Wednesday, May 31, 2023

International Pride Orchestra to Debut in SF

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

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

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Kronos to Present 8th Festival Next Month

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

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

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

Monday, May 29, 2023

The Bleeding Edge: 5/29/2023

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 3, 7:30 p.m., Bird & Beckett Books and Records: The Erik Jekabson Quartet will present an evening of standards and originals from four major local musicians. Jekabson will alternate between trumpet and flugelhorn. Rhythm will be provided by Dave MacNab (guitar), Dan Feiszli (bass), and Jason Lewis (drums). Bird & Beckett is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station that serves both BART and Muni. The price of admission is $20 in cash for the cover charge. Given that only a limited number of people will be admitted, reservations are necessary and can be made by calling 415-586-3733. The phone will be answered during regular store hours, which are between noon and 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Sunday. Because this is a Saturday evening performance, it will probably be live-streamed for remote viewing through both Facebook and YouTube. [added 5/30, 8:20 a.m.:

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

Oliver Herbert Highlights Heitor Villa-Lobos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Anna Presler and Leighton Fong at SFIAF (again)

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

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

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

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

Evangelista’s Latest Full-Evening Jazz Gig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 27, 2023

SFGC to Conclude Season with Choral Opera

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

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

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

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

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

San Francisco Chamber Orchestra Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 26, 2023

SFO Announces 100th Anniversary Concert

1940s photograph of SFO founder Gaetano Merola conducting the SFO Orchestra (from the SFO Archives)

In addition to the three operas that San Francisco Opera (SFO) will present over the course of next month, there will be one final event to celebrate the Centennial Season. The Centennial Celebration concert, which launched the season this past September, will be complemented by a 100th Anniversary Concert, a musical account of SFO’s first century. The program will feature fifteen vocal soloists, the SFO Orchestra and Chorus, and three conductors.

Beginning with the conductors, Caroline H. Hume Music Director Eun Sun Kim will share the podium with former Music Director Donald Runnicles, and former Principal Guest Conductor Patrick Summers. The vocal soloists will be sopranos Karita Mattila, Ailyn Pérez, Patricia Racette, Nina Stemme, Heidi Stober, and Adela Zaharia, mezzo-sopranos Susan Graham and Daniela Mack, tenors Lawrence Brownlee, Michael Fabiano, Brandon Jovanovich, and Russell Thomas, baritones Lucas Meachem and Brian Mulligan, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn. The current plan for the program (which is subject to change) is as follows:

  • Prelude from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Richard Wagner); San Francisco Opera Orchestra; Eun Sun Kim, conductor
  • “Amour viens rendre à mon âme” from Orphée et Eurydice (Christoph Willibald Gluck); Daniela Mack; Donald Runnicles, conductor
  • “Pur ti miro” from L’Incoronazione di Poppea (Claudio Monteverdi); Heidi Stober and Susan Graham; Patrick Summers, conductor
  • “Odi il voto” from Ernani (Giuseppe Verdi); Russell Thomas; San Francisco Opera Chorus; Eun Sun Kim, conductor
  • “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” from Die tote Stadt (Erich Wolfgang Korngold); Lucas Meachem; Donald Runnicles, conductor
  • “Embroidery” aria from Peter Grimes (Benjamin Britten); Heidi Stober; Donald Runnicles, conductor
  • “Vicino a te” from Andrea Chénier (Umberto Giordano); Michael Fabiano and Ailyn Pérez; Eun Sun Kim, conductor
  • “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco (Giuseppe Verdi); San Francisco Opera Chorus; Patrick Summers, conductor
  • “Ch’ella mi creda” from La Fanciulla del West (Giacomo Puccini); Brandon Jovanovich; Eun Sun Kim, conductor
  • Act I finale from Tosca (Giacomo Puccini); Christian Van Horn; San Francisco Opera Chorus; Eun Sun Kim, conductor
  • “Entrance of the Guests” from Tannhäuser (Richard Wagner); San Francisco Opera Chorus; Donald Runnicles, conductor
  • “Batter my heart” from Doctor Atomic (John Adams); Brian Mulligan; Eun Sun Kim, conductor
  • “Co chvila” from Jenůfa (Leoš Janáček); Karita Mattila; Donald Runnicles, conductor
  • “Losing my mind” from Follies (Stephen Sondheim); Patricia Racette; Patrick Summers, conductor
  • “Ah, je veux vivre” from Roméo et Juliette (Charles Gounod); Adela Zaharia; Eun Sun Kim, conductor
  • “Ombra mai fu” from Serse (Xerxes) (George Frideric Handel); Susan Graham; Patrick Summers, conductor
  • “Prosti, nebesnoye sozdanye” from Pique Dame (Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky); Brandon Jovanovich; 
  • Donald Runnicles, conductor
  • “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart); Heidi Stober and Christian Van Horn; Eun Sun Kim, conductor
  • “Cessa di più resistere” from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Gioachino Rossini); Lawrence Brownlee; San Francisco Opera Chorus; Patrick Summers, conductor
  • Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (Richard Wagner); Nina Stemme; Donald Runnicles, conductor
  • “Ave Signor” from Mefistofele (Arrigo Boito); San Francisco Opera Chorus; Eun Sun Kim, conductor

The entire program should last approximately three hours with one intermission.

