Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Kitka to Present World Premiere of Opera

Kitka vocalist Barbara Byers (photograph by Dorian Šilec Petek, courtesy of John Hill)

For those that have been following this site over the years, Kitka, an all-women a cappella vocal ensemble, may be best known for its annual Wintersongs tour, which would visit the Old First Presbyterian Church every December to give a performance for Old First Concerts. Astute readers probably know that they did not make such a visit last month. [corrected 1/31, 2:55 p.m.: Actually, I seem to have been less astute than at least some of my readers. That annual visit took place on December 18. This time, however, they probably had already begun preparation for a return visit to San Francisco, this time to present a staged performance of the world premiere of a recently completed opera.]

The title of this opera is BABA: The Life and Death of Stana. Karmina Šilec both composed the music and authored the libretto, and she will also direct the staging of the work’s first performance. Šilec was able to pursue this project on a commission by Kitka.

The opera has been realized as a multidisciplinary and non-narrative take on Balkan epic storytelling traditions. The advance material for this opera provides the following background:

The tradition of sworn virgins is embedded in an ancient social code present in remote rural regions of Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia. Born as women, life circumstances including the loss of male relatives in blood feuds or other vendettas, a lack of sons in the household, taking the place of a brother too ill to serve in the army, eldercare obligations, a desire to escape an oppressive arranged marriage, the death of a fiancé, abandonment by a husband – all lead these individuals to become men thereby gaining the honors, rights, privileges and freedoms of community patriarchs. Crucially, the self-professed motives of sworn virgins are more often than not social responsibility and family honor, as opposed to sexual preference or feelings of being male by nature.

The ten Kitka vocalists to perform in the cast will be Kelly Atkins, Caitlin Tabancay Austin, Leslie Bonnet, Briget Boyle, Barbara Byers, Shira Cion, Juliana Graffagna, Erin Lashnits Herman, Janet Kutulas, and Maclovia Quintana. They will be joined by two guest artists. Shira Kammen, who specializes in instruments for early music ensemble, will also perform in the cast. The other cast member will be Beth Wilmurt, who has had a long involvement with the Bay Area experimental theater scene and performs as both actor and singer. For instrumental accompaniment, Kammen will be joined by Rumen Shopov, who specializes in both Balkan Romani instruments and percussion.

The opera will be given four performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday, February 23, Friday, February 24, and Saturday, February 25, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, February 26. The venue will be Z Space, on the outer edge of the Mission at 450 Florida Street. The estimated running time is two hours and fifteen minutes, including a fifteen-minute intermission.

Standard admission will be $50, with a $25 rate for students with valid identification. Tickets for the Premium Section will be $75. There is also a $125 Pay-It-Forward Prime Ticket, which will help Kitka provide a wide range of accessible ticket options to various communities. Those purchasing these tickets will also have seating in the Premium Section. A single Web page has been created to allow for all ticket purchases by following hyperlinks on a calendar.

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Bleeding Edge: 1/30/2023

The transition from January to February is shaping up to be a relatively quiet one, at least where adventurous programming is concerned. This month will conclude with the latest gig at The Knockout, and next month will begin with the first Outsound Presents concert of the month. Under those modest circumstances, this article will also include the remaining Outsound programs in February.

from the BayImproviser event page for this week’s performance at The Knockout

Tuesday, January 31, 8 p.m., The Knockout: The last event reported on this site was a “happy hour show.” This week’s gig will be for an audience that has already celebrated its happy hour. As can be seen from the above poster, the program seems to have been originally planned for this past Wednesday. Assuming that the events listed on the poster are in reverse chronological order (which is often the case) the program will begin with a set by the Grex duo of Karl Evangelista on guitar and Rei Scampavia on keyboards. They will be followed by Gentleman Surfer, an “avant progressive” band led by Jon Bafus and based in Sacramento. The volume will then be cranked up to eleven for the final set by Nine Dog Dick, a free improvisation/noise group whose members are Matt Chandler, Doug Katelus, Jay Korber, and Tom Weeks. The Knockout is located in the Mission at 3223 Mission Street (across from Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack). Doors will open at 8 p.m. Admission will be $7.

Wednesday, February 1, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery (LSG): The first LSG Creative Music Series event of the month will follow the usual format of a two-set program with sets beginning at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., respectively. Both sets will be solo improvisations on tenor saxophone. Kevin Robinson will take the first set, and Joshua Allen will take the second. The remaining Outsound Presents concerts of the month will be as follows in chronological order:

  • Sunday, February 12, 7:30 p.m., Musicians Union Hall: The opening set of the SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series program will present vocalist Dina Emerson, who worked with Meredith Monk (performing in her ATLAS opera and other compositions) and many other adventurous performers based on the East Coast. She will give a duo performance with Philip Everett who works with electronic gear under the performing name of Skullkrusher. The second set will be a solo percussion performance by Tatsuya Nakatani. The venue 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.
  • Wednesday, February 15, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: The second LSG Creative Music Series event will present three sets. The first set will be taken by Jeff Klukowski, who performs as “Alphastare” and works with field recordings, tape loops, the occasional acoustic instrument, and various synthesizers. Seymour Glass (who assumes you have read books by J. D. Salinger) gives live performances of electroacoustic sound collage, combining prerecorded and manipulated found sound, electronics, tapes played back at varying speeds, radio and other mass media transmissions, acoustic amplification of found objects, and voice. His set will begin at 8:45 p.m. The final set will be a duo improvisation for reeds and electronics performed by Jorge Bachmann and Jaroba beginning at 9:15 p.m.

O1C: Two Centuries; Two Women Composers

Last night cellist Stephen Harrison returned to Old First Church to present the Ives Collective in the final Old First Concerts (O1C) program of the month of January. His co-manager, violinist Susan Freier, was unable to attend due to injury. She was replaced by Robin Sharp, performing with violinist Kay Stern, violist Clio Tilton, and, during the second half of the program, pianist Elizabeth Schumann.

1842 portrait of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The program was structured around women composers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The first half was dedicated to Fanny Mendelssohn with a performance of her only string quartet, written in the key of E-flat major and composed a few years after her marriage to Wilhelm Hensel in 1829. As I recently observed, I have been aware of that quartet since January of 2013, which is when Quatuor ébène released their Felix and Fanny CD; and I rather regret that I have not had more opportunities to listen to the piece. When I first wrote about it for Examiner.com, I tried to make the case that Fanny was more imaginative than her brother Felix in both melodic structure and harmonic progressions; and the freshness of my listening experience in 2013 quickly came back to me last night. Nevertheless, Felix was given the “last word” on the first half of the program with one of his last works, the Adagio (third) movement from his Opus 80 quartet in F minor, which seems to have reflected his awareness that he would not live much longer.

The second half of the program was devoted entirely to Florence Price’s A minor piano quintet. This may have been more familiar listeners, particularly those following the Catalyst Quartet of violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez. They performed this quintet with pianist Michelle Cann last April during their final Uncovered series recital for San Francisco Performances, named after the series of albums they have been producing for Azica Records.

Listening to the music again I was once again reminded that Price was probably influenced by her encounters with the music of Antonín Dvořák. However, she very much had her own way in dealing with four-movement structures. Many of her compositions substitute a Juba for the Scherzo movement, and this quintet is one of them. However, she seems to have then felt that the Scherzo was getting neglected; so her final movement was a Scherzo, rather than a more “classical” form.

