Monday, December 18, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 12/18/2017

Activities are winding down as the end of the year draws closer. As a result, the Bleeding Edge schedule is back on track, with only four events for this week, two of which are already on the books:
December 18: the final concert of the year at the Center for New Music
December 21: the final installment of the year in the LSG Creative Music Series
Specifics for the other two events are as follows:

Tuesday, December 19, 8 p.m., The Independent: This may be the first time that this venue has been identified as a Bleeding Edge site. It describes itself as an “intimate, no-frills music venue with a full bar that features indie & emerging acts.” This particular show will be a two-set evening featuring the Charlie Hunter Trio, led by Hunter on seven-string guitar. He will be joined by tenor saxophonist Rob Dixon and drummer Carter McLean. Vocalist and guitarist Silvana Estrada was supposed to join the trio for this month’s West Coast tour; but, sadly, she was denied a P3 entry visa as a “unique cultural performer.” The other set will be taken by DJ Harry Duncan, who currently produces In The Soul Kitchen, which airs every Sunday night on KCSM-FM.

Guitarist Charlie Hunter, courtesy of The Independent

The Independent is located in NoPa at 628 Divisadero Avenue. Admission will be $20 but only for those age 21 and over. Tickets may be purchased in advance online through a Ticketfly event page.

Wednesday, December 20, 8 p.m., Peacock Lounge: Because these events appear to be monthly, this should be the final four-set evening at this venue. Those sets will be taken by Michael Gendreau, the duo of Victoria Shen and Josh Thomas, the Vankmen duo, and Painting with Statue, which is the trio of Ryan King, Marissa Magik, and Jeff Hoffman. The Peacock Lounge is located in the Lower Haight at 552 Haight Street. Admission for all will be $5. Doors usually open at 7:45 p.m.

Tetzlaff’s Bach: Disciplined and Expressive

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the Great Performers Series, hosted by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), provided a welcome relief (at least for some of us) from the usual (and sometimes unusual) seasonal offerings. Thanks to both SFS and San Francisco Performances, last night’s “great performer” has become a familiar face (and a welcome one, probably for most of us) in San Francisco, participating in both concerto and chamber music performances. Last night, however, was an unaccompanied solo recital, just Tetzlaff and his violin alone, playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach on the stage of a vast structure built for the might of a full symphony orchestra.

Fortunately, Tetzlaff maintains a bold command of his instrument, reinforced by a thorough understanding of its potential sonorities. Thus, he knew how to make even his softest passages resound from the stage to fill the space occupied by his listeners. This was all the more significant when one considers that the dynamic markings in the music he was playing were few and far between. As was announced on this site last Friday, his program consisted of four consecutive entries in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis: BWV 1003 (sonata in A minor), BWV 1004 (partita in D minor), BWV 1005 (sonata in C major), and BWV 1006 (partita in E major).

As the notes in the program book observed (author unknown since three authors were listed with no indication of who was responsible for which texts), it is reasonable to assume that these pieces were written for a violinist with virtuoso talents. Nevertheless, as this site has frequently suggested, it is rare to find a composition by Bach that does not have at least some degree of pedagogical undercurrents. Bach was serving as Kapellmeister to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen when these sonatas and partitas were composed in 1720; but that date tells us that he was also seeing the musical training of two of his sons who would eventually establish their own careers: Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel.

From that point of view, we should recall the title page that Bach provided for the two-part and three-part inventions he wrote, also during his time in Köthen, which made it clear that training involved not only clarity of execution but also the craft of “invention.” Since the notes themselves are written out explicitly in the sonatas and partitas, it would not be out of the question to assume that, in this case, “invention” was a matter of taking one’s own approach to bringing expressiveness to what would otherwise be mere marks on paper.

So it was that, over the course of last night’s recital, Tetzlaff kept coming up with new approaches to bring expressiveness to each of the twenty movements he played distributed over his four selections. This was just as true when he was working with familiar dance forms (although his approach to expression was not always consistent with rhythms that would support dance steps) as when he was approaching the more massive “abstract” movements, such as the fugues in the A minor and C major sonatas or the chaconne in the D minor partita. As a result, virtuoso display, while impressive, tended to take a back seat to the prodigious diversity of inventive qualities, not only in the notes themselves but also in Tetzlaff’s approaches to interpreting them.

The result could not have been more compelling. Furthermore, Tetzlaff’s command of his expressiveness was downright contagious. I cannot recall that last time I was aware of so many people sitting so attentively in Davies. Tetzlaff knew how to appeal to the attentive nature of his listeners, and last night’s audience definitely repaid him the favor. Indeed, the enthusiasm was such that no one seemed to mind an encore that involved yet another movement from Bach’s collection, the opening Adagio to the BWV 1001 sonata in G minor. This was a Great Performers event whose title could definitely be taken seriously (and enjoyably)!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Center for New Music: January, 2018

The New Year seems to be getting off to a slow start at the Center for New Music (C4NM). However, next month is already shaping up to be an interesting one; and we should always be prepared for the current Calendar Web page to be updated before next month has concluded. For those who have not yet visited C4NM, attending one of the concerts is worthy of a New Year’s Resolution; and next month would be the perfect time to fulfill that resolution.

C4NM is located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Not all of the events listed below will have the same price of admission, so that information will be provided with the description of each particular show. However, all tickets may be purchased in advance through a Vendini event page. Hyperlinks to the appropriate Web pages will be attached to each of the dates in the following summary:

Friday, January 12, 8 p.m.: The “End Times” Ensemble is a special quartet formed for one night only to present a program entitled Punk in Times of War. The performers are Naomi Stine (piano), Mia Bella D’Augelli (violin), Kyle Beard (clarinet and bass clarinet), and Misha Khalikulov (cello). Those who know their twentieth-century music will probably recognize this as the instrumentation required for Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin de temps” (quartet for the end of time).

Messiaen wrote this piece during the Second World War when he was interned at Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz in Germany (now the city of Zgorzelec in Poland). Another prisoner at that camp was the clarinetist Henri Akoka, who inspired his first sketches for the piece, which developed into a quartet after he met two other prisoners, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier. The piece was first performed in that camp. Ironically, the occasion even merited a program sheet:

from Wikimedia Commons (contributed by Badinguet 42, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

As can be seen from that sheet, this January 15 will mark the 77th anniversary of that premiere; and “End Times” has organized the evening around their performance of Messiaen’s quartet. The program will also include “MISMA,” a five-movement work by Brett Austin Eastman inspired by a diverse collection of female artists: Hildegard von Bingen, Solange Knowles, Amber Sermeño, Ara Jo, Etta James, and Kathleen Hanna, as well as pianist Stine. They provide sources for quotations translated into music by a cryptogrammic technique that Messiaen created and called “the language of the angels.” The remaining work on the program will be Nick Vasallo’s three-movement suite When the War Began, composed during the first two months of 2013 as an intense reflection on the horrors of war. General admission will be $12 with an $8 rate for both C4NM members and the underemployed.

Tuesday, January 16, 8 p.m.: Jason Thorpe Buchanan will curate a performance by D U C K R U B B E R. This is a trio consisting of cellist Tyler Borden and two computer musicians, Paul Hembree and James Bean. They came together as a group to perform Brian Ferneyhough’s “Time and Motion Study II,” which he scored for vocalizing cellist and live electronics. However, all three of them are also composers, and they have been building up a performing repertoire since that initial occasion. They will perform a selection of their own works as well as Ashley Fure’s “Wire and Wool,” scored for cello and electronics. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Thursday, January 18, 8 p.m.: Kurt Rohde will curate a solo recital by his Left Coast Chamber Ensemble colleague Stacey Pelinka, performing on a variety of different instruments in the flute family. The title of her program will be Body to Noise, and she will present diverse ways in which the work of the physical human body can be translated to sound. To this end she will perform compositions by Amadeus Julian Regucera, John MacCallum, and Toshio Hosokawa. General admission will be $15 with a $10 rate for C4NM members.

