Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bay Area Rainbow Symphony Announces 2016–17 Season

This is very close to the last minute; but the 2016–17 season of the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (BARS) begins this weekend. For those not yet familiar with the ensemble, it was “born” on October 21, 2007 when five Bay Area musicians met “to form a new type of LGBTQ [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Queer] ensemble;” and the group’s name was decided at that meeting. The first concert was presented under the auspices of the Old First Concerts series on June 8, 2008 after three months of rehearsing for which Old First Presbyterian Church provided space. BARS now uses a rainbow icon on their concert announcements to identify LGBTQ composers and performing artists.

There will be four concerts in the 2016–17 season, three of which will be conducted by Music Director Dawn Harms. All performances will take place on Saturday evenings at 8 p.m.; but the season will be a “movable feast” involving three different venues. Not all programming has been finalized. However, here is the information that is currently available:

September 3, San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Camille Saint-Saëns, first cello concerto (Opus 33 in A minor) with soloist Emil Miland
Edward Elgar, Sea Pictures, with mezzo soloist Jill Grove
Johannes Brahms, fourth symphony (Opus 98 in E minor)

November 5, Everett Middle School
Alasdair Neale, guest conductor
Benjamin Britten, the four Sea Interludes (Opus 33a) from the opera Peter Grimes (Opus 33)
Aaron Copland, clarinet concerto with soloist Stephen Zielinski
Samuel Barber, Medea

March 11, Herbst Theatre
Louise Farrenc, Overture in E-flat major (Opus 24)
Serge Koussevitzky, bass concerto in F-sharp minor (Opus 3) with soloist Gary Karr
Niccolò Paganini, Moses Fantasy
Jean Sibelius, sixth symphony (Opus 104 in D minor)

June 17, San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Melody Moore, soprano, to be featured in all selections but the last
Samuel Barber, Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Carlisle Floyd, Ain’t It A Pretty Night from the opera Susannah
Morten Lauridsen, O Magnum Mysterium
Laura Karpman, Siren Songs
Maurice Ravel, Bolero

Prices for single tickets range between $10 and $35. Single tickets for all performances except for the one on March 11 are currently available through a single Tix event page on the BARS Web site. Those who purchase all three tickets at the same price tier will receive a 20% discount and a waiver of all service fees. The concert at Herbst Theatre will be handled by City Box Office, and the event page has not yet been created.

San Francisco Opera Honors its History with Two Impressive Galleries of Photographs

The latest addition to the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera is a photographic record of the 94-year history of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) distributed across two galleries on the north and south corridors of the fourth floor of the Veterans Building. The title of the exhibit is Looking Through the Lens: The Glory of San Francisco Opera, Past and Present. The south side is the David Gockley Gallery consisting of 58 black-and-white images devoted, for the most part, to SFO’s early history:

The David Gockley Gallery (by Scott Wall, courtesy of SFO)

The north corridor, on the other hand, houses the Hume Family Gallery consisting of 77 color images from recent decades depicting cherished artists in distinctive roles and unforgettable scenes from SFO productions in the War Memorial Opera House:

The Hume Family Gallery (by Scott Wall, courtesy of SFO)

That makes for a total of 135 images taken from the Edward Paul Braby San Francisco Opera Archives, which is now also based in the Wilsey Center.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of this exhibition is how close it gets to the very beginning of SFO. It is always hard to write about an exhibit without playing favorites; but the “main attraction” of the Gockley Gallery has to be the panoramic “group portrait” made by Geo F. Courser in 1923. This image takes in the entire cast of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, all in costume (including the members of the chorus), as well as all those members of the San Francisco Symphony who served as the “pit orchestra.” (Andrea Chénier was the second opera to be presented in SFO’s first season, preceded only by Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème.) Company founder Gaetano Merola conducted, and the production was staged by Armando Agnini. They are seated on either side of Bianca Saroya in her costume as Maddalena de Coigny. (Merola is the one with the cigarette in his right hand.)

The most striking of the black-and-white photographs were taken by Lawrence B. Morton, whose unerring eye for light and shadow is perhaps best appreciated in a “portrait” photograph of baritone Lawrence Tibbett capturing all the sinister nuances of Baron Scarpia from Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca in a single image:

Baritone Lawrence Tibbett (by Lawrence B. Morton, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives)

Many of the color images, on the other hand, are distinguished by their ability to recall key moments in the dramatic action of the opera being depicted. My own fondest memories come from the Fall 2013 production of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville staged by Emilio Sagi. Cory Weaver does an excellent job of capturing the many zany qualities of Sagi’s production. Choosing among his photographs for my articles was a great delight. This is one of my choices that bears a close “family resemblance” to the photograph on display in the Hume Gallery:

The Barber of Seville (by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

Looking Through the Lens is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. It is located on the fourth floor of the Veterans Building, located on the southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street. Perhaps the impressive qualities of these photographs will convince at least some that history is a fascinating subject that really does extend back further than the last six months.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tien Hsieh Takes on Franz Schubert’s Final (“Monster”) Piano Sonata at Noontime Concerts

This afternoon in the Noontime Concerts recital series at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, Tien Hsieh returned to give a performance of Franz Schubert’s final piano sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major. For those who do not already know the story, this is not just the last sonata that Schubert composed, it was the third of three, all of which were written in September of 1828. D. 960 was completed on September 26. Death would claim Schubert on November 19; so it is easy to believe that September was the month of a last-ditch effort to make sure that his latest thoughts about the piano sonata would get documented.

D. 960 is definitely the most ambitious of the three. The architecture of the first movement is so vast that one can readily assume that it inspired the even larger scales that would be created by Gustav Mahler. The following movements are shorter, but there is still as sense that Schubert was aspiring to a massive design plan for the overall sonata. There is also a strong impression that his approach to polyphony was driven, at least in part, by how different registers expressed themselves through different sonorities. While the sonorities of the modern piano differ significantly from any of the instruments that Schubert might have played, it is still plausible that he would have been aware of that differentiation of sound qualities and sought to engage it in ways that made the expressive rhetoric of D. 960 decidedly unique for its time.

If Hsieh’s performance was not always note-perfect, she clearly had a strong command of the reasoning that Schubert brought to this sonata. Much of the architecture of that prolonged opening movement gives the impression of evoking a sense of uncertainty. Phrases in the middle register are declaimed with an almost naïve simplicity, but they are interrupted by ominous rumblings in the bottom register. Where Ludwig van Beethoven would charge forth with heroic certainty, D. 960 presents a protagonist concerned that a demon might be hiding behind every tree, not that different from many of the characters established in the poems that Schubert set to song. Hsieh was consistently on the money when it came to making sure that every register established its own voice with its own sonority and readily explored the hypothesis that these sonorities were also playing roles in some arcane drama beyond the capacity of human ken. Thus, any flaws in execution receded into a background whose foreground involved a firm command of the dramatic potential of every one of Schubert’s phrases.

Hsieh set the tone for her journey with an intriguingly appropriate “overture.” This was the fifteenth prelude (in D-flat major) of Alexander Scriabin’s Opus 11 set of 24 preludes in all major and minor keys. The brevity of this prelude anticipates the same sort of brevity that one later encounters in the music of Anton Webern. The prelude is all of 28 measures; and, while there is no doubt that the key is D-flat major, the harmonic progression establishes several key moments of hesitation that anticipate that same rhetoric of uncertainty that plays such a significant role in D. 960. Hsieh clearly put a lot of thought into how Schubert’s behemoth of a sonata should be introduced to her audience, and the result was one of the most satisfying piano recitals of the season.

More Heat Than Light at the First Insight Panel of San Francisco Opera’s 2016–17 Season

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the 2016–17 season of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) “officially” began with the first SFO Insight Panel. These are preview events through which those interested can listen to what members of both the case and the creative team have to say about one of the operas being produced. They are free for SFO members, subscribers, and students with valid identification. The admission charge for anyone else is a nominal $5.

The topic for last night’s Insight Panel was the opening night production, Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Only one member of the cast participated, baritone George Gagnidze, who sings the role of Carlo Gérard, the servant who rises to become a leading figure in the French Revolution. The creative team was represented by SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti, Stage Director David McVicar, and Costume Designer Jenny Tiramani. The discussion was chaired by Jon Finck, Director of Communications and Public Affairs.

