Sunday, December 31, 2023

De los Ángeles: “Post-Romantic” Songs

Readers may recall that the “lion’s share” of opera recordings in the Victoria de los Ángeles: The Warner Classics Edition; Complete Recordings on His Master’s Voice & La Voix de son maître anthology occupied what I called the “post-romantic” category. This is also the case where arias and songs are involved. As might be expected, a significant portion of that category is devoted to the Spanish repertoire.

What struck me the most in listening to that repertoire was the diversity of “sub-genres” within that category. Thus, in addition to songs that are attributed to a specific composer (who often is providing a “personal twist” to traditional music), the individual albums traverse categories that include not only “Spanish Songs” but also “Songs of Andalusia,” “Songs of Catalonia,” “Sephardic Songs,” and “Zarzuela Arias.” It is also worth noting that the “Songs of Andalusia” category includes the subtitle “Music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.”

Cover of the original vinyl album of the Hunter College recital by Victoria de los Ángeles accompanied by Alicia de Larrocha (from the Web page for this album)

Personally, I tend to prefer recordings of recitals to the “studio-made” albums. Readers know that I have already cited de los Ángeles’ contributions to the “retirement recital” given by pianist Gerald Moore. However, there is also a French recital album, whose entire repertoire consists of “post-Romantic” compositions by Henri Duparc, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel. Then there is the 1964 recital in the Royal Festival Hall (again with Moore), which includes composers such as Joaquín Rodrigo, Manuel de Falla, and Joaquín Nin. Several years later, Angel released an album of a recital given “on this side of the pond” at Hunter College, with pianist Alicia de Larrocha accompanying de los Ángeles. That program is distinguished for its account of the two major song cycles composed by Enrique Granados, the Colección de Tonadillas and the Colección de canciones amatorias.

The fact is that these last two paragraphs account for only the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to the closing of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. Attentive listeners will find this genre to be the “mother lode” of de los Ángeles’ repertoire. I have only just begun to appreciate the richness of that repertoire, and I expect to spend a fair amount of time getting to know it better!

Sunset Music and Arts: February, 2024

Jazz (and klezmer) pianist Alon Nechushtan (from the Eventbrite Web page for this concert)

Readers may recall that Sunset Music and Arts will be presenting only one program in January of next year. As of this writing, it appears that this will also be the case in February. While the January program will mark the first time that Friction Quartet will perform at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, February will see the return of the Alon Nechushtan Jazz Quartet, whose Klezmer-Jazz Project performance on March 6, 2020 was the last Sunset offering before the imposition of lockdown conditions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (He would then bring a trio to the first post-pandemic performance on September 18, 2021.)

For those unfamiliar with Nechushtan, he leads his quartet from the piano. As of this writing, the other members of the quartet have not been finalized. My most recent information about his performances is a quartet appearance in Paris this past November 15. On that occasion he was joined by vocalist Sara Serpa, François Moutin on bass, and percussionist Louis Moutin. I have no way of knowing whether the two Moutins will follow Nechushtan back to the United States, but I suspect that Serpa will join him here in San Francisco.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 2, and will probably last for about 90 minutes. General admission will be $25 with a $20 rate for seniors and students. As many readers probably know by now, the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation is located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street; and those seeking further information are invited to call 415-564-2324. Tickets may be purchased in advance through an Eventbrite Web page.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

The Last Omni Videos of the Year

As was announced this past Thursday, the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts has launched two OMNI on-Location videos to close out the calendar year. Both of them present solo performances by the Greek classical guitarist and D’Addario Artist Dimitri Soukaras. The videos were made in different settings, each providing a reflection on the nature of the music itself.

The richer video provided an account of the performance of the “Fuoco” movement from Roland Dyens’ “Libra Sonatine.” As might be expected, this is a highly virtuosic selection whose energy may reflect the hustle and bustle of urban life. As a result, the performance was filmed on the roof of a building in Athens, perhaps the building where Soukaras himself lives. The lighting (which appears to be natural) suggests the end of the day, with thoughts of dynamic night life that is soon to come.

Greek classical guitarist Dimitris Soukaras in the video of his performance of the music of Roland Dyens

The other video presents Soukaras performing his own arrangement of the first of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie” compositions. Those familiar with Satie’s life and works know that he was a pioneer of minimalism before that word became a part of familiar vocabulary. There is a “bare bones” quality to both the thematic line and its accompaniment; and even the harmonic accompaniment is “minimal” to the extent that it never arrives at a strong cadence. In this case Soukaras worked with his videographer Pano Andrianos to provide a “minimal” visual setting to match Satie’s aesthetic.

A “minimal” video account of the music of Erik Satie

Both of these videos are less than five minutes in duration, but each has its own way of taking an adventurous approach to minimalism.

Silkroad Musicians to Visit Noe Music

Silkroad musicians Haruka Fujii, Karen Ouzounian, and Kinan Azmeh with their respective instruments (photograph courtesy of Noe Music)

Noe Music will begin the new year with a performance by three of the members of the Silkroad Ensemble. The players will be Kinan Azmeh on clarinet, Haruka Fujii on percussion, and Karen Ouzounian on cello. Program specifics have not yet been announced. However, the event has been described as a musical conversation through the exchange of melody, rhythm, and stories drawing upon the musicians’ three cultural backgrounds: Syria, Japan, and Armenia. The resulting repertoire will range from folk, improvisation, and original compositions to the contemporary classical genre.

As usual, the performance will take place at 4 p.m. on a Sunday, January 14. The venue will be the Noe Valley Ministry, located at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. The reserved seats in the first few rows have already be sold out. However, open seating tickets may be purchased through a Web page with prices of $45 for general admission and $15 for students.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Second Round of SFCMP Emerging Composers

Some readers may recall that the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) began this season with the first of three “supplementary” concerts, presented in conjunction with the ARTZenter Institute's Emerging Composer Grant Program. Yesterday, SFCMP announced (for the second time) that the second concert will take place one week from today. While the first concert showcased three composers, the second will feature twice as many.

Those six composers will be (in alphabetical order) Yeoul Choi, Eda Er, Craig Peaslee, Sepehr Pirasteh, Cole Reyes, and Ben Rieke. Their residence will begin this coming Wednesday, January 3. It will involve three days of rehearsals and workshops. The final day will conclude with a performance before an audience in Herbst Theatre of the six resulting compositions. Each composer will provide remarks about the work, and members of the audience will have the opportunity to engage in dialogue.

The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, January 5. Most readers probably know by now that the entrance to Herbst is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building, which is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. There will be no charge for admission, and the event will be open to all.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Omni to Conclude Year with Two New Videos

Greek classical guitarist Dimitris Soukaras (photograph courtesy of the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts)

The Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts will close out the year with two OMNI on-Location videos. As was the case yesterday, the videos will be relatively short. Both will feature performances by the Greek classical guitarist and D’Addario Artist Dimitri Soukaras.

On the first video Soukaras will perform his own arrangement of the first of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie” compositions. That video will be released at 11 a.m. tomorrow (Friday). It will be followed on Saturday (December 30) with a video of the “Fuoco” movement from Roland Dyens’ “Libra Sonatine.” That release will take place at 10 a.m.