Saturday, January 20, 8 p.m.: Emma Logan will curate the return of the Fête Concert Series, whose programs are structured around birthday parties. The celebrant on this occasion will be composer Libby Larsen. The performers will include soprano Anne Hepburn Smith, singing “Songs from Letters,” inspired by the letters of Calamity Jane. Violist Justine Preston, clarinetist James Pytko, and pianist Paul Dab will all be featured as soloists and will perform together as a trio to present “Black Birds, Red Hills,” which was inspired by the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. These events also feature a new arrangement of “Happy Birthday” in honor of the celebrant; and that arrangement will be composed by Logan.

General admission will be $20 with a $10 rate for C4NM members, seniors, and students. Purchase of a ticket also includes wine, snacks, and, as always, a party hat. A pre-concert reception will begin at 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, January 27, 3 p.m.: Mezzo Ilana Walder-Biesanz will present a program entitled Trousers and Tragediennes. Working with pianist Daniel Alley, she has prepared a recital of arias in five languages covering a broad scope of music history. As her title suggests, the program will be divided into two parts. The first part will present “trouser role” arias from operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Charles Gounod, George Frederic Handel, and Johann Strauss. The second half will feature tragic roles from operas by Jules Massenet, Georges Bizet, Henry Purcell, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Francesco Cavalli. The performance will include a gratuitous change of clothing and an appearance by a guest baritone. General admission will be $10 with an $8 rate for C4NM members.

Sunday, January 28, 3 p.m.: Programming for January will conclude with the world premiere of the latest musical production by composer and pianist D. Riley Nicholson. “Shimmer” is a 45-minute five-movement work for solo piano and electronics. The interface for the electronics will be designed and implemented by sound artist Zach Miley. In addition artist Robby Gilson has created visual designs specifically created to be projected during the performance. The program will also include selections from the Book of Sounds by Hans Otte, which shares with “Shimmer” the exploration of resonance and diverse approaches to ostinato patterns. General admission will be $20 with a $15 rate for C4NM members and students.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Liederfest for the New Year

Musicians Heidi Moss Erickson, Ronny Michael Greenberg, and Kindra Scharich (above) and composers Kurt Erickson, Luna Pearl Woolf, and Mark Carlson (below), courtesy of LIEDER ALIVE!

2018 will be the year of the second concert in the Neue und Alte Liederfest biannual series presented by LIEDER ALIVE! As the title suggests, this will be a program of new and old art song involving both solos and duets. The vocalists for this occasion will be soprano Heidi Moss Erickson and mezzo Kindra Scharich, accompanied by Ronny Michael Greenberg at the piano. The “new” side of the program will consist primarily of three world premieres, each by a different composer: Kurt Erickson, Luna Pearl Woolf, and Mark Carlson. The “old” side will be firmly rooted in the nineteenth century, in tradition if not in actual date of composition.

Much of the program has been structured around “new thinking” applied to poems set by earlier composers. Thus, Erickson’s setting of Joseph Eichendorff’s poem “Mondnacht” (moonlit night), which is not his world premiere contribution, will be preceded by Robert Schumann’s setting of the same text for the fifth song in his Opus 39 Liederkreis. Note that Schumann composed Opus 39 in 1840, known as his Liederjahr (“year of song”) because of the large number of songs he composed over the course of that year. This set will be introduced by Johannes Brahms’ setting of Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty’s “Die Mainacht” (May night), the second of his Opus 43 collection of four songs. All three of these songs will be sung by Scharich.

Woolf’s world premiere will be a setting of Otto Julius Bierbaum’s poem “Traum durch die Dämmerung” (dream in the twilight); and it will be preceded by settings of the same poem by both Richard Strauss (the first of his three Opus 29 songs) and Max Reger (the third of his six Opus 35 songs). Similarly, Carlson’s premiere will be a setting of Eduard Mörike’s “An die Geliebte” (to the beloved); and it will be preceded by Hugo Wolf’s setting of the same text, the 32nd of his Mörike-Lieder. The set will begin with what may well have been the first song cycle to be composed, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 98 An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved). All of these settings will be sung by Moss Erickson.

Erickson’s world premiere will be a duet that will be performed by both Moss Erickson and Scharich. It is a setting of August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s poem “Abschiedslied der Zugvogel” (the farewell song of the migratory bird). This same text was also set as a duet by Felix Mendelssohn as the second of his Opus 63 collection of six duets. Duet performances will also be given of Johannes Brahms’ “Die Schwestern” (the sisters), the first of his Opus 61 collection of four duets, and two songs by Schumann, “An den Abendstern” (to the evening star) from the Mädchenlieder (songs of a maiden) song cycle (Opus 103) and “Erste Begegnung” (often called “From the Rosebush” in English after the text’s first line), the first song in the Spanisches Liederspiel song cycle (Opus 74).

There will be one remaining set involving a contemporary composer working with an earlier composer’s song text. The text is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Nähe des Geliebten” (near the beloved), which was set by Franz Schubert as his D. 162 song. Schubert’s setting will be followed by a recent version by Henry Mollicone. Both of these versions will be sung by Moss Erickson. They will be preceded by Schumann’s setting of the same poem from his Opus 78 set of four duets.

This performance will begin at 5 p.m. on Sunday, January 14. The venue will the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. Single tickets will be $40 at the door with a $20 discounted rate for students, seniors, and working artists. If purchased in advance, the prices will be $75 for reserved seating and $35 for general admission. An Eventbrite Web page has been created for advance purchase. Those interested in advance purchase may also call LIEDER ALIVE! at 415-561-0100.

Mostly Madrigals from Lacuna Arts Chorale

Last night at the Old First Presbyterian Church, the Old First Concerts series presented the latest visit by Sven Edward Olbash, leading his Lacuna Arts Chorale on this occasion. This season Olbash has been dividing his time between preparing concerts and running educational workshops, with occasions for the latter apparently outnumbering those for the former. The program he prepared for last night was a welcome departure from the “seasonal” bill of fare that we come to expect during the month of December, with three quarters of the program devoted to secular madrigals by three different composers from three different eras in music history.

The earliest of these was the English composer Thomas Weelkes with five madrigals from his 1608 collection Ayeres or Phantasticke Spirites, all set for three voices (cantus, tenor, and bassus). The early twentieth century was represented by Reynaldo Hahn with his 1907 collection of six works for three or four voices published under the title Chansons et madrigaux. The most recent selection was Emma Lou Diemer’s collection of three madrigals, each setting a text from a play by William Shakespeare. The Weelkes madrigals were sung a cappella, while both the Hahn and Diemer sets required piano accompaniment, played last night by Daniel Sullivan. By way of contrast, the program began with the four-voice “Dixit Maria” Mass setting by Hans Leo Hassler, the first of a set of eight masses published in 1599 set for four, five, six, or eight voices.

Title page of Hassler’s collection of Mass settings (from IMSLP, available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License)

Taken as a whole, the program offered an impressive survey of different approaches to counterpoint, which involved particular variation in the attention given to harmonic progression. There was also considerable diversity in the selections of texts and their respective sources. Nevertheless, the performance itself never really registered with very much impact.

The problem was that execution never rose to the level of attention that had gone into choosing the program selections. Compared with past Lacuna Arts performances, last night’s performance suggested that the vocalists had not yet been adequately prepared. This was even apparent at a visual level, as it seemed like all pairs of eyes were absorbed deeply in their respective part books, showing little awareness of Olbash’s direction or, for that matter, what other singers were doing. As a result, one came away with the impression that, because the performers had not yet mastered the nuts and bolts of the marks on paper, they were not yet it a position to assay the rhetorical diversity of the full scope of the evening’s programming.

