Wednesday, August 26, 2015

April 2, 2009: Music from a "blissful year" in San Francisco

The American Voices program that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center has prepared for their April 23 concert in San Francisco at Herbst Theatre, presented by San Francisco Performances, will have a special resonance for those who have studied the musical history of this city.  That resonance will come from a performance of Amy Beach's Opus 67 piano quintet in F sharp minor.  Last fall the Steve Silver Beach Blanket Babylon Music Center, on the fourth floor of the Main Library building of the San Francisco Public Library, hosted an exhibit entitled "Amy Beach:  Her Blissful Years in San Francisco."  Those "blissful years" included 1878, when she visited her aunt and cousin as a ten-year-old, and the period between 1915, when, as an established composer, she participated in the musical activities of the Panama Pacific Exposition (which commissioned the composition of her "Panama Hymn"), through 1916, when the San Francisco Chamber Music Society commissioned and premiered her Opus 80 theme and variations, set for flute and string quartet.  Here is a photograph of the ensemble that gave this premiere (courtesy of the Art, Music, Recreation Center of the San Francisco Public Library):


From right to left, the musicians in this photograph are violinist Louis Persinger (center), cellist Horace Britt, violist Nathan Firestone, violinist Louis Ford, and flautist Elias M. Hecht.

A year earlier, on October 28, 1915, this same organization (called the San Francisco Quintet Club at the time) gave a performance of the Opus 67 piano quintet with Beach at the keyboard.  Thanks again to the San Francisco Public Library, we have a perfectly legible photograph of the program notes for this quintet:


Having heard this quintet several times (and written about it enthusiastically on my blog), I can say that, while the language of these notes is more florid than what we now encounter in program books, it is basically accurate;  and I shall now direct my enthusiasm towards seizing the opportunity to hear again this composition, whose previous listenings had elicited personal memories of Gabriel Fauré and Edward Elgar.

Beyond this specific "San Francisco connection," I must admit that I find the prospect of an all-American concert fascinating.  For many the most familiar work is likely to be George Gershwin's "Lullaby for String Quartet."  I also remember when, about forty years ago, there was a rising interest in music from Colonial America;  and this genre will be represented by John Antes' Opus 3, a trio in D minor for two violins and cello.  Finally, Stephanie Blythe will join the Chamber Music Society for the Bay Area premiere of Alan Louis Smith's "Vignettes:  Covered Wagon Woman," based on the daily journals of pioneer Margaret Ann Alsip Frank.  Blythe will also give a free twenty-minute talk about the composition at 7 PM, prior to the concert itself at 8 PM.  This is all music that deserves to be celebrated.  We should be thankful for the ingenuity of the Chamber Music Society in arranging this program and for San Francisco Performances arranging this event.

April 2, 2009: A rich palette of chamber music

Last night's final Chamber Music Masters concert for the season at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music featured violinist Robert Mann (on his annual visit to the Conservatory), five members of the Conservatory Faculty, ten Conservatory students, and one Conservatory alumnus.  It was an evening of rich diversity, during which the familiar music of Antonín Dvorák and Maurice Ravel served as bookends for the less familiar works of Samuel Barber and Anton Webern.

The evening began with the same work that had concluded the recent recital by the Prazak Quartet with Menahem Pressler (a familiar face at the Conservatory).  This was Dvorák's A major piano quintet (Opus 81), which once again received a passionate reading.  If the Prazak performance had been more nuanced, that was probably because they have been performing together since 1972 and had past collaborations with Pressler.  However, while their performance seemed to be under a "chain of command" (as I tried to argue on my blog), last night's "faculty-student mix" had more "network connectivity."  It is the many opportunities for such "connectivity" that frequently make Conservatory performances so exciting, and this performance certainly made for a stimulating occasion.

Following the intermission (to move the piano, which would no longer be needed), the program continued with Barber's Opus 3 setting of Matthew Arnold's poem, "Dover Beach" for baritone and string quartet.  Arnold was a highly erudite poet;  and "Dover Beach" is rich with his erudition.  However, much of that erudition is Classical;  and Barber had a keen sense of interpreting Ancient Greek material as music.  In the poem Arnold reflects on the human condition from the setting of a shore looking out on a quiet English Channel.  ("The Sea is calm to-night.")  Barber invokes that Sea as an introduction, and maintains its sense of place behind a relatively straightforward delivery of the four stanzas of the poem.  As the Opus number suggests, this is a relatively early work but extremely impressive for its delivery of a highly sophisticated text in such an effective natural voice.  Conservatory students should do this work more often, particularly since a conservatory setting is conducive to bringing a baritone together with a string quartet!

The remainder of the evening belonged entirely to string quartets.  Webern's Opus 5 set of short pieces contrasted sharply with Barber's "calm Sea;"  but, as I tried to suggest yesterday in a blog post about Arnold Schoenberg, the sense of place was just as strong.  This was the "good old Vienna" that Virgil Thomson has cited as the source of emotional energy behind the music of Schoenberg and his pupils.  This was most evident in the use of glissando in the first of the pieces, not as heavy as one would find in Gustav Mahler but pronounced enough to be effective;  but this is not the Vienna of nineteenth-century nostalgia.  It is the Vienna on the brink of that "fall of eagles" that served as the title of Cyrus Lee Sulzberger's book about the radical changes of early twentieth-century Europe.  All of that emotional tension was packed into five short pieces, the fourth of which (with its "three-line" structure) is practically a haiku;  and the students who performed these pieces captured that tension admirably.

Following Webern, the Ravel F major string quartet (composed six years earlier) was very much a soothing emotional relief.  This was the only work that Mann performed, playing first violin to Ian Swenson's second and Jean-Michel Fonteneau's cello.  All of these teachers were joined by student Alexa Beatie on viola.  For all of the recent French interest in "spectral music," we need Ravel to remind us that the richest sonorities reside in the instruments themselves, rather than in the physics of those instruments.  A full palette of those rich sonorities was summoned in this performance of the Ravel quartet as the final course of what had turned out to be an extensive meal, satisfying in its diversity.

March 31, 2009: A darker autobiography?

Having entertained the hypothesis last week that the second volume of Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier could "be heard as the only autobiographical account Bach would be capable of telling," it is, at the very least, tempting to pose the same hypothesis to the collection of 24 preludes and fugues that Dmitri Shostakovich composed in the years 1950 and 1951.  Given how little autobiographical data we have about Shostakovich (with good reason), it is an intriguing proposition to explore.  Needless to say, in the political context in which Shostakovich was embedded, such a document would have to be highly encrypted;  and, while Bach's account would have served more as resume than autobiography (being in an and-then-I-wrote style), were Shostakovich to go to all of the trouble of encoding his story, the decoding would probably reveal a series of "… and then Stalin did …" episodes.