Both performances will be streamed through the Omni Foundation’s YouTube channel. The YouTube Web pages for viewing both the Friday and Saturday releases have already been created. There is no charge for admission, which means that these performances are made possible only by the viewers’ donations. A Web page has been created for processing contributions, and any visits made prior to the streaming itself will be most welcome.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

A Memorial Video for Gian Francesco Malipiero

This morning the OMNI on-Location video series, curated by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts, commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Gian Francesco Malipiero with a brief recital by guitarist Alberto Mesirca. The video was recorded in Malipiero’s home in Asolo, Italy, coupling his prelude for solo guitar with an excerpt from “Machere,” an homage composition by Angelo Gilardino (who died last year at the age of 83). The entire video was less than six minutes in duration.

During the composer’s lifetime, “Casa Malipiero” became a hub for cultural activities. Participants included not only musicians but also intellectuals and artists. The house served as a venue in which artists could have their work displayed, and example of which can be seen in the video of Mesirca’s performance:

Screen shot of Alberto Mesirca performing in front of one of the art works that Malipiero selected for display

While the music itself is engaging in its own right, the video explores not only the artifacts in the house’s interior but also an external view of its setting.

Most of the video is devoted to Malipiero’s prelude, which lasts a little less than four minutes. That leaves only a few minutes remaining for the excerpt of Gilardino’s homage. However, those few minutes are enough to leave the attentive listener curious about “Machere” in its entirety. Hopefully, the crew that created this video will find the time to return to Casa Malipiero to capture the full scope of Gilardino’s undertaking.

De los Ángeles: The 19th Century Repertoire

As might be guessed from the previous articles about the Warner Classics anthology of albums of Victoria de los Ángeles, her nineteenth-century repertoire is considerably richer than that of earlier periods. Once again, the selections are distributed over multiple CDs. However, while only seven of those CDs contributed to her classical repertoire, the nineteenth-century selections are distributed across thirteen CDs, including the first two CDs accounting for 78 RPM recordings.

What I found particularly interesting is that her Zarzuela Arias CD includes a selection from the nineteenth century. This repertoire, which is known (at least by Wikipedia) as “Romantic” zarzuela dates back to 1850, suggesting that the earlier compositions in the repertoire deserve more than one track. Nevertheless, one track is better than none at all!

Once again, pianist Gerald Moore’s “retirement recital” album is one of the more sparkling jewels in the crown of the overall collection. As was already observed, de los Ángeles was joined by soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; and there was no shortage of good spirits, occasionally enhanced by good humor. This was most evident in the “Duetto buffo di due gatti” (duet for two cats), composed by Robert Lucas de Pearsall (but formerly attributed to Gioachino Rossini). However, the “mother of all gags” came when de los Ángeles swapped positions with Moore, taking to the piano to accompany Moore singing (sic) “Ich grolle nicht” from Robert Schumann’s Opus 48 Dichterliebe.

I should also observe that, whatever the shortcomings in recording technology, the 78 RPM tracks provide the one opportunity to listen to de los Ángeles singing the music of Richard Wagner. There are actually two tracks that she recorded. The first was “Einsam in trüben Tagen” from the first act of Lohengrin, followed by “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser. For both of these tracks, Anatole Fistoulari conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra. De los Ángeles found just the right rhetoric of expressiveness for each of these selections. Her Wikipedia page says nothing about Lohengrin. However, she did perform at the Bayreuth Festival, making her debut as Elisabeth in the 1961 staging of Tannhäuser. Nevertheless, her favorite opera was never performed at Bayreuth, since that was Georges Bizet’s Carmen, for which she sang the title role and recorded it in 1958!

Personal preferences aside, it would be fair to say that the entire gamut of nineteenth-century selections amounts to a something-for-everybody collection; and de los Ángeles clearly knew how to make the most out of the many tracks she recorded of this genre.

The Bleeding Edge: 12/27/2023

As readers probably know by now, not very much is happening out on the Bleeding Edge during the “twelve days of Christmas.” However, there will be two events of note before the end of the year, one of which is at a “usual suspects” venue. The other has a duration of about four and one-half hours and will probably be more engaging than waiting on a long line to exchange an unwanted gift. Specifics are as follows:

Thursday, December 28, 12:28 p.m., Artists’ Television Access: The offering of extended length also has an extended title: Almost Public/Semi-Exposed 8. Composers rae diamond and Suki O’Kane call this “a durational work.” The performance will involve a set of metronomes whose pulses will be controlled over the time spanned by the composition, which will be about four and one-half hours. The result will be an ongoing evolution of shifting rhythmic patterns. Artists’ Television Access is located in the Mission at 992 Valencia Street. As of this writing, no information has been provided about any fee for admission. My guess is that listeners will be free to come and go as they please over the course of the full duration.

Saturday, December 30, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: The more familiar venue of the week will be Bird & Beckett. The shop will host an evening of two sets of Latin jazz performed by the Cuarteto de Luna Nueva. This quartet is led by Gaea Schell on flute with Carlos Caro on conga drums, Saúl Sierra on bass, and Dan Neville on vibraphone.

For those that do not already know, Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station that serves both BART and Muni. (A full account of the Muni lines can be found on the event page for this performance.) The price of admission is $20 in cash (or Venmo) 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. While Bird & Beckett regularly live streams performances on Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., no explicit information has been provided concerning the streaming of this particular event.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Cinematic Biographies

Over the course of the last few months, I have subjected myself to two cinematic biographies, both of which examined the life of a major twentieth-century figure. The first of these was Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (which I was encouraged to see in the IMAX version). Mind you, this was a narrative I had encountered several times on television (not to mention the number of Los Alamos scientists that I came to know during my undergraduate years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

The second was Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, whose title referred to the polymath Leonard Bernstein. This was a case in which my knowledge was limited to Bernstein himself. I never crossed paths with him, nor did I ever attend a concert that he conducted. However, thanks to his many television programs, I encountered him far more often than Oppenheimer (whom I knew only through different biographical accounts). Where Nolan was objectively detached for the sake of providing a narrative that was both accurate and engaging, Cooper came off as determined to provide a warts-and-all account of Bernstein, perhaps not realizing how many warts he would encounter as he advanced through the narrative.

From the viewpoint of a social network, my “path of links” to Oppenheimer was short. Where Bernstein was concerned, the paths were fewer, if not lengthier. They were also decidedly negative. One link led to a member of the faculty at the Juilliard School, who completed the path with a single sentence: (“Such a sweet boy; it’s a pity he’s incompetent!”). I also encountered a revue performed at the Plaza Hotel, which recorded a long patter song about the plans to create Lincoln Center. The only line I remember is the description of Bernstein: “The only man to perform both Creation and Messiah in an autobiographical style.”

As I began to follow the path down Cooper’s narrative, I felt sympathetic to his efforts to provide a warts-and-all account of Bernstein. Unfortunately, there were just too damned many warts. By the time I was about halfway through the film, I felt as if they had already overwhelmed me, leaving me to wonder just how much more-of-the-same I had to endure. I also felt frustrated at how few of the other members of the cast were clearly identified.

(I saw Oppenheimer with a former colleague, whose academic experience was similar to my own. After the film had ended, she asked if I had recognized Richard Feynman. I replied by asking if she saw Kurt Gödel! Feynman was easier to track, thanks to the photograph of him with a bongo drum in The Feynman Lectures on Physics. I was able to identify Gödel standing next to Albert Einstein, with his back to the camera, thanks to an anecdote passed down to me by one of the Bell Labs researchers. Yes, Gödel was a member of the cast; and anyone that checks the Full Cast & Crew IMDb Web page will find him there!)

