Wednesday, June 7, 2023

A “Conceptual” Approach to Beethoven

The cover of María Dueñas’ debut album (courtesy of Crossover Media)

This Friday Deutsche Grammophon will release the debut album of Spanish violinist María Dueñas. The title of her album is Beethoven and Beyond, where the “beyond” accounts for five cadenzas published over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As expected, has a Web page, which is currently processing pre-orders.

As one might guess from the album title, those cadenzas were all invented for performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 61 violin concerto in D major. More specifically, they were all invented as cadenzas for the concerto’s first movement, the longest of the three movements. The cadenzas that were documented by four of the composers, Eugène Ysaÿe, Camille Saint-Saëns, Henryk Wieniawski, and Fritz Kreisler, all lasted between four and four and a half minutes. Only the earliest of the cadenzas, by Louis Spohr, clocked in at slightly less than 90 seconds. These five tracks basically serve as an “appendix” to the entire album.

The “heart” of the album begins with Opus 61, which is then followed by short original compositions by each of the “cadenza composers.” Those works are as follows in the same order in which their cadenzas appear:

  1. Spohr: the second (Adagio) movement from his first “Symphonie concertante” in G major, scored for violin, harp, and orchestra
  2. Ysaÿe: his Opus 20 “Berceuse”
  3. Saint-Saëns: his Opus 83 “Havanaise”
  4. Wieniawski: his Opus 17 “Légende”
  5. Kreisler: his “Liebesleid” (love’s sorrow), the second of his three Alt-Wiener Tanzweisen

The most familiar of these (usually as popular encore selections) are the works by Saint-Saëns, Wieniawski, and Kreisler.

Personally, I am afraid that I am not particularly drawn to what amounts to a “package deal.” Most important is that, where concertos are concerned, I always prefer going to a concert performance to listening to a recording. It is only through an in-the-moment account that I can appreciate any inventiveness that the soloist brings to performance, even before (s)he has to face a cadenza. If the inventiveness of any one of the cadenzas can be traced back to some past composer, I have no interest in being reminded of that composer.

As a result, what matters the most to me is that, on the opening tracks of this album, Dueñas plays cadenzas of her own invention. The only question that matters is one that I cannot answer: Were I to be in the audience for Dueñas’ performance of Opus 61, would the cadenzas sound the same in concert as they do on her album?

Ironically, she already made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony on October 3, 2019, performing with guest conductor Marek Janowski. Unfortunately, her concerto selection was Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 64 violin concerto in E minor, which has many virtues but is hardly on a par with Beethoven’s Opus 61! Nevertheless, at that time she was a sixteen-year-old, who definitely made me sit up and take notice!

Beethoven and Beyond, on the other hand, never came close to urging me to sit up and take notice. Her own cadenzas did little to tip the balance in her favor. All I can do is hope that I shall have another opportunity to listen to her in performance (hopefully of the Beethoven concerto this time). Then I can decide for myself whether or not she has any of those in-the-moment qualities that seize my attention and refuse to let go of it!

Outsound Presents: June, 2023

Because of the Fund Drive Benefit Dinner being held for Outsound Presents in Berkeley this coming Saturday evening, there will be only two Outsound Presents performances in San Francisco as follows:

Sunday, June 11, 7:30 p.m., Musicians Union Hall: The next program in the SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series of concerts will follow the usual two-set format. The evening will begin with a solo performance by pianist David Leikam. He will present the debut of “Sunset,” a tribute to the Bay Area composer and performer Eddie Gale, who died in 2020. Gale was born with cerebral palsy, which affected both his body and his speech. He was a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, and his physical condition gave him a distinct view into his creative processes. The second set will consist of selections from Itkuja Suite, the album released by Edgetone Records this past April. The performance will be by a reduced chamber ensemble consisting of composers Rent Romus (saxophones, melodica, and flutes) and Heikki Koskinen (e-trumpet and tenor recorder) joined by Kat Eliot (vocals and flute), Eli Knowles (drums), Joshua Marshall (saxophones and flute), and Bill Noertker (bass). This will serve as preparation for a tour to Finland, which will take place in August. The set will also include the debut of “Lament for Teemu,” dedicated to the memory of composer and bassist Teppo Hauta-aho, who died last year. The Musicians Union Hall is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. General admission will be $20 with a $15 rate for students and those age 62 or older. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance through an Eventbrite Web page.

Collette McCaslin (left) performing with Sheila Bosco in March of 2015 (photograph by Travin McKain, courtesy of Outsound Presents)

Wednesday, June 21, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: This will be a program of three solo sets. Stefan Tiefengraber is based in Linz, Austria, and is known for his kinetic sound installations. He describes his solo performances as “audio-video noise,” experimenting with the modification of devices originally manufactured for different purposes. According to my records, my last encounter with Collette McCaslin was a live-electronic duo performance with Sheila Bosco for the Luggage Store Creative Music Series in 2015. More recently she has been working with analog gear and feedback-based electronics. The third set will be taken by Kyle Bruckmann, who plays all sizes of oboes and cor anglais, while also working with synthesizers. The Luggage Store Gallery is located at 1007 Market Street, just off the corner of Sixth Street and across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $20. However, no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Corpus Christi at Church of the Advent

The celebration of Advent Sunday at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King

This coming Thursday evening, the Church of the Advent of Christ the King will celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi with a High Mass, a Solemn Procession to the Garden, and the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Music will be provided by Schola Adventus, a professional chamber choir, led by the church’s Director of Music Paul Ellison. Celebration of the High Mass will include the choir singing William Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices, which was probably composed and published in the 1590s.

The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center. This is an inclusive parish of the Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. The service will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 8. Ellison usually performs an organ prelude beginning about twenty minutes in advance of the service. The ceremony will conclude at 8 p.m. Those wishing further information may call 415-431-0454. For those planning to drive, free parking will be available in the gravel lot behind the church on Hickory Street.

Charles Ives’ “Sets” for Chamber Orchestra

Cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of A440 Arts)

This Friday Naxos will release the latest album of conductor James Sinclair’s ventures into the music of Charles Ives. The album consists primarily of ten multi-movement compositions that Ives simply called “Sets,” all scored for chamber orchestra. The album then concludes with the three-movement “Set for Theatre Orchestra.” As usual, has created a Web page for processing pre-orders.

Those familiar with the “life and works” of Ives probably know that he was doggedly prolific as a composer, even though he was highly successful in his “day job” as an insurance salesman. Nevertheless, very few of his works were performed during his lifetime. Late in his life he would have missed the world premiere performance of his second symphony by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein had his wife not tuned in to it on the radio. Both husband and wife were, to say the least, bemused by the tumultuous reception of that performance.

The ten “Sets” account for 36 short movements, which were “assembled” into collections between 1915 and (probably) 1934. Those familiar with the Ives canon are likely to recognize many of those movements from other sources, particularly the 114 Songs volume that Ives himself published in 1922. It is also worth noting that the final movement of the ninth set amounts to a “first draft” of “The Unanswered Question,” which has become one of Ives’ best-known compositions. The primary difference is that what the later score required of a collection of four flutes sounded like a richer blend of flutes and clarinets.

