Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Saxophones Will Rule at Next SIMM Series Concert

According to my records (and those on Facebook), the next concert to be offered by Outsound Presents in the Static Illusion Methodical Madness (SIMM) Series will serve up a veritable feast of saxophone performances. Both of the sets to be performed will feature a saxophonist drawing upon multiple instruments of different sizes. The first set will feature Jon Raskin, who is probably best known as one of the founding members of the Rova Saxophone Quartet and is still going strong in his membership. On this occasion, however, he will give a duo performance with Moe! Staiano on percussion.

The second set will be taken by the Lords of Outland. This group was created in 1994 by saxophonist Rent Romus, who is also Executive Director of Outsound Presents. The Lords of Outland has developed original music ranging from unhinged free improvisation to thematic compositional suites inspired by abstract and socio-political poetry, science fiction, horror, and fantasy, that last genre being richly informed by Finnish folklore. At this SIMM Series concert Romus will be playing alto, soprano, and C-melody saxophones. He will be joined by Ray Schaeffer on electric basses and Philip Everett, who will play electronic autoharp and a diversity of percussion instruments.

This concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 10. It will take place in the Musicians Union Hall, which is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $10 and $20.

Del Sol Records Riley and Scodanibbio

As was observed yesterday, the Del Sol String Quartet (violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates) will be holding a release event this coming Saturday for their latest album on Sono Luminus, Dark Queen Mantra, which will be available on Friday:

courtesy of Jensen Artists

For those who are impatient, Amazon.com is, as usual, processing pre-orders. The album features one of Terry Riley’s earliest compositions for string quartet, a coupling of two short movements entitled, respectively, “The Wheel” and “Mythic Birds Waltz.” (I have heard Del Sol play the “Mythic Birds Waltz” on its own.) This early work is coupled with the Riley composition for which the album is named, which he wrote in 2015. Dark Queen Mantra is a three-movement suite for string quartet and guitar; and, on this album, the guitar part is taken by Riley’s son Gyan. Between these two Riley compositions, Del Sol plays Mas Lugares, a five-movement suite involving transformations of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi composed by Stefano Scodanibbio. Del Sol had played all three of these selections in a recital they gave at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in December of 2015, and the recording sessions for this album were held about two months later.

Taken as a whole, the “program” for this album is a decidedly lyrical one. In that respect it is highly appropriate that the “core” of that program should be based on the texts of the Italian poems that Monteverdi had chosen to set as madrigals. Furthermore, Scodanibbio’s approach to “transformation” involved a significant departure from “transcription.” He was clearly aware of Monteverdi’s skills as a contrapuntist; but he chose to explore those skills in terms of note-against-note relationships based on natural harmonics. Those explorations led Scodanibbio to new approaches to dissonance. Thus, while the words that Monteverdi set are not part of Scodanibbio’s composition, the emotional intensity behind those words comes through with greater strength than we tend to encounter in “straightforward” performances of Monteverdi’s scores.

One encounters similar effects in “Dark Queen Mantra,” the title of the final movement in the suite of the same name. This movement is, indeed, the mantra of the suite, dwelling on the repetition of a simple phrase through which the listener can transcend the complexity of the here-and-now. Nevertheless, here, too, the impact of intonation arises, again through bowing techniques involving frequencies based on nodal points, rather than the pitches of an equal-tempered chromatic scale. In addition the use of sul ponticello bowing imposes even harsher overtones that emerge as the darkness suggested by the movement’s title. As a result, this final movement contrasts sharply with the almost nostalgic qualities suggested by the suite’s first two movements.

Contrast is similarly at heart of the final selection. “The Wheel” amounts to a slow jazz ballad, perhaps reflecting the early days of Riley’s career, when he supported himself by playing in piano bars. The “Mythic Birds Waltz,” on the other hand, is a splendid exercise in rhythmic complexity that pretty much defies anyone to try to waltz to it. Indeed, if there is any trace of Vienna at all in this piece, it is decidedly obscured by other influences, the most significant of which probably involve Riley’s interest in the rhythmic patterns of classical Indian music, which he studied with Pandit Pran Nath.

As a result there is much to be gained from beginning-to-end listening where this album is concerned; and the combination of the keen ears of the Del Sol players and the engineering skills in the recording studio make that listening experience a highly satisfying one.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 8/21/2017

As I write this the sun does not seem to have been able to burn off the San Francisco cloud cover in time for the eclipse. Over the weekend I was joking with a friend that the best (not to mention safest) way to watch the eclipse would be through the Internet. It would appear that Karl the Fog was in agreement with me. He has made the cover thick enough that I cannot even tell if the sky is darkening! Indeed, that Web page that the Exploratorium was supposed to provide for online listening to a sonification of the eclipse performed by the Kronos Quartet, as reported last week, is still “off the air.” In the immortal words of Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.”

Regarding activities taking place later this week, both the Center for New Music and the Luggage Store Gallery have already been taken into account. That leaves only a few other items, but the first of those was a bit of a surprise. Here are the specifics:

Wednesday, August 23, 8 p.m., The Bindery: For the last few months this site has been reporting on the relocation of the Monthly Experimental Music Showcase from Second Act to the Peacock Lounge. Second Act became The Bindery, which calls itself “A Place for the Curious;” and one of its offerings for “the curious” will be Experimental Music Third Wednesdays. As things currently stand, it seems as if we shall now be getting shows from both series each month, since the Peacock Lounge has appropriated the poster design that had been used by Second Act and The Bindery has a new design with a new aspect ratio:

courtesy of the Bay Improviser Calendar

If this is, indeed, the launch of a new series, then it is certainly starting off with a bang. The main attraction will be the latest sound and video created by longtime avant-gardist Henry Kaiser. Whether Kaiser will be physically present for the occasion is unclear. However, it is likely that the other three groups performing will be physical, rather than virtual. Furthermore, they all have names to continue one of Second Act’s most provocative traditions: Neha Spellfish, Drought Spa, and Filthmilk (as seen above). (In the immortal words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know!”)

The nuts and bolts of this show are basically the same as they were at Second Act. The Bindery is located in Haight-Ashbury at 1727 Haight Street. Doors will open at 7:45 p.m. Admission will be $5 and will be restricted to those age 21 or older.

The remaining two events for this week are both organized around releases of new recordings:

Friday, August 25, 8 p.m., Artists’ Television Access: In the interest of full disclaimer of personal bias, I used to think that Dina Maccabee was the best part of the Real Vocal String Quartet. Since her departure she has extended her viola and vocal work to take in real-time digital processing and video projections. This has resulted in a brand new solo album entitled The World Is In The Work. She will celebrate its release with a live performance of the entire album. Artists’ Television Access is located in the Mission at 992 Valencia Street. Admission will be $10, payable at the door.

Saturday, August 26, 2 p.m., Alley Cat Books: This Friday Sono Luminus will release Dark Queen Mantra, the latest recording of the Del Sol String Quartet, whose members are violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates. The title of the album is also the title of the opening composition, which Terry Riley composed in 2015. He scored it for string quartet and guitar, and on the album the guitar part is taken by Riley’s son Gyan. The album also includes two shorter Riley pieces, “The Wheel” and “Mythic Birds Waltz,” played continuously on a single track. Between the Riley selections, Del Sol plays “Mas Lugares,” which involves transformations of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi composed by Stefano Scodanibbio.

Composer Luciano Chessa, who has championed Scodanibbio’s work, will serve as moderator for this release event. Del Sol will perform selections from the album, recognizing the contributions of both composers. There will also be time for discussion and album signings. Alley Cat Books is located in the Mission at 3036 24th Street just east of Treat Avenue (between Folsom Street and Harrison Street).