I suppose that the difference between the two films amounted to the you-had-to-be-there experience. My guess is that Nolan wanted to account for as many Los Alamos personalities as he could manage. That endowed his narrative with a rich diversity in his “cast of characters,” even if the “social network distance” to any of those characters becomes longer for each new generation. Watching Bernstein made me thankful that music had always been a secondary area of study, meaning that I would never have had to deal with Bernstein’s conducting technique as a member of the New York Philharmonic!

Now, about Einstein going for long walks with Gödel …

De los Ángeles: The Classical Repertoire

As I observed this past Saturday, those albums of soprano Victoria de los Ángeles that are not full-length operas tend to present their content as “historical journeys.” The selections are not always chronologically ordered, but they provide many engaging compare-and-contrast opportunities. Furthermore, because her Warner Classics anthology does not include any of the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the songs and arias from the classical period provide the only opportunity to listen to de los Ángeles singing his music.

Sadly, those selections are rather modest in their numbers. Among her early 78 RPM recordings, there are two arias from The Marriage of Figaro. Ironically, both of them come from the second act of the opera (which, from a narrative point of view, is the most engaging). As might be guessed, one of the arias is Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete che cosa è amor.” This is coupled with the very beginning of the second act, when the Countess Rosina Almaviva dwells on her husband’s infidelity singing “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro.”

The more recent recordings from the Sixties include the K. 505 concert aria in three movements “Ch'io mi scordi di te?” However, this period is best known for Mozart’s sacred motets. K. 165, Exsultate, jubilate, is sung in its entirety. The lengthier K. 339, Vesperae solennes de Confessore, is represented only by the “Laudate Dominum” aria. That is not very much, but it is enough to convince the attentive listener that de los Ángeles knew her Mozart.

Overall, the classical repertoire is distributed over only seven CDs. Ironically, the richest of these is a duet album with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The two of them are accompanied at the piano by Gerald Moore, and there is much to enjoy from the classical period. Ludwig van Beethoven gets the lion’s share with his arrangements of songs from Ireland and Wales that he arranged on commission. There is one song by Haydn “Schlaf in deiner engen Kammer,” which is coupled by a song from the same period by Johann Christian Bach “Ah! lamenta, oh bella Irene.” At the other end of the Classical period is one of the songs from Franz Schubert’s D. 877 Gesänge aus “Wilhelm Meister” cycle.

There is also a CD with selections from Moore’s “retirement recital.” For that occasion, de los Ángeles and Fischer-Dieskau were joined by soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Unfortunately, only the tracks that included de los Ángeles were included on the CD for that performance. Fortunately, the full recital is available on another Warner Classics release.

Sadly, the total number of selections do not add up to very much. However, neither performers nor listeners tend to have much say in determining what gets recorded. The classical period clearly did not receive very much attention in this collection, but there is nothing wrong with making the best of what one has.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Month-by-Month Memories of 2023

I see that this is exactly the same date on which I wrote my month-by-month account of memorable performances in 2022. I suppose that says something about my “holiday spirit” dispositions! Whatever the case may be, December 25 is almost always a quiet day in the Smoliar household; and that quietude is just what I need to collect my memories of listening experiences over the course of the twelve months of this year. Here, then, are the month-by-month “mileposts” for this year’s “journeys of discovery.”

January: Elim Chan debuts as San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conductor. In addition to affording an encounter with a conductor for the first time, this program began right off the bat with a world premiere selection. This was Elizabeth Ogonek’s “Moondog,” composed with the support of an SFS commission. This was the second time the composer made it on my end-of-year list, following up on “Sleep & Remembrance,” which was the March selection on my 2022 list. Ogonek seems to have a preference for textures over themes, and Chan knew exactly how to handle that preference in her conducting. For the record (as they say), she was just as comfortable with themes when SFS accompanied violinist James Ehnes in his performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 63 (second) violin concerto in G minor!

February: Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts SFS program of Samuel Adams and Anton Bruckner. This time the debut was by the soloist: pianist Conor Hanick performing the world premiere of “No Such Spring,” composed by Samuel Adams on an SFS commission. This music clearly was closer in spirit to Igor Stravinsky’s music for the ballet “The Rite of Spring,” rather than any Bruckner symphony. However, Salonen’s leadership made a perfectly good case for a “side-by-side” account of these two composers.

March: One Found Sound (OFS) launches its Mells Project. At the end of its tenth season, this orchestra that performs without a conductor, presented the world premiere of Herbert Franklin Mells’ first symphony in D minor. That marked the beginning of a five-year project that will include the preparation, performance, and recording of Mells’s large symphonic works written between 1938 and 1944. This is an ambitious undertaking; but, given that OFS has now been around for over a decade, there is every reason to believe that the goals of this project will be fulfilled.

April: A survey of music composed by David Conte. This was a Faculty Artist Series recital presented by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The program included the premiere performance of Two Winter Scenes. Another recent work, completed last year, was a four-movement partita for marimba and piano. Finally, Magen Solomon led her San Francisco Choral Artists ensemble in a performance of “Charm Me Asleep.”

May: Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem returns to SFS.: This is a major undertaking for large orchestra, chamber orchestra, three vocal soloists, a boys chorus, and a full mixed chorus. Conductor Philippe Jordan took charge of all of these resources. The visiting soloists were soprano Jennifer Holloway, tenor Ian Bostridge, and baritone Brian Mulligan.

June: Igor Levit performs Ferruccio Busoni’s piano concerto. Pianist Igor Levit prepared for four programs to be presented in his capacity as SFS Artist-in-Residence. One of those programs consisted entirely of Ferruccio Busoni’s Opus 39 piano concerto, which was receiving its first SFS performances. The work is a “monster” undertaking, requiring a full orchestra and a male chorus for the final movement. This was an offering of “extreme virtuosity,” which is very seldom encountered.

July: Joshua Weilerstein returns as SFS conductor. When this conductor made his SFS debut, his program juxtaposed and contrasted Czech composers Antonín Dvořák and Bohuslav Martinů. For his return he coupled Dvořák with another Czech, Pavel Haas. The concerto selection was Jean Sibelius’ Opus 47 violin concerto in D minor with Alexei Kenney making his SFS debut as soloist.

August: Parker Van Ostrand’s Recital Series performance for the San Francisco International Piano Festival.: This is a pianist that has built up a highly diverse repertoire. However, in the midst of all of that diversity, Franz Liszt has been given pride of place. That pride was given its due in a performance of the B minor piano sonata. In addition to the many other “usual suspects” on the program, Ostrand played, as his encore, the “Concert Paraphrase on Mozart’s Turkish March,” composed by Arcadi Volodos (which has been an encore favorite of Yuja Wang).

September: Opening night of the new SFS season. Opening night audiences in Davies are usually placated with a program filled with familiar favorites. Salonen decided that he wanted to be more imaginative. His program included the first San Francisco performance of Anders Hillborg’s “Rap Notes.” This may well have been the craziest undertaking of the year, presenting three vocal soloists: hip-hop artist Kev Choice, freestyle artist Anthony Veneziale, and soprano Hila Plitmann. The first two are clearly “non-standard;” and Plitmann’s performance consisted of singing a single phrase for the Queen of the Night in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute over and over again. This was a show in which the “fun factor” was ramped up to eleven!

October: Prism Percussion. SFS may have received much of this year’s attention. The alternatives may be few, but they are memorable. This is particularly the case for the Prism Percussion duo of Divesh Karamchandani and Elizabeth Hall. As in the past, they performed their recital on the top floor of the McRoskey Mattress Company building. On this particular occasion, they were joined by a third percussionist, Mika Nakamura; and the composer of the final selection, Nicholas Pavkovic, accompanied them at his keyboard.

