Friday, March 31, 2023

Center for New Music: April, 2023

This month accounted for five performances at the Center for New Music (C4NM). That may turn out to be about “par for the course,” since the Calendar of Events Web page currently lists six events for the month of April. Astute readers probably already know about the first of these events, since it was included in this week’s Bleeding Edge article. That entry turned out to be a lengthy one; so, in this monthly preview, it will be represented only by a hyperlink!

For those that do not yet know, C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Tickets may be processed in advance through the Events page on the C4NM Web site. Masks are still required for all in attendance, and those in the audience are required to show proof of vaccination. Furthermore, since those pandemic conditions still prevail, the audience capacity will be reduced; so purchasing tickets early is desirable. Schedule specifics are as follows with hyperlinks for the respective event pages, each of which has a “Buy Tickets Online” hyperlink to the appropriate Eventbrite event page.

Saturday, April 1, 8 p.m.: This is the NACUSA showcase program announced on this past Tuesday’s Bleeding Edge article.

Thursday, April 6, 6 p.m.: Speed of Silence is a book by Tom Djll that chronicles in pictures and sounds the passing of the world as we move through it. Many of the images come from a 13,000-mile road trip through 37 of the United States undertaken in fall 2020, in the depths of the COVID pandemic. When the book is purchased through its Bandcamp Web page, it is shipped with an audio CD also entitled Speed of Silence. This event is primarily a reception for the release of the book, but there will also be a live acoustic music performance by Brittle Feebling, the trio of Jacob Felix Heule (saxophone and percussion), Kanoko Nishi-Smith (koto), and Djll himself (trumpet).

Friday, April 7, 8 p.m.: This will be the world premiere of “The Spanglish Dances” performed by Quinteto Latino, announced on this site this past March 15.

Saturday, April 15, 7:30 p.m.: Violinist Patrick Galvin, who gave a recital for Sunset Music and Arts at the beginning of this month, will showcase his album Violin Alone, which he completed last year; he will then be accompanied at the piano by composer Michael Rosin in a performance of Rosin’s new piece entitled “Compass.” [added 4/17, 8:35 a.m.

Friday: April 21, 8 p.m.: This seems to have initially been announced as a solo program for electric guitar and electronics composed and performed by Matt Sargent; but, as of this writing, the hyperlink to the event page seems to suggest that there will be an opening set taken by The Electronic Sound Collective (although no information about this group is included on the event page.] [updated 4/17, 8:25 a.m.: The following performance has been postponed:

Saturday, April 22, 2 p.m.: This program will present the 24 caprices that Niccolò Paganini composed for solo violin. All of them will be performed in arrangements for solo guitar. The Web page for this concert neglects to say anything about who the arrangers are (not to mention who the performers are). The only thing that is certain is that the performance will be preceded by a lecture about the arrangements.]

Saturday, April 29, 7:30 p.m.: The Alaya Project performance was originally scheduled for this past January. The project was launched to establish a bridge between the intricate Carnatic style of Indian classical music and contemporary jazz and funk. The resulting performance will be presented by the trio of Rohan Krishnamurthy, playing both drums and Indian percussion, Prasant Radhakrishnan on saxophone, and Colin Hogan on keyboards.

Wadada Leo Smith’s New Electric Band

Many readers probably know by now that Wadada Leo Smith celebrated his 80th birthday on December 18, 2021. That date marked the beginning of a prodigious number of diverse releases over the course of 2022. One of the first to be released was A Love Sonnet for Billie Holiday, but there were less-expected collections such as The Chicago Symphonies, a seven-CD set of twelve string quartets, and the five-CD The Emerald Duets, each CD pairing Smith with a different colleague.

Cover of Fire Illuminations (photograph by Einar Falur Ingólfsson)

Smith’s embrace of unlikely sources of diversity has followed him into his 81st year. Today sees his latest venture in the form of a digital-only release of Fire Illuminations. To record this album he assembled a new ensemble called Orange Wave Electric. This is an all-star electric band whose members include guitarists Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, and Lamar Smith, bassists Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs, electronic musician Hardedge, percussionist Mauro Refosco, and drummer Pheeroan akLaff.

The album consists of only five tracks and lasts for a little under 50 minutes. The two long tracks are both a little over 15 minutes in duration. The first of these is “Ntozake,” the opening track named after the poet Ntozake Shange, best known as the author of the play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which won an Obie Award in 1975. (Reasonable minds may differ; I never got beyond the line “I am a poet” being repeated too many times!) The second is “Tony Williams,” the fourth track named after the drummer in the quintet formed by Miles Davis in 1964, which lasted into 1968. After leaving the quintet, Williams formed the Tony Williams Lifetime trio with John McLaughlin on guitar and Larry Young on organ.

Two of the tracks are reflections on Muhammad Ali. “Muhammad Ali’s Spiritual Horizon,” a little under four minutes in duration, is the second track on the album. The final track is “Muhammad Ali and George Forman’s Rumble in Zaire Africa” and is about twice as long. The remaining track is the one that evokes the album title. “Fire Illuminations Inside Light Particles” is about four and a half minutes long.

According to the advance material I received, Smith associated the “Fire Illuminations” composition with “the transformative nature of fire itself, and its foundational role in the development of human civilization.” However, I have to confess that I was drawn more to the second half of the title. As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I learned of the “ambiguity” of light: Some of its properties were, indeed, those of particles; but others could only be explained as the behavior of waves. This is not to suggest that the music is ambiguous. Nevertheless, there is some sense of “notes as particles” in Smith’s phrasing, while the electronic accompaniment is decidedly wave-like!

Let me be clear, however: one does not need a Bachelor’s degree from MIT to appreciate the inventive approach that Smith takes to his trumpet work or the electronic “environment” in which his thematic lines evolve!

MTT Returns to Gustav Mahler at his Darkest

Last night San Francisco Symphony Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) returned to Davies Symphony Hall to lead the ensemble in the last of his four subscription concerts. The program consisted entirely of Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony in A minor, performed without an intermission and lasting about 80 minutes. I suspect that there is a general consensus that this is Mahler’s darkest composition. That darkness is encapsulated early in the opening movement when three trumpets blare out a vigorous A major triad, only to have the middle drop a half-step, lowering the chord into A minor.

There is intense energy in the grim determination of the outer movements of this four-movement symphony. However, the major-to-minor motif summons dark clouds to hover over the intense energy behind all of the principal and secondary themes. Within this framework are the other two movements of the symphony, whose order was never finalized by the composer.

The Scherzo unfolds its own dark rhetoric to complement all the sinister gestures in the first movement. The Andante moderato is the only one of those four movements to provide a major-key escape from the overall context. MTT’s performance placed the Scherzo before the Andante moderato, which is the order I have observed most frequently in encounters with both performances and recordings. (John Barbirolli is the conductor I know best for reversing that order.)

Mahler structured the final movement around “three hammer-blows of fate.” This was realized by a massive drum struck by a wooden “hammer” so large that the percussionist needs both arms to manage it. In previous Davies performances one could only see that hammer rise and fall at the rear of the percussion section. For last night’s performance, MTT arranged to have that instrument in clearer view, situating it at the top of a metal framework, requiring Principal Percussion Jacob Nissly to wield the hammer from the front of the Center Terrace. The sight was nothing short of awesome, making the hammer-blows all the more bone-chilling.

