Saturday, June 22, 2024

Bay Area Rainbow Symphony Tonight!

The banner of the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (from its City Box Office Web page)

According to my records, the last time I wrote about the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony was in November of last year, and that involved their participation in California Festival: A Celebration of New Music. Late yesterday afternoon, I learned that Music Director Dawn Harms would be concluding her tenure with the performance taking place this evening, She will mark the occasion by leading the ensemble in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 125, his ninth symphony in which orchestral resources are joined by vocalists (solo and choral) in the final movement’s setting of Friedrich Schiller’s poem “An die Freude,” usually known in English as the “Ode to Joy.”

The vocal soloists for this performance will be soprano Melody Moore, mezzo Nikola Printz, tenor Brian Thorsett, and baritone Hadleigh Adams. The choral resources will be provided by both the Berkeley Community Chorus, whose Music Director is Ming Luke, and the Masterworks Chorale, whose Artistic Director is Bryan Baker. Baker will provide the preparation for tonight’s performance.

The full program will put a twist on the usual overture-concerto-symphony structure. The overture will be by Ethel Smyth, composed for her one-act opera “The Boatswain’s Mate.” The “concerto,” on the other hand, will be for a narrator, rather than an instrumentalist. That narrator will be Curt Branom, reciting the text that Aaron Copland prepared for his “Lincoln Portrait.” This involves descriptive comments (presumably Copland’s) interleaved with Abraham Lincoln’s own words.

The performance of this program will take place tonight (June 22) at 7:30 p.m. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, whose entrance is on the ground floor of the Veterans Building at 401 Van Ness Avenue, on the southwest corner of McAllister Street. Tickets are still on sale through a City Box Office Web page. Including the necessary fee, General Admission tickets are sold for $44.75 with special rates of $34.75 for seniors aged 65 or older and $17.75 for students.

Salonen’s Engaging Command of Bruckner’s 4th

Last night Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen led the San Francisco Symphony in the first of the three performances of the penultimate program for the current subscription season. The “lion’s share” of the program took place after the intermission with a performance of Anton Bruckner’s WAB 104, his fourth symphony in E-flat major. Bruckner himself endowed this symphony with a subtitle: “Romantic.” Those familiar with the Bruckner canon know that many of his compositions were revised and reworked, leading to multiple editions. Last night’s performance used Leopold Nowak’s edition based on the composer’s final version of the score, which he completed in 1880.

Salonen has a keen ear for the overall pace of a Bruckner symphony. For the most part, the conductor tended to shy away from rapidity. Nevertheless, when properly conducted, there is always a clear sense of moving forward, even if the pace is restrained. Salonen’s approach to that pace could not have been more satisfying, right up there with my past encounters with Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt (as well as Blomstedt’s recordings of all of the symphonies). That attention to pace allows the attentive listener to appreciate the many ways in which the thematic content twists and turns its way among the full palette of “instrumental colors.”

Listening to Bruckner is not like listening to the intricate interplay of the themes that one encounters in the orchestral music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. Bruckner’s subjects are more straightforward, but their unfolding emerges through instrumental coloration. One might say that there is not much variation in the building blocks, but you keep looking at them from different points of view. Those points of view unfold over the course of prolonged time frames, making the act of listening one of ongoing discovery.

According to my records, this was my second encounter with Salonen conducting Bruckner, the first having taken place in February of last year with the performance of WAB 106, the sixth symphony in A major. I would be only too happy to have him guide me through more of this composer’s symphonic repertoire. Given that his tenure will be concluding soon, I fear that future encounters are likely to be few, if any at all.

Pianist Yefim Bronfman (photograph by Dario Acosta, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony)

The first half of the program saw the return of pianist Yefim Bronfman as concerto soloist. The concerto was a familiar one: Robert Schumann’s Opus 54 in A minor. As usual, Bronfman was both energetic and expressive; and his chemistry with not only Salonen but also the members of the orchestra could not have been better. As expected, he returned with an encore that was probably familiar to many listeners, the fifth (in the key of G minor) of the ten preludes that Sergei Rachmaninoff collected for his Opus 23. Both concerto and encore provided just the right “warm-up” for the journey that would follow after the intermission.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Merola: Full-Length Opera to Begin August


Original playbill for the first performance of Don Giovanni

Following next month’s Schwabacher Summer Concert, which will present extended scenes from six operas, the Merola Opera Program will shift its attention to a fully staged production of a single opera. This year’s opera will be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 527 Don Giovanni, an opera that has engaged the attention of many author and philosophers. The production will be directed by soprano Patricia Racette, a Merola alumna from 1988, whose career as a soprano encompassed a prodigious number of operas in a challenging number of languages! Through those experiences, Racette is well aware of the interplay between music and narrative and should be well-equipped to do justice to both of those factors.

On the musical side she will work with conductor Stefano Sarzani. In addition, casting has now been announced. The title role will be taken by baritone Hyungjin Son; and his servant Leporello (obliged to get them out of the trouble he creates) will be sung by bass-baritone Donghoon Kang. The narrative is structured around three of Giovanni’s “conquests,” one from the past (Donna Elvira, sung by soprano Viviana Aurelia Goodwin), one in the present (Donna Anna, sung by soprano Lydia Grindatto), and one in the “anticipated future” (the peasant girl Zerlina, sung by soprano Moriah Berry). Additional characters account for two “complications.” The first is that the Don’s efforts to seduce Anna are thwarted by her father, the Commendatore (bass-baritone Benjamin R. Sokol). Giovanni slays the Commendatore in the first act but is then haunted by him in the second. The other “complication” is that Zerlina is about to marry Masetto (bass-baritone Justice Yates), who always seems to thwart the Don’s progress.

Like the Schwabacher Concert, this production will be given two performances. They will be on Thursday, August 1, at 7:30 p.m. and on Saturday, August 3, at 2 p.m. They will both take place in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at 50 Oak Street, a short walk north of the Van Ness Muni station. Once again Merola will be offering tickets to those 25 and under for only $10. In addition, there will also be a $10 rate for those seeing their first Merola production, using the code MEROLANEW during the purchase. All other ticket prices will be either $35 or $65. As of this writing, the Web page for purchasing tickets is not available. Tickets may be purchased by calling the San Francisco Opera Box Office at 415-864-3330. Box Office Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesday through Saturday. The Box Office itself is in the War Memorial Opera House on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and Grove Street. On Saturday the Box Office can be reached only by telephone. Those hours also apply to Group Sales.

Bowden’s Contemporary Trumpet Concerto Album

Cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of Shuman Public Relations)

One week from today will see the release of Storyteller: Contemporary Concertos for Trumpet featuring Mary Elizabeth Bowden as the soloist. For those that cannot wait, (as usual) has created a Web page for processing pre-orders. As might be guessed, this is an “album with an agenda,” confronting the “male-dominated field” (the latter quote from the liner notes for Vivian Fung’s trumpet concerto). Indeed, Fung is one of four female composers on the album, the others being Clarice Assad, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Reena Esmail. The other composers included are Tyson Gholston Davis and James M. Stephenson, the latter providing the first and last tracks.