Panel discussions, as a rule, tend to be dicey affairs. Bringing together the right mix of participants makes all the difference in whether the gathering produces the light of insight or the heat of contentious argument. Things started to heat up when Finck chose to lead his engagement with McVicar with a question about fidelity to the period in which the narrative was set. Seeking to provide an example of departing from such fidelity, he cited McVicar’s recent staging of Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyens from the SFO Summer 2015 season. McVicar gave a disdainful reply that any opera based on history must be true to the historical setting, while, because Les Troyens was based on myth, one could take greater liberties in how both places, characters, and actions were depicted. He did not try to hide his annoyance that the question should even have been raised; and that annoyance triggered a series of rants (including one directed at a question from the audience and another addressing the “idiots” in the community of critics writing about opera performances) that permeated the rest of the event.

Nothing is to be gained from further description of how the heat drove away the light. However, it is worth raising the fact that, whether or not McVicar’s premise about the distinction between opera and myth is a valid one, San Francisco recently witnessed him breaking his own rule. Finck would have had a sounder case had his example been McVicar’s staging for last season’s production of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. That production explicitly discarded the “historical setting” of the Nuremberg of the elder Hans Sachs (the middle of the sixteenth century), choosing, instead, to set the opera in Nuremberg at the time Wagner’s opera was first performed, the middle of as his choreographer, much of whose work was disruptively anachronistic in either a sixteenth-century or a nineteenth-century setting.

To be fair, Meistersinger focuses on a major character in the history of German music, rather than historical events. One might almost say that Wagner’s libretto anticipates the Annales School of writing history (bearing in mind that Wagner's ghost may haunt me for the rest of my life as a result of my associating him with such a characteristically French institution). More important is the point that the opera is anything by mythic. Indeed, it is the only one of the major Wagner operas that is not mythic; and those who have taken the time to study the history of Germany in the sixteenth century will find Wagner’s libretto filled with details that resonate with what we know about day-to-day life at that time in that city. Let us hope that a bit more thought goes into France at the end of the eighteenth century than went into the “historical record” behind Die Meistersinger.

Concerts at the Cadillac will Kick Off Labor Day Weekend with Blues from Nelson Lunding

This Friday Labor Day weekend will be unofficially launched in the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel with a return visit by Nelson Lunding. Lunding is a pianist who sings his own music in the New Orleans tradition of blues. He will be making one of his visits from Guatemala to give a solo performance in the Concerts at the Cadillac series. Both his playing and singing styles fuse the blues tradition with the more recent idioms of rock and soul:

Nelson Lunding in performance (courtesy of Concerts at the Cadillac)

Like all Concerts at the Cadillac events, this show will begin at 12:30 p.m. and will take place this Friday, September 2. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street. Like all visiting artists Lunding will be playing he Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, a fully-restored 1884 Steinway Model D Concert Grand. The purpose of the Concerts at the Cadillac series is to provide high-quality music to the residents of the hotel and the Tenderloin District; but all are invited to visit the venue that calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907.”

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Bleeding Edge: 8/29/2016

There are no overlaps as we approach Labor Day:

Wednesday, August 31, 7:30 p.m., Canessa Gallery: It would appear that, as of the 2016–2017 season, any reference to the Meridian Gallery is being dropped from the Composers in Performance Series, meaning that the Canessa Gallery has become the “official home” of the series. The season will begin with two sets of jamming combos. The first will be a quartet of violinists Kristina Dutton and Adria Otte, Kanoko Nishi on koto, and percussionist Nava Dunkelman. They will be followed by Trois Chapeaux (three hats), which is the trio of Jaroba performing on saxophone and his invented instruments, Kevin Corcoran on percussion, and Tania Chen working with her usual combination of toys and electronics. The Canessa Gallery is located at 708 Montgomery Street, right on the “border” between the Financial District and North Beach. Admission will be between $5 and $10, payable at the door.

Thursday, September 1, 8 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: This week’s installment will also be a two-set program. It will open with improvisations by the neem duo of gabby fluke-mogul and k. kipperman using whatever resources they choose to bring to the occasion. They will be followed by a solo set taken by cellist Shannon Hayden working with electronic gear. The Luggage Store Gallery is at 1007 Market Street, directly across from the Golden Gate Theatre at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. As always admission will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

Friday, September 2, 7:30 p.m., Center for New Music (C4NM): C4NM will launch September with a solo recital by Kyle Adam Blair, a pianist currently based in San Diego:

 Pianist Kyle Adam Blair (courtesy of C4NM)

Blair will give the first public performance of “Pós-Tudos,” a set of twelve études by Brazilian composer Bruno Ruviaro. Ruviaro calls his style “intellectual improperty,” since he copies, borrows, and steals music from sources that include Johann Sebastian Bach, Frédéric Chopin, twentieth-century avant-gardists, and the bossa nova style. Ruviaro then transforms his resources, sometimes beyond recognition and sometimes teasingly recognizable, for his own purposes.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, about half a block north of where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. General admission will be $10, and C4NM members will be admitted at no charge. Tickets will be available only at the door.

Saturday, September 3, 8 p.m., Turquoise Yantra Grotto (TYG): TYG will celebrate Labor Day weekend with a two-set program entitled Songs for Human Wind. The program will feature a visit from Los Angeles by Susan Rawcliffe, who will be performing of a variety of different clay flutes. She will be accompanied by percussionist Kevin Corcoran. The program will also include a shakuhachi performance by Cornelius Boots.

This will be the latest installment in TYG’s house concert series. The venue is located at 32 Turquoise Way. Admission is between $10 and $15.

Thomas Schultz Surveys All of Arnold Schoenberg’s Piano Music at Old First

Yesterday afternoon at Old First Church, Thomas Schultz gave his second piano recital presenting the complete piano music by Arnold Schoenberg, the first having been given a week earlier at the Center for New Music. This amounted to five entries in the catalog of Schoenberg publications. Four of those entries (Opera 11, 19, 23, and 33) were described only as “piano pieces” (with the addition of the adjective “little” in Opus 19). Opus 25, on the other hand, was described as a suite.

Schultz was not shy about providing verbal introductions to these compositions. Considering that some of these pieces are now more that 100 years old, this provided an advantage worth noting. These compositions continue to be enigmatic, and some might even call them impenetrable. However, it would be fairer to say that all of them impose major challenges on the performer, simply because just about any rules a concert pianist follows in the interest of expressive interpretation are no longer applicable.

Between 1907 and 1908, prior to the composition of Opus 11 in 1909, Schoenberg composed his second string quartet (Opus 10 in F-sharp minor) whose last two movements require a soprano singing poems by Stefan George. The final movement begins with the line:
Ich fühle Luft von anderem Planeten.
I feel air from another planet
This seemed to be Schoenberg’s way of saying that he was no longer satisfied with the conventions (air) according to which music was being made. The next quarter century may be viewed as Schoenberg’s quest for the air he was seeking to breathe, and all of his solo piano compositions fit within that time frame.

In writing about music composed during this period, Virgil Thomson would try to frame the repertoire in terms of a new grammar for a new language. This is particularly appropriate for the so-called twelve-tone method, which was Schoenberg’s most systematic approach to avoiding the fundamental relationships of tonic and dominant in harmonic progressions. Among the piano pieces, only the Opus 33 pieces (composed separately in 1928 and 1931), are based on this method, the most explicit being the second (Opus 33b), which was written for publication in Henry Cowell’s New Music journal.

All the other piano pieces show Schoenberg in search of that “new air.” Those who require terminology to keep their thoughts in order tend to refer to these as results from Schoenberg’s “free atonality” period. It would be fairer to say that the first four sets of piano pieces come from a time when Schoenberg was experimenting with different approaches to organization, whether they involved emancipating dissonance, rethinking which principles were truly fundamental to counterpoint and harmonic progression, or questioning the larger scale of familiar architectures.

The Opus 25 is particularly interesting from an experimental point of view, since, for the most part, it takes on the “structural shells” that one encounters in the suites of Johann Sebastian Bach and then tries to seek out a new logic for how those shells should be filled. Schultz introduced this as one of Schoenberg’s wittiest compositions. However, that wit reveals itself only to those willing to tease out the many details in the score itself; and it is a major challenge for any performer to make those revelations evident to even the more sympathetic listeners. Schultz may not have succeeded over the course of the entire suite, but he managed to clue in his audience on at least a few of the music’s comic gestures.