The ensemble that Sinclair leads on this album is called Orchestra New England. In trying to establish background, I discovered (through that Amazon Web page) that Sinclair had previously performed the three orchestral sets for an earlier album (as well as several other albums of orchestral compositions). Clearly, I need to learn more about his repertoire!

Monday, June 5, 2023

Violin Concertos by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Portrait of Saint-George by Mather Brown on the cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of A440 Arts)

Some readers may recall that this season’s PIVOT Festival, presented by San Francisco Performances this past February, provided the Catalyst Quartet (violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Abi Fayette (alternating in leading from first chair), violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez) with an opportunity to present the music of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. This Friday Naxos will release its third CD of the violin concertos that Saint-George composed between 1773 and 1777. These amount to fourteen concertos published under seven opus numbers, each consisting of two concertos. The concertos on the new release are taken from Opus 1, published in 1773, and Opus 7, published in 1777. As usual, has created a Web page for processing pre-orders.  “Watch this space” for further information about the two preceding volumes!

While Saint-George is a contemporary of the First Viennese School composers, there are few signs that he had any substantive connections with any of them. The only observation of significance on his Wikipedia page is that he gave the first performances of the six symphonies that Joseph Haydn composed for the Concert Olympique. Since the number of violin concertos that Haydn composed is more than a little modest, one would not expect that he would have had an influence on any of Saint-Georges’ concerto compositions.

All four of the concertos on this new album are given decidedly engaging accounts by violinist Fumika Mohri, performing with the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice under the baton on Michael Halász. Given that the number of recordings of any of the Saint-Georges violin concertos is relatively modest, the best one can do is to approach the four concertos on this album in the context of other violin concertos composed in Europe during the eighteenth century. My feeling is that all four of the concertos on this album present an engaging graciousness. Spirits are, for the most part, high but not necessarily as playful as the rhetorical turns one encounters in the music of Haydn (or any of the other Viennese School members).

I suspect that I shall be happy to revisit these concertos in the future; but, for now, I am more concerned with catching up with the six concertos found in the first two volumes to have been released!

The Bleeding Edge: 6/5/2023

This will be another busy week, whose seven events taking place within the city of San Francisco are almost equally divided between the already-reported and the “brand new.” The former category involves two events from each of two different organizations as follows:

  1. The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble will conclude its subscription season tonight, followed by a performance on Thursday, June 8, of Jörg Widmann’s 24 duos for violin and cello performed by the group’s founders, violinist Anna Presler and cellist Leighton Fong for the San Francisco International Arts Festival.
  2. As announced in last week’s list of Center for New Music offerings this month, Brent Miller will perform as HARJOalone on Saturday, June 10, followed, the next day, by a solo recital by pianist Daniel Colalillo.

That leaves three remaining events, two of which are “usual suspects” and one that used to be reported on this site prior the COVID pandemic:

Thursday, June 8, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: This will be the usual monthly offering of a three-hour show consisting of four sets, this time all performed by duos. About two weeks ago vocalist Danishta Rivero gave a solo performance at Adobe Books augmented by electronic technology. This week she will play with her Voicehandler partner Jacob Felix Heule, who performs sonic anti-aliasing in real time through micro-percussion and electronics that must be heard closely to be believed. Rivero’s text sources include Jorge Luis Borges, Knut Hamsun, Eduardo Galeano, and William Burroughs. Voicehandler will be followed by the extended sonorities of the FOREIGN/DOMESTIC duo of Zachary James Watkins and John Diaz. The Analogous duo of Silvia Matheus and Thomas Miley works with both analog and digital technologies in the genres of electroacoustic, electronic, ambient, and noise. Finally, the Dovetail duo of Raub Roy and Diane Eveland will be making its debut without dropping any hints about what listeners should expect.

The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight (sometimes known as Haight-Fillmore) at 552 Haight Street, between Fillmore Street and Steiner Street. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. to enable the first set to begin at 8 p.m. sharp. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $5 and $15. As in the past, no one will be turned away for lack of funds. However, only those that have been “vaxed and rapid-tested” will be admitted for the sake of keeping all in attendance alive and well.

Friday, June 9, 7 p.m., Medicine for Nightmares Bookstore & Gallery: Once again, curator David Boyce will give a multi-reed performance of his own music. He will be joined at the piano by Evelyn Davis. The venue is located in the Mission at 3036 24th Street, between Treat Avenue and Harrison Street. As always, there is no charge for admission, presumably to encourage visitors to consider buying a book.

Sunday, June 11, 4 p.m., Chez Hanny: To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time since January of 2020 that I have seen an announcement of one of Frank Hanny’s house concerts of jazz. According to his Web site, March 1, 2020 was the last date of an event before suspending events due to COVID. However, things began again on July 11, 2021 and were taking place on at least a monthly basis with the beginning of the next season in September of that year. This week’s performance will be by the Aaron Bennett Trio, led by Bennett on saxophone performing with Dan Seamans on bass and Smith Dobson on drums. It is worth reviewing the “ground rules” for attending these events, which have been somewhat modified in the wake of the pandemic:

Each event has a recommended donation, currently $25. All of the money goes to the musicians, and donations can only be made in cash. The events usually consist of two sets separated by a potluck break. As a result, all who plan to attend should bring food and/or drink to share. Seating is first come, first served; and, as a result, reservations are strongly recommended. Reservations are placed through electronic mail to with a Subject line mentioning “jazz,” “Chez Hanny,” or “concert” to avoid being mistaken for spam. Mail messages received after noon on the day of a performance are unlikely to be seen until after the show is over, and cancellations should be given at least 24 hours advance notice. Those attending should be vaccinated but are accepted on the honor system, and masks are optional. Finally, volunteer efforts for cleaning up after the show and moving furniture to accommodate both players and listeners are always appreciated.

The “house” for this house concert is located at 1300 Silver Avenue. This is best reached by public transportation by taking the Muni 44 bus going east from Glen Park Station. For those thinking of driving, parking tends to be available on Silver Avenue, Silliman Street, one block south of Silver, and Holyoke Street, which connects Silver and Silliman.

SFO: Splendid Music for a Cryptic Narrative

If San Francisco Opera (SFO) opened its 2023 Summer Season with one of the most popular works in the repertoire of grand opera, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, yesterday afternoon presented the first of five performances of one of the most cryptic. Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten (the woman without a shadow) is seldom presented for a variety of reasons, including massive instrumentation and extensive vocal resources. Much of it was composed in the midst of World War I, meaning that it was not performed for the first time, at the Vienna State Opera, until October 10, 1919.

Here in the United States, it was not presented until September 18, 1959, when it was performed here by SFO. Yesterday saw the seventh SFO production, the most recent of which dates back to 1989. My guess is that the frequency of stagings is just as modest elsewhere in the United States with the “primary contender” being the Metropolitan Opera (which is where I saw Die Frau ohne Schatten for the first time). That was back before opera productions had supertitles, and correlating what I saw with the synopsis in the program book was no easy matter.

My guess is that, even with titles, the narrative is still a perplexing morass of symbolism with heavily obscured denotations and connotations. That symbolism begins with the title. A “woman without a shadow” is a woman that cannot bear children. Such a woman is identified in the cast listing only as “The Empress,” sung in the current production by soprano Camilla Nylund. Her father is Keikobad (whom we never see); and he declares, through his Spirit Messenger (bass Stefan Egerstrom), that, if she cannot “cast a shadow” (i.e. achieve pregnancy) within three days, her husband, The Emperor (tenor David Butt Philip) will turn to stone.