Olbash continues to have a stimulating imagination when it comes to preparing repertoire; let’s hope that, at his next public offering, the level of execution is equally stimulating.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Choices for December 17, 2017

While I first wrote about the options for tomorrow at the end of last month, it was only over the course of this week that I realized that choices would have to be made for Sunday as well. One of those alternatives has already been taken into account in the article about the 2017–18 Concert Season to be presented by San Francisco Choral Artists, since Sunday is the date for the first of those concerts, A Rebel’s Christmas: Martin Luther’s Musical Reformation. However, there are several other events also taking place on December 17, both secular and honoring several different religious traditions. Specifics are as follows:

4 p.m., Church of the Advent of Christ the King: For this month’s installment of the Third Sunday Concerts series, Director of Music Paul Ellison is presenting a visit by the Montserrat Ensemble. This group consists of three vocalists, soprano Doris Williams, alto Lauren Carley, and bass Dustin Hart, and two instrumentalists, guitarist Steve Stein and Kit Robberson playing both vielle and gamba. The group may have chosen its name by virtue of its interest in the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat (red book of Montserrat), a collection of devotional texts and medieval songs from the fourteenth century, so named because the pages were bound with a red cover from the nineteenth century. The group will also perform a selection of Christmas music from both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, grouped collectively under the title Mary the Rose.

The Church of the Advent of Christ the King is located at 261 Fell Street, between Franklin Street and Gough Street. The entry is diagonally across the street from the SFJAZZ Center. For those planning on driving, parking will be available in a lot adjacent to the church. A festive reception will follow the performance in Lathrop Hall. The concert is free, but there is a suggested donation of $20.

4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: The Christmas theme at the Church of the Advent will be complemented by a Hanukkah celebration in the Old First Concerts (O1C) series featuring a wild performance by the Kugelplex klezmer ensemble. This group was formed in 2001; and they put a contemporary swing on the ecstatic approach to music-making found among klezmorim. They are also eclectic, as well as ecstatic, having performed with both the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir and the Oakland Symphony (not to mention Joan Baez).

The Old First Presbyterian Church is located at 1751 Sacramento Street on the southeast corner of Van Ness Avenue. If purchased in advance online from an O1C event page, general admission will be $23 with a discounted rate of $18 for seniors aged 65 or older. Tickets for full-time students showing valid identification will be $5; and children aged twelve and under will be admitted for free. There is also a discount available for those parking at the Old First Parking Garage at 1725 Sacramento Street, just up the street from the church.

7:30 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall: This will be the next event in the Great Performers series presented by the San Francisco Symphony. It will be a solo performance by violinist Christian Tetzlaff, whose program will consist entirely of music by Johann Sebastian Bach. He will play four consecutive entries in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis: BWV 1003 (sonata in A minor), BWV 1004 (partita in D minor), BWV 1005 (sonata in C major), and BWV 1006 (partita in E major). This is an ambitious undertaking. Each of the sonatas has a fugue movement, and the fugue for BWV 1005 is the longest and most involved of the three sonata fugues (including BWV 1001, which will not be played). Similarly, BWV 1004 is best known for the lengthy concluding chaconne, while BWV 1006 is known for its challenging prelude and its familiar gavotte en rondeau.

Ticket prices are between $25 and $79. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Flash is required for interactive seat selection by those purchasing tickets online. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday. It will open two hours prior to the performance on Sunday.

8:30 p.m., St. John the Evangelist: Following the same schedule as the Church of the Advent, the a cappella vocal ensemble Endersnight leads a Compline service at this Episcopal church on the third Sunday of every month. This month’s service will be held during Advent and will include music for the season by Bob Chilcott, Daniel Pickens-Jones, and Bach, as well as traditional chants and carols. A traditional wassail reception will be held after the service has concluded. The church is located in the Mission at 1661 16th Street at the corner of Julian Street, between Mission Street and Valencia Street. No admission will be charged, but a collection will be taken.

Handel Among the Brutes

Joseph recognized by his brothers, 1863 painting by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Last night in Herbst Theatre, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale presented the San Francisco performance of George Frideric Handel’s rarely performed HWV 59 oratorio, the three-act Joseph and his Brethren. The Philharmonia Chorale was prepared by Director Bruce Lamott, who also provided a highly informative (and occasionally witty) pre-concert talk. The full ensemble was conducted by Waverley Fund Music Director Nicholas McGegan.

While the much more familiar Messiah oratorio (HWV 56) has a libretto consisting entirely of texts from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the libretto for HWV 59, written by the Reverend James Miller, is based on a rich dramatis personæ, so rich that three of last night’s vocal soloists sang multiple roles. The title role was sung by mezzo Diana Moore, while two of the brothers, Simeon and Judah, were sung by tenor Nicholas Phan. Only two other brothers are included in Miller’s narrative, Reuben (sung by baritone Philip Cutlip, who, ironically, also sang the role of Pharaoh) and Benjamin (sung by soprano Gabrielle Haigh). The other singer taking two roles was mezzo Abigail Levis, singing both the high priest Potiphera and Phanor, Pharaoh’s “Chief Butler.” Soprano Sherezade Panthaki sang Asenath, who would eventually become Joseph’s wife.

It is a bit ironic that the HWV 56 was compiled by a lay person, Charles Jennens, while there is not a word of Scripture in the text prepared by the Anglican vicar Miller. Nevertheless, this should serve to remind us that the Book of Genesis, taken its entirety, is a text rife with brutality, going all the way back to the harshest possible punishment for “original sin” and proceeding all the way up to just about every aspect of the sons of the Patriarch Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, thus leading to his descendants being known as the “children of Israel.” Family life under Jacob was far from blissful.

Joseph was his first son by Leah, whom he loved but could not marry until first having married her older sister Rachel. Between these two women and their respective handmaidens, Jacob had twelve sons (the origins of the twelve tribes of Israel). However, it was clear that he favored Joseph; and those favors went to Joseph’s head. Indeed, Joseph was so unbearable that his brothers left him for dead in a deep hole in the middle of the desert and then reported back to their father than he had been killed by a wild animal. Jospeh was then captured by Egyptians and became a slave to Pharaoh, ending up in prison for “bad behavior.” However, while in prison, he interpreted one of Pharaoh’s nightmares, saying it predicted that seven years of prosperity would be followed by seven years of famine. He advised Pharaoh to put half of the crop yield during the first seven years into storage to be used to sustain the famine.

Joseph’s advice paid off; and he was rewarded with freedom, a high political position, and an Egyptian bride, daughter of the high priest Potiphera. The first act of HWV 59 follows Joseph from his imprisonment to his wedding. The second act involves Joseph’s brothers coming to Egypt for assistance in sustaining the famine and the devious ways in which Joseph conceals his identity while aiding them. The final act involves revelation, but only after several gestures of cruelty, including threatening Benjamin with death for the crime of theft. All is resolved by the final chorus with a celebration of happiness that we know from the Book of Exodus will not endure.

Last night’s performance lasted for about three hours and fifteen minutes. HWV 59 is distinguished by the fact that all of the music is original, rather than including borrowings from earlier works. However, original does not necessarily imply stimulating; and, because Miller’s libretto tries to gloss over the many underlying acts of brutality in the narrative, the drama tends to muddle along with little to compel or sustain the attention of the listener. In his pre-concert talk Lamott went as far as to advise his audience to enjoy the music and not try to follow the libretto text.

Yes, the music enjoyed many high spirited moments (also glossing over any suggestion of brutality); and McGegan’s conducting was consistently in tune with those high spirits. Furthermore, there was much enjoy in to vocal work, including Moore’s studied use of body language to reinforce the words she was singing. (She also deserves recognition for deftly negotiating the words “Blest vicissitude,” one of the best examples of how little Miller seems to have known about the singing voice!)

Most stunning, however, were the virtuoso passages that Panthaki had to negotiate, all of which she handled with thoroughly engaging dexterity. Phan never really tried to distinguish his two characters but merged them both into a single persona of desperate urgency. Cutlip had a wonderful baritone voice, leaving many wishing that he had been given more to sing. Both Levis and Haigh, on the other hand, were on the weaker side, although Haigh clearly tried to bring Benjamin’s personality to her singing.

There is an old Japanese joke about there being two kinds of fools. The first is the man who has never climbed Fuji. The second is the man who has climbed Fuji twice. Last night was a bit like an ascent of Fuji, and once was definitely enough!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Seasonal Oratorio to get Two SFS Performances

Members of the SFS Chorus (courtesy of SFS)

This season the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) will present only two performances of George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio Messiah (as opposed to the three performances given almost exactly a year ago). This year the full ensemble of orchestra, chorus, and soloists will be led by SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin. The vocal soloists will be soprano Layla Claire, mezzo Tamara Mumford, Tenor Leif Aruhn-Solen, and bass Morris Robinson.