The last of those hammer-blows was intended to represent the fall of a “hero” figure that serves as the protagonist of the symphony. However, while working on the symphony, Mahler encountered his own hammer-blows: the death of his daughter Maria, the diagnosis of his heart disease, and the termination of his directorship at the Vienna Opera. He thus saw the third of his symphonic hammer-blows as a metaphor for his own death; and he removed it from the score. Nevertheless, the final chord of the symphony, A minor without the preceding A major, is dark enough to send chills down the spine of just about any listener.

During his tenure as Music Director, MTT recorded this symphony and prepared it for several seasons. Last night the prevailing rhetoric was as intense as ever. There were times when it seemed as if MTT had formed a bond with every one of the performers on stage, making sure that each of them contributed to the overall listening experience, even if only as one of the voices in the string section. As might be guessed, the chemistry that brewed on the Davies stage spilled over into the full-house audience, allowing MTT to let that final chord echo through the entire space before relaxing his posture on the podium, after which the audience erupted with vigorous applause.

Even for those familiar the MTT’s previous approaches to this symphony, last night’s experience was definitely “one for the books.”

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Omni to Stream First Half of Latest Dukić Recital

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

At the end of this past January, Croatian classical guitarist Zoran Dukić returned to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church to perform a solo recital in the Dynamite Guitars series presented by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. This coming Sunday Omni will release the next streamed video in its Live from St. Mark’s series. This will account for the entire first half of Dukić’s recital, which was consisted of an interleaving of Johann Sebastian Bach and Astor Piazzolla. (Presumably, the second half of the recital was also captured on video, which will be released in the near future.)

For those that did not know about this program, here is my summary of what was performed during that first half:

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.

This performance will be streamed through the Omni Foundation’s YouTube channel. The premiere will be live-streamed at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 2. The YouTube Web page for viewing has 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, March 29, 2023

SFS and Salonen Announce 2023–24 Season

Yesterday afternoon the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) released its announcement of plans for the next season, which will began, as usual, this coming September. As usual, this involves more than a generous supply of content; and, as I observed a year ago, I am never quite sure how to deal with saying too much or saying too little. To some extent, however, my quandary has been somewhat alleviated with the creation of what amounts to a “home page” for the new season embedded into the SFS Web site.

In all fairness, however, that site is somewhat limited in the information provides. Furthermore, it is still too early for program specifics for the new season to appear on the online Calendar. For example, the music to be performed for the Opening Night Gala in Davies Symphony Hall on September 22 is not yet online; and the same holds for the All San Francisco Concert on September 23, which gives free admission to members of local social service and neighborhood organizations. As expected, both of these performances will be led by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Salonen will also lead SFS in the first three subscription programs of the season, for which the programs seem to have been finalized:

  • September 29–October 1: The concerto soloist will be Leonidas Kavakos, performing Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35 violin concerto in D major. The program will begin with the first SFS performances of “Herald, Holler and Hallelujah!” by Wynton Marsalis, first performed by the New Jersey Symphony in November of 2022. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Richard Strauss’ tone poem “An Alpine Symphony.”
  • October 6–7: The second week will also feature a violin concerto, but it will be “something completely different.” “Convergence” is a violin concerto by Jesper Nordin, whose performance also involves Nordin’s invention Reactional Music, an electronic instrument that Salonen will play while conducting. Portions of this piece were showcased at last February’s SoundBox program, but this will be the world premiere performance. The violinist will be Pekka Kuusisto. The program will also include John Adams’ “Naive and Sentimental Music.”
  • October 12–14: Pianist Emanuel Ax will return to Davies for another concerto receiving its world premiere. The composer will be Anders Hillborg, one of Salonen’s longtime collaborators. The new concerto will be framed by two more traditional composers. The program will begin with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 56a, the orchestral version of his “Variations on a Theme by Haydn.” The second half of the program will be devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 36 (second) symphony in D major.

Salonen and SFS will also contribute to the two-week California Festival in which they will share performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Music & Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel and the San Diego Symphony led by Music Director Rafael Payare. The SFS contribution to this festival will be previewed in Davies on November 11 and 12. Principal Clarinet Carey Bell will be soloist in a performance of Salonen’s “Kínēma.” The program will also feature “Drowned in Light,” a world premiere performance of music by Jens Ibsen, which won the 2022 Emerging Black Composers Project competition.

Director Peter Sellars will return to Davies to provide staging for a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s one-act opera “Ewartung.” The cast consists of a single person, whose role will be sung by soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams. The program will also include the one-act ballet version of Maurice Ravel’s “Ma mère l’Oye” (Mother Goose). The choreography will be created and performed by the Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas will again return to provide four weeks of programs. The selections will include three symphonies: Beethoven’s Opus 125 (ninth, “Choral”) in D minor, Gustav Mahler’s fifth, and Tchaikovsky’s Opus 36 (fourth) in F minor. He will also present the complete score that Igor Stravinsky prepared for Léonide Massine’s one-act ballet “Pulcinella.”

Mind you, all this is still the tip of what is a very promising iceberg. In addition, the Shenson Spotlight Series, conceived to feature debut performances by rising artists, will present four programs:

  1. Violinist Stella Chen and pianist George Li
  2. Violinist Alexandra Conunova
  3. Pianist Eric Lu
  4. Cellist Gabriel Martins and pianist Victor Santiago Asunción

More seasoned performers will be featured in the Great Performers Series. These will include pianists Yefim Bronfman, Evgeny Kissin, Daniil Trifonov, and Yuja Wang, violinist Ray Chen, Joshua Bell leading the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, San Francisco Symphony Brass, and the trio of violinist Lisa Batiashvili, cellist Gautier Capuçon, and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Finally, this will mark the tenth season of SoundBox. As usual, there will be four programs, each with its own unique curator, including Salonen making his first appearance in that capacity.

Amparo Iturbi’s Turn on Sony Classical

As many readers probably know by now, I have invested about a week and a half in working my way through the From Hollywood to the World: The Rediscovered Recordings by Pianist and Conductor José Iturbi collection of sixteen CDs released by Sony Classical. Ironically, Iturbi is almost entirely absent from the final three CDs in this collection, all of which are focused on his sister Amparo. Over the course of the 39 tracks that wrap up the package, so to speak, José shows up on only three two-piano selections, two of which involve the same piece of music: Manuel Infante’s “Ritmo,” the first movement in his collection of three Andalusian dances. Between those two tracks the Iturbi siblings play the third and final movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 448 sonata for two pianos in D major (which had appeared in its entirety on the fourth CD in the collection).

For the most part the tracks on those final CDs are brief, almost suggesting that they are encore candidates. The most notable exception is the fifteenth CD, which is devoted entirely to the Goyescas music composed by Enrique Granados. This is a suite that the composer structured into two “books.” The first book, which was given its first performance on March 11, 1911, consists of four movements:

  • “Los requiebros” (the compliments)
  • “Coloquio en la reja” (conversation at the window)
  • “El fandango de candil” (fandango by candlelight)
  • “Quejas, o la maja y el ruiseñor” (complaint, or the girl and the nightingale)

Francisco de Goya’s “El amor y la muerte” print from his Caprichos collection (provided by the Museo del Prado, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

The second book was completed in December of 1911 and consisted of only two movements:

  • El amor y la muerte (Balada) (ballad of love and death)
  • Epilogo: Serenata del espectro (epilogue: serenade to a spectre)

However, Granados seemed to have one more movement in mind, entitled “El pelele: Escena Goyesca” (the puppet: Goya scene). He first performed this on March 29, 1914, about half a week before the other two movements were first performed. “El pelele” (named after the 1791 painting that Francisco Goya made for King Charles IV of Spain) tends not to be included in piano performances of Goyescas and is better known in the instrumental version that begins Granados’ one-act “Goyescas” opera. Amparo included it on her Goyescas album but used it for the opening track, rather than having it follow the epilogue. Personally, I approve that she did not neglect this “extra” movement and had the good sense to use it as an opening!

