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.

Red Poppy Art House: January, 2018

As readers may have observed yesterday, it is not too soon to start thinking about concerts taking place at the beginning of the New Year. The Upcoming Events list on the Web site for the Red Poppy Art House already has two events scheduled for January. My guess is that many more will follow. However, the events that have already been posted are interesting enough to deserve this advanced heads-up notification. This page can then be updated as subsequent announcements arise; and the “shadow” Facebook site will be used to announce updates when they appear.

The Red Poppy is located in the Mission at 2698 Folsom Street on the southwest corner of 23rd Street. Tickets will be available only at the door. Both of the January shows listed thus far will begin at 7:30 p.m. Those who have not previously been to the Poppy need to know that it is a small space. It is almost always a good idea to be there when the doors open one half-hour before the performance is scheduled to begin. Here are the specifics for those two events:

Members of The Project: Sarah Michael, Daniel Berkman, Gary Haggerty, Peter Maund, and Diana Rowan (courtesy of the Red Poppy Art House)

Saturday, January 6: The Project is a quintet that explores Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Eastern European, Celtic, Medieval, and West African music. The title of their program will be Stringed Instruments from Around the World. The performers are Daniel Berkman (percussion and 21-plucked-string West African kora), Gary Haggerty (oud and tarhu, both lute-like instruments), Peter Maund (percussion), Sarah Michael (tarhu and the zither-like qanun), and Diana Rowan (harps). Taking indigenous music as a point of departure, the group explores both unexpected approaches to instrumentation and original compositions. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $20 and $25.

Saturday, January 13: The following week will see a more conventional jazz quartet consisting of Darren Johnston on trumpet and Matt Renzi on woodwinds, with rhythm provided by Adam Shulman on piano and Eric Vogler on bass. The program, on the other hand, will be anything but conventional. Its title is Bye Bye Bartok – Reimagining Great Symphonic & Chamber Themes. The quartet will take themes by Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, Erik Satie, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and others. There will then be a second set of original compositions by the quartet members. This is likely to be an evening for those subscribing to my mantra that jazz is chamber music by other means. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $15 and $20.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Knox Barber to Lead Quartet at Bird & Beckett

Bird & Beckett Books and Records will ring in the New Year by continuing as the host site for some of the more interesting jazz sessions in San Francisco. Jazz bassist Knox Barber, who divides his time between here and the District of Columbia, will lead a quartet to mark the occasion:

Knox Barber (photograph by Julian Archer)

The other members will be Liam Hughes-Butler on guitar, Julian Archer on drums, and Jayden Clark on saxophone. Barber will use the occasion to present some of his latest material interleaved with more familiar jazz standards.

This performance will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, January 5 and will probably be a two-set program. There will be no cover charge for admission; but donations will be collected (not to mention appreciated)! For those not familiar with Bird & Beckett, the shop is located at 653 Chenery Street, a short walk from the Glen Park station for both Muni and BART. The collections of books and records are pretty impressive, so be prepared for the urge to buy something there!

Giving Art Song the Combo Treatment

I first started writing about Lisa Kirchner during my days in the summer of 2012. I had known about her as a member of the James Waring Dance Company, about which I wrote with great enthusiasm as a way of taking a break from working on my doctoral thesis. Until I encountered her album Charleston for You through my connection to Naxos of America, I had not known that she had become a jazz singer. This led to my getting back in touch with her, which led to writing more about not only her own work but also that of her father, the composer Leon Kirchner.

Recently I had an opportunity to listen to one of Lisa’s earlier albums, Something to Sing About. This turned out to explore a fascinating synthesis of “art song,” as it had developed over the course of the twentieth century, with contemporary jazz practices that tend to be informed by classical training in both composition and performance. Thus, all of the eighteen songs on this recording, whether composed by Charles Ives or adapted from a film score by Paul Chihara, are performed by Kirchner in a combo setting with a rhythm section of piano, bass, guitar, and drums. (There is also an accordion played by one of the song composers, William Schimmel, that shows up on ten of the tracks.) On the treble side Sherman Irby, who is a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, plays alto saxophone on nine tracks and flute on two.

What is striking is how Lisa’s stylizations establish such a “comfortable” setting that well suits her selections of both Ives and Aaron Copland. Her father’s music is also included, as well as that of three of his colleagues, Ned Rorem, David Del Tredici, and John Harbison, and one of his students, John Adams. I would even be so bold as to suggest that one of the settings may even be an improvement over the original.