November: Omar. Tickets for this opera about Omar ibn Said, composed by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, were in high demand for all performances. The title character is an Islamic scholar that was seized and taken from his country eventually to be auctioned as a slave. For all of that darkness, however, the narrative dwells on Omar’s personal power of faith and his impact on his second master. Thus, the plot ends on a positive note in which master and slave equally accept and pursue the need to know more about each other.

December: SFS Chamber Music. As a relief from the abundance of “pops” offerings, SFS scheduled one of its chamber music recitals for the middle of this month. The program was framed by two piano quartets (violin, viola, cello, and piano). The first of these was Mozart’s K. 478 in G minor, and the program concluded with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 26 in A major. The program also included a quintet for oboe and strings by Arnold Bax. I can think of no better alternative to fretting over holiday related shopping and visiting!

Sunday, December 24, 2023

VoM Presents a Secular “Happy Holidays” Video

This morning the Sunday Mornings at Ten series of YouTube concerts presented by Voices of Music (VoM) served up both sacred and secular programs. The former was a performance of the Venetian Christmas Vespers, composed by Alessandro Grandi and running about 75 minutes in length. However, for those that do not celebrate Christmas, VoM also released a Happy Holidays playlist, a program consisting of three concertos and excerpts from Terpsichore, a collection of courtly dances compiled by Michael Praetorius.

Screen shot  of Augusta McKay Lodge playing the cadenza in the first movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Grosso mogul” concerto

The concerto composers were, in order of appearance, Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (a C major concerto for trumpet and strings), Giuseppe Torelli (a D major concerto for trumpet and strings), and Antonio Vivaldi (his RV208, a finger-busting concerto for violin in D major given the title “Grosso mogul”). Each of these concertos was a major undertaking, but the Vivaldi selection presented the most demanding cadenzas by a long shot. Augusta McKay Lodge threw the full force of her technical skills into performing those cadenzas making for the most jaw-dropping events in the entire program.

Beyond being impressed by virtuosity unto an extreme, I have to confess to a soft spot for the Terpsichore collection. Like many of my generation, I first came to know this music not from “early music” performances but from Ottorino Respighi’s three Ancient Airs and Dances suites. However, once I had come to know all the themes from those suites, I was well prepared to listen to them as one might have heard them performed during the Renaissance.

Similarly, I relished the opportunity to listen to two different masters of the baroque trumpet. The soloist for the Biber concerto was John Thiessen, and Dominic Favia performed the Torelli concerto. Over the course of my concert-listening experiences, I came to know Thiessen through a diversity of eyebrow-raising performances. My first contact with Favia, on the other hand, was in April of 2016, when he performed the Torelli concerto with American Bach Soloists; and the video was probably made when he played the concerto at the Voices of Music Holiday Concert in December of 2018.

Those that prefer to take a secular approach to celebrating the end of the year will probably enjoy the Happy Holidays perspective while looking forward to future VoM programs.

Saraste to Replace Blomstedt’s Annual SFS Visit

Conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, who will replace Herbert Blomstedt in Davies Symphony Hall at the beginning of February (photograph courtesy of SFS)

Many readers will probably know by now that, a little over a week ago, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Conductor Herbert Blomstedt, now 96 years old, sustained a fall that required hospital treatment. His doctors advised him to cancel all of his concert engagements until further notice. I have done my best to follow all of his visits to Davies Symphony Hall since my move to the Bay Area in 1995. While his performances have been consistently stimulating, the impact of age was clear this past February, when Assistant Concertmaster Wyatt Underhill had to escort him on and off stage.

The program that Blomstedt had prepared for next month amounted to a “Late First Viennese School” pairing of symphonies in reverse chronological order. Thus, the second half of the program will present the earlier composition, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major, completed in 1812. The first half will be devoted to Franz Schubert’s D. 589 (sixth) symphony, often known as the “Little C major.” (The “Great C major” is Schubert’s final symphony, his D. 944.) D. 589 was completed in 1818; but it was not performed until 1828 (after Beethoven’s death). Jukka-Pekka Saraste will step in for Blomstedt, leading SFS in the program than Blomstedt had planned.

This program will be given three performances, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 2. and Saturday, February 3, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 4. Ticket prices range from $25 to $225 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 MTT Way (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 performances two hours before each concert begins.

Chanticleer Christmas Program Disappoints

Some readers may recall that, about a year ago, I experienced A Chanticleer Christmas for the first time. My impressions of the experience were mixed. However, what mattered most was the final sentence of my article:

At a time when the commercialization of Christmas is rearing its head again in a post-pandemic world, an evening of music with no market-based agenda was just what any attentively serious listener needed.

Last night my wife and I returned to Saint Ignatius Church for a second round of Chanticleer’s seasonal programming. Unfortunately, this year’s experience was far more disappointing. I realized that, at last year’s performance, we were seated close enough to the altar to experience the clarity of the ensemble’s one-to-a-part polyphony.

This year we were seated a few rows back, and the increased distance was practically painful. All the intricate polyphony we had encountered last year came across this year as little more than mush. Nevertheless, every seat was occupied in the vast space, including the balcony. Apparently, there is an avid audience for which “the Chanticleer experience” has little, if anything, to do with the clarity of the acoustics.

Under those circumstances, it would be unfair to give an account of a performance that was washed into an auditory muddle by the physical setting. It is clear that, for many, the ritual of the occasion matters more than appreciation of the music being performed. I simply have to accept the fact that, where this annual event is concerned, one cannot argue with the revenue stream.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

SFS Announces 2024 Shenson Spotlight Series

Some readers may recall that, when the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) announced its 2023–24 season at the end of this past March, the announcement included the third season of the Shenson Spotlight Series. At that time only the artists that were to be featured were named. However, a little less than two weeks ago, SFS announced the program details for the four recitals that will take place between the end of January and the end of June. All of the programs will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday evenings. Specifics are as follows:

January 31: The series will begin with a solo piano recital by Eric Lu. He has prepared a program consisting of only two compositions, both of which are rich in their inventive content. Taken together, they define the “bridge” between the classical and romantic styles. The first of these will be Franz Schubert’s D. 935 set of four impromptus, published posthumously as Opus 142. The second half will present the last of Frédéric Chopin’s three piano sonatas, Opus 58 in B minor.

February 21: The second recitalist will be cellist Gabriel Martins. He will be accompanied at the piano by Victor Santiago Asunción. The program will begin by following Chopin with his most accomplished contemporary, Robert Schumann. The Schumann selection will be his Opus 73 set of three Fantasiestücke, originally composed for clarinet and piano. The program will then leapfrog into the early twentieth century with works by two decidedly different composers. The first of the selections will be the D minor cello sonata by Claude Debussy (his only cello sonata). The second will be Anton Webern’s Opus 11, entitled simply Drei kleine Stücke (three short pieces, with particular attention to the modifier “short”). The program will then conclude by reflecting the Schumann offering with the second cello sonata in F major (Opus 99) by Johannes Brahms.

March 6: The third program has been prepared by violinist Alexandra Conunova. As of this writing, her accompanist has not yet been identified. She will begin her program with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 261 Adagio in E major. This will be followed by Edvard Grieg’s third violin sonata in C minor. The second half of the program will begin with the “Introduction and Rondo capriccioso” by Camille Saint-Saëns. Conunova will then conclude with Franz Waxman’s virtuosic “Carmen Fantasie,” originally composed for violin and orchestra.