The two performances of Messiah will both begin at 8 p.m. on Thursday, December 14 (tonight), and Friday, December 15. There will be an Inside Music talk given by Alexandra Amati-Camperi, which will begin one hour before the performance, and doors to the lobbies open fifteen minutes before the talk begins. Ticket prices range from $39 to $165. They may be purchased online through the event page for this program on the SFS Web site, by calling 415-864-6000, or by visiting the Box Office in Davies Symphony Hall, whose entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. The Box Office is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Finally, the event page has a hyperlink for a free podcast about Messiah hosted by KDFC’s Rik Malone. There is also a hyperlink for sound clips from the oratorio. Both of these hyperlinks require Flash for listening, as well as for online seat selection.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 12/13/2017

courtesy of the BayImproviser Calendar

One of the reasons I was able to procrastinate on this week’s column is that, once again, almost all of the events of the week had been previously announced. Indeed, even at mid-week, seven of the events on the BayImproviser Calendar have already been taken into account, meaning that only two “new additions” need to be accounted for in this article. Here is a summary of the events already reported, beginning with tonight:
December 13: the next Composers in Performance Series event at the Canessa Gallery
Center for New Music: concerts on December 13,15, and 19
December 14: this week’s installment of the LSG Creative Music Series
December 15: the next evening of adventurous music at Adobe Books and the CREATE festival at The Lab (also on December 16)
The “new additions” are the following:

Thursday, December 14, 7:30 p.m., Exploratorium: The next After Dark Thursday Nights event will be co-presented with the San Francisco Cinematheque, but it involves new music. This will be the world premiere of Black Field, a film/performance collaboration developed by filmmaker Paul Clipson and sound artist Zachary Watkins. Projection of the film will require “parallel projection” of Watkins’ score across the multi-channel sound system in the Kanbar Forum.

After Dark events are “adults only” offerings. The Exploratorium is located at Pier 15 on the Embarcadero, across from the intersection with Green Street. Tickets are $17.95 for general admission and $14.95 for daytime Exploratorium members and Cinematheque members. There will be no charge for After Dark members. Admission is only for those age 18 or over. Tickets may be purchased in advance from a special Web page. After Dark members can use this page to reserve seats. Those interested in visiting the Tactile Dome will be required to pay an additional $10 at the door. The performance itself will take place in the Kanbar Forum, where seating is relatively limited (150 seats) and will be made available on a first-come-first-served basis.

Thursday, December 14, 8:30 p.m., Hemlock Tavern: This will be another of the occasional three-set evenings of raging, unpredictable sounds. Indeed, the set taken by Sloth & Turtle, which is based in Santa Rosa, may even take a theoretical approach to their unpredictability, since they describe themselves as an “experimental/math rock group.” The other sets will be taken by the Grex duo of Karl Evangelista and Rei Scampavia and the Inward Creature trio of Miles Wick, Jordan Glenn, and Alex Rather.

The Hemlock Tavern is located at 1131 Polk Street, between Post Street and Sutter Street. Admission will be $7. Only those aged 21 or older will be admitted.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

St. Dominic’s Parishioners Contribute Music

The interior of St. Dominic's Catholic Church (photograph by Alex Mizuno, from the St. Dominic's Web site)

Another last-minute announcement has prompted me to push Bleeding Edge news back yet another day. St. Dominic’s Catholic Church will host an evening of Advent meditations tomorrow night. The meditations will be based on the so-called “O Antiphons,” Magnificat antiphons, which are chanted at the Vespers services for the last seven days of Advent. Their collective name comes from the fact that each antiphon begins with the vocative particle “O” followed by a name of Christ. The full set and the associated dates of each antiphon are as follows:
  • December 17: O Sapienta (wisdom)
  • December 18: O Adonai (Lord)
  • December 19: O Radix Jesse (root of Jesse)
  • December 20: O Clavis David (key of David)
  • December 21: O Oriens (dayspring)
  • December 22: O Rex Gentium (King of the nations)
  • December 23: O Emmanuel (with us is God)
St. Dominic’s has commissioned seven of its parishioners to compose organ meditations on these antiphons. Those composers are (in alphabetical order of their last names) Daniel Chang, Robert Chastain, David Conte, Nathan Crowe, Joseph Stillwell, and Harry Whitney. The evening will begin with a prelude of two hymns and a reading from Isaiah. Each of the meditations that will follow will begin with a chant of the antiphon by Ashley Walker. Organist Simon Berry will then play the meditation on that antiphon. There will then be a concluding prayer after all the meditations have been performed.

This event will take place in the Church Nave of St. Dominic’s, which is located at the western end of the Western Addition at 2390 Bush Street at the corner of Steiner Street. The performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. and last for about an hour. There will be no charge for admission, but donations will be greatly appreciated.

Diverse Vocal Techniques at ROOM Series

Last night at the Royce Gallery, Pamela Z presented her final ROOM Series concert for 2017, departing from her usual convention of offering these concerts only during the summer months. The title of the program was Tongue Teeth Lips, which meant to convey the different parts of the head that contribute to vocalizing. The selections presented a rich survey of non-standard approaches to the vocal genre. To offer as broad a survey as she could, Z invited as guest artists seven other pioneers in such non-standard techniques: Aurora Josephson, Amy Foote, Lorin Benedict, Richard Mix, Amy X Neuburg, Julie Queen, and Ron Heglin.

The result was about as broad a review of the full extent of vocalization as one could possibly desire. Indeed, I must confess that, since every selection was its own journey of discovery, I felt somewhat saturated by the time the intermission took place, which was after the first ten (of twenty) selections on the program. I chose to leave at that point, simply because I felt that I would not be able to keep any more in my head (and, for as long as I have been at this work, I have scrupulously followed D. T. Suzuki’s teachings, as passed on by John Cage, that prohibit taking notes).

The evening got off to a stimulating start with Z’s “Light on the Subject,” which was performed by the entire ensemble. Each of the invited vocalists stood beneath a bare electric light bulb. Z stood at a control panel at the rear beside a lamp with a single bulb. The control panel determined when which lights would go on and off. Each vocalist performed only when his/her bulb was lit (probably improvising). The piece began with single voices and gradually evolved into more elaborate fabrics when multiple lights were lit at the same time. The result evoked memories of the earliest emergence of counterpoint, but the execution itself was firmly fixed in the immediate present. Z then followed this with her own “Quatre Couches,” one of her pieces that integrates electronic response to gestures (for both control and synthesis) into her vocal delivery.

Of the ten selections in the first half, the most compelling was a solo taken by Lorin Benedict. I first encountered Benedict this past August when he performed in Ben Tinker’s concert series at Adobe Books. On that occasion he improvised on a tune by Irving Berlin to which he set a prodigious diversity of phonemes that could not be associated with any known language (not even Yiddish). Last night he gave a similar treatment to Jerome Kern’s “Nobody Else But Me;” and I began to appreciate the extent to which he had escalated scat singing far beyond its roots in jazz. Once again, any resemblance to any known language was purely coincidental; but Benedict’s melodic line could easily have been one of Charlie Parker’s most adventurous improvisations, so far out that even the most knowledgable listener would have trouble identifying the tune behind it. Equally compelling, but with no connotations of bebop, was Richard Mix’ performance of Giacinto Scelsi’s “Wo Ma,” also rooted in syllabic content but delivered through the warm tones of a deep bass voice.

Heglin’s performance also reflected on that same evening at Adobe, which he shared with Benedict. However, Heglin’s approach is purely spoken, resulting in what is sometimes called sound poetry. Simply put, Heglin composes his work strictly with phonemes, to the entire elimination of semantics and syntax. Nevertheless, there is a strong connotation of language in his performance, suggesting that a keen sense of rhetoric can be applied just as easily to “pure” phonemes as to the concepts behind logical argumentation. The result is that the attentive listener hangs on every word that Heglin utters, even when those “words” are no more than strings of nonsense syllables.