To be fair, here in “enlightened” San Francisco (scare quotes intended!), Snider’s music will be played by pianist Adam Tendler in a little less than a month, when he will present his Inheritances recital. Those that have been following this site for some time may recall that articles about Assad date all the way back to May of 2017, when the New Century Chamber Orchestra performance of her Impressions suite was one of the high points of the evening. The following month the Kronos Quartet performed Esmail’s arrangement of a raga composed by the Indian violinist N. Rajam. If any of the composers on the album are “strangers in this town,” it is Stephenson!

Where the music is concerned, Bowden performs with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Allen Tinkham. The compositions by Stephenson, Assad, Fung, Davis, and Esmail are all receiving world premiere recordings, while the Snider selection, “Caritas,” is a new arrangement of music originally composed for mezzo, string quartet, and harp. (The program book includes the text that was sung in that version.) Sadly, for all that originality, there was very little on the album that prompted me to sit up and take notice; and I am sorry to confess that the very first track, Stephenson’s “The Storyteller” (which inspired the title of the album) included a reference to Igor Stravinsky that I found positively cringe-inducing.

I suspect that my familiarity with Assad’s work was the album’s greatest asset. “Bohemian Queen” amounts to a synthesis of the concerto and tone poem genres. The first two movements are inspired by paintings by Chicago-based Gertrude Abercrombie (1909–1977), who was known as “the queen of the bohemian artists.” The final movement, “Hyde Park Jam” recalls how Abercrombie would throw parties for major jazz performers and then play piano with them! Taken as a whole, this was a “concerto with character,” which distinguished it significantly from the other tracks.

Mind you, those other tracks served up many engaging sonorities and rhetorical turns; but none of the other selections (all of which were shorter than Assad’s concerto) offered much to sustain attentive listening. Bowden, of course, maintained a solid command of her technical dexterity. Nevertheless, it was hard for me to avoid wishing that she had been better served by the composers she had selected. There was no shortage of points for trying, but they can take the attentive listener only so far!

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Kupiński Duo Plays Chopin and Sor

The Kupiński Guitar Duo of Dariusz Kupiński and Ewa Jabłczyńska (screenshot from the Omni Foundation YouTube video)

As was announced this past Tuesday, this morning saw the release of a second video from the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts. This one presented the Kupiński Guitar Duo, whose members are Dariusz Kupiński and Ewa Jabłczyńska. (Readers may recall that they were joined by Marcin Dylla in a three-guitar arrangement of the “Concierto de Aranjuez” by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo.) The major work on their new program was Fernando Sor’s Opus 54b, a fantasy duet for two guitars composed in 1833.

While this composition was new to me, I must confess that I was far more interested in the works that preceded it. All of them were arrangements of solo piano music by Frédéric Chopin: three waltzes and one mazurka. The mazurka was the last in the Opus 17 collection of four. This is a particularly ambiguous mazurka. There are no sharps or flats in the key signature, and there is a middle section in A major. However, the piece never really settles into A minor until near the conclusion. However, while a single A (440) is dying off, there is an ambiguous progression, which concludes with an F major chord in first inversion. This, for me, was the high point of the video for the intensity of its expressiveness.

The waltzes, on the other hand, were far less unsettling. Their respective keys were C-sharp minor (the second in the Opus 64 set), B minor (the second in the Opus 69 set), and E-flat major (the Opus 18 “Grande Valse Brillante,” which was Chopin’s first published waltz). What I found particularly interesting was the back-and-forth arrangement in which each of the two guitarists accounted for the expressiveness of the respective themes. Considerable attention to sharing the thematic material (if not a certain amount of haggling) made for a visual experience that reinforced the auditory experience, even with the occasional splashes of wit!

Hopefully, these two guitarists will eventually find their way to performing a recital here in San Francisco!

SFJAZZ: July, 2024

Ticket sales are definitely picking up for the Joe Henderson Lab concerts at the SFJAZZ Center. As I am writing this, the very first event in that series has already sold out! Fortunately, tickets are still available for the second set on that evening; but this means that those interested in the artist should make arrangements sooner, rather than later! For those that do not already know, the Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street, where the main entrance doors are located. Performance dates, times, and hyperlinks for purchasing tickets are as follows:

Thursday, July 11, 8:30 p.m.: This will be Cuban Music Week, and the artist that seems to have already been attracting attention is pianist Jorge Luis Pacheco. This should not be surprising, given that his solo piano debut at Lincoln Center in 2015 was sold out. This will be his SFJAZZ debut; and it is very likely that any remaining tickets will be gone sooner, rather than later.

Friday, July 12, and Saturday, July 13, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.: All of the Henderson events during Cuban Music Week will be solo piano performances. The second pianist will be Aldo López-Gavilán, who was born in Havana. He is a “double threat” to the extent that he is as well-versed in the classical piano repertoire as he is in the Afro-Cuban jazz tradition. (He performed Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 26, third, piano concerto in C major with the National Symphony of Cuba at the age of seventeen.)

Thursday, July 18, and Friday, July 19, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.: The theme of the following week will be Organ & Keys. Chester Thompson has been commanding the Hammond organ for over four decades, having performed with popular bands from the Sixties such as Tower of Power and Santana. He formed a quartet for his 1971 debut album Powerhouse, and his more recent release is Mixology.

Saturday, July 20, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.: The second Organ & Keys program will be a solo performance by Brandon Coleman. He was a major performer in Kamasi Washington’s powerhouse band, and it was Washington who gave him the name “Professor Boogie.” Washington grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where his primary influences were Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. Compared to other keyboardists, he was somewhat of a “late bloomer,” having begun playing piano at the age of sixteen.

Sunday, July 21, 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.: The final Organ & Keys performer will be pianist Gadi Lehavi. He was born in Tel Aviv but is now based in New York. Those that follow SFJAZZ performances may know him as the pianist for Ravi Coltrane’s Cosmic Music project. This concert will be his solo debut.

Thursday, July 25, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.: The theme for the final week of the month will be Blues Week. The first performer will be guitarist and singer Mike Henderson, who was dubbed “the Blues Professor” by no less than John Lee Hooker. Henderson has had a rich history, not only in music but also through his involvement with the Civil Rights movement during the Sixties. His experiences with blatant racism and police harassment were first hand. Those credentials should give him, in the words of Ted Koehler, “a right to sing the blues!”

Friday, July 26, and Saturday, July 27, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.: This will be a tribute concert to honor the legacy of James Cotton, the legendary blues singer, songwriter, and harmonica master who passed away in 2017 at the age of 81. Mark Hummel will sing and play harmonica with the members of Cotton’s band. These will be guitarists Steve Freund and Tom Holland, Cros Charles Mack on bass, and drummer June Core. Hummel has been hosting the Blues Harmonica Blowout at the SFJAZZ Center for several years. His own band is called the Blues Survivors.

Blues singer Tia Carroll (from her SFJAZZ event page)

Sunday, July 28, 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.: Blues Week will conclude with vocalist Tia Carroll, who is based here in San Francisco. As might be expected, her main influences include Tina Turner, Koko Taylor and Etta James. As also might be expected, she will punctuate her songs with her sassy style of storytelling.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Kulikova’s Third Omni Video in Los Angeles

This morning the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts released its third video to be produced in association with The Romero Sessions presenting solo performances by guitarist Irina Kulikova. Once again, the performance was filmed at Pepe Romero’s The Guitar Shop in Los Angeles, where Kulikova played one of his instruments (Guitar No. 259). The selection was, as they say, “short and sweet,” lasting less than three minutes.