June 26: This will be the one program to present a soloist to have previously given a recital here in San Francisco. Violinist Stella Chen made her San Francisco debut with a Chamber Music San Francisco recital on this past March 14. By that time she had released her debut album, Stella x Schubert, which had been discussed on this site a little over a week earlier on March 5. Her Shenson recital will begin with one of the selections on that album, Franz Schubert’s D. 895 rondo in B minor. This will be followed by Eleanor Alberga’s “No-man’s-land Lullaby. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Ludwig’s van Beethoven’s Opus 47 violin sonata in A major, best known as the “Kreutzer” sonata. Chan will be accompanied at the piano by George Li.

There is a single price of $45 for each of the recitals. Single tickets may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to the above dates. As of this writing, there is not a separate Web page for subscribing to all four concerts. Both single tickets and subscriptions may be purchased by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000.

De los Ángeles: Pre-Classical Songs and Arias

Having traversed the full-length opera recordings of Victoria de los Ángeles ranging from the late seventeenth century of Henry Purcell to the twentieth century of Claude Debussy, I can now shift my attention from the opera house to the recital stage. If the albums that she recorded were representative of her recital programs, then it is worth noting that she seems to have shown a preference for “historical journeys.” Indeed, the title of one of those albums was Five Centuries of Spanish Songs, beginning with medieval selections from the early fourteenth century and extending to eighteenth-century composers such as Blas de Laserna (who lived into the early nineteenth century). She also released a more focused album entitled Spanish Songs of the Renaissance.

De los Ángeles’ earliest recordings were first released as 78 RPM discs; and, where this repertoire is concerned, her most recent recordings were made in 1960, including her participation in the “retirement recital” given by pianist Gerald Moore. Unfortunately, during the first half of the twentieth century, there was a tendency to approach early music as if it were some sort of delicate antique. That tendency was reinforced by releases from the Musical Heritage Society, many of which were about as stimulating as canned spinach. I had the good fortune to be teaching computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, which turned out to be a forerunner in the turning of that tide. As a result, I was able to experience several early music programs that had all of the excitement of twentieth-century aesthetics.

Obviously, I cannot blame de los Ángeles for not being there when the tide of early music performance began to turn. I can only say that she never seems to have had the opportunity to give that repertoire a fair shake. Whether or not circumstances change for the better as the repertoire advances into the nineteenth century can only be determined on the basis of further listening.

Friday, December 22, 2023

GCMP to Live-Stream Theodorakis Tribute

Mikis Theodorakis on the “virtual poster” of the event being described (from a GCMP Web page)

According to my records I have not previewed a recital by the Greek Chamber Music Project (GCMP) since this past May. Since that time the ensemble, under Director Ellie Falaris Ganelin, has been preparing an “epic tribute” to one of Greece’s best-known composers, Mikis Theodorakis. That program, entitled Music of Resistance, had originally been planned for a performance at St. Mary Magdalen church in Berkeley this past November; but it was rescheduled for Sunday, January 28, at the same venue. However, those on this side of the Bay will be able to attend the performance through a live-stream. The title of the program is particularly apposite, since Theodorakis was a symbol of resistance throughout his life.

The program will feature original arrangements of two Theodorakis compositions. The first of these will be “The Ballad of Mauthausen,” considered one of the major musical accounts of the Holocaust. The other will be selections from Canto General, a folk oratorio set to the poetry of Pablo Neruda. The program will also premiere “Chariot of Dragons,” composed by Costas Dafnis and based on themes of resistance and poetry by Terry Taplin. Dafnis will lead the Berkeley Community Chamber Singers with mezzo Melinda Martinez Becker as guest soloist. Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by Ganelin on flute, guitarist Mike Smith, Byron Hogan on cello, pianist Mary-Victoria Voutsas, and percussionist Sage Baggott.

The performance will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 28. GCMP has created a Web page for the purchase of tickets for $10 or more to view the Bandcamp live-stream of the performance. That Web page also includes a window for viewing a YouTube preview. The live-stream will be available for 48 hours after the event itself.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

MTT will Focus Only on Mahler Next Month

Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas (photograph by Vahan Stepanyan, courtesy of SFS)

Yesterday the San Francisco Symphony announced that Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) has revised his conducting schedule for the first two months of the New Year. He had originally planned to lead three programs, but he has reduced that number to one. That last will consist entirely of Gustav Mahler’s fifth symphony, and the series of performances will mark his final Subscription Series conducting for SFS.

Those that had followed MTT’s “Mahler journeys” during his tenure as Music Director are probably by now familiar with the Mahler fifth, which, like other “fifth symphonies” (beginning with Beethoven) is rich in both connotation and denotation. Furthermore, there is a symmetry in its five-movement structure, which makes for a thoroughly engaging listening experience. At the middle of the structure is the third movement, which is the Scherzo; but that movement may well be the longest-duration scherzo in the standard repertoire, if not in music history.

Where scherzos tend to be playful, this one is distinctively dark. In many ways, it is a response to the “call” of the first two movements. The first of these is a funeral march that usually lasts for about a quarter of an hour (again longer than what one finds in the repertoire of funeral marches). It is followed by a second movement with a disruptively turbulent introduction, which then settles back into another funeral march. On “the other side,” the scherzo is followed by the Adagietto movement, which is scored only for strings and solo harp. The symphony then concludes with a Rondo finale, whose thematic content reflects back on both the second and fourth movements. Taken as a whole, many would declare this to be Mahler’s most sophisticated symphonic structure; and I definitely go with that crowd in my own opinion!

This program will be given three performances, all at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 25, Friday, January 26, and Saturday, January 27. Ticket prices range from $75 to $249. 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 (now MTT Way) 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 performances two hours before the concert begins.

In addition, these performances will be preceded by a Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 25, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Sarah Cahill at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m. Admission will be free for those holding tickets for one of the three concert performances. For others general admission is $35 with $45 for reserved seats in the Premiere Orchestra section, as well as all Boxes and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

The first conductor to substitute for MTT will be Dalia Stasevska, who will be making her Orchestral Series debut. As originally planned, the concerto soloist will be Seong-Jin Cho, performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 37 (third) piano concerto in C minor. There will not be an “overture” prior to the concert; but there will be a change in the symphony to be performed after the intermission. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 36 (fourth) symphony in F minor will be replaced by Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 95 (“From the New World”) symphony in E minor.

This program will be given three performances, all at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 18, Friday, January 19, and Saturday, January 20. Ticket prices range from $25 to $225. They may be purchased online through the a hyperlink to a single SFS Web site or by any of the aforementioned alternatives.

These performances will also be preceded by a Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal. The half-hour introductory talk by Laura Prichard will again take place at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

The second conductor to substitute for MTT will be Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. In this case the concerto will occupy the entire second half of the program. The soloist will be violinist Julia Fischer, and she will play Johannes Brahms’ Opus 77 violin concerto in D major in place of the originally scheduled Opus 26 concerto in G minor by Max Bruch, his first violin concerto. This was the concerto selection that Salonen and Fischer performed earlier this month at the Nobel Prize Concert. As originally planned, the first half of the program will offer the music that Igor Stravinsky composed for the one-act ballet “Pulcinella” in 21 sections. The score includes arias for soprano (Sasha Cooke), tenor (Nicolas Phan), and bass (Luca Pisaroni), along with two sung trios.