This concert will be given only one performance, beginning at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 16. Ticket prices range from $30 to $350; and, depending on location, there is a facility fee of either $2 or $3 per ticket. All tickets may be purchased in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue or by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330. Box Office hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on Monday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. In addition, there will be a livestream (no on-demand access) on the entire program; the charge will be $27.50. Web pages are available both for tickets to the Opera House and for the livestream. Finally, those going to the Opera House will have the option of purchasing dinner packages (which will be sold separately from the tickets for the performance). A single Web page has been created with hyperlinks for the different dinner options. Tickets may also again be purchased through the Box Office.

DG to Release Daniel Hope’s First NCCO Album

One week from today Deutsche Grammophon will release the first album that New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) has recorded with its latest Music Director, Daniel Hope. To provide some personal context, my very first CD of this ensemble was recorded when Krista Bennion Feeney was Music Director; and I have at least a few of the albums made with Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. When it comes to attending performances, Salerno-Sonnenberg is still at the head of my list.

The title of the new album is Music for a New Century; and, as is usually the case, is currently accepting pre-orders for both the CD and MP3 download, which can be processed on the same Web page. When it comes to “truth in advertising,” all four of the compositions on the new release were composed during the current century. The earliest of these is Philip Glass’ third piano concerto, which he completed in 2017. The most recent composition was completed this year, a piece that Jake Heggie entitled simply “Overture.” The other two works are Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Lament,” scored for solo violin and string orchestra, which was completed in 2019, and Tan Dun’s double concerto for violin, piano, and string orchestra, composed in 2021. NCCO had “skin in the game” of commissioning all four of these compositions; and Heggie’s overture was composed to celebrate the ensemble’s 30th anniversary season.

I have to confess that I have never quite warmed up to that “new” adjective. Both Feeney and Salerno-Sonnenberg were imaginatively eclectic in the programs they prepared, and I was particularly taken with the latter’s decision to begin her tenure by appointing Clarice Assad to serve as featured composer for her first season. On the other hand I was impressed with how Salerno-Sonnenberg was comfortable with being both retrospective and prospective in preparing her programs. On the other hand all four of the Music for a New Century compositions strike me as exuding some degree of nostalgia for the past century with little sense of “new” in the current one.

To be fair, however, the current century is no longer “new.” One hundred years ago from today, the population had experienced all the horrors of its First World War; and, in the United States, people turned to the “Roaring Twenties” to get those horrors out of their collective system. These days pessimism seems to be prevailing more than it ever had in the past, and it is not difficult to find people worrying about whether or not this century will see its Thirties decade. Perhaps novelty is no longer as significant as it used to be!

San Francisco Symphony: One Up, One Down

Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero (courtesy of SFS)

Last night Davies Symphony Hall hosted the first of the two concerts presenting the final San Francisco Symphony (SFS) program of the month. The ensemble was led by Giancarlo Guerrero, who made his Orchestral Series debut in April of last year. Guerrero, who is Music Director of both the Nashville Symphony and the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic in Poland, is an intensely energetic conductor, who throws both his entire body and a plethora of facial expressions into leading an ensemble. HIs program consisted of two 45-minute compositions, one from the late nineteenth century by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the other a West Coast premiere of Her Story, a composition by Julia Wolfe co-commissioned by SFS, along with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, and the Nashville Symphony.

The Rimsky-Korsakov selection was his Opus 35 symphonic suite entitled Scheherazade, based on the stories found in the One Thousand and One Nights collection of Middle Eastern folk tales. His command of the full complement of instruments in an orchestra was so thorough that he wrote the book on it, Principles of Orchestration. (He died before finishing the book, but Maximilian Steinberg spent about four years working it into the complete account it deserved.) Guerrero clearly appreciated the abundance of sonorous devices that emerged from Rimsky-Korsakov’s command of orchestration, and he made all of those devices clear to any member of the Davies audience willing to sit up and listen. In the midst of that sonorous abundance, Assistant Concertmaster Wyatt Underhill stood out with a plethora of solo passages depicting Scheherazade herself narrating those folk tales.

Her Story, on the other hand, was about as far away from narrative as one could recognize. Wolfe prepared her own libretto for her two-movement composition. The first movement text was taken from a letter that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John in 1776. The key sentence is a powerful one: “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and more favorable than your ancestors.” Looking back on that year in which the colonies declared independence from the British Empire, the futility of Abigail’s undertaking is sadly depressing. Even more depressing, however, was the text for the second movement, which was little more than agitprop babble.

I have been following Wolfe’s “agenda music” since June of 2014, when I wrote a piece for about her Steel Hammer album. This was a product of an intense analysis of the “John Henry” ballad that resulted in a one-hour oratorio that was not particularly different from Her Story. My conclusion about Steel Hammer was that she had much to say during the first ten minutes, followed by 50 minutes of “more of the same.” Almost a decade has passed since then, and Wolfe still has not yet figured out how to get beyond “more of the same.”