Whether or not it occurred to Jannie Lo that her performance of the last of these couplings of prelude and fugue at the conclusion of today's Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco would be interpreted as "dark autobiography" is academic.  She may have felt that this was the best way to complete a program that began with Bach's BWV 904 A minor fantasy and fugue;  and this was certainly an excellent choice, since both of the fugues are double fugues, even if each approaches the idea of a double fugue in its own characteristic way.  Furthermore, after having found myself having difficulty with the clarity of discourse, so to speak, in András Schiff's recent performance of fugues by both Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven, I am happy to report that Lo's "sense of fugue" was right on target where both Bach and Shostakovich were concerned.  For my own investment of time, this was far more important than whether or not Shostakovich's prelude and fugue were carrying a scrupulously encoded message about Stalinist oppression!

Placing the eight Klavierstücke (Opus 76, a collection of four capriccios and four intermezzi) of Johannes Brahms between Bach and Shostakovich was also an inspired choice.  Brahms was an enthusiastic subscriber to the Bach-Gesellschaft Edition of Bach's complete works, a 46-volume project whose first volume was published in 1851 and continued until the final volume was published in 1899.  Brahms' Opus 76 was published in 1879, by which time he would have seen (and probably absorbed) the three Clavierwerke volumes that had been released.  These include the Fünfzehn Inventionen und fünfzehn Symphonien, the English and French suites, and (you guessed it) the two volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier.  This is not to suggest that any of these works served as models for the eight Opus 76 compositions;  but his key choices (F sharp minor, B minor, A flat major, B flat major, C sharp minor, A major, A minor, C major) may have involved his following Bach into the regions of less-used keys (if not a statement of his favorite keys from The Well-Tempered Clavier).

Lo is a native San Franciscan, currently working towards a Master of Performance at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg (Germany).  She received a monetary stipend for the study of new music during the current academic year.  Given the clarity with which she can present her understanding of Bach, Brahms, and Shostakovich in a single program, I would anticipate that she would bring the same clarity to any "new voice" she chooses to perform in concert.  It will be a great benefit to San Francisco should she decide to return and make this her home base after receiving her Master's degree.

March 31, 2009: A matter of context

For all of the opportunities to become acquainted with the music performed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum last night, even the most sympathetic listener was faced with major challenges.  Harold Bloom may have been "anxious" over poets who were influenced by other poets;  but where music is concerned, whether in composition or performance, influence is more often the fertile soil from which new ideas emerge.  In the case of listening, influence can actually be a two-way street.  Thus Ludwig van Beethoven's dedication of his Opus 2 piano sonatas to Joseph Haydn is, at least in part, an acknowledgement of influence;  but, by the same count, if we are familiar with the Beethoven sonatas, we can hear Haydn's 1790 E flat major sonata (H. XVI/49) as a source of that influence.  The practice of music weaves a thick and extensive social network;  and, more often than not, the "shock of the new" is a matter of getting one's bearings within that network.

As Alessandro Solbiati and François Paris discussed their work (both laboring under difficulties with the English language) prior to last night's concert, there was considerable allusion to the influence of the "spectral music" school of thought but little by way of expository introduction.  To be fair this approach, practiced primarily in Europe since the 1970s, has been well represented in past performances by the Contemporary Music Players;  and one of its pioneers, Gérard Grisey, who died in 1998, taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1982 through 1986.  Such facts do little for the disoriented unwashed (like myself), however.  While it was clear that the works of both Solbiati and Paris (as well as the contribution of Philippe Hurel to last night's program) reflected Grisey's influence, there was not enough "working knowledge" of what that influence was to benefit the hapless newcomer.  If all one needed to know about "spectral music" had to do with working with acoustic spectra as a musical medium, then techniques such as Solbiati's scordatura assignment of the twelve chromatic pitches to the open strings of a cello, viola, and violin in his "Sestetto à Gérard" came across as a rather blunt instrument for manipulating spectral properties.  The same could be said of Paris' use of quarter tones in his "À propos de Nice."  In his remarks Paris said that he wanted to get beyond the "compromises" of traditional tuning systems;  but, if his objective was a tuning system with fewer "compromises" to the natural harmonics, there is a relatively simple mathematical demonstration that quarter tones do not function as well as, for example, third tones.  (The "bottom line" is that the quarter tone tuning helps you get a far more "natural" tritone;  but the other "natural" intervals are not as well served.)  Finally, Hurel's "Loops IV" was composed for solo marimba, whose spectral properties are relatively rigid and thus afford few opportunities for acoustic manipulation.

The other composer represented on the program was Tristan Murail, who, like Grisey, was a member of  the Groupe de l'Itinéraire and shares Grisey's status as a "pioneer" of spectral music.  Murail was represented by two short piano pieces, "Cloches d'adieu, et un sourire …" (Bells of farewell, and a smile) and "La Mandragore" (The Mandrake).  Orientation to Murail's piano music is facilitated by familiarity with the solo piano music of Olivier Messiaen, an excellent case in point being his Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant-Jésus.  In these twenty short compositions, the very sound of the piano itself is always a key element;  but Messiaen arrives at those sounds not through spectral manipulation but through meticulous instructions to the pianist.  Given the extent to which "Cloches" acknowledges Messiaen's influence, my guess is that Murail took the same approach in both of these works.

Whatever the listening challenges may be, the approach of the Contemporary Music Players is to be as faithful as possible to the intentions of the composer and let the music speak for itself.  (I have called this the "stare decisis approach" in some of my past writing about Messiaen.)  There is no questioning the sincerity of their performances, and their institutional relationship with the composers they perform suggests that their authenticity is also unquestionable.  In the long run listeners can only be served by more exposure to such music.  However, between the rehearsal time required to "let the music speak for itself" and the expense associated with performances like this one, increasing the "exposure level" is neither physically easy nor economically feasible.  So the best thing we can do is take what we can get.  Orientation will come.  I know.  I have been there with other "disorienting" instances of "new music," which would later become "old friends!"

March 30, 2009: The second monument

On October 20, 2008 I wrote a blog post entitled "The First Monument," giving an account of András Schiff's performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 57 in F minor ("Appassionata") in the course of his series of concerts covering all 32 of Beethoven's piano sonatas.  Last night at Davies Symphony Hall Schiff undertook the "second monument," the Opus 106 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier").  I had been looking forward to this performance, even to the point of blogging about my expectations;  and last night I was reminded that high expectations often lead to disappointment.  Since my explanation for that disappointment led to a long and involved journey far beyond the scope of a review, I chose to take that journey on my blog, using this space to account for the virtues of the rest of last night's program.

Opus 106 was preceded by the E minor Opus 90 and A major Opus 101 sonatas, both of which are highly unconventional in their respective formal structures.  (All three sonatas were played without an intermission, followed by two encores, the BWV 903 "Chromatic" fantasia and fugue in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 574 "Eine kleine Gigue" in G major.)  Opus 90 is the lighter of the two, consisting of a relatively traditional sonata movement followed by a rondo.  The tempo marking for the first movement, mit Lebhaftigkeit und Durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck,  has more to do with feeling (Empfindung) and expression (Ausdruck) than pace;  and Schiff has a skill in teasing out these introspective qualities without sacrificing the technical demands of the structure.  While the sonata opens energetically (mit Lebhaftigkeit), the following rondo progresses to a coda in which the last thoughts of the theme almost dissolve into silence.  This is a Beethoven with whom we can sympathize, in contrast to subsequent brash Romantic stereotypes of him.