The final CD offers two multimovement compositions from decidedly different centuries. The earlier of these is Mozart’s K. 333 sonata in B-flat, which accounts for the last three tracks on the album. This is complemented at the beginning with Maurice Ravel’s seven-movement “Valses nobles et sentimentales.” Between these “bookends,” Amparo provides selected movements by Emanuel Chabrier, Franz Schubert, and Dmitri Shostakovich, along with Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 34 (third) impromptu in A-flat major and an unfamiliar but brief sampling of a Valencian dance movement by Eduardo López-Chavarri.

One wonders where Amparo’s repertoire ventures would have led her had she made more of her own recordings.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

The Bleeding Edge: 3/28/2023

This week’s column seems to have suffered a timing glitch. Fortunately, this is a relatively slow week, which will be quiet until the beginning of the weekend. It will also be quiet because only two events need to be taken into account. Specifics are as follows:

Friday, March 31, 7 p.m., Medicine for Nightmares Bookstore & Gallery: Prior to clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s visit next month to this venue, joined by Raffi Garabedian on tenor saxophone, Danny Lubin-Laden on trombone, cellist Ben Davis, and drummer Jordan Glenn, curator David Boyce will give a multi-reed performance of his own, probably with guest players that have not yet been identified. The venue is located in the Mission at 3036 24th Street, between Treat Avenue and Harrison Street. As always, there is no charge for admission, presumably to encourage visitors to consider buying a book.

Saturday, April 1, 8 p.m., Center for New Music (C4NM): The schedule for next month may not yet be finalized. However, next month will begin with the next showcase of new works written by members of the Bay Area Chapter of the NACUSA (National Association of the Composers of the United States of America), usually referred to as NACUSAsf. The program will present performances by violinist Monika Gruber, pianist Lori Lack, and the Avenue Winds. Program specifics are as follows:

  • Mary Fineman, “Watercolor” and “Who You Were Then and Always,” performed by the composer at the piano joined by Gruber
  • Douglas Ovens, “Largo,” Gruber and Lack
  • Monica Chew, “Ice Calf,” performed by the composer at the piano
  • Sheli Nan, “Absinthe avec mes amis,” Gruber and Lack
  • John Bilotta, “Elegy,” Gruber and Lack
  • Robert Stine, “Tempore,” performed by The Avenue Winds: Victoria Hauk, flute; Laura Reynolds, oboe; James Pytko, clarinet; Daniel Wood, horn; Jamael Smith, bassoon.

For those that do not yet know, C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Tickets may be purchased for $15 with a $10 rate for students and C4NM members. They are being sold through an Eventbrite event page.

José Iturbi the Conductor

In examining the CDs in the From Hollywood to the World: The Rediscovered Recordings by Pianist and Conductor José Iturbi collection, Iturbi’s role as a conductor has focused primarily on his doing “double duty” by both leading and performing as concerto soloist. However, the twelfth and thirteenth CDs in the collection provide more examples of performances in which conducting is his only priority. The first of these two CDs documents his performance of two familiar nineteenth-century symphonies, Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 56 (third) symphony in A minor, known as the “Scottish,” and Antonín Dvořák Opus 95 (ninth) symphony in E minor, best known as “From the New World.” Both of these recordings present satisfying accounts of Iturbi conducting the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

The second CD, on the other hand, follows him to Spain, where he conducts the Valencia Symphony Orchestra. On the first of the nine tracks allotted to his performances, he conducts from the piano in a performance of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Fantasy,” which is basically an arrangement for piano and orchestra of the fourteenth of his “Hungarian Rhapsody” compositions for solo piano. On the remaining eight tracks is a “full-time” conductor.

The most familiar of his selections is the second of two three-movement sets that Manuel de Falla excerpted from his score for Léonide Massine’s ballet “The Three-Cornered Hat.” One of the remaining tracks is Iturbi’s own composition, “Seguidillas.” The other familiar composer is Joaquín Rodrigo, but his composition is decidedly less familiar. “Homenaje a la Tempranica” was originally scored for wind band; but Iturbi conducts a version for full orchestra. The remaining composers are less familiar: Manuel Palau and Eduardo López-Chavarri. Personally, I felt that Valencia was not up to Rochester standards; so I suspect that Iturbi was trying to make the best of the cards dealt to him.

The Valencia tracks are not enough to fill the thirteenth CD. Iturbi returns to the piano for two vocal selections performed by soprano Consuelo Rubia. The first of these is Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas, which will probably be familiar to most listeners. The second is the first of three songs in Joaquín Turina’s Homenaje a Lope de Vega. Each of the songs is a setting of one of Lope de Vega’s texts, the first taken from La discreta enamorada.

The remainder of the thirteenth CD is devoted to radio interviews. The first of these is in Spanish, meaning that I am not in a position to comment on it! The second is hosted by Don Ameche, whom I used to watch on television. Fortunately, there is enough music to balance the chit-chat. The first selection is the familiar Falla “Ritual Fire Dance.” The other is a jazz take on Fats Waller that left me more satisfied than I would have anticipated!

Uneven Evening with Earplay in Noe Valley

Last night the Earplay new music ensemble made its first appearance at the Noe Valley Ministry to perform the second concert in its current season. This suggests that the group has become somewhat peripatetic, since it will return to Old First Presbyterian Church to wrap up its season in May. The title of last night’s program was knock, breathe, shine, which was also the title of the composition by Esa-Pekka Salonen that began the concert. Taken as a whole, that concert was a somewhat uneven affair; but Salonen’s music could not have made for a better opening.

The piece was a three-movement composition for solo cello. The program note was written by a fellow Finn, the cellist Anssi Karttunen, suggesting that Salonen may have composed the work for him to debut. Each of the words in the title corresponds to one of the movements; and Karttunen’s program note explained how each of those words was realized in Salonen’s composition. Last night’s soloist was Earplay cellist Thalia Moore; and she could not have done a better job of turning Karttunen’s commentary into a thoroughly compelling performance.

Sadly, both that performance and the music being performed constituted the high point of the entire evening. The program concluded with the full ensemble giving the world premiere performance of Laura Elise Schwendinger’s “A Flock Ascending,” which was written on an Earplay commission. During the pre-concert discussion, moderated rather awkwardly by Board member Benjamin Sabey, she discussed the influence of Toru Takemitsu’s “A Flock Descends into a Pentagonal Garden.” However, Schwendinger’s “Flock” seemed to add recorded birdsong to an instrumental mix that tended to reflect the four instruments of the Tashi quartet that recorded Takemitsu’s composition for Deutsche Grammophon: piano, violin, cello, and clarinet. She also structured the piece into seven movements, which began to wear on attention long before the halfway mark.

“A Flock Ascending” was preceded by Sofía Rocha’s “Scenes of Night,” last year’s winner of the Earplay Vibrant Shores Prize. One could appreciate the composer’s approach to combining instrumental sonorities. The work was scored for a quartet that paired flute (Jessie Nucho) and clarinet (Peter Josheff) with violin (Terrie Baune) and cello (Vanessa Ruotolo). However, while one could appreciate the overall mood, this was another composition that overstayed its welcome.