Two of the pieces were conceived more as ritual than as “music performance.” Amy Foote presented Danny Clay’s “no more darkness, no more night.” The program described this as “a ritual for the calling of the spirit of the beloved artist Hiram King ‘Hank’ Williams, who left this world in New Years Day, 1953.” The performance involved both a tape recorder (presumably playing a Williams track) and a stroked wine glass; but it was clear that the act of vocalizing was secondary (if not tertiary). The same could be said for Aurora Josephson’s “New Moon Intentions: a ritual,” which involved a far more diverse collection of objects, so numerous that the piece as a whole amounted to little more than setting them out and then putting them back.

The remaining selections on the first half tended to prioritize the theatrical. These included two Amy X Neuburg pieces, one of which brought together all of the vocalists, each presenting a different perspective on the same verbal phrase (“Today a Man”), and Julie Queen’s “Hatred of Sound,” which involved her trying to keep Josephson, Foote, and Neuburg quiet through gestures, each of which was noisy in its own silent way. These were all “idea” pieces whose cleverness tended to sustain beyond the attention span.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Music for Food Fundraiser Tonight

This week’s Bleeding Edge column will be postponed for a day due to an overriding last-minute announcement. In 2010 GRAMMY award-winning violist Kim Kashkashian initiated the Music for Food program in Boston. This was conceived as a musician-led initiative for local hunger release. All concerts are given to raise resources and awareness in the fight against hunger, empowering all musicians wishing to use their artistry to further social justice. Since its inception, the program has spread across the United States to the benefit of food pantries not only in greater Boston are but also in such cities as Washington, Gaithersburg (in Maryland), New York, Philadelphia, and San Diego. At all of these venues, 100% of audience donations have done to support a local pantry.

Tonight the program will give its inaugural concert in San Francisco. The performers will be both faculty and students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The program will consist entirely of strings-only chamber music, beginning with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 515 quintet in C major and concluding with Johannes Brahms’ Opus 18 sextet in B-flat major. Between these two major classics, there will be a solo cello performance of Elliott Carter’s 1994 “Figment.” Performers will be as follows:
  • violin: Ian Swensen, Maria van der Sloot, Alexandros Petrin, Samuel Weiser
  • viola: Dimitri Murrath, Linda Numagami, Carly Scene
  • cello: Bonnie Hampton, Peter Myers, Evan Kahn
This performance will begin tonight (Monday, December 11) at 7:30 p.m. The venue will be the McRoskey Mattress Company at 1687 Market Street, a short walk from the Van Ness Muni station. The suggested donation amount is $30 or at least $10 from students and seniors. All proceeds will benefit the dining room in the Tenderloin run by the St. Anthony Foundation.

“Messy,” Indeed!

Yesterday evening at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church the Bay Choral Guild (BCG), led by Artistic Director Sanford Dole, presented the first performance in San Francisco of the complete score of Paul Ayres’ Messyah, which the composer calls “A Re-Written Version of Messiah.” Some readers may recall that Dole first brought an earlier version of this piece to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, when he led his Sanford Dole Ensemble (SDE) in a performance in December of 2009. At that time Ayres had selected many of the most memorable selections George Frideric Handel’s HWV 56 oratorio and taken his “re-writing” processes in a variety of different directions, including jazz, gospel, and improvisation. About a year ago Dole commissioned Ayers to apply his techniques to those portions of the Handel score that he had not yet “processed.”

Back in 2009 SDE was Dole’s “elite corps,” while BCG was more of a “semi-professional” group, to the extent that many of its members had day jobs that had nothing to do with music. Ayers’ re-writing process often came up with serious challenges, such as superimposing groups singing totally unrelated music (the sort of technique that was Charles Ives’ bread and butter). Often it was possible to appreciate SDE’s technical chops, even when Ayers’ wit was not firing on all cylinders. It is therefore important to note that BCG rose to almost all of Ayers’ challenges just as admirably, which is particularly significant since, at the end of the day, more of Ayers’ music amounted to more of those misfires.

The fact is that Ayres’ resources for “messing around” with Handel were limited. Over the course of two and one-half hours, some of the jokes were told too many times, while others never had much of a punch line to land. My guess is that anyone who has experienced Messyah will come away with at least one section that tickled the funny bone just the right way; but I also suspect that many (if not most) found themselves looking at the list of all of the oratorio’s movements wondering just how many remained before the end. I must confess that, in my case, somewhere around the time the shepherds were abiding in the fields, a voice in the back of my head was shouting, “Are we still in Part I?!?

Some of the difficulty probably resided in those factors beyond the BCG choral work. All four of the vocal soloists (soprano Ann Moss, mezzo Kathleen Moss, tenor Michael Desnoyers, and bass Igor Viera) could not be faulted on their oratorio chops; but they did not always find the right groove for Ayres’ re-writes. Most notable was that the soprano work was absolutely stunning when Moss was allowed to be a soprano; but, while she deserves high marks for trying, she could never really summon up the gospel spirit that was Ayers’ goal for “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Perhaps, if she had been given the time to jam a bit more with the combo for that selection, she might have been able to find the right groove. However, yesterday was her third time out with this number; and it was clear that she was still in alien territory.

More critical was the weakness of the string players from Eric K’s Redwood Symphony, including the Music Director himself on viola. (Dole did all the conducting.) I find it hard to believe that any of Ayres’ re-writes required string players with absolutely no sense of intonation. Sadly, Dole had to work with six such string players (four violins, viola, and cello). This was particularly critical when Ayres chose to work quarter-tones into his score. What could the attentive listener expect from players who could not even play their semitones clearly?

On the other hand just about every intended sight gag managed to register just the right way. Those who remembered 2009 knew what to expect from “All we like sheep;” but Dole seemed to know that such a joke could not be delivered the same way twice. So he came up with a new twist at the end, which may have been the most memorable moment of the evening. Another was the opportunity finally to hear the sound of a potter’s vessel dashed in pieces.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hands-On Opera to Feature Harriet Tubman

Tickets are now available for the second of the three innovative productions being offered in the 2017–2018 season of Opera Parallèle. This will be the annual Hands-On Opera production, the result of a community outreach program that creates and presents accessible and sophisticated new music theater works. Most importantly, the work that is performed is the result of an intensive eight-week residency with elementary school students, who then participate actively in the resulting production.

The title of this season’s one-act opera is “Harriet’s Spirit;” and the narrative involves a present-day middle-school girl (named Modesty), who has to deal with adverse situations and is inspired by reading the biography of Harriet Tubman. The score for this opera was composed by local jazz bassist Marcus Shelby, working with a libretto written by Roma Olvera. The participating students are from the eighth grade at the Rooftop Alternative School. Soprano Christabel Nunoo will sing the role of Modesty, and the vision of Tubman evoked by her reading the biography will be performed by jazz vocalist Tiffany Austin. Staging will be by Erin Neff; and, as was the case with last year’s Hands-On Opera production, the conductor will be Luçik Aprahämian.

Also as was the case last year, there will be three performances at 6 p.m. on Thursday, January 18, and at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, January 20. The venue will be the Buriel Clay Theater which is located in the African American Art & Culture Complex at 762 Fulton Street, between Buchanan Street and Webster Street. Admission will be by donation, with a recommended amount of between $5 and $15. These performances tend to play to full houses, so advance reservations are strongly encouraged. These may be made through a Brown Paper Tickets event page, which includes the option of adding a $25 donation. (This Web page includes a pull-down menu for selecting the specific performance date and time.)

Schoenberg Insights from Telegraph Quartet

1903 photograph of Arnold Schoenberg (photographer unknown, from Wikipedia, public domain)

Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), the Telegraph Quartet gave their first recital in their capacity as SFCM Quartet-in-Residence. The members are still those who founded the ensemble in 2013, violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, violist Pei-Ling Lin, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw. All but Shaw are SFCM alumni from the Class of 2012. The program was divided between Ludwig van Beethoven and Arnold Schoenberg. Chin played first violin in all selections, and Maile provided useful commentary regarding the Schoenberg selections.

The most ambitious work on the program was Schoenberg’s Opus 7 (first) string quartet in D minor. This piece was completed in 1905 at a time when Schoenberg was still pushing the limits of how he could express himself within the grammatical confines of tonal harmony. The quartet is in four movements played without interruption, and the duration is about 50 minutes.