Opus 101 is more of an experimental adventure.  From a structural point of view, it seems more interested in teasing out small ideas, playing with them, and later reflecting on them than in the usual formal traditions.  There is also an emphasis on mood swings between relaxed (and sometimes nostalgic) reflection and bursts of energy, first in the form of a march (definitely not for parade purposes) and a final contrapuntal allegro, which, after many false starts and stops eventually culminates in a pianistic blaze of glory.  This is what learning theorists, such as Lloyd Rieber, like to call "serious play," although Pete Seeger took a less dignified approach when he called it "goofing-off."  Schiff approached the performance with just the right balance between the "serious" and the "play."  Thus, any disappointments I may have had with Opus 106 were more than adequately compensated by the rest of his program.

For more info: Past performances in the cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

March 29, 2009: Two monuments and a labor of love

Tonight András Schiff performs the first of his final two recitals in his cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven in which he will play the "monumental" Opus 106 in B-flat major ("Hammerklavier");  but this afternoon at Herbst Theatre the piano trio of Jaime Laredo (violin), Sharon Robinson (cello), and Joseph Kalichstein (piano) prepared the ears with a stimulating reading of the Opus 97 ("Archduke") trio in B-flat major, which probably counts as the "monument" of the piano trio canon.  Completed in 1811, this trio precedes the opening sonata of tonight's program (Opus 90 in E minor) by about three years and is one of Beethoven's great adventures in exploring conventional structures prior to departing from them in his final piano sonatas.  For my ears the high point of this trio is its theme-and-variations third movement, where Beethoven departs from choosing a simple theme in favor of what I have previously called "a more elaborate structure unto itself, which could then be mined for variations from many diverse perspectives."  The trio thus honors the usual conventions while preparing us for the ground that Beethoven would concentrate on breaking in only a few years.

While the work itself may be monumental, Laredo, Robinson, and Kalichstein avoided placing it on any pedestal.  Their approach was affable and accessible.  Beethoven was not trying to provoke but to please in this trio.  The "revolutionary" insights come only with later reflection;  and the musicians knew how to draw us into the most receptive spirit that the music deserved.

They took the same approach with the equally "monumental" second trio in E minor (Opus 67) by Dmitri Shostakovich, even though this work is far more provocative, beginning with the cello introducing the first subject above the normal playing range of the violin and progressing to a final movement based on Jewish folk material, which would have been an extremely daring move to make in 1944 Russia.  This trio is remarkable for the way in which Shostakovich compresses his usual orchestral thinking into the capacities for a wide range of sonorities in these three instruments.  One can only listen in awe as he turns one trick after another, even setting aside one in the second movement that invokes Beethoven's thematic material from the sonata canon.  The only way this trio can be approached is with firm confidence and conviction;  and that is exactly what the performers delivered, giving what may be one of the most memorable works of the twentieth century the best imaginable platform for presentation.

This storm was preceded by a rather unique calm to open the program.  This was the WoO 39 allegretto movement in B-flat major (the same key as the "Archduke").  This movement was written in 1812 for the nine-year-old Maximiliane Brentano as a model to instruct her in proper composition.  In 1820 this same Miss Brentano would be the dedicatee of his Opus 109 E major sonata (which will open the second of the coming Schiff recitals).  It is clear that Beethoven had much affection for her, and the performers brought out that affection in the subtleties of what could be mistaken for a rather simple exercise.  The result was an overall experience in the compositional scope of two major composers that made for a truly memorable San Francisco afternoon!

March 29, 2009: "... a joyful noise ..."

Conventionally, an oratorio is structured around a Biblical narrative that provides frequent opportunities for reflection.  The narrative tends to be delivered through recitative passages, which introduce the reflections in more extended works for solo voices and chorus.  In preparing a libretto for William Walton's "Belshazzar's Feast," Osbert Sitwell turned this formula on its head, providing extended reflective texts for the beginning and ending that serve as bookends for a middle narrative portion.  The narrative is the episode from the Book of Daniel concerning the "great feast" of the Babylonian King Belshazzar, which is interrupted by a disembodied hand that writes the words, "Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin," forecasting the fall of the Babylonian Kingdom.  Sitwell's account is highly abbreviated, saying nothing about the Hebrew Daniel being the only person who can decipher the words and keeping all mention of the Hebrews in Babylonian Captivity to the opening reflective text (using the concluding reflection as a song of liberation).

From a musical point of view, the delivery of the narrative is anything but unadorned recitative.  It is shared by mixed choir and baritone solo, along with orchestral resources whose abundance almost matches the extravagance of Belshazzar's "great feast."  Walton had a keen ear for orchestration, complemented by that sense of whimsy that even the most serious of British composers never succeed in concealing.  In this case the whimsy emerges as the feast is in full swing and all the different gods of Babylonian polytheism are being celebrated.  These are the gods of gold, silver, iron, wood, stone, and brass, each of which is given a particularly characteristic orchestral treatment, not all of which dwell on aspects of shock and awe.  (Had the Babylonians had a God of the Kitchen Sink, I suspect that Walton would have found the appropriate orchestral treatment!)

Whimsy aside, John Relyea brought the perfectly resonant deep voice that the seriousness of the narrative demanded, while Vladimir Ashkenazy led the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus with a keen sense of proper pace for both the narrative and the reflections.  Once we progress beyond the opening lamentations, the whole affair as about as joyful a noise as one can find in a concert hall.  Ashkenazy was never shy about letting the noise get noisy;  but he could keep all of his resources under control to make sure that the joy was joyous, rather than chaotic.

By ending his evening at Davies Symphony Hall with Walton's joyful noise, Ashkenazy complemented the beginning of his program, which was the world premiere of "Music in Dark Times," which he had commissioned from the American composer Steven Gerber.  The work is in six movements and was composed between 2005 and 2008, meaning that it is hard not to associate the concept of "dark times" with all the stories saturating the news media over that period.  However, Thomas May's notes for the program book quoted Gerber as saying that the composition was not "a political or ideological piece.  It just seemed to suit the character of the movements."  The opening and closing movements are fanfares, while the inner movements consist of a pavane (in homage to both Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Ravel, rather than early music), a tarantella entitled "Dance of Death," a dead march, and an elegy.