Perhaps the most challenging element of the repertoire involves that “sense of an ending.” Particularly in Opus 19, where the six pieces are very brief and rests are abundant, about the only clue that one piece has ended and another begun came from Schultz turning a page or shifting his attention from the page on the left to the one on the right. This music came from a time when both Schoenberg and his pupil Anton Webern were cramming expressiveness of the highest order into durations that tended to stay under 90 seconds. However, the very idea that a piece of music should be no more than a single gesture (or maybe two or three) is still difficult for many of today’s audiences to grasp. Consider, then, that one of the goals of the twelve-tone method was to enable the composer to extend that particular approach to expressiveness to longer durations; and it should not be that all surprising that so much of this work is still greeted with perplexity.

For all that adversity, however, Schultz’ effort to bring this music to the attention of his Old First audience was well-informed, sincere, and, at least on a few occasions, compelling. His decision to follow the intermission break with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 117 of three intermezzi was a well-chosen “interruption” of Schoenberg’s journey. Schoenberg was a great champion of Brahms’ music and went as far as to make the case that he was a progressive at a time when most were dismissing him as old-fashioned. While Opus 117 did not figure significantly in Schoenberg’s writings about Brahms, Schultz’ approach to these three pieces, particularly the second, seemed to be well-informed by those progressive factors that Schoenberg had in mind.

More out of place were the selections of piece by Franz Liszt. “Nuages gris” (grey clouds) came closest to providing an example of Liszt’s own effort to depart from a tonal center late in his life; but the music itself would have been more suitable in a recital concentrating on the piano music of Claude Debussy. On the other hand the decision to conclude the recital with “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” (the fountains of the Villa d’Este), from the third “year” of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage), amounted to a whipped-cream-laden dessert served after an austere dinner designed to call attention to the unique flavors of a wide variety of vegetables. That is music that manages best when performed with other Liszt compositions.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Car with a Leitmotiv?

Alex Ross just used his The Rest is Noise blog to put up a post with a photograph of a model of Benz automobile produced between 1902 and 1905, which was given the name "Parsifal." This includes a hyperlink to a Web page (in English) on the Mercedes-Benz Web site. Unfortunately, that Web page neglects to say anything about whether or not the design included a cupholder for the Grail.

Delos Releases a New Recording of Antonio Soler’s Concertos

A little over two weeks ago, Delos Productions released a new CD of “Six Concerti for Two Keyboards” by Antonio Soler. The quote marks are there because the title needs clarification. In the publications of Soler’s works released by the Union Musical Española, the performing editions of these concertos were prepared by Padre Samuel Rubio under the title (following the typography on one of the Union’s publications) “SEIS CONCIERTOS PARA DOS ORGANOS o para dos instrumentos de tecla.” This suggests that Soler conceived of the concertos for two organs but probably realized that, since finding two organs in the same location could be problematic, any pair of independent keyboards would suffice.

The primary selection, however, seems to have been based on pedagogical reasons. Soler had been appointed harpsichord tutor to Gabriel, son of Charles, the fifth son of King Philip V of Spain. Charles would become King Charles III, making Gabriel the Infante Gabriel, who died of smallpox in 1788. For his musical studies an organ was built with two keyboards on opposite sides of a cabinet of pipes; and, as Newsome observes, this is the instrument on which the concertos were first played by Soler and Gabriel.

Soler is probably best known for his 120 keyboard sonatas. Like those of his predecessor, Domenico Scarlatti, these are single-movement compositions. It is clear from the treatise he published on modulation that Soler was aware of Scarlatti and admired him greatly. Scarlatti spent the last quarter century of his life at the Spanish court; but, as the booklet notes by Joseph Newsome observe, there is much debate over whether Soler actually met him. Naxos is currently on its second round of recording all of Soler’s sonatas; and, as of the beginning of this year, they had released five volumes that account for about half of them.

As performed by Philippe LeRoy and Jory Vinikour, the six concertos fit comfortably on a single CD lasting about 75 minutes. All but one of them have only two movements, and all of them conclude with a minuet. All but the last begin with a slow tempo. The first movement of the final concerto has an opening movement that alternates between fast and slow tempos, leading one to wonder if Soler may have just encountered some of the scores of Arcangelo Corelli and realized that there was another Italian he admired as much as Scarlatti! (Newsome never mentions Corelli in his notes.)

Many of Soler’s keyboard sonatas are best known for their sometimes outlandish virtuosic demands. Several are likely to leave the performer wishing that (s)he had at least one extra hand. (That last sentence was written from personal experience with the tenth sonata in B minor!) On the basis of listening alone, it is hard to tell just how much of that virtuosity is imposed on two performers at separate keyboards. If the concertos were composed for pedagogical purposes, then the emphasis may have been on basic keyboard dexterity. However, Gabriel was apparently an excellent pupil; so Soler may have written the concertos to amuse the two of them with call-and-response exchanges.

LeRoy and Vinikour present the concertos with admirable clarity, meaning that the listener has no trouble following either the thematic material of its development. However, visual input from physical presence would probably be necessary for the listener to have a clear sense of when which performers are playing what. As a result listening alone is insufficient to work out any give-and-take rhetorical gestures. Thus, the best that this recording can offer is an appreciation for the overall effect; but that is an appreciation that would definitely benefit any listener fortunate enough to encounter one of these concertos in performance.

LIEDER ALIVE! Announces its 2016–17 Liederabend Series

The Liederabend (evenings of songs) Series of vocal recitals was inaugurated in 2011 by Maxine Bernstein, Founder and Director of LIEDER ALIVE! The repertoire tries to cover the full scope of art song presented in venues that try to capture the intimacy of the settings in which the music was originally performed. The 2016–17 season will present five such recitals, four at 5 p.m. on a Sunday evening and one at 7 p.m. on a Friday evening. The specifics are as follows:

Sunday, October 2, 5 p.m.: Mezzo Kindra Scharich and pianist George Fee will prepare a program for the Grand Opening Lieder Gala entitled Lieder from the Great German Songbook, which will survey the art song repertoire from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Hugo Wolf.

Sunday, October 30, 5 p.m.: Pianist Corey Jamason will accompany mezzo Katherine Growdon in a program that will feature Peter Lieberson’s Rilke Songs, as well as songs by Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann.

Friday, January 27, 7 p.m.: This will be a “birthday bash” program celebrating the birthdays of both Mozart and composer/pianist Kurt Erickson. Erickson has been Composer-in-Residence for LIEDER ALIVE! since 2013. He will accompany soprano Heidi Moss is a selection of his own songs along with those by Mozart.

Sunday, March 12, 5 p.m.: Scharich will return to perform with another Liederabend “regular,” bass Kirk Eichelberger. The pianist for the occasion will be Ronny Michael Greenberg, currently an Adler Fellow with the San Francisco Opera. Eichelberger will perform the last set of songs that Brahms composed, his Opus 121 settings of Biblical texts, which he entitled Vier ernste Gesänge (four serious songs). He will then alternate with Scharich in performances of the nine songs in Robert Schumann’s Op. 98a, Lieder und Gesänge aus Goethes Wilhelm Meister.

Sunday, June 25, 5 p.m.: The season will conclude with a program prepared by pianist John Parr, currently Head of Music Staff at the Deutsche Oper Berlin; the vocalist he will accompany has not yet been announced.

All performances will be held at the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. Subscriptions for the full five-concert series will be $150 for general admission and $200, which includes reserved seating at the Gala Opening. Single tickets will be $40 at the door. However, there is an Eventbrite Web page for advance purchase of Gala tickets with prices of $35 for general admission open seating and $15 for student tickets. There is also an option for VIP seating for $75. This appears to be the only such Web page available (including one for subscriptions). Presumably the Web page summarizing the full season will add hyperlinks to new Eventbrite pages as they are created. Those interested in subscribing are advised to call LIEDER ALIVE! at 415-561-0100.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Clarice Assad’s Latest Release on Adventure Music is an Engaging “Family Affair”

This past July Adventure Music released its third album featuring vocalist, pianist, and composer Clarice Assad, entitled Relíquia (relic). The album is her first recording project with her father Sérgio, who is probably best known for his guitar duo performances with his brother Odair. I must confess that, in the framework of my own listening experiences, the release came at a good time. This past April the Assad Brothers gave their seventh performance in San Francisco under the auspices of San Francisco Performances (SFP); and that evening also turned out to be Clarice’s SFP debut. By this time, however, Clarice was no stranger to San Francisco audiences; and, on the classical side, her music had been performed by both the New Century Chamber Orchestra (for which she was featured composer during the 2008–2009 season) and Symphony Parnassus.