That would be “Under the Willow Tree,” which is inserted as a “folk song” in the second act of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. (Full disclaimer: My only opportunity to see this opera performed was provided by PBS, and I have never heard any of the music from Vanessa in a concert setting.) “Under the Willow Tree” struck me as a bit of a distraction from the opera’s plot development; but it stands very well on its own. Kirchner and her piano accompanist for this selection, Joel Fan, clearly appreciated how Barber inserted striking rhythmic eccentricities into an otherwise familiar waltz rhythm. (Fan is a significant advocate for Leon Kirchner’s piano music.)

Taken as a whole, this album reinforces a belief I have long nurtured that those who make jazz tend to know more about classical practices than the other way around. This is music that deserves to be taken on a tour with special attention to conservatories, particularly those that have not yet really figured out how to deal with jazz in the curriculum. However, since Something to Sing About was released in 2011, it is unlikely that such a tour will take place; and conservatories will probably continue to puzzle over “the jazz question!”

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Gieseking’s Debussy Remastered in Time for Centennial

On the basis of past articles, regular readers should know by now that next year will mark the centennial of the death of Claude Debussy on March 25, 1918. We should therefore be prepared for a generous number of recordings released to mark this occasion. Whether or not Warner Classics deliberately planned to be “first out of the gate,” they have already made their mark with a five-CD box set of Debussy’s piano music performed by Walter Gieseking. This is based on recording sessions at Abbey Road made between 1951 and 1955 with production credits shared by Walter Legge and Geraint Jones. Given those dates, it is no surprise that these are monaural recordings; and the CDs are based on remastering sessions that took place in 2011.

Gieseking is one of those twentieth-century artists who, thanks to his recording legacy, has become something of a cult figure, even without dying at a tragically early age like Dinu Lipatti. There is a tendency to gush over Gieseking, particularly where Debussy is involved. Sadly, in the Warner Classics release, the gushing starts with the very first sentence that Bryce Morrison provides for the accompanying booklet:
It is, perhaps, one of music’s most amusing ironies that the greatest of all Debussy pianists was German.
That first paragraph then continues with:
No pianist in my experience has ever equalled Gieseking in the outer nonchalance but inner concentration of his Debussy, in his uniquely luminous sense of colour and texture.
Curb your enthusiasm, Bryce! As is almost always the case where such cultism is involved, the recordings themselves speak far more powerfully than the self-appointed (anointed?) acolytes. For those familiar with even some of the Debussy catalog of piano works, what matters most in these recordings is Gieseking’s clarity of execution. Those who wish to follow the score pages obsessively can take pleasure from the simple virtue that all the notes are both there and in the right place. Furthermore (and this is what probably matters most in my own book), Gieseking was not one to ride the damper pedal to add his own brand of expressiveness. He appreciated the extent to which Debussy’s music can speak for itself, and nonchalance simply does not figure into the equation.

I am also happy to report that the American release of this collection repaired a minor error in the earlier release that seems to have taken place in Europe this past August. Those who check out the above cover image, taken from the Web page for this album, will see the adjective “complete.” To his credit Morrison uses that same first paragraph to make clear that this is not a “complete edition.” How could it be? One of Debussy’s piano pieces was only published in 1978, over twenty years after Gieseking’s death! I was thus comforted to see that the box being distributed in the United States has the more modest title The Piano Works!

Lest I be accused of too much mockery, let me be clear that, as a rank amateur who has struggled with several Debussy piano pieces, I value this remastering of Gieseking highly. Nevertheless, it is but one document from one particular period in history that reflects the ideas of one pianist who had his own opinions of how Debussy’s music should be played. There is clearly solid logic behind those opinions, but we must not lose touch with the fact that they are opinions.

In his essay about Edgar Varèse in which Henry Miller was quick to criticize those who tried to dismiss Varèse’s “credentials as a composer,” Miller reminded us all to “make room for the others, the coming ones, the ones who are already scratching on the window-panes.” This is as true of the interpretation of old music as it is about the making of new music. My guess is that the coming centennial year will introduce us to others “scratching on the window-panes” with their own approaches to interpreting Debussy’s piano music. (The fact is that I have already been writing about some of them.) This new Warner Classics release allows us to approach Gieseking as a point of reference, but we should not let the enthusiasts trick us into thinking of him as the “final” authority.

SFCO’s Annual Holiday Concert to Present Young Beethoven

Every year the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (SFCO) and its Music Director Benjamin Simon schedule one of the four Main Stage Concerts to take place on the threshold between the old and the new year. Last year’s concert consisted entirely of music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This year Simon is taking a tighter focus on the First Viennese School. Rather than just preparing a program consisting entirely of music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Simon has decided to narrow that scope between the years 1795 and 1800. For those who believe in dividing Beethoven’s work into three periods, that means that the program will be one of “early period” music.