Truth be told (as they say), I was more interested in refreshing my knowledge of Price’s quintet than in the opening selections. The quintet was one of those pieces that was only discovered in 2009, one of a chestful of manuscripts. This was a major find in mapping out Price’s repertoire as a composer, and I expect that the map is still being drawn. However, while the music historians are hard at work, we can still enjoy the efforts of those trying to bring all that previously-unknown music into performance venues. The Ives Collective definitely deserves credit for contributing to those efforts.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Catalyst Finalizes Programs for PIVOT Series

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

Readers may recall that San Francisco Performances announced this past summer that the Catalyst Quartet would curate the 2023 PIVOT Festival. The Festival, which was created eight years ago with adventurous audiences in mind, will serve as a platform for the Uncovered series, which was launched with Catalyst serving as curator. The ensemble, whose members are violinists Karla Donehew Perez and Abi Fayette, violist Paul Laraia, and cellist Karlos Rodriguez, will perform with a visiting guest artist during the first two Festival concerts, while the final concert will be devoted entirely to the quartet. Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott will join the group for its first program, and cellist Marcy Rosen with be featured during the second.

Pianist and radio host Sarah Cahill will introduce the composers to the audience with a Prelude lecture that will begin an hour before the program. She will then moderate a question and answer session following the conclusion of each program. The other figure to be involved in all three of the programs will be the composer, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He composed three collections of six string quartets. Those in the second set, given the title “Au gout du jour” (in contemporary taste), will be performed over the course of the Festival, the first two quartets opening the first concert, the third opening the second, and the remaining three opening the third.

The performances will all begin at 7:30 p.m. on three successive evenings: Tuesday, February 21, Wednesday, February 22, and Thursday, February 23. As already mentioned, Cahill’s Preludes will begin at 6:30 p.m. on each of those evenings. The works that will follow the Saint-Georges quartets will be as follows:

February 21: McDermott will joint Catalyst to perform Amy Beach’s Opus 67 piano quintet in F-sharp minor. She will also contribute to the piano trio in E minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The remaining works on the program will be Miguel Bernal-Jimenez’ “Cuarteto Virreinal” and Rebecca Clarke’s “Dumka.”

February 22:  Rosen will join Catalyst to perform Ethel Smyth’s Opus 1 quintet. The quartet will play Teresa Carreño’s quartet in B minor. The remaining work on the program will be a single-movement string trio by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson.

February 23: The remaining works on the program will be quartets by Germaine Tailleferre, Antônio Carlos Gomes, and Fanny Mendelssohn.

As usual the venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is the main entrance to the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Subscriptions are now on sale for $180 for premium seating in the Orchestra and the front and center of the Dress Circle, $150 for the Side Boxes, the center rear of the Dress Circle, and the remainder of the Orchestra, and $120 for the remainder of the Dress Circle and the Balcony. Subscriptions may be purchased online in advance through an SFP Web page. Orders may be placed by calling the SFP subscriber hotline at 415-677-0325, which is open for receiving calls between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Single tickets are also now on sale. The ticket prices are $65, $55, and $45. All single tickets may be purchased by visiting the specific event pages. The above dates provide hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages.

An Eclectic Band of SFCM Alumni

Cover of the album being discussed (from the Bandcamp Web page)

Three weeks ago I first learned about Love Can’t Save You, Padmé. This was a combo consisting of alumni from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music dating back to a more adventurous time at that institution than seems to be currently the case. They call themselves an “eclectic band,” which pretty much gives the flexibility to explore whatever genres interest them. All of the members compose, arrange, perform, and improvise as a group, resulting in songs that are, for the most part, decidedly unique.

The members of the group include Jessie Nucho on different sizes of flutes, Justine Preston on both violin and viola, Tim Sherrin on guitar, Emma Logan on vibraphone and other percussion, and Erin O’Meally on vocals. There are also two “eclectic” performers, both of whom provide backing vocals and play multiple instruments. For Patrick Smith those instruments are guitar, bass, and piano. Michael Kropf also plays piano along with synthesizers and violin. The group’s latest album, Far Calls, was released at the beginning of this month and is available for streaming and download from a Bandcamp Web page. At least some of the tracks on this album include additional drum work by Christian Aimér.

Ten of the eleven tracks are original creations. “Les Tendres Plaintes” is a rondeau that begins a suite in D major that is included in the 1724 Pièces de Clavessin [sic] composed by Jean-Philippe Rameau. It was arranged for the Love Can’t Save You, Padmé ensemble by Sherrin. Personally, I think that Sherrin’s arrangement captures the plaintive qualities of this music better than any solo harpsichord. In another vein I have to say that I am old enough to appreciate the possibly cynical sharp edges encountered on the track titled “The Judy Garland Christmas Show.” Those that shy away from cynicism are more likely to be drawn to the two tracks entitled “Nocturne,” both of which make it clear that this genre has a “home” in the 21st century that is just as accommodating as in previous centuries.

On the other hand some of the tracks remind me of the distance between my age and the average age of the Love Can’t Save You, Padmé players. Nevertheless, just about any listening experience involves some degree of acquired taste. My guess is that I shall acquire enough familiarity to revisit this album from time to time.

Zoran Dukić’ Solo Recital for Omni

Croatian guitarist Zoran Dukić (courtesy of the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts)

As was announced at the beginning of this month, last night the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts presented the first of the four solo recitals in its Dynamite Guitars series. The recitalist was the Croatian classical guitarist Zoran Dukić, who was last seen in the premiere of a recital video, which was released by Omni this past August. Last night’s program was an inventive one, exploring an engaging diversity of repertoire sources.

The first half was devoted entirely to an interleaving of Johann Sebastian Bach and Astor Piazzolla. The “spinal cord” of the set consisted four movements from the collection of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin. In “order of appearance” these were as follows:

  1. The Siciliana from the BWV 1001 sonata in G minor
  2. The Andante from the BWV 1003 sonata in A minor
  3. The Largo from the BWV 1005 sonata in C major
  4. The Sarabanda from the BWV 1004 partita in D minor

Between these offerings were the three Piazzolla compositions:

  1. “Invierno Porteño,” the second (winter) “season” in Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteños, which Piazzolla originally composed for his own tango band and was arranged for solo guitar by Sérgio Assad
  2. “Adio Nonino”
  3. “La Muerte del Angel” in an arrangement by Leo Brouwer

These seven pieces were played without interruption, providing an engaging sense of a unified whole.

The second half of the program returned to Piazzolla with “Oblivion” in another arrangement, this time by Roland Dyens. This was preceded by three selections, beginning with Dušan Bogdanović’s “Lament” followed by “Choro da Saudade” and “Caazapá,” both by Agustín Barrios. The program concluded with Cinema Paradiso by Stephen Goss, a suite of six movements, each evocative of some aspect of cinematic history. Dukić took a single encore, which I think was his own arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia.”

Taken as a whole, the recital was imaginatively informed and consistently engaging. I found Goss’ suite to be a bit contrived, but I still enjoyed his “Noir” movement. This was a nod to Miles Davis, who provided the music cues for Louis Malle’s film Elevator to the Gallows. However, the interplay between Bach and Piazzolla was definitely the high point of the evening.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Salonen’s Next Programs in February and March

Beginning around the middle of next month and lasting into the first days of March, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct four programs all highlighting the piano. As might be guessed, each program will present a different pianist; and one of them will be making his SFS debut. Those programs will precede Salonen’s first European residencies tour with SFS, which will begin on March 9 and conclude at the end of the following week on March 17. The performances will take place at the Philharmonie de Paris in France, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, and the Philharmonie Luxembourg in the Kirchberg quarter of Luxembourg City. San Francisco program dates are as follows:

February 17–19: Pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard will return to Davies Symphony Hall as soloist for Béla Bartók’s second piano concerto. The “overture” for the program will be the orchestral version of Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin suite (excluding the Fugue and Toccata movements of the earlier piano version). Instead of a symphony, the program will conclude with a suite of selections from the music for the four-act ballet Romeo and Juliet composed by Sergei Prokofiev.

February 20: The second pianist will be Lang Lang, and he will make a special one-night-only appearance. His selection will be Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto, which will account for the entirety of the first half of the program. The second half will shift from Norway to Finland with a performance of Jean Sibelius’ fifth symphony.