In the first half of the program, the three pieces for violin (Baune) and piano (Keisuke Nakagoshi) by British composer Kate Whitley provided an excellent complement to Salonen’s cello music. Between these “bookends,” however, was a far less compelling performance of Richard Festinger’s James Joyce Settings, which triggered no end of muddled talk about the relationship between music and poetry during the pre-concert discussion. Ironically, no one bothered to mention that the three poems that Festinger had set were from a collection that Joyce had entitled Chamber Music. (Mind you, Joyce had a different “chamber” in mind!) The best that can be said is that, in the performance, soprano Winnie Nieh, accompanied at the piano by Brenda Tom, provided a clear account of Joyce’s words; but the relationship between those words and Festinger’s music left me more frustrated than perplexed.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Iturbis: The “Second” Round of Solo and Duo Piano

The ninth, tenth, and eleventh CDs in Sony Classical’s sixteen-CD collection entitled From Hollywood to the World: The Rediscovered Recordings by Pianist and Conductor José Iturbi offer the “second” collection of piano music performed by José Iturbi. As was the case in the first collection, several of the performances are duos that José performed with his sister Amparo. In this collection, however, none of the tracks present solo performances by Amparo.

Note, however, the scare quotes around the adjective “second.” The recording sessions for the fourth, fifth, and sixth CDs took place between 1950 and 1952, while the three CDs being discussed here were recorded between 1933 and 1949. This left me wondering how much thought was put into the planning of this collection with any consideration for allowing listeners to appreciate how the Iturbis approached their repertoire when they were working in recording studios, rather than in the presence of an audience. This includes the fact that Amaparo’s presence in this “second set” is far more diminished than it had been in the first.

The good news is that the ninth CD provides the first opportunity to listen to José’s approach to two Mozart sonatas, K. 331 in A major and K. 332 in F major. These are probably the most familiar of Mozart’s solo piano sonatas, and I would not be surprised it that was also the case in the Thirties. José’s interpretations may not have been as “historically informed” as performances became during the last quarter of the last century. Nevertheless, he endows each of the two sonatas with his own “brand” of engaging rhetoric. I might even go as far as to say that he was more comfortable playing Mozart than he was in satisfying the more compelling preferences for the solo piano music of Frédéric Chopin (particularly those of shorter durations).

Isaac Albéniz playing the piano for his daughter Laura (photographer unknown, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Of far greater interest is the Hispanic side of the repertoire on the tenth and eleventh CDs. The list of composers in the chronological order of their birth years is an impressive one: Domenico Scarlatti (born in Italy in 1685 but spending almost the last 40 years of his life on the Hispanic peninsula), Pietro Domenico Paradies (1707), Isaac Albéniz (1860), Enrique Granados (1867), Manuel de Falla (1876), Manuel Infante (1883), and Iturbi himself (1895). My guess is that most listeners will find the music of at least some of those composers to make for an engaging journey of discovery. For all intents and purposes, Michael Feinstein’s introductory essay says almost nothing about this “Hispanic legacy,” which puts those most interested in listening to the performances in this collection at a disadvantage.

Emerson Quartet to Conclude SFP Chamber Series

Emerson String Quartet players Paul Watkins, Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, and Lawrence Dutton (photograph by Jürgen Frank, courtesy of SFP)

Next month San Francisco Performances (SFP) will conclude its 2022–2023 Chamber Series with a momentous occasion. The final program presented at the end of last season’s Chamber Series was a recital by the Emerson String Quartet, whose members are violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins. This season Emerson will return to the Chamber Series, but this will be one of the stages on its final tour. For almost half a century the ensemble provided attentive listeners with an impressive breadth of repertoire, setting a bar level that now motivates a new generation of string quartet players.

While that breadth became a “calling card” for the ensemble, their farewell program for SFP will go “back to the basics” of the First Viennese School. In roughly chronological order, they will play Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/41 in G major (the fifth of the quartets published as Opus 33). This will be followed by Mozart’s K. 421 quartet in D minor. Finally, they will conclude with the second (in the key of E minor) of the three Opus 59 “Razumovsky” quartets from the middle period. That chronology will be framed by the opening selection on the program. This will be Henry Purcell’s Z. 730, the G minor “Chacony” that began his 1680 Fantasies and in nomines publication. Emerson will play an arrangement of Purcell’s score for string quartet, which was prepared by Benjamin Britten.

This performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 14. Like all the other Chamber Series concerts, it will take place in Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, located on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. This venue is excellent for public transportation, since that corner has Muni bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Ticket prices are $75 (premium Orchestra and front and center Dress Circle), $60 (remainder of Orchestra, all Side Boxes, and center rear Dress Circle), and $50 (remaining Dress Circle and Balcony); and they may be purchased through an SFP secure Web page. As available, single tickets will be sold at the door with a 50% discount for students and a 20% discount for seniors. Single tickets may also be purchased by calling 415-392-2545.

Thibaudet Traverses Debussy’s 24 Preludes

Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (photograph by Andrew Eccles, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony presented the latest installment in its Great Performers Series. Like the last installment two weeks ago, this was a solo performance, this time by French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet. The program was devoted entirely to the solo piano preludes composed by Claude Debussy.

These 24 preludes were collected in two books. The first of those books was completed in 1910, and the second appeared in 1913. Unlike the preludes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier or Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 28, the preludes do not systematically traverse the major and minor modes of the twelve pitches in the chromatic scale. Also unlike those predecessors, each prelude is given a title, which allows the listener to form a mental image while the music is being played. While most recitalists tend to perform small groups of selected preludes, both books were played in their entirety for their premiere performances.

Last night one could appreciate both how Thibaudet rose to the many technical challenges encountered on the score pages and how he found interpretations that would reflect on the evocative titles assigned to the preludes. If Debussy did not account for every major and minor key, he still endowed each prelude with its own distinctive mental image. Many of these involve reflections delivered with hints of sadness, as is the case with “Des pas sur la neige” (footprints in the snow). At the other extreme, the composer was capable of being raucously comic, which is probably most evident in “Homage à S. Pickwick, Esq. P.P.M.P.C.”  (Who knew that Debussy had an interest in Charles Dickens?)

Taken as a whole, this was a program that imposed serious demands on audience attention. However, as Thibaudet progressed through the collection, delivering just the right rhetorical stance for each prelude, that attention was well rewarded. The rewards also included an encore selection, even though Thibaudet had clearly given his all to accounting for Debussy. That encore was Edward Elgar’s own piano arrangement of his Opus 12 “Salut D’Amour,” suggesting one final reflection on a unique rhetorical disposition.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

The Lab: April, 2023

Apparently, any necessary cleanup activities have concluded; and The Lab is once again safe for visitors. As of this writing, two concerts have been planned for next month, both of which will take place during the first full week in April. For those unfamiliar with the venue, The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is particularly good for those using public transportation, since that corner provides bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel as well as a BART station. Doors will open half an hour prior to when the performance will begin. Specific information, including a hyperlink to the event page that provides both background material and hyperlinks for ticket purchases, is as follows:

Thursday, April 6, 8 p.m.: This will be a solo performance by Italian composer Caterina Barbieri. Her technical background allows her to explore themes related to machine intelligence and object-oriented perception in sound. She is particularly interested in the psycho-physical effects of repetition and pattern-based operations in music. This includes investigating the polyphony and polyrhythmic potential of sequencers, which allows her to derive severe, complex geometries in time and space.