Irina Kulikova playing Tárrega’s “Lágrima” (screenshot from the Omni Foundation YouTube video)

The composer was Francisco Tárrega, who is probably known to anyone familiar with the guitar repertoire. The title of the composition was “Lágrima,” which followed the usual ternary form consisting of the second theme both preceded by and followed by the first theme. (This is also known as “ABA” form for the obvious reason!) As the performance progressed, I was drawn to the sights of the bodies of “guitars in progress,” as well as piles of slabs of wood destined for future guitars! The creation of a quality guitar clearly demands patience unto an extreme, and it was easy to imagine the serenity of Tárrega’s music gently encouraging that patience.

The music may have been brief; but, in the setting of Romero’s workshop, it left (at least for me) an enduring memory.

A Third June Concert Coming to Chez Hanny

This month Chez Hanny performances are taking place on every other Sunday. Thus, the June 2 show was followed by one on June 16. That means there is “room for one more” gig on June 30, and plans for that performance were announced this past Sunday afternoon.

Loren Stillman during a recording session for Sunnyside Records in 2023 (from the YouTube video of that recording session)

The performers will be the members of the Loren Stillman Trio. Leader Stillman is a saxophonist, as well as a composer. His current base is in Brooklyn. He had previously visited Chez Hanny as the member of a sextet led jointly by David Ambrosio on bass and drummer Russ Meissner. On this occasion Ambrosio will return with Stillman to provide bass for his rhythm section. The other rhythm player will be drummer Tim Bulkley, living in Northern California after spending over a decade in Brooklyn.

As usual, the show will begin at Chez Hanny at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 30. As always, the venue will be Hanny’s house at 1300 Silver Avenue, with the performance taking place in the downstairs rumpus room. Those planning to attend should think about making a donation. $25 is the preferred amount; and checks will be accepted, as well as cash. All of that money will go to the musicians. There will be two sets separated by a potluck break. As a result, all who plan to attend are encouraged to bring food and/or drink to share. Seating is first come, first served; and the doors will open at 3:30 p.m. Reservations are preferred and may be made by sending electronic mail to

SFGMC’s Love-Themed Program at Davies

Last night the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) returned to Davies Symphony Hall to perform their third annual concert. A reduced ensemble of San Francisco Symphony performers was joined by pianist Danny Sullivan. The conductor was SFGMC Artistic Director Jacob Stensberg, also serving as Master of Ceremonies to introduce the works on the program, whose title was All We Need Is Love.

I was a bit surprised that the program did not include the selection with the name of the entire performance. However, there was so much rich content being performed that I could not quibble over such a minor factor. That diversity was reflected by the fact that only three of the composers on the program were familiar to me. Curiously, these were the first three selections on the program.

This began with the second movement from David Conte’s “Elegy for Matthew Shepard.” The text by John Stirling Walker reflected on the death of the 21-year old student at the University of Wyoming, who was beaten, tortured, and left to die for his sexual orientation. Text sheets were not included with the program, but the clarity of the vocal delivery could not have been better. (There were also American Sign Language interpreters at the front-right corner of the stage.) This was followed by the oldest work on the program, the cycle by Ralph Vaughan Williams entitled Five Mystical Songs. The last familiar composer was Michael Tilson Thomas (present for the occasion), whose “I’d Like to Learn” was given a choral arrangement by Nicolas Perez. In addition, the first half of the program concluded with the world premiere performance of “The Promise that Tomorrow Holds Today,” composed by Dominick DiOrio setting his own text.

The biggest surprise for me during the second half of the program was the discovery that “My Way,” best known by its 1969 recording by Frank Sinatra, was not an original tune. The music began as a ballad by French composer Jacques Revaux, who later reworked it with Claude François into “Comme d’habitude” (as usual), which made the top of the French pop chart in February of 1968. It was subsequently given an English version by Paul Anka with the title “My Way;” and the rest, as they say, is history. However, SFGMC turned back the clock to deliver a choral version of “Comme d’habitude” in an arrangement by Saunder Choi.

The members of The Lollipop Guild in an urban setting (from an SFGMC Web page)

The second half of the program also featured selections performed by two smaller ensembles of chorus members. The smaller of these was HomoPhonics, which presented “Elastic Heart,” the only work on the program with accompaniment from a beat box. Somewhat larger was The Lollipop Guild with Music Director Paul Saccone, which performed Aled Phillips’ arrangement of “Biblical,” a single recorded by Calum Scott that seems to have been composed by a committee.

The other high point of the second half was a partnership with the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company with semi-staged direction by Rodney Earl Jackson Jr. and choreography by Christine Chung. The music was “I, Too, Sing America,” composed by Othello Jefferson, whose own texts were combined with those of Langston Hughes. This was clearly the most elaborate undertaking of the evening, making the best of the limited space available for performance.

Taken as a whole, the program was an ambitious undertaking; but it was thoroughly engaging from beginning to end.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Coming to Omni: Two New Videos in Two Days

Duo guitarists Dariusz Kupiński and Ewa Jabłczyńska (photograph provided by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts)

As was announced last week, the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts has been releasing a series of six videos of performances by Irina Kulikova on a weekly basis on Wednesday mornings. It turns out that this will be a “bonus week,” since Thursday will see the release of a second video. This one will present the Kupinski Guitar Duo (Dariusz Kupiński and Ewa Jabłczyńska), last seen on the video released last month in which those two guitarists joined Marcin Dylla in a three-guitar arrangement of the “Concierto de Aranjuez” by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo. As in the past, both of these videos will be released at 10 a.m. on their respective dates. Program specifics are as follows:

June 19: This will be another video produced in association with The Romero Sessions, which has accumulated its own video library. As might be guessed, the guitar was made by Pepe Romero (this time Guitar No. 259); and the performance was filmed at The Romero Shop in Los Angeles. For this new release Kulikova will play “Lagrima,” composed by Francesco Tárrega.

June 20: Once again, the Kupiński Duo will focus its attention on arrangements. This time, however, the video “source music” will be piano compositions by Frédéric Chopin. They will consist of mazurkas (which tended to be the composer’s shortest pieces), waltzes, and nocturnes (likely to be the most ambitious subjects for arrangement). The program will then conclude with a fantasy duet for the two guitars, composed by Fernando Sor (Opus 54b) in 1833.

Amber Weeks’ New Album Honors Nancy Wilson

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

I first encountered jazz vocalist Amber Weekes a little over three years ago, after her ’Round Midnight album was remixed, remastered, and re-orchestrated for a new release entitled ’Round Midnight Re-Imagined. At that time I credited her with “a solid command of the torch song repertoire” with an ear for pitch that was “for the most part, reliable, only occasionally drifting for what are probably intentional rhetorical purposes.” This month began with the release of her latest album, whose full title is A Lady With A Song: Amber Weekes Celebrates Nancy Wilson; and, after having listening to its thirteen tracks, I have to confess that I do not feel quite as charitable.