February 23, 25, and 26: This will be the program at which pianist Conor Hanick will make his SFS debut. He will also account for the entirety of the first half of the program, which will be the world premiere of “No Such Spring,” composed by Samuel Adams on an SFS commission. The title reflects his having listened to Igor Stravinsky’s music for the ballet “The Rite of Spring” around the time that Russia began to invade Ukraine. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Anton Bruckner’s rarely performed sixth symphony.

This program will also be given a Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal on February 23. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk 9 a.m. The rehearsal itself begins at 10 a.m.; and, of course, the music to be rehearsed will be entirely at the conductor’s discretion. General admission is $30 with $40 for reserved seats in the Premiere Orchestra section, the Side and Rear Boxes, and the Loge. Tickets may be purchased online through a separate event page.

March 1 and 2: The final pianist will be Yuja Wang, who will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto, which, thanks to the movie Shine, has become notorious for its difficulty. The concerto will account for the entire second half of the program. The opening selection will be Gabriella Smith’s “Tumblebird Contrails,” which was performed by the SFS Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) in March of last year. Smith’s composition will be followed by a Salonen work, “Nyx,” which was also performed by SFSYO during the final program of that same season. This program will be presented as part of the Great Performers Series, rather than the usual subscription series. In addition all three works will be performed during the European residencies tour.

March 4: Finally, the last SFS performance prior to the tour will be the March SoundBox event. Both Salonen and Wang will participate, and Salonen will share conducting duties with Ross Jamie Collins. The title of the program is Codes, and it will be curated by composer and SFS Collaborative Partner Nico Muhly. Salonen will conduct Muhly’s arrangement of two of the motets composed by William Byrd, as well as his own “FOG,” scored for thirteen instruments. Other contemporary composers contributing to the program will include Caroline Shaw and Billy Childs. This program will also be taken on the European tour for performance in both Paris and Hamburg.

All tickets may be purchased through the hyperlinks attached to the above dates, as well as the separate hyperlink for the Open Rehearsal. They may also be purchased by calling the SFS Box Office at 415-864-6000. One can also visit the Box Office by way of the main entrance to Davies Symphony Hall on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. This is also the entrance for all performances except SoundBox, which has its own entrance on the northeast corner of Franklin Street and Hayes Street.

BBC Legends 3: Pianist Emil Gilels

The final installment in the latest BBC Legends series presents the last of the five pianists featured in the entire collection. Emil Gilels was born in Odessa, the same as Shura Cherkassky; and that city is also where Sviatoslav Richter spent the better part of his youth. However, shared geography definitely does not make for shared repertoire; and the Gilels album casts a much wider web than either of those other two pianists. Sadly, that breadth of content does not consistently make for depth of understanding.

The first half of the album was recorded at a recital at St John’s, Smith Square in London. This is a redundant church (no longer used for worship) that was converted into a concert hall in the Sixties, the first recital taking place on October 6, 1969. Gilels was recorded there on October 15, 1984. The recording coupled a selection of seven keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti with Claude Debussy’s Pour le piano three-movement suite. “Reflets dans l’eau,” from Debussy’s first Images book, served as an encore. The remainder of the album was recorded over a decade earlier at Congregational Memorial Hall (also in London) on April 22, 1957.

My own encounters with Gilels’ performances has not been particularly positive. I was first aware of him when I heard a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 83 (second) piano concerto in B-flat major on the radio. The recording I had was one of my parents’ first long-playing purchases, featuring Rudolf Serkin as the concerto soloist. Even before the credits were announced at the end of the performance, I found the solo work to be unpleasantly ham-fisted. As a result, I was not surprised to come away from the Scarlatti and Debussy performances with a similar impression.

The Memorial Hall selections begin with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 90 sonata in E minor. There tended to be rather generous swings to extremes where both dynamics and tempo were concerned. In this case, however, I had no trouble accepting that Gilels’ “got” what the composer had in mind and could present those ideas to the attentive listener in a coherent way.

The remaining selections brought Gilels to “Russian territory.” Both Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Prokofiev were represented by early sonatas, Opus 30 in F-sharp major for the former and Opus 28 in A minor for the latter. These were separated by six of the twenty short pieces collected in Prokofiev’s Opus 22 under the title Visions fugitives.

I was definitely satisfied by the rhetorical stances that Gilels took for all of these Russian selections. On the other hand I have other sources for both the sonatas and the Opus 22 collection in its entirety. As a result, I doubt that I shall spend much time in the future with this final BBC Legends CD.

Friday, January 27, 2023

Stravinsky Moves From Balanchine to Possokhov

On the advice of a friend, who had joined me this past Wednesday for the opening night of the last of the three next@90 programs currently being presented by the San Francisco Ballet (SFB), I spent part of this morning watching the Dance in America video of the New York City Ballet performing George Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto.” The high point of the SFB evening was the final selection on the program, Yuri Possokhov’s “Violin Concerto,” which he described as bringing “fresh eyes” to choreographing Stravinsky’s concerto. Watching the Balanchine version, I quickly realized how much work must have gone into Possokhov’s achievement; but I also realized that each version had its own distinctive merits.

George Balanchine plays with geometry (beyond semaphore signals) in his “Stravinsky Violin Concerto (screen shot from the Dance in America video being discussed)

In Balanchine’s case many of those merits were retrospective. In my early days of writing about his choreography, I provoked both friends and colleagues with my observations of that choreographer’s interest in semaphore signals. I never meant this to be pejorative. Many of Balanchine’s “abstract” ballets owe much to a keen sense of geometry, and semaphore signals can be taken as a physical realization of basic geometric patterns.

However, there is much more to “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” than nods to semaphore signals, explicit or implicit. Of much greater importance is the wit that Balanchine brought to so many of the works he created. In a ballet like “Apollo,” that wit is low-key and worthy of a sly chuckle or two. On the other hand there is “Rubies,” the second of the three Jewels ballets.

Last Wednesday I offered that ballet as a source of “some of Balanchine’s sassiest moves;” but, truth be told (as they say), Balanchine was never shy about letting his sassiness get raucous. In that context “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” can be seen as a successor to “Rubies,” taking that “rhetoric of raucousness” to the next level. When I watched the Dance in America video, my laughs were loud enough that my wife in the next room wanted to know what I was doing.

In the War Memorial Opera House, on the other hand, I did not hear any laughter or even concealed snickers. Yes, there was, as I wrote on Wednesday, “ample room for belly laughs;” but the prevailing spirit in the house was not inclined in that direction. Furthermore, in my side-by-side viewing, I would say that Possokhov was inclined to a more subtle sense of humor, while Balanchine like to tickle the funny-bone by packing both classical tradition and show-biz hoofing into the same body. (“Rubies” is best interpreted as a crew of Vegas hoofers that happened to have blundered their way into a classical ballet company.)

Those that have not yet seen the third next@90 program and plan to do so might consider clicking that Dance in America hyperlink before going to the Opera House.

MTT: Adventurous Repertoire Disappoints

Last night Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) returned to Davies Symphony Hall to lead the San Francisco Symphony in the third of the four subscription programs he prepared. The program presented two early compositions by Claude Debussy, one of the sixteen Chôros compositions by Heitor Villa-Lobos, and an adventurous cantata by Olivier Messiaen. MTT may have planned his program on a theme of “exploration and discovery;” but, for the most part, the performances of those selections barely registered with attentive listening and tended to fizzle long before the final measures would emerge.

The boldest selection was probably Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la Présence Divine (three short liturgies of the Divine Presence). This involved an impressive diversity of instrumentation, since the string section was joined only by a solo piano (Jean-Yves Thibaudet), a solo ondes Martenot (Cynthia Millar), a celesta, a percussion section consisting of Chinese cymbals, maracas, tam-tam, and vibraphone, and a chorus of sopranos and altos. Most of the percussion instruments were at their usual rear location, but Jacob Nissly’s vibraphone was situated between the piano and the ondes Martenot.