Each of these movements was relatively brief, leading Joshua Kosman to suggest, in his San Francisco Chronicle review, that each one concluded just as it was about to begin (my words, not Kosman's).  I do not disagree;  but I may have an explanation, which would only make sense if Gerber had been hiding some of his biography from us.  May cited his educational influences as being Robert Parris, Milton Babbitt, and Earl Kim, along with the indirect influences of the music of Béla Bartók and Elliott Carter.  However, the "architecture of brevity" that characterizes Gerber's six movements comes straight out of the blind poet and street musician Moondog (Louis Thomas Hardin), whose basic rhetoric also consisted of establishing a mood, enriching it by adding instrumental resources, and then letting it lapse back into the silence from which it originated.  Columbia Records promoted him in the anything-goes years of the Sixties;  but I still remember him at his post on Sixth Avenue just doing his own thing.  It would surprise me if Gerber had never encountered Moondog, but it would not surprise me if Moondog's influence on him was not a conscious one.  Whatever the real history may be, exposure to Moondog greatly enhanced my own listening experience of "Music in Dark Times."

Between Gerber's "dark times" and Walton's Babylonian "darkness," Ashkenazy conducted the young Russian pianist Yevgeny Sudbin in a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's fourth piano concerto in G major (Opus 68).  In the past I have seen Ashkenazy only as a pianist, and I think his experience as a pianist effectively informed his role as a conductor of this work.  He had a particularly sensitive ear for the balance between the piano and the orchestral resources.  This turned out to be important because Sudbin tended to get pedal-heavy, often when the fingering got more complicated.  Ashkenazy was able to engage his "balancing act" techniques to maintain the overall message, so to speak, of the concerto.  He also seems to have made the decision to have some of the more intricate piano solos supported by a solo cello bass line, rather than giving that voice to the entire section.  Michael Grebanier's strong and rich sound was clearly up to this task, which every now and then seemed to reflect back on the sonorities of Beethoven's earlier Opus 56 "Triple Concerto."  If this sounds like all available resources being engaged to prop up a weak piano performance, it was far preferable to the communications breakdown that had taken place at the recent London Symphony performance of Beethoven's final piano concerto.

March 27, 2009: The art of excerpting

For those (like myself) who are always interested in encountering new approaches to listening to music, San Francisco Performances offered two fortuitous couplings last night at Herbst Theatre.  The first involved the contributions of countertenor David Daniels as guest artist in a performance by The English Concert, directed from the keyboard by Harry Bicket.  The second was the decision to structure the evening in complementary halves (divided by the intermission), the first devoted entirely to Johann Sebastian Bach and the second entirely to George Frideric Handel.  For those who do not keep up with dates, these two men were born within a month of each other in 1685.  However, as the evening demonstrated, they took decidedly different paths;  and music history has always been the richer for that separation.  The two halves of the program also complemented each other structurally, each beginning with an instrumental "overture," followed by vocal selections performed by Daniels with a "time out" for an orchestral interlude.  All of these selections and interludes were excerpted from larger works, and this turned out to reveal an interesting distinction between Bach and Handel.

The Bach selections were all "sacred," drawn from the cantatas, his BWV 232 mass in B minor, and the BWV 244 Saint Matthew Passion.  The texts could all be interpreted as some form of prayer, whether taken directly from the mass or providing a poetic reflection on the relationship between man and God.  There was no spectacle in this music, and Daniels did not try to force any on the audience.  He opted, instead, for a clear delivery through which both music and words could speak for themselves;  and (if we are to believe some of the anecdotes about Bach's work experiences in Leipzig) there was more heartfelt sincerity in these performances than Bach himself probably ever experienced.

On the instrumental side the "overture" was the first of four ouvertures composed as a set and these days called "orchestral suites."  The first (BWV 1066 in C major) was set for two oboes, bassoon, strings, and continuo, beginning with a French ouverture followed by six movements each based on a different dance form.  There continues to be questions over when (and therefore where and for what occasion) this music was composed, which means there is also a question as to whether the dance movements were actually intended for dancing.  However, since our knowledge of how dance (particularly courtly dance) was practiced in the eighteenth century is about as impoverished as our knowledge of the performance of music and dance in Ancient Greece, we probably should not worry very much about whether the music lends itself to dancing as we know it.

What is more important is Bach's skill in weaving together multiple lines of activity in works that are, on the surface, relatively simple binary forms.  There are generally two voices in play, one of which "leads" while the other either "follows" or "observes."  We do not often think about Bach in terms of his wit;  but he can be delightfully sly with his "secondary" voice.  I have always been amused by the way in which the strings, in a "secondary" role in the gavotte movement, keep "intruding" on the primary wind voices with little military fanfares.  If Bach's sacred music austerely addressed the relationship between man and God, these secular ensemble works seem to comment more wistfully in inter-human relationships;  and Bicket achieved just the right balances to make those relationships convincing.

Such relationships are the bread and butter of Handel's secular operas, three of which, Radamisto, Partenope, and Orlando, were represented in the second half of the program.  In contrast with Bach's sacred music, these operas were spectacles with long involved plots entailing complex relationships among large casts of characters.  Contemporary productions, such as last year's Ariodante at the San Francisco Opera, usually impose judicious cuts to give the narrative more of a sense of pace than eighteenth-century audiences would have demanded.  Thus, in the right hands these operas can be as dramatic as any nineteenth century opera;  but I would argue that this dramatic element requires context.  There is a tendency to view key arias as set pieces that can easily be extracted for concert performance, such as the one given last night;  but I have now seen enough Handel operas to argue that such arias only achieve their fullest power when embedded in their surrounding narrative, however complex (if not overblown) that narrative may be.  Thus, while Daniels' delivery of Handel was as capable as it had been for Bach, I found myself missing those past occasions when I had heard him perform Handel operas in their entirety (properly abridged for the sake of production values).

Fortunately, there was no such sense of lack in the "overture" for the second half, the eleventh (A major) concerto grosso from the Opus 6 collection (HWV 329).  As a concerto grosso, this work is more concerned with "accompanied virtuosity" than with the primary/secondary relation that Bach explored.  In this case the virtuosity is covered by two violins and one cello against a full string ensemble.  The reduced resources of The English Concert were ideal for balancing these solo voices;  and the resulting display was dazzling, providing an excellent opportunity to appreciate the differentiating merits of the two composers of the evening.

March 24, 2009: Give us this day our cuppa joe

The Albany Consort celebrated the 324th birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach (three days late but not even a pfennig short) as today's Noontime Concerts™ event at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco.  The feature of the offering was the BWV secular cantata "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" (once freely translated by a poet friend of mine as "All right, you guys, shut up;  and listen to me!"), known more familiarly as the "Coffee Cantata."  The plot (yes, there is one) by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) concerns an overly-assertive ("Er brummt ja wie ein Zeidelbär"/"he's growling like a honey bear") father, Herr Schlendrian, who cannot abide by his daughter Liegen's coffee fix:
If I am not allowed to drink
my three cups of coffee a day,
then to my pain
I'll get to be like a dried out goat roast [verdorrtes Ziegenbrätchen].
When ranting and raging do not have any effect, Schlendrian threatens a variety of deprivations of luxury items;  but coffee trumps them all.  Only when he threatens that she will never get a husband does he make any progress.  She relents;  but, when Schlendrian goes out in search of a husband for her, she secretly circulates the word:
Let no suitor come to my house
unless he has personally promised me,
and will also add it to the marriage contract,
that I may be allowed to cook coffee
whenever I like.
Like all of the sacred cantatas the work then ends with a chorale (of sorts):
Cats never give up chasing mice,
and girls always remain coffee fiends [Coffeeschwestern].
Mother like drinking coffee,
Grandma drank it too,
so who can blame our daughters?
True to the spirit of the music, soprano Christa Pfeiffer brought her coffee mug (alas, not of period design) as a prop, making the whole offering an opportunity to experience Bach at his most humorous.  The humor can also be found in Picander's text.  Almost the entire text (including recitative passages) consists of rhymed couplets;  but the rhyming lines are not always adjacent.  So Picander plays with the listener's expectations by sometimes deliberately delaying the appearance of a rhyming line.  (None of this is evident in the translation provided for this performance.)