Friday, April 7, and Saturday, April 8, 8:30 p.m.: Kali Malone is an American-Swedish composer and musician currently based in Stockholm. She tends to work with minimalist structures with pitch classes based on tuning systems that she specifies and/or creates. She has composed works for pipe organ, choir, chamber music ensembles, and electroacoustic gear. As might be expected, her performance in San Francisco will be based on that latter category.

DSO Couples Brahms and Rachmaninoff

Yesterday evening my wife and I returned to live-streaming the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) for its latest Live from Orchestra Hall Webcast. After a few recent encounters with guest conductors, this was our most recent opportunity to observe Music Director Jader Bignamini at work. There was much to observe in a program that marked the transition from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth.

The concerto soloist was pianist George Li playing Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor, which was completed in April of 1901. The intermission was followed by the symphony selection, Johannes Brahms’ Opus 98 (fourth) in E minor. The “overture” for the program was the Opus 33 “Ballade,” composed in the key of A minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in 1895. Taken as a whole, this was an offering that was rich in sonorities and broad in its approaches to invention.

Li provided an intensely focused approach to the wide diversity of technical demands in Rachmaninoff’s score. Both Bignamini and the camera crew provided an excellent account of the instrumentation that established a context for the solo piano work. However, it was clear that the keyboard was “where the action was,” with more camera attention to Li’s deft fingerwork than to the rest of his body:

Screen shot from last night’s streamed performance

Nevertheless, what was most important was how Li worked in partnership with Bignamini to provide a clear sense of the overall “journey” through this concerto, which is definitely far more than “one virtuoso display after another.” One could definitely appreciate Li’s technical skills, but the overall listener experience was just as absorbing.

Where the symphony was concerned, the camera crew was particularly helpful in selecting close-up shots that clarified awareness of the overall structure of each of the four movements. As a result, the attentive listener could easily be aware of not only the exposition and development of thematic content but also Brahms’ strategies in deploying instrumental sonorities. This was particularly evident in the final movement, which Brahms structured as a passacaglia. The composer was determined to explore every aspect of variation in phrasing and instrumentation to lead the listener down a centuries-old structure endowed with an in-the-moment interpretation. Bignamini was at the top of his game in managing the full instrumental resources, judiciously keeping intensity in check to allow for the coda to carry the strongest impact.

My “first contact” encounter with Coleridge-Taylor’s Opus 33 was through an album consisting entirely of orchestral performances of that composer’s music performed by the Chineke! Orchestra. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the ballade genre seemed capable of embracing a wide variety of oratorical stances. Perhaps that is why Coleridge-Taylor chose to structure his own approach around the interplay of two differing themes, the first boldly energetic and the second more introspective. Much of the contrast was achieved through distinctive shifts in instrumentation; and here, again, the video work facilitated awareness of those shifts. Mind you, such shifts played a significant role in the expressive dispositions found in the music of both Rachmaninoff and Brahms, making Coleridge-Taylor’s music an appropriate “overture” to prepare the listener for the “emotional ride” through the remainder of the program.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Iturbis Revisit Concerto Recordings in Rochester

The seventh and eighth CDs in the From Hollywood to the World: The Rediscovered Recordings by Pianist and Conductor José Iturbi collection revisit three of the concertos performed on the first two CDs. These are the two concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on the first CD, the K. 466 concerto in D minor (for which Iturbi plays cadenzas composed by Ludwig van Beethoven) and the K. 365 two-piano concerto in E-flat major with cadenzas by Iturbi, who is joined by his sister Amparo. The eighth CD then begins with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 37 (third) concerto in C minor.

What distinguishes this “second round” of performances is that instrumental accompaniment was provided by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, for which José served as Music Director between 1936 and 1944. This orchestra is not as “anonymous” as the ensemble on the first two CDs, the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. All three concertos were recorded in the Eastman Theatre at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. The Mozart concertos were recorded in March of 1940, and the Beethoven Opus 37 was recorded the following year in May of 1941. Once again, José serves as both concerto soloist and conductor.

The eighth CD also revisits George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” this time in José’s arrangement for two pianos without orchestral accompaniment. Personally, I prefer this version without the orchestra; and I was blown away by the way José takes parallel octaves and warps them by a half-step (not to be found in the Gershwin score)! For the remainder of that CD, he conducts the Orchestra in two arrangements of keyboard music prepared by Ottorino Respighi. The first of these is the solo piano version of Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte.” Given that Ravel wrote his own orchestral version and that there is no indication of an arrangement by Respighi in the IMSLP listing for this composition, I would probably risk a small bet that this Respighi attribution is a misprint!

On the other hand the second arrangement is of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 582 C minor passacaglia, whose theme is given fugal treatment after a series of variations. In this case I am sure that the arrangement really is by Respighi, because I once checked out the score of that arrangement from the Free Library of Philadelphia! Mind you, there was a certain element of chutzpah in my learning about Respighi’s orchestration, since most recordings of an orchestral performance of BWV 582 involve arrangements by two of Philadelphia’s past major conductors, Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy!

While it goes without saying that I prefer Bach’s organ music to be played on the organ, I did have an opportunity to listen to Ormandy conduct his version in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. I have to confess that I was drawn by the spatial qualities of his arrangement, qualities that were never given very much justice by any of the recordings Ormandy made. Needless to say, those spatial qualities do not emerge on Iturbi’s Rochester recording.

One final thought: As I have already observed, the book for this release includes any number of photographs  to keep the listener occupied. I personally have a soft spot for a 1947 shot that captured José playing the piano with President Harry Truman. However, there are also many images of album covers; and I cannot resist sharing the one for the Beethoven concerto:

from an eBay Web page for the original 78 RPM Victor album of Beethoven’s Opus 37 piano concerto

There is no acknowledgement of the designer of that image, but I would be willing to bet that (s)he had a fair amount of interest in surrealism!

Sunset Music and Arts: April, 2023

Tonight will see the final program for the month of March to be presented by Sunset Music and Arts. That makes this as good a time as any to review the plans for next month. Some readers may recall that the March article, which was published at the beginning of this year, had to undergo a generous number of revisions. Since April will begin in exactly one week, the likelihood of such revisions is probably significantly less. Four events are planned for the month, all taking place on Friday or Saturday with both matinee and evening performances on Saturday. Specifics are currently as follows:

Friday, April 14, 7:30 p.m.: The Olson-De Cari Duo is a husband-and-wife ensemble dedicated to expanding the repertoire for classical guitar and voice. (This is not an unusual pairing. Guitarist Timothy Sherren coupled with soprano Alexandra Iranfar, also a guitarist, to create the One Great City duo, which then transformed into SopraDuo when they shifted their repertoire to commissioning new works.) They will perform three works composed for these resources, David Leisner’s Eve’s Diary suite, setting the text by Mark Twain of the same title, Benjamin Verdery’s What God Looks Like: Three Stories, and “Archimedes” by Andrew York. De Cari will also sing three songs by Antônio Carlos Jobim with accompaniment arranged by João Luiz, and the program will conclude with three of Clarice Assad’s Five Intimate Theatre Songs, arrangements of tunes that began on Broadway.

Saturday, April 15, 7:30 p.m.: Pianist Julieta Iglesias has prepared a solo recital conceived as a tribute to Astor Piazzolla.