During the intermission, several members of the audience headed to the edge of the stage to get a look at the ondes Martenot, and Millar generously provided them with an introduction to the instrument. That explanatory encounter may have been more engaging than the music itself. Messiaen provided his own text for the chorus. This may have been an intimate confession of his Catholic devotion, but the union of music with the text tended to involve a limited vocabulary of motifs that were repeated too many times. This could easily have been an act of intense religious devotion; but, as a concert experience, the 40-minute composition overstayed its welcome long before the halfway mark.

Following the intermission Thibaudet returned to perform Claude Debussy’s three-movement “Fantaisie,” scored for piano and orchestra. This is a relatively early composition, completed in 1890. This music was never performed during the composer’s lifetime. The first soloist was Alfred Cortot, playing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on November 20, 1919. The full score would not be published until 1920. Regrettably, last night’s performance never really registered, perhaps explaining why Debussy himself never felt that the score had been completed to his satisfaction. (He apparently worked on a second version after 1910.) More successful was the more familiar opening to the concert, Debussy’s “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune,” which was composed in 1894. For all of its brevity, this was the most engaging listening experience of the evening.

A small chocalho (photograph by Qniemiec, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The Villa-Lobos selection was “Chôros No. 10,” one of the few to be given a title, “Rasga o coração” (it tears your heart). The Wikipedia page for the Chôros compositions lists the instrumentation as follows: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 2 timpani, tam-tam, tambourine, tambor, caxambu (named after a Brazilian river), 2 puítas, surdo, drums, reco-reco (large and small), chocalhos (shakers, see above) de metal e de madeira, piano, harp, strings. Most of the unfamiliar words refer to Brazilian instruments from the percussion family. The performance amounted to about twelve minutes of energetic rhythms and diverse sonorities; but here, again, the execution of the score never seemed to register.

By the end of the evening, one felt the experience of a promising program that never really lived up to its promise.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Concerts at the Cadillac to Host SFRT

The San Francisco Recovery Theatre (SFRT) is a grassroots performance organization based in the Tenderloin led by Artistic Director Geoffrey Grier. In November of 2012, the company presented Night At The Black Hawk, a revue celebrating one of the most significant jazz venues in San Francisco, which operated between 1949 and 1963. The location was a venue for many recordings by leading artists that included Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Ahmad Jamal. The revue was structured around two one-act plays, Grier’s “The Spot” and “The Dutchman,” one of the best known plays by Amiri Baraka.

Tomorrow Concerts at the Cadillac will host the performance of Another Night at the Black Hawk. The actors will include Eric Ward, Vernon Medearis, Sherrie Taylor, and Gale Rosemond. Music will be provided by pianist Dave Austin and the Trio de Swing, whose members were Gorden Fels on reeds, Chuck Bennett on bass, and Bob Blankenship on drums when I last wrote about them in August of 2019. They will be joined by James Hundon on harmonica.

As was the case with last month’s Concerts at the Cadillac event, this show will begin at 1 p.m. tomorrow, Friday, January 27. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street. The lobby features the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, which will be Austin’s instrument. It is a meticulously restored 1884 Model D Steinway concert grand, whose original soundboard is still intact. All Concerts at the Cadillac events are presented without charge. The purpose of the series is to provide high-quality music to the residents of the hotel and the Tenderloin District; but all are invited to visit the venue that calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907.”

BBC Legends 3: Two Dark Fourth Symphonies

The penultimate CD in the latest BBC Legends release consists of two fourth symphonies from the early twentieth century. They were performed in the Royal Albert Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra led by Malcolm Sargent. The first of these, Ralph Vaughan William’s fourth symphony in F minor, first performed on April 10, 1935, was recorded on August 16, 1963. The second was Jean Sibelius’ Opus 63, recorded on September 2, 1965. This is a much earlier composition, given its debut on April 3, 1911. Taken together, these could have made for a concert program unto itself; but it would probably be too grim for most audiences. For those that recall my observations about Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 65 (eighth) symphony in C minor (the fourteenth album in the collection), this is another “Force be with you” recording!

I have to say that, however pessimistic the rhetoric may be, both of these symphonies offer much to engage the attention of the serious listener. I am pretty sure that I have only heard the Sibelius in concert, and that was a San Francisco Symphony performance conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. I later found a DVD of him conducting the same composition with the Boston Symphony Orchestra when he was much younger. Clearly, this is music that he has relished (since “enjoyed” does not seem appropriate) over the course of his entire career.

On the other hand I have been somewhat disappointed that Vaughan Williams does not receive much attention here in San Francisco. This reminds me of the old joke about the monorail being “an idea of the future that time has passed.” There is richly extensive diversity in the Vaughan Williams catalog, and I continue to treasure the box set of Adrian Boult conducting all nine symphonies for EMI. (These were recorded in sessions with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Philharmonia Orchestra, and the London Symphony Orchestra.) More recently, readers may recall that I have been following the Vaughan Williams Live series released by SOMM Recordings, the fourth volume of which is currently scheduled for release at the beginning of next month.

The recordings for this BBC Legends collection are now over half a century old, and their release on this CD does a great service to music that does not deserve to be forgotten.

SFB: next@90 Concludes on a High Note

Sasha Mukhamedov and Joseph Walsh rehearsing Yuri Possokhov's “Violin Concerto” (photograph by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of SFB)

Due to a heavy schedule, I was unable to attend the first of the three programs presented by San Francisco Ballet (SFB) under the title next@90. That amounted to viewing six of the nine ballets in the collection, each the world premier of a creation by a different choreographer. In that context only one of those six ballets left me with an enthusiastic sense of satisfaction, and this turned out to be a matter of saving the best for the last. At last night’s first performance of the premieres of the final three ballets, Yuri Possokhov’s “Violin Concerto” emerged as the only satisfying experience in my journey.

Possokhov is SFB Choreographer in Residence, and the title of his ballet refers to the concerto composed by Igor Stravinsky. George Balanchine had previously created choreography for this concerto, and Possokhov knew that choreography well. However, he decided that this was music that could be approached with “fresh eyes.”

Indeed, freshness was the prevailing rhetoric of Possokhov’s choreography. At the same time, it also served as a reflection on how some of Balanchine’s sassiest moves were inspired by Stravinsky’s music. (Personally, I find the sassiest of those moves at the heart of the “Rubies” ballet from the Jewels trilogy.) For that matter, the music itself amounts to a Bronx cheer aimed at a tradition of violin concertos that goes all the way back to the Baroque period.

Indeed, the titles of the four movements are more likely to be associated with Johann Sebastian Bach than with any of the popular nineteenth-century violin concertos. The first movement is a toccata, followed by two “Aria” movements and concluding with a capriccio. Nevertheless, the music presents Stravinsky at his most prankish, and Possokhov seems to have approached the choreography in the spirit that one good prank deserves another. If Stravinsky’s score tends to elicit sly smiles when it is played at a symphony concert, Possokhov’s choreography finds ample room for belly laughs in all four of the concerto movements. Those moves provided a stimulating complement to the sassy violin passages, given a highly satisfying account by concertmaster Cordula Merks.

Furthermore, that choreography is ensemble work at its best. Yes, one can enjoy brief solo turns taken by the individual dancers; but it is the overall geometry of how the dancers are deployed that steals the show. The stage setting for that geometry is kept limited to a series of high walls, each with a ballet barre in the front. The surfaces are used to project music notation and photographs of the composer; and, when the curtain descends at the conclusion we see a photograph of Stravinsky that seems to be beaming with appreciation.