The Quietude of Stephen Whittington’s Quartet Music

This past Friday Cold Blue Music released its second recording of compositions by Australian composer Stephen Whittington performed by the Zephyr Quartet, whose members are violinists Belinda Gehlert and Emily Tulloch, violist Jason Thomas, and cellist Hillary Kleinig. The ensemble is also based in Australia, and recordings took place at the University of Adelaide in September of last year. This was Cold Blue’s second album of Zephyr playing Whittington’s music, the first having been Music for Airport Furniture (presumably a witty nod to both Erik Satie and Brian Eno), which was released in 2013.

The title of the new album is Windmill, which is also the title of the second of two compositions on the CD. The first is a seven-movement suite entitled …from a thatched hut, while “Windmill” is a single movement slightly less than ten minutes in duration. Both pieces may be said to be based on impressions; but only “Windmill” derives from the visual. The impression of …from a thatched hut is more cultural in nature, dealing with Chinese scholars of the past that lived as hermits (anchorites without any of the Christian connotations).

The windmills that Whittington had in mind are those constructed in isolated areas in order to bring underground sources of water to the surface. When farming first began to be practiced west of the Mississippi River, just about every individual farm depended on such a windmill. Any number of movies captured the haunting qualities of the creaking sounds made by both the rotating blades and the pumping mechanism.

Whittington tried to capture those sounds in “Windmill;” and, allowing him the benefit of artistic license, he did a pretty good job. However, what makes the piece particularly compelling is what might be called its rhetoric of isolation. The suggestion is that, on any given farm, it is often the case that the windmill is the only source of sound; and, once Whittington establishes the nature of that sound, he punctuates it with extended periods of silence. Those silences blur the boundary of when the piece actually ends, an effect that is even spookier when one is listening to a recording than when one is watching the piece being performed.

The title of …from a thatched hut comes from two of those hermits evoked by the music. The first of these was Bai Juyi, who was a successful politician until a change in the balance of power forced him into exile. Since he was a devoted practitioner of Zen, he saw exile as an opportunity to think on less worldly matters; and he documented his thoughts in the book Record of the Thatched Hut on Mount Lu. Whittington’s other source is the Song dynasty landscape painter Xia Gui, known for painting hand scrolls of prodigious length. One of these was called Twelve Views from a Thatched Hut.

Those familiar with Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a book compiled by Paul Reps from a variety of sources of Zen and pre-Zen writing, will probably be familiar with the sorts of hermits that inspired Whittington to compose …from a thatched hut. (Those who do not know the book may still know some of the source material, since John Cage appropriated many of the anecdotes for “marginalia” in several of his books.) In many ways Whittington’s suite makes for excellent music to accompany reading Reps’ book. Indeed, Cage’s own autobiographical statement mentions the Indian singer Gira Sarabhai as one of his sources of inspiration: “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” It is not unreasonable to approach …from a thatched hut through its capacity “to sober and quiet the mind,” resulting in greater susceptibility to the Zen teachings that Reps documented.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

San Francisco International Piano Festival: The First SF Concert

This afternoon the first of the three concerts in the San Francisco International Piano Festival taking place within the San Francisco city limits was presented in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The title of the program was Voice of the Piano, the implication being that an appreciation of vocal qualities often plays a significant role in arriving at appropriate approaches to expressiveness in piano performance, whether solo or in any group setting. In this case both of those options were explored.

The only solo work was presented by Daria Rabotkina during the second half of the program and involved a survey of humoresques by four different composers, each of whom had his (yes, they were all male) own distinctive “voice.” During the first half, there was one piece for piano and soprano, performed by the husband-and-wife duo of Paul and Kayleen Sánchez. Paul is a member of the New Piano Collective, the group behind the organization of the Festival; and his wife was making her San Francisco debut. In addition Johnandrew Slominski, one of the founders of the Collective, performed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 414 piano concerto in A major accompanied by a string quartet of violinists Liana Bérubé and George Hayes, violist Ivo Bokulic, and cellist Michelle Kwon.

The composers Rabotkina selected for her survey were, in the order of performance, Antonín Dvořák (three of the eight humoresques in his Opus 101), Max Reger (two of the five humoresques in his Opus 20), Sergei Rachmaninoff (the fifth piece in his Opus 10 Morceaux de salon collection), and the entirety of Robert Schumann’s Opus 20, whose episodes are generally organized around the key of B-flat major. The Wikipedia page for this genre describes it as being characterized by “fanciful humor in the sense of mood rather than wit.” That description certainly fit the Reger and Rachmaninoff selections. Dvořák, on the other hand, tended to be more wistful than fanciful, using these particular pieces to reflect on instances of rustic rhetoric that he had encountered. As might be expected, Schumann’s Opus 20 is another conflicted encounter between Florestan and Eusebius, in which wildly fanciful imagination tends to overpower any sense of humor.

Rabotkina brought adept technical discipline to all four of these composers; and she made a clear case that each was “speaking in a different voice.” I am not sure she quite homed in on the qualities that distinguished Dvořák; but we have to remember that her third selection (the seventh in G-flat major) was the Dvořák humoresque, played to death in arrangements for just about every instrument and even subjected to silly lyrics. It was sufficient that she provided an opportunity to listen to this piece without any of that accumulated baggage getting in the way. Her approach to Rachmaninoff was particularly memorable, since there are so few opportunities to experience his sense of humor; and she certainly did not try to short-change any of the neuroses in Schumann’s composition.

Slominski’s “chamber” approach to the K. 414 concerto was based on Mozart’s own arrangement. It provided a more intimate framework in which to appreciate Mozart’s virtuosity and the many devices he explored for engagements between soloist and ensemble. Since the sound of the quartet was clearly reduced when compared to a string ensemble, there were a few problems in finding just the right dynamic levels on a modern grand piano; but, for the most part, Slominski negotiated those problems deftly.

The only real disappointment was the vocal selection performed by the Sánchez duo. Horizon: For Harlan was a cycle of settings of ten poems by Harlan Payne. Payne’s “day job” was that of a practicing neurologist; but it is clear that he was serious about literature as an avocation. Horizon was a setting of ten of his poems composed by Paul Sánchez; and it left the uneasy feeling that he was paying more attention to syllables than to phrases and larger-scale semantic structures. Whether that syllabic focus explained the rather flat vocal delivery presented by Kayleen Sanchez or whether her general technique still required development could not be determined on the basis of a single listening experience. Sadly, what emerged was a series of relatively brief settings that felt as if it went on forever.

LIEDER ALIVE! Announces its 2017–18 Liederabend Series

The Liederabend (evening of songs) Series of vocal recitals was inaugurated in 2011 by Maxine Bernstein, Founder and Director of LIEDER ALIVE! Once again, the new season will present five such recitals. Programming will include particular focus on Gustav Mahler, including a “Mahlerfest” for the Grand Opening concert. In addition the season will conclude with a new work involving a co-commission with Deutsche Oper Berlin. All performances will take place at 5 p.m. on a Sunday evening. The specifics are as follows:

September 10: As was the case at last season’s Grand Opening, the featured vocalist will be mezzo Kindra Scharich. The Mahlerfest will be devoted to Mahler’s three major song cycles, the Lieder eines Fahrenden gesellen (songs of a wayfarer) and the two collections of settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert, the Rückert-Lieder and the Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children). Scharich will be accompanied by the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ), which will perform transcriptions of Mahler’s music for voice and string quartet prepared by ASQ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo.

[updated 8/21, 1:50 p.m.:

October 15: Bass Kirk Eichelberger will be accompanied by pianist Marek Ruszczynski in a program of songs by Mahler and Hugo Wolf.

January 14: Scharich and Eichelberger will be joined by soprano Heidi Moss Erickson.] This will be another “festive” concert in the Neue und Alte Liederfest biannual series. The “new” side of the series will feature world premieres of commissioned works by Kurt Erickson, Veronika Krausas, and Luna Pearl Woolf. The “old” will be represented with masterworks from the final years of the Romantic period.