This royal couple is complemented by a peasant family led by Barak (bass-baritone Johan Reuter), who makes his living as a dyer. He has three brothers, one having only one eye (bass-baritone Philip Skinner), one having only one arm (bass-baritone Wayne Tigges), and one a hunchback (tenor Zhengyi Bai). He also has a wife (soprano Nina Stemme) who has not yet given him any children. Over the course of three acts, both of these couples struggle with the same frustration; and one might accuse the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal of overburdening them with those struggles. By way of compensation, however, Richard Strauss summoned up some of his richest instrumentation techniques; and, as interpreted by conductor Donald Runnicles, there were several episodes in which passages for four trumpets and four trombones came from beyond the orchestra pit.

The not-quite-parallel encounter of The Empress (Camilla Nylund), Barak’s wife (Nina Stemme), Barak (Johan Reuter), and The Emperor (David Butt Philip) in the final scene of Die Frau ohne Schatten (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

I think it would be fair to say that Hofmannsthal’s libretto does not follow a particularly well-defined narrative path. Ultimately, however, we, as observers, are drawn more to the paths that the two leading couples find themselves following. These are not quite parallel lives, but there are what might be called parallel challenges. Bringing the four of them together in the final scene may strike some as contrived. However, Hofmannsthal’s libretto suggests that they all face an uncertain future with struggles to be overcome. At the very end there is a chorus of unborn children, but one comes away with the feeling that both of the marriages will soon see the results of consummation.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

A New Naxos Album of Antheil Violin Sonatas

Tianwa Yang and Nicholas Rimmer on the cover of their new Antheil album (courtesy of A440 Arts)

This coming Friday Naxos will release a new album of the four sonatas for violin and piano composed by George Antheil. A cursory Amazon search revealed there have been a generous number of recordings of this repertoire. This latest offering was recorded in Berlin in 2021 by violinist Tianwa Yang and pianist Nicholas Rimmer (who doubles on drums for the second sonata). As is usually the case, has created a Web page for those wishing to preorder this new offering.

Like just about everyone else, Frank K. DeWald cited Antheil’s autobiography Bad Boy of Music in the booklet notes. I find it a bit ironic that it is not particularly easy to come across a copy of this book through an Amazon search. Personally, I would recommend Antheil’s Wikipedia page, which provides more than adequate breadth without going to far where depth is concerned. Furthermore, I get a kick out of the section on that Wikipedia page under the header “Frequency-hopping spread-spectrum invention.” This involves U.S. Patent 2,292,387, which was granted to Antheil and his inventor-colleague Hedy Kiesler Markey, better known as the actress Hedy Lamarr. (Ironically, this patent had more impact on the Internet than it did on radio-controlled torpedos during World War II. Indeed, the patent expired in 1962, long before the first plans for the Internet were documented.)

Where Antheil’s violin sonatas are concerned, I doubt that today’s listeners would find any of them outrageous, no different from how listeners came to enjoy Igor Stravinsky’s ballet score for “The Rite of Spring” (with a little help from Fantasia). What puzzled me a bit was that DeWald made only a passing reference to Béla Bartók (for his “Allegro barbaro”) but failed to recognize that the third sonata included one of the folk tunes that Bartók collected during his ethnomusicological research with Zoltán Kodály.

That said, the notes being played by the two performers are more important than any of the notes taken in the course of scholarly research. My personal feeling is that Antheil approached each of these four sonatas with an unabashed sense of play. Both Yang and Rimmer performed as if they were determined to bring that sense of the play to every attentive listener, whether it involved blatant quotation or just raucous rhetoric. DeWald did call out the “sort of musical, Ivesian collage,” which is particularly evident in the second sonata. However, I came away wondering if he had taken a microscope to each of the four scores, while Yang and Rimmer were more interested in engaging listener attention.

SFS Summer: Three Classical Programs at Davies

As usual, the conclusion of the 2022–23 subscription season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will be quickly followed by Summer with the Symphony programming. Once again, the classical repertoire is given only a few programs. Last year there were four of them in Davies Symphony Hall; and this year there will be only three, all beginning at 7:30 p.m. and each lead by a different conductor. Specifics (with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets) are as follows:

Thursday, July 6: The first program will see the return of Joshua Weilerstein to the SFS podium. His program will follow the familiar overture-concerto-symphony format. The concerto soloist will be violinist Alexei Kenney performing Jean Sibelius’ violin concerto. The overture will be Pavel Haas’ “Study for Strings,” which will mark its first SFS performance. The symphony will be Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 in E minor, best known as the “New World Symphony.”

Conductor Anna Rakitina (courtesy of SFS)

Thursday, July 13: This will be the SFS debut of Anna Rakitina, currently Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The concerto soloist will be pianist Denis Kozhukhin, who made his SFS debut back in March of 2014. He will play Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 18, his second piano concerto composed in the key of C minor. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Edward Elgar’s Opus 36, best known as the “Enigma Variations.”

Saturday, July 22: Edwin Outwater will return to the SFS podium with a program entitled The Golden Age of Cinema. He will present the first SFS performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s cello concerto in C major, which found its way into the soundtrack for Deception. Bernard Herrmann will be represented by music he composed for two films by Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho and Vertigo. (In both cases Herrmann composed his own suites.) Other films to be represented on the program will be The Magnificent Seven (Elmer Bernstein), On the Waterfront (Leonard Bernstein), Ben-Hur (Miklós Rózsa), and a “pairing” of Jaws and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (John Williams).

SFO: New Perspective Muddles Opera Narrative

Last night San Francisco Opera (SFO) opened its 2023 Summer Season with a new staging of an old favorite, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The production is being shared by the Tokyo Nikikai Opera Foundation, Semperoper Dresden, and The Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen. The production was conceived by Amon Miyamoto and was staged here in San Francisco by Miroku Shimada, both making their respective SFO debuts. The conductor was Music Director Eun Sun Kim, and the Chorus Director was John Keene.

The “title” role of Cio-Cio-San was sung by soprano Karah Son, making her SFO debut. Tenor Michael Fabiano returned to San Francisco to sing the role of Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. The other major roles were that of Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant, sung by mezzo Hyona Kim, and Sharpless, the American Consul, sung by baritone Lucas Meachem.

The adult Trouble (John Charles Quimpo) observes himself as a child (Viva Young Maguire) with his mother Cio-Cio-San (Karah Son) (courtesy of SFO)

The concept behind Miyamoto’s staging involved framing the familiar narrative of the opera within a future in which Pinkerton is now dying. The family gathered around his bed includes Trouble, the child conceived by Cio-Cio-San on her first night of “wedded bliss” with Pinkerton. That role of this adult Trouble was mimed by John Charles Quimpo, also making his SFO debut, while the mimed role of the child was performed by Viva Young Maguire. Quimpo is on the stage for pretty much the entire opera, suggesting that it is only when he is a mature adult that he discovers the truth of his ancestry.