By way of an overture to this cantata, the instrumentalists performed the BWV 1057 harpsichord concerto in F major, which is basically a reworking of the  fourth Brandenburg concerto (BWV 1049, also in F major).  Director Jonathan Salzedo conducted from the harpsichord keyboard from which he served as soloist.  There were still the two recorders from the Brandenburg concerto, but the harpsichord offered an alternative approach to the Brandenburg's violin solo.  This made for about an hour of relatively unfamiliar but delightful Bach, which seemed like an excellent way to celebrate his birthday.

March 23, 2009: Another gem from Schubert's final year

In his Schubertiad at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on March 10, Paul Hersh spoke about the final year in the life of Franz Schubert.  His point was that Schubert was so prodigious in both the volume of work and the daring experiments in composition that he pursued that this twelve-month period could (and did) occupy an entire seminar at the Conservatory.  He offered this digression because he had programmed two works from this period for his evening of four-hand piano music, the D. 940 F minor fantasia and the D. 947 A minor allegro ("Lebensstürme").

I offer this reflection because last night, in her San Francisco debut at Herbst Theatre in the San Francisco Performances Annual Subscriber Gift Concert, violinist Joan Kwuon performed another of Schubert's outstanding achievements from this period, his D. 934 C major fantasy for violin and piano.  Like the four-hand fantasia, this work pushes the envelope of both structural thinking and virtuosic performance.  It also served one of Schubert's favorite pursuits, which was the discovery of new sonorities and the challenge of fitting them to his compositional framework.  The very first tremolo sounds from the piano (excellently captured by Teddy Robie, also making his San Francisco debut) immediately raise issues of balance against the sustained violin lines, which could almost be those of a virtuoso soprano.  This allusion to the vocal is subsequently consummated in the third section, which is a set of variations on Schubert's 1882 setting of Friedrich Rückert's poem, "Sei mir gegrüsst!"  These variations unfold complexities of both structure and sonority, particularly for the violin, that anticipate the intricate fugal writing of the four-hand fantasia.  I often find it helpful to invoke the metaphor of "journey" in writing about listening experiences.  Both Kwuon and Robie captured the "journey" aspect of this fantasy.  At the same time, since the work was composed eleven months before Schubert's death, it also offers one of the first steps in that more extraordinary journey through his final year.

That skillful approach to sonority commanded by both Kwuon and Robie also served them well in their performance of Georges Enesco's third violin sonata (Opus 25 in A minor).  Much of the character of this sonata derives from its invocation of Romanian folk instruments, the cimbalom (a hammered dulcimer) probably being the most familiar.  Equally important for the violin (Enesco himself being a virtuoso violinist) are extensive passages written in harmonics, which provide an other-worldly quality to the more reflective passages of the sonata.  Chronologically, it is possible that Enesco's experiments with writing so heavily for harmonics may have influenced Benjamin Britten's subsequent use of this effect;  but, as was clear from last week's performance of Britten's first solo cello suite, he took the effect in entirely new directions.

These two highly adventurous compositions were bracketed by relatively short movements originally written for violin and orchestra by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn.  The evening began with Mozart's E major adagio (K. 261) and C major rondo (K. 373), both written for the Italian violinist Antonio Brunetti.  For her encore Kwuon selected the adagio movement from Haydn's C major violin concerto (H. VIIa/1),  These were sober and reflective performances that framed the more tumultuous core of the evening.  Similarly, the Schubert fantasy was followed by André Previn's Tango, Song, Dance, composed for Anne-Sophie Mutter in 1997 and best described as virtuosity for the fun of it.  There is some sense that the soloist has been given an inordinate number of hoops through which to leap;  but Kwuon had no trouble with any of them, maintaining a cool composure throughout the process.  The intensity of the evening was thus reserved for the middle of the program, preceded by Mozart's calm and then relieved by the wit of both Previn and Haydn (however odd a coupling that may have seemed).

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

March 22, 2009: The music is in the making

As I had hoped, Frank French's performance of the first volume of Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier on March 8 informed me of at least some of the subtle differences in the sonorities of the different keys when he performed the second volume this afternoon.  However, what this exhaustive account of the second 24 of the full set of 48 preludes and fugues achieved that was more important was a reinforcement of my appreciation that a fugue has less to do with a formal structure than with a particular approach to an imitative process.  Thus, my own composition teacher used to prefer to speak of fuguing as a process you acquire from performing the products of related processes, rather than by following structural guidelines and constraints.  In this same light I see from my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that "prelude" can be used as a verb, meaning that one takes the same process-based approach to composition and performance.  In more pretentious language one might say that neither "prelude" nor "fugue" constitutes a particularly legitimate ontological category, although one can recognize "family resemblances" of particular preludes to other preludes and similarly for fugues.  (At least one of the preludes in the second volume actually bears a very strong family resemblance to one of Bach's two-part inventions.)  The lesson, as I see it, is that music is fundamentally far more verb-based than noun-based:  The music is in the making rather than in the note-bearing objects involved in that making.  Whether or not Bach intended these 48 preludes and fugues to be heard in a concert setting, such an occasion enhances our understanding of that "making," even if only intuitively;  and, as a result, we become better listeners of a wider repertoire of preludes and fugues that stretches into present-day composition.

March 22, 2009: "... all is vanity ..."

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall I was able to reflect on an observation that Joshua Kosman had made in Friday's San Francisco Chronicle:
Before intermission, principal cellist Michael Grebanier offered a correct but curiously buttoned-up account of Bloch's "Schelomo." Here was just the occasion for emotional extravagance - Bloch's Hebraic rhapsody starts on an impassioned note and never abandons it - yet Grebanier seemed almost embarrassed by the music's extroverted qualities, and he and Luisotti struggled to meet in the middle.
Having now heard the performance, I can understand why it left this impression;  but I would like to suggest that this approach to interpretation was a deliberate one that was far from "buttoned-up."  Rather, the interpretation reflected a contextual understanding of the text from Ecclesiastes that inspired it at a time (1916) when most of the Western World had gone mad with war.