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Museo Italo Americano to Host Two Concerts

One of the displays at the Museo Italo Americano (photograph by Ando Caulfield for Drew Altizer Photography, courtesy of SFO)

The Museo Italo Americano, which is located in Landmark Building C at the Fort Mason Center, has mounted a new exhibition to celebrate the Centennial Season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO). This is the first museum in the United States devoted exclusively to Italian and Italian-American art and culture. The title of the exhibition will be, appropriately enough, BRAVO—Celebrating San Francisco Opera, Its Italian Roots and Legacy. It was prepared by Museo in partnership with both SFO and the Museum of Performance + Design, and it will run through this coming October 22.

The content of the exhibition will trace the history of Italian opera in the city of San Francisco, which was founded on June 29, 1776, from the Gold Rush years through the establishment of SFO in 1923 and up to the present. It will provide a rare opportunity to view silent film footage from the Thirties, including scenes with founder Gaetano Merola. The exhibits will include costumes, headpieces, programs, and historic photographs. There will also be QR codes for listening to musical excerpts.

As might be anticipated, the museum will also host a concert entitled Arias and Instrumentals. Mezzo Laura Krumm will be accompanied by the EOS Ensemble, a string quartet directed by violinist Craig Reiss, consisting entirely of members of the SFO Orchestra. The other members of the quartet are violinist Maya Cohon, violist Joy Fellows, and cellist Thalia Moore.

All five musicians will join forces for a performances of Ottorino Respighi’s “Il Tramonto” (the sunset), setting a text by Percy Bysshe Shelley. (The work can also be performed by mezzo and string orchestra.) The quartet will also perform Giacomo Puccini’s “I Crisantemi” (the chrysanthemums) and the second (Andantino) movement from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1873 string quartet (also performed by string orchestra in an arrangement by Arturo Toscanini). The other instrumental selections will be arrangements of the overtures to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 opera The Marriage of Figaro and Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, along with the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagni’s one-act “Cavalleria rusticana.”

Krumm will sing two arias from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 40 opera Serse (Xerxes). Her other two selections will draw upon the first two of the three Figaro plays by Pierre Beaumarchais. She will begin the program with “Voi che sapete” from The Marriage of Figaro. She will subsequently conclude the program with “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville.

This program will be given two performances, the first at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 1, and the second at 1  p.m. on Saturday, June 3. (The second program will include a musical show-and-tell, so families with children will be welcome.) The venue will be the BATS Improv Bayfront Theatre, which is also in the Fort Mason Center in Landmark Building B. Admission will be $50 for the general public. Museo members will be admitted for $40, and there will be no charge for children under the age of sixteen. Museo has created a Web page with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets online for both of the performance dates.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Plans for Igor Levit’s SFS Residency Next Month

As was first announced on this site in March of 2022, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Artist-in-Residence for the 2022–23 season is pianist Igor Levit. That position will keep him busy for the better part of next month. He will be the soloist in two consecutive subscription programs, playing two decidedly different piano concertos with SFS led by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. He will also be the final recitalist in the Great Performers Series and will be a guest artist in the final SFS Chamber Music program in Davies Symphony Hall. Specifics for these program, in chronological order with hyperlinks attached to the dates for ordering tickets, are as follows:

Thursday, June 15, 2 p.m., and Friday, June 16, and Saturday June 17, 7:30 p.m.: This program will be devoted entirely to two major compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven. Levit’s concerto selection will be the Opus 73 (fifth), often known as the “Emperor,” in the key of E-flat major. This will account for the first half of the program; and the intermission will be followed by the Opus 55 (third) symphony, also in E-flat major, known as the “Eroica.” Ticket prices range from $20 to $165. They may be purchased online through the above hyperlink to the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The Box Office is also open only for tickets to the evening performances two hours before the concert begins.

Sunday, June 18, 2 p.m.: Levit will join SFS musicians in a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 57 piano quintet in G minor. The program will also feature two selections by Mark O’Connor influenced by folk music: “Appalachia Waltz” and “Emily’s Reel.” The opening selection will be the C minor “Lament,” scored by Frank Bridge for two violas. All tickets are being sold for $40, but the 1st Tier and the 2nd Tier will not be available for seating.

Thursday, June 22, and Saturday, June 24, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 25, 2 p.m.: The entire program will be devoted to the first SFS performances of Ferruccio Busoni’s Opus 39 piano concerto. This was scored for not only a full orchestra but also a male chorus, which joins the instrumentalists for the final movement, given the title “Cantico.” The text is taken from the final scene of the verse drama Aladdin by the Danish poet Adam Oehlenschläger. Ticket prices range from $35 to $165.

This program will also be given a Katherine Hanrahan Open Rehearsal on Thursday, June 22. This special behind-the-scenes experience begins at 8:30 a.m. with coffee and complimentary doughnuts, followed by a half-hour introductory talk at 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.