Friday, April 28, 7:30 p.m.: This is a program that was originally planned for the end of April of last year. Two of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (SFGC) divisions will visit the Sunset and share the program. Program details have not yet been announced. However, the roughly 40 girls between the ages of nine and thirteen will represent the Chorus School Level III, which is directed by Terry Alvord. They will be accompanied at the piano by Chesley Mok. The Soloist Intensive singers are at the high school level and are part of the SFGC Premiere Ensemble. They will be led by Justin Montigne, Director of Voice Studies. Mok will again provide piano accompaniment.

Saturday, April 29, 4 p.m.: Pianist Eric Tran will give a solo recital devoted almost entirely to the music of Maurice Ravel. That will include the original six-movement version of his Le Tombeau de Couperin suite, as well as four of his shorter compositions, including one inspired by Joseph Haydn and another by Alexander Borodin. He will also give the premiere performance of a work of his own composition, which has not yet been given a title.

All performances will take place in the Sunset district at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. Ticket prices are $25 for general admission with a $20 rate for students and seniors. Because the demand tends to be high, advance purchase is highly advised. Tickets may be purchased online through Eventbrite. Each of the hyperlinks on the above dates leads to the event page for single ticket purchases. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

SFCM: Two Compositions by David Garner

Last night in the Barbro Osher Recital Hall, the Faculty Artist Series of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) presented two relatively recent works by David Garner. The first of these was his second string quartet, which he completed in 2014. The second was a song cycle, Spoon River Songs, composed between 1987 and 2010.

Hyeyung Sol Yoon, Benjamin Kreith, Charlton Lee, and Kathryn Bates performing Garner’s second string quartet (screen shot from last night’s streamed performance)

The quartet was performed by the Del Sol Quartet performing with a new leader on first violin, Hyeyung Sol Yoon. The “veteran” members were Benjamin Kreith on second violin, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates. The four movements suggest a traditional structure, but there are any number of engaging ways in which Garner departs from both “classical” and “atonal” traditions. Bates using her cello as a percussion instrument was a relatively early sign that expectations of familiar structures would be thwarted.

The conventional Adagio for the second movement was expanded to “Adagio ed Ondulato” (slow and undulating). Those undulations distinctively depart from the traditions of a second-movement adagio, and that departure was further stretched with the addition of variations on a Chinese popular song. Similarly, the third movement presumes the tradition of a scherzo but then wanders into the rhetoric of a Venezuelan waltz. That Latin rhetoric then joins forces with some jazz harmonic progressions for the final movement, which picks up from the scherzo without a break. Del Sol has made it a point to explore repertoire that goes beyond string quartet conventions of past centuries, and Garner’s composition should fit into that repertoire both comfortably and engagingly.

Spoon River Songs reminded me of just how little I knew about Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Most of my knowledge dates back to my high school days, not only in English class but also by way of a television program that set about a dozen of the poems in an overall dramatic context. This amounts to a relatively small percentage of the 244 poems that Masters wrote for his collection.

However, if all of the texts were “first contact” experiences for me, they were as engaging as any of my past encounters with the characters that Masters created. (In the entire Anthology there are 212 of them.) What mattered most to me in Garner’s settings was how he knew how to handle the many sharp edges in the texts, most of which are “punch lines” for an entire poem.

Pianist Dale Tsang accompanying mezzo Christine Abraham (screen shot from last night’s streamed performance)

The vocalist last night was mezzo Christine Abraham (an SFCM alumna), accompanied at the piano by Dale Tsang. While she showed a comfortable familiarity with Garner’s score, I was seldom convinced that her delivery was doing justice to the poet. Granted, Garner took a subtle approach to establishing contexts for each of the poems. This was something I appreciated, given that past memories summoned up recitations that would deliver each punch line with a sledge hammer. However, I came away feeling that Abraham had not yet aligned her delivery to Garner’s subtleties.

Whatever the shortcomings may have been, however, the overall experience of last night was one of an engaging journey of discovery.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Ben Goldberg to Play with a Combo Next Month

According to my records, the most recent opportunity to listen to the imaginative inventions of clarinetist Ben Goldberg took place this past December, when he gave a duo performance with guitarist Karl Evangelista (also known for imaginative inventions) at the Make-Out Room. Next month Goldberg will be part of a larger ensemble, a quintet that will perform at the Medicine for Nightmares Bookstore & Gallery as part of the semi-regular Friday night residency curated by multi-reed player David Boyce. Boyce himself will not be part of that quintet, whose other four members will be Raffi Garabedian on tenor saxophone, Danny Lubin-Laden on trombone, cellist Ben Davis, and drummer Jordan Glenn.

Donate or else! (from the Medicine for Nightmares home page)

Like the previous installments that Boyce has curated, the performance by this quintet will begin at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 14. The venue is located in the Mission at 3036 24th Street, between Treat Avenue and Harrison Street. There is no charge for admission, presumably to encourage visitors to consider buying a book. All donations to Medicine for Nightmares (in spite of the menacing window on the home page shown above) will be appreciated.

Craft Revives Savoy’s Bebop Legacy

Bebop emerged early in the Forties and developed its innovative styles throughout the better part of that decade. Early in the following decade Savoy Records made a major commitment to recording the efforts of many of the bebop composers and performers. It would probably not be an exaggeration to single out Charlie Parker as the most innovative of those performers, who composed any number of tunes that distinguished him from his colleagues.

Parker’s studio sessions for Savoy took place between 1944 and 1948, and they were released in a set of eight CDs under the title The Complete Savoy And Dial Studio Recordings 1944–1948. This was complemented by a set of another four CDs of performances that took place at Carnegie Hall (1947), the Royal Roost in New York (1948 and 1949), and in Chicago (1950). During that same period of time, Savoy led a major effort to bring a generous number of bebop performers into its catalog.

Cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of DL Media)

Towards the end of last year, Craft Recordings announced the completion of a project to celebrate the legacy of Savoy. The result was a 30-track collection entitled The Birth of Bop. By the beginning of last month, those tracks were made available through an Web page that supported both streaming and MP3 download. Amazon has also created a Web page for processing pre-orders of the collection on five ten-inch vinyls or two CDs, both of which will be released one week from today.

Bearing in mind my personal preference for depth over breadth, I still feel it necessary to acknowledge the extent of the diversity of this release. I have to confess that some of the composers were unfamiliar to me (Allen Eager being one example). However, there was more than a little to appreciate in compare-and-contrast listening to Parker in a wider context that includes Dexter Gordon, Stan Getz, Milt Jackson, Fats Navarro, and (one of my personal favorites) J. J. Johnson.

What is important to bear in mind is that bebop was not so much a “style” as it was a platform for many of the most prodigious jazz performers to explore adventurous approaches to improvisation. The Birth of Bop has provided a valuable overview of those approaches. In that context I have to say that this is definitely not “sit back and listen” music. The CD provides an excellent opportunity to deal with each of the 30 tracks on the basis of its own merits. Craft offers just the right platform for appreciating the significant role that bebop played in the history of jazz.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Iturbi on Sony Classical: Solo and Duo Piano

In Sony Classical’s sixteen-CD collection entitled From Hollywood to the World: The Rediscovered Recordings by Pianist and Conductor José Iturbi, there are three CDs of piano music following the previously discussed “Americana” CD. With the exception of one track of a performance by Amparo Iturbi (“Guadalquivir” by Manuel Infante), José is present on all other tracks, either as a soloist or in a duo performance with Amparo. Almost all of the music is from the twentieth century, with a moderate number of nineteenth-century selections. The only earlier composer is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose K. 448 sonata for two pianos in D major is performed by both Iturbis.