Sadly, neither of the two preceding works came close to matching the many qualities of “Violin Concerto.” Ironically, they were presented in the opposite direction of appearance in the program book; and, if you did not look in the right place in the lobby, you would not have known about this shuffle. Since there was little to register vivid recall in either Claudia Schreier’s “Kin” or Nicolas Blanc’s “Gateway to the Sun,” the order did not seem to matter very much. More important was that Blanc’s choreography was set to what amounted to a concerto for cello and chamber ensemble by Anna Clyne; and Eric Sung gave a dynamite account of the cello part.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

SFO Announces 2023–24 Season Repertory

Those that follow the San Francisco Opera (SFO) know that this is the time of the year when plans for the next season are announced. As in the past, a full subscription will account for eight main-stage productions, five in the fall and three in the summer. Also as in the past, I have used this as an occasion to reflect, rather than report, identifying “points of interest” for each of those productions. In “order of appearance,” the operas to be presented are as follows:

Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi: This will be the latest revival of a production created by David McVicar, shared with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. For this season the Director will be Roy Rallo. It would probably be fair to say that this opera is better known for the chorus that begins the second act (generally known as the “Anvil Chorus”) than for any of the sublime arias and duets by the leading characters. That scene introduces us to the gypsy Azucena, who will be sung by mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili. The overall plot involves a “love triangle” in which the the troubadour of the title Manrico (tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz) rivals the Conte di Luna (baritone George Petean, making his SFO debut) for the hand of the noble Leonora (soprano Angel Blue). Caroline H. Hume Music Director Eun Sun Kim will conduct.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates: This opera was composed with an English-language libretto by Mark Campbell on a joint commission by Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, SFO, and the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, with support from Cal Performances. It was first performed in Santa Fe in 2017, and the San Francisco debut had to be rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Staging will be by Kevin Newbury, who directed the premiere in Santa Fe. The leading male roles of the libretto will be given SFO debut performances. Jobs will be sung by baritone John Moore; and his partner “Woz” (Steve Wozniak) will be sung by tenor Bille Bruley. Mezzo Sasha Cooke sang the role of Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell in Santa Fe, and she will return to that role for the SFO performances. Michael Christie, who conducted in Santa Fe, will also conduct here in San Francisco.

Lohengrin by Richard Wagner: This will be the first American production of staging that David Alden created for The Royal Opera, based in Covent Garden in London. The title role will be performed by heldentenor Simon O’Neill. Elsa of Brabant, who will become Lohengrin’s wife (accompanied by some of the most familiar music in the repertoire) will be sung by former Adler Fellow Julie Adams. The “opposition” roles of Friedrich of Telramund and his wife Ortrud will be sung, respectively, by baritone Brian Mulligan and mezzo Judit Kutasi, making her SFO debut. Kim will conduct.

Omar by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels: This opera is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an Islamic scholar in West Africa who was sold into slavery in Charleston, South Carolina. Giddens wrote the libretto and composed the music with assistance from Abels. The work was co-commissioned and co-produced by the Spoleto Festival USA, the Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Los Angeles Opera, the Boston Lyric Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The premiere was planned for the 2020 Spoleto Festival; but, due to the pandemic, it was postponed until 2022. The title role was sung by tenor Jamez McCorkle, who will use that role to make his SFO debut. The world premiere was conducted by John Kennedy, and he will also make his SFO debut.

L'elisir d'amore (the elixir of love) by Gaetano Donizetti: Following four serious narratives, the fall season will conclude with no-holds-barred comedy. This will be a new production directed by Daniel Slater working with choreographer Tim Clayton, who will be making his SFO debut. It was originally created by Opera North in the United Kingdom, and in the United States it is being co-produced with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The setting for the narrative will be advanced into the 1950s. The love-struck Nemorino will be sung by tenor Pene Pati (except in November 29, when he will be replaced by Jonah Hoskins, who will be making his SFO debut). His love interest Adina will be sung by soprano Slávka Zámečníková; and bass Renato Girolami will sing the role of Dr. Dulcamara, who “invents” the elixir of the title. The conductor will be Ramón Tebar, who will be making his SFO debut.

The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: The diversity of this season is such that every opera has a different composer. Mozart will begin the summer season with his K. 620 opera The Magic Flute. The libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder provides a light-hearted approach to what narratologists often call the “hero narrative.” The “hero” is Tamino, whose role will be sung by tenor Amitai Pati. The object of his quest is Pamina (soprano Christina Gansch); and the quest is presented to him by the Queen of the Night (soprano Anna Simińska, making her SFO debut). The “hero’s assistant” is Papageno (baritone Lauri Vasar, also making his SFO debut). The staging of the narrative will be by Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade (both making SFO debuts); and it amounts to a study of what happens when a hero narrative runs headlong into low comedy.This production was first presented by the Komische Oper Berlin, followed by performances in the United States by both the Los Angeles Opera and the Minnesota Opera. Kim will conduct.

“Innocence” by Kaija Saariaho: This will be the only one-act opera of the season (although its duration will be about one hour and 45 minutes). The libretto is by Sofi Oksanen, translated into English by Aleksi Barrière. However, the libretto also includes texts in Finnish, Czech, French, Romanian, Swedish, German, Spanish, and Greek. The performance also includes the Finnish folk singer Vilma Jää. The narrative is a harrowing story of emotional shock and surprise in which our understanding of innocence and guilt is continually upended. Staging will be by Simon Stone, making his SFO debut. The conductor, Clément Mao-Takacs will also be making his SFO debut.

Partenope by George Frideric Handel: The revival of Christopher Alden’s staging of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 27 Partenope was scheduled for the summer of 2020. As expected, those performances were cancelled due to lockdown conditions in response to COVID-19. Countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński was scheduled to sing the role of Armindo for his American staged opera debut. Instead, that debut took place this past fall when he sang (and danced) the role of Orpheus in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. When Partenope closes out the 2023–24 season, the pratfalls given to the role of Armindo by director Christopher Alden will be executed by countertenor Nicholas Tamagna for his SFO debut. The title role will also be an SFO debut, sung by soprano Julie Fuchs. The conductor will be Christopher Moulds, who made his SFO debut in June of 2019, when he conducted Handel’s HWV 31 Orlando.

Further information can be found on the Season at a Glance Web page on the SFO Web site. Currently, only subscription orders are being processed. A Web page has been created that summarizes both subscriber benefits and the diversity of subscription plans.

BBC Legends 3: Szeryng’s Mozart and Vivaldi

The eighteenth CD in the latest BBC Legends release is based entirely on a performance that took place on February 26, 1972 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. The featured artist was violinist Henryk Szeryng performing as both concerto soloist and conductor of the English Chamber Orchestra. The opening selection is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 216 (third) violin concerto. This is followed by the first four of the twelve concertos collected by Antonio Vivaldi as his Opus 8, entitled Il cimento dell'armonia e dell'inventione (the contest between harmony and invention). Those four concertos have a more familiar title of their own: The Four Seasons. The program concludes with an encore selection of the final Allegro movement from the eighth in Vivaldi’s Opus 3 collection of twelve concertos, entitled L'estro armonico (the harmonic inspiration). The concerto was scored for two violins in the key of A minor, and the second violin soloist was José Luis Garcia.

Szeryng had an extensive catalog of recordings covering an impressive breadth of music history. In writing about those recordings, I felt obliged to write:

It is also worth noting that Szeryng’s recordings of Bach and Mozart were made at a time before critics started to discuss seriously matters of historically-informed performance.

By 1972 audiences were becoming more familiar with the implications of historically-informed performance, but this BBC album suggests that Szeryng never really changed with the times, even when his Mozart recordings with Paul Sacher were made with a chamber orchestra. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of expressive interpretation in his approaches to both Mozart and Vivaldi, even if his expressiveness is the result of twentieth-century aesthetics, rather than those of earlier periods.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Albany Consort Announces Next SF Appearance

Those that have followed this site regularly for some time probably know by now that the most likely way to encounter a performance by the Albany Consort within the San Francisco limits is to follow the schedule of events presented by Noontime Concerts™ at Old St. Mary's Cathedral. As to when such performances take place, they tend to mark the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach on March 31, 1685 with a program prepared for a “nearby” Tuesday. This year, however, the Albany Consort will return to Old St. Mary’s to celebrate Valentine’s Day, which will actually be a Tuesday.