Relíquia, on the other hand, is an album of eleven songs, four by Clarice and the remaining seven, including the album’s title track, by Sérgio. At this point I have to confess that my knowledge of Portuguese is, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. (I barely know how to pronounce the lexemes properly.) Nevertheless, while I may be weak on the specifics of content, I was able to compensate, at least in part, by bringing calling upon my concert experience while listening to the new recording. Clarice performed one of her contributions to this album, “The Last Song” (which has no words), at her SFP debut, along with Sérgio’s “Cidade” (city), the album’s opening track. At the risk of devolving into a Zen kōan, I can say that, in my concert experience, I was drawn to the intriguing rhetoric of understatement, even if I was never quite sure what was being stated.

As I listened to Relíquia, I realized that, while my classical upbringing had drawn me to the wild eccentricities of bebop, my exposure to the music of Antônio Carlos Jobim had predisposed me to this more subdued approach to making music. Like many in the United States, I became aware of Jobim when I was an undergraduate as a result of his collaborations with saxophonist Stan Getz. Sérgio would have known about him earlier in his life; but, on the other hand, Sérgio is about six and one-half years younger than I am!

Whatever my semantic barriers may be, however, there was a profound sense of intimacy that came from listening the Clarice perform with her father and uncle in a concert setting; and listening to Relíquia did much to revive memories of that sense. It is not a cop-out to say that this music speaks for itself regardless of what the words are trying to say. Much of the rhetorical impact is not limited to the words of the songs. It comes as much from Clarice’s keyboard work and the consistently expressive phrasing that Sérgio brings to his guitar work. It is also worth noting that such expressiveness is enhanced by the inclusion of a few “special guests” contributing to five of the tracks. These include clarinetist Derek Bermel, mandolinist Mike Marshall, percussionist Keita Ogawa, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and vocalist Angela Olinto, all of whom are just as much at home in that prevailing rhetoric of understatement.

This is an album that rewards the attentive listener through the discovery that the quietude of the surface structure is that of still waters that run very deep.

The New Esterházy Quartet will Begin their Tenth Season with Quartets of Mozart and Haydn

Next month the New Esterházy Quartet (NEQ), consisting of violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen, will begin their tenth season with a program of four string quartets divided equally between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn. The title of the program, Padre, Guida, ed Amico! (father guide, and friend), is the phrase that Mozart used to describe his relationship with Haydn. Each pair of quartets, in turn, comes from two periods in the eighteenth century, the earlier around the three-quarter mark and the later towards the end of that century. (Mozart never saw the end of the century, since he died in 1791.)

The Mozart quartets will provide the “bookends” for the entire concert. The opening selection will be the K. 169 quartet in A major, composed in Vienna in 1773 but around the time when Mozart was beginning his service as a court musician to Count Hieronymus von Colloredo, who was serving as Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg. The program will conclude with K. 575 in D major, composed in 1789 and the first of the three quartets that would later be called the “Prussian” quartets, because Mozart dedicated them to King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia after returning to Vienna from a visit to Berlin. (The king was sometimes known as the “Cellist King.”) The Haydn quartets, on the other hand, will be performed in reverse chronological order. The intermission will be preceded by Hoboken III/82 in F major, the second of the two “Lobkowitz” quartets published as Opus 77 and composed in 1799. The intermission will then be followed by a much earlier quartet, composed during Haydn’s service at Eszterháza, Hoboken III/28 in C minor, the fourth of the quartets published as Opus 17 in 1771.

As usual, NEQ’s performance will take place on a Saturday afternoon, September 17, beginning at 4 p.m. However, the venue will be across the street from where they usually perform. The concert will take place in the Chapel of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. The entrance is at 1187 Franklin Street, between O’Farrell Street and Geary Boulevard. General admission will be $30 with discounted prices of $10 for students with valid identification and $25 for seniors, the disabled, and members of the San Francisco Early Music Society. Tickets at all prices may be purchased through a Brown Paper Tickets event page. Telephone orders and further information may be obtained by calling 415-520-0611.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Second Season of Classical Kids at NVCM will Feature the Friction Quartet

Those who have been following this site regularly know that Friction Quartet is getting off to a busy start in San Francisco, wrapping up their residency at the Center for New Music and beginning as Artists-in-Residence in the Old First Concerts series. Following these September activities, the quartet, whose members are violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz, will launch into the month of October by kicking off the second season of Classical Kids, a series of chamber music concerts for young children and their families presented by Noe Valley Chamber Music (NVCM). Given that Friction’s repertoire extends beyond classical and “bleeding edge” modern to include pop and folk as well, the ensemble is well positioned to appeal to young listeners.

For example, the program they have prepared for NVCM will include Machiz’ arrangement of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” They will also play Andy Akiho’s first string quartet, “Mobile on a Stream Into the Sound.” Both of these pieces were included in a documentary based on a visit that Friction made to the Mundo Verde Public Charter School in Washington, DC, which was uploaded as a YouTube video this past February. The program will also include excerpts from the three Opus 59 (“Rasumovsky”) quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven and Leoš Janáček’s second string quartet, which the composer entitled “Intimate Letters.”

This show will begin at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 1. Like NVCM concerts, it will take place at the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street. General admission will be $15 for those three years old and older. Those younger will be admitted at no charge. There is also a $40 family pass that will admit four people of any paying age. Tickets may be purchased in advance through a Brown Paper Tickets event page.

Guitarist Thibaut Garcia Debuts with an Imaginative Approach to Repertoire

One week from today the Erato label will release Leyendas (legends), the debut album of the 22-year-old guitarist Thibaut Garcia. As is usually the case, is currently taking pre-orders for the new album. That release will anticipate a United States tour that will involve over 60 concerts, master classes, and outreach programs and will include a concert at Carnegie Hall on March 15.

As is almost always the case, the album is a combination of original compositions for guitar and arrangements. The most familiar of the originals is Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” which probably now has the well-earned reputation of being the hoop through which all aspiring guitarists must jump. Less familiar but, as a result, a bit more fascinating for those familiar with the guitar repertoire, is Joaquín Rodrigo’s solo composition “Invocación y danza” (invocation and dance), which he wrote as an homage to Manuel de Falla. The least familiar composer will probably be Antonio Jiménez Manjón, a Spanish contemporary of Isaac Albéniz, who moved to Buenos Aires. Garcia performs his Opus 19 “Aire vasco” (Basque melody), which he published after his move to Argentina.

These original works offer some interesting connections to the arrangements. Rodrigo’s Falla homage follows an arrangement of one of that composer’s most popular pieces, his settings of seven Spanish folksongs. These were composed for voice and piano in 1914. They were arranged by guitar by Miguel Llobet but then revised as a duo for guitar and cello by Emilio Pujol. This latter is the version that Garcia plays along with cellist Edgar Moreau. Manjón’s contemporary Albéniz, on the other hand, is represented by two of the eight pieces in his Opus 47 Suite española (Spanish suite) for solo piano. The arrangement of “Asturias,” which would later show up in Albéniz’ Opus 71 Recuerdos de viaje (travel memories) as “Leyenda,” is by Olivier Chassain, while “Sevilla” is a joint arrangement by Tárrega and Llobet.

On the other hand it turns out that Manjón died in Buenos Aires about two years before Astor Piazzolla was born. This “forward pass” is recognized through the most recent compositions on the album, the four pieces that Piazzolla collected under the title Estaciones Porteñas (usually translated into English as “the four seasons of Buenos Aires”). These were written separately between 1965 and 1970 for Piazzolla’s quintet consisting of violin (or viola), piano, electric guitar, bass, and bandoneon (Piazzolla’s instrument). The solo guitar arrangements were prepared by Sérgio Assad and are usually performed in the chronological order of the seasons, rather than the order in which Piazzolla first composed them.

Garcia’s technique is consistently solid across this wide diversity of compositional styles. The Falla arrangement is particularly convincing, probably because so much of what the composer had written for piano involved imitations of familiar guitar tropes. However, those who know this music in its original version will also be struck by the evocation of vocal rhetoric that emerges from Moreau’s cello work.

Nevertheless, the guitar repertoire has been making some bold strides into modernity. My home town of San Francisco has become one of the better places to be for those interested in that “bleeding edge” of guitar music. This is due in no small part to Assad’s presence of the Guitar Faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but he is far from the only adventurous influence on the new generation of guitarists. (Consider, for example, the account of a performance involving three electric guitars written earlier today.) It is understandable that Garcia would want to introduce himself on the Erato label with a basically “mainstream” repertoire; but I, for one, would like to see if and when his repertoire will expand to the tenor of the times.