I am still trying to work out why this is the case. I was certainly aware of Wilson during my student days. However, that was a time when there were almost no jazz albums in the house and jazz on the campus radio station tended to be a late-night affair. In those days, if I was asked if I had a favorite jazz vocalist, my response of “Ella Fitzgerald” was basically a reflex!

To be more specific about the new Weekes album, I found I was less forgiving where pitch was concerned. That may have been because the overall shape of each of the tunes never had much to offer. “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” provides a good example. The prevailing rhetoric here is coyness, but that never seems to register in Weekes’ delivery. If she had a different idea of how to approach the text, it managed to elude my attention.

At the end of the day, my memories of the instrumental accompaniment made for stronger impact. The arrangements allowed for extended solo takes on almost all of the tracks. Perhaps my classical influences may have been interfering; but I was particularly drawn by the solos taken by violinist Mark Cargill on both Irving Berlin’s “Suppertime” and “Wave” (which was the title track on The Antonio Carlos Jobim Songbook album). To be fair, however, Cargill provided all the arrangements for A Lady With A Song and conducted all of the tracks (as was the case on the Round Midnight Re-Imagined album).

Monday, June 17, 2024

A Pair of Adventurous Percussion Performances

Tyshawn Sorey, Sae Hashimoto, Levy Lorenzo, Russell Greenberg, and Adam Rudolph (photograph by Todd Weinstein)

Archaisms is the title of two albums of percussion-only performances presented by Adam Rudolph and Tyshawn Sorey. Both albums are currently available in both physical and digital form through separate Bandcamp Web pages. The first album consists of two duo tracks, entitled simply “Archaism A” and “Archaism B.” On the second album they are joined by Sae Hashimoto, Russel Greenberg, and Levy Lorenzo. This time the tracks are entitled “Archaisms Γ” and “Archaisms Δ.” (I am pleasantly reminded of the film Hot Shots! Part Deux!)

Both albums capture performances that took place in New York. The duo performance took place at the Zürcher Gallery on December 16, 2021. The larger ensemble performance was at Roulette Intermedium on February 9, 2023. While the duo probably involved give-and-take improvisation between the performers, the quintet involved (according to the Bandcamp Web page) a “unique approach to conducted improvisation.” Whether or not that approach was in any way connected to Butch Morris’ conduction is left as an exercise for the reader!

Many readers probably know by now that, where jazz is concerned, my “comfort zone” resides in the more adventurous efforts that I have encountered in the forties, fifties, and sixties. Blue Note was my “school” during those decades; and, where the “new century” is concerned, I tend to find myself skeptical, rather than engaged. Nevertheless, there are a couple of venues within reach of where I live to satisfy me with an engaging performance every now and then.

In that context I would say that both of these albums appeal more to my intellectual interests in abstraction than for any “deep dives” into the listening experience. Nevertheless, this is music that piqued my attention. Furthermore, I was glad to see that Bandcamp created a “bundle” Web page to provide both albums in a single package. Since the prices on that Web page are given in Euros, I am not sure how long delivery would take for the physical version; but the digital download definitely accounts for all four of the tracks that can be found across the two albums.

I suppose my primary reaction to these releases is, “What next?”; and I am willing to keep on the lookout for an answer!

The Bleeding Edge: 6/17/2024

This will be a very busy week. There will be a couple of departures from the “usual suspects.” However, two of those “usual suspects” have already been taken into account, as is the annual Kronos Festival at the SFJAZZ Center. Here is the summary of previously reported events (with the obligatory hyperlinks):

  • Three of those events will take place at the Center for New Music: two duo sets on Tuesday, the usual pancakes on Saturday, and Ninth Plan on Sunday.
  • Outsound Presents will wrap up the month with its second LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) New Music Series program on Wednesday.
  • The Kronos Festival will begin on Thursday and run through Saturday.

That leaves a generous number of previously unreported events, which will include a couple of new venues. Specifics are as follows in the usual format:

Monday, June 17, 8 p.m., Dead End Vintage: It turns out that this popular used clothing store in the Mission hosts performances on Monday evenings. I have no idea whether these take place every week, but tonight’s program, will be a “Mini Fest” to prepare listeners for the Brutal Sound Effects Festival, which will be taking place at The Lab at the end of this month. The title of tonight’s program is Pocket Universe; and there will be five sets by Vaux Flores, KROB, Cruel Work, Decision/Fatigue, and Nurse Betty, respectively. The entire program is expected to conclude by 9:50 p.m. Admission will be $5. The store is located at 3370 19th Street, between Mission Street and Capp Street.

Tuesday, June 18, 7 p.m., Make-Out Room: More familiar to readers is the monthly Jazz at the Make-Out Room series. As usual, this will be a three-set evening, beginning with a solo set by drummer Isaac Schwartz. The performers in the remaining sets will probably be familiar to regular readers. The second set will begin at 7:45 p.m. with a performance by God/Emperor/Doom, a trio led by saxophonist David Boyce performing with Karl Evangelista on guitar and drummer Jordan Glenn. The duo of clarinetist Ben Goldberg and drummer Jon Arkin (also playing electronic gear) will take the final set, beginning at 8:30 p.m. As usual, the Make-Out Room is located in the Mission at 3225 22nd Street. Doors will open at 6 p.m. There is no cover charge, so donations will be accepted and appreciated.

Thursday, June 20, Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22, 8 p.m., Audium: Red Clay Sound House is a collective, whose members are Maria Judice, Crystal Sanders-Alvarado, and Miles Lassi. They are taking part in a two-year fellowship at Audium, working on a multi-medium, multi-site project entitled Sound of Black San Francisco. These will be the first three in a six-show work-in-progress series entitled “Magnolia Mojo [side.a].”

Audium is located at 1616 Bush Street. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m. City Box Office has created a Web page for purchasing tickets for all six of the performances. General admission (including the option for wheelchair accessibility) will be $33 with a $22/75 rate for students. A limited number of pay-what-you-can tickets will also be available.

Friday, June 21, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., Medicine for Nightmares: This week’s installment of Other Dimensions in Sound, curated by reed player David Boyce, will feature two sets of solo performances by Boyce involving both saxophones and electronics. Once again, the venue is located in the Mission at 3036 24th Street, between Treat Avenue and Harrison Street. As always, there is no charge for admission, presumably to encourage visitors to consider buying a book.

Friday, June 21, 8 p.m., Clarion Performing Arts Center: Pianist Erika Oba will lead her trio, whose other members are Chris Bastian on bass and drummer Jeremy Steinkoler. They will be joined by vocalist Roopa Mahadevan to celebrate the release of their new album, Ghosts on the Water. The themes of the album are ecology, ritual, and heritage, and it interleaves original compositions with arrangements of Japanese and Okinawan folk songs. The venue is located in Chinatown at 2 Waverly Place, on the northwest corner of Sacramento Street, just to the west of Grant Avenue. Admission will be $10.

Further Reflections on Saariaho’s Final Opera

Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for a second encounter with a performance by the San Francisco Opera (SFO) of Innocence, Kaija Saariaho’s sixth and final opera. On my first encounter, Orchestra seating provided an excellent account of the rich complexity taking place on stage. However, my subscription ticket also affords an equally excellent view of the orchestra pit, which turned out to be very informative.