The celebration will involve the performance of the HWV 82 cantata by George Frideric Handel, which has actually been given three titles. They are as follows:

  1. Amarilli vezzosa (charming Amaryllis)
  2. Daliso ed Amarilli (Daliso and Amaryllis)
  3. Il duello amoroso (the love duel)

The vocalists for the two characters in this cantata will be countertenor Charles Humphries and soprano Rita Lilly. The instrumentalists will be violists Rachel Hurwitz and Shelby Yamin, Marion Rubinstein alternating between recorder and organ, Jonathan Salzedo on harpsichord, and Roy Whelden playing viola da gamba. The program will also include music by both Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. Finally, following the performance, chocolate, fruit, juice, and wine will be served to mark the occasion.

Like all events in the Noontime Concerts™ series, the performance will take place in the sanctuary of Old Saint Mary’s beginning at 12:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, February 14. The cathedral is located at 660 California Street, on the northeast corner of Grant Street. There is no charge for admission, but this concert series relies heavily on donations to continue offering its weekly programs.

BBC Legends 3: Rozhdestvensky at the Ballet

Yesterday’s article about the sixteenth CD in the latest BBC Legends release cited Gennady Rozhdestvensky serving as conductor for two concerto performances by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Rozhdestvensky takes “center stage” on the seventeenth CD in the collection, performing ballet music by three composers with Russian roots with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The selections are presented in chronological order, beginning with the music for the second act of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 71 ballet The Nutcracker. This is followed by four of the eight movements from the Opus 27a suite that Dmitri Shostakovich extracted from his Opus 27 ballet The Bolt, completed in 1931. The final selection is the suite Scènes de ballet, which Igor Stravinsky composed in 1944, about five years after his move to the United States.

Only the Shostakovich music was unfamiliar to me. The libretto for the complete ballet was created by Victor Smirnov, and it is an unabashedly satirical narrative about a Soviet factory and an attempt to sabotage it by throwing a bolt into the machinery. The ballet was first performed on April 8, 1931, a time when Shostakovich could still get away with poking fun at Soviet bureaucracy. However, following that premiere, it was not performed again until 2005, when such pranks could be executed with impunity!

Sadly, Rozhdestvensky’s excerpts do little to inform us about either the scenario or how the music facilitates the advance of that scenario. Indeed, the order in which those four movements are performed is not the same as their ordering in the ballet itself. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Rozhdestvensky performed this selection on August 18, 1987, after the rise of glasnost and the perestroika movement initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. In other words it was safe to poke fun at authority again! Regrettably, by the time this music was performed in London, Shostakovich had been dead for over ten years.

My awareness of Scènes de ballet goes all the way back to one of the first long-playing records that my parents purchased. It was on the “flip side” of one of the many suites that Stravinsky had extracted from his “Petrushka” ballet. I found the dissonances that disrupted the opening D major chord to be disturbing, if not downright scary; and it took me at least a decade to get used to what Stravinsky was trying to do with his opening gesture.

The ballet was originally performed as part of a revue entitled The Seven Lively Arts. The choreographer was Anton Dolin, who also shared the lead with Alicia Markova. I never saw that choreography performed, but Samuel Kurkjian created his own choreography for a performance by the Boston Ballet when I was first exercising my writing chops by writing about dance. Other versions were created by Frederick Ashton, John Taras, and Christopher Wheeldon.

Under Rozhdestvensky’s baton, on the other hand, Scènes de ballet stands up as instrumental music in its own right. The same can be said about the Tchaikovsky selection. Almost everyone tends to know about the suite that was extracted from the original two-act ballet. Not everyone may know that all but two of the movements of that suite can be found in the second act of the complete ballet, and most of them contribute to a divertissement at that heart of that act. Thus, Rozhdestvensky basically prepared a concert offering that would allow listeners to experience some of their best-loved pieces in a new context. Ironically, the Tchaikovsky selection was performed at the same concert that offered the Shostakovich excerpts, providing “back-to-back” opportunities to listen to ballet music without thinking about the ballets themselves. (Scènes de ballet, on the other hand, was performed on April 29, 1981.)

Thus, one may say that the seventeenth CD in the BBC Legends provides the attentive listener with ballet music without the dancing.

Earplay: Three World Premieres at Old First

Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, the Earplay new music chamber ensemble presented its latest program, entitled Mirages under the auspices of Old First Concerts (O1C). Three of the selections were world premieres, and the remaining offering was the winner of the 2020 Earplay Donald Aird Composers Competition. Only one of the world premieres deployed the entire ensemble, consisting of (in alphabetical order) Terrie Baune on violin, Tod Brody on flute, Peter Josheff on clarinets, Thalia Moore on cello, Ellen Ruth Rose on viola, and Brenda Tom on piano, all conducted by Mary Chun.

The full Earplay ensemble with guest artists Michael Dailey (left) and Bryce Leafman (right) performing “Songs on Majnun Leyla” (screen shot of last night’s performance)

The title of that composition was “Songs of Majnun Leyla” by Richard Aldag. The performance required two guest artists, tenor Michael Dailey and percussionist Bryce Leafman, whose only instrument was a Middle Eastern hand drum. Sadly, no program notes were available. Presumably the music was inspired by the ancient Arabic story “Layla and Majnun,” given a narrative account by the twelfth-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Since the text sung by Dailey was also not available, it is unclear whether his texts were taken from Ganjavi. However, if the narrative behind the music was obscured, Aldag’s approaches to instrumentation made for an engaging listening experience.

The other two world premieres were the opening selection, “Tounen” by Hendel Almetus, given a solo flute performance by Brittany Trotter, and Linda Bouchard’s “Katakana,” scored for solo viola (Rose) and electronics. The Aird winner was Carla Magnan’s “Mirages,” scored for cello (Moore) and piano (Tom). Earplay used to have a reputation for richly informative program notes (usually augmented by a pre-performance panel discussion); and the absence of such “background support” was sorely missed during this concert.

Qualifying observation: I did not attend this performance at Old First and watched the live stream instead. O1C usually provides a program book for download by those not physically present. As of this writing, there was no hyperlink for such a download either on the O1C event page or on the YouTube viewing page.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Bleeding Edge: 1/23/2023

From time to time this site has provided information about performances at Audium. Located at 1616 Bush Street, this is a venue that was built to house 176 loudspeakers designed to project their respective outputs into total darkness. This month Audium will present Residency Rewind, providing, as the title suggests, a limited rerun of how the space was used over the course of the last year. These retrospective performances will all take place at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of this week. Doors will open at 7 p.m., and admission for each event will be $25.

Three performers will contribute to this retrospective event. Sound artist Victoria Shen will present a set involving performances of analog synthesis, record manipulation, electroacoustic instruments, and reclaimed piano wire. A(Void) Fire is an Afro-surrealist techno-horror fairytale conceived and presented by Alexa Burrell. The final set will be presented by Noah Berrie who describes the piece as a conversation between body and space. His body is wired to transducers, and the sounds that emerge arise through both loudspeakers and the building itself. Presumably, the same program will be presented on each of the three dates. However, given the nature of the performances, each occasion will be distinctively different.

The only other event taking place this week in San Francisco will be at Adobe Books. This will be a three-set evening, beginning with a solo performance by Nathan Wheeler, a composer, improviser, choreographer, media artist, and educator. He will be followed by the San Kazakgascar band, which is based in Sacramento. The music emerges from a “foundation” described as “art-punk/surf/drone/psych.” The final set will be the synthesizer-percussion duo of Jorge Bachmann and Kevin Corcoran. They will be joined by poet Kae Wu, whose texts are in Mandarin, English and French.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 28. 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.