This program will be given three performances, at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 23, and Saturday, February 24, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 25. Ticket prices range from $25 to $169. They may be purchased online through the hyperlink to a single SFS Web site or by any of the aforementioned alternatives.

De los Ángeles: “Post-Romantic” Opera

Victoria de los Ángeles on the cover of her Warner box set (from the Web page)

In my last dispatch in accounting for the Victoria de los Ángeles: The Warner Classics Edition; Complete Recordings on His Master’s Voice & La Voix de son maître anthology, I decided that it would be appropriate to separate the earlier composers from the nineteenth century (Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, Charles Gounod, and Georges Bizet) from composers that chose to work with more dramatic “post-romantic” material. This later genre flourished in both Italy and France. Italy lead the way with Giacomo Puccini and the “Cav and Pag” composers, Pietro Mascagni (“Cavalleria rusticana”) and Ruggiero Leoncavallo (“Pagliacci”). On the French side, Jules Massenet accounts for two operas (Manon and Werther). He may be viewed as the predecessor to two more recent French composers, Claude Debussy (Pelléas et Mélisande) and Jacques Offenbach. The latter is represented only by the fourth act of Les Contes d’Hoffmann, since the libretto calls for three different sopranos accounting for the three different “tales,” the last of which being the one in which de los Angeles sang the role of Antonia. The one remaining opera in the collection is Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve.

Taken as a whole, this is clearly the lion’s share of the de los Ángeles collection. From a personal point of view, I am glad to have been able to fill in some of the gaps in my library of recordings. For the most part, however, I was not particularly concerned about those gaps. At the risk of drawing fire from unhappy critics, I would say that these operas all have narratives for which the decisions of the stage director count for more than the musical expertise of the performers. Thus, where my own work is concerned, I can benefit from familiarizing myself with the music so that I can subsequently consider the role that it plays in establishing the critical elements of a fully-staged drama.

Where de los Ángeles herself is concerned, I suppose the primary issue is whether or not her talents as a vocalist carry the same impact in the recording studio as they did on the operatic stage. Readers may recall that, where the earlier operas from the nineteenth century were concerned, I was never really drawn to any of these studio recordings. However, the full collection will be released for sale on an Web page, after which readers may feel free to disagree with any of my assertions or positions!

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

SFCMP: Progressive Rock Meets High Modernism

Following up in RE:voicing, the first program in the 53rd concert season of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) in Grace Cathedral last month, the ensemble will present its second program, RE:visitations at the more conventional venue of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The “visitations” involve an encounter between the worlds of Progressive Rock and High Modernism. Each of those worlds is oriented by a “distinguished representative.”

Where rock is involved, that representative is Frank Zappa, while advanced modernism is represented by Pierre Boulez. Many might view the two as an “odd couple;” but, back when I was a researcher at the Information Sciences Institute of the University of Southern California, I was fortunate enough to attend a dialog between the two of them, which took place at the University of California at Los Angeles. This was probably the most agreeable encounter of “opposites” that I ever had an opportunity to witness.

In that context I can appreciate that the final two works on the RE:visitations program will be compositions by Boulez and Zappa, both of which were completed in 1984. Boulez’ “Dérive 1” was scored for the five instruments selected by Arnold Schoenberg for his Pierrot Lunaire with a vibraphone added for good measure. The duration of most performances runs between seven and eight minutes. (For those curious about the Boulez catalog, there is a “Dérive 2,” whose history is more elaborate. It was scored for eleven instruments, and it was originally completed in 1988. Boulez then revised it in 2002, followed by an expanded and final version, completed in 2006.)

Cover of The Perfect Stranger album (fair use to illustrate the audio recording in question)

“Dérive 1” will be followed by Zappa’s “The Perfect Stranger,” the opening track on his album of the same title. It was scored for 28 musicians; and Zappa described the content as “post-Varese with frequent gestures of acknowledge towards Messiaen.” These two pieces will be preceded by a work from the following decade, Steve Mackey’s 1997 “San Francisco,” which finds a “middle ground” between Boulez and Zappa with instrumentation for electric guitar and cello.

The first half of the program will feature world premiere performances of works by two of the SFCM students in the Technology and Applied Composition Program. Specifics have not yet been finalized. These new pieces will be preceded by Missy Mazzoli’s “Tooth and Nail,” scored for solo viola and electronics. The first half will then conclude with Louis Andriessen’s “Life,” which he composed for the soundtrack of a film by Marijke van Warmerdam. That film will be screened as part of the performance.

This program will take place on Saturday, January 27, at 8 p.m. in the SFCM Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, which is located at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. As usual, the program will be preceded at 7 p.m. by a How Music is Made discussion with Artistic Director Eric Dudley in conversation with participating SFCMP musicians. General admission will be $35 with a $40 VIP rate, and $15 for students. Tickets may be purchased online through a City Box Office event page.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

SFS to Begin New Year with Two Fifth Symphonies

Conductor Jaap van Zweden (photograph by Dario Acosta, courtesy of SFS)

Once again conductor Jaap van Zweden will lead the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in their first subscription program of the New Year. This will be the second time in which he has launched New Year’s programming in Davies Symphony Hall, the first having been in January of 2019, during his first season as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. The second half of that program was devoted entirely to Anton Bruckner’s fifth symphony.

For his return to Davies, he has prepared a program based on two other fifth symphonies. The first half of the program will be devoted entirely to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 67 in C minor, often acknowledged as the fifth symphony. The intermission will then be followed by Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 47, his return to the good graces of Stalinist authorities (particularly Joseph Stalin himself) as “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.”

This concert will be given three performances, all at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 11, Friday, January 12, and Saturday, January 13. Ticket prices range from $25 to $225. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Davies Box Office, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street (now officially renamed MTT Way in honor of Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas). 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.

In addition, these performances will be preceded by the next Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, January 11, with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk by Scott Foglesong at 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the pieces rehearsed are at the conductor’s discretion. Admission will be free for those holding tickets for one of the three concert performances. For others general admission is $35 with $45 for reserved seats in the Premiere Orchestra section, as well as all Boxes and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

Monday, December 18, 2023

The Bleeding Edge: 12/18/2023

This week will not be as busy as its predecessor. However, there will be several events during the early part of the weekend with overlaps on both Friday and Saturday. Earlier in the week will see one of the more reliable repeated events at the Make-Out Room. Of this week’s six events, two have already been announced:

  • Outsound Presents will host the second of the two LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) New Music Series events, which will take place on Wednesday, December 20.
  • A third performance of Swells will take place at Audium on Saturday, December 23.

The remaining four events will be as follows:

Tuesday, December 19, 7 p.m., Make-Out Room: This month’s Jazz at the Make-Out Room concert will consist of three sets. The program will begin with a performance by Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood ensemble. They will be followed by a trio set, performed by percussionist Jon Bafus, ROVA saxophonist Jon Raskin, and guitarist John Shiurba, which will begin at 7:45 p.m. The final set at 8:30 p.m. will present quartet improvisations by Karl Evangelista on guitar, Jordan Glenn on drums, Kumi Maxson on bass, and Mitch Stahlmann on flute. The Make-Out Room is located in the Mission at 3225 22nd Street. Doors will open at 6 p.m. There is no cover charge, so donations will be accepted and appreciated.

Friday, December 22, 7 p.m., Medicine for Nightmares Bookstore & Gallery: Reed player David Boyce will return as curator to perform “a very special solo set.” 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.