The fact is that, for a relatively brief opera (about 105 minutes), Innocence begins with a moderately lengthy overture, which makes full use of the instrumental resources. This includes a large percussion sections, divided between the right and left extremes of the orchestra pit, framing a rich collection of strings, winds, and brass. Listening to that orchestra became a visual journey to discover how different combinations of instruments were deployed, all in the interest of establishing the performances that would take place by both the vocal soloists and the choral resources after the rising of the curtain. All of those resources were meticulously managed by conductor Clément Mao-Takacs, beginning with the opening gesture of that overture.

Soprano Vilma Jää as one of the high school students with soprano Lucy Shelton as the teacher (left) and Rowan Kievits as another student (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

After the overture concluded, I was back on familiar territory. The basic time-line of the plot is fragmented in such a way that each episode accounts for an event that has both predecessors and successors. Central to that time-line is a violent shooting incident, which took place at an international high school. The event justified the creation of a libretto developed by dramaturg Aleksi Barrière in which Finnish (Saariaho’s own language) is interleaved with English, Czech, Romanian, French, Swedish, German, Spanish, and Greek, presumably all spoken by different students at the international school where the shooting took place. An all-English account was projected above the stage, while on both the right and left of the stage, there were projections of the words actually being sung. This approach enriched the context of the school in which the shooting took place, and those in the audience could appreciate the diversity of the students when they “spoke” in their own respective languages.

The narrative of the opera itself unfolds through the disclosure of the events that take place before and after that shooting. The “after” events deal with how the family of the shooter moved on, and the opera begins with the reception for the wedding of the family’s younger brother. As might guessed, in such a celebratory event, denial of the past dominated. However, much of the drama hinges on how the caterer is just as connected to the school shooting as were the groom and his parents. On the other hand, the “before” events are only disclosed towards the very end of the opera, throwing an entirely new light of the viewer’s perspective of just about all the members of the cast.

Between the polyglot libretto and the meticulous reordering of the time-line, Innocence is an impressively sophisticated undertaking. Nevertheless, the staging by Simon Stone (making his SFO debut) and the direction here in San Francisco by Louise Bakker (also an SFO debut) never confounded the audience with too-much or too-obscure. The clarity of the overall time-line emerged through the interplay of the individual episodes. One might almost say that this is a narrative that does not reveal itself until the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle is put in place, but the unfolding of the episodes themselves never bogs down the attentive viewer in confusion.

In my earlier article, I discussed the individual members of the cast. On this second encounter I found myself more wrapped up in Saariaho’s music. Having already familiarized myself with the diversity of personalities,  I could focus on how the music disclosed the events they experienced. Of course all operas are products of the interplay between narrative and music. In this case, however, the narrative was so sophisticated that I came away highly impressed by how effectively the music guided me through its many twists and turns, enhancing the clarity of the experience, rather than merely accompanying it.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Pocket Opera: Nicolai’s Take on Shakespeare

The opening Wikipedia summary paragraph for the German composer Otto Nicolai cites only one of his compositions, his three-act opera The Merry Wives of Windsor, with a German libretto by Salomon Hermann Mosenthal based on the play of the same name by William Shakespeare. Unless I am mistaken, my only encounter with this opera took place during the time I spent in Israel, when I saw an English-language version on television. The music was engaging; but the narrative did not seem as raucous as the source text (excerpts of which I had seen performed by Orson Wells).

In spite of the title, this is one of the plays in which Sir John Falstaff is the primary character. He is, of course, best known for his gluttony. When that is not satisfied by food, he augments it with sexual conquests.

Alice Ford (Rena Harms, left) and Meg Page (Marcelle Dronkers, right) getting the better of Falstaff (Kenneth Kellogg) (from the event page for this Pocket Opera production)

His current “targets” are Alice Ford and Meg Page. Both of them are true to their husbands, even when the men are suspicious. They decided that it is time to teach Falstaff a lesson that he will not forget. To this end, they enlist Meg’s daughter Anne (who has three suitors, one of whom is her true love); and the three of them develop a plot of revenge. As might be guessed, there are “speed bumps” along the way; but, by the final scene of the opera, it is the women that triumph.

Music Director Robby Stafford will conduct a version of the score that will accommodate the instrumentation of the Pocket Opera orchestra. The stage director will be Phil Lowry. The “title characters” will be sung by soprano Rena Harms (Alice Ford), this year’s Reznikoff Artist, and mezzo Marcelle Dronkers as Meg Page. Bass Kenneth Kellogg, this year’s Hurst Artist, will sing the role of Sir John Falstaff. Soprano Abigail Bush will be Anne Page.

As usual, the San Francisco performance of this production will take place at the Legion of Honor, a component of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It is located at 100 34th Avenue, which is basically right in the center of Lincoln Park. The performance will begin at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 30. General admission will be $79 with a $74 rate for seniors. Those age 30 and under may purchase tickets for $30. A Web page has been created for online purchases.

Purcell Gets New Packaging from harmonia mundi

This coming Friday, harmonia mundi will reissue a single package of two recordings of operas by Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas and The Fairy-Queen. These albums were originally released in the late Eighties, Dido in 1986 and Fairy-Queen in 1989. The performers were the vocalists and instrumentalists of Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. As is usually the case, those that cannot wait will be able to pre-order the physical album through a Web page on the Collectors’ Choice Music Web site.

I suspect that, like myself, most readers will be more familiar with Dido than with Fairy-Queen. In my own case, the familiarity with the former involves performances, as well as recordings. The latter, on the other hand, was known to me only by name. It is much longer than Dido, accounting for the latter two of the three CDs in the package. The booklet attributes the libretto to “an anonymous author after William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights’ Dream.”

Title page of the original printed edition of The Fairy-Queen (from the Wikipedia page for the opera, public domain)

The booklet also describes the music as an “Opera in 5 acts.” However, taken as a whole, the work is not so much a musical account of a narrative as it is an assemblage of five “Masques” (as they are identified on the Wikipedia page) with a generous serving of instrumental music. Personally, I prefer this terminology, since, in my own opinion, the work lacks the narrative thread that is much better defined in Dido (and shows more respect to Shakespeare). Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, this offering certainly provides a full evening of entertainment!

The one vocal selection that is familiar to me only arises during the final Masque. “Hark! the echoing air” is sung by “a Chinese woman.” (Don’t ask!) This is a text couplet, which concludes, “And all around pleased Cupids clap their wings.” This is followed by so many repetitions of “clap” that I always lose count! (I first encountered it on a Russell Oberlin album during my student days. I would play it for friends, telling them, “You’re not going to believe this!”) Mind you, I certainly appreciate having this “Purcell coupling” in my collection; but, where The Fairy-Queen is concerned, I am reminded of an old motto about the Sunday edition of The New York Times: “You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there!”