The composition written in 1795 is the Opus 15 piano concerto in C major. (This was published as Beethoven’s first piano concerto, but it was written after he had completed the concerto that was published as his second. Go figure.) Keeping with the theme of youth, the pianist will be twelve-year-old Rin Homma, this season’s Debut Artist, who is currently a student of Professor Hans Boepple at Santa Clara University.

SFCO 2017–18 Debut Artist Rin Homma (courtesy of SFCO)

The 1800 selection will be the Opus 21 (first, no questions about numbering here) symphony in C major. Situated chronologically between these two pieces, Simon has scheduled one of Beethoven’s larger chamber music compositions, the Opus 20 sextet, which is basically a six-movement divertimento scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and bass. This piece of chamber music will serve as the “overture” for the overture-concerto-symphony format of the program.

The San Francisco performance of this program will be the first of three and will take place on the 2017 side of the threshold. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 30. The venue will be Herbst Theatre, which is located at 401 Van Ness Avenue on the northwest corner of McAllister Street. As is always the case, there is no admission charge for all SFCO Main Stage Concerts. Seating for members will begin at 6:30 p.m. Doors will then open for everyone at 7:15 p.m., at which time member seating cannot be guaranteed. This concert has become a seasonal favorite, which plays consistently to a full house. Early arrival is highly recommended.

Discovering Barber at an SFCM Recital

Last night in the Osher Salon on the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), cellist Evan Kahn gave the first of his two Graduate Recitals. This involved the usual mix of solo compositions, two concerto movements, and one sonata movement. The overall program offered some highly original thinking; but the inclusion of the Allegro moderato (first) movement from Samuel Barber’s Opus 22 concerto in A minor made the evening a particularly stimulating journey of discovery.

The Barber canon includes only four concertos, Opus 14 for violin (1939), Opus 22 (1945), Opus 38 for piano (1962), and the Opus 21 “Capricorn” concerto (1944), actually a concerto grosso with concertante parts for flute, oboe, and trumpet and accompaniment limited to strings. Over the last few decades, the star of Opus 14 has begun to rise again and has established its place in the repertoire of many notable violinists. In that context many would find it difficult to believe that Opus 22 had been written by the same composer. Where Opus 14 was lyrical, Opus 22 homes in on angular thematic material, endowed with many of the sharp edges that one encounters in Barber’s more aggressive orchestral writing.

Kahn was not shy when it came to executing the composer’s bold, and sometimes chilling, strokes. This would not have surprised anyone who had experienced Kahn’s fearlessly aggressive stances when he took on Dmitri Shostakovich’s Opus 107 (first) cello concerto in E-flat major with the Conservatory Orchestra in October of 2016. However, while Shostakovich’s 1959 concerto was shaded by dark memories of Joseph Stalin, Barber was on active duty with the United States Army while the Second World War was nearing its conclusion when he received the commission to compose his cello concerto. This is not to suggest that the resulting concerto was “military” (although the only percussion instruments are timpani and snare drum); but one can plausibly interpret his rhetorical darkness has having emerged “under fire.” Whether or not Kahn was trying to make the case that this concerto deserves a full symphonic performance, last night’s presentation definitely left one wondering how such a performance would be experienced.

However, the Barber selection was not the only opportunity for discovery. Kahn began his program with the first movement (Vivace, ma non troppo) from Paul Klengel’s arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 78 (first) violin sonata. Brahms had composed this sonata in G major, but Klengel transposed it into D major.

Here, again, this entailed a venture into darker rhetorical territory. This piece is sometimes called the “Regensonate” (rain sonata) since Brahms drew upon his earlier “Regenlied” (rain song) as a thematic source. If this suggests a somewhat wistful sadness in the opening movement, Klengel’s retuned arrangement seems to exploit a new set of resonances afforded by the cello to shift the rhetorical stance towards a more intense melancholy. Kahn seems to have appreciated that Klengel preferred dark clouds to the rain itself, but he also knew not to overplay his hand. As a result, he never let the intensity of his own rhetoric descend into wallowing, making Klengel’s approach to Brahms as much of a journey of discovery as the Barber concerto was.

Listeners were probably on more familiar ground with Kahn’s performance of the first (Nicht zu schnell) movement of Robert Schumann’s Opus 129 concerto in A minor. Composed late in the composer’s life, this involved some highly impassioned writing for the cello; but here, again, Kahn knew how to keep the focus on the music itself without letting emotional intensity overwhelm. Indeed, it seemed as if emotions got the better of him only in his performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1011 solo suite in C minor. He clearly wanted to approach this music as more than a pedagogical exercise; but, in the course of doing so, he seemed to lose touch with Bach’s own strong feelings about the spirit behind all those different dance forms he had summoned for this composition.