BBC Legends 3: Mstislav Rostropovich

The sixteenth CD in the latest BBC Legends release is devoted to Mstislav Rostropovich performing with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in the Royal Festival Hall. Rostropovich is best known as a virtuoso cellist; but, as his career advanced, he also performed as a conductor. His BBC Legends CD presents him in both capacities over the course of three concertos.

The album begins with a performance that took place on July 1, 1965, at which he exercised both talents. From the soloist’s chair he led a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken VIIb/1 cello concerto in C major. For the remaining two concertos, he passed the baton (literally) to Gennady Rozhdestvensky. The second concerto on the album is Camille Saint-Saëns’ Opus 33 (first) in A minor, recorded on July 7 of the same month. The remaining selection was recorded earlier on July 5, Edward Elgar’s Opus 85 concerto in E minor.

The Haydn concerto was a recent arrival to the cello repertoire, since the score was only discovered in 1961. Prior to that year concert goers and record collectors had assumed that Haydn had written only one concerto. The concerto received its twentieth-century premiere on May 19, 1962, when Charles Mackerras conducted the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra with Miloš Sádlo as the cello soloist. After that it became “open season;” and it is hard to find a major virtuoso cellist that has not performed the concerto. Nevertheless, Rostropovich’s “double duty” with the LSO is definitely an engaging account of the Haydn concerto, making this performance one of the more memorable offerings in the entire box set.

The subsequent coupling of Saint-Saëns and Elgar is also likely to appeal to the attentive listener. The two composers were contemporaries, but their approaches to composition differ markedly. Both concertos are popular in the symphony orchestra repertoire. My own personal bias lies with the Elgar, but I always seem to find engaging aspects of the Saint-Saëns concerto whenever I have a chance to listen to a cellist that clearly appreciates the music! However, what interests me is that the Saint-Saëns concerto shows up on both the Deutsche Grammophon and EMI Rostropovich anthologies (and twice for EMI); but neither set includes the Elgar. So it seems appropriate to acknowledge that the BBC has provided a valuable service for those of us that enjoy that Elgar offering! (For the record, as they say, Amazon.com has a Web page for those interested to purchasing this particular CD as a single!)

Andsnes Recital Highlights Latest Album

courtesy of Jensen Artists

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, Leif Ove Andsnes presented the second solo piano recital in this season of the San Francisco Symphony Great Performers Series. The second half of the program was devoted entirely to a cycle of thirteen compositions that Antonín Dvořák called Poetic Tone Pictures, his Opus 85. This is also the title of Andsnes’ latest album for Sony Classical, which was released at the beginning of this past November. Presumably, last night’s recital was part of a tour conceived to promote the recording.

The duration of the entire album is 56 minutes, which is a significant amount of time to listen to thirteen unfamiliar pieces of music. To be fair, Dvořák provided vivid titles for each of the individual pieces; and Andsnes cannot be faulted for providing accounts that clearly reflected those titles. One also encounters a few surprises along Andsnes’ journey through these thirteen pieces. The most vivid of these comes around the halfway mark with the performance of “Sorrowful Reverie,” which turns out to have a tango as its primary theme!

That tango may have been a valuable stimulus for those whose attention was beginning to lag. Movements like “Goblins’ Dance” and “Bacchanalia” may have been strategically placed as subsequent prods to attention, but they did not have quite the same effect as that tango. The “Furiant” movement made for a better draw of attention, particularly since its Allegro feroce tempo was applied to a mazurka. For all the many assets that an attentive listener can mine from this cycle, there still remains the possibility that the entire journey will not be able sustain full engagement.

However, the “path of discovery” followed the Tone Pictures with an unfamiliar encore. This was a short composition by Norwegian composer Harald Sæverud, whose “Ballad of Revolt” is well known in his native land. Andsnes then closed out the evening with a more familiar encore, the last of Frédéric Chopin’s four Opus 30 mazurkas, composed in the key of C-sharp minor.

The first half of the program also served as a journey from the less-known to the familiar. Andsnes began the program with “Lament” by Alexander Vustin, one of the less-known Russian composers of the twentieth century. This 1974 composition was followed by an early twentieth-century work by Leoš Janáček, the two-movement piano sonata he composed in 1905. In fact, the sonata has the title “1. X. 1905,” named for the date of a demonstration at which one of the protestors was bayoneted. This was followed by the third of Valentin Silvestrov’s thirteen bagatelles. Andsnes then closed out his program by reverting to the first quarter of the nineteenth century to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 110 piano sonata in A-flat major, which is probably best known for the composer’s wild approach to a fugue whose subject is also played in inversion.

Taken in its entirety, Andsnes’ program was impressively extensive. Nevertheless, duration tended to lead to occasional lapses in attention. Personally, I would be happy to see Sony Classical provide a “companion” album accounting for all the works that were performed in addition to the Dvořák Opus 85 collection.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

LIEDER ALIVE! to Celebrate a Marriage

The next LIEDER ALIVE! program in the Eleventh Annual Liederabend Season will celebrate a recent marriage. Soprano Sarah Cambidge and tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven will present a program of love songs and duets. They will be accompanied at the piano by Peter Grünberg. The specific selections have not yet been announced. However, back when they were Adler Fellows, they were already exercising their respective Wagnerian voices; and they performed the love duet from the second act of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

This program will take place on Sunday, February 12 (the Sunday afternoon closest to Valentine’s Day). The performance will begin at 5 p.m., and doors will open at 4:30 p.m. As usual, the venue will be the Noe Valley Ministry, which is located at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. Tickets are being handled through an Eventbrite event page. $80 seats are available for the VIP Reserved section. General Admission is $40 with a $25 rate for students, seniors, and working artists.

SFB: Second next@90 Program Disappoints

Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Ballet (SFB) presented the first performance of the second of the three programs in its festival of new works celebrating its 90th anniversary and entitled next@90. Nine choreographers have contributed to this festival with three represented on each program. The opening selection, “Emergence,” was created by the most familiar of those choreographers, Val Caniparoli, who is celebrating his 50th anniversary with SFB. His contribution, entitled “Emergence,” was followed by “The Queen’s Daughter,” an unconventional take on the Salome narrative created by Bridget Breiner, Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer of the Staatsballett Karlsruhe. The program then concluded with “BOLERO,” choreographed by Yuka Oishi, making her debut in the United States.

Reading the material in the program book, one probably would have expected an evening of imaginative creativity involving both a relatively familiar narrative and two approaches to abstraction. Sadly, all three instances of choreography emerged as a rather tiresome slog, resulting in an overall feeling that there was more action in the orchestra pit than was taking place on stage. This was true even of “BOLERO,” which might have been taken to be the most familiar and hackneyed offering.

Instead, Ravel’s music was given a markedly nonstandard treatment. Indeed, due to additional music composed by Shinya Kiyokawa, one had to wait about a quarter of an hour before Ravel took over the spotlight. By that time the viewer might have been forgiven for feeling fatigue at what Kiyokawa himself calls “sound design” and the fear that the choreographer could not get her head around what she had created. When Ravel finally took the spotlight, the choreography seemed to have more to do with large numbers of dancers doing not very much, while conductor Martin West led his orchestra with a sensitivity to the rich palette of contrasting sonorities that made Ravel’s music anything but dull.

Sasha De Sola rehearsing the role of Salome for her performance of “The Queen’s Daughter” (photography by Chris Hardy, courtesy of SFB)

Music also soared above choreographic muddle in “The Queen’s Daughter.” In this case the score was Benjamin Britten’s Opus 15 violin concerto, conducted again by West with Concertmaster Cordula Merks serving as concerto soloist. Ironically, the concerto was conceived as a reflection on the Spanish Civil War, a far cry from the discontents of the Herod family. Those familiar with that latter narrative had no trouble following its episodes in Breiner’s choreography, but every one of those episodes outstayed its welcome. As a result, Britten’s meticulously crafted concerto provided anyone willing to listen with a rescue from a narrative account that tended to do little more than go around in circles.