Tuesday, June 27, 7:30 p.m.: Levit’s residency will conclude with his Great Performers solo recital. The second half of the program will be devoted entirely to Franz Liszt’s B minor piano sonata. The program will begin with Busoni’s arrangement of six of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 122 chorale preludes originally composed for organ. This will be followed by Fred Hersch’s “Variations on a Folk Song.” [updated 6/8, 3:55 p.m.: The Hersch composition on the program will be changed to“Songs Without Words.”] Hersch is no stranger to Herbst Theatre, but this may be the first time his music has been performed in Davies. The first half of the program will conclude with Zoltán Kocsis’ arrangement of the prelude to the first act of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde). Ticket prices range from $20 to $110.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Gabriela Lena Frank’s First Opera Coming to SFO

Most readers probably know by now that the remainder of the Centennial Season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) will take place between June 3 and July 1. This will include new productions of three full-length operas. As has already been reported in a “busy weekend” article, two of those operas will receive their first performances on June 3 and 4, respectively: Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten.

The third opera will be the first opera composed by Gabriela Lena Frank, who is based in the Bay Area. The title of the opera is El último sueño de Frida y Diego (the last dream of Frida and Diego), the names being those of the visionary painter Frida Kahlo and the muralist Diego Rivera, who was also Kahlo’s husband. This opera was given its world premiere performance by the San Diego Opera this past October, and SFO will present its local premiere.

Frida Kahlo’s encounter with Death in the underworld (photograph by Karli Cadel, courtesy of the San Diego Opera)

It would be fair to say that the narrative for the libretto by Nilo Cruz takes the Orpheus myth as its point of departure, suggesting that the scheduling of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice for the past fall season was more than a coincidence. The opera takes place in 1957, three years after Kahlo’s death, making her the Eurydice of the narrative, so to speak. Rivera’s last wish is to see Kahlo one last time, and the underworld answers that wish with the “last dream” of the opera’s title.

The Mexican baritone and Adler alumnus Alfredo Daza will sing the role of Rivera. Kahlo will be portrayed by mezzo Daniela Mack, also an Adler alumnus. This will be her debut in that role, while Daza performed in the world premiere in San Diego. The “answer of the underworld” is embodied in the persona of Catrina, the Keeper of the Dead. That role will be sung by Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz, who will be making her SFO debut. Staging will be directed by Lorena Maza, and the conductor will be Roberto Kalb. Both of them will be making there respective SFO debuts.

Like Die Frau ohne Schatten, Frank’s opera will be given five performances. Four of them will take place 7:30 p.m. on June 13, 17, 22, and 30, and the 2 p.m. performance will take place on June 25. Ticket prices range from $26 to $464; and, depending on location, there is a facility fee of either $2 or $3 per ticket. All tickets may be purchased in the outer lobby of the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue or by calling the Box Office at 415-864-3330. Box Office hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on Monday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. There is also a Web page with hyperlinks for purchasing tickets for all eight of the performances. Readers should be aware that there is a high demand for tickets to this production. As of this writing, that Web page states that the best availability for tickets will be for the June 22 and June 30 performances. In addition, there will be a livestream beginning at 7:30 p.m. on June 22. The charge will be $27.50, and it may be purchased through a separate Web page.

Monday, May 22, 2023

The Bleeding Edge: 5/22/2023

This may well be the quietest week I have encountered since I began running these Bleeding Edge columns. (I may have encountered a week or two when there was no activity at all; but, as many know, searching for the absence of something is no easy matter!) The fact is that there is only one new event this week, which is the latest Friday evening installment curated by David Boyce at the Medicine for Nightmares Bookstore & Gallery this coming May 26 beginning at 7 p.m. Those who “know the drill” probably already know that 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.

Bukas performers Lewis Jordan, Andrew Cyrille,Karl Evangelista, and Rei Scampavia

The only other event has already been reported. This will be the premiere of guitarist Karl Evangelista’s Bukas, which amounts to a “sequel” to Apura, which was performed in July of 2021. The premiere performance will take place near the end of this month on Saturday, May 27, at 8 p.m. with doors opening at 7:30 p.m. The venue will be The Lab, which is located at 2948 16th Street in the Mission, a short walk from the intersection with Mission Street. I have been informed that only a limited number of seats remain, but the RSVP Web page still appears to be active. Readers interested in attending should bear in mind that sooner is much better than later!

Bruno Råberg’s First Solo Bass Album

Bruno Råberg with his instrument (photograph by Janis Wilkins)

This past Friday Orbis Music released a solo album by bass virtuoso Bruno Råberg entitled simply Look Inside. Most of the album is devoted to Råberg’s own compositions and improvisations; but there are three notable exceptions, all of which may be regarded as “jazz classics” from the twentieth century. In “order of appearance,” they are “Nardis” (composed by Miles Davis in 1958), “Prelude to a Kiss” (composed by Duke Ellington in 1938), and “My Man’s Gone Now,” from George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, composed in 1935.

At this point I should make a disclaimer that, here in San Francisco, I have had more than generous opportunities to listen to bass work in both the classical and jazz genres. My most frequent source has been Scott Pingel, Principle Bass for the San Francisco Symphony. When he has not been at his “day job,” I have had the good fortune to listen to his solo performances in both of those genres, including an ingenious mash-up bringing together one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello preludes with “Stella by Starlight.” Such a rich listening experience will clearly influence my approach to other solo bass performances.