This piece has a long-standing reputation as a major challenge for even the most dedicated serious listeners. Fortunately, in 1936 Schoenberg wrote an extended essay of “notes” on all four of his string quartets. He recalled that Opus 7 was originally imagined as a piece of program music, possibly modeled on the longer tone poems of Richard Strauss. He quickly abandoned this idea in favor of a more conventional approach to quartet structure. Schoenberg’s notes then offer a fascinating personal statement:
Alexander von Zemlinsky told me that Brahms had said that every time he faced difficult problems he would consult a significant work of Bach and one of Beethoven, both of which he always used to keep near his standing-desk (Stehpult).
So it was that, as Schoenberg began his work on this quartet, Beethoven’s Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major (the composer’s first work of a significantly extended duration) was very much on his mind.

While last night’s program sheet referred to the quartet’s four movements only by their tempo markings, all in the German language, Schoenberg provided more descriptive headings in his notes. He seems to have taken it for granted that the first movement followed the traditional “sonata form” framework. He then described the second movement as “Scherzo and Trio,” the third as “Adagio,” and the last as “Rondo.” In his own comments last night, Maile avoided referring to such categories, preferring instead to offer excerpts of three themes that distinguish the first three movements of the piece, then explaining that the final movement amounted to an assembly of all preceding thematic material.

Having those excerpts played provided the attentive listener with a set of guideposts far more informative than any prose description. (Those excerpts can be found in Schoenberg’s own notes, along with several others.) Nevertheless, it is important to recognize than none of these themes was confined to its own “movement boundaries.” Indeed, Schoenberg’s imaginative approaches to “boundary-crossing” provided the listener with preparation for that “final assembly” in the fourth movement.

Mind you, the quartet is still a major challenge in its complexity. Indeed, that complexity is so rich that even the most attentive listener is unlikely to get “the big picture” from any recording of this quartet. Schoenberg packed too much into it for even the best audio technology to capture at the necessary level of fidelity. However, when in the presence of the performers themselves (not to mention many of the visual cues revealed through that presence), the attentive listener can begin to derive a certain satisfaction of growing familiarity with what Schoenberg was saying and how he chose to say it.

That familiarity was further cultivated by preceding the quartet with a much shorter composition that prepared the lister for Schoenberg’s “assembly techniques.” This was his 1921 “Weinachtsmusik” (Christmas music), composed for two violins, cello, harmonium (played by Lin), and piano (SFCM student Syon Kim). This piece offered a later example of Schoenberg following Zemlinsky’s advice. However, rather than consulting the score of a Beethoven symphony, Schoenberg turned instead to the chorale preludes of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Unlike Bach, however, he chose to weave two Christmas carols into a single composition. The two sources were the anonymous tune “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (a rose has sprung up) and Franz Xaver Gruber’s “Silent Night.” As might be imagined, Schoenberg’s elaboration on these sources went beyond the conventional techniques of embellishment that Bach had engaged. Knowing that the themes were recognizable, Schoenberg could depart from them with impunity. This entailed transforming them, rather than just embellishing them; and transformations could involve rhythmic alterations and truncations. Eventually, however, there was the time-honored quodlibet technique of superposition, with the piano part weaving its way in and out of “Silent Night” while the other four players twisted and turned their paths around “Es ist ein Ros.”

Schoenberg was still living in Europe in 1921. Most likely he had never heard of Charles Ives. Yet there was something decidedly Ives-like in how Schoenberg had taken two all-too-familiar threads and woven an astonishingly provocative fabric from them. (Schoenberg would eventually encounter Ives’ music when he moved to the United States, probably through the Evenings on the Roof concerts in Los Angeles. We know Schoenberg was favorably and deeply impressed through a brief text on a sheet of paper that his widow found after his death and passed to Henry and Sidney Cowell while they were working on their Ives book.)

The program began with the fifth (in A major) of Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets. This piece was completed in 1801, meaning that the gap between the Beethoven quartet and the Schoenberg quartet was only a few years more than a century. One might almost say that the Beethoven quartet gave Schoenberg his point of departure, but little more than that. Rhetorically, the entire Opus 18 collection offers numerous examples of Beethoven’s capacity for wit. Many of them are evident in the A major quartet, and the Telegraph clearly appreciated all of that good nature.

Nevertheless, it was clear that they were also seeking out their own paths of expressiveness. Particularly notable was a certain attention to what might be called the “punctuation marks” of the score. Beethoven often turned to silence as a powerful rhetorical device. Telegraph took many of Beethoven’s briefer full-ensemble pauses and extended them ever so slightly, almost in an attempt to keep the listener from settling comfortably into a steady rhythmic flow. This approach to interpretation could be perceived as either provocation or wit; and I, for one, am happy to go with the latter, since it would be consistent with the other witty devices Beethoven had contrived so skillfully.

The result, of course, was yet another reminder that well-conceived execution can still bring freshness to music that is now well over two centuries old.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Naxos Concludes Villa-Lobos Symphonies Project

courtesy of Naxos of America

Almost exactly a month ago, Naxos released the sixth and final installment in its project to record the complete symphonies of Heitor Villa-Lobos. All performances are by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by the Brazilian Isaac Karabtchevsky. The project has an end-is-my-beginning conclusion, since the final release consists of the first two symphonies.

The first symphony was completed in 1916, which puts it in the same time frame as the symphonic poem “Uirapurú,” which served as an “overture” for the volume that includes the final (twelfth) symphony. Villa-Lobos’ Wikipedia page cites this as a time of “a crisis of identity, as to whether European or Brazilian music would dominate his style.” What is interesting, however, is that much of the European influence, according to the booklet notes by Fábio Zanon (translated into English by Lisa Shaw), came from Vincent d’Indy, not personally but through his 1912 publication, Cours de Composition Musicale. This was based on his experiences in teaching composition at the Conservatoire de Paris; and, somewhat ironically, he was more sympathetic to German traditions than to what French composers of his day were doing.

Villa-Lobos gave his first symphony the title “O Imprevisto” (the unforeseen). One has some sense of d’Indy’s Germanic bias in the music’s rhetoric, but one also detects foreshadowing of the sorts of sonorities that would later provide a spinal cord for the nine Bachianas Brasileiras compositions that Villa-Lobos would write between 1930 and 1945. Thus, in many respects, the first symphony serves somewhat like a compass that orients the listener to the directions that Villa-Lobos was just beginning to follow.

The same may be said of the second symphony, which was composed in 1917 but not given its first performance until 1944. This one also has a title, “Ascensão” (ascension). This, too, seems to have many of the Janus-faced qualities of the first symphony, perhaps with a noticeable bias towards Europe in favor over Brazil.

1917 was the year in which Sergei Diaghilev brought his Ballets Russes on tour in Brazil. Diaghilev’s tastes in modernist composers seems to have had a profound effect on Villa-Lobos. This suggests that he had completed his second symphony before Diaghilev’s visit and, perhaps, that the impact of the composers whose music he experienced as a result of that visit may have been a reason why the performance of that symphony was put off for so long.

One can appreciate why Karabtchevsky held off on recording these two symphonies until listeners had come to know the rest of them. After all, Villa-Lobos himself had held off on bringing that second symphony to performance. As a result, this final album satisfies the goal of completeness; but its historical significance is likely to surpass its aesthetic appeal.

Dates Announced for San Francisco Tape Music Festival 2018

Once again the new year will be celebrated by the annual San Francisco Tape Music Festival. This remains one of the best opportunities in the United States to enjoy the performance of synthesized audio compositions projected into a three-dimensional space. That space is configured with 24 high-end loudspeakers; and, for many of the performances, the projection of the audio sources onto those speakers is controlled in real-time. The results are experienced by the audience sitting in total darkness.

As in the past, the festival schedule will consist of four concerts over the course of a single weekend. Specific dates and times will be as follows:
  • Friday, January 5, 9 p.m.
  • Saturday, January 6, 8 p.m.
  • Saturday, January 6, 11 p.m.
  • Sunday, January 7, 8 p.m.
Details about the specific compositions to be performed at each of these concerts have not yet been released. (Those details were added to last year’s version of this article when they became available.)