Obituary: Rudy Van Gelder

It seems appropriate that Peter Keepnews wrote the obituary for The New York Times following the news that Rudy Van Gelder died yesterday at his home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The very first recordings that Thelonious Monk made for Keepnews’ father Orrin for eventual release on Riverside took place in July of 1955, back when the Van Gelder Studio was still in Hackensack, New Jersey. At that time Van Gelder still had a day job as an optometrist. His recording gigs were more profitable, but optometry was steady work. It provided the money he needed to purchase new recording equipment and eventually to build his own studio into his home in Englewood Cliffs, where he spent the rest of his life.

The major labels that used Van Gelder’s services regularly were Blue Note Records, Prestige Records, and Impulse! Records. One could compile an anthology of modern jazz based on the sessions that he engineered. That anthology would include such albums as A Love Supreme by the John Coltrane Quartet, Walkin’ with the Miles Davis All Stars, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage on Blue Note, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus on Prestige, and Horace Silver’s Song for My Father on Blue Note.

However, rattling off titles says little about the real value of what Van Gelder brought to his work. These were all recordings of combos in which, by all rights, the leader was first among equals. Van Gelder knew how to bring clarity to every voice in a combo, not only in capturing solo takes but also in finding just the right levels to reproduce the intended blending in “chorus” sections. The fact that the very sound of the Sixties (and, to a great extent the Fifties) continues to be such a recognizable sign of how jazz was being made half a century ago owes much to both the fidelity of Van Gelder’s equipment and his impeccable skill behind a mixing board.

Without Van Gelder’s contributions to the making of recordings, it would be almost impossible for anyone today to write a useful account of jazz practices when modernism was so prolific in so many different ways.

Daniel Meyer-O’Keefe Premieres Music for Guitars and Electronics

Last night the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco hosted the West Coat premiere of Daniel Meyer-O’Keefe’s composition/installation Stare Prone. As a piece of music, Stare Prone was scored for three guitarists, four sources of sampled guitar tracks, and live electronics. The installation provided a surround-sound configuration of loudspeakers in the Chapel of the Unitarian church building while the guitarists played from the interior of a tent-like structure situated behind the conventional theater seating arranged for the audience. In his notes for the program sheet, Meyer-O’Keefe said that he called Stare Prone a piece of “object music.” Those with memories of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s use of music that would coincide with the dance without ever deliberately coordinating with it may be familiar with the term “landscape music.”

Meyer-O’Keefe’s music arises from a multiplicity of indeterminate elements. Notation is used to specify pitch and playing technique, which is not just plucking but also other approaches to sound pitch (such as bowing) and percussive effects (such as striking the guitar). The score is a computer program that presents to each performer random combinations of these notational elements. The interpretation of what the software presents through elements of time, dynamics, and articulation are left to each performer to improvise. The overall composition then involves the superposition of what the three guitarists do with the audio processing of the electronic gear. The performing guitarists were Giacomo Fiore, Travis Andrews, and Meyer-O’Keefe himself.

It was clear even before the Chapel doors opened to admit the audience that this was going to be a very loud experience. Ear plugs were handed out at the box office table; but most of the warm-up work was audible from just about every location on the church grounds. Once the doors were opened, I found that I had to make a judgement call. Any space in the Chapel not occupied by either the tent for the performers or the loudspeakers was filled with seats for the audience. However, between the intense amplitude and all of the spatial thinking that had gone into the piece, I decided that I would not treat this as a sit-still-and-listen experience.

My first decision was to find a couple of folding chairs for my wife and myself and set them up by the wall opposite to the entrance to the Chapel. The Chapel door was left open; so we could rely on “natural muting” of the amplitude arising from the sound reaching us through a relatively narrow space. This made for a better sense of both dynamic and frequency range than would have come from plugging up the ears.

From this “vantage point” the experience was compelling from the very beginning. A loud single-pitch drone seemed to sustain itself throughout the performance. It did not take long to be aware of the diverse configurations of phrases with high pitches, and there was no need to worry about which came from a single instrument and which came from simultaneities of multiple performers. Every now and then a threatening rumble of low-frequency noise would overwhelm everything else, including the drone that provided the only sense of orientation. The first time that sound loomed, I was reminded of how John Cage had wanted to set that jumble of 100 vowels and consonants representing the voice of the thunder on the first page of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

Eventually, however, I realized that, even without those “thunder claps,” low frequencies were overwhelming everything else. So my wife and I moved to some benches in the church’s courtyard. I chose a bench close to one of the stained glass windows of the Chapel, because I knew that one of the loudspeakers was on the other side of it:

This allowed me to shift the focus of my listening to the texture of high-register passages that probably came from the performing guitarists. (There was also the occasional buzz suggesting that the speaker might have been damaged and was no longer responsive to all the frequencies within its range.) I was still aware of the drone; but, even if my listening was now limited to a single loudspeaker, I found that I had a clearer sense of the relationship between parts and whole. After dividing about an hour of time between these two locations, my wife and I decided that it was time to leave, taking some pleasure in having the sounds follow us as we left the courtyard and proceeded to the door leading to the street.

All of my decisions were based on the following text on the program sheet:
There is no correct way to listen to Stare Prone. The most important improvisation is the one executed by audience members by listening.
Indeed, I suspect that Stare Prone would have benefitted from a larger space that gave more audience members the opportunity to choose between moving around and sitting still. A more conducive venue might have been the Concert Hall of the Community Music Center (CMC) with folding chairs set up around the periphery between the loudspeakers. One could then wander around the center of the space or out into the CMC courtyard, allowing more (most?) members of the audience to enjoy the benefits of multiple points of “listening view.” In retrospect I would argue that such a “participatory” approach seems to be more faithful to the composer’s intentions than a setting in which the body just sits there while “things happen.”

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Chamber Music at the Community Music Center: September, 2016

About a week ago this site announced that the Amaranth Quartet would begin their Music of Cultural Coexistence series of concerts next month at the Community Music Center (CMC). It turns out that September will be a good month for chamber music at CMC for both faculty and invited performers. Two events that will follow the Amaranth concert on September 9 are particularly worth noting, both of which will take place on a Sunday, which tends to be a flexible day for making concert choices:

September 11, 7:30 p.m.: Following up on the Women in Music History concert given at CMC this past March, the Fête Concert Series will return with a program entitled Amy’s Music Beach Party. This will serve as a celebration for the composer Amy Beach, whose 149th birthday will take place this coming September 5. Sopranos Chelsea Hollow and Katie Nix are preparing a selection taken from the roughly 150 songs that Beach composed, and flutist Victoria Hauk will be performing her Opus 34 sonata for flute and piano. The pianists for this concert will be Paul Dab, one of the founding members of the Fête Concert Series, and Magdalena Shumanova.

Tickets will be $15 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors. This will be the first concert in the third season of the Fête Concert Series. The full season will consist of four concerts celebration the birthdays of influential artists. While the entire plan is still in progress, Brown Paper Tickets has set up an event page for purchasing both full subscriptions and single tickets to the September 11 concert. Single tickets may also be purchased at the door.

September 25, 3 p.m.: This will be the debut performance of the Liberty Street Piano Trio. This group was formed by three recipients of CMC Faculty Enrichment Grants, violinist Josepha Fath, cellist Poppea Dorsam, and pianist Lauren Cony. They have prepared a program of youthful masterworks of great composers. One selection will be a trio arrangement of a composition originally written for solo piano, the C-sharp minor étude that is the first of three short pieces Alexander Scriabin collected as his Opus 2. This brief but intense work will be sandwiched between two major piano trios, the third (in the key of C minor) of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 1 trios and Johannes Brahms’ Opus 8 trio in B major. This will be a free concert.

Like the Amaranth recital, both concerts will be held in the CMC Concert Hall at 544 Capp Street in the Mission between 20th Street and 21st Street and between Mission Street and South Van Ness Avenue.

Dynamic will Reissue Offenbach’s Comedy about the Military that Deserves More Exposure

My “first contact” with Jacques Offenbach’s opéra bouffe (comic opera) La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (the Grand Duchess of Gerolstein) was the 1982 English-language production by the New York City Opera. I knew that, when it came to topics of Offenbach’s librettos, nothing was sacred. I also knew that dramatists had been making fun of the military since the days of Aristophanes. Nevertheless, I was not really prepared for how off-the-wall this particular opera was, particularly with a set designer who had clearly been influenced by Monty Python. I deeply regret that, to this day, that City Opera performance was my only opportunity to see this opera staged, although I see that it has become a regular favorite at the Santa Fe Opera.