March 25: The featured vocalist will be baritone Eugene Villanueva, the first American singer to win the Tosti song prize offered by Instituto Nazionale Tostiano in Ortona, Italy. His accompanist at the piano will be Peter Grünberg. As may be anticipated, the program will feature Tosti’s light and expressive songs, which will be complemented by the poems of Paul Heyse that Wolf set for his Italienisches Liederbuch (Italian songbook). The concert will begin with a collection of art songs by Johannes Brahms.

July 1: The season will conclude with the performance of that new work co-commissioned with Deutsche Oper Berlin. The piece is a setting of poetry by Nora Bossong written by German composer Anno Schreier. This piece will be sung by Scharich, and she will be accompanied at the piano by John Parr, currently Head of Music Staff at Deutsche Opera Berlin.

All performances will be held at the Noe Valley Ministry at 1021 Sanchez Street, between 23rd Street and Elizabeth Street. Subscriptions for the full five-concert series will be $250 for reserved seating at all concerts and $160 for general admission. These may be purchased online from an Eventbrite event page. Single tickets for the Mahlerfest will be $100, which includes reserved seating, and $45 for general admission. However, these prices are only for advance purchase. Tickets at the door will be $50 with a $25 rate for students, seniors, and working artists. Single tickets for the remaining four concerts will be $40 at the door with a $20 discount. If purchased in advance, the prices will be $75 for reserved seating and $35 for general admission. There is also an Eventbrite Web page for advance purchase of Mahlerfest tickets. At the present time, Eventbrite supports only these two Web pages. Presumably the Web page summarizing the full season will add hyperlinks to new Eventbrite pages as they are created. Those interested in subscribing may also call LIEDER ALIVE! at 415-561-0100.

Merola Vocalists Soar Above Adverse Conditions

Last night, as is the case every year around this time, the War Memorial Opera House hosted this year’s Merola Grand Finale, the annual “sampler” program that provides the last opportunity to relish the vocal qualities of this summer’s trainees in the Merola Opera Program. As always, diversity was the order of the evening; and the program seems to have been planned deliberately to steer away from the familiar warhorses. The result was that every selection was as much a journey of discovery for the audience as it was for the performers.

Indeed, the evening opened with a rare opportunity to appreciate a “first draft” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo” (return his glance) was the first version of the aria that Guglielmo, disguised as an “Albanian,” sings to impress the righteously faithful sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella in the K. 588 opera Così fan tutte (thus do all women). It was replaced by the much shorter “Non siate ritrosi” (don’t be shy); and Ludwig Ritter von Köchel cataloged “Rivolgete” as the K. 584 concert aria.

Mozart made the right choice. “Rivolgete” is practically epic in its scale of braggadocio. Guglielmo just won’t shut up in praising his many virtues. The replacement, on the other hand, runs less than two minutes, breaking off in the middle when the sisters run away. Nevertheless, last night bass-baritone perfectly captured all of the fatuous self-preening of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s text without ever coming off as tiresome or ridiculous. Stage Director Victoria Crutchfield turned the setting from the sister’s garden into a cocktail party with lots of people having had too much to drink. She may have made the duration a bit more bearable by filling it with distractions; but those distractions did just that, blunting the full impact of Guglielmo’s self-centeredness.

This turned out to be an omen for the rest of the evening. In each of the following numbers, whether it involved solo or group singing, Crutchfield never seemed to home in on the dramatic context that would motivate the performance. The result was that one came away with an abundance of memories of singing at its finest but probably with very little recollection of either the what or the why behind the singing. Furthermore, because so much of the repertoire was unfamiliar, neither the program sheet nor the projected titles did much to inform the audience of the context for what was being performed. Indeed, if one paid too much attention to the people-moving on stage, one was likely to miss the projection identifying the opera from which the next selection was extracted.

Fortunately, there were a few episodes that were consistent with the original source in which memory could be registered. The confrontation between Nedda (Alexandra Razskazoff) and Silvio (Dimitri Katotakis), from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, positively roiled with erotic undercurrents:


Alexandra Razskazoff and Dimitri Katotakis, photograph by Kristen Loken

On the other hand the temptation of the Composer (Samantha Hankey) by Zerbinetta (Jana McIntyre) in the Prologue portion of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos was all about scheming to get what you want:

Jana McIntyre and Samantha Hanke, photograph by Kirsten Loken

In McIntyre’s portrayal, one could almost hear the words “Nailed it!” in Zerbinetta’s head as the episode concluded.

The real warhorse of the evening came from Franz Lehár. Xingwa Hao could not have done a better job of channeling Richard Tauber in his delivery of “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (you are my heart’s delight) from The Land of Smiles:

Xingwa Hao, photograph by Kristen Loken

Mind you, my own knowledge of Tauber comes only from his recordings, since I was not yet two years old when he died. However, this was also the sort of music that brought back fond memories of The Voice of Firestone, my “first contact” with vocal warhorses.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Capri Records Releases Katie Thiroux’ First Physical Album

Yesterday Capri Records released Katie Thiroux’ “sophomore” album, Off Beat:

courtesy of Braithwaite & Katz

This is her first release of an album in physical form, having debuted with Introducing Katie Thiroux as an MP3 album released by BassKat Music, which also publishes her original compositions. Coupling composition with her bass playing and her singing makes Thiroux a “triple threat” in the jazz world. The biography Web page on her Web site lists bass master Ray Brown as a major influence, and one of the tracks on Off Beat features her solo work on Brown’s original composition “Ray’s Idea.” Her own work as a composer is featured on the track “Slow Dance with Me,” which tends to be a bit on the innocuous side, particularly in Justin Kauffin’s piano work; but it still provides a platform for Thiroux’ improvisational skills.

On the vocal site she cites influences from Anita O’Day, Chet Baker, and Ella Fitzgerald. One can detect some of the Baker factor in the way in which she tries of establish a conversational rhetoric to her delivery. Unfortunately, her sense of pitch tends to come closer to the sort of Sprechstimme that sparked so much controversy when explored by Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils.

Put another way, she never hits her pitches with the solidity that served all three of her influences so well. (Fitzgerald could not have undertaken such awesome scat flights of fancy without being confident of the pitch of every note she sang.) Ironically, because of the length of the neck of the bass, many bass players run afoul of hitting their pitches with that same accuracy; but there is absolutely nothing to fault in Thiroux’ bass work.

Furthermore, her confidence with her instrument allows her to easily negotiate melodic lines that would bring down lesser players. This is immediately evident in the title track, which is also the opening track of the album and can definitely be taken literally. As a means for establishing a first impression, this piece serves Thiroux much better in its instrumental work than as a song; and the words are more than a bit of a distraction from all the imaginative things that the instruments are doing. Perhaps Thiroux should be less of a fox and more of a hedgehog with her bass work.

Center for New Music: First Half of September 2017

Things are gradually coming together for the launch of a new season at the Center for New Music (C4NM). At present, it seems to make sense to dwell on the first half of next month, particularly since two events in that period have already been given account:
  1. September 7: the opening reception and performance for the new Window Gallery exhibition, shiver me timbres
  2. September 10: the program of koto duos prepared and performed by Hyo-shin Na and her colleagues
Current scheduling shows that two more events will be taking place on or prior to September 15.