This was also the case where “Emergence” was concerned. This was also set to a concerto, but the music could not have been more different. The composer was Dobrinka Tabakova, who had created a concerto for cello and string ensemble. Eric Sung was the concerto soloist, and the conductor was Matthew Rowe. Sadly, the choreography again emerged as too much of the same thing going on for too long. The good news was that there was no end of imaginative thinking in Tabakova’s concerto, which emerged as anything but “too much of the same thing.”

If there are prospects for new approaches to ballet choreography, they were disappointingly absent from the second of the three next@90 programs.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

BBC Legends 3: Klaus Tennstedt’s Second Album

Conductor Klaus Tennstedt is the only performing artist in the latest BBC Legends series to be represented by more than one CD. This may be because the tenth CD is devoted only to a single composition, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125 (“Choral”) symphony in D minor. As was previously observed, that album occupied the midpoint of the total collection. As a result, there is a certain element of symmetry in having the fifteenth CD, halfway between the tenth and the last, return to Tennstedt.

Once again he is leading the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall, this time on two different concert dates. The entire album provides a “journey” through the nineteenth century. It begins, appropriately enough, with an overture, the one composed by Carl Maria von Weber for his three-act opera Oberon. This is followed by another major achievement in the symphony genre, Franz Schubert’s D. 944 in C major, often called the “Great” to distinguish it from the D. 589 C major symphony, often called the “Little.” The album then concludes with a “symmetric return” to another overture, this one by Johannes Brahms, his Opus 81, given the title “Tragic Overture.”

This makes for such a satisfying chronological journey that it is a pity that the recording sessions did not follow that chronology. The Weber and Schubert selections were recorded on October 7, 1984. However, the final selection on the album was recorded earlier on April 7, 1983. Ironically, the plan for the CD would probably have made for a very engaging listening experience in its own right.

Indeed, that plan was so engaging that I never succumbed to that feeling of “saturation” that arose when I was listening to the Beethoven CD. The music itself was just as familiar to me as Beethoven’s Opus 125 was. However, what mattered was that the “journey” based on the ordering of the tracks was an imaginative one. By virtue of the overall plan, not one of those three familiar compositions left me with a here-we-go-again reaction. Furthermore, the freshness of the plan seemed to direct my attention to the freshness of interpretation that Tennstedt had brought to each of the three pieces, even though he could not have considered the underlying “chronological plan.”

This raises a point that may well deserve further examination. There is no questioning that a well-executed performance can be appreciated for its in-the-moment qualities. However, the track ordering of a CD has its own in-the-moment qualities, which almost always have more to do with the production team behind the CD than with any of the contributing performers. Put another way, there are distinct differences between the phenomenology of listening to a concert performance and that of listening to a recording. Now I need to retreat to some secluded spot to see if I can tease out just what those differences are! Most likely, phenomenology will have to share space with Hermann Weyl’s pioneering Symmetry monograph!

Lunar New Year Events at Davies

Earl Lee, conductor for the Lunar New Year concert (photograph by Lim Hak Hyun, courtesy of SFS)

Last month the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) announced a minor schedule change for its annual Lunar New Year Concert & Banquet. At that time the Web page for the event had announced that the conductor would be Earl Lee, but any other specifics had not been provided. That program can now be found on the Web page, as well as the announcement that the program will include soprano soloist Sumi Jo. The vocal selections that she will perform will be “Three Wishes of a Rose” by Huang Tzu, “As the Spring Approaches Across the River” by Geung-Su Lim, “Pioneer” by Du-Nam Cho, and “In the Flower Clouds” by Hong-ryeol Lee. The instrumental offerings will be “The Angel from Formosa” by Tyzen Hsiao, the “Saibei Dance” from the second Saibei suite by An-lun Huang, and selected excerpts from both Folk Songs for Orchestra by Huang Ruo and Transcend by Zhou Tian.

As previously corrected, this concert will begin at 5 p.m. on Sunday, February 5. The doors to the lobby of Davies Symphony Hall will open at 4 p.m. As usual, the pre-concert Festival Reception will feature an array of entertainment and activities. Participants will include a numerologist, a fortune teller, lion and dragon dancers, and students from the Au Co Vietnamese Cultural Center performing music on traditional instruments.

The concert will be followed by the annual Lunar New Year Banquet, which will begin at 6:30 p.m. The venue will be the Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, which is located at 300 Franklin Street at the rear of Davies. This will be an evening of dining and entertainment, the latter provided by Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ and the Blood Moon Orchestra. A Web page has been created that provides the different levels of prices for the Banquet, including how much of that price is tax-deductible.

Tickets for the concert will be handled by the SFS Box Office. Davies is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue, and the main entrance is the Box Office lobby on Grove Street, about half a block to the west of Van Ness Avenue. Ticket prices in which seating is currently available range from $35 to $110. They may be purchased online through the Select Seats Web page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office. 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.

Another Memorable Visiting Conductor Debut

As was announced at the middle of last month (on the birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven, to be specific), the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Orchestral Series began the new year with debut performances by two guest conductors. Last week the conductor was Elim Chan, who delivered jaw-dropping accounts of a violin concerto by Sergei Prokofiev (Opus 26 in G minor) and an early (Opus 17) symphony by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, making the case that it deserved as much attention as the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies, all of which seem to be played to death on a regular basis. In addition, she began her program with the world premiere of Elizabeth Ogonek’s “Moondog.” The entire evening was as stimulating as bold of lightning.

Last night the old adage that lightning does not strike twice in the same place was proved wrong, much to the delight of an attentive and appreciative audience. The conductor was London-born Robin Ticciati, whose skills as a conductor were honed by both Colin Davis and Simon Rattle. (He is now the Sir Colin Davis Fellow of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music.) Watching him on the Davies Symphony Hall podium, one got a sense of his having cultivated a “Rattle image.” The good news is that the image was substantiated by a solid foundation of technique.

That technique was presented with a vengeance as Ticciati negotiated two highly ambitious undertakings. The more familiar of these was Gustav Mahler’s fourth symphony in G major. This is one of the composer’s more “traditional” efforts, following a conventional pattern of four movements with the slow movement structured as a double theme with variations. The one departure from convention comes with the final movement presented as a song setting for one of the texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, performed last night by soprano Ying Fang.

The first half of the program was devoted entirely to the SFS premiere of the first violin concerto composed by Jörg Widmann, which he completed in 2007. Widmann has made several appearances as a clarinetist in programs presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). More recently he has shifted his attention to composition, and SFP programming has provided a platform for several of his works.

Violinist Alina Ibragimova (photograph by Eva Vermandel, courtesy of SFS)

The violin soloist last night was Alina Ibragimova. The duration of Widmann’s concerto is about half an hour, and the violinist is never granted even the slightest pause in that period of time. The soloist must also contend with a large orchestral ensemble including an impressively diverse percussion section. Overall, the listening experience is one of being hit by a massive tidal wave of dissonant sonorities.

Indeed, it is important to use that noun “sonorities” rather than “themes.” The entire concerto amounts to a half-hour landscape of sonorities. Nevertheless, there is a clear sense that the acoustic qualities of those sonorities undergo an ongoing process of development that amount to a remote cousin to the practice of development in a “classical” sonata form.

Readers may recall that, when I wrote about “Moondog” last week, I wrote that Ogonek had chosen to work with acoustic textures rather than more conventional themes. The same can be said of Widmann’s concerto. Every instrument in his large ensemble seems to be contributing its own characteristic texture to a tapestry of almost cosmic proportions; and, at the “heart” of that tapestry, so to speak, one recognizes the interplay of the ensemble textures with those emerging from the solo violin part. The experience of listening then becomes one of navigating the full landscape of the textures, rather than recognizing both the statement and the development of thematic elements.

The overall result is that, over the course of two weeks, the attentive listeners that visit Davies have had the opportunity to rethink just what listening entails; and, judging from the enthusiastic applause, those listeners seem to have relished that attention.