Like John Oliver, Offenbach knew that satire is at its best when it is reinforced with dispassionate research. The narrative that Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy created for the libretto had enough of a ring of truth to it that, upon seeing it, Otto von Bismarck was said to have made note of its accuracy. This involved not only the absurd complexities of bureaucracy but also the primary theme that a young woman had a right to tell her generals what to do solely on the basis of her hereditary title. (There are many who believe that Catherine the Great with the inspiration for the opera’s title character.) It is unclear how Offenbach and his colleagues felt when the Franco-Prussian War broke out about three years after Grande-Duchesse was first performed, a war in which the French suffered a painful defeat. That defeat was due in no small part to Bismarck’s military skill. It has also been said that Bismarck believed that any country that made light of its military was ripe for conquest. Thus, his approval of the opera’s libretto turned out to be a double-edged sword!

In 1996 Dynamic released a 2-CD recording of a live performance of Grande-Duchesse with Emmanuel Villaume conducting the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, the Bratislava Chamber Choir, and a cast of vocalists who never allowed personal inhibitions to get in the way of Offenbach’s outrageousness. While copies of this are still available (hence the hyperlink to an Web page that is still active), Dynamic will release a re-edition tomorrow, for which a new Amazon Web page has been created for taking pre-orders. I never had a chance to see the original release, but the new one comes with a generous libretto that will allow listeners not familiar with French to savor just about all of the satirical twists in the libretto.

The only thing that is missing is the visual element. Given that all of the spoken dialog has been preserved on this recording, one can make any number of inferences from tone of voices and various noises coming from the stage. One can even be caught up in the spirit of the final track, which is basically music prepared for all of the performers on stage to take their bows. However, the photographs provided in the booklet cannot begin to suggest the absurdities that unfold when this opera is given ingenious staging. Thus, for many, it will serve best as a reminder of a past encounter with this opera on the stage; but it will also serve well those with an opportunity to see the opera in the near future, simply by making them acquainted with both the plot and the delightfully sparkling music that Offenbach prepared to support the narrative that Meilhac and Halévy cooked up for the occasion.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Sunset Music | Arts Announces Two Concerts for September, 2016

Next month Sunset Music | Arts will offer two decidedly different concerts on two successive Saturday evenings. The first of these will be the latest collaboration with Verismo Opera, and the second will be a chamber music recital of music for violin (Kate Stenberg) and piano (Sarah Cahill). Taken together these events should appeal to a wide variety of tastes.

For those unfamiliar with it, Verismo Opera is a community-based organization operating out of Fairfield, California. Its mission is to make opera accessible to the public at reasonable prices through a community effort involving professional musicians and singers. Repertoire tends to be focused on the familiar and the popular. The operas are sung in the original language with English supertitles projected. Accompaniment is provided by a chamber orchestra, but performances include both costumes and sets.

Next month’s production will be Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore (the troubadour). The leading roles will be sung by Frederick Winthrop (Manrico), Eliza O’Malley (Leonora), Steve Zimmerman (Count di Luna), and Liliane Cromer (Azucena). The conductor will be Michael Moran.

Like all Sunset Music | Arts events, the performance will take place at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, located at 1750 29th Avenue, about halfway between Moraga Street and Noriega Street. It will begin at 7 p.m. on Saturday, September 17. Seating is limited, but tickets are still available for general admission at $25 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 an Eventbrite event page. Further information may be obtained by calling 415-564-2324.

The chamber music recital will present three sonatas from three centuries given in chronological order. It will begin with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 454 in B-flat major, which he composed in 1784. This will be followed by the second of Johannes Brahms’ three violin sonatas, Opus 100 in A major. The program will then make a bold move into the twentieth century with Henry Cowell’s first sonata for violin and piano.

This program will begin at 7:30 p.m. the following Saturday, September 24. Tickets will be sold at the door for $20 for general admission and $15 for students and seniors. However, those using the Eventbrite event page for advance purchase will receive discounted rates (including the processing fee) of $16.74 for general admission and $13.59 for students and seniors.

Imani Winds Releases Their Latest Eclectic Album through Entertainment One

Imani Winds is the name of the quintet consisting of Valerie Coleman (flute), Toyin Spellman-Diaz (oboe and English horn), Mariam Adam (clarinet), Monica Ellis (bassoon), and Jeff Scott (horn). I first became aware of them in August of 2010, when Entertainment One released their Terra Incognita recording. This album included compositions by Wayne Shorter, Paquito D’Rivera, and Jason Moran; but, in spite of the jazz backgrounds of these composers, there was a clear sense that this was composed music, providing these three jazzmen with opportunities to explore a new approach to expression. My first experience with Imani Winds in concert came in June of 2014, when they visited the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco and performed their own arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s score for the ballet “The Rite of Spring.” While there were an ample number of dog-walking-on-hind-legs moments in this arrangement, there were several others that made a deep impression by capturing not only the spirit of the music but also a clear account of the devices Stravinsky had used to evoke that spirit.

At the beginning of this month Entertainment One released Imani Winds’ latest album, Startin’ Sumthin’, an eclectic combination of original compositions and arrangements. The title track is an original composition by Scott, and two other tracks are by Coleman, “Red Clay & Mississippi Delta” and “Tzigane.” The opening track is an arrangement by Scott of Astor Piazzolla’s “Contrabajissimo,” which was originally scored for double bass, bandoneon, violin, piano, and guitar. According to its Web page on the Accordionist.Net Web site, this piece was written for Hector Console, described as “the number one tango bassist in the world.” It begins with an elaborate cadenza, which Scott replaced with a cadenza more suitable for bassoon. Finally, there is an arrangement by Adam Lesnick of Gene Kavadlo’s settings of two klezmer dances.

While the track listing promises an intriguing assortment of diverse approaches to making music, the results never quite live up to that promise. There is no questioning the technical capability of each of the players, nor is there ever a problem with how they engage among each other as a group. However, there are shortcomings in expressiveness; and, as a result, there tends to be an overall blandness across the entire recording. Anyone familiar with Piazzolla will recognize this from the opening track. He was clearly a highly imaginative composer; and, when he wrote for any of his combos, he always had a solid sense of which players were capable of displaying what levels of virtuosity. However, from a rhetorical point of view, there was almost always an undertone of outrageousness in the music he made; and the real challenge to arranging his music is to maintain that undertone. Leonid Desyatnikov was particularly good at this when he arranged Piazzolla for Gidon Kremer; but, in spite of the originality in the bassoon cadenza, Scott’s approach was too much “by the book.” So it goes throughout the recording, even to the point that it is hard to distinguish Kavadlo’s Yiddishkeit from the Gypsy spirit in “Tzigane.”

Taken as a whole, Startin’ Sumthin’ is definitely an affable album; but that affability may have interfered with any attempts to tease out the distinguishing expressive core of each of the selections.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Three “Close Neighbors” in the Nineteenth Century Get Little Respect from Robin Carmichael

Pianist Robin Carmichael prepared what could have been a fascinating program for her Noontime Concerts recital this afternoon at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. Her program was structured around three composers born within three years of each other: Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809), Frédéric Chopin (March 1, 1810), and Franz Liszt (October 22, 1811). Just as interesting was that two of them died at an early age within two years of each other: Mendelssohn (November 4, 1847), and Chopin (October 17, 1849). By dates alone they were part of a shared Weltanschauung; but, at the same time, each had is own unmistakably individual approach to making music. To make the historical proximity all the more interesting, the only Liszt selection, the third of the “Liebestraum” compositions and the only one written originally for solo piano, was composed, like the other two, in 1850, shortly after the death of Chopin, whom he had befriended.

Sadly, neither similarities nor differences were much in evidence in Carmichael’s performances. To the contrary it often seemed as if she never got beyond the marks on paper to the many different approaches to expressiveness that made the first half of the nineteenth century such an interesting period in music history. For example, she never seemed to “get” that the rondo theme of Mendelssohn’s Opus 14 “Rondo Capriccioso” was more of a scherzo than the second of the three Opus 16 pieces, which he called “Fantasies or Caprices,” that second piece being labeled “Scherzo” but lacking the usual 6/8 meter. On the other hand the second movement of Chopin’s Opus 58 (third) sonata in B minor had both the label and surface structure of a scherzo; but Carmichael never seemed to capture the “deep structure” that made that movement sound like a scherzo.