C4NM is (of course) located at 55 Taylor Street, half a block north of the Golden Gate Theater, which is where Golden Gate Avenue meets Market Street. Both of the following events will have the same prices for tickets: $15 for general admission and $10 for C4NM members. As usual, tickets will be available in advance through Vendini event pages. The offerings are as follows with each date hyperlinked to the corresponding Vendini page:

Saturday, September 9, 8 p.m.: Kurt Rohde is curating the program Textural Resonance, which will feature four pieces by three artists whose musical works are oriented around text and may involve additional media:
  1. The first work on the program will be “The Former World” by John P. Hastings. This multimedia essay on “deep time” draws upon two text sources, writings of the artist Robert Smithson and Annals of the Former World, a major book on geological history by John McPhee. The performance will involve video projection, acoustic guitar, stereo playback, roadside garbage, and mobile speakers.
  2. “Wharf Rat” was created by Benjamin Mayock. The text was taken from an anonymous guestbook entry, whose writer had been recently paroled from his prison sentence. These words will be delivered over both pre-recorded music and a live performance by Mayock and Hastings.
  3. The next work will be “How to Get There From Here,” created for solo speaking voice by Andrew C. Smith. This piece is in three movements. The first movement is based on 1600 segments of speech used to create a fixed-media electronic composition and then transcribed into the International Phonetic Alphabet as a score for spoken performance. The second movement is based on letter-based transforms of different text sources. The final movement is then based on the extraction of phrases from a wide variety of English texts going back to Geoffrey Chaucer and forward to H. G. Wells.
  4. The program will then conclude with Smith’s “Reconstruction,” a poem scored for solo speaking voice and an electronic reconfiguration of fragments of speech captured during the performance.
Friday, September 15, 7 p.m.: This will be a solo piano recital by Timothy Johnson. He will play compositions from his last album, A Guide to Misinterpreting the Past. He will also present several selections that have not yet been recorded for release. His approach tends to involve thinking of the notes he plays in terms of geometric shapes without attending consciously to characteristics of meter or tonality. What results amounts to a distinctive blend of impressionism and minimalism.

Vardanega Returns to Old First with an All-Schubert Program

Pianist Audrey Vardanega made her debut about ten years ago when, at the age of eleven, she appeared as a soloist with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. She then made her debut with the Midsummer Mozart Festival three years later at the age of fourteen, making her the youngest soloist in the history of the Festival. When not doing solo concerto work on piano, she could be found in the ensemble’s string section; and, at that time, she was also well into her studies in composition, which she had begun at the age of six.

She is now a senior in Political Science at Columbia University, preparing a Senior Thesis on the politics of the performance of classical music. This past February she was one of six pianists selected by Jonathan Biss for a Carnegie Hall Workshop exploring the late piano works of Johannes Brahms, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Franz Schubert. Last night she made her third appearance in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Presbyterian Church. The first two were duo recitals with cellist Nathan Chan and violinist Kenneth Renshaw, respectively, both with a major focus on Brahms sonatas. Last night’s program shifted attention to Schubert with both solo and duo performances and particular attention to the final year of that composer’s life.

Her solo selection was the D. 960 sonata in B-flat major. This was not Biss’ choice when he presented the all-Schubert program in his Late Style series for San Francisco Performances this past March, for which he played D. 959 in A major. However, both of these sonatas, along with D. 958 in C minor, were composed in the single month of September of 1928, meaning that they were all written when Schubert had a little over a month left to live. The writing of each of those sonatas must have been a massive undertaking, making it tempting to think of Schubert in a losing race with death.

D. 960 is particularly expansive, particularly in its first movement. At a leisurely Molto moderato, the exposition leisurely surveys a series of themes and connecting passages in which, following one of Beethoven’s most striking rhetorical traits, time almost feels as if it is standing still. After all of the themes had been introduced, Schubert wrote a first ending, which is almost a micro-essay unto itself, before having the pianist repeat the exposition. Even before the development begins, the listener has covered considerable ground.

Like many other pianists, Vardanega chose to dispense with that first ending. Her decision would have been endorsed by Brahms, who supposedly claimed that, once listeners got to know a piece, repeating the exposition was no longer necessary. Her decision also allowed her to bring further emphasis to the development. In terms of the contour of dynamic level, the “highest peak” occurs at the end of the development section, giving the entire movement an almost symmetrical rise-and-fall profile. One can easily argue that repeating the exposition tends to disrupt that symmetry.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of the marks on paper, what mattered most was the sensitive attentiveness that Vardanega brought to all four movements of this sonata, each of which has no end of distinctive qualities. For all her attention to technical matters, it was her ability to find her own rhetorical delivery that made this very familiar music sound fresh and original. Taken as a whole, the sonata is a meticulously conceived landscape of moods; and Vardanega knew how to cultivate every subtle detail in the landscape without ever overwhelming the listener with the impression the she had too much to say.

The duo performances in the first half of the program were far more modest in scale. Nevertheless, the D. 940 fantasia in F minor for four hands on one keyboard can be said to mark the beginning of “Schubert’s final year,” having been completed very close to twelve months before his death. Like the D. 760 (“Wanderer”) fantasia for solo piano in C major, the piece is in four sections, the last of which is distinguished by a fugue on the opening theme. However, even if it involves twice as many hands, D. 940 is more disposed to quietude in its thematic material. There are still several passages whose dynamics are reinforced by those extra hands; but there is a steady “sanity” to D. 940 that contrasts sharply with the overt neuroses of D. 760.

Last night Robert Schwartz played secondo to Vardanega’s primo. This was very much an instance of two bodies sharing a common mind. Their balance was always right on the money, and the overall phrasing was so well managed that one could almost imagine it to be the work of a single pianist. Most importantly, however, this was “social” music, intended for performance by and among friends, and Vardanega and Schwartz knew exactly how to evoke the sociability of the Schubertiad spirit that can be found in just about everything that Schubert wrote for four hands on a single keyboard.

For the opening selection Vardanega was joined by cellist Chase Park. The two of them played the opening movement of the D. 821 “Arpeggione” sonata. In the absence of an actual arpeggione (the only one I ever saw was in a museum case), this tends to be the preferred instrumentation. The account was highly satisfying, making at least this listener wish for more. Fortunately, Park returned after the performance of D. 960; and the two of them gave an encore performance. They selected Gabriel Fauré’s Opus 24 “Élégie,” whose own sensitive (elegiac?) quietude offered a thoroughly suitable postscript to Vardanega’s journey through D. 960.

Friday, August 18, 2017

SFEMF Announces Schedule for 18th Season

A Web site has now been set up for the schedule for eighteenth annual season of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF). This year the festival will run only three days, featuring three evening concerts at the Brava Theater Center. All concerts will begin at 8 p.m. and will consist of three sets. Performers for each of the three dates have been planned as follows:

Friday, September 8: Aaron Dilloway (tape loop experiments based in Oberlin), Las Sucias (the feminist noise reggaeton duo of Danishta Rivero and Alexandra Buschman), Suki O’Kane (virtuoso local percussionist and composer)

Saturday, September 9: JH1.FS3 (the experimental duo of Frederikke Hoffmeier and Jesse Sanes), Kaori Suzuki (handmade instruments and synthesis), Dax Pierson (based in the East Bay)

Sunday, September 10: Suzanne Ciani (electronic music pioneer), Beat Nest (South Asian Sharmi Basu, who holds “Decolonizing Sound” workshops), Waxy Tomb (Jules Litman-Cleper, named for the chamber of the inner ear responsible for disequilibrium)

The Brava Theater Center is located at 2781 24th Street at the corner of York Street. Single tickets for each of the three concerts are on a sliding scale between $17 and $25 with a $12 student rate. All single tickets will be available for purchase online from a single Brown Paper Tickets event page with a pull-down menu for selecting the date. A second event page has been created for a Full Festival Pass for admission to all three concerts.

There will also be a reception hosted by one of the newest venues for “bleeding edge” music, which happens also to be located on 24th Street, a few blocks to the west of the Brava Theater Center. That venue is Adobe Books, one of whose activities was discussed on this site a little less than a week ago. There will be no charge for this reception, and it will include a brief set performed by Snickers. The specific address in 3130 24th Street.