Ecclesiastes is the final meditation of King Solomon, looking back on his many achievements as leader and builder of the Temple (not to mention the lover in the Song of Solomon) and concluding that "all is vanity."  Ernest Bloch's "Schelomo" (Hebrew for Solomon) is not so much a dialog between soloist and orchestra as it is the very struggle that Kosman recognized.  The solo cello is Solomon, despairing over the futility that he has just recognized, while the orchestra embodies the vanities of the world over which he is despairing.  This is anything but a sympathetic relationship.  Bloch summoned considerable orchestral resources and a keen sense of orchestration, but all the extroversion of the music is in the orchestra.  Its passions are superficial;  and, approximately half-way through the composition, the very chant of prayer becomes an object of mockery.  In the midst of this madness (the vanity perceived by Solomon now embodied in the First World War), the cello reflects on Solomon's condition and his need to cling to an I-and-Thou approach to prayer lest the vanities of the world overcome him.  Bloch described the work as ending "in complete negation," which is why the all-too-real struggle between the cello and the orchestra can (and should) never be resolved.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti's last appearance in San Francisco was at the end of last year on the podium at the San Francisco Opera production of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, his first performance since being named the Opera's new Music Director.  At that time he displayed one of the most perceptive understandings of Puccini's score that I have encountered.  "Schelomo" is about as diametrically opposed to Bohème as one can get;  but Luisotti again hit the nail on the head in teasing the understanding out of the "emotional extravagance."  Perhaps he realized that the cello solo is less a matter of virtuoso display and more like the sort of tormented character one might encounter in an opera.  (Jacopo Fiesco in Giuseppe Verdi's Simon Boccanegra comes to mind.)  This is a versatile conductor;  and I, for one, am looking forward to future opportunities to hear him on the podium.

March 20, 2009: Spoofing the spoofer

This year's full-length opera offering by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music will be Orpheus in the Underworld, by Jacques Offenbach.  I give the English title rather than the original French (Orphée aux enfers) because the performance will be sung in English.  Since Wikipedia cites the Penguin Opera Guide for declaring this "the first classical full-length operetta," the selection of English has its advantages.  This is a light work, whose lightness is best appreciated when the audience does not have to contend with a foreign language.

One of these days I may encounter an English version that captures a more vulgar reading of the French as Orpheus Goes to Hell.  This would honor not only the key event in the original mythological source but also the operetta's attitude towards more traditional settings, such as those of Claudio Monteverdi's Orfeo and Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.  Offenbach thumbs his nose at those who wax lyrical over the "heavenly" qualities of those two preceding operas by merrily dispatching them to "th' other place" (as Hamlet put it to Claudius) and reducing some of Gluck's best known thematic material to banal cliché.  All the mythological characters are secondary to Public Opinion, a mezzo prude who makes it her mission to rework the myth into "a moral tale for the ages" (quoted from the Wikipedia entry for the operetta).  (The only production I have seen was given by the Los Angeles Opera about twenty years ago.  Public Opinion did far more speaking than singing, since the role was played by Dom DeLuise in drag.)  The plot is a perfect recipe for screwball comedy, culminating (without giving away any details) in an "Infernal Galop" better known today as the "Can-can."  In the spirit of taking as many liberties with Offenbach as Offenbach took with Gluck, Conservatory Opera Theatre Director Richard Harrell has chosen to set the whole affair in Sixties San Francisco giving it, "a silly, sexy, psychedelic, San Francisco twist."

Performances will take place at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason, which I have found to be an ideal setting for smaller-scale operatic efforts.  There will be four performances, at 7:30 PM on April 2–4 and at 2 PM on April 5.  Further information can be found on the Web page for the production or by calling the Cowell Theater box office at 415-345-7575.  There is also a Web page for ordering tickets online.

Monday, August 24, 2015

March 19, 2009: New cello music from two centuries

Student recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music are particularly interesting when they provide opportunities to hear music that is seldom (if ever) performed in more conventional concert settings.  This was one of the key differentiating features of the Graduate Soprano Recital that I reviewed at the beginning of this month;  and last night's Graduate Cello Recital provided two further opportunities.  However, while the soprano recital featured the 2004 work of a composer living here in San Francisco, both of the composers represented by the cello recital were deceased.  One of them, Benjamin Britten, is well-known for a wide variety of compositions;  but the four chamber works for cello that he composed for Mstislav Rostropovich between 1961 and 1971 have received relatively little attention.  The other is the Bohemian cellist David Popper (1843–1913) who may be best known today as the teacher Adolf Schiffer, who, in turn, taught Janos Starker.

Popper's Opus 66 "Requiem" (originally composed in 1892 for three cellos and orchestra) opened the Conservatory recital with piano accompaniment.  (Where, other than a conservatory, are you likely to find three cellists together in a single piece of chamber music?)  I have to confess that I am a sucker for the sound of multiple low instruments playing in close harmony.  At the beginning of this year, I used my blog to let loose an encomium for Ludwig van Beethoven's three equale for four trombones (WoO 30);  and Popper's "Requiem" begins with similar haunting sonorities.  However, the close harmonies gradually unfold into a more elaborate contrapuntal texture around a motif that was probably extracted from Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" (D. 839, the third of his Ellens Gesänge on texts from Sir Walter Scott's Lady of the Lake poem).  Whether or not this connotation was intentional (Scott's text has little to do with the Latin prayer, which, in turn, is not part of the requiem ritual), the result was a deeply moving composition for an unconventional ensemble that deserves to be heard more often.

Britten was represented by his first (Opus 72, 1964) solo cello suite, the second of his "Rostropovich" chamber music compositions.  This work may receive low exposure on the assumption that audiences may find it "difficult;"  but I side with Arnold Schoenberg's precept that music is only "difficult" for the listener when it is "badly played."  From a structural point of view, Britten draws on several devices familiar from his earlier compositions.  We have a recurring "Canto," similar to the incantation that constitutes the "spinal cord" of his Opus 18 (1939) Illuminations song cycle.  We also have an overall structure following his even earlier (1937) Opus 10 "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge," where each movement is based on a traditional form (Fuga, Lamento, Serenata, Marcia, Bordone, Moto perpetuo).  Then, from a more rhetorical point of view, we have Britten's general fondness for the sounds of harmonics from strings lightly touched at a nodal point.  Lastly, the folding together of the Moto perpetuo with a concluding statement of the "Canto" reflects the final emergence of the theme in the midst of a "moto perpetuo style" fugue in the Opus 34 (1946) "Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell" ("The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra," perhaps Britten's most familiar composition).  The themes and sonorities of the cello suite may differ radically from these precedents, but there is no shortage of familiar landmarks to guide the ear into this new territory.  Fortunately, this particular student had no problems with those landmarks;  and I cannot imagine anyone accusing this performance of being "badly played."  If we had more performances like this one, we might have more opportunities to hear this composition.