As operas go, this production of Madama Butterfly was relatively brief, clocking in at less than three hours, even with Trouble’s added backstory. Nevertheless, too much of the production felt as if it would go on forever. Puccini’s score still proceeded at a brisk pace; but most of the mimed interjections took place in silence, often impeding the flow established by the music. By the time the narrative advances to the crisis moment of the third act (Cio-Cio-San’s suicide), an attentive viewer could probably be forgiven for succumbing to fatigue.

Presumably, Miyamoto wanted to present that suicide as a parallel to the death of Pinkerton in his old age. Had Miyamoto shown more efficiency with the preceding mimed episodes, the attentive viewer might have appreciated that parallelism. However, where “clock time” was concerned, fatigue was setting in long before the final operatic episode with Cio-Cio-San and Trouble. One could appreciate that Miyamoto’s concepts looked good in paper, but they could not align successfully with the “opera time” established by Puccini’s score.

Saturday, June 3, 2023

Edward Simon Returns to Latin Songs

Cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of Kate Smith Productions)

In 2016 jazz pianist Edward Simon released his Latin American Songbook album. This consisted of seven songs, each by a different Latin American composer, all of which he then arranged for his trio, whose other members were Joe Martin on bass and Adam Cruz on drums. At the end of last month, he released a new album that continued his survey of this genre, whose full title is Femeninas: Songs of Latin American Women. This included eight tracks accounting for seven composers from six different south-of-the-border countries. The album also includes Latino Soy, a three-movement suite that Simon composed on a commission by the New Jazz Works program of Chamber Music America.

The vocalist on the new album is Magos Herrera, performing with Simon’s trio with a new bass player, Reuben Rogers. Luis Quintero provides additional percussion for ten of the eleven tracks, and two of the tracks include guitarist Romero Lubambo. One of the tracks, “Gracias a la vida” (thanks to life) is given a stunning a cappella introduction by Herrera before Simon enters with his piano.

I must confess that this genre is, for the most part, new to me. My primary awareness of Simon’s work came from his series of Salon concerts for San Francisco Performances, four programs that had to be foreshortened to three due to the COVID pandemic. As a result, I have made it a point to listen to Femeninas several times, just to acclimate myself to the diversity of tracks and their similarities and differences. Similarly, it did not take me long to appreciate the expressiveness of Herrera’s smoky voice.

Hopefully, the coming season will provide new opportunities to experience further dimensions of Simon’s endeavors.

SFS Season to Conclude with Julia Bullock

SFS Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen (photograph by Minna Hatinen, courtesy of SFS)

The final program in the 2022–23 subscription season of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will feature vocalist Julia Bullock performing with Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Many readers probably know by now that Bullock was selected by Salonen as one of his Collaborative Partners. A little over a year ago, Bullock brought her History’s Persistent Voice project to Davies Symphony Hall, performing with a reduced ensemble (strings and percussion) of SFS musicians.

This time she has prepared a selection of five songs by two prolific twentieth-century American composers: Margaret Bonds and George Gershwin. The songs will be interleaved, ordered as Gershwin-Bonds-Gershwin-Bonds-Gershwin. Only the “middle Gershwin” selection has been previously given an SFS performance, “Summertime,” from the beginning of his Porgy and Bess opera. The other Gershwin songs will be “Somebody from Somewhere” and “Soon.” Both of the Bonds songs are settings of poems by Langston Hughes: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Winter Moon.” In addition, the opening selection, “Black Iris,” by Reena Esmail,” will also be receiving its first SFS performance. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to the score that Maurice Ravel composed for Michel Fokine’s ballet in three parts, “Daphnis et Chloé.” This score includes choral music, which will be performed by the SFS Chorus.

This program will be given three performances, all beginning at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 29, Friday, June 30, and Saturday, July 1. Ticket prices range from $35 to $165. They may be purchased online through the a hyperlink to a single SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The Box Office is also open only for tickets to the evening performances two hours before the concert begins.

Old First Concerts Hosts a Graduation

Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, Old First Concerts took a departure from its usual Friday night offerings. The program was called Graduation Concert and Ceremony, held for the Chorus School Level IV division of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC). The program was led by Level IV Director Monica Baruch with César Cancino at the piano. In what seems to be common practice for SFGC, there was also a generous amount of staging, aligning the vocalists in different configurations to reflect the music being performed.

Because the ceremony was “the main event,” the opening concert took less than an hour’s duration. That concert had a title: The Elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire Songs. Each of those four thematic offerings was relatively brief. Nevertheless, it was frustrating that text sheets were not prepared, particularly since the entire program was sung in an impressive diversity of languages from not only Eastern Europe but also Hawaii.

To be fair, however, this event was more about ceremony than about the music. Nevertheless, what was being celebrated was the combined musical achievement of the ensemble; and it would have been a bit more satisfying had the music received more attention than the ceremony. Also, the event turned out to be more challenging than usual where the livestream was concerned. Usually, the camera work is relatively straightforward; but it was hard to shake the impression that both audio and video technicians had to contend with more than they usually anticipated. My guess is that I was not the only music lover to come away from the streamed experience feeling more frustrated than in the past.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Opera Parallèle Announces 2023–24 Season

Readers that follow Opera Parallèle probably know that tonight will be the opening night of a new version of Paul Moravec’s opera The Shining, setting a libretto by Mark Campbell based on the novel by Stephen King. Given that this will mark the end of the current season, it seems appropriate to announce the plans for the 2023–24 season. Once again, this will be a season of premieres, one a double bill.

The title of that double bill will be Birds & Balls, reflecting the titles of the two one-act chamber operas to be performed on either side of the intermission. The title of the first of these is “Vinkensport, or The Finch Opera,” composed by David T. Little working with a libretto by Royce Vavrek. This will be a comedy about Flemish sportsmanship.

It will be paired with another sports-related one-act opera, entitled simply “Balls.” The libretto by Gail Collins is based on the tennis match held in 1973 between Bobby Riggs (age 55) and Billie Jean King (age 29), dubbed by the journalists (not just in sports) as the “Battle of the Sexes.” Laura Karpman composed the music for Collins’ libretto. The performances of this opera pairing will take place between Friday, April 5, and Sunday, April 7.

The season will begin with performances on October 27 and October 28 of the world premiere performance of The Emissary. This will be based on the novel by Japanese author Yoko Tawada, but the opera will draw upon the English-language account provided by Margaret Mitsutani. The narrative explores the psychological stress on the younger generation arising from the angst triggered by the alarming news of deteriorating environmental conditions. Kelley Rourke will adapt Mitsutani’s text to serve as a libretto for music composed by Kenji Oh.

The season will conclude with performances between June 21 and June 23 of the West Coast premiere of Fellow Travelers. Wikipedia has an entry for this term, describing a fellow traveler as “a person who is intellectually sympathetic to the ideology of a political organization, and who co-operates in the organization's politics, without being a formal member of that organization.” Here in the United States, the term was applied to those that sympathized with Communist ideals without becoming “card-carrying members” of the Communist Party. Such sympathizers were often accused of homosexuality, resulting in an anti-Communist movement known as the “Lavender Scare.”