In other words Carmichael seemed more attuned to the letter of the text (which, to be fair, she tended to command with a solid sense of technique) than to the spirit. This was also evident in her two other Chopin selections, both of which were waltzes to which the composer assigned the title “Grande Valse Brillante,” the Opus 18 in E-flat major and the second (in A minor) of the three Opus 34 waltzes. These waltzes are so different that it is difficult to ascertain why they were both given the “brillante” adjective … at least until the listener (hopefully with the aid of the performer) starts to unpack how each waltz has its own characteristic way of embellishing the underlying theme. Unfortunately, Carmichael could barely express that theme as a waltz in the first place, which meant that, due to an erratic and mannered approach to rhythm, the very sense of both waltz and embellishment were undermined in both pieces.

It used to be that Noontime Concerts provided one of the best ways to get to know the recital repertoire without a price of admission. As was evident last month, this can still be the case from time to time. However, over the broader view of the current year, the signs seem to be that the misses are outnumbering the hits; and today made for yet another tally in the former column.

Clerestory Announces the First Concert in its Eleventh Season

The nine-man a cappella vocal ensemble Clerestory will begin its eleventh season next month. The title of the opening concert will be Ye Sacred Muses: Choral Music from the Chapel Royal. The Chapel Royal was not a building but rather an ecclesiastical organization of clergy, singers, and vestry officers in the service of the reigning sovereign. Both Scotland and England had distinct Chapels Royal, both of which date back to the eleventh century, although the earliest records in England were documented in 1312. Composers who served the English Chapel Royal included Henry Purcell, William Byrd, and Thomas Tallis; and the program will include lesser-known a cappella works by these three composers as well as others. The program will also include selections from The Triumphs of Oriana, a collection of 25 madrigals compiled by Thomas Morley and published in 1601, said to be a tribute to Queen Elizabeth I, supposedly the “Oriana” of the title. (This attribution has now come into question.) Every madrigal in the collection concludes with the same couplet:
Thus sang the shepherds and nymphs of Diana:
long live fair Oriana
The program will also include excerpts from A Garland for the Queen, a similar compilation prepared for Queen Elizabeth II with contributions by composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, and Michael Tippett.

The San Francisco performance of this program will take place at 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 10. The venue will be Grace Cathedral, located at 1100 California Street at the top of Nob Hill. General admission will be $25 with a $15 rate for students. Tickets may be purchased online in advance through an Eventbrite event page. This page also allows for donated contributions in addition to ticket acquisition.

Using Hypermedia to Write about Music Performances

This morning I found myself allowed to observe an exchange between a colleague and one of his readers. The reader had expressed a desire that my colleague could have augmented his text with sound files, which is a question dear to my own heart. How can any of us do a satisfactory job of writing about a listening experience without providing the reader with appropriate listening matter?

To be fair, technology is not on the side of those of us doing the writing. The authoring tool I had at my disposal when I was writing for basically allowed me to incorporate one image and embed one video from YouTube. These would be placed at the top of the article, and that was that. The tool I use to write this particular article is a bit better. I can embed both images and video at the most appropriate location in the text, but the only way I can incorporate audio is if it happens to be the soundtrack of a video.

Charles Rosen was in a somewhat more advantageous position when he was writing for The New York Review of Books. The editors created what amounted to a blogging site for their authors; and on December 28, 2011, Rosen contributed an article entitled “Elliott Carter’s Music of Time.” This amounted to a review of a recital given in honor of Carter’s 103rd birthday at the 92nd Street Y in New York. Rosen embedded four audio excerpts from the concert into this article. However, he could only do this because the 92nd Street Y had opened an account of SoundCloud, where audio files may be shared in a manner similar to the sharing of video on YouTube. Unfortunately, the hyperlinks that Rosen created for his article no longer work (although there is a link to an MP3 file taken from another recital at the very end of the article, which, as of this writing, is still functional). The good news, however, is that the Web page of the excerpts that Rosen cited are still on the SoundCloud site. Thus, while this is a step in the right direction, it also demonstrates that we have a long way to go in using real-time media to make a case when writing about a performance.

Most important is the question of intellectual property. The resource that Rosen used had been created by the producers of the recital, which reinforces the announcement most of us know by heart prior to any concert, making it clear that we should not be using our personal devices to capture any portion of the performance. (I rather like the kind explanation that Kathy Barr gives before every Old First Concerts recital, in which she explains that holding up a video capture device blocks the view of others.) The fact is that those of us charged with writing about a performance do not have the right to create examples with media capture technology, nor should we. After all, time spent fussing with equipment takes away from paying attention to the performance!

However, even when a third party provides “authorized” media, there are still problems in how those media can be used effectively. Once again I must raise the issue that what we are doing as writers is tightly coupled to an experience that depends heavily, if not entirely, on the flow of time; and what we commit to any document can never be anything but static. The best way to appreciate this distinction is to consider what happens when the static medium is not present. Having had to sit through more lectures about music than I can enumerate, first in classrooms and later at conferences, I am struck by how often it is the case that the lecturer will play a recording and then talk over it, saying things like “Now!” just before the particular moment in which (s)he wants us to pay attention to that recording. (Even with all that support, there will still be cases in which listener may not be sure what was brought to his/her attention.)

The point is that capture and reproduction will never be enough. If one wishes to explain a time-based experience, then one must do it by creating another time-based experience. This means that we have to stop typing at our keyboards and learn the craft of audio and video editing suites. Writing as an old dog that is willing to learn new tricks, I must still confess that all this turns the effort of documenting into a substantial project, My work habits are such that I want to do my writing about an experience while that experience is still fresh in my mind. If I spend too much time assembling my media support, that freshness may wear off; and I may find myself losing my grip on the argument I wished to make in the first place.

This leads to the conclusion that, flawed as they may be, words are still the preferred medium, even when we are charged with accounting for a time-based experience. There is no “method” that serves all of us. After all, there is as much diversity in the “experiencing” as there is in the experience itself. The bottom line is that our own memories are the most valuable resource when it comes to documenting a time-based experience. For my own part I have my own techniques for trying to “reconstruct the past” before I begin writing; but I have no reason to assume that any of my colleagues have techniques that are even remotely similar to my own. Nevertheless, we all do what we can, always well aware that some of those experiences are much harder to document than others!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Entertainment One Releases a “Geographically Appropriate” Performance of Messiaen

Olivier Messiaen knew little about the United States when he was approached by Alice Tully in 1971 to compose a work on commission in celebration of the American bicentennial. However, as a result of seeing photographs of Bryce Canyon in Wonders of the World, he planned a visit to southern Utah in the spring of 1973. Traveling with his wife, pianist Yvonne Loriod, he visited not only Bryce but also Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks. These were the inspirations for the music he wrote to fulfill Tully’s commission, a piece about 100 minutes long in twelve movements entitled “Des canyons aux étoiles…” (from the canyons to the stars).

This was one of Messiaen’s grander designs. The work requires four soloists on piano, horn, xylorimba, and glockenspiel, respectively. However, each of the remaining 40 musicians in the ensemble has his/her own individual part. These consist of six violins, three violas, three cellos, one bass with an extension for a low C string, piccolo, two flutes, alto flute, two oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, two B-flat clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, two horns, D trumpet, two C trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, and five percussionists managing a very large assortment of instruments.

The panoramic vistas of the American Southwest may have inspired Messiaen, but his sources were global. As usual, the score is populated with a plethora of bird calls; but, for this composition, even the continental United States was not remote enough for Messiaen. Four of them, all of which appear in the penultimate movement, come from Hawaii. Furthermore, the second-longest movement is the piece is a solo piano evocation of a mockingbird. (The longest movement was Messiaen’s representation in sound of the red-orange rocks of Bryce Canyon.)

Almost exactly a year ago, conductor Alan Gilbert visited the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. He prepared a performance of “Des canyons aux étoiles…” with the participating musicians, which was subsequently recorded in Santa Fe. That recording was released by Entertainment One at the beginning of this month. The soloists are Inon Barnatan on piano, Philip Myers on horn, Daniel Druckman on xylorimba, and Jeffrey Milarsky on glockenspiel. Those used to Messiaen’s predilections for working with large masses of sound, often in very short gestures and frequently separated by sustained intervals of silence, should have no trouble getting into the spirit of this music, even if there is far too much detail to be captured by even the most advanced recording and reproduction technology.