Thus, after several encounters with Look Inside, I have not yet been able to get particularly excited. Nevertheless, I think it would be a mistake to attribute any shortcomings to Råberg. The fact is that giving the low register its due is a tall order for audio technology, whether it involves the ability of the capture gear to accommodate low frequencies or the shortcomings that arise through the content of a CD and the adequacy of the audio gear (particularly the speaker system) realizing that content.

In other words I would not be surprised if there were more subtleties in Råberg’s music-making than could “meet the ear.” He currently teaches at the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, one of the divisions of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. It would not be out of the question for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to invite him for one of their one-week residencies, during which he would divide his time between teaching and performing with both students and faculty. That would give those of us on “the other coast” the opportunity to appreciate his efforts without any interference from technological shortcomings.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

SFS Youth Orchestra Grand Finale Performance

This afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO) concluded its 40th anniversary season, led by Wattis Foundation Music Director Daniel Stewart. At least some readers may recall that this season has involved a fair amount of disappointment, but nothing about this final perfomance of the season was disappointing. To the contrary, the account of Igor Stravinsky’s music for the ballet “The Rite of Spring” (Le Sacre du printemps), which concluded the program, could not have been a more engaging listening experience from beginning to end. Once could say the same of the selection that preceded the intermission, George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” The opening selection was the Overture movement of the Spring Festival Suite, composed in 1956 by Li Huanzhi; and it was engaging even for those (like myself) that were totally unfamiliar with Li’s compositions.

Stravinsky’s score probably called for the largest ensemble of the entire SFSYO season. All of the winds are required to command a wide spread of registers, and many of the players have to alternate instruments. The brass section requires less doubling but more than enough instruments to hold their own against not only the winds but also a seriously massive percussion section. Indeed, because the score calls for five timpani, two players are required. Furthermore, even if the setting for the music is “pagan Russia,” one of the percussionists is required to play a Latin American güiro.

The score for this music was not the first score I had ever purchased, but it was an early addition to my library. I was first hooked on the music through Fantasia, and I have to confess that it then took me several years before I purchased a record that would allow me to listen to the music they way Stravinsky had written it. My copy is still legible; but I have to negotiate any number of notes I had written on the score pages, reflecting the many times that I consulted this score when preparing a term paper or writing a review of a performance.

By now I have pretty much internalized the music itself, meaning that I could approach this afternoon as an attentive listener without burying my head in the score pages. My attention was definitely rewarded. By following the musicians rather than the notes, I came to appreciate the ways in which Stravinsky expressed his account of the ballet itself through his own control of the physical space of the musicians.

Just how he managed the “physical space” of the orchestra pit at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris continues to leave me perplexed (particularly after I was able to see a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s La Perichole in that venue, allowing me to inspect the pit myself). Much more important was the way in which Stewart put every square inch of the Davies space to good use. Indeed, the spatial qualities of the “auditory signal” were just as compelling in his performance of “An American in Paris” as they were for “The Rite.”

The instrumentation for Li’s overture were somewhat more modest. Nevertheless, there was still a generous amount of diversity; and Stewart deployed his players on the stage to provide the best account of Li’s sonorities, which reflect both Chinese and Western influences. Listening to his overture left me curious about how he approached the other three movements of his suite.

I have to confess that I was a bit amused that Stewart should summon the final measure in Stravinsky’s score to conclude his season by “going out with a bang.” More important was the confidence and accuracy summoned by all the SFSYO musicians to keep up with Stewart’s negotiation of the music. Clearly, this concluding selection sealed SFSYO’s 40th anniversary with a more-than-memorable bang.

Omni to Stream Remainder of Dukić Recital

Readers may recall that classical guitarist Zoran Dukić performed a solo Dynamite Guitars recital, presented by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts, at the end of this past January. The first half of that recital was then released as a streamed video in the Live from St. Mark’s series at the end of this past March. This morning Omni announced that the remainder of the program will be available for streaming one week from today.

The first half of the recital concluded with three compositions by Astor Piazzolla. His music will also be performed on the new video with the selection of “Oblivion” in an arrangement 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.

The program concluded with a single encore. This was Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia.” When I previously wrote about this recital, I conjectured that Dukić himself had provided the solo guitar arrangement. I am now happy to report that my conjecture was correct!

This new video will be streamed through the Omni Foundation’s YouTube channel. The premiere will be live-streamed at 10 a.m. Sunday, May 28. 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.

A British Revival of Hard Bop

The members of The Jazz Defenders (from the ITI Music post to their Facebook Web site)

Around the beginning of this month, I became aware of a British combo calling itself The Jazz Defenders. What they are defending is the legacy of the hard bop movement. Their latest step towards achieving this goal is the release of the album Scheming, consisting of ten original tracks. The group is led by pianist George Cooper. The “front line” is provided by trumpeter Nick Malcolm and Jake McMurchie on tenor saxophone. The rhythm section is filled out by Will Harris on bass and Ian Matthews on drums.