Kahn was on much firmer ground when it came to balancing technical demands against rhetorical expressiveness in his performance of two of the solo caprices from Alfredo Piatti’s Opus 25. Piatti composed this set of twelve caprices in 1865, making them about half a century younger than Niccolò Paganini’s Opus 1 collection of 24 caprices for solo violin. Piatti clearly understood the spirit behind Paganini’s caprices; and, if Kahn’s selections were representative, Piatti understood just as clearly how to match that spirit with the cello. Kahn’s selections allows him to conclude his recital by setting off a few fireworks, somewhat in the spirit of making the encores part of the program itself.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Weinberger’s Reger Project Advances to Fourth Volume

Franz Nölken’s 1913 painting of Max Reger at work (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Almost exactly two months ago, the German label cpo released the fourth volume in Gerhard Weinberger’s project to record the complete organ works of Max Reger. The third volume had been released in June of 2016, over a year earlier; and the project itself was launched in 2014. This does not compare favorably with a parallel project that began only slightly earlier.

Working with organist Bernhard Buttmann, OehmsClassics set a plan to release four CDs of Reger’s organ music every year between 2013 and 2016, meaning that the project would be completed in the year of the 100th anniversary of Reger’s death. OehmsClassics managed to keep to its plan, finishing on time for that landmark occasion. Meanwhile, cpo has been releasing volumes of two CDs each, meaning that, with the release of this fourth volume, they are only halfway through to completion.

So much for mere numbers. On a more personal side, I have to confess that I have been trying to get my head around Reger’s organ music ever since I listened to Paul Jacobs play the Opus 73 “Introduction, Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme” on the Ruffatti Concert Organ in Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, which Jacobs has been visiting on a regular basis for some time. That was in February of 2014; and I felt a need to confess to my readers that I came away thinking that the Opus 73 “borders on the impenetrable.” I have been trying to break through that border ever since.

One thing that I have learned is that, particularly where the fugues are concerned, the only way to “penetrate” Reger is through repeated listening. This is not meant pejoratively. The same claim may be made with regard to that vast lexicon of leitmotivs that guide the listener through the many details in the plot for Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelung (the ring of the Nibelung). One might almost say that any knowledge that comes instantly probably does not really count as knowledge.

To be fair, however, trying to get to know one of Reger’s fugues is a bit like jumping in a the deep end of a swimming pool when you do not know how deep it actually is. From this point of view, those who are still circling the pool deciding whether to jump in at all may find a fair amount of satisfaction in the latest cpo release. While it opens with the twenty-minute Opus 57 “Symphonische Phantasie und Fuge,” almost all of the remaining tracks are far more modest in duration.

Of particular interest is the Opus 145 set of seven pieces, all but one of which are less than ten minutes in duration. This collection was completed in 1916, which was not only a time when all of Europe was being consumed by World War I but was also the year in which Reger died. Each of the seven pieces was intended for performance at a specific church ritual; and the first (and longest) of these was intended for a funeral service. This is the only one with a dedication, written in memory of those who had died in battle in the years 1915 and 1916. Most likely Reger did not intend to associate his own death with the war victims, since he died of a sudden heart attack on May 11, 1916; but it would be fair to say that he wrote that first piece when death was on everyone’s mind.

With that context as a point of departure, one may be willing to approach Opus 145 as one of the composer’s more personal statements. If one can accept that “presence of personality,” then one has a fighting chance of apprehending related “instances of the personal” in his more “abstract” compositions. Perhaps this is one way of saying that the full canon of Reger’s organ music is a bit like that proverbial elephant being grasped by three blind men, each of whom describes the elephant in an entirely different way.

This leads to a second thing I have definitely learned: like the organ music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Reger’s catalog of organ works cannot be understood on the basis of any one composition. The significance of any one achievement is modest compared to the significance of the full canon of achievements. Clearly, not everyone will be willing to take the time to explore that full canon. Nevertheless, this latest cpo release has enough to allow even the beginning listener to realize that Reger approached his organ compositions by assuming a variety of different “points of view.” If one begins with an appreciation of the diversity of a few of those pieces, one can then proceed to a broader scope with a solid foundation for the prospects of new discoveries.