The opera is based on a novel of the same title by Thomas Mallon. Greg Pierce developed the opera libretto by drawing upon Mallon’s book. The music was composed by Gregory Spears. The result was given its world premiere in 2016 by the Cincinnati Opera. It was then performed during the 2018 Prototype Festival in New York and subsequently by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Minnesota Opera, and the Boston Lyric Opera.

Each of these three productions will take place in a different venue. The Emissary will be performed at the ODC Theater at 3153 17th Street, on the northwest corner of Shotwell Street. The double bill will be performed in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street. Fellow Travelers will be performed in the Presidio at the Presidio Theatre, located at 99 Moraga Avenue. Ticketing has not yet been finalized but will probably become available at the Opera Parallèle Web site after Web pages have been created for the new season.

Libra Releases Satoko Fujii’s Latest Solo Album

Satoko Fujii at her piano keyboard

Today Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii released her latest solo album on her “house label,” Libra Records. As of this writing, the album is available through a Bandcamp Web page but only for streaming and digital download. The title of the album is Torrent, and it consists of six improvised tracks. All six tracks were recorded on October 10 of last year. The recorded channels were mixed down to two stereophonic channels by Mitsuru Itani on November 19. The masters for release were then prepared by Mike Marciano in New York this past February 2.

This is far from my first encounter with Fujii’s improvisation work. (That may well have been when she visited the Center for New Music. Unless I am mistaken, that would have taken place not long after its founding in 2012.) Each of the six tracks has been given a title:

  1. Torrent
  2. Voyage
  3. Light on the Sea Surface
  4. Cut the Painter
  5. Horizon
  6. Wave Crest

It would not surprise me to learn that these titles were assigned after the tracks had been recorded, the results of retrospective reflection that took place while she was listening to the recordings.

Personally, I am less interested in assigning names than in enjoying the generous abundance of different styles and idioms that arise when listening to the album as a whole. The listening experience is not so much one of a journey as it would be a matter of following Fujii around through what amounts to a “sonic gallery,” pausing to reflect on auditory experiences as one might reflect on framed paintings mounted in the different galleries of an art museum. Those experiences are not limited to keyboard work. Over the course of her past performances, Fujii has developed a repertoire of techniques for eliciting sounds by means other than having hammers striking the strings.

Indeed, it would be fair to say that, like many works of abstract art, Fujii’s improvisations amount to allowing the attentive listener to manage his/her/their own perceptions. In that context what matters the most is the rich diversity that extends over the album’s six tracks, each establishing its own duration through which mind can peregrinate. One need only take the trouble to listen, rather than dismissing the album as a source for “background music!”

SFS Matinée and After-Matinée

Yesterday afternoon saw the return of Manfred Honeck to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in Davies Symphony Hall. He made his SFS debut in May of 2017 with a stunning all-Russian program, the high point of which was SFS premiere performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s suite of eleven settings of the verses of Michelangelo. This was followed by visits in October of 2018 and November of 2019, after which COVID-19 put an end to his annual appearances.

Over the course of his visits, Honeck established himself through his highly-focused management of intensity. Yesterday afternoon he brought that management to a new level. The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Franz Schubert’s D. 944 symphony in C major, one of the most familiar offerings in the SFS repertoire. However, Honeck’s approach was far from familiar. He brought accelerated tempos to all four of the movements, treating the entire symphony almost as if it was an extended account of Schubert’s D. 328 “Erlkönig” song. SFS was clearly well-prepared for this new light shining on Schubert’s final symphony, intensely attentive to the conductor’s every gesture.

Breitkopf & Härtel only published the score in 1849, over twenty years after Schubert’s death. One can easily imagine the urgency he brought to completing this score in a spirit not unlike that of the boy in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Erlkönig” poem that is ultimately overtaken by the title character, who is an embodiment of death. Honeck’s interpretation of D. 944, on the other hand, ends not in death but in an almost defiant triumph, as if he had dared the attentive listener to follow the intensity of his rhetoric.

Honeck’s command of such intensity was complemented before the intermission by the “concerto” selection. Pianist Beatrice Rana made her SFS debut in a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 43 “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.” However, she is no stranger to San Francisco, having already made her debut in this city when she performed Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of 30 (“Goldberg”) variations on an aria theme in a Young Masters Series recital presented by San Francisco Performances in April of 2017.

Bach is, of course, a far cry from Rachmaninoff; and, as was the case after the intermission, Honeck approached the score with an almost fearful intensity. Rana clearly had no problem with that intensity and knew just  how to give in return for what she was getting from the conductor. Mind you, there is a broad scope of dispositions that covers the full set of variations on the Paganini theme. Therefore, what was important was how both conductor and soloist appreciated the disposition behind each variation, delivering its denotation with the utmost clarity for the attentive listener. [added 6/3, 5:40 a.m.: After all that intensity, Rana still had the energy to perform an encore. She selected the eleventh, in the key of B major, of the 24 preludes that Alexander Scriabin collected for his Opus 11, following the tradition of one prelude in each of the major and minor keys. Her Allegro assai tempo made it clear that her energy level was will up there with her Rachmaninoff interpretation. Thank you, Joshua Kosman, for aiding my failing memory!]

The only real disappointment on the program came from the “overture.” This was the West Coast premiere of “amazon,” completed in 2021 by Venezuelan composer Gloria Isabel Ramos Triano. Like Rachmaninoff’s Opus 43, this requires a large ensemble; but much of the bulk of the instrumentation resides in the percussion section. This led to no end of imaginative coloration throughout the course of the performance, but the music itself never seemed to sustain any efforts at attentive listening.

One would have thought that the overall listening experience would have concluded at the end of the Schubert symphony. However, ticket holders were informed that, if they showed their tickets at the entrance to Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio, they would be allowed to enter at half the price of the cover charge. It turned out that the opening act was a quintet that included SFS players Mark Inouye on trumpet and Edward Stephan on drums. (Principal Bass Scott Pingel had been scheduled to perform but could not due to injury. He was replaced by one of his students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Alan Jones.) The other performers were Jason Hainsworth on tenor saxophone and Adam Shulman on piano. The combo calls itself “Contra Banda,” described as the “Unofficial Official” jazz band of the San Francisco Symphony.

My wife and I had our dinner during the opening set, which consisted of four richly-improvised account of my kind of jazz. This meant (of course) opening with Thelonious Monk, represented by “Straight, No Chaser.” This was followed by a Joe Henderson tune, whose title slipped by my attention. The third offering was Gigi Gryce’s “Minority,” which may be most familiar as a track on the Bill Evans album Everybody Digs Bill Evans. The final selection was Lee Morgan’s “Ceora.”

All of these selections made for an engaging “flip side” of the afternoon’s SFS offering. Apparently, these gigs emerged when some of the SFS musicians decided to follow up classical music in the afternoon with jazz in the early evening. Mr. Tipple’s Recording Studio was a convenient short walk from Davies, making it just the right venue. Hopefully, with things getting “back to normal,” there will be more opportunities for the post-SFS gigs next season.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

2023 Merola Opera Performance Schedule

This year the annual Summer Festival of the Merola Opera Program will get under way at the same time that San Francisco Opera will be presenting the final performances of the three remaining operas scheduled to conclude its Centennial Season. This year there will be 28 artists in the training program, eighteen from the United States, along with two from both South Korea and the United Kingdom,  and one each from Canada, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, France,  and Taiwan. This will amount to six sopranos, four mezzos, one contralto, five tenors, four baritones, two bass-baritones, five pianists also serving as coaches, and one stage director. The complete schedule of performances is as follows:

Thursday, June 29, 7:30 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) Concert Hall: Metamorphosis: Recovery, Renewal, and Rebirth will be a vocal recital with piano accompaniment. The program will feature a rich array of songs that explore the many facets of transformation. It will be curated by Carrie-Ann Matheson, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Opera Center, and tenor Nicholas Phan. English supertitles will be provided. The selections themselves will account for an impressive diversity of composers, a few of whom are Alma Mahler, Florence Price, Samuel Barber, and Aaron Copland.