For the most part these three CDs remind me of what used to be called “samplers.” These amount to a collection of individual tracks, which may or may not be movements selected from larger compositions. Mind you, like K. 488, there are a few other three-movement compositions, which are also in the two-piano domain: the Valses romantiques set by Emanuel Chabrier, Claude Debussy’s En blanc et noir, and Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche. Multi-movement Debussy also shows up in José’s solo recordings, first with the set of two “Arabesques” and then with the Children’s Corner suite, which, for a reason I cannot fathom, excludes the concluding “Golliwogg’s Cakewalk” movement (which I always thought was the most familiar piece in the set). The final disc also includes five of the mazurkas by Frédéric Chopin; but these are sampled from Opus 7, Opus 33, and Opus 41.

Listening to these CDs left me wondering how José structured his concert recitals. A brief survey of Google search results suggests that his performances were similarly structured. On the other hand when Iturbi gave his first performance at Lincoln Center on October 2, 1962 in (what was then) Philharmonic Hall, he performed the entirely of Isaac Albéniz’ Iberia collection. (Mind you, that was over half a decade later than the final recording session for the content of the Sony Classical release.)

Those willing to venture into this collection should probably bear in mind that the concert experiences of half a century ago are quite different from those of the present day and assume that recordings were produced to reflect those experiences.

SFCMP to Explore Unfolding Rhythmic Patterns

This past November San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) presented a program entitled Re-Tuning and Refiguration, which surveyed different alternatives to the equal-tempered chromatic scale. The title of the next program will be Temporal Excursions; and, in a similar vein, it will explore unconventional approaches to rhythmic patterns. The pioneer of such explorations is probably Conlon Nancarrow, whose experiments with rhythm could only be satisfactorily pursued by punching his own player piano rolls. Unconventional durations could be representing them as lengths, which could be constructed with the sort of instruments used at a drafting board to realize ratios involving irrational, as well as rational, numbers.

The program will begin with Nancarrow’s “Study No. 3a,” the first of the five movements of his Boogie-Woogie Suite. The foundation for each of the movements is the steady pulse of a “boogie bass,” which one would encounter in recorded performances of pianists such as Jimmy Yancy, Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and Art Tatum. However, as an essay by James Tenney observed, that bass line runs along at “superhuman speed,” above which rhythmically independent voices are added. By the end of “Study No. 3a,” eight of those independent voices are in play.

Rather than bringing a player piano to the concert, SFCMP will perform Evan Ziporyn’s realization for chamber ensemble, which he composed in 2013. (Nancarrow began creating his piano rolls in 1939.) Executing all of those rhythmically independent voices is likely to be a challenging undertaking. The good news is that the SFCMP musicians always seem to be up for ambitious challenges. Indeed, those challenges will continue with the second work on the program, the world premiere of “Polytempo Music” by Brian Baumbusch.

The program will then conclude with “Catch & Release.” This is a three-movement composition with a duration of about twenty minutes, which Esa-Pekka Salonen composed for the 2006 Crusell Music Festival in Finland, where it was performed by the Avanti! Chamber Orchestra. The music was scored for the same ensemble of seven musicians that were required to perform Igor Stravinsky’s L'Histoire du soldat: clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, percussion, violin, and bass. The SFCMP performance will mark the Bay Area premiere of this composition.

This program will be presented in the Taube Atrium Theater, which is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, located in the Veterans Building (on the fourth floor) at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. The performance will begin at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 13. Doors will open early for the How Music is Made pre-concert talk, which will begin at 7 p.m. General admission will be $35 with a $15 rate for students. Tickets may be purchased through a City Box Office Web page.

A Delightful Piano Trio Debut From SFP

Last night in Herbst Theatre the Great Artists and Ensembles Series of San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the San Francisco debut of a piano trio whose members are violinist Nicola Benedetti, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich, and pianist Alexei Grynyuk. All three of these musicians have established themselves as soloists; and Benedetti made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony on December 31, 2011, following up with a subscription performance of Max Bruch’s Opus 26 (first) violin concerto in G minor in March of 2017. The other two musicians were probably visiting San Francisco for the first time (at least as professional performers). My personal (unqualified) opinion is that, if they decide to continue performing as a trio, they should consider coming up with a shorter name for the entire group!

Their program consisted of only two familiar piano trios, one from either end of the nineteenth century, performed in chronological order. They began with Franz Schubert’s D. 929 trio in E-flat major, and the intermission was followed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 50 trio in A minor. Both of these compositions have received generous exposure from any number of trio ensembles, not to mention an impressive legacy of recordings. Regardless of familiarity, however, the last night’s performance brought freshness of interpretation to both of the selections.

What was most significant in both of the selections was the acute awareness that each musician had of the other two. Both Schubert and Tchaikovsky explored any number of ways in which thematic material was developed through distinctively individual “voices,” all possible pairings, and the ensemble as a whole. Those of us that have followed chamber music for some time know that there have been any number of occasions in which a piano trio is performed with the tacit assumption that the pianist acts as the “conductor.” (All names will be withheld to avoid getting into any arguments, but at least one of those pianists used to make frequent visits to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music!) Last night, on the other hand, the performance came across as more “democratic,” letting the “marks on paper” establish the circulation of leadership among all three trio members.

Let us hope that these three musicians will continue to allocate time for further exploration of the piano trio repertoire and that they will be able to return to San Francisco to present us with the results of those explorations.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

SFB: Second Full-Evening Ballet to Return

As has already been observed, three full-evening “story” ballets have been scheduled for the current 90th anniversary season of the San Francisco Ballet (SFB). The second of these, Cinderella, will begin its run of ten performances at the end of this month. The choreography will be by Christopher Wheeldon, working with the three-act score that Sergei Prokofiev composed for the production at the Bolshoi Theatre, which was premiered on November 21, 1945. Wheeldon’s setting was a co-production with the Dutch National Ballet, which SFB first performed in 2013.

Two of the puppets Basil Twist created for Christopher Wheeldon’s staging of Cinderella (photograph by Erik Tomasson, courtesy of SFB)

Wheeldon dispensed with some of the familiar elements of the fairytale. There is no longer a fairy godmother or a fatal stroke of the clock at midnight. Rather, the title character controls her own destiny while coping with the death of her mother. For the most part, any supernatural elements have been conceived by puppeteer Basil Twist, whose creations include a tree that grows from Cinderella’s tears. The entire program will run for approximately two hours and 31 minutes, including two intermissions.

Dates and times for the ten performances are as follows:

  • Friday, March 31, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, April 1, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, April 2, 2 p.m.
  • Tuesday, April 4, 7:30 p.m.
  • Wednesday, April 5, 7:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, April 6, 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, April 7, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, April 8, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

All performances will take place in the War Memorial Opera House, which is on the northwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and Grove Street (across Grove from Davies Symphony Hall). Ticket prices start at $29, and a single Web page has been created for purchasing tickets for all of the above dates and times. There is also a Web page that provides the casting for both the title role and Prince Guillaume for all ten of the performances. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office in the outer lobby of the Opera House or by calling 415-865-2000. The Box Office is open for ticket sales Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Next Generation of Guitarists: A New Video

This past January the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts presented the “2nd Edition” of a performance entitled The Young Virtuosos. The program presented four young guitarists, all of whom had developed enough technique and repertoire to be considered as candidates for the next generation of virtuosos. The names of the performers were Ethan Boyers, Emilia Díaz Delgado, Reade Park, and Trent Park.