Nevertheless, Messiaen packed so much into this particular score that it would be unfair to attend a concert performance without some basic preparation. In that respect this recording is an excellent resource through which the eager listener can not only grasp the overall program of the composition but also begin to work up some familiarity with the sorts of tropes the composer would engage whether reproducing bird song or translating vast visual panoramas into auditory terms. Gilbert had the good fortune to work with a highly-skilled team in preparing to present this music at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; and this recording is as good a document of the results of his efforts as one is likely to encounter.

The Bleeding Edge: 8/22/2016

The good news is that things are starting to pick up this week. Unfortunately, those who like their music on the adventurous side may have to contend with overlaps or near-overlaps. In addition, the one concert at the Center for New Music (C4NM), the program We Insist! Freedom Now!: Free Improvisations for Revolution was announced at the beginning of this month in the summary of August activities. Other events this week are as follows:

Thursday, August 25, 8:15 p.m., Luggage Store Gallery: This week’s offering will be two sets involving electronic technology. The opening set will be taken by Philip Everett performing as Skullkrusher:

Philip Everett with his electronic gear (courtesy of Peter B Kaars)

In this “incarnation” he uses both analog and digital technology to create improvised soundscapes and noise loop sculptures. His instruments include an electro-acoustic 36-string lap harp, a xlarinet, a brass snare drum, and a gong. The second set will begin at 9:15 p.m. presenting Genre Peak, a trio created by Martin Birke on electronic percussion and providing lead vocals. Backing vocals are provided by Stephen Sullivan playing on synthesizer-enhanced guitars. The third member of the trio is Daniel Panasenko on Chapman Stick. The Luggage Store Gallery is at 1007 Market Street, directly across from the Golden Gate Theatre at the corner of Golden Gate Avenue and Taylor Street. As always admission will be on a sliding scale between $6 and $15.

Friday, August 26, 7 p.m., Adobe Books: The new venue for Adobe Books will host a three-set evening entitled New Frontiers in Song. The first set will be taken by the Grex duo of Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia, both of whom perform as both vocalists and percussionists. In addition Evangelista will play guitar and Scampavia will be on keyboards. They will be followed by the post-punk Spider Garage led by Scott Quay as both vocalist and guitarist. The final set will be the experimental folk music of the Andrew Weathers Ensemble, led by Weathers as both vocalist and guitarist. There is no cover charge for this event, but donations will be gratefully accepted. Adobe Books is still in the Mission, but it is now located at 3130 24th Street.

Friday, August 26, 8 p.m., The Lab: This is less a concert than an installation, but it will definitely involve some serious listening. It is based on a radio program entitled The World According to Sound, every episode of which lasts only 90 seconds, structured in such a way that a single sound tells a story. The Lab will present all of these episodes in a one-hour event. The result will be neither music nor narrative; and all lights will be turned off, meaning that sound will be the only medium. The installation itself will be a surround-sound system navigated by each member of the audience based entirely on auditory stimuli. Those stimuli will include (according to the description provided by The Lab) “the sound of auctioneers, high school debaters, washing machine music, mudpots and bridges and ants, silence, voices inside your head, dead languages, Wikipedia’s data, and all sorts of other audio treats.”

The Lab is located in the Mission at 2948 16th Street. This is a short walk from the corner of Mission Street, where there is both a BART station and bus stops for both north-south and east-west travel. Admission will be $15 with a $12 charge for members of The Lab. Doors will open at 7:30 p.m.; and, since there is usually a large turnout for these events, early arrival and/or advance registration are highly recommended. For those who have not paid in advance, admission at the door will be $20.

Sunday, August 28, 4 p.m., Old First Church: For those who missed the performance at C4NM yesterday afternoon, Thomas Schultz will give a second concert of the complete piano music of Arnold Schoenberg in the Old First Concerts recital series at Old First Church. However, while yesterday’s concert also featured compositions by Schoenberg’s successors, the Old First program will present two significant predecessors. Schultz will play the Opus 117 set of three intermezzi by Johannes Brahms, a composer that Schoenberg admired for his progressive approach to making music. There will also be three compositions that Franz Liszt composed relatively late in life, which many view as anticipations of Schoenberg’s move to atonality.

The Old First Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Boulevard. General admission is $20 with a $17 rate for seniors and a $5 charge for full-time students showing valid identification. Tickets purchased online in advance receive a $2 discount for the general admission and senior rates. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street for the church.

Sunday, August 28, 7:30 p.m., The Musicians Union Hall: The next concert to be presented in the Outsound Presents SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series will be devoted entirely to Joshua Allen’s Deconstruction Orchestra, led by Allen on tenor saxophone. This is a 25-piece ensemble performing a series of cell structure game compositions. Inspiring influences for Allen’s approach include Marco Eneidi, Cecil Taylor, Butch Morris, and Kim Richmond. The Musicians Union Hall is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $15.

Gaude Brings a Stimulating Program of A Cappella Counterpoint to Old First Concerts

Gaude, whose name is the Latin word for “rejoice,” was founded by its Music Director Jace Wittig (formerly Interim Director of Chanticleer) about a year ago. It is an a cappella chamber ensemble consisting of only eight vocalists; and, while Wittig is responsible for repertoire and preparing the performances, he does not act as a conductor. The vocalists are sopranos Caitlin Tabancay Austin and Elizabeth Kimble, mezzo Danielle Sampson, alto Gabriela Estephanie Solis, tenors Samuel Faustine and Michael Desnoyers, baritone Matthew Peterson, and bass Clayton Moser. The group gave its debut performances in both San Jose and San Francisco in December of 2015, and yesterday afternoon Gaude made its debut in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church.

While much of the program was centered on the Renaissance, the twentieth century was also represented through works by Herbert Howells, Francis Poulenc, Arvo Pärt, and Jan Gilbert. The “spinal cord” of the program was the “Da pacem” Mass setting originally attributed to Josquin des Prez. However, the program notes observed that recent research suggests that the actual composer may have been Josquin’s Franco-Flemish contemporary, Noel Bauldeweyn. Thanks to the Italian printer Ottaviano Petrucci, Josquin was one of the first composers to have his music published; and, as Kate van Orden observed in her book Music, Authorship, and the Book in the First Century of Print, the new age of music publication was also a new age of capitalism. Petrucci probably knew that books bearing Josquin’s name would sell better than anything by Bauldeweyn. Indeed, almost twenty years after Josquin’s death, George Foster penned the witticism that Josquin was “writing more compositions than when he was still alive.”

The title of the Mass setting comes from a Latin hymn (“Give peace, O Lord”), whose plainchant setting was used as a cantus firmus. Thus, Wittig framed the performance of Josquin’s “Kyrie” and “Gloria” movements with the incantation of the plainchant, as well as settings of this hymn by Thomas Tallis and Howells. (Howells used it as the first movement of his own approach to setting the Requiem Mass.) Later in the program Gaude sang Pärt’s setting of “Da pacem Domine” and the “Agnus Dei” portion of the Mass. The use of plainchant as cantus firmus was also illustrated by Orlande de Lassus’ eight-part setting of Salve Regina (hail holy queen) antiphon, sung in plainchant before the Lassus version.

Considering how much ground was covered by the entire program, it was impressive that the complete performance lasted only about an hour. All selections were relatively short, but they were all equally engaging. The counterpoint took in settings of from four to eight voices. Lassus and Tomás Luis de Victoria were the two “big three” Renaissance composers included. While the third, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was omitted, his absence was more than adequately compensated by the thoroughly adventurous counterpoint of Carlo Gesualdo.

However, the deepest impression probably was made by Pärt’s “Da pacem Domine” setting. Recordings cannot convey just how significant the spatial element is in Pärt’s music, particularly the a cappella vocal compositions. This is not the point-against-point writing of conventional counterpoint. The “points” are still there. However, they sustain in ways that allow them to overlap succeeding “points” in a manner that differs strikingly from the traditional suspension technique. Hence the name that Pärt has assigned to his approach is “tintinnabuli,” which is Latin for “little bells.” Sonority is all about points of attack and sustained resonance, and it is only in a performance setting that the ear can really appreciate the physical side of the separation of those points of attack.

Taken as a whole, then, the program prepared by Wittig provided not only a solid appreciation for the scope of a cappella music but an engaging exploration of connections between the pre-Classical past and the immediate present; and Gaude proved itself entirely capable to doing justice to the full scope of those connections.