Thursday, July 13, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, July 15, 2 p.m., Herbst Theatre: The fully-staged opera of the Festival will be Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Unless I am mistaken, this opera was last presented by Merola in the summer of 2013. This is probably Britten’s best-known chamber opera; and it is as intense as Peter Grimes, the opera that preceded it in the Britten catalog. German director Jan Eßinger will provide the staging, making his United States debut. The conductor will be Judith Yan.

Thursday, August 3, 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, August 5, 2 p.m., SFCM Concert Hall: This will be the annual Schwabacher Summer Concert with its usual program format structured around staged scenes. As usual, the program will encompass works by leading opera composers, such as George Frideric Handel, Gaetano Donizetti, and Giuseppe Verdi. The performances will be sung with English supertitles. Staging will be directed by Omer Ben Seadia, a Merola “alumnus” from 2014; and Steven White will conduct.

Saturday, August 19, 7:30 p.m., War Memorial Opera House: As usual, the concluding program will feature all of the young artists in a dazzling array of many of the major works in the repertoire of grand opera. This will also provide Merola stage director Tania Arazi-Combs with the opportunity to exercise her skills. The conductor will be Kelly Kuo, who made his debut during last season’s performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 620 opera The Magic Flute.

As usual, there will be a post-performance reception. This will take place in the Green Room at the Veterans Building, which is adjacent to the Opera House. All tickets may be purchased online through a separate Web page. All other tickets may be purchased online through the hyperlinks attached to the above dates.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

International Pride Orchestra to Debut in SF

Next month will see the inaugural performance by the International Pride Orchestra (IPO). This ensemble was conceived to bring together LGBTQ+ musicians from around the world, not only to present concerts but also to celebrate community and raise funds for LGBTQ+ causes. True to its name, the ensemble has drawn upon applicants from over 30 states in the United States, as well as musicians from countries such as New Zealand and Peru.

The program prepared for the ensemble’s debut will offer a generous diversity of genres. On the traditional side the second half of the concert will be devoted entirely to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 36 (fourth) symphony in F minor. At the other end (so to speak), the program will begin with the world premiere performance of “Loud,” composed by Jimmy López Bellido on a joint commission by IPO, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), and the Seattle Youth Symphony.

The featured soloist will be soprano Breanna Sinclairé, who will perform three stylistically different selections. She will begin with “Elle a fui, la tourterelle” (she fled, the dove), which opens the “Antonia” act from Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. This will be followed by “O mio babbino caro” (oh, my dear papa) from the more upbeat one-act opera, “Gianni Schicchi,” by Giacomo Puccini. Finally, these French and Italian selections will be followed by “Somewhere,” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. The first half will then conclude with “Soul of Remembrance,” the second of the five Movements in Color by Mary D. Watkins.


Michael Roest, IPO Found and one of the conductors for the program being discussed (courtesy of IPO)

IPO Founder and Director Michael Roest will be one of the three conductors for this program. The other two will be Robert Moody, Music Director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Arizona Musicfest, and Christine Brandes, who has led West Edge Opera and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and will be making her conducting debut with the Seattle Opera during the 2023/24 season. Drag legend Peaches Christ will host the entire program, which, in turn, will be hosted by SFCM.

The performance will take place in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, which is in the 50 Oak Street SFCM building. The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 22. All tickets are being sold for $25 and may be purchased online through an Eventbrite event page. Those visiting this site will also be invited to make a donation to LYRIC, which is one of the first and largest LGBTQ+ youth centers in the United States. Its mission is to build community and inspire positive social change through education enhancement, career trainings, health promotion, and leadership development. The plan for the future is to choose a different city each year to host an IPO concert, establishing new partnerships with LGBTQ+ organizations.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Kronos to Present 8th Festival Next Month

In a little less than a month’s time, the Kronos Quartet of violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Paul Wiancko will present its eighth annual music festival. The performances will take place from Thursday, June 22, through Saturday, June 24. The venue will again be the SFJAZZ Center, with three evening concert programs being held in Miner Auditorium and two Kronos Lab offerings in the Joe Henderson Lab, both on Saturday afternoon. There will also be a Family Concert, which will begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday, taking place in Miner Auditorium.

This year’s program will be distinguished by the presence of three additional highly innovative string quartets, the Aizuri Quartet, the Attacca Quartet, and the Friction Quartet. (In other words, the festival will present a quartet of quartets!) In addition, one of the Kronos Lab concerts will provide a platform for student ensembles from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. There will also be three special guests, guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, Soo Yeon Lyuh playing haegeum, and Victoria Shen, a sound artist, who makes her own instruments.

Kronos has created a single Web page with up-to-date information summarizing performances in both Minor Auditorium and the Joe Henderson Lab. It is structured with a series of five tabs for the three evening concerts, the morning Family Concert, and the two Kronos Labs. Ticketing will again be handled by the SFJAZZ Center on a performance-by-performance basis. There will be reserved seating for all three of the evening concerts with prices ranging from $20 to $65. The Henderson events at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. will be general admission at no charge. Tickets for the Family Concert will be sold for $10 and $20.  Tickets may also be purchased by calling 866-920-5299 or by visiting the Box Office on the ground floor of the SFJAZZ Center. The SFJAZZ Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street.

Monday, May 29, 2023

The Bleeding Edge: 5/29/2023

This week’s article will be a bit different. Since there will be a Center for New Music event at the beginning of this month, it seems appropriate to account for the entire month, as I have done in past “busy weekend” articles. This is one way of “setting the balance,” since this week’s activities involve only one event already reported, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble performance of Starry Night. The remainder of this week’s extended account is as follows:

Friday, June 2, 6:30 p.m., Center for New Music (C4NM): Vishnu R will present a program entitled Strings Beyond Borders. His own specialty is the performance of plucked-string instruments with an international take on how cultures around the world have appropriated instruments such as lutes and guitars. His repertoire includes music from his native India, as well as Spanish music and jazz, both composed and improvised. He will be joined by Frank Martin on both keyboards and synthesizers and Jim Owen playing percussion instruments from around the world. Tickets will be on sale for $20 with a $15 rate for students and C4NM members. For those that do not yet know, C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Masks are still required for all in attendance, and those in the audience are required to show proof of vaccination. Furthermore, since those pandemic conditions still prevail, the audience capacity will be reduced; so purchasing tickets early through an Eventbrite event page is desirable. The remaining events of the month will be as follows with Eventbrite hyperlinks attached to the date and time of each the performances:

  • Saturday, June 10, 7:30 p.m.: Brent Miller will perform as HARJOalone. This will be a solo electric guitar performance that explores volume density, and timbre as meditation. These will be expressed through a recently completed composition entitled “Meditation: Ritual Offering,” consisting of eight movements as follows: Breath 1,” Call to Ceremony,” Visualization 1Breath 2,” Visualization 2,” Affirmation,” Breath 3,” Gratitude.Tickets will be on sale for $15 with a $10 rate for members and students.
  • Sunday, June 11, 4 p.m.: Pianist Daniel Colalillo, currently based in New York City, will present a solo recital entitled New Sounds? He will survey music written in the last 45 years by composers including John Adams, Lowell Liebermann, John Corigliano Joan Tower, Erkki Sven Tüür, George Walker. He will also give West Coast premiere performances of works by Stephanie Ann Boyd, Haralabos Stafylakis, and James G Lindsay. Tickets will be on sale for $15 with a $10 rate for members and students.
  • Saturday, June 24, 7:30 p.m.: Five by Five will be a program of five new compositions scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and voice. The contributing composers will be John Beeman (“Sprites”), Steve Mobia (“Fissures”), Alan Crossman (selections from “The Sleepless Beauty”), Alden Jenks (a cycle based on poems by Akiko Yosano), and Davide Verotta (“Five Movements for Small Ensemble”). The performers will be Stephen Zielinski (clarinet), Jessie Nucho (flute), Maki Ishii Sowash (violin), Vicky Ehrlich (cello), Keisuke Nakagoshi (piano), and Shauna Fallihee (Soprano), conducted by Steed Cowart.

Friday, June 2, 7 p.m., Medicine for Nightmares Bookstore & Gallery: The next performance will present the quartet of Jessica Ackerley (guitar), Phillip Greenlief (woodwinds), Danishta Rivero-Castro (voice, electronics) and Jacob Felix Heule. They will perform two sets of improvised music. The entire concert will be recorded for an upcoming release. The venue is located in the Mission at 3036 24th Street, between Treat Avenue and Harrison Street. As always, there is no charge for admission, presumably to encourage visitors to consider buying a book.

Saturday, June 3, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: The Erik Jekabson Quartet will present an evening of standards and originals from four major local musicians. Jekabson will alternate between trumpet and flugelhorn. Rhythm will be provided by Dave MacNab (guitar), Dan Feiszli (bass), and Jason Lewis (drums). Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station that serves both BART and Muni. The price of admission is $20 in cash for the cover charge. 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. Because this is a Saturday evening performance, it will probably be live-streamed for remote viewing through both Facebook and YouTube. [added 5/30, 8:20 a.m.:

Saturday, June 3, 8 p.m., Adobe Books: Jazz clarinetist Ben Goldberg just announced that he will be performing in a quartet for a program entitled Wax Line & Keeper. This will be a group without the usual bass section. The other three performers will be Raffi Garabedian on tenor saxophone, trombonist Danny Lubin-Laden, and Ben Davis on cello. Adobe Books is located at 3130 24th Street in the Mission between South Van Ness Avenue and Folsom Street. This is one of those venues where no one will be turned away for lack of funds. However, payment of $10 is desirable; and all the money collected will go directly to the performing artists.]

Oliver Herbert Highlights Heitor Villa-Lobos

Late yesterday afternoon LIEDER ALIVE! concluded its 2022/23 season with one of its occasional ventures into instrumental chamber music. The featured soloist was cellist Oliver Herbert, performing with pianist Carlos Ágreda; and the featured composer was Heitor Villa-Lobos. That composer also accounted for the one vocal work on the program, which may well be his best known effort.

Soprano Esther Rayo joined Herbert and Ágreda for the first (“Ária”) movement of the fifth of the nine Bachianas Brasileiras compositions. This work was originally scored for soprano and an orchestra of cellos. However, Ágreda prepared an arrangement for the “current available resources;” and there was no faulting the engaging interplay among the three performers.

That trio concluded the first half of the program. The second half began with “O canto do cisne negro” (the song of the black swan) in the version for cello and piano. The duo then continued with the composer’s six-movement Pequena suíte. Since Villa-Lobos was, himself, a cellist, he gave three of those movements their first performance. Each of the movements was engaging on its own, but the sequence of six of them tended to be on the long side.

The first half of the program also featured a suite, which turned out to be performed under tragic circumstances. The suite was Paul Desenne’s four-movement Jaguar Songs, scored for solo cello and composed in 2002. However, after yesterday’s program went to press, the news reported that Desenne had died in Boston on May 20. This was announced through an insert in the program, which also included his own description of his suite. Herbert gave an engaging account of the diversity of dispositions that cut across those four movements, making the occasion a celebration of the composer’s life.

The remainder of the program consisted of shorter pieces. Two of these were arrangements by Ágreda of songs by composers that were totally unknown to me: Francisco Canaro and Germán Darío Pérez. My guess is that most of the audience shared my ignorance, and some background material in the program book would have been helpful. Nevertheless, one could appreciate the engaging dispositions of both cellist and pianist in their performances of these works. More familiar was the opening selection, Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” presumably an arrangement of music originally written for his tango orchestra.

Rayo returned for the encore selection. This was music that took me back to my now-distant childhood. “Estrellita” was composed by Manuel Ponce in 1912; but it was still a consistent favorite among musicians of the Fifties. It provided just the right complement to the opening Piazzolla selection as it reemerged from its own “oblivion.”

Taken as a whole, the program was an engaging journey of discovery through relatively unfamiliar repertoire. Given his efforts as an arranger, I would suspect that Ágreda had conceived the journey. However, all three of the performers made the listening experience entirely worthwhile.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Anna Presler and Leighton Fong at SFIAF (again)

Once again violinist Anna Presler and cellist Leighton Fong, founders of the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, will be contributing to the San Francisco International Arts Festival (SFIAF). Last season, when the Festival took place in the fall of 2021, they shared a one-hour slot with the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco; and their contribution was Zoltán Kodály’s Opus 7 duo for violin and cello. This season the Festival will be taking place during the middle of next month, and this time Presler and Fong will have the one-hour slot all to themselves.

Their program will consist entirely of the collection of 24 duos for violin and cello, which Jörg Widmann composed in 2008. He is no stranger to San Francisco. At the beginning of this year, violinist Alina Ibragimova presented the San Francisco Symphony premiere of his violin concerto, conducted by Robin Ticciati. Widmann has also been familiar to San Francisco Performances audiences, not only as a composer but also as a clarinetist. In addition, he has recorded the two Opus 120 clarinet sonatas by Johannes Brahms for ECM, performing with pianist András Schiff.

In September of 2019, Delos released an album of duos performed by violinist Ilya Gringolts and cellist Dmitry Kouzov, which included a complete account of Widmann’s 24 duos. The background material for that album provided by Presto Classical Limited observed that listeners could confuse Widmann’s score for a string quartet. The composer, on the other hand, sees the cycle as reflecting a complex relationship between the two performers: “They attract each other, reject each other, love and hate each other.”

The performance by Presler and Fong will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 8. The venue will be the Brava Studio, which is located in the Mission at 2781 24th Street, between York Street and Hampshire Street, just west of Potrero Avenue. General Admission will be $25 with a $2.38 handling fee. Tickets may be purchased online through a SimpleTix Web page. Tickets will also be sold at the door prior to the performance for $28.