John Vanore’s Tribute to Oliver Nelson Out Today

Today Acoustical Concepts released the album Stolen Moments: Celebrating Oliver Nelson, featuring a large ensemble conducted by John Vanore. As of this writing, Amazon.com does not seem to be aware that this item exists; but it is there for both CD purchase and downloading on its own Web page set up by CD Baby. Nelson is one of the most imaginative composers and arrangers from the twentieth century; and, tragically, he died suddenly in 1975 at the age of 43.

His Impulse! Records album The Blues and The Abstract Truth has been judged by many (myself included) as essential for anyone collecting jazz recordings; and, when Vanore founded his own band about 30 years ago, he named it Abstract Truth. To be fair, however, the success of the album probably had as much to do with its “all-star cast” as with the six Nelson pieces recorded. He led a sextet while alternating between alto and tenor saxophone; and the sextet members were Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone and flute), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), George Barrow (baritone saxophone), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Roy Hanes (drums)!

However, Nelson was as comfortable working with a big band as he was with smaller combos. As a result, one of the most treasured items in my personal collection is the six-CD Mosaic Records box Oliver Nelson: The Argo, Verve and Impulse Big Band Studio Sessions. Those sessions took place between November 19, 1962 and February 17, 1967; and there is no question that they influenced Vanore. The ensemble on this tribute album is not quite as large as most of the groups in the Mosaic collection; but there is a good chance that it was Nelson’s approach to instrumentation during some sessions with organist Jimmy Smith that inspired Vanore to include two French horns (George Barnett and Adam Unsworth) in his recording sessions.

Jokes about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery aside, the most interesting feature of Vanore’s work is where he chooses to quote Nelson. Because his resources never imitate Nelson’s, Vanore’s versions never involve duplication; but those who know the Nelson tracks will recognize the rings of familiarity. However, those rings only resound in introductory and bridge passages. All of Vanore’s soloists put their own personal takes on the improvisations. This will allow those who admire Nelson’s work to appreciate the many new directions that his tunes can accommodate.

Then, of course, there is the actual Nelson composition named “Blues and the Abstract Truth,” which only showed up in recorded form on More Blues and the Abstract Truth. The sessions for this album were recorded in November of 1964. This was a time that was adventurous for many of the best jazz players, but it was also a time of frustration for those trying to follow the Third Stream in the course of their adventures. Nelson was never really one of those “camp followers;” but he appreciated that abstraction could be visceral, rather than just cerebral, even when it ventured away from a well-defined tonal center. “Blues and the Abstract Truth” was probably the best way in which he made his point; and I am happy to say that the point is made just as convincingly on Vanore’s new album.

The bottom line is that, while Nelson passed away over 40 years ago, Vanore has done a first-rate job in making sure that today’s jazz lovers get to appreciate how much he contributed during his lifetime.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Jazz Herstory Collective: More Recent Past than History

Today’s lunchtime event in the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival was a concert given by the Jazz Herstory Collective:

courtesy of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival

This is a group that features, in its own words, “a soaring triumvirate of soul-steeped singers,” Valerie Troutt, Viveca Hawkins, and Kimiko Joy, performing with a rhythm section of Aneesa Strings (also a vocalist) on both acoustic and electric bass, Ruth Price on drums, and Sundra Manning on keyboard, often using the organ stop. The group’s description also includes the following sentence:
The Bay Area has a long and deep history of extraordinary women playing jazz, funk, rock and soul, and the Jazz Herstory Collective is a project that celebrates that legacy.
Nevertheless, on the basis of what was performed this afternoon, I came away with the impression that this “long and deep history” does not extend earlier than my undergraduate days, another sobering reminder of my own age!

Setting the scope of the past to one side, however, I would have to say that the high point of the program came when Trout sang “Love Will Never Change” to reflect on the recent resurgence in acts of hate, many of which are criminal, and the recent fixation on using a motor vehicle as a “weapon of mass destruction.” Drawing again on my own personal history, I can recall the days before the news media began to pay serious attention to Martin Luther King, when people like Orval Faubus were regarded as an insignificant sideshow. We got through those dark days arriving at significant civil rights and voting rights legislation on the other side, and this afternoon Trout was there to remind those of us willing to listen that we can get through the current darkness as long was we have the will to persist.

On the musical side each of the members of that “soaring triumvirate” had her own way of bringing a personalized style to her singing. The same could be said of Strings, but here I must confess to a  personal preference for the instrumental. Her bass work on both instruments is still ringing in my ears, with particular emphasis on her trio work with Price and Manning before the vocalists took the stage. Equally impressive was Manning’s work on “Sunny,” taking a pop hit from my college days and endowing it with the sharper edges of jazzy rhetoric. Perhaps one of these days this group will appeal to my ongoing quest for singers who can do justice to the legacy of Bessie Smith!

SFO Announces Casting Update for Season Opener

This past Tuesday San Francisco Opera (SFO) announced a change in casting for its season-opening production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. Maria Agresta, who was to sing the role of Liù in the September performances, had to withdraw due to illness. She will be replaced by American soprano Toni Marie Palmertree:

photograph by Valentina Sadiul

Palmertree, currently an Adler Fellow, was originally scheduled to sing this role in the last two performances of the opera’s September run; but now she will sing in all six performances. With its strikingly imaginative designs conceived by David Hockney, this staging of Turandot has become one of SFO’s most popular productions:

photograph by Cory Weaver

This season the staging will be directed by Garnett Bruce.

This will be the latest SFO offering to be given double casting. The last took place at the end of 2014, when the two casts for Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, alternated roughly in successive performances. This time one cast will perform at the very beginning of the season, while the second cast will bring the fall season to its conclusion. Palmertree will sing only in the first cast, while Leah Crocetto will return to reprise her singing of Liù in the second cast.

The title role will see two familiar sopranos return to SFO. In September the part will be sung by Martina Serafin; and, at the end of the season, the role will be taken by Nina Stemme. The other alternating role will be the bass role of Timur, taken by Raymond Aceto in September and by Soloman Howard, who will be making his SFO debut, in the second cast. American tenor Brian Jagde, who made his role debut as Radames last November in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, will make his role debut as Calaf and will sing in all performances. Music Director Nicola Luisotti will conduct in September, and Christopher Franklin will make his SFO debut conducting the second-cast performances.

Next month’s six performances will take place at 8 p.m. on September 8 (in conjunction with Opera Ball 2017 at The Imperial Palace), at 7:30 p.m. on September 7, 15, 21, and 30 and at 2 p.m. on September 24. The second round of performances will take place at 7:30 p.m. on November 18, 25, and 28 and December 6 and 9 and at 2 p.m. on December 3. The libretto will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. The approximate running time will be three hours with two intermissions.

All performances will take place at the War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, on the northwest corner of Grove Street. Single tickets are priced from $26 to $398. Tickets may be purchased online through an event page on the SFO Web site. Tickets may also be purchased at the Box Office in the outer lobby of the Opera House. The Box Office may also be reached by telephoning 415-864-3330. Standing room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance. They are sold for $10, cash only.

Imaginative Improvising from Perkis and Scholz

In last night’s program of electronic improvisations at the Center for New Music, the second set was taken by the duo of Tim Perkis and Carter Scholz. Scholz was at the piano for the first two of the three pieces they played, while the final piece was all electronic. What may have been most interesting was that, while all of the synthesis came from laptops, all of the controls were analog. This should not be too surprising. Improvisation is as much a physical undertaking as an auditory one; and potentiometers and patch cords lend themselves to that physicality far more readily than a keyboard, mouse, or touch-sensitive panel.

Indeed, what may have been most interesting about Perkis’ work was his intense focus on almost minuscule movements. This contrasted sharply with Scholz’ activities in the first two numbers, when he was pretty much literally all over his piano. Indeed, the one place where he did not approach the instrument was from below, such as by striking the lower side of the sounding board. It also seemed as if the piano interior had been prepared prior to the first observation, but Scholz kept working with different objects in there. The wittiest of these was a toy that bounced around the strings of its own accord, a delightful reminder that one need not be dead serious about improvising, even when electronics are involved.