There is also the risk that too much attention to the unfamiliar results in neglecting the familiar.  There was certainly no such neglect in the performance of Johannes Brahms' first (Opus 38, completed in 1865) cello sonata in E minor.  Similarly, there was an ensemble performance of the first movement of Schubert's C major (D. 956) string quintet (two cellos, rather than two violas), in which all the lyric qualities of the first cello part shone through, but always in impeccable balance with the other four voices.  This student is equally comfortable in both nineteenth and twentieth centuries;  and, given the level of understanding brought to the Britten performance, we can look forward to a similar comfort level with the current century!

March 17, 2009: Prokofiev 2, Beethoven 0

Sergei Prokofiev is far from the easiest composer for a listener to approach, but it often seems that a Russian guide can be very valuable in facilitating that approach.  When the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, under conductor Yuri Temirkanov, visited San Francisco in November of 2007, I used my blog to reflect on my own Prokofiev listening experiences, writing that "I have called him a 'burned-out firebrand' and celebrated his raucous qualities."  On that occasion Temirkanov served as an excellent guide to Prokofiev's fifth symphony;  but, if one wishes to take in the full scope of Prokofiev's repertoire, one probably could not hope for a better guide than Valery Gergiev, who spent the last two evenings at Davies Symphony Hall conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in four of Prokofiev's symphonies and one piano concerto.  I attended last night's concert, where the symphonies were his second (Opus 40 in D minor, completed in 1925) and his seventh (Opus 131 in C-sharp minor, composed over the year preceding his death on March 5, 1953).  This evening also provided the only break from Prokofiev in the form of Ludwig van Beethoven's fifth ("Emperor") piano concerto in E-flat major, Opus 73, with Alexei Volodin as soloist.

Prokofiev composed his second symphony when he was living in Paris.  The work was both encouraged and supported by Serge Koussevitzky, a champion of the modernism of that time.  Koussevitzky's performance was not very well received, quite possibly because, as a conductor, he was not really up to the task.  Michael Steinberg's program notes quoted Prokofiev writing (in his diary?) that "neither the audience nor I understood anything in it," which reminded me of one of Arnold Schoenberg's more notorious observations:
My music is not modern;  it's just badly played.
Nevertheless, Steinberg hit on the key to approaching this symphony properly:
Writing for a public exceedingly interested in the latest thing, Prokofiev set out to write a symphony "of iron and steel."  Fascination with art about machines as represented by Marinetti's Futurism and the Constructivism of Tatlin, Gabo, and the Pevsner brothers was very much in the air.
However, I would suggest that Prokofiev was responding to more than what was just "in the air."  In this digital age in which so much mechanical activity has been reduced to the interplay of energy fields at the subatomic level, it is easy to forget what made those large and complex machines so fascinating.  I would not be surprised if Prokofiev's fascination came from the extent to which the machine was a physical embodiment of the concepts of counterpoint and harmony that provided the foundations for his creative efforts.  For those who did not understand mechanical engineering (presumably such as Prokofiev), there was something mystical about assembling such a large ensemble of moving parts, each with its own "voice" but all linked together in intricately coordinated (and harmonious) movement.

1924, the year when Prokofiev began work on this symphony, was also the year when Koussevitzky first performed Arthur Honegger's "Pacific 231," which is very much a reflection on the counterpoint and harmony of a steam locomotive.  Prokofiev's own reflection commands far more gut-wrenching dissonances than those of Honegger;  so one can appreciate why Koussevitzky could never muster the chops for it.  These days, however, those sounds are not as shocking.  Gergiev could clearly hear the music in them with no difficulty;  and he conducted the London Symphony in which a way that we could hear that music, too.  What may have been gut-wrenching for Koussevitzky and his audience has become exhilarating;  and through Gergiev we could all share that exhilaration.

One final comment from Steinberg is worth noting:
One of the odder impressions made by the 1925 reviews is the double complaint of formlessness and unoriginality.  The design is both clear and, for a symphony, new.  Prokofiev pointed out that he had chose Beethoven's last piano sonata, Opus 111, as his formal model;  that is, he cast the work in two movements, the first muscular and turbulent, the second a set of variations on a slow theme.
In such a context I find myself wondering whether, knowing that his seventh symphony would be his Opus 131, Prokofiev deliberately chose C-sharp minor, the key of Beethoven's Opus 131 string quartet, composed in, as Thayer put it, the "year which witnessed the last of Beethoven's completed labors."  In many ways Prokofiev's symphony shares the valedictory feel of the Beethoven quartet;  but Prokofiev's valediction is more inclined to look back on his past accomplishments, not so much from his "firebrand" years in Paris as from the lyricism he ultimately found in his ballet music for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella.  Listening to this symphony is a bit like sitting on a couch with Prokofiev as he leafs through an album of photographs of these ballets.

The reflection on Cinderella is particularly poignant.  In that ballet the clock strikes midnight with the same dissonant force that inspired so many nineteenth-century depictions of Judgment Day.  In the symphony this is transformed into a quiet ticking motif, introduced in the first movement and pretty much the last word of the final movement.  Prokofiev is more aware than Cinderella was of how time is running out on him;  but he is accepting it with a resignation that can review his past accomplishments "without blushing" (as Roger Sessions put it when he gave his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard).  Gergiev knew how to capture this spirit of acceptance, just as he had captured the machine-worship of the second symphony, giving us the full pleasure of Prokofiev sharing this final thoughts with us.

Given the strong connection of Beethoven to both of these symphonies, placing his own final piano concerto between them seemed like a logical choice.  For reasons that may have had more to do with jet lag than technical capability, Volodin's performance as soloist was not a particularly secure one.  His tempi were erratic, and there were too many stumbles in his rapid passages.  More importantly, there seemed to be a serious "communications disconnect" between Volodin and Gergiev (a topic currently receiving some interesting attention on Stephen Hough's Cadenza blog).  The London Symphony Orchestra has probably played this concerto for just about every major pianist and just as probably under most of the major conductors.  There was no faulting their support under Gergiev's baton;  but they never came together with Volodin in that spirit of conversation that makes a concerto "click" in just the right way.  Considering the high opinion that Prokofiev had of Beethoven, it was more than a little disappointing that this "old master" did not receive the same support as his twentieth-century admirer.

March 16, 2009: Over two centuries of local (and neighboring) music

Chamber Music San Francisco began its 2009 Season with a recital by the Prazak String Quartet;  and, as might be imagined from an ensemble created by students at the Prague Conservatory, the program had a decided Czech flavor.  Prague itself was represented by Antonín Dvorák, whose A major (Opus 81) piano quintet was performed with pianist Menahem Pressler.  This was preceded (before the intermission) by Leoš Janácek's first string quartet ("Kreutzer Sonata").  The program began with Joseph Haydn's "Frog" Quartet (Opus 50, Number 6, in D major).  Whether or not it would make sense to view Eszterháza as a "Czech neighbor," the Opus 50 quartets were actually composed of the King of Prussia in 1787;  so, notwithstanding the title for this review, it may be a stretch to declare this "neighboring music."  A closer relationship might be found in the selection of Johannes Brahms for an encore (the Andante, un poco Adagio movement from his F minor Opus 34 piano quintet), since Brahms was one of Dvorák's champions, to the point of assisting him in getting his music published.