Slapstick Handel Returns to San Francisco Opera

One seldom attaches the attribute “slapstick” to the composer George Frederick Handel. Nevertheless, when Christopher Alden’s staged that composer’s HWV 27 opera Partenope for San Francisco Opera (SFO), that was clearly the disposition he had in mind. Handel’s libretto’s appealed to his contemporaries for evoking a “classical” past, often based on mythical foundations. The characters in Partenope come from that past; but the (unidentified) author of the libretto seemed less interested in Greek tragedy and more at home with a beautiful woman trying to negotiate her way around four suitors. All four of them fumble their way through efforts to woo the title character.

Julie Fuchs as Partenope, Hadleigh Adams as Oromonte, Daniela Mack as Rosmira, Nicholas Tamagna as Armindo, and Carlo Vistoli as Arsace in the first act of Partenope (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of SFO)

One of them, Arsace (countertenor Carlo Vistoli) has actually abandoned the woman he had promised to marry, Rosmira (mezzo Daniela Mack); but they are reconciled by the end of the third act. Partenope herself (soprano Julie Fuchs) ultimately settles on Armindo (countertenor Nicholas Tamagna); and the opera concludes with all characters gathered in cordial friendship. The journey to that conclusion, however, is fraught with no end of confusion (essential to almost any opera) expressed, for the most part, through raucous slapstick.

The decor for the setting may owe much to the painter Francis Picabia and the film-maker René Clair, but the characters could easily have escaped from the Charlie Chaplin film. Ironically, none of this is inconsistent with Handel’s music, which, for the most part, is decidedly upbeat from beginning to end. It was given a first-rate account by conductor Christopher Moulds. He led from a harpsichord, also providing continuo with a second harpsichordist (Peter Walsh), along with cellist Evan Kahn and Richard Savino on theorbo. The full ensemble (including the continuo) consisted of only 38 musicians, providing just the right transparency and balance with the vocal work (almost all solo) taking place on the stage.

When SFO first presented this production in October of 2014, watching it felt like a roller-coaster ride with one unexpected take after another. This time I knew what to expect; so the “shock” element of surprise in the visual experience was somewhat blunted. Nevertheless, the spirit was as fresh as ever, just as it is in a new staging of a comedy by William Shakespeare where we already know all the jokes. Beyond the spot-on deliveries by all of the vocalists, every gesture on stage registered the flow of comic dispositions, reinforced in the orchestra pit by every note that Handel had penned receiving its due.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

A “Shining” Hour of Baritone Saxophone

Those of my generation probably remember the motto that comedian Rodney Dangerfield made famous: “I don’t get no respect!” In the course of listening to jazz, I sometimes find myself thinking that the baritone saxophone could also take up that motto. I was fortunate enough to play a few takes on the instrument back in the days of my high school jazz band, but they only took place in rehearsal sessions. (Most of my time was spent on alto.) Mind you, every now and then I encounter a combo in which the instrument takes the lead; and that was the case back in January when Adam Schroeder enjoyed that status on the album CT! Adam Schroeder and Mark Masters Celebrate Clark Terry.

Cover of the album being discussed (courtesy of Jazz Promo Services)

This coming Friday will see the release of a new album from ZOHO Music on which the baritone saxophone takes the lead. The instrument is played by Paul Kendall, and the title of the album is My Shining Hour. Those visiting its hyperlink will see that is currently processing pre-orders.

Kendall leads a quartet, whose other members are pianist George Grund, Roy Cumming on bass, and drummer Rudy Petschauer. The title of the album is literal, since the overall duration is about an hour. Over the course of fourteen tracks, only one composer appears twice. That is Antônio Carlos Jobim with his familiar “Desafinado” and the less familiar “Once I Loved,” first recorded on Jobim’s debut album, The Composer of Desafinado Plays.

The other contributing composers are, in order of appearance, Nacio Herb Brown, Cole Porter, Matt Dennis, Clifford Brown, Bronisław Kaper, Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker, Victor Scherzinger, Randy Weston, and George Fragos. Those familiar with my tastes will probably guess that I was drawn to the Parker track. Kendall brought as much agility to “Confirmation” as I had previously encountered on any of my Parker recordings. (This track also included some inventive keyboard takes from Grund.)

Mind you, I can sympathize with any readers that feel that a little bit of baritone sax can go a long way. Nevertheless, I found that listening to the entire album made for an engaging journey. This involved just the right blend of encounters with the unfamiliar and new perspectives on the familiar. I am more than confident that this album will hold up to further visiting in both the near and distant futures.

Only One Outsound Event in SF Next Month

The logo for Outsound Presents (from its home page)

Readers may recall that last year Outsound Presents decided to shift the annual Outsound New Music Summit from the Community Music Center in the Mission to the Finnish Hall in Berkeley. As a result, there will be only one performance in San Francisco next month. This will be an LSG (Luggage Store Gallery) New Music Series event entitled All the Names. I have not been able to harvest much information about the program itself. As far as I can tell, it will showcase five performers, all of whose “names” will be familiar to those that have regularly followed Outsound activities:

  1. Joshua Allen
  2. Clarke Robinson
  3. David Casini
  4. Tim Duff
  5. Janel Wagner

As many (most) readers know by now, the Luggage Store Gallery is located at 1007 Market Street, just off the corner of Sixth Street and across from the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. Admission will be on the usual sliding scale between $10 and $20. However, no one will be turned away for lack of funds.

Friday, June 14, 2024

Cadillac to Host Peninsula Project

The next Concerts at the Cadillac program will present a quartet that calls itself The Peninsula Project. The photograph on the poster for this performance suggests that the members of this quartet may be regarded as “old-timers” in the best possible way:

My own point of view is that this is a group that knows how to honor the traditions of “straight-ahead jazz” (again in the best possible way), possibly with a few dashes of wit for good measure! For those unfamiliar with this series, all performances are free, and everyone is welcome. The venue is the Cadillac Hotel, which has an official San Francisco Landmark. It is located in the Tenderloin at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street.

Giacomo Fiore in Joshua Tree

I have been following the work of guitarist Giacomo Fiore since his student days at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). He graduated in the class of 2009. In November of 2016 he returned to SFCM to present a program entitled Sixty Years and Counting, which reviewed the role of the electric guitar among “serious” composers, such as Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and (on the other side of the “pond”) Tristan Murail.

Cover design for the album being discussed (from its Bandcamp Web page)

A little over a year ago, Fiore enjoyed a week-long residency at Lou Harrison House, which is located in Joshua Tree. Rather than stay indoors, Fiore decided to spend his time in Joshua Tree National Park. That experience would lead to the creation of a new album, which will be released by Other Minds one week from today. For those that cannot wait, Bandcamp has created a Web page for the album to pre-order both the compact disc and the digital download versions. The full title of the album is Lost Horse Wash Drone: Music for Guitar and Electronics.

For Fiore’s venture into Joshua Tree National Park, he brought an electric guitar, a resophonic guitar (based on the design of the instrument that Lou Harrison invented for Scenes from Nek Chand, enhancing the sounds of the plucked strings with resonating overtones), and (of course) recording equipment. Fiore’s intention was to blend the sounds of his instruments with the natural sounds of the Park. The full extend of those sounds was captured by placing microphones within the body of his guitars. The guitar strings themselves were tuned according to just intonation, in which intervals are based on integer ratios.