Evangelista’s Latest Full-Evening Jazz Gig

Those of us that take listening to jazz seriously probably recall the first time we encountered a performance that went far beyond any expectations. In my case that event took place when John Coltrane’s Ascension album arrived at the campus radio station at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There was an unexpected jolt at the very beginning, and the aftershocks endured throughout both sides of the long-playing record.

Last night, when he was introducing the performers for Bukas, his latest full-evening performance, guitarist Karl Evangelista recalled his own personal incident when introducing drummer Andrew Cyrille to the audience. He had first encountered Cyrille on Cecil Taylor’s Conquistador! album, and listening to jazz would never be the same again. When Evangelista prepared last year’s full-evening composition Apura, he invited Cyrille to be his drummer; and last night Cyrille returned, this time to serve as drummer for Bukas. This time he was joined by another “veteran” of the free jazz movement, Lewis Jordan on alto saxophone. I was fortunate enough to be a fly on the wall during the pre-performance run through, followed by the microphone checks. Jordan spoke into his microphone, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry.”

After all the pre-performance activities had concluded, I was able to approach Jordan and tell him I liked the way he quoted John Cage. He smiled and talked about how he had been influenced by Cage’s Indeterminacy album. He had not known that Cage used the stories from that album as the “music” for Merce Cunningham’s “How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run.” He seemed amused at this connection between words and dance.

In Bukas Evangelista again led on electronic guitar, extended with vocal work. The other performers were also “veterans” of Apura, Lisa Mezzacappa on bass, Rei Scampavia on keyboards and electronics, and Francis Wong on tenor saxophone. The title of the program was again Tagalog with two different meanings, depending on the pronunciation: “tomorrow” or “open.”

The composition consisted of ten movements preceded by an “Introduction.” However, while the Apura movements had Tagalog titles, those for Bukas were in English:

  1. What I am Concerned About Now
  2. Midas
  3. Temp
  4. Confirm the Truth
  5. Ghost Captain
  6. Walking Ayler in Tarzana
  7. Residente
  8. Anti

I have to confess that I could not follow these movement labels very well, but it was enough for me to listen to the interplay among all the performers.

I assume that “Ayler” was not the jazz saxophonist! Nevertheless, the free jazz spirit of Albert Ayler was clearly present in the evening, rubbing shoulders with Cyrille’s presence and Taylor’s memory. Evangelista also prepared some program notes in which he discussed the legacy of the Free Jazz movement and how it has now advanced into a broader category that he calls Free Music. It that context it is worth observing that there was no charge for those coming to listen to last night’s “Free Music” performance!

Saturday, May 27, 2023

SFGC to Conclude Season with Choral Opera

Poster Design for the world premiere of Matthew Welch’s Tomorrow’s Memories (from the Eventbrite Web page)

Those that follow the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) regularly probably know by now that in 2020 the group commissioned Matthew Welch to compose a choral-opera. This was planned to be a semi-staged work based on the diary writings of Filipina immigrant Angeles Monrayo, which were published under the title Tomorrow’s Memories, A Diary, 1924–1928. In the spirit of that title, Welch decided to give his composition the title Tomorrow’s Memories: A Little Manila Diary.

Welch’s composition was originally scheduled for its world premiere during the 2021–2022 season. Most readers probably know by now that this event had to be canceled due to COVID. However, as SFGC began to resume performing, first with streamed virtual performances and later, this past February in a concert shared with Chanticleer, Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe included excerpts from Tomorrow’s Memories to serve as previews of the full-length composition. Next month the work will receive its world premiere with four performances of the entire score. Sainte-Agathe will conduct; and instrumentation will be limited to two performers, percussionist Haruka Fujii and Florante Aguilar alternating between guitar and ukulele.

Those performances will include staging by Sean San José, Artistic Director at the Magic Theatre, which is where the premiere performances will take place. He will work with Scenic Designer Cece Carpio, Lighting Designer GG Torres, and Movement Designer Patricia Barretto Ong, as well as his Associate Stage Director Melvign Badiola. The production team will also include Sound Designer Christopher Sauceda, working with Audio Engineer Zach Miley.

The four performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 16, and Saturday, June 17, and at 3 p.m. on Saturday, June 17, and Sunday, June 18. The Magic Theatre is located in Landmark Building D in the Fort Mason Center. Tickets are currently on sale at prices between $20 and $65, and they may be purchased through an Eventbrite Web page. They may also be purchased by calling the Magic Theatre Box Office at 415-441-8822.

San Francisco Chamber Orchestra Encounter

According to my records, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO) dropped off my radar some time after its Holiday Concert at the end of 2018. Prior to that occasion, my wife and I would make regular visits to the performances in Herbst Theatre prepared and led by Music Director Benjamin Simon; and we always came away highly satisfied. Yesterday I learned that the ensemble would be giving a concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to revisit them.

Things have changed a lot. Simon has now retired, and Cosette Justo Valdés is Incoming Music Director. During the interim period there have been guest conductors; and last night’s program was led by Jory Fankuchen, whom I know best through his performances with the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco. The program itself recalled the adventurous spirit that Simon tended to bring to his programming.

The most familiar work filled the second half of the program, Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 90 (fourth) symphony in A major, known as the “Italian.” The first half began with a “first encounter” wit William Grant Still’s Danzas de Panama suite for string orchestra. This was followed by Frank Martin’s three movement concerto scored for seven wind instruments, timpani, percussion, and string orchestra. I had previously encountered that concerto when One Found Sound (OFS) performed it. Ironically, that performance also took place at the end of 2018!

The St. Mark’s altar was a bit crowded in accommodating the full resources for the Mendelssohn symphony. Nevertheless, all of the players were consistently focused on Fankuchen and his approaches to shaping one of that composer’s sunniest undertakings. By the time the ensemble had advanced to the vigorous saltarello of the final movement, Fankuchen had dialed the energy level up to eleven, making for a rousing experience met by a rousing reception from the audience immediately after the final measures of the coda.

In composing his concerto, Martin was clearly interested in exploring a wide range of sonorities. The seven instruments were flute (Tod Brody), oboe (Peter Lemberg), clarinet (Peter Josheff), bassoon (Karla Ekholm), horn (Katie Dennis), trumpet (Owen Miyoshi), and trombone (Don Benham). The composer clearly put considerable thought into how these instruments could both blend and play off each other, and Fankuchen’s direction allowed the attentive listener to appreciate just how many different rhetorical qualities could emerge from those combinations. This is music that definitely deserves to be granted more listening opportunities, and I was delighted to see the torch passed from OFS to SFCO.

My encounters with Still’s orchestral works have been very modest, particularly when compared with his chamber music (championed by the Catalyst Quartet’s programs for San Francisco Performances) and piano music (introduced to me by Lara Downes). Still himself was interested in the diversity of cultures and the music that distinguished them. HIs Panama suite is actually the result of a partnership with an ethnomusicologist, Elisabeth Waldo. The suite itself was both lively and engaging, and Fankuchen’s leadership made for a thoroughly satisfying “first contact” experience.

Hopefully, I shall not have to wait a few years before getting back into giving more regular attention to SFCO.