The hard bop Wikipedia page describes it as a “subgenre” of bebop, which emerged in the mid-Fifties. That places it ten (or perhaps more) years after bebop became a genre, best known through practitioners such as Charlie Parker on alto saxophone, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Bud Powell. Their performances tended to involve lengthy improvisations that, in the words of the Wikipedia page, “explored advanced harmonies, complex syncopation, altered chords, extended chords, chord substitutions, asymmetrical phrasing, and intricate melodies.” My personal take on hard bop is that the “hard” refers to a hard-driving rhythm which contrasted with the flexible rhythms that allowed inventive bebop improvisations. The press release for Scheming specifically singles out four major hard bop musicians: Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, and Art Blakey.

From a personal point of view, I am delighted that this new combo has decided that hard bop needs defending. The hard bop albums in my personal collection make for a relatively generous supply; but that collection has grown far too large to give any genre the attention it deserves. As a result, I end up going back to hard bop when some new archival anthology is released, such as the Morgan album Complete Live At The Lighthouse.

In other words, The Jazz Defenders risk being overshadowed by history. Those that remember the past prefer to revisit it. Those that don’t may not appreciate the motivation behind the efforts of this new combo. Personally, I think these five guys are off to a good start; and, should they ever find themselves within the San Francisco city limits, I would definitely be interested in listening to the spontaneity of performance rather than any tracks that have been “frozen” for recording purposes. After all, none of those four “icons” that motivated the group are with us any more; so I, for one, am very interested in how effectively the torch is being passed.

DSO Guest Conductor Leads His Own Music

Daníel Bjarnason leading the DSO in a performance of his “Blow bright” (screen shot from last night’s streamed performance)

Yesterday evening’s live-stream of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) presented a guest conductor with a difference. Icelandic conductor Daníel Bjarnason is also a composer, and he unabashedly chose to begin his program with one of his own compositions. This turned out to be no mere act of vanity, since Bjarnason’s “Blow bright” emerged as the most satisfying work of the evening.

This was very much a large-ensemble composition; but the score disclosed a wealth of engaging sonorities which reflected the composer’s interest in the natural world. In fact, he credited the Pacific Ocean as his influence, which is saying something, since he is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean when he is at his home in Iceland. However, the “Pacific influence” may have been more than an act of nature, since his opening remarks also credited John Adams, who remains one of the most important Pacific coast composers. The sonorities themselves registered easily with the attentive listener due to the video direction consistently drawing attention to the plethora of sources for those sonorities.

On the overture-concerto-symphony program that Bjarnason prepared, the soloist was violinist Leila Josefowicz, who performed the violin concerto by Scottish composer Helen Grime. We often refer to finger-busting keyboard music; but the fingers of Josefowicz’ left hand were given a workout above and beyond the call of duty, matched by the equally demanding bow work. Nevertheless, I came away from listening to this concerto with the sense that it was all challenging technique with little sense of any underlying rhetoric. In the spirit of Japanese wisdom about Mount Fuji, this was an event that deserved to be experienced … but only once.

The concluding symphony was Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 56 “Scottish” symphony in A minor. Mendelssohn was clearly influenced by this country, not only on the mainland but also on the islands and the coastal expanses of the North Sea. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of his music never manages to do justice to any of those influences. Personally, I have to confess that this symphony has influenced me only through the ballet that George Balanchine created, which set only the second, third, and fourth movements of the symphony, using the coda of the opening movement as an introduction while dispensing with everything that preceded it. Thus, while Bjarnason clearly understood Mendelssohn’s own rhetorical foundations as realized through a diversity of instrumental sonorities, there was little he could do to muster an engaging listening experience.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

New Bion Tsang Album Highlights Schumann

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

About a month ago, Universal Music Group released the second album of the cellist Bion Tsang recorded with the Royal Scottish National Orchestral and conductor Scott Yoo. The title about the album is Cantabile and it is structured a bit like a relatively simple labyrinth. As of this writing, the album is only available for digital download, but the word is that a CD will be available later this month. At that time the Web page connected to the above hyperlink will be augmented with a link to a Web page for “physical” purchase.

At the core of the album’s structure is Robert Schumann’s Opus 129 three-movement cello concerto. It is both preceded and followed by compositions by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: the Opus 33 “Variations on a Rococo Theme” on the “way in” and the Andante cantabile movement from the Opus 11 (first) string quartet in D major on the “way out.” The entire album is framed by Pablo Casals’ setting of the Catalan Christmas song “El cant dels ocells” (the song of the birds). The opening track presents Casals’ arrangement of the tune for cello and string orchestra. The final track is Tsang’s arrangement of Casals’ arrangement for solo cello.

I have to confess that I have encountered “El cant dels ocells” at so many recitals that I felt a bit embarrassed that had only one recording of it. Nevertheless, even a casual perusal of my library of recordings would convince anyone that I am a total sucker for cello performances. Thus, while I was certainly curious when I first learned about Tsang, it was “El cant dels ocells” that convinced me that I had to listen to this new release!

Those familiar with the “core program” of this album would probably agree with me that the overall rhetoric is a dark one. Even the carol has more than a tinge of melancholy, which may have had more to do with Casals than with its traditional roots. Still, Tsang clearly knows how to explore the “dark side” of each of the selections without turning his interpretation into a wallow in misery.