Those that have followed this site for some time probably know that I have long been interested in the impact of those integer ratios as an alternative to the “irrational” (in the mathematical sense) intervals that define the equal-tempered chromatic scale. I have listened to enough of Harrison’s music to have been perfectly comfortable with the intervals that Fiore explored during his Joshua Tree visit. I could also appreciate the value of his “background” recordings of “natural” sounds from sources other than those of his instruments (such as wind).

One cannot venture into a desert without appreciating the extent to which one is surrounded by quietude. (Fortunately, we do not have to put up with Peter O’Toole singing his way through Lawrence of Arabia!) Thus, at least to some extent, Fiore’s undertaking could not be other than intrusive. On the other hand, no one is around to feel intruded upon (except for coyotes and prairie dogs); so all that really matters is that, having captured his sounds, Fiore had the good sense to leave things as he found them.

Once the sounds have been captured, “the rest is silence” (Hamlet’s final words to Horatio). However, that silence is broken by editing and playback. Rather than silence, “the rest” is what we can now encounter on the new Lost Horse Wash Drone album! Having now listened to that album several times, I find that there is much to enjoy in the interplay among instrumental sounds, natural sounds, and products of imaginative audio editing.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason Returns to Davies

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (photograph by Ollie Ali, courtesy of SFS)

Last night cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason returned to Davies Symphony Hall. He had made his debut there with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, in a performance of Edward Elgar’s cello concerto in October of 2022. This time he made his debut in the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Orchestral Series, performing with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. His selection was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 107, a late work (1959) but the composer’s first of two cello concertos.

The music reflects the high spirits of a composer that had successfully outlived Joseph Stalin. The opening rhetoric is unabashedly playful, complete with prankish outbursts from the timpani. The four movements (including a cadenza) are played without interruption; and Kanneh-Mason was clearly as much at home with the lyrical Moderato as he was with the pranks in the opening Allegretto. Sadly, he did not announce his encore selection, but its Adagio rhetoric provided the perfect balance for Shostakovich’s energetic rhetoric. [added 6/14, 1:25 p.m.:

The encore was not by Shostakovich but by his colleague, Mieczysław Weinberg. In 1968 Weinberg composed a set of 24 preludes for solo cello, which became his Opus 100. Unlike the piano preludes of Frédéric Chopin, these were not organized by key signature. Kanneh-Mason played the eighteenth prelude in the collection.]

The intermission was followed by the first SFS performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Fairytale Poem,” which was composed in 1971. Salonen provided introductory remarks, including the narrative of the fortunes of a piece of chalk, which dreams of making elaborate images. Gubaidulina has not been shy about irony; and, as might be expected, the music concludes as the chalk dissolves in its final strokes.

The subtlety of that narrative provided a sharp contrast to the overblown dramatics encountered in Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s tone poem “Francesca da Rimini.” This is based on an episode in Dante’s Inferno, and the listener would have done well to abandon all hope. Anyone familiar with the Tchaikovsky repertoire is well aware of his tendency to repeat himself; but, in this case, he did it to aggravating excess. This is the composer’s Opus 32, written in 1876, by which time he had established himself as a mature composer; but it seems as if he never really got his head around this particular Dante episode.

Fortunately, we could leave Davies with memories of Shostakovich’s high spirits in his “post-Stalin” period!

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Omni Foundation: Three Videos; One Composer

Composer Stephen Goss (photograph provided by the Omni Foundation for the Performing Arts)

This coming Sunday, OMNI on-Location will serve up an embarrassment of riches. Three new videos will be added to the library, each presenting a different composition by Stephen Goss performed by guitarist Francisco Correa. For those unfamiliar with the name, Goss’ music receives hundreds of performances; and he is recognized for advancing the repertoire of solo guitar music. His music has been appreciated on an international scale, including venues such as Carnegie Hall (New York), Wigmore Hall and the Royal Albert Hall (London), and the Tchaikovsky Hall (Moscow).

The first of the compositions to be featured is “Paganini Variations.” The theme for the variations was taken from the first in a collection of eighteen sonatas by Niccolò Paganini given the title Centone di sonate. The variations themselves were originally scored for violin, mandolin, and guitar. However, on this video Goss gives a duo performance with violinist Max Baille. He responded to the absence of the mandolin by delivering a more virtuosic undertaking.

The second video will present “Seurat’s Bathers,” one of the nine movements from a suite entitled Wynwood Walls. The entire composition was conceived with the intention that paintings by Seurat would be projected behind the ensemble, consisting of guitar and string quartet. The video, on the other hand, was made in “studio” conditions. Goss is joined by the members of Asaka Quartet: violinists Iona McDonald and Eriol Guo Yu, violist Susie Xin He, and cellist Jonathan Ho Man Fong.

The final video couples two well-known solo guitar pieces in B minor with a flute part. The two pieces are the 22nd étude in Fernando Sor’s Opus 35 and the concluding movement (Allegro Solemne) in Agustín Barrios’s suite La Catedral. Flautist Emily Andrews superimposes her own new material in her performance with Goss.

All three of the videos will be available for viewing any time after 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 16. The individual Web pages can be found in the hyperlinks attached to the preceding three paragraphs. As usual, each of the pages will support live chat as part of the viewing experience.

A Vocal Album of Many Colorful Contexts

Samuel Hasselhorn on the cover of his new album

Tomorrow harmonia mundi will release a new album of performances by baritone Samuel Hasselhorn accompanied by the Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Łukasz Borowicz. The full title of the album is Urlicht: Songs of Death and Resurrection; and, for those that really cannot wait, the Web page is currently processing pre-orders! For many readers, both the title and the subtitle are likely to invoke associations with Gustav Mahler; so it is no surprise that four of the ten selections on the album are Mahler compositions. Two of them are settings of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Alte deutsche Lieder (the boy’s magic horn: old German songs); and the other two draw upon poems by Friedrich Rückert, which Mahler had collected in a set of five given the title Rückert-Lieder. Woven among these selections are vocal settings by (in order of appearance) Engelbert Humperdinck, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Hans Pfitzner, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Walter Braunfels, and Alban Berg.

In the interest of “full disclaimer,” I should make it clear (to those that do not already know) that I am an unabashed sucker for the development of “new music” that took place during that transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in German-speaking countries. I find it a bit interesting that Friedrich Rückert received more attention than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. However, one of the surprises on this album comes from Pfitzner’s setting of “Herr Oluf” (Sir Oluf), a poem by Goethe’s contemporary, Johann Gottfried Herder, which may well have inspired Goethe’s “Erlkönig,” now best known for its vocal setting by Franz Schubert (D. 328).

Those familiar with the Mahler songs will most likely be satisfied with Hasselhorn’s approaches to them. Personally, however, I have to confess to a soft spot for the Korngold selection. This is the aria from Die tote Stadt (the dead city), which begins with the text “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” (my yearning, my illusion), usually known as “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” (Pierrot’s dance-song). Those that have followed this site for some time probably know that I am a sucker to this opera and have been fortunate enough to see it twice (once on television and once on the stage). Indeed, I recalled those experiences a little less than a year ago, when violinist Bruno Monteiro included a chamber music version of it on one of his albums.