Friday, December 22, 8 p.m., Audium: Prior to Saturday’s performance, Audium will present Audium V: REWIND. Audium V was performed this past June. It presented a “rewind” to the sounds of 1969. Members of the audience could feel the inside of an old muscle-car, a Pan-American flight, and a cacophony of fog horns. This will be a one-night-only opportunity.  Audium is located at 1616 Bush Street. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. City Box Office has created a Web page for purchasing tickets. General admission (including the option for wheelchair accessibility) will be $25 with a $20 rate for students. A limited number of pay-what-you-can tickets will also be available.

Saturday, December 23, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: Beth Custer (clarinets and voice) will lead a trio, whose other members will be guitarist Will Bernard and Ellen Gronningen on violin. They will perform selections from their recent release SKY, along with some “interesting” seasonal offerings. They describe their music as “gorgeous melodies, a little raunchy blues, [and] some delicate otherworldly timbres.” For those that do not already know, 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 $25 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. This performance will also be live-streamed for a viewing fee of $10.

Sunday, December 17, 2023

SFS Chamber Music: Mozart and Brahms Rule!

This afternoon provided my first opportunity to attend the last Chamber Music Series concert performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) before the end of year. The program was framed by two piano quartets (violin, viola, cello, and piano), both of which hold high places in the overall chamber music repertoire. The two quartets were presented in chronological order: The program began with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 478 quartet in G minor and concluded with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 26 (second) quartet in A major.

By way of disclaimer I should make it clear that I cannot get enough opportunities to listen to either of these quartets, either in performance or on recording. That said, I can also confess that I tend to enjoy the Brahms’ quartet as “the better of the two equals.” This afternoon’s performance featured some of my favorite members of the string section, Acting Associate Concertmaster Wyatt Underhill, Principal viola Jonathan Vinocour, and Acting Assistant Principal cello Sébastien Gingras. The pianist was Julio Elizalde, whom I have been following for many years and most recently encountered in a performance of Ernest Bloch’s first piano quartet live streamed from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

As one can tell from the opus number, this is a relatively early composition by Brahms. He was not yet 30 years old when he composed it. There is no shortage of vigor (even if it is not quite “youthful”); and Brahms’ capacity for adding new twists whenever a theme reappears was at its finest. Indeed, by the time the quartet has advanced to its Finale movement, Brahms is delightfully playful in his unfolding of one-more-time approaches to the primary theme.

Such playfulness is also evident in the Mozart quartet. Indeed, it is easy to imagine him sitting at the keyboard romping through his own music while consistently attentive to the performance of his three colleagues. On the stage of Davies Symphony Hall, the pianist was Elizabeth Dorman, performing with David Chernyavsky on violin, Leonid Plashinov-Johnson on viola, and Gingras on cello. Mozart’s three piano quartets were composed in 1785 on a commission by Franz Anton Hoffmeister; but his finances do not seem to have improved when he “delivered the goods.” Nevertheless, even in a minor key, this quartet has an optimistic disposition, particularly in its concluding Rondo movement; and this afternoon’s performance definitely presented that disposition in the best possible light.

These “selections from the past” framed a twentieth-century composition by Arnold Bax. This was a quintet for oboe (Associate Principal James Button) and strings. The four other performers were Jessie Fellows (Acting Associate Principal Second Violin), Olivia Chen (Acting Assistant Principal Second Violin), Katie Kadarauch (Assistant Principal Viola), and cellist Peter Wyrick (holding the Lyman & Carol Casey Second Century Chair). I learned a lot about Bax thanks to a former Conservatory student, but much of that memory has faded. Nevertheless, the interplay of sonorities made it clear that Bax was an engaging composer, reminding me that it was more than a pity that I did not encounter his music more often.

Taken as a whole, the afternoon served up a generous diversity of chamber music from three different centuries, leaving me to wonder what will be in store for next year.

Hanny Launches New Year with Ron Vincent 4tet

Next month Chez Hanny will launch its 2024 series of jazz performances on New Year’s Day. The performers will be the members of the Ron Vincent Quartet. Because they performed at Bird & Beckett Books and Records this past June, that performance was captured on live-stream video and may now be viewed on a Web page curated by the Bird & Beckett YouTube Web site. That gig offered a variety of engaging straight-ahead performances, which included “Angelica,” a composition by Duke Ellington which showed up on the Impulse! album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane, along with an engaging tidbit about Charlie Chaplin’s (only?) composition (with assistance from David Raksin, best known for the score of Laura), the song “Smile.”

Pianist Ben Stolorow, bassist Peter Barshay, drummer Ron Vincent, and guitarist Brad Buethe, the members of the Ron Vincent Quartet performing at Bird & Beckett on June 2, 2023 (screen shot from the YouTube video)

Since Bird & Beckett videos are captured by a single camera, I have found that just listening to the soundtrack can often be as satisfying as watching the performers. The video also provided me with the opportunity to “introduce the band” with the above screen shot, rather than the usual biographical summary. The video itself accounts for both of the sets that the quartet performed, making for around two and a half hours of performances of thoroughly engaging straight-ahead jazz.

As stated in the very first sentence, the Chez Hanny performance by the Ron Vincent Quartet will begin at 4 p.m. on Monday, January 1. The venue is Frank Hanny’s house at 1300 Silver Avenue, with the performance taking place in the downstairs rumpus room. Those planning to attend should think about having cash for a donation of $25. All of that money will go to the musicians. There will be two sets separated by a potluck break. As a result, all who plan to attend are encouraged to bring food and/or drink to share. Seating is first come, first served; and the doors will open at 3:30 p.m.

Elizabeth Reed Leads Viol Consort for VoM

Last night Voices of Music (VoM) returned to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to present the San Francisco performance of the second program in its 2023–2024 season. The title of the program was Entertainment for Elizabeth, and there is a good chance that all of the selections on the program were, at some time or another, performed at the court of the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. Those selections were performed by a viol consort directed by Elizabeth Reed, whose other members were Wendy Gillespie, David H. Miller, Farley Pearce, and William Skeen, playing instruments of different sizes over the course of the evening. They were occasionally joined by VoM Directors Hanneke van Proosdij (recorder) and David Tayler (lute). There were also vocal selections performed by soprano Molly Netter.

I suspect that some (many?) of us attended this event as a “refuge from the flood” of “seasonal programming.” More likely is that the selections on the program had served as “dinner music” for one (or more) of the feats offered by Queen Elizabeth. Mind you, such dinners provided settings for conversations that (for better or worse) could lapse into political issues, leaving any musicians to be relegated to the background; but that’s the way things were in the sixteenth century! (Have they changed that much?)

Reed prepared a “usual suspects” program, presenting compositions by John Dowland, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and several of their lesser-known contemporaries. Netter delivered a clear account of the vocal selections, always with a keen ear to balance with the viols. I have to confess that I appreciated her contribution to that blend, since the sonorities of the viols differ only in register. As a result, there is a uniformity of instrumental coloration that contrasts significantly with the rich sonorities of a string quartet.

Thus, as the evening progressed, I began to feel as if I was experiencing too much of a good thing. A sense of “sonorous uniformity” only passed at the end of the program with two “Holiday special” selections, both of which offered novel and engaging alternatives. The first of these was Hugh Martin’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with a thoroughly effective vocal delivery of Ralph Blane’s words by Netter. Netter then shifted over to the Christmas carol “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (a rose has sprung up).

Would Elizabeth have appreciated such diversity, or would she have been too wrapped up in “head-of-state conversations?”