Nevertheless, when Scholz turned to electronics for the final selection, he tended to share Perkis’ technique of minimizing activity. Both of them were impressive in their capacity to listen sensitively to both themselves and each other. Thus, while the sonorities that played out tended towards a bold rhetorical stance, the activities of both players suggested that they were having a very intimate conversation. Consequently, the simultaneous experience of seeing and listening turned out to be a somewhat bipolar (but far from pathological) one.

The nature of interaction between electronics and piano, on the other hand, recalled some of the early experiments of Karlheinz Stockhausen. However, this was when Stockhausen was working with tape and through-composing scores for the pianist that demanded highly detailed interplay between the two sound sources. It was thus fascinating to think how all of that meticulous attention to pre-programmed detail half a century ago has now blossomed into the rich outpourings of spontaneous, but still well-considered, improvisation.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Critique of Judging New Opera

I found it interesting to review Damian Fowler’s book American Impresario: David Gockley’s Life in Opera almost exactly one year after Matthew Shilvock took up the torch from Gockley as General Director of the San Francisco Opera. While there was much to enjoy in this book (including the sumptuous photographs), I have to say that it was Gockley’s own words, compiled in a “Finale” section entitled “Gockley on the Future of American Opera,” that set my own “little grey cells” buzzing. I enjoyed the extent to which these “text clips” could be frank and open without giving the sense that they were deliberately trying to provoke.

However, even if we set aside provocation, there are some passages that deserve to be held open to question. My guess is that different readers will feel different ways about which passages these are. For my part, I would like to dwell on just one of them:
And we must remember that critics have too often misjudged a work at its premiere, witness A Quiet Place and Nixon in China.
Now, without trying to speak for or against any of my colleagues, I feel it necessary to point out that, in many ways, a fully-staged opera is a bit like the elephant in that old joke about three blind men trying to describe it. Given my own predispositions, I almost always begin by grabbing that elephant by the music, trying the best I can to sort out how much of my listening has to do with the composer and how much has to do with how the music is being performed. Others prefer to grab the elephant by the libretto, approaching the music in the role it plays in telling the story. Then, of course, there are those who grab the elephant by the stage director, who sometimes has his/her own priorities in how to approach that story or the music through which the story is told.

However, what those of us who write try to do goes far beyond description. As Gockley rightfully observed, we need to draw upon description in the service of judgment. This is no easy matter.

Those whose knowledge of Immanuel Kant goes beyond any handy “bluffer’s guide” probably know that he wrote three major works that he called “critiques.” The last of these is the Critique of the Power of Judgment, and it was preceded by the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. These, of course, parallel the so-called “transcendentals” of the beautiful (judgment), the true (pure reason), and the good (practical reason). Furthermore, each is situated in what Jürgen Habermas chose to call a separate “world,” truth in the objective world, beauty in the subjective world, and goodness in the social world. Lest this all feel like an unnecessary sideshow, I should observe that I was first drawn to read the Critique of the Power of Judgment when I found out that the first half of the book was devoted entirely to aesthetics.

This is what takes us back to the Gockley sentence quoted above. Whether or not we admit it, those of us who exercise that “power of judgment” in our writing will probably agree that judgment is context-dependent; and we will probably agree with Kant that our own subjectivity is part of that context. Where things get tricky, however, is that, even if we know that there is a context, we are not always positioned to specify just what the context is. One reason for this paradox is that, for better or worse, each of us engaged in the act of writing cannot avoid bringing our own personal history into that context.

This is not meant to serve as an excuse when someone (such as Gockley) accuses one of us of “misjudgment.” Rather, the very complexity upon which judgment is contingent should affirm that, at least where aesthetic matters are concerned, there is no “misjudgment.” There is the exercise of judgment, and there is the possibility for argumentation when different conclusions of judgment disagree. However, because we are doing what we do in the subjective world, there is no exercise of “pure reason” that will unfailingly resolve the argumentation one way or the other. All there is is the inevitable premise that each of us has a point of view and some of us are better at appreciating another point of view than others are.

None of these thoughts are likely to be of much use in the real world. The general director of a performing arts organization has to reconcile fiscal solvency with the fact that the audience side of any performance space is going to be filled with a wide diversity of “powers of judgment.” At the end of the day it all comes down to donations and subscriptions; and, now that the Internet has created a culture in which we expect everything to be free, the game that the general director must play is getting harder and harder to win.

These days I am thankful simply for having capacities to both have and express opinions. However, those opinions are cultivated in a field of experiences, so to speak. Given prevailing economic and social conditions, I have no idea how long that field will remain fertile. All I can do is hope for the best!

Three Occasions to Enjoy Schubert’s D. 960

Between now and the middle of next month, those who get really excited over the inventiveness that Franz Schubert summoned during his prodigiously productive final year will have three opportunities to indulge in a performance of his final piano sonata, D. 960 in B-flat major. (By way of disclaimer, I should make it clear that I am definitely one of “those who get really excited!”) Curiously, this will involve only two different pianists; and the performances will be taking place in only two different venues. However, for the sake of reader convenience, information about these events will be given in chronological order:

Friday, August 18, 8 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: Pianist Audrey Vardanega will return as a recitalist in the Old First Concerts series:

Audrey Vardanega, courtesy of Old First Concerts

She has prepared an all-Schubert program, which is sure to please those who admire this composer. Unfortunately, the event page for this concert is a bit ambiguous about what will be performed in addition to D. 960. The “headline” has her playing the D. 899 set of four impromptus, first published at the very beginning of Schubert’s final year. However, further down the page one reads that the opening selection on the program will be the D. 940 fantasia in F minor for two pianists at one keyboard with Robert Schwartz appearing as guest artist to provide the second pair of hands. The “best of all possible worlds” would be one in which both D. 899 and D. 940 were played in the first half of the program; but this most likely would be as much of a strain on Vardanega’s capacity for endurance as it would be for even the most eager listener.

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 Old First Concerts 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 still 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.

Tuesday, August 22, 12:30 p.m., Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Only a few days later, D. 960 will be the only work on the program of that week’s Noontime Concerts recital. The pianist will be Thomas Schultz, and the performance will serve as a “preview” of the concert he is scheduled to give for Old First Concerts the following month:

Thomas Schultz, from his Facebook site

The address of Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral is 660 California Street, located in Chinatown on the northeast corner of Grant Street. These concerts require neither tickets nor reservations. However, donations are both accepted and encouraged with a suggested amount of $5.

Sunday, September 17, 4 p.m., Old First Presbyterian Church: This will be the full recital “previewed” at Noontime Concerts. While Vardanega has chosen to conclude her program with D. 960, Schultz will go against the grain of most piano recitalists and begin with this almost epic offering. He will then couple the sonata with the D. 760 fantasia in C major, usually called the “Wanderer” fantasia because of its reference to the D. 493 song of that name. Between these two selections he will play a set of variations composed by his Korean colleague Hyo-shin Na. Details about Old First are as above, and an event page has already been created for this recital.

The LightHouse Music Academy Students Give Their Recital

Last night the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired hosted the San Francisco end-of-term performances by the students of its Music Academy. Hosted by the Enchanted Hills camp in Napa, the Academy is the brain child of Bill McCann, who organized it to provide musical training for those between the ages of 16 and 24. While the focus is on technique and both solo and group music-making, McCann has extended the curriculum to provide an introduction to the latest technologies involved in production and distribution.

It would be fair to say that the primary objective is to introduce and provide students with access to the joys of making music. Building confidence counts for as much as acquiring technique; and, for many of the participants, the former matters more than the latter. Whether any of the participants will go on to establish themselves in the music profession matters less than their coming away with an appreciation of the rich diversity of social experiences that derive from both making and listening to music.