The order of the composers other than Mahler on this album is not a chronological one. However, there is still some sense of a “journey” from the “traditional” rhetoric of Humperdinck to the “adventurous” stance that permeates the entire score of Wozzeck. There is thus some sense of “progression” when one attentively follows how one track leads to another across the entire album. It is through that sense that the entire album transcends any sense of a business-as-usual experience.

Taken as a whole, the album left me thinking about what Hasselhorn’s next endeavor will be!

Oscar Peterson: A Preference for the Intimate

Jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson (photograph by Tom Marcello, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, from Wikimedia Commons)

Last night the 41st San Francisco Jazz Festival, hosted by SFJAZZ, presented the United States premiere of Oscar Peterson’s The Africa Suite, which was coupled by a full performance of his Canadiana Suite. The performance took place in Davies Symphony Hall with an impressively full house. All that was missing was a program book with background material for both the music and the performers; but they do not seem to do those things at SFJAZZ, even when a premiere offering is at stake.

For those unfamiliar with the name, Peterson was one of the leading jazz pianists during the twentieth century; and his Wikipedia page goes as far as to declare him “one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.” This would be consistent with Duke Ellington declaring him the “Maharaja of the keyboard.”  He could take a familiar tune and spin out an extended improvisation, which would include passing nods to any number of other tunes. His “comfort zone” seemed to be in small groups, with a preference for trios over solos.

Over the course of listening to his recordings, I have been impressed by how he could take a little bit and make it go a long way. That talent was more than evident in the first half of last night’s program, which was framed by two trio performances. The first was led by pianist Tamir Hendelman, joined by guitarist Russel Malone and Robert Hurst on bass. The other saw pianist Kenny Barron performing with the same rhythm pair. Between these two sets was a solo performance by pianist Benny Green, raised in Berkeley and a Peterson protégé. None of Green’s selections were familiar to be, but the trio offerings were rich with familiar standards.

Most important, however, was the sophistication of the keyboard work over the course of those three sets. This could not have been a better acknowledgement of the richness of the Peterson legacy. However, I was not prepared for how much this would be a drain on attentiveness. The running joke about Peterson’s sets used to be that a little bit goes a long way. In that context it would be fair to say that attentive listening to the three sets preceding the intermission was on a par with listening to one of the symphonies by Gustav Mahler.

The down-side of this experience was that, by the time of the intermission, I realized that I was far too saturated with reflections on the performances to cram anything else into my brain. I have no regrets about this circumstance. I have always preferred the “chamber music” side of jazz to the broader expanse of a large group like the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which had been recruited to play the two suites.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Center for New Music: June 2024

This month’s events at the Center for New Music will be getting off to a later start, but things will begin to pick up one week from today. As most readers probably know by now, the Center is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Each of the dates will be hyperlinked to an Eventbrite event page through which tickets may be purchased as follows:

Wednesday, June 19, 7:30 p.m.: The month will begin with two duo performances. The first of these will be a noise set for amplified snare drum and “bespoke noise boxes” played by Ken Ueno and Karen Yu. Kevin Corcoran and Jacob Felix Heule will then continue the “percussion theme” of the evening with a performance based on surface friction, found objects, and amplification.  As usual, general admission will be $15, with the reduced $10 rate for students and C4NM members.

Saturday, June 22, noon: This will be the latest monthly installment of G|O|D|W|A|F|F|L|E|N|O|I|S|E|P|A|N|C|A|K|E|S, which is returning to Saturdays. This offers the usual opportunity to enjoy vegan pancakes while listening to “bleeding edge” music. As usual, general admission will be $10 with a $6 rate for members and students. Music programming is scheduled to conclude by 2 p.m. Gourmet vegan pancakes and compote will be served without any charge other than admission. The contributing performers and composers will be Mason Jones, Kanoko Nishi, War Hippy (visiting from Los Angeles), Daniel Blomquist, and Wilderman.


Poster for the Ninth Planet performance (from the C4NM event page)

Sunday, June 23, 7 p.m.: Ninth Planet musicians Jessie Nucho (flutes), Brendan Lai-Tong (trombone), Giacomo Fiore (electric guitar), and Eugene Theriault (bass) will contribute to a new interpretation of Pauline Oliveros’ “Four Meditations for Orchestra.” The performance will also incorporate “Sway,” an interactive music system developed by Carl Testa. This creates a live processing environment which responds in real time to the musicians’ output.

Saturday, June 29, 5 p.m.: Fiore will return to host a party for the release of his latest album, Lost Horse Wash Drone. The score combines guitars and electronics, and it is based on just intonation tuning. Field recordings captured in Joshua Tree National Park will provide a background for the instrumental foreground. Fiore will introduce the album by sharing some stories about both conceiving and recording the content.

BMOP Debuts Vijay Iyer Orchestral Works Album

Jennifer Koh with Gil Rose, conductor of the Boston Modern Opera Project (courtesy of BMOP)

According to my records, my last encounter with a release by the Boston Modern Opera Project (BMOP) took place in November of 2022 with the release of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, a three-act opera composed by Anthony Davis working with a libretto by Thulani Davis based on a story by Christopher Davis. However, yesterday saw the release of Trouble, which marks the first release of an album of orchestral compositions by Vijay Iyer. Readers will note that the hyperlink in the last sentence leads to a Bandcamp Web page. This is because, as of this writing, the Web page on appears to be somewhat confused about the availability of the album!

The title of the album is also the title of a concerto for violin and chamber orchestra, which was composed in 2017 for Jennifer Koh’s The New American Concerto commissioning project. It is preceded by the four-movement “Asunder,” which was also composed in 2017, and followed by “Crisis Modes,” composed the following year for percussion and strings. Many readers probably know that Iyer tends to be associated more frequently with jazz; and this site reported on a trio performance with Linda May Han Oh on bass and Tyshawn Sorey on drum kit, which was live-streamed from SFJAZZ in April of last year. Iyer’s jazz has also appeared on ECM releases, the most recent of which to be documented on this site was Far From Over, which also included Sorey and first appeared in August of 2017. It is also worth nothing that ECM provided the platform for Iyer’s first recording in the “classical” genre, Mutations. This was released in March of 2014 and was his first ECM album.

After listening to Trouble a few times, I decided to revisit Mutations; and I am sorry to report that that latter emerged as more engaging than the former. This should not surprise readers. I am sure that I have not been the first to suggest that “jazz is chamber music by other means” (with the order of the two being chronological in music history, rather than suggesting any priority). Mind you, I continue to be impressed with Koh’s efforts to pursue new repertoire; and I regret that I have not had an opportunity to listen to her in recital since October of 2021, when she concluded that year’s PIVOT Festival, presented by San Francisco Performances, with a duo recital with Missy Mazzoli, who composed all the works on the program.

What this means, however, is that chamber music tends to be more in Iyer’s comfort zone than performances with large ensembles. Thus, even though “Trouble” was composed for a chamber orchestra, the interplay was never as convincing as any of Iyer’s chamber music or solo performances that I have encountered. Similarly, neither “Asunder” nor “Crisis Modes” comes across as much more than detached episodes, which, even in brevity, tend to overstay their welcome. While I appreciate Iyer’s adventurous undertakings, I look forward to his returning to his “comfort zone” in future albums, since I am sure that he still has much more to say through either chamber music or jazz combos.