Saturday, December 16, 2023

De los Ángeles: Nineteenth-Century Opera

As has already been observed, the Victoria de los Ángeles: The Warner Classics Edition; Complete Recordings on His Master’s Voice & La Voix de son maître anthology offers a generous account of full-length opera performances. In dealing with the nineteenth-century repertoire, I decided that it might be appropriate to divide the “romantic” offerings from the early part of that century with more dramatic “post-romantic” operas that are more “at home” with operas from the early twentieth century. This article will focus on the earlier category, which is represented by only four composers: Gioachino Rossini (born in 1792), Giuseppe Verdi, (born in 1813), Charles Gounod (born in 1818), and Georges Bizet (born in 1838).

Rossini accounts for only one opera, The Barber of Seville; but de los Ángeles sang the role of Rosina for two recordings, the first made in June of 1952 and the second a little over ten years later in September of 1962. There are also two recordings of Gounod’s Faust, both of which involved longer recording sessions. The first was completed in June of 1953, having begun at the end of the preceding April. Recording of the second release began in September of 1958 and continued through early in the following month.  However, the “church scene,” which begins the fourth act, was actually recorded in a church, the Église Saint-Roch in Paris.

Verdi is represented by two operas, both of which were recorded only once. The earlier of these is the more (most?) familiar La traviata, which was first performed in 1853. The other is Simon Boccanegra, whose original version was composed in 1957. However, it was given a major overhaul in 1881, which is the version that is usually performed (to the extent that this opera is performed at all these days). As most readers will have guessed, the Bizet opera is Carmen in the version in which all of the text is sung.

The conductors associated with these recordings make for an interesting assortment. As some might guess, both versions of Faust were led by the same conductor, who was (of course) French: André Cluytens. Tullio Serafin is the only other conductor to lead two operas. The earlier of these is the first Barber of Seville recording, and the other is La Traviata. The most eyebrow-raising conductor is Thomas Beecham, who led the performance of Carmen.  That leaves two less-familiar conductors: Vittorio Gui for the second Barber of Seville and Gabriele Santini for Simon Boccanegra.

Unless I am mistaken, there is only one other vocalist with a major role in the collection. That is bass Boris Christoff; and his performance of Méphistophélès in Faust is definitely “worth the price of admission” (as they say). His other appearance is as Jacopo Fiesco in Boccanegra, and all I can say is that I wish I had been around to see him take this role on the stage.

This takes me to the more significant “punch line.” The conductors for all of these recordings tended to focus only on an interpretation of the score that is accurate but, in the absence of staging, not consistently expressive. Now, where an opera like Carmen is concerned, drama is critical; and the best the listener can do is reflect on a past encounter with particularly impressive staging. Given how little exposure it receives, Boccanegra is never quite up to snuff, particularly when led by a conductor who was best in his element when in an opera house.

By this time the reader is probably worrying that de los Ángeles is being treated like a “bit player.” I suspect that, had I the opportunity to see her on the stage, I might have had more to say about her. However, I fear that, over the course of my listening, I never really warmed up to any efforts she may have made to establish the nature of her character (had she made those efforts at all). The best I can say is that she made a dutiful effort to follow the conductor and do justice to the marks on paper, but I never encountered very much by way of dramatic intent.

VoM to Present Music for Court of Elizabeth I

Hanneke van Proosdij, Elizabeth Reed, Farley Pearce, Molly Netter, William Skeen, and David Tayler (courtesy of VoM)

This is one of those last-minute announcements, although it was previously included in the 2023–2024 season summary for Voices of Music (VoM). Tonight the ensemble will present the program entitled Entertainment for Elizabeth: Renaissance music from the court of Elizabeth I. Much of the program will be devoted to music for lute (performed by David Tayler) and recorder (performed by Hanneke van Proosdij). There will also be viol fantasias led by Elisabeth Reed along with viol players Wendy Gillespie, David H. Miller, Farley Pearce, and William Skeen. Finally, there will be vocal selections featuring soprano Molly Netter.

As usual, this concert will take place at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. The performance will begin tonight (December 16) at 8 p.m. General admission for individual concerts will be $60, and the reduced rate for seniors and members of SFEMS, EMA, or ARS will be $55. Full-time students with valid identification will be admitted for $5.

Dresher, Schick, and “Crew” Return to Z Space

Last night Paul Dresher and Steven Schick returned to Z Space for the first in another round of four performances of Schick Machine. The composition is as much an innovative score by Dresher as it is an imaginative approach to theater, directed by Rinde Eckert, who also provided the script. Schick thus faces a dual challenge of pursuing Eckert’s narrative while rising to the challenges of Dresher’s composition, performing on a stage filled with elaborate (and occasionally intimidating) invented instruments created by both Dresher and Daniel Schmidt.

In Eckert’s script Schick takes the role of Lazlo Klangfarben. Those who know their history of twentieth century music are probably aware of the idea of a Klangfarbenmelodie (a German word that translates as “sound-color melody”). In his early years (prior to pursuing his twelve-tone technique), Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern created compositions that Schoenberg called “timbre structure,” adding a new approach to complement polyphonic thematic lines and chord progressions. Thus, through his assumed name, Schick executes a “sound-color composition” in which the palette of colors is provided by a diversity of percussion instruments, many of which were created explicitly for this performance.

Eckert was reading the stories in the Labyrinths anthology of short stories and essays by Jorge Luis Borges. In Borges’ labyrinthine spirit, Eckert created the Klangfarben character or, as he put it in his program note, “Steve Schick as a man unable to remember Steve Schick who has named himself Lazlo Klangfarben, but still has all of Steve Schick’s memories.” This provides the foundation for what can loosely be called a plot:

Klangfarben, as opposed to Steve Schick, is an inventor. His latest brainchild is something he calls the Schick Machine, named after a percussionist he dimly recalls.

Steven Schick holding his hoop in front of the multi-key Peacock (photograph by Chi Wang, courtesy of the Paul Dresher Ensemble)

So it is that Schick-the-performer negotiates his way around a stage that is packed to the gills with invented instruments (many of which are ordinary objects, such as a hoop, that can be put to use as a musical instrument). As Schick perambulates from one sound-source to another, we come to recognize that every sound he makes evokes some aspect of his personality traits. In this respect we can view his script as an act of “talking back” to Borges.

Those familiar with Borges probably recognize the dispassionate quality of his rhetoric. It is almost as if he had decided to write as a journalist to document fictional characters and events. Schick-the-performer, on the other hand, is far from dispassionate. As we follow his journey through that stage filled with sonorous objects, we realize that even the slightest sound is sufficient to trigger an intense emotional reaction. One might say that Schick-the-performer is complemented by Schick-the-actor, where the latter evokes profound emotional reactions to every sound created by the former. One might also say that all the instrument-objects on the stage constitute a labyrinth in the Borges spirit, but Schick is anything but dispassionate in his performance of both a percussionist and an acutely sensitive listener.

Lest some readers may feel that the performance, as a whole, is a “deep dive” that might be approached reluctantly, it is important to observe that there is a crystalline clarity to the relationship between the actions we see and the sounds we hear. We may be puzzled by the character traits of Schick-Klangfarben, but there is nothing puzzling about the rich diversity of auditory experiences. Given the current time of the year for these performances, the essay by John Cage entitled “Happy New Ears” comes to mind. My own ears were more than happy with each of Schick’s encounters with a “sound object;” and I can think of no better attitude for greeting the New Year.