The Bleeding Edge: 12/4/2017

December is likely to be a quiet month. It may even be too quiet for weekly dispatches. This week the number of events already reported (three) outnumber the “new additions” (two). The former three are as follows:
December 4: the monthly Monday Make-Out at the Make Out Room, given advance notice last week
December 7: this week’s installment of the LSG Creative Music Series
December 9: the “artfully re-imagined holiday season music” at the Center for New Music
The “new additions” are the following:

Friday, December 8, 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., SFJAZZ Center: Once again there is an opportunity to take advantage of the Joe Henderson Lab, thus avoiding the flaws and inconveniences of Miner Auditorium. That opportunity involves jazz pianist Matthew Shipp, who will be leading a trio whose other members are Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor-Baker on drums. DownBeat magazine has already declared Shipp to be a “musician who deserves a place of choice in the jazz piano pantheon.” (Do any two jazz lovers agree on who “deserves a place of choice in the jazz piano pantheon?” I’ll keep my opinions to myself, thank you very much!) Regardless of my thoughts about such exaggerated language, it is worth observing that Shipp is currently Artistic Director of the Blue Series at the Thirsty Ear, and he has already recorded 50 albums. He is a “triple threat” jazzman, combining his skills as a bandleader with those of both composition and improvisation. His performance will probably be based on his latest Thirsty Ear album Piano Song (which presents the same trio).

As can be seen above, this group has scheduled two performances. Both are currently listed as “Almost Sold Out;” but there are separate event pages for the online purchase of tickets to the 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. shows. Considering the demand, this is probably the best way to try to get a ticket. All tickets are $35. The SFJAZZ Center is located at 201 Franklin Street, on the northwest corner of Fell Street.

Saturday, December 9, 8 p.m., Doc’s Lab: Drummer Scott Amendola will join forces with guitarist Zach Ostroff for a program entitled Turning Into a Butterfly. The idea behind the program is one of metamorphosis (hence the butterfly) arising from the extensively diverse backgrounds of both performers. In other words all of the original compositions that will be played may be seen as metamorphoses of the constituent qualities of the respective skill sets of both performers.

Doc's Lab is located at 124 Columbus Avenue in North Beach. Admission will be $20 at the door, and tickets may be purchased in advance for $15 through a Ticketfly event page. However, seating is limited and will be on a first-come first-served basis after the doors open at 7 p.m.

An Engaging Debut by New York Polyphony

Last night in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco Performances presented the San Francisco debut of the a cappella vocal quartet New York Polyphony. This was the second concert in the new Hear Now and Then Series and the only one of the four events being presented that honors the full scope of the series’ name. The program was based on Sing Thee Nowell, a recording that New York Polyphony made on BIS in 2014 with a repertoire that spans seven centuries of Christmas music. Two of the members of the quartet were also contributing composers, countertenor Geoffrey Williams and bass Craig Phillips, who publishes under the pseudonym Alexander Craig. The other vocalists were tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson and baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert.

Craig Phillips, Geoffrey Williams, Christopher Dylan Herbert, and Steven Caldicott Wilson of New York Polyphony (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Considering that the entire program lasted only a little more than an hour (with no intermission), the breadth of the selections was highly impressive. The ensemble’s commitment to polyphony served them well in their approach to Philippe Verdelot’s sixteenth-century motet “Gabriel archangelus;” but their intonation was just as solid in taking on those wild dissonances that have almost attainted the status of familiar idioms in recent choral writing. Nevertheless, this was definitely a “now and then” concert; and, while the program was not structured to plot the advance of music history, the group’s efforts to present selections (mostly unfamiliar) to occupy the space between the extremes was strikingly impressive.

Take, as a particularly apposite case in point, the decision to represent the nineteenth century with a song by Camille Saint-Saëns, “Serenade d’hiver.” Strictly speaking, this is an account of a serenade sung during one of the winter months by four men in masks wooing the same woman. Both the text and its delivery were delightfully comic, making the case that Saint-Saëns had a sense of humor that reached further than his “The Carnival of the Animals.” The New York Polyphony vocalists clearly appreciated that humor and knew just the right way to engage it without overplaying it.

Equally effective was the choice of Peter Maxwell Davies as a representative of the twentieth century. Scored only for countertenor and tenor, “The fader of heven” is polyphony at the most fundamental level of point-against-point counterpoint. However, Davies was as bold in his use of dissonance as he was when writing for much larger ensembles. Nevertheless, when delivered with only two voices, those dissonances have a much starker bare-bones quality, which uncompromisingly establishes the darkness of the world in which the miracle of the Nativity took place.

The overall result was a Christmas concert in which the familiar was kept to a minimum. Indeed, even when the tune or the words were familiar, the arrangement made the listening a journey of discovery. The really familiar only showed up in the encore with Richard Rodney Bennett’s four-part arrangement of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which could not have been more traditional. After a full meal of exotic delights, a recognizable dessert definitely seemed in order!