The schedule will include three pioneering works in the medium. The earliest of these will be Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge,” created in 1956 and one of the earliest pieces to have a significant spatial dimension. There will also be a projection of James Tenney’s “Blue Suede,” his first collage created in 1961. This was one of the instances of what would later be called plunderphonics, since the collage was based on samples taken from an Elvis Presley recording. Finally, there will be a projection of Pierre Henry’s 1963 “Variations pour une porte et un soupir” (variations for a door and a sigh), considered as one of the pioneering works in the musique concrète genre.

All performances will take place in the Victoria Theatre, located in the Mission at 2961 16th Street, one block east of the 16th Street BART Station and the Muni bus stops on the corner of Mission Street. General admission will be $20 for each concert with a special $10 rate for balcony seating for the underemployed. As in the past, there will be a festival pass sold for all four concerts for $60. Tickets will be available at the door after 7 p.m. on each of the three days of the festival, and only cash will be accepted. The Web page for the Festival announcement has a hyperlink for advance ticket purchase; but, as of this writing, the Web page accessed by that link is not currently processing ticket orders.

One Found Sound Ends Year in High Spirits

Last night at Heron Arts in SoMa, the conductor-free chamber orchestra One Found Sound gave their final concert of the year (and the second concert in their fifth anniversary season). The title of the program was Saturnalia Regalia, foregoing any current religious preferences in favor of an ancient Roman festival celebrated near the end of the calendar year. The program selections may not have been as raucous as Roman revelry was known to be; but, at a time when following the daily news is almost an invitation to depression, the spirits of both the music and the performances could not have been higher.

Each of the three selections on the program had its own way of bringing delight to the attentive listener. Conceived in chronological order, the evening began with the overture to Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Naïs, which involves a battle between mortals and the gods of the Ancient Roman pantheon. That battle is in full swing from the opening measures of the overture, complete with the timpani depicting Jupiter’s thunderbolts and rapid-fire articulation across the full ensemble evoking images of Neptune’s ranging seas.

This was followed by one of Johannes Brahms’ earliest orchestral compositions, his Opus 16 serenade in A major. the second of the two serenades, composed in 1859. Both serenades were written during Brahms’ service as a court musician at Detmold between 1857 and 1860. The first (Opus 11) was impressive for its six-movement scale, lasting for about 45 minutes. The second (five movements lasting about half an hour) was most impressive for its unconventional instrumentation, which basically involves only a complete set of woodwind pairs (including horns as woodwinds) and low strings, meaning that the concertmaster is the principal viola player.

This makes for some fascinating experiments in sonorities arising from unconventional combinations of instruments. As might be guessed, the string tones tend to be dark; but there is no shortage of light coming from the winds. Indeed, Brahms brings in a piccolo for the final rondo movement; and what had been merely sunny disposition turns positively raucous. Rather like a canary that has just been released from its cage, the piccolo chirps away with ebullient embellishments while the rest of the ensemble dutifully works its way through the rondo repetitions. This is Brahms’ sense of humor at its best.

The program concluded with Alberto Ginastera’s Opus 23 “Variaciones Concertantes.” This was composed in 1953, shortly after Juan Perón was elected to his second term as president of Argentina. Opinions about Perón vary; but it is generally acknowledged that he was both populist and authoritarian, meaning that Argentina was not the best environment for artists and intellectuals. Ginastera’s Opus 23 may not have been written as a gesture of protest, but it definitely celebrates the practice of the performing arts with attention to both individuals and groups.

Somewhat in the spirit of Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” individual variations celebrate different instrumental voices, often in fascinating combinations. Thus, there is a scherzo variation for interleaving clarinet parts, while the variation for oboe and bassoon is structured as a canon. Recalling the spirit of Brahms’ serenade, the entire composition is framed by low strings, beginning with a cello accompanied by a harp (playing the open string pitches of a guitar) and assigning the bass as the last solo instrument before a full-ensemble concluding rondo.

The performances accounted for how each of these three pieces had its own unique approach to high spirits. The consistently solid technique of the group thus led the attentive listener through an engaging diversity of rhetorical stances, bound together only by a well-needed contextual sense of optimism. If Ginastera’s Opus 23 amounted to a personal statement of prevailing through Peronism, last night’s concert left the encouraging feeling that we can prevail through the darkness now surrounding us.

Friday, December 8, 2017

SFEMS to Continue Season with New Year’s Concert

Next month the San Francisco Early Music Society (SFEMS) will greet the new year with a program entitled Annus Novus: One Yeare Begins – Medieval Poetry, Music & Magic to Ring in the New Year. This program has been prepared by the women’s vocal ensemble Vajra Voices under the direction of Karen C. Clark. The other vocalists are Allison Zelles Lloyd, Amy Stuart Hunn, Cheryl Moore, Lindsey McLennan Burdick, Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist and Celeste Winant.

The vocalists of Vajra Voices (courtesy of the San Francisco Early Music Society)

Instrumental accompaniment will be provided by Shira Kammen on vielle and harp and Kit Higginson on recorder and psaltry. Higginson will also be responsible for the “magic” side of the title in his role as jongleur. As might be guessed, most of the works to be performed will not have identified composers; but the program will also include works by Hildegard of Bingen, Pérotin, and Guillaume de Machaut.

The San Francisco performance of this program will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday, January 7. The venue will be St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, located at 1111 O’Farrell Street, just west of the corner of Franklin Street. General admission will be $45 with discounted rates of $40.50 for seniors, $38.25 for SFEMS members, and $15 for students. A Web page has been created for online purchases of single tickets. This page displays a seating chart, which shows available seats with a special indication of those that are wheelchair accessible. In addition, because this is the first of four events remaining in the season, mini-subscriptions for three or more concerts are still available.

Wadada Leo Smith’s Monk Album

Wadada Leo Smith playing his trumpet, photograph by Tom Beetz, from Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Those who follow this site regularly probably know by now that one week from tonight The Lab will host the beginning of its two-day CREATE festival dedicated to avant-garde trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Note the absence of either “jazz” or “classical” as a modifier for “avant-garde.” Smith’s approaches to making music show little regard for genre boundaries; and the programming for CREATE will have him leading five different ensemble performances. It will also include a performance of his twelfth string quartet.

However, Smith’s solo work is as significant as the diversity of ensembles with which he has performed (and, presumably, will continue to perform). As a result, one of the more significant events in the recording industry (at least to me, if not to those who compile the GRAMMY nominations) was the release by Finland-based TUM Records Oy of Smith’s solo album Alone: Reflections and Meditations on Monk. Of the eight tracks on this album, four present Smith’s interpretations (reflections) of compositions by Thelonious Monk that are now regarded as standards. The other four are new compositions by Smith that “meditate” on Monk’s life, as well as his music.

These days it is difficult to find a seriously inventive jazz musician (regardless of instrument) who does not single out Monk as a significant influences. (Part of my “sample set” for this assertion comes from attending the jazz events given under the San Francisco Performances Salon Series, which always conclude with the performer(s) participating in a Q&A session with the audience.) Having listened to Monk myself at the Village Vanguard when I was first trying to get my head around jazz practices, I can appreciate the iconic status that was granted to him after his death (as well as before by many serious jazz practitioners).

Nevertheless, this is a jazz album; and, if Smith were to play Monk the way that Monk played Monk, it would not be jazz! What is important is that all four of the Monk tracks are based on some of the most familiar tunes associated with Monk. These are, in order of appearance, “Ruby, My Dear,” “Reflections,” “Crepuscule with Nellie,” and “’Round Midnight.” In each case the tune is recalled with the same clarity one would encounter in a classical theme-and-variations composition, after which Smith goes his own way, paying more attention to the spirit behind the tune than to the notes themselves. Thus, if these are “reflections,” the “mirror” has been distorted by Smith’s own musicianship; but the “image” is always there, even if in the background, rather than the foreground.