The title of the Janácek quartet is based on Leo Tolstoy, rather than Ludwig van Beethoven.  Wikipedia provides the following background:
"I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata", Janácek confided in one of his letters to his young friend Kamila Stösslová. In the music of the quartet is depicted psychological drama containing moments of conflict as well as emotional outbursts, passionate work rush towards catharsis and to final climax.
In the Tolstoy novella a performance of the Beethoven sonata becomes a platform for intense passion, raging jealousy, and murder.  Those familiar with Janácek's operas, particularly those in the vein of Jenufa and Kátya Kabanová (both recently performed by the San Francisco Opera) know his penchant for raw emotion and will not be surprised to encounter it in this quartet.  I am not sufficiently familiar with Tolstoy's text to establish whether or not the quartet has a narrative structure based on Tolstoy's;  but, as I wrote on my blog in January, San Francisco has been an excellent place to become acquainted with both the structures and sounds behind Janácek's approach to composition.  Indeed, the quartet displays a close "family resemblance" to the violin sonata that Christian Tetzlaff performed last January.  As might be expected, this was the most emotionally intense part of the program.  The Prazak Quartet was not shy about bringing these emotions to the surface, providing a performance that not only satisfied those familiar with Janácek but also could win him more followers.

This is not to say that the Dvorák quintet lacked emotion.  The composition is the passionate work of a passionate man, but it is also the work of a composer with a more refined sense of nuance.  Since the members of the Prazak Quartet have been performing together since 1972, they have a keen sense of bringing nuance to their execution;  but it is also important that they have collaborated with Pressler in the past.  Through his work with the Beaux Arts Trio, Pressler has developed his own approach to Dvorák's refinements;  so it was a real delight to see how well his "visitor's" take on Dvorák meshed with that of his "hosts."

The Haydn quartet, on the other hand, had less to do with any Czech passions and served more to establish the performers' bona fides.  In his monumental Haydn:  Chronicle and Works, H. C. Robbins Landon never explains the "Frog" sobriquet.  He cites a bouncing cello motif in the first movement;  but he compares it to "a child's skipping rope."  To my ear the trochaic (accented-unaccented) rhythm of the Menuetto was Haydn's ranarian inspiration.  Regardless of your point of view, there is no denying the wit that Haydn brought to this trio, making it an excellent way for the Prazak Quartet to present their calling card.  Given Brahms' own fondness for Haydn, his selection for the encore felt all the more appropriate.

March 15, 2009: Brute force

Conductor James Conlon clearly has a great love for Dmitri Shostakovich's 1932 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  Confronted with the paucity of opportunities to conduct the opera itself, he compiled an orchestral suite in 1989, which he first performed with the National Symphony.  This week he brought the suite to the San Francisco Symphony, preceding the performance with an explanation of the opera's narrative, along with musical excerpts from the suite to give us a clear sense of how that narrative progressed.  My only misgiving was Conlon's tendency to play up the "tragedy" of the opera in his remarks.

I am old-fashioned enough to continue to hold to the precept in Aristotle's "Poetics" that tragedy is concerned with noble men, while comedy "is an imitation of baser men."  We see Alexander Pushkin honoring this principle in the full title of his play, A Dramatic Tale, The Comedy of the Distress of the Muscovite State, of Tsar Boris, and of Grishka Otrepyev.  There was little ennobling about the Russians in Pushkin's play, and the novel by Nikolai Leskov in which Shostakovich based his opera is no different.  James Keller's notes in the program book described it as "a grim and lurid tale;"  and Shostakovich had no trouble capturing this spirit in his music.  Every character in this opera is either a brute or a weakling.  The weaklings do not last very long, and the brutes destroy each other.  Shostakovich described the setting as "a gloomy satiric character;"  and his music cuts right to the core of that character.

If a common literary tool of satire is hyperbole, then Shostakovich's use of orchestral resources is about as hyperbolic as you can get.  With only a few brief lyric interludes, Conlon's suite captures this spirit by starting loud and getting progressively louder.  The brutes always triumph in Shostakovich's musical language, whether it is in the explicit depiction of sexual congress (thus going far beyond the over-the-top orchestral introduction to Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier), the acts of murder, or the thuggish law enforcement (complete with a musical apotheosis of The Informer).  This was not an experience for those who go to concerts for "character improvement;"  but it was an excellent opportunity to experience a master composer taking on a veritable catalogue of the baser instincts of mankind.

Such excess was typical of the Romantic movement in Europe;  but that movement never really "took" in Russia.  Leskov took "an orientation toward the practical," as Walter Benjamin put it in "The Storyteller;"  and that orientation is also evident in Shostakovich's no-holds-barred rhetoric.  Shostakovich's approach to music may thus be seen as a reaction against the musical Romanticism of the nineteenth century, and that position was emphasized through Conlon's decision to precede his suite with the music of Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt.  Berlioz' "Corsaire" overture (earlier inspired by James Fennimore Cooper's sea story, "The Red Rover") took its title from Lord Byron.  In the program notes Michael Steinberg quoted Donald Francis Tovey describing Byron's Corsair as being "of course, Byron himself, mythically wicked, sinister, and diabolically noble," the diametric opposite of Leskov's brutes.  Like the later Shostakovich, Berlioz could also command the full force of an orchestra (and did in this overture);  but he could make that force roil with textures so intricate that they elude most recording processes and can only really be enjoyed in the concert hall.  Conlon had a perfect command of both sides of Berlioz' coin, so to speak;  and the orchestra was only too willing to give him what he wanted, whether it involved subtlety or force.

That same combination was evident in Liszt's second piano concerto in A major.  This is one of the few Liszt composition that begins with a "calm before the storm;"  and even the storm itself breaks every now and then to allow the piano to engage with solo voices in the violin and cello sections.  In this concerto we hear Liszt's attention to detail extend beyond his usual reputation for high-density embellishment;  and in the performance Conlon made an excellent match for pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.  As was the case with the Berlioz overture, we are in the world of diabolic nobility, rather than post-Romantic brutality.

The overall result was fascinating.  Conlon took the nineteenth-century traditions and placed them in the non-traditional frame of post-Romantic realism.  Each composition provided its own opportunities for reflection, but the reflection could only really begin after all three of the works on the program had said their piece.

March 13, 2009: The voice of the viola

Magic happened last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but only a handful of people got to appreciate it.  The occasion was a Viola Master Class conducted by Julliard faculty member and co-founder of the Brentano String Quartet, Misha Amory.  This is the second Viola Master Class I have attended this season (the first having been given last October by Kim Kashkashian);  and these two events have helped me to develop a deep appreciation for how the twentieth century was the time when, as the poet/author of the Song of Solomon (Revised Standard Version) would have put it, the voice of the viola came to be "heard in our land."  In Kashkashian's class we heard this voice in the music of Paul Hindemith and George Rochberg (my first exposure to the