Sunset Music and Arts: June, 2023

Readers may recall that this month Sunset Music and Arts presented only two programs. Their announcements were folded into the “busy weekend” articles accounting for the first two weekends of the month. Next month, however, there will be four programs, one for each of the weekends of the month. Specifics are currently as follows:

Friday, June 9, 7:30 p.m.: This will be a solo recital by Spanish virtuoso pianist Alex Conde, who specializes in the fusion of jazz with flamenco. Examples of that fusion can be found on two of his albums entitled Descarga for Monk and Descarga for Bud, which present arrangements of compositions by Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, respectively. These arrangements will be interleaved with his own original compositions.

Saturday, June 10, 4 p.m.: The two pianists in the Happy Dog Piano Duo are Nathan Cheung and Eric Tran. They will present a program of four works composed for four hands on a single keyboard. The first selection will be Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 92, an Allegro brillant preceded by an Andante introduction. This will be followed by the original version of Maurice Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) suite. The intermission will be followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 6 sonata in D major, and the concluding selection will be Samuel Barber’s Opus 28 Souvenirs suite.

Saturday, June 17, 7:30 p.m.: Phillip Dyson is a British pianist with an impressively eclectic repertoire. He tours California every year, and this year will bring him to Sunset Music and Arts. As might be expected, the classical side of his repertoire will be represented primarily by Frédéric Chopin. He will begin with the first (in A-flat major) of the Opus 25 set of études. This will be followed by the second (in E-flat major) of the three Opus 9 nocturnes and the Opus 66 Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor. On the other side of the coin, so to speak, his program will also include three compositions by Scott Joplin, “The Entertainer,” “Heliotrope Bouquet,” and “Maple Leaf Rag.” These pieces will “rub shoulders” with the first of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie” composition, Felix Arndt’s “Nola,” and Dyson’s own arrangements of tunes by George Gershwin.

Saturday, June 24, 4 p.m.: The month will conclude with a performance by the twelve-member vocal ensemble Sing Out Strong. The group was formed in 2017 by Director Ellaine Jerome and pianist Betty Fujimoto. Their program will follow up the American Songbook side of Dyson’s program represented by Gershwin with tunes by Richard Rogers and Jerome Kern. It will then venture into more recent times with the likes of Louis Prima, Neil Diamond, and others.

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. That includes the June 24 program, which will be free of charge but will still require prior registration. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

Ting Luo Returns to Old First Concerts

An example of Ting Luo’s extended piano performance techniques (from the Old First Concerts Web page for her program)

Last night pianist Ting Luo returned to Old First Presbyterian Church for her second Old First Concerts performance of a New Arts Collaboration (NAC) program. While NAC is “an interdisciplinary art project for sound and multimedia,” last night’s program was, for the most part, concentrated on the piano. However, there were a variety of extended performance techniques and, in some cases, the incorporation of electronic gear.

The program consisted of eight selections, five of which were given world premiere performances. In “order of appearance” these were “Sustain” (Aries Mond, 2022), “Hold Close and Let Go” (Cole Reyes, 2022), “Rhapsody on ‘Rahel Lastimoza’” (Sarah Wald, 2023), “Cosmic Cliffs” (Dylan Findley, 2023), and “Meteor Shuttle” (Xuesi Xu, 2023). There was also a West Coast premiere performance of “reperiō,” composed by Emily Koh in 2022. Ting also performed her improvised “Touch” (first conceived in 2017), playing piano in an “environment” of electronic audio programmed by Joo Won Park.

As was the case with her debut program in November of 2021, the quantity of content was overwhelming. Furthermore, while that earlier program paired the piano with the work of a media artist, last night’s performance was focused almost entirely on the piano. As a result, my most salient memories are based on the interplay of the piano with electronics in the “Touch” improvisation. That said, it would be fair to note that every work on the program deserved a platform for introduction; but, taken as a whole, the evening felt like a party with a large number of guests requiring considerable time for the introductions.

Friday, May 19, 2023

LCCE to Conclude Season with World Premiere

The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) will conclude its 2022–2023 season with a program entitled Starry Night. As might be guessed, the program will include Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 4 string sextet entitled “Verklärte Nacht” (transfigured night). In addition, flutist Stacey Pelinka will be soloist in “Night of South Winds,” a new flute concerto by Josiah Catalan. The other works on the program will be “Bedtime Stories” by Nina Shekhar and “Sleepless Night,” by Bay Area composer Marty Rokeach.

The San Francisco performance of this program will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 5. The venue will be the San Francisco Conservatory of Music building at 50 Oak Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. Tickets are being sold for $35 with a $10 rate for students. A Web page has been created for purchasing both categories of tickets. The charge for tickets purchased at the door will be $38 with a $15 rate for students.

A Weak Response to Stravinsky’s “Rite”

Cover of the album being discussed

Today Pyroclastic Records released a new album entitled The Rite of Spring – Spectre d’un songe. The full title is an enumeration of the two-piano compositions performed by Sylvie Courvoisier and Cory Smythe. The first part of the title is the name of a ballet choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company, setting an original score by Igor Stravinsky. This music for large orchestra was given a two-piano version prepared by the composer himself.