Those that missed this showcase program deserve to be informed that the entire recital was captured on video. That video accounted for all of the music performed on the program, and it will be made available for viewing through the Omni Foundation YouTube Channel beginning at 10 a.m. this coming Sunday, March 26. The Web page has already been created, but it will only be activated at that time on Sunday morning.

The program will begin with all four of the guitarists playing Matthew Cmiel’s arrangement of the final two movements of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 101 piano sonata in A major. After that, each performer will perform a solo mini-set as follows:

  • Trent Park: the first two movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 972 harpsichord concerto in D major, arranged by Judicael Perroy
  • Ethan Boyers: the second (Fuga) movement from Bach’s BWV 997 lute suite, arranged by Frank Koonce; Roland Dynes’ arrangement of the popular song “All of Me” by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons
  • Reade Park: the fourth movement of Antonio José Martínez Palacios’ guitar sonata; Dyens’ arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight”
  • Emilia Díaz Delgado: Sergio Assad’s “Sun Wukong’s Toccata”

Iturbi on Sony Classical: The “Americana” CD

José Iturbi in 1933 (photograph by Carl Van Vechten, from the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress, no known copyright restrictions)

The third CD in Sony Classical’s sixteen-CD collection entitled From Hollywood to the World: The Rediscovered Recordings by Pianist and Conductor José Iturbi has the potential for an adventurous journey of discovery. All of the composers presented on this album are American, including Iturbi himself, who became an American citizen on August 24, 1941. Sadly, that potential has been undermined due to the absence of any useful information about two of those composers, J. Clarence Chambers and William J. Reddick, in Michael Feinstein’s introductory essay in the accompanying “coffee table” book.

To be fair to Feinstein, however, neither of those composers held up very well under Google searches. (Unfortunately, the San Francisco Public Library no longer has a gateway to the Grove Web site; so I have not been able to consult that source.) Where Reddick is concerned, Google will lead the way to several of his publications, most of which are arrangements of spirituals; but I have yet to encounter even a brief biographical sketch. His track on this CD is a short composition entitled “Espanharlem,” performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra under Iturbi’s baton; and, as might be guessed, this music was not inspired by spirituals.

It is easier to learn about Chambers, but what one discovers is at least a bit eyebrow-raising. He was an undergraduate at Amherst College, where he served as rehearsal pianist for operetta productions. However, after he graduated, he entered the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons on a John Woodruff Simpson Fellowship. He graduated in 1934 and began his internship at Harlem Hospital. At the same time, however, he was studying music theory and composition at New York University, the Juilliard School, and privately with Roy Harris. All that training eventually led to his composing All American, a “satirical suite for two pianos,” which is performed by both Iturbis (José and Amparo) on the CD being discussed. (Prior to his death, Chambers retired as General Medical Superintendent of the New York City hospital system.)

On more familiar ground both Iturbis perform an arrangement for two pianos and orchestra of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” As on the first two CDs, the ensemble is the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. They then follow up with two two-piano arrangements of “Three Blind Mice,” the first a waltz followed by a “Boogie Version.” Both of these are outrageously engaging; and they serve as a “curtain raiser” for All American, which is even more outrageous! (“Rhapsody in Blue,” on the other hand, comes across with all the impact of a dog walking on its hind legs.)

The remaining composer on the album is Morton Gould. This is the other selection involving Iturbi conducting the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. It is the fourth of the compositions that Gould called a “Symphonette,” giving this one the subtitle “Latin-American.” I first encountered this music when I was a graduate student, thanks to my composition teacher Ezra Sims. Back in 2016, when Sony Classical released a Gould anthology, I was particularly disappointed that this “Symphonette” was not included. However, Iturbi knew exactly how to capture Gould’s wit; and I am more than delighted to have a recording of this music after many years of waiting!

The final track is Iturbi’s own “Soliloquy,” which was recorded less than a year after he received his citizenship papers. On the recording he plays the solo piano part along with the Janssen Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles, conducted by Werner Janssen. Like “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Soliloquy” is a single uninterrupted movement whose duration is also about a quarter of an hour. As a result, these two compositions serve quite effectively as “bookends” for the entire CD.

Monday, March 20, 2023

“Rediscovering” José Iturbi on RCA Victor

At the beginning of this month, Sony Classical released its latest “coffee table” anthology. These are moderately large books whose form factor amounts to a relatively thick collection of long-playing records. However, the recordings themselves are CDs; and the enlarged space accounts for a rich collection of photographs that embellish several essays of background material related to the content of the recordings themselves.

Unless I am mistaken, my first encounter with one of those releases involved an eight-CD anthology of Columbia Recordings made by pianist Oscar Levant, which received a disc-by-disc account on this site in 2018. This was followed in 2021 by a fifteen-CD collection of all the recordings made by contralto Marian Anderson for RCA Victor. That was covered by two articles, one dealing with the classical repertoire and the other with her recordings of spirituals. The full title of the latest release is From Hollywood to the World: The Rediscovered Recordings by Pianist and Conductor José Iturbi. Given the prioritization of physical packaging, I have not yet encountered a digital release of the music on the sixteen CDs in this collection.

My awareness of Iturbi was limited to my growing up with television. My parents never purchased any of his albums. One reason may have been their preference for Columbia over RCA. Another may have been that, because of his activities in Hollywood, they tended not to take him seriously as a concert pianist. It was only after both of my parents died that I began to take an interest in the many ways in which the repertoire of “serious music” could take advantage of the efforts of musicians that earned their living performing for movie soundtracks.

The title of this new collection takes Iturbi’s “Hollywood connection” seriously. One of the chapters in the book is entitled “José Iturbi Filmography.” However, none of the recordings in this collection have anything to do with that connection. As the overall title suggests, the recordings are focused on his work as both a conductor and a pianist; and, in the latter case, they account for both solo performances and duets played with his sister Amparo.

Sadly, the content itself is not particularly well organized; and there is no index that would facilitate providing a curious listener with an account of the composers whose music Iturbi chose to record. (This is also true of the two earlier releases I examined, but both of them had fewer CDs.) As a result, my listening strategy will involve proceeding through the collection disc-by-disc, trying to form groups wherever it seems appropriate.

Such is the case with the first two CDs in the collection. Taken together, this accounts for five concertos, all of which were recorded with the “RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra” (scare quotes to suggest that this was a pickup group) in January and March of 1952 at the Manhattan Center in New York City. The first CD consists of two concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the K. 466 concerto in D minor (for which Iturbi plays cadenzas composed by Ludwig van Beethoven) and the K. 365 two-piano concerto in E-flat major with cadenzas by Iturbi, who is joined by his sister.

The concertos on the second CD are presented in reverse chronological order, beginning with Franz Liszt’s first concerto in E-flat major. This is followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 25 (first) concerto in G minor. The final selection is Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 37 (third) concerto in C minor.

The most salient quality on both of these CDs is the overall clarity of both piano(s) and ensemble. Even when occupied with the keyboard, Iturbi has established the key details of instrumental contributions to all five of the concertos. Most likely matters of overall balance have been relegated to the concertmaster when the solo piano work is primary in Iturbi’s attention; but, because the orchestra was basically a free-lance assembly, it is unlikely that any information about section leaders (including concertmaster) ever went “on the record.”

Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself most drawn to the Liszt recording. Granted, the instrumental balance may owe more to the recording engineers than to any of the performers. Nevertheless, the interplay of soloist and ensemble emerges as more refined than most of my encounters with this music in a concert hall. This is a recording that suggests that the music itself counts for far more than the reputation of the composer’s ego!