Because these students are all in the early stages of this pursuit, it would be unfair to name any names. More important was the diversity of content in last night’s program. Classical, pop, and jazz were all given due coverage. There were instrumental and vocal soloists, the latter including one singer accompanying herself at the piano. There was also an “all-hands” opening with all participants singing in a chorus. The result was a very satisfying two-hour reminder of how, at heart, all music is one of our most delightfully engaging social phenomena.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Karajan in Transition

The title of the last of the four boxes in Warner Classics’ Karajan Official Remastered Edition that covers the work of Herbert von Karajan with the Philharmonia Orchestra is even more nondescript than that of the third box. It states nothing more than Herbert von Karajan: 1951–1960. The reason is that this box covers the period of time during which Karajan was dividing his time between the Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic; and, as far as content is concerned, it is basically an “everything else” collection that pulls together music not covered in the first three boxes. On the Philharmonia side, the latest recording sessions took place in September of 1960, while the earliest Berlin sessions took place in April of 1957.

It does not take much to appreciate the distinction between the two ensembles, but the bias of that distinction may be surprising. While Karajan was not officially the founding conductor of the Philharmonia, he had a close and significant relationship with the group, as should be evident from the four boxes that cover that relationship. Thus, while Legge may be credited with bringing together a first-rate gathering of musicians capable of responding to Karajan in a manner that a first-rate conductor deserves, it would be fair to say that Karajan was the “prime mover” in establishing the orchestra’s identity.

The core of that identity involved a technical responsiveness to pretty much the full breadth of “standard repertoire” composers. One may thus say that the “heroes” of this fourth box are as much the individual Philharmonia players as they are Karajan himself. Perhaps even more so, since there tends to be more evidence of growth among the orchestra members than there is in Karajan’s approaches to interpretation.

Indeed, it is through the Berlin recordings that one is more aware of Karajan’s limitations. Ironically, it is in this portion of the box that he is more ambitious. The selections include Anton Bruckner’s eighth symphony in C minor (which usually comes out as his longest symphony in clock-time) and the symphony that Paul Hindemith composed based on music from his opera Mathis der Maler. The problem is that it is difficult to listen to either of these performances (or, for that matter, any of the other Berlin performances in this collection) without thinking about what other conductors, including those from the period of these recordings, might have done. That would include both Wilhelm Furtwängler and Sergiu Celibidache. For that matter those who have been following me since my Examiner.com days may recall my writing about a recording of Hindemith conducting Bruckner’s seventh symphony, which leads me to believe that Hindemith himself would have summoned a more red-blooded account of his Mathis der Maler symphony.

Where Karajan seems to find his most secure footing in Berlin is with his Wagner recordings. I have to confess to having been a bit amused to discover that Tannhäuser is represented only by its overture in Berlin and only by the Venusberg music with the Philharmonia. It is almost as if Karajan turned to Berlin for solemnity and to London for Wagner at his most sensuous! Nevertheless, while I find myself satisfied with both of these Tannhäuser accounts, I also find it hard to shake my preference for the “Furtwängler-Celibidache axis,” particularly in light of the track record that both of these conductors had with EMI.

Latin Jazz is Coming to the Cadillac

This coming Friday, Concerts at the Cadillac will undertake another one of its major efforts to squeeze a moderately large combo into the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel. Led by Steve McQuarry at the piano, the group is a sextet called Tribu; and it identifies itself as “Bringing Latin Jazz into the 21st Century.” McQuarry will (of course) be playing the Patricia Walkup Memorial Piano, the meticulously restored 1884 Model D concert grand made by Steinway, whose original soundboard is still intact, that graces the hotel lobby. The other members of the combo will be Ruben Salcido (saxophones and flute), Dave Casini (percussion, including vibraphone), Marcus Lopez (bass and vocals), Jesus Gonzalez (percussion, featuring congas), and Mario Salomon (percussion):

Poster for the members of Tribe (courtesy of Concerts at the Cadillac)

Like all Concerts at the Cadillac events, this recital will begin at 12:30 p.m. and will take place on Friday, August 18. The Cadillac Hotel is located at 380 Eddy Street, on the northeast corner of Leavenworth Street. All Concerts at the Cadillac events are presented without charge. The purpose of the series is to provide high-quality music to the residents of the hotel and the Tenderloin District; but all are invited to visit the venue that calls itself “The House of Welcome Since 1907.”

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Bleeding Edge: 8/14/2017

My efforts to provide a more generous interval in advance of activities at both the Center for New Music and the Luggage Story Gallery will probably lead to these weekly dispatches being a bit shorter. Nevertheless, there are still likely to be occasions when the head of this weekly list will involved an event taking place tonight. That is exactly the way things turned out for this week:

Monday, August 14, 7:30 p.m., Canessa Gallery: Fresh from having taken the second set at Adobe Books this past Friday evening, the collaborative ZE BIB! duo of percussionist Robert Lopez and Shanna Sordahl will be featured in one of tonight’s three sets. There will also be a solo set of electronic keyboard-based soundscapes taken by Derek Gedalecia, performing as Headboggle. The remaining set will feature Jaroba (JAmes RObert BArnes), who will bring his invented instruments, joining multi-instrumentalist Joseph Jaros and bass guitarist Paul Winstanley. The Canessa Gallery is located at 708 Montgomery Street, right on the “border” between the Financial District and North Beach. Admission will be on a sliding scale between $5 and $15, payable at the door.

Sunday, August 20, 7:30 p.m., Musicians Union Hall: This will be the next two-set program in the SIMM (Static Illusion Methodical Madness) Series hosted by Outsound Presents. The first set will be taken by the Shen-Wen Duo of Sophia Shen on pipa and Gabby Wen on guqin (which she played at the Luggage Store Gallery this past Thursday). They will be followed by the latest installment of compositions by bassist Bill Noertker leading Noertker’s Moxie. The other players will be Annelise Zamula on alto saxophone and flute, Masaru Koga on tenor saxophone, and Jason Levis on drums. The Musicians Union Hall is located at 116 9th Street, near the corner of Mission Street. Admission is on a sliding scale between $10 and $15.

Monday, August 21, 9:15 a.m., Exploratorium: Finally, because it will be too late to provide more complete information next week, it is important to note that the Exploratorium is planning a sonification event to be held in conjunction with the solar eclipse. This will involve the real-time conversion of of image data into auditory signals. The composer is Wayne Grim, who has previously created sonifications for the 2012 transit of Venus and the 2016 total solar eclipse. In this case, however, his sonification will involve the performance of the Kronos Quartet, whose members will be playing from a graphic score that Grim designed:

from the Exploratorium Web site

A Web page has been created for this event, but it says nothing about whether the Kronos will be performing before an audience. A hyperlink has been set up on this page for online listening; but, as of this writing, the target page for that hyperlink has not yet been created.

Cold Blue to Release a New Album of Polansky

This Friday Cold Blue Music will release freeHorn an album of three compositions by Larry Polansky; and, as is usually the case, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders. Where “new music” is concerned, it is rarely (if ever) the case that I encounter a new recording all of whose selections I have previously experienced, either in concert or on another recording. These are always pleasurable occasions, because they almost always reaffirm my conviction that there is more than one way to approach any composition worthy of listening at all; and, while I often feel that the number of recordings of Beethoven is 0 (infinite but countable), encountering more than one recording of anything composed in this century tends to be quite a find.

Bearing that in mind, I would like to enumerate the selections on this new recording in the order in which I first listened them. The earliest of these is “minmax” (as in “minor” and “major”). Polansky calls this a “translation,” scored for two electric guitars, of “Angels,” a piece composed by Carl Ruggles for six muted trumpets. I heard this at a recital given by Giacomo Fiore in the Old First Concerts series in March of 2013. He played it with Polansky, along with another “translation,” this time of a hymn by William Billings. Both of these would subsequently show up in the publication of 3 Translations for Electric Guitar. On the freeHorn album, the guitarists are again Fiore and Polansky.