Courvoisier is best known as a jazz musician and improviser. She decided to provide an arrangement of Stravinsky’s score that would reflect jazz interpretation with both notated and improvised music. Unfortunately, the Stravinsky family would only allow his music to be performed in his two-piano version or in a version for four hands on a single keyboard.

Courvoisier’s response was to create a new work, “Spectre d’un songe,” which would serve as a “response” to Stravinsky’s “call” without explicitly citing that “call.” The title translates as “spirit of a dream;” but, in all probability, it is also a nod to “Le Spectre de la rose” (the spirit of the rose). This was the title of a ballet created by Michel Fokine in which Nijinsky danced the title role. However, it is worth noting that the music for “Le Spectre de la rose” (piano music by Carl Maria von Weber orchestrated by Hector Berlioz) is as far removed from “Spectre d’un songe” as the Stravinsky score is.

Thus “Spectre d’un songe” is very much a unique composition. The problem is that the music is not particularly compelling. One reason may be that Courvoisier never really created a thematic repertoire that would stand on its own merits without any explicit nods to Stravinsky. To be fair, such an undertaking is clearly a tall order; and, at the very least, Courvoisier deserves points for trying. However, when one listens to her music in the wake of Stravinsky’s score (the first two tracks on the album), it is clear that she could never set her own bar high enough.

Personally, I am more that happy with how Courvoisier and Smyth play the first two tracks of the album. I have been giving both piano versions of the ballet score considerable time, going all the way back to October of 2009, when I heard the ZOFO duo play the single-keyboard version. The Courvoisier-Smyth version is right up there with other four-hand and two-piano performances I have encountered for over a decade. However, if Courvoisier wishes to exercise her own chops as a composer, I suggest that she do so in a way that will avoid even a remote association with Stravinsky!

Britten’s “War” Requiem Setting Returns to SFS

Ruins of Coventry Cathedral created by German bombing during WWII (photograph by Andrew Walker, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall I experienced my second encounter with a performance by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 66 War Requiem. Composed in 1961, the music had been commissioned for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed by German bombing in 1940. That consecration took place in Coventry on May 30, 1962; and the “original cast” recorded the work in a Decca Records studio in January of 1963.

As was the case for most of his other recordings, Britten conducted the recording sessions. The soloists were (as they had been at Coventry) soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, tenor Peter Pears, and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The choral resources combined the Bach Choir with the London Symphony Chorus. David Willcocks serves as chorus master. The passages for boy choir were sung by the Highgate School Choir under the direction of Edward Chapman. They were accompanied by organist Simon Preston. The instrumental resources combined a one-to-a-part chamber orchestra, performed by the Melos Ensemble, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

The libretto combined the Latin text for the Requiem with selected poems by Wilfred Owen. Owen was a poet that fought in the First World War. The cover page of Britten’s score included the following passage by Owen:

My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the Pity…
All a poet can do today is warn.

He was killed in action at the age of 25 on November 4, 1918, a week before the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

The Requiem text served as the “spinal cord” of Britten’s composition. The settings of the Latin text were for performance by the full orchestra, soprano soloist, and boy choir. Interleaved among the movements were settings of Owen’s poems performed by the two male soloists along with the chamber orchestra. I suspect that it was not coincidence that one of those soloists was British and the other was German.

For quite some time, the original recording was the only available account of a performance of Britten’s Opus 66. While it had the virtue of being a premiere, there were noticeable flaws in the “casting.” Fischer-Dieskau was not always comfortable with the English language; and some of his deliveries are peculiar (to say the least). Even more problematic, however, was that Vishnevskaya had absolutely no command of Latin; and her mispronunciations became a joke among those familiar with the recording.

Fortunately, there have been several “post-Britten” recordings on which the vocal work is more faithful to the delivery of the text. Furthermore, Opus 66 was added to the SFS repertoire in April of 1969. Prior to this week’s performances, the work was last presented in November 2013 with visiting conductor Semyon Bychkov. The conductor for this week’s performances is Philippe Jordan; and the vocal soloists are soprano Jennifer Holloway, tenor Ian Bostridge, and baritone Brian Mulligan. Joshua Habermann served as guest director of the SFS Chorus, and the Ragazzi Boys Chorus was led by Artistic and Executive Director Kent Jue.

To the extent that the entire score has been etched into my memory ever since I played the original vinyl release to death, I have to say that Jordan’s leadership provided the most satisfying account of Britten’s score that I have ever encountered. The chamber orchestra was situated where the cellos were usually located, giving just about everyone in the audience an excellent view of their performance. The Chorus was up in the Terrace with Holloway sitting front-and-center. The Boys Chorus sounded as if it was coming from the 2nd Tier, remote but consistently clear. The interplay between the male vocalists and the chamber musicians was consistently razor-sharp; and the limited resources underscored the poignancy of Owen’s texts (which seldom required viewing of the projected titles).

Only two performances remain, both at 7:30 p.m. tonight and tomorrow; and this is a performance that definitely should not be missed.