The meditations, on the other hand, take biography as a point of departure. However, just as Smith goes his own way with Monk’s tunes, his thoughts about Monk’s life can depart from the “historical record.” This is particularly the case with the last of the four meditations, which Smith entitled “Monk and Bud Powell at Shea Stadium – A Mystery.” The notes about this piece that he provided for the accompanying booklet say the following:
This composition is a mystery that came to me in my sleep as is often the case with my compositions. It could be about the two of them at Shea Stadium, or perhaps not. Maybe they took a day trip to the stadium just to check out the new space with Bud Powell having recently returned from Paris to New York – just to sit on the bench and smoke a cigarette. Or, maybe, they actually went to see a ballgame. Or it could be something of a deeper, more mysterious meaning.
Smith then concludes his statement with a cryptic reference to Monk’s “Misterioso,” which may do little more than loop back on the appearance of the noun “mystery” in the title.

We now live in a cultural context that recognizes that neither Monk’s compositions nor the recordings of his performances deserve to be relegated to the status of “background music.” We approach this music with the same attentiveness summoned when listening to any one of the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven. Serious jazz listeners always brought that attitude to a performance, even when it was taking place in a noisy club. To some extent the legitimation of jazz as a concert experience owes much to the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1965; and Smith’s AACM membership probably inspired him to found his own Creative Construction Company in 1967.

Half a century later, serious jazz listeners do not have to contend with adverse environments as much as they used to do. This has been particularly advantageous for Smith, not to mention some of his Monk-inspired partners in jazz-making, such as Vijay Iyer. There is much to be mined from Smith’s “reflections” and “meditations;” and his solo album will definitely hold up to multiple listening experiences for some time to come.

Bruckner on the “Bleeding Edge”

For a large majority of serious music lovers, at least in the United States, Anton Bruckner seems to be little more than a curious outlier. Those who openly dislike him are inclined to accuse him of taking too much time to go nowhere. There is a preference for adjectives like “glacial” and similes like “watching paint dry.” Those more inclined to advocacy (I count myself among them) often hide behind weasel words such as “landscape,” putting up the best possible front to avoid coming to grips with the difficulties in describing both the music itself and the experience of listening to it.

Listening to the opening set last night in the Luggage Store Gallery (LSG) during this week’s installment of Outsound Presents’ LSG Creative Music Series, I found myself wondering whether a new generation of music-makers may find themselves more at home with Bruckner’s music. The set was taken by a group that calls itself sauti kelele, which is Swahili for “sound noise.” They performed as a trio consisting of Jordan Boyd on drums, Robert Kirby on both guitar and synthesizer, and Cameron Thomas working with electronically based or enhanced percussion.

The set consisted of a single piece lasting about 50 minutes. To put that duration in context, that is at least twice as long as any single symphony movement that Bruckner ever wrote, with the possible exception of the mammoth Adagio from his eighth symphony in C minor. Yet, true to Bruckner’s rhetoric, I found myself thinking of that adjective “glacial” without any negative connotations. While Kirby did not emphasize the qualities of the overtone series in his guitar work, there was something clearly “fundamental” in his opening tones; and both Boyd and Thomas were almost arrhythmic in approaching their instruments, as if they were suggesting a nebulous mass that had not yet congealed into any recognizable shape.

It did not take long, however, to appreciate that the set would involve a gradual increase in energy. Nevertheless, one was rarely aware that change was happening at any moment. One could only be aware of the immediate present and realize how much it had changed from what memory could recall. If that increase was gradual, it was also steadily persistent. Indeed, the climax reached (and probably exceeded) the threshold of pain for most listeners. Anything electronic was going full blast while Kirby’s bass drum thuds assaulted the ear drums the way a properly aimed right jab assaults the other boxer’s jaw.

Having reached their pinnacle, the sauti kelele musicians held their ground there before beginning a descent that was as gradual as the ascent. As expected, the music receded slowly but surely, eventually allowing itself to be absorbed into the silence of the gallery space. The listener who had withstood the entire 50 minutes (perhaps taking the time to block off her/his ears when the dynamics hit their peak) could settle back on the feeling that a massive journey had been achieved. The attentive listener might then have wondered about how (s)he had been so attentive when so little was happening. However, it was not the volume of it all that mattered but the discipline with which that volume was controlled, which could be read in the faces of all three of the performers.

Clichéd as the phrase may be, this was one of those sets in which the journey mattered more than the destination. Perhaps concert-goers have not yet been able to grasp the significance of that cliché when it comes to listening to Bruckner symphonies. Yes, this site has gone on at some length about landscapes of climaxes and the need to distinguish “lesser peaks” from the climax that “rules them all.” Sometimes, however, one should simply recognize change as an ongoing flow and then, as the old Sixties motto put it, “go with it.” That is how “going with” Bruckner can be a satisfying listening experience; and it appears that sauti kelele is after creating similar experiences.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Sviatoslav Richter Late in Life

courtesy of Naxos of America

This past March I wrote about a CD produced by SWR>>music based on live concert recordings from the 1993 Schwetzingen Festival, which is organized every summer by Germany’s Southwest Broadcasting, Südwestrundfunk (SWR). I was particularly interested in this release, since it involved Richter playing George Gershwin’s only piano concerto, along with Camille Saint-Saëns Opus 103 (“Egyptian”) concerto in F major. Almost exactly two months ago the SWR label (this time SWR>>classic) released a solo recital recording made the following spring (in May of 1994); and Richter’s choice of composers is just as interesting.

Indeed, the major composer on the album is Maurice Ravel, whose relationship with Gershwin amounted to a “mutual admiration society.” Ravel is represented by two of his most challenging solo piano suites, Valses nobles et sentimentales and Miroirs. Indeed, the second of those suites is so challenging that most of the pianists who approach it at all tend to confine themselves to its fourth movement, “Alborado del gracioso.” (Did Ravel decide to orchestrate it because he was dissatisfied with how pianists of his day were playing it?) At this recital Richter chose to precede Ravel with César Franck’s “Prélude, Choral et Fugue;” and he began the recital with nine short pieces from Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces collections, only four of which are included on this recent recording.

Richter was 79 at the time of this recital. However, his Wikipedia page observes that, even late in life, “Richter continued to perform some of the most demanding pieces in the pianistic repertoire,” which would definitely explain his interest in Ravel. It is also worth bearing in mind a quote (translated into English) from Richter, included in the Naxos of America advance material, discussing his approach to repertoire:
The interpreter is really an executer, carrying out the composer’s intentions to the letter. He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the work. If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the essence of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected through him. He shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.
In that context what makes this recital program particularly interesting is the difference in “intentions” among the contributing composers.

From that point of view, Ravel probably fares best among the three composers on the album. Richter clearly set himself the task of giving a clear account of every note that Ravel committed to manuscript paper; and, where these two particular suites are involved, that is no mean feat. Clearly, however, thoroughness is not the full story.

Whether or not Richter ever gave much attention to the theoretical writings of Heinrich Schenker (probably not), the attentive listener will recognize how Richter has identified what may be called a “hierarchy of embellishment” in Ravel’s scores. Simply put, there are those “core” notes from which “the essence of the work” is derived; but how those notes are embellished as much to do with how the music is expressed. Furthermore, the really good composers are the ones who know how to “embellish the embellishments;” and, in Schenker’s writings, what constituted a “masterwork” involved a disciplined command of multiple layers of embellishment.

What makes Ravel’s solo piano music so impressive is his ability to weave such complex “syntactic” structures without ever short-changing the need for a rhetorical stance from which those structures achieve their expressiveness. Richter’s words may suggest that his primary focus is on syntax; but, when one listens to these recordings of Ravel, one recognizes that Richter knew how to establish his own rhetorical stance based on his first prioritizing the syntax. From that point of view, his ability to take the same approach to Grieg’s pieces (most of which can be taken as miniatures) is just as impressive. Indeed, if there is any shortcoming on this album, it would be in Richter’s approach to Franck, which seems to have more to do with how Franck may have been acknowledging Johann Sebastian Bach than with the emergence of Franck’s own voice through that acknowledgment.

Those who have been following this site over the course of 2017 know that this has been a good year for serious listeners with an interest in Richter’s work. This “recital document” provides further reinforcement as to just how good the year has been. One cannot ask for a better account of just how powerful the “late Richter” performances could be.