About a year and a half later Fiore released his self produced album iv: american electric guitars. This provided my “first contact” with “freeHorn,” the composition for which the new album is named. Polansky composed this piece in 2004 “for any instrument and electronics;” and Fiore played it as a solo. However, on the freeHorn album, Polansky presented this as an ensemble piece. Fiore again played electric guitar, Polansky played his fretless electric guitar, and they were joined by a diversity of other instruments performed by David Kant (tenor saxophone), Krystyna Bobrowski (horn), Tom Dambly (trumpet), Amy Beal (piano), David Dunn (electric violin), and Monica Scott (cello).

Finally, in March of 2016, Polansky and Fiore performed in the second of the three concerts of that year’s Other Minds festival. That was my first encounter with “ii-v-i,” the remaining selection on the new album. This also saw Polansky playing his fretless electric guitar.

Both “freeHorn” and “ii-v-i” involve Polansky working with natural harmonics, rather than scale systems. The title “ii-v-i” suggests a familiar chord progression; but in both of these pieces Polansky is interested in what he calls “continuous modulation.” Since the frets on one of the two guitars involved in the performance are not designed to capture the pitches of the overtone series, the performers are required to retune their instruments as part of the performance itself. In “freeHorn,” on the other hand, the necessary overtones can be readily synthesized by the electronics; so Polansky’s approach to continuous modulation arises from the interplay of instrument sounds and synthesized tones.

The title “freeHorn” also suggests a free-form approach to structuring that interplay. On Fiore’s recording the duration is about twelve minutes. On the new album it is closer to twenty minutes. Presumably the additional time involves exploring how each of the contributing instruments engages with the synthesized natural harmonics in its own particular way. In other words both performing and listening are matters of ongoing discovery; and, on the new album, there is definitely enough to discover in that twenty-minute track to warrant listening to it on several occasions over an extended period of time.

“minmax,” on the other hand, seems to take its point of departure by recognizing that Ruggles conceived it as a brief study in the ambiguity of dissonance. For Ruggles that meant deliberately avoiding establishing whether the prevailing mode was minor or major, which explains Polansky’s choice of title. However, what is interesting is that, by playing on a fretless instrument, Polansky could extend that capacity for ambiguity much further than Ruggles was able to express with six trumpeters who, by virtue of training and experience, were locked into the intonation of the equal-tempered chromatic scale. This would explain why Polansky called the piece a “translation,” rather than a “transcription.” I would be willing to guess that Polansky saw his “translation” as a way in which to situate “Angels” in a “domain of intonation” more conducive to what Ruggles may have actually had in mind.

Hamlet Without Shakespeare from West Edge Opera

Yesterday afternoon I made one of my rare ventures out of the city limits to go over to the Pacific Pipe warehouse, this summer’s base of operations for West Edge Opera. I attended the second of the three scheduled performances of Ambroise Thomas’ five-act opera Hamlet. (The third performance will take place this coming Saturday, August 19, at 1 p.m.)

I knew little about this opera beyond having been invited to sit in on a class at the Music Academy of the West at which Martial Singher coached a soprano friend of mine in Ophelia’s mad scene aria. However, going into this performance with more knowledge of Ophelia than of Hamlet turned out to be consistent with the historical context. It turned out that all of Paris was smitten with Ophelia after having seen the Irish actress Harriet Smithson play the part in 1827, when William Abbot presented a season of Shakespeare performances in English at the Odéon:

1827 illustration of Harriet Smithson as Ophelia (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

(One of the smitten was Hector Berlioz, who was so obsessed with Smithson that he eventually managed to marry her, after which things did not turn out very well for either of them.)

Hamlet is William Shakespeare’s longest play and probably his best known. A French play of the same name by Jean-François Ducis was first performed in 1769, but it consisted of little more than the basic revenge plot in Shakespeare’s version. As a friend of both Smithson and Berlioz, Alexandre Dumas prepared a version of greater fidelity to Shakespeare, even though his knowledge of English was very limited. The result was first performed in 1847 with great success, so it is no surprise that the mercantile opera producers sought after a stake in this audience share.

A libretto was prepared by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier. Having provided the libretto for Charles Gounod’s Faust, they had a proven track record of bringing major literary classics to the opera stage. They used Dumas’ words as a point of departure, but they recognized that enjoyment of the opera meant enjoyment of the music. Thus, an elaborate plot structure could not interfere with the public getting its share of show-stopping arias and mass spectacle. The resulting libretto was thus closer to Ducis’ bare-bones distillation than it was to Dumas’ broader recognition of Shakespeare’s development of the narrative. Ambroise Thomas received the Carré-Barbier libretto around 1859. The resulting score, in five acts and including the obligatory ballet, was given its first performance on March 9, 1868.

Yesterday’s performance took a single intermission between the second and third acts. This made for a good balance, since the fourth act of the opera is devoted pretty much entirely to Ophelia’s mad scene and drowning. Conductor Jonathan Khuner reworked the score for a reduced instrumental ensemble, the ballet was omitted, and the chorus was reduced to only ten vocalists, half of whom were members of Volti. Fortunately, Khuner’s score included the most distinctive instrumental presence in an aria whose primary accompaniment was for saxophone. The saxophone was invented in 1840, and some of its earliest chamber music dates from 1858. This may well have been its first appearance in an opera score.

In many respects the simplification of Shakespeare’s narrative was well served by the resulting opera libretto. The motive for revenge is much clearer but so, too, are the factors that contribute to Hamlet delaying his efforts. The libretto may lack the psychological depth that we now read into Shakespeare’s text (did Shakespeare’s audience do the same?); but it affords the luxury of listening to the arias as music, rather than as mind-bending soliloquies. Indeed, the weakest portion of the opera may well be when Carré and Barbier chose to incorporate “To be or not to be;” and there was a noticeable drop in Thomas’ confidence when one considers how he crafted his setting.

The stripped-down content of the text also provided Director Aria Umezawa to develop her own perspective on the plot that would interleave with what was suggested by the music. For the most part she honored much of the original Shakespeare spirit, while, at the same time, suggesting that, whether or not Hamlet’s madness was real, there was plenty of mental instability to make the rounds of the rest of the cast. Nevertheless, having the love duet of Hamlet and Ophelia culminate in sexual climax (rather explicitly staged) was more than a bit much. When Ophelia launched into a coloratura cadenza at “the moment,” it was hard not to think of Madeline Kahn singing “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” in Young Frankenstein.

From a technical side, however, one had to appreciate the agility that Emma McNairy brought to all of the vocal challenges that Thomas had written into Ophelia’s role. Hamlet’s name may have been on the poster, but everyone on the “bean-counting” side of the original Paris production knew that the audiences would show up to see Ophelia. The score made sure that they were not disappointed, and McNairy made sure that we were not disappointed with the score.

Ironically, this tended to reduce attention to Hamlet himself. Edward Nelson gave a perfectly solid account of the character, and he definitely knew how to shape his voice to all the different emotional dispositions demanded by the role. However, when placed alongside Susanne Mentzer’s blood-curdling presentation of Gertrude and Philip Skinner’s penetrating delivery of the guilt that Claudius suffers, Hamlet comes across as the only clear head in the asylum.

One thing that must definitely be credited to Carré and Barbier was their decision to keep Polonius down to little more than a walk-on. There is a quick suggestion that he had as much to do with the death of King Hamlet as did both Claudius and Gertrude. That turns out to be useful for the plot treatment, because it provides more solid ground for Hamlet’s break with Ophelia.

Perhaps that perspective on the narrative identifies the greatest virtue of the current production. Those on audience side experience one of the most straightforward approaches to plot and motive that one is likely to encounter in any production of Shakespeare’s play. The result may no longer be Shakespeare, but the opera sends us home thinking about new ways to think about Shakespeare.