “auxiliary toys” definitely outnumbered the sextet playing the Mozart selection.) As they say about comedy, “Timing is everything;” and Salonen clearly knew how to coordinate the timing of every off-beat gesture in Gruber’s score, allowing Purves full liberty in his approaches to delivering Artmann’s wacky texts. The only thing that seemed to be missing was a percussion part for things that go bump in the night.

The first half of the program was far darker than Gruber’s antics. Salonen chose to begin with Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra.” Pretty much everyone knows the intense impact of Herrmann’s music for the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but very few know that the entire score for the movie was composed only for strings. Following the success of the film in 1960, Herrmann prepared an edition of the score for concert performance in 1968. This version was recorded but then lost. It was subsequently reconstructed by John Mauceri in the early 2000s, and that is the version that SFS performed last night. (Unless I am mistaken, it had previously been performed here in May of 2009 by the New Century Chamber Orchestra led by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg.) The score itself was structured in multiple movements, but these were not indicated in the program book. Also, there was a reprise of the shower scene music in last night’s performance that I did not recall from the 2009 offering.

The Herrmann score was followed by the suite that Béla Bartók extracted from the music he composed for the brutal and erotic ballet “The Miraculous Mandarin.” Like “Frankenstein!!,” this score utilized the full forces of the SFS ensemble but without the toy instruments, which would have undermined the profound darkness of both the ballet narrative and the music itself. This was the second Bartók offering of the month, the first having taken place two weeks ago, when Salonen conducted the “Concerto for Orchestra." Salonen clearly enjoys conducting Bartók’s music, particularly when the score requires him to “pull out all the stops.” However, the “Mandarin” score is far darker than the concerto, which, for the most part, is more playful. Because his selection was a suite, the music does not strictly follow the narrative of the ballet itself, preferring instead to highly the dark personal qualities that drive that narrative to its haunting conclusion (which is not included in the suite). Once again, the “physical” experience of listening to this Bartók score rose way above any previous encounter with a recording.

Thursday, October 27, 2022

SFO: A New Eurydice for Gluck’s Opera

Yesterday’s “busy weekend” article included the opening night for the San Francisco Opera (SFO) performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata featuring new staging by Shawna Lucey on Friday, November 11. The following Tuesday will mark the opening night for the next SFO offering, Orpheus and Eurydice by Christoph Willibald Gluck. This will be only the second presentation of this opera in the War Memorial Opera House, the first having been given in 1959.

Soprano Meigui Zhang

When this production was being planned, soprano Christina Gansch was cast for the title role of Eurydice. However, she withdrew because she was expecting her second child. The role will now be taken by soprano Meigui Zhang, who will be singing that part for the first time. She will be joined by countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, who will be making his SFO debut in the other title role of Orpheus. The only other soloist in the cast is the role of Amore (love), which will be sung by soprano Nicole Heaton en travesti. However, Gluck included a generous share of choral passages, which will be sung by the Opera Chorus, prepared by Chorus Director John Keene.

The creative team will be led by Director Matthew Ozawa, who will work with choreographer Rena Butler. Alexander V. Nichols has designed both sets and projections for the staging. Jessica Jahn is costume designer, and Yuki Nakase Link has designed the lighting. The conductor will be Peter Whelan, who will be making his American operatic debut.

This production will be given five performances at 7:30 p.m. on November 15, 18, and 26 and on December 1 and at 2 p.m. on November 20. Ticket prices range from $26 to $408; and, depending on location, there is a facility fee of either $2 or $3 per ticket. There will also be a livestream of the November 20 performance. Virtual tickets are currently being sold for $27.50, processed through the Web page for digital content. All other tickets may be purchased in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue or by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330. Box Office hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on Monday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. There is also a Web page with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for all five of the performances.

Unfamiliar Schumann from Danish Quartet

Last night in Herbst Theatre, San Francisco Performances (SFP) launched its Chamber Series with the return of the Danish String Quartet (DSQ). The ensemble, whose members are violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, who share the leadership chair, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard, and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, made their SFP debut in February of 2018; and last night was their second appearance. The program was particularly distinguished as one of those rare encounters with the string quartets of Robert Schumann.

What makes those encounters rare is that Schumann composed only three of those quartets, his Opus 41. They were written early in 1842, a year in which the composer devoted himself to writing chamber music; and the Opus 41 set made for the only pieces he wrote that did not require a piano. DSQ devoted the second half of their program to the third quartet in the set, written in the key of A major. According to my records, this was my first encounter with Opus 41 since April of 2019, when the SFP presented the third appearance of the Elias String Quartet. Their selection was the first quartet in the set in the key of A minor.

The A major quartet could have played a leading role back in the days of Trivial Pursuits. To the best of my knowledge, it is the earliest “classical” string quartet I have encountered whose first movement is in 3/4 time. Since Schumann was often given to “exploratory experimentation,” I was not that surprised at this departure from convention. However, the Danish players seemed to “get” this departure from convention, allowing it to throw new light on rhetorical approaches to the quartet genre.

The first half of the program had its own exploratory approach to programming, pairing Benjamin Britten’s early set of three divertimenti with Mozart’s early K. 138 divertimento in F major. Both of the divertimentos were youthful undertakings. K. 138 was the last of the three “Salzburg Symphonies,” which he composed in his mid-teens for either string quartet or string orchestra; and Britten had just turned twenty when his three-movement divertimento (the only movements from his original five-movement plan) was first performed. Britten was never particularly satisfied with his results, while K. 138 may well have ended up as “background music” for one of the social events arranged by Hieronymus von Colloredo, the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg.

Last night, however, the pairing of these two compositions made for a refreshing “opener” for the DSQ program. They “warmed up” the audience in preparation for their account of the more mature K. 428 quartet in E-flat major. In the chamber music genre this is Mozart at his best. It is one of those works in which the attentive listener, even if (s)he is not an “expert,” can appreciate that every note is situated exactly where it belongs. Most adventurous is the third (Menuetto) movement, whose rather straightforward dance music takes on new dimensions through prolongation after prolongation.

Following the program DSQ returned to the stage for a departure from the usual approach to encores. The third (Adagio) movement of Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/1 string quartet in B-flat major was performed as a memorial tribute to Geoff Nuttall, co-founder and first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet and artist-in-residence at Stanford University, who died of cancer at the age of 56 earlier this month on October 19. The DSQ performance suggested that there are strong bonds in the community of chamber musicians that are not strained (or restrained) by national boundaries.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Choices for November 11–13, 2022++

Almost exactly a week ago, this site announced the return of “busy weekend++” articles, beginning with the first weekend of next month. The suffix referred to those events that also marked the beginning of a series of related programs. If that article gave readers much to consider for both the near and more distant future, the second weekend of next month will provide even more offerings, both for the weekend itself and for the concert series being launched. So, in the immortal words of Margo Channing (as delivered by Bette Davis) in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.”

Friday, November 11–Sunday, November 13, Davies Symphony Hall: Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas will return to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), and his first program is sure to raise some eyebrows. The soloist for his program will be cellist Gautier Capuçon; and he will present the United States premiere of a concerto composed for him by Danny Elfman supported by an SFS commission. For those that just read that sentence for a second time, the composer is the Danny Elfman, who was basically “house composer” for the films of Tim Burton and whose presence is likely to extend far into the future (or, at least, as long as The Simpsons stays on the air). On this particular occasion Elfman will find himself sandwiched between two Russians. The program will begin with Igor Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments” and conclude with the serenade that Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed for a strings-only ensemble.

The performances on November 11 and 12 will take place at 7:30 p.m., and the November 13 performance will begin at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $20 to $165 and may be purchased through a single Web page or by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000. The entrance to Davies is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.

MTT will then return the following week to present a second program devoted entirely to the music of Johannes Brahms. The soloist will be Emanuel Ax, and the second half of the program will consist entirely of the Opus 15 (first) piano concerto in D minor. The first half of the program will balance the second with Brahms’ Opus 11, a six-movement serenade in D major. There will again be three performances beginning at 2 p.m. on Thursday, November 17, and at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, November 18, and Saturday, November 19. Ticket prices are the same; and, again, a single Web page has been created for purchasing tickets.

Friday, November 11, 7:30 p.m., War Memorial Opera House: The San Francisco Opera (SFO) will present the first of eight performances of a new staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata, directed by Shawna Lucey. For those that do not already know the story, it involves Alfredo Germont, a young man from a provincial family enjoying bourgeois prosperity in the country. On a visit to Paris, he meets the courtesan Violetta Valéry and is swept off his feet. Curiously, however, Violetta is as smitten with him as he is with her. Alfredo’s father Giorgio, on the other hand is not so sanguine, seeing Violetta as a blot on the family’s good name. Such a reputation would prevent his daughter from making a good match (which is the real reason he pressures Alfredo to leave Violetta). As one might guess in the romantic traditions of the nineteenth century, things do not turn out well for anyone.

For this series of performances, soprano Pretty Yende will make her long-awaited SFO debut in the role of Violetta. Her Alfredo will be the tenor Jonathan Tetelman, who will be making his West Coast operatic stage debut; and baritone Simone Piazzola will make his SFO debut in the role of Giorgio. The conductor will be Music Director Eun Sun Kim, and this will be her second collaboration with Lucey. (The first was when SFO re-opened the War Memorial Opera House, beginning its first post-pandemic season with Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.)

This production will be given eight performances at 7:30 p.m. on November 11, 16, 22, 25, and 30 and on December 3 and at 2 p.m. on November 13 and 27. Ticket prices range from $26 to $408; and, depending on location, there is a facility fee of either $2 or $3 per ticket. There will also be a livestream of the November 16 performance. Virtual tickets are currently being sold for $27.50, processed through the Web page for digital content. All other tickets may be purchased in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue or by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330. Box Office hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on Monday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. There is also a Web page with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for all eight of the performances. Finally, opening night will be this season’s Opera at the Ballpark simulcast, and a Web page has been created to register for seats.

Saturday, November 12, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 13, 4 p.m., Trinity + St. Peter’s Episcopal Church: The San Francisco Choral Society (SFCS) plans its season on the basis of the calendar year, rather than the more familiar fall-to-spring sequence. This will thus be the final concert of its 2022 season. The program will begin with Gabriel Fauré’s setting of the Requiem text. This will be followed by Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms cycle. The intermission will be followed by selected movements from Kevin Allen’s Missa Rex Genitor, and the program will conclude with Eric Whitacre’s setting of five Hebrew love songs. Associate Director Bryan Baker will conduct with Christopher Keady at the organ. Vocal soloists will be baritone Bradley Kynard and boy soprano Brenn Farrell. There will also be instrumental solos by Constance Koo (harp), Artie Storch (percussion), and Jason Totzke (violin). The church was erected on the corner of Bush and Gough Streets in 1893. It survived the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire without damage. Tickets are $50 for front orchestra seating, $40 for rear orchestra, and $35 for general admission. Tickets can be purchased through separate City Box Office Web pages for November 12 and November 13.

Saturday, November 12, 7:30 p.m., Episcopal Church of the Incarnation: Sunset Music and Arts will present three concerts for the month of November. The first of these will be a solo recital by American pianist Susan Merdinger. She will frame her program with two major compositions from the early nineteenth century. Her program will begin with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 109 sonata in E major and conclude with Robert Schumann’s Opus 13, given the collective title Symphonic Studies. Between these “bookends” she will present more recent compositions. The first of these will be “The Saxon Variations,” composed by Elbio Barilari. The other will be Judith Shatin’s “Chai Variations on Eliahu Hanavi,” a Hebrew prayer sung at Sabbath services. “Chai” is the Hebrew word for “life;” but the new character that form the word also represent the number eighteen, which is the number of variations that Shatin composed.

These performances will take place in the Sunset district at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices for both performances are $25 for general admission with a $20 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. This can be arranged through Eventbrite. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324. Ticketing will be the same from the remaining two concerts, and hyperlinks will be attached to their respective dates as follows:

  • Friday, November 18, 7:30 p.m.: Guitarist An Tran will present a solo recital consisting entirely of Vietnamese guitar music; these will include both arrangements of folk songs and compositions, two of which were dedicated to Tran.
  • Sunday, November 27, 5 p.m.: The month will conclude with another solo piano recital, this time performed by Mark Valenti, who has not yet finalized his program.

Saturday, November 12, 8 p.m., Heron Arts: One Found Sound will present the second program in their tenth anniversary season entitled, appropriately enough, x. The title of this program is formation. It will begin with “Mi Cultura Lejana,” written by this year’s Emerging Composer Award winner, Estevan Olmos. His composition will be reflected at the beginning of the second half of the program with a performance of “Elegía Andina” by Gabriela Lena Frank. The first half of the program will conclude with the Opus 110a chamber symphony in C minor, Rudolf Barshai’s transcription for string orchestra of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 110 (eighth) string quartet in C minor. The program will conclude with Michael Gilbertson’s concerto for chamber orchestra entitled “Graffiti.” As usual the music will be supplemented with immersive visual experiences provided by Max Savage. Heron Arts  is located in SoMa at 7 Heron Street on the block between 7th Street and 8th Street. All tickets will be sold individually for $25 through the hyperlink attached to the event page for this program.

Sunday, November 13, 4 p.m., Noe Valley Ministry: The next program to be presented by Noe Music will be a visit by the Juilliard String Quartet. The entire program will be framed by Beethoven. It will begin with the Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major with the published finale. It will then conclude with the Opus 133 “Grosse Fuge,” originally conceived as the final movement of Opus 130. Between these bookends will be two of the Beethoven-Study compositions by Jörg Widmann. The first selection is a “study” of the second Opus 59 (“Razumovsky”) quartet in E minor; and the other will be based on the Opus 74 (“Harp”) quartet. General admission will be $45 with $60 for the first few rows and $15 for students. Tickets may be purchased through the event page for this program.

Violin and Percussion Music from NEC

courtesy of Naxos of America

This Friday Naxos will release an album entitled Works for Violin and Percussion Orchestra. The violinist is Nicholas Kitchen; and the percussionists are members of the New England Conservatory (NEC) Percussion Ensemble, led by Frank Epstein. As is usually the case, Amazon is currently processing pre-orders for this new recording.

The album consists of three compositions, the first and last of which are receiving their world premiere recordings. The first of these is “Xochiquetzal,” composed by Robert Xavier Rodríguez in 2014. The album concludes with a concerto for violin and percussion orchestra composed by Kati Agócs in 2018. Between these two selections is another such concerto, this one composed by Lou Harrison. He completed this composition in 1959 but had begun work on it in 1940.

Each of these pieces has its own characteristic voice. However, because of the breadth of resources that inspired Harrison’s ethnographic interests, there is some sense of “family resemblance” between his concerto and “Xochiquetzal,” which is structured as five uninterrupted movements. The latter can be approached as “imaginary folk music,” a term that Rodríguez appropriated from Manuel de Falla.

Rodríguez prepared his own notes for the booklet, where he explains that his title is the name of “an ancient Mayan goddess associated with music, dance, beauty, love, fertility and female sexual power.” Each of the movements reflects on a different aspect of this protagonist, and the composer’s skill at combining a wide diversity of percussion instruments with the solo violin (which represents Xochiquetzal) makes for engaging listening. Nevertheless, while Rodríguez’ voice is decidedly unique, Harrison’s concerto provides excellent “orientation” for the listener, introducing rhetorical tropes that would prepare the listener for the more narrative qualities of “Xochiquetzal.”

Agócs’ concerto, on the other hand, is based on an entirely different lexicon of tropes for both the violin and the percussion accompaniment. Nevertheless, there are signs of her awareness of Harrison’s lyrical qualities, including some not usually associated with members of the percussion family. What particularly strikes the attentive listener is her ability to overlay a variety of thematic tropes, creating the effect that the listener feels surrounded by a stimulating simultaneity of competing voices. I was also more than moderately pleased to see that, in his capacity as teacher, Milton Babbitt did not let his interest in mathematics interfere with his approach to coaching Agócs!

Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as Piano Duet

Jed Distler and Jerome Kuderna at last night’s Old First Concerts program (screenshot from the video of the performance)

Last night Old First Concerts presented a piano duet recital performed by virtuoso Jerome Kuderna and Jed Distler, whose resume encompasses composer, pianist, critic, and New York radio host. During the nineteenth century, four hands on one keyboard became the major medium for getting to know the works of contemporary composers at times and in places when opportunities to attend performances were of limited supply. Thus, one was more likely to learn the repertoire through salons, rather than concert halls; and composers like Franz Schubert led the way in providing compositions for those settings.

Along with original music, the four-hand repertoire quickly embraced arrangements, allowing those with the necessary skills to enjoy music by composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven. (My personal collection of such music includes all nine of the symphonies and all sixteen of the string quartets.) As recording technology emerged and grew, experiencing music began to divide between the social and the individual. However, while nineteenth-century salons may no longer be with us, a pair of friends getting together over a piano keyboard is still a thriving aspect of music appreciation.

In that context Kuderna and Distler decided to prepare and execute performances of Gustav Mahler’s ninth symphony, which he completed in 1910. (By way of context, the first Edison Records recordings were manufactured in 1888.) The original four-hand version of Mahler’s score was prepared by Josef Venantius Wöss and published by Universal Edition in 1912. However, this was the not source for the program that Kuderna and Distler prepared. They discovered a rarely-heard transcription by the musicologist Kurt Wöss, presenting its first concert offering in New York. Last night saw its San Francisco premiere at Old First Presbyterian Church, having recently been given a series of performances in the catacombs at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

In his notes for the program, Distler noted:

Granted, 88 piano keys cannot replicate Gustav Mahler’s extraordinary orchestration and genius for instrumental color.

This would have been “intuitively obvious to the most casual observer” attending last night performance. However, what Distler’s insight overlooked was that a wide diversity of instruments can enable such rich polyphony that the number of “voices in play” is often too many to count. By limiting the scope of sonorities, one also limits the ability to distinguish that full variety of all those “voices in play.” For those familiar with Mahler’s score, last night’s performance triggered memories of Mahler’s orchestration early and often; but four hands on one keyboard often blurred the interplay of his polyphonic inventions.

By the time I had completed my own “listener’s journey” of last night’s performance, I found it hard to shake recollection of a witticism often attributed to Samuel Johnson. This was his reaction to seeing a dog walk on its hind legs. Johnson observed that such an act should not be judged for whether it was done well but credited for having been done at all. I do not take this as a snipe but, rather, as a willingness to take things as they are. Last night things were “what they were” well enough to engage any attentive listener.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Marko Topchii’s Video to Premiere on Sunday

Ukrainian classical guitarist Marko Topchii (courtesy of the Omni Foundation)

Readers may recall that, about a month ago, I attended the video shoot for the latest Live at St. Mark’s performance presented by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. The performance was a solo recital by Ukrainian classical guitarist Marko Topchii. This morning Omni announced that the video will be released for its premiere viewing this coming Sunday, October 30, at noon. The YouTube Web page for this video has already been created. It will provide a “countdown” in the lower-left corner to remind viewers of when it will be available. That corner also includes a “Notify me” button.

Full program details were provided in my account of the video shoot and are still available for preparatory reading. The “bare-bones” summary of the program is as follows:

  • Lute Suite in E Minor BWV 996 by Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Kitsch-Music 1 by Valentin Silvestrov
  • La Gran Sarabanda by Leo Brouwer
  • Passacaille by Alexandre Tansman
  • Étude 19 (Jondo) by Angelo Gilardino
  • Comme un Hommage: Ravel by Arnaud Dumond
  • Toccata by Joaquín Rodrigo
  • Encore:  Un Sueño en la Floresta by Agustín Barrios

The duration of this program was approximately one hour. Topchii performed on a guitar made by Julian Dammann.

Montgeroult’s Abundance of Études

courtesy of Naxos of America

Those that have been following this site for at least a year or so will probably have become acquainted with the pianist and composer Hélène Antoinette Marie de Nervo de Montgeroult. One of her compositions was a set of improvisations on “ La Marseillaise,” which, in spite of her noble background, probably saved her from the guillotine during the Reign of Terror that followed the overthrow of the French monarchy. She is one of the composers in Sarah Cahill’s The Future is Female repertoire; and her complete piano sonatas (nine of them) were recorded for Grand Piano by Nicolas Horvath. This month BIS Records, based in Sweden, released the latest album devoted entirely to her music. This is the sixth album that British pianist Clare Hammond has recorded for that label, and it consists of a collection of 29 Montgeroult études.

Those études were selected from Montgeroult’s most extensive undertaking, which was entitled Cours complet pour l'enseignement du forte-piano (complete course for teaching fortepiano), which was published in 1820. This is one of those cases in which “complete” is not an exaggeration. Over the course of three volumes, this publication offers 114 études along with 972 exercises. For her new release, Hammond has selected 29 of the études. Since the last publication of her sonatas, her Opus 5, took place in 1811, one might speculate that this vast collection of pedagogical content may have been directed at those wishing to perform her sonatas properly.

At this point I should raise a personal disclaimer, which is that compositions that make for good pedagogy do not necessarily make for good recital offerings. That bias has grown on me over the course of listening to no end of piano recitals that drew upon the études composed by Frédéric Chopin. (For the record, as they say, these were all published after the publication of the Cours complet; and it would not surprise me if Chopin had no awareness of who Montgeroult was or what she had achieved.) My personal bias amounts to an aversion to performances that provide a complete account of a collection of études, such as the Opus 10 and Opus 25 publications of Chopin. In a recital setting such performances tend to devolve into the experience of what Winston Churchill supposedly called “one damned thing after another.” (Churchill was talking about history at the time.)

Mind you, this may just be my way of compensating for the fact that I cannot play such études very well (if at all as my joints get stiffer). Thus, while I can appreciate the technical qualities of Montgeroult’s études, I cannot say that I am drawn to this new album for an overall listening experience. I can certainly admire the fireworks, particularly when they are distilled down to durations of less than a minute. However, I do not feel any sense of journey through Hammond’s 29 selections (nor, to be fair, should I expect such a sense).

On the other hand I certainly appreciate those that enjoy having CDs that account for all of the études that Chopin composed, and I would invite them to consider Hammond’s album for an alternative approach to piano pedagogy.

Monday, October 24, 2022

New Arts Collaboration Releases Recording

This morning I realized that it has been almost a year since I last wrote about the New Arts Collaboration (NAC) curated by Ting Luo. In addition, I seem to have fallen almost two months behind in accounting for the first album to be released by NAC. Given that the album is only a little more than five minutes in duration, such negligence is almost unforgivable; and there are clearly some bugs in my queue management system.

Because of its brevity, the album, entitled Fields of Repression, is available only for streaming or download through a Bandcamp Web page. The recording presents a piano duo performance by Luo and Vienna-based compose Gloria Damijan. The performance is the interpretation of a graphic score that Damijan prepared. That interpretation is realized through both a prepared piano and found objects. In other words, as was the case for many of the early works of John Cage, performance had more to do with activity than with any more traditional approaches to “music making.”

from the Bandcamp Web page for the album being discussed

The “album cover” (a bit of an oxymoron, since there is no “physical” version of the album) reproduces the graphic score. Damijan’s intention was to address the emotional issues that arise during processes of creativity. These include self-doubt, the fear of failure, and pressure. Thus, it should not be a surprise to find the word “failure” sprinkled across half of the score image, while the other half may reflect on a brief phrase from John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “darkness visible.” (That was also the title of the memoir of William Styron, one of the most imaginative American authors of the last century writing about the affliction of depression and how he eventually overcame it.)

One of the interesting aspects of graphic scores is that they afford the liberty of interpretation to both the performer(s) and the listener(s). Thus, what Fields of Repression may lack in duration can be compensated by the listener’s afterthoughts, reflecting on what has just been experienced. Put another way, “invention” is a process shared by the creator of the graphic score, the interpreter(s) of that score, and those afterthoughts of the listener. In that context five minutes of listening can go a significantly long way!

The Bleeding Edge: 10/24/2022

Things are picking up again on the Bleeding Edge. They involve two events taking place at a venue that has not been cited on this site since this past May. Only one event has already been taken into account, which is Thomas Schultz’ solo piano recital at the Center for New Music on Sunday late afternoon (October 30). Ironically, all three of the new events will take place this coming Saturday (October 29); so all that is necessary is to provide the starting time and the venue as follows:

3 p.m., The Wattis Institute: Andy Meyerson will conduct a performance of “Drum Grid” by Raven Chacon. This will be a “moveable feast,” beginning at the Wattis, after which it will expand around the Potrero Hill neighborhood. Under these circumstances, there will be no charge, since everyone will be free to come and go while the performance is “Oscar Mike.” (Follow the hyperlink to decode the United States Marine Corps jargon.) The Institute is located in the Mission at 360 Kansas Street, between 16th Street and 17th Street.

4:30 p.m., The Wattis Institute: This performance will take place entirely within the Institute. More specifically, it will take place in the empty galleries during the period after one exhibit has been de-installed and the next one will be installed. The performers will be Karen Stackpole and Gino Robair, who, in their words, will be playing “all things percussive or anti-percussive.” Doors will open for the audience at 4 p.m.; and, again, there will be no charge for admission. However, masks will be required.

7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: This will be a “live” recording session for Noertker’s Moxie, the combo led by bassist Bill Noertker performing his own compositions. Annelise Zamula will play both saxophones of different sizes and flute. Noertker’s rhythm section will also include Brett Carson on piano and Jason Levis on drums. The music to be performed has been described as “a series of odd little ditties inspired by Samuel Beckett’s odd little novel Watt.”

As in the past, this is a performance that will take place in the shop but will also be live-streamed to the Bird & Beckett sites on both YouTube and Facebook. For those planning to attend “physically,” the shop is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station that serves both BART and Muni. Doors will open at 7:20 p.m. Admission is usually $20 in cash for the cover charge. There is also a donations Web page for those watching the live-stream. Given that only a limited number of people will be admitted, reservations are necessary and can be made by calling 415-586-3733. The phone will be answered during regular store hours, which are between noon and 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Sunday. Proof of vaccination will be required for entry, and masks will be necessary in the shop. Those holding reservations must claim them by 7:30 p.m. After that anyone waiting for a seat will be allowed to take what is available.

SFS Brings Low Comedy to Chamber Music

Yesterday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) presented the first Sunday afternoon program in the 2022–23 Chamber Music Series. This was a “three centuries” program with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the eighteenth-century side and Lera Auerbach representing the current century. Claude Debussy occupied the middle of this timeline with the Opus 10 string quartet in G minor, which he completed in 1893.

The most memorable offering was the only work to be performed after the intermission. This was Mozart’s K. 522 divertimento for two horns and string quartet entitled “A Musical Joke.” Thanks to Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, we now all know that Mozart could be quite prankish, if not downright bratty. One way of describing K. 522 is as a portrait of amateur musicians whose enthusiasm vastly outweighs competence (although the current Grove suggests that Mozart had it in for incompetent composers, rather than players).

Over the course of four movements, K. 522 practically revels in creating a rogue’s gallery of ineptitudes. However, yesterday’s performers decided to dial the comedy up to eleven. Jessie Fellows led as first violin, joined by second violinist Chen Zhao, violist Katie Kadarauch, Mark Wright on bass, and horns played by Jessica Valeri and Daniel Hawkins. Collectively they decided that the humor of the performance could be enhanced with a bit of staging, beginning with all of them decked in powered wigs and eighteenth-century finery.

While, for the most part, the music itself accounts for all the jokes Mozart wished to unfold, yesterday’s performance served up a generous share of physical comedy to emphasize many of the musical blunders. Since Fellows and Kadarauch were closest to the audience, they summoned up their own lexicon of comic gestures and postures to reinforce their playing. Most of this involved aggressive execution of passages best left in the background.

Then there were the horns. As is often the case, the Adagio cantabile movement was scored only for the strings. As often seems to be  the case, there is a tendency for Adagio movements to go on forever. So Valeri and Hawkins left their seats and retired to a small table on the left side of the stage which sported a chessboard and two demitasse cups. The performance thus became a two-ring circus with the quartet slogging its way through the Adagio while Valeri and Hawkins enjoyed their coffee (followed by wine) and played with their chess pieces. (It would be unfair to the chess community to say that they were actually playing chess.)

This was far from my first encounter with K. 522. However, this was the first time I suspected that Mozart had injected some of his earlier themes into the score. More specifically, the final Presto movement seems to include a citation of the “Alleluja” theme from the K. 165 Exsultate, jubilate motet. He even makes this reference a second time for those that did not catch it on the first round.

The first half of the program was more serious but just as engaging. The Debussy quartet was performed by violinists Dan Carlson and Florin Parvulescu, violist Katarzyna Bryla-Weiss, and cellist Amos Yang. There were some intonation problems that required stopping and beginning from the start a second time. However, once that matter was settled, the account could not have been more engaging. I was particularly struck by the pizzicato work in the second movement, whose sonorities in performance were far richer than any I had encountered on a recording.

The Auerbach offering was her second piano trio, performed by violinist David Chernyavsky, cellist Sébastien Gingras, and pianist Asya Gulua. This particular trio was given a somewhat lengthy title: “Triptych—This Mirror Has Three Faces.” It is structured in five movements, which depict the panels of a triptych altarpiece and the “changes in view” as the panels are unfolded. The composition concludes with a “Folding Postlude,” whose thematic material, unless I am mistaken, reflects back on her twelfth prelude for cello and piano.

It has been far too long since I have encountered Auerbach’s music. I had to search my own archives to discover that I had previously written about a recording of her two piano trios in April of 2018! Listening to this trio again reminded me of her aggressive rhetoric with occasional twists of irony. She used to bring engaging recital content to San Francisco Performances programs; and, now that we have gotten past the worst of the pandemic, I would be only too happy to see her return to San Francisco.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Twentieth Century Trumpet Music with Merkelo

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a week ago, Naxos released a rather distinctive album of trumpet concertos featuring Canadian-Ukrainian soloist Paul Merkelo. This involves a relatively unique pairing of compositions by Mieczysław Weinberg and his close colleague Dmitri Shostakovich. The composer of the opening selection is the Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian. Merkelo performs with the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf. The recording itself seems to be the latest one that has fumbled, but Presto Music has created a Web page for both the compact disc and four download formats, the latter including a PDF file of the accompanying booklet.

The Weinberg concerto is his Opus 94 in B-flat major, completed in 1967. It is a reminder of just how prolific Weinberg was and the disappointing paucity of performances of his music since his death in 1996. Weinberg is engagingly prankish in thumbing his nose at concerto conventions. This is immediately evident from the titles of his three movements: “Etudes,” “Episodes,” and “Fanfares.” As might be expected, the soloist is confronted with challenging demands in the first movement, while the third movement is a wild ride through just about every fanfare in the conventional repertoire. (Unless I am mistaken, this was the first time that any of Weinberg’s compositions got me to laugh out loud.)

The Shostakovich offering, on the other hand, was more than a little unexpected. Basically, Merkelo and trumpet virtuoso Timofei Dokschitzer joined forces to create a richer trumpet part for Shostakovich’s Opus 35, his first piano concerto scored for piano, trumpet, and strings. They undertook this project with the approval of the Shostakovich estate, which also granted Merkelo the rights to make the first recording of his efforts with Dokschitzer. Those efforts culminate in a new cadenza for the trumpet in the final movement, composed by Dokschitzer.

The pianist on this recording is Jae-Hyuck Cho. Both Cho and Graf assisted Merkelo and Dokschitzer in their undertaking. My guess is that both of them wanted listeners to remember that Shostakovich conceived this music as a piano concerto with accompaniment. Nevertheless, one comes away with the sense that Cho’s efforts were secondary. Shostakovich was the pianist when this concerto was first performed, and I have to wonder how he would have reacted to this revised version had he lived long enough to listen to it.

Dokschitzer also provided the cadenza for the Arutiunian. This is a single-movement composition, which, for the most part, follows conventional structure. Thus, the cadenza makes its appearance before the coda. Arutiunian’s fellow Armenian composer, Aram Khachaturian, saw him as a promising Soviet composer, making this point at a Moscow Music Congress. However, while listening to this concerto, I found myself wondering whether Khachaturian’s approval had to do with Arutiunian following in his footsteps!

Taken as a whole, I would say that the Weinberg concerto rises about its predecessor and successor in making this album an engaging listening experience.

New Jazz Venue to Open in North Beach

In a little less than three weeks’ time a new venue for jazz will open in North Beach. Keys Jazz Bistro will be co-owned by Dr. Simon Rowe, jazz educator and pianist, and Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress and founder and CEO of Automattic. The plan is to present music and dinner four nights a week with two sets and two seatings and with three sets on Fridays and Saturdays. The venue, located at 498 Broadway at the corner of Kearny Street, will be able to seat 125 people. It will provide a Yamaha Concert Grand piano and a Hammond B3 organ, along with a state-of-the-art sound system. Admission will be $25. Tickets may be purchased online through the Upcoming Events Web page on the Keys Jazz Bistro Web site.

The Grand Opening will present three-nights with an all-star cast of jazz luminaries. Specifics are as follows:

  1. Thursday, November 10, 7 p.m.: Festivities will launch with a single-set evening with two leading jazz vocalists, Mary Stallings and Clairdee. They will be accompanied by the David Udolf Trio. Pianist Udolf will perform with Chris Amberger on bass and Akira Tana on drums.
  2. Friday, November 11, 7 p.m., 9 p.m., and 11 p.m.: The title of this program will be The Horns of San Francisco, with the noun “horns” applying to both saxophones and trumpets. The program will be hosted by the Patrick Wolff Quartet with saxophonist Wolff leading a rhythm section of Adam Shulman on piano, Eric Markowitz on bass, and James Gallagher on drums. The sets will feature guest appearances by four other saxophonists (Noel Jewkes, James Mahone, Tony Peebles, and Kristen Strom) and two trumpeters (Erik Jakobsen and Mike Olmos).
  3. Saturday, November 12, 7 p.m., 9 p.m., 11 p.m.: Shulman will shift from piano to organ for this final Grand Opening concert, and Rowe will join him in making that same shift. Rhythm will be provided by guitarists Kai Lyons and Dave Macnab and drummer Brian Fisher. There will be guest appearance by saxophonists Jesse Levitt and Andrew Speight.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

SFP: Four Debut Recitals Before End of Year

Some readers may have noticed that I have been taking several different approaches to grouping concerts being presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). Regardless of any of the past categories I have utilized, I felt it would be useful to inform readers that, over the coming two months, SFP will be presenting four debut recitals. Since these cut across the different subscription categories, there will not be any “group approach” to ticketing; but I am not suggesting that all four of these events will appeal to the preferences of all readers! This is just an alternative perspective that may draw some to experience the event. All performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. Specifics are as follows:

Tuesday, November 8, Herbst Theatre: British pianist Danny Driver will make his Bay Area debut as the second artist to perform in the Shenson Piano Series. He has prepared a program of mostly French works. This will include four moderately short compositions by Gabriel Fauré, two by Lili Boulanger, the third of the five pieces that Maurice Ravel collected under the title Miroirs, “Une barque sure l’océan” (a boat on the ocean), and an extended composition by César Franck, his Opus 18 collection of prelude, chorale, and fugue movements. The program will then conclude with the 1852 edition of Robert Schumann’s Opus 13 set of variations, published under the revised title Études en forme de variations (études in the form of variations).

The entrance to Herbst Theatre 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. Ticket prices are $65 (premium Orchestra and front and center Dress Circle), $55 (remainder of Orchestra, all Side Boxes, and center rear Dress Circle), and $45 (remaining Dress Circle and Balcony); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page. Single tickets can also be purchased at the door as available with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors.

Saturday, November 19, Herbst Theatre: The next Shenson Piano Series offering will be performed by two pianists, Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin. Their program has a title: PHILIP GLASS MIXTAPE: In Celebration of the Composer’s 85th. This will include a selection of works for solo piano as well as Glass’ “Four Movements for Two Pianos.” In addition, there will be a world premiere performance of selections from Glass’ score for Les Enfants Terrible in a two-piano version arranged jointly by Tendler and Lin. Ticketing will be the same as for Driver’s recital but with a different secure Web page for online purchases.

Thursday, December 1, Herbst Theatre: The Great Artists and Ensembles Series will begin with the debut of the Junction Trio, whose members have previously given solo recitals. Those performers are violinist Stefan Jackiw, pianist Conrad Tao, and cellist Jay Campbell. The second half of the program will be devoted to Ravel’s piano trio in A minor, while the first half will present Charles Ives’ piano trio. The program will begin with Tao’s “Eventide.” Ticket prices are $70 (premium Orchestra and front and center Dress Circle), $60 (remainder of Orchestra, all Side Boxes, and center rear Dress Circle), and $50 (remaining Dress Circle and Balcony); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page.

Saturday, December 3, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church: The Guitar Series, presented in partnership with the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts, will begin with a program shared by two guitarists, each specializing in a different Spanish style. Andrea González Caballero will begin the program with selections from the Spanish guitar repertoire. These will include three short pieces by Regino Sainz de la Maza, two preludes by Francisco Tárrega, and eight of the movements from Federico Moreno Torroba’s Castillos de España collection, as well as a set of arrangements for guitar prepared by Carles Trepat. In the second half of the program Grisha Goryachev will lead the audience on a journey through the flamenco repertoire. St. Mark’s is located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the intersection with Franklin Street. Ticket prices are $65 (downstairs) and $55 (upstairs); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page.

Gražinytė-Tyla Continues Weinberg Project

courtesy of Crossover Media

This coming Friday Deutsche Grammophon (DG) will continue Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s undertaking to record the symphonies of Mieczysław Weinberg. Her debut recording with DG coupled his Opus 30 (second) symphony (completed in 1946) with his Opus 152 (the 21st, given the title “Kaddish,” completed in 1991). The new release will begin with Opus 81, the seventh symphony scored for string orchestra and harpsichord, completed in 1964, and conclude with Opus 45, the third symphony scored for large orchestra in its 1959 revised version. The harpsichordist for Opus 81 in Kirill Gerstein. Between these two symphonies is a recording of the Opus 75 (first) concerto for flute and orchestra, completed in 1961, with Marie-Christine Zupancic as soloist. As many will expect, has created a Web page for pre-orders.

Two orchestras were involved in the recording of this new album. Opus 81, which requires chamber resources, was recorded with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. The remainder of the album was recorded with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), the ensemble that visited Davies Symphony Hall this past Sunday with Gražinytė-Tyla on the podium. However, she has resigned as CBSO Music Director and will serve as Principal Guest Conductor for the coming season. She will make her debut with the Munich Philharmonic in December.

Some readers may recall that I found the experience of Gražinytė-Tyla’s visit to Davies to be an uneven one. While I was impressed by the sensitivity of her interpretations of music by Benjamin Britten (the instrumental “sea interludes” from his Opus 33 Peter Grimes opera) and Edward Elgar (his Opus 85 cello concerto with Sheku Kanneh-Mason as soloists), I felt that she was unduly detached from the symphony Thomas Adès had composed based on music from his The Exterminating Angel opera and, more significantly, from her account of Claude Debussy’s “La Mer.”

No such feelings of detachment were conveyed in the three Weinberg selections on her new album. I was particularly interested in Opus 81, particularly since I know Gerstein best as a “powerhouse pianist.” His many talents include an ability to provide accounts of the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff that are not just credible but downright stimulating. Nevertheless, he seems to have understood fully both the why and the how behind Weinberg’s decision to employ the harpsichord as a concertante instrument; and his chemistry with both the Kammerphilharmonie and Gražinytė-Tyla could not have been better. Weinberg was clearly exploring new sonorities with this symphony, and Gražinytė-Tyla’s account clearly presents those explorations to the attentive listener.

As might be guessed, the larger resources for both the Opus 45 symphony and the Opus 75 concerto entail a major rhetorical shift. The content of her debut album clearly prepared her to make such shifts and present them in an engaging manner. I have to confess that, while I have put a lot of my writing time into the Weinberg canon, prior to this new DG album, all of my experiences have been either on the level of chamber resources or operatic (having seen the video of David Pountney’s staging of The Passenger). Now I know that I have been missing out on Weinberg’s approaches to orchestral ensembles, some of which emerge as reflections of the work of his colleague Dmitri Shostakovich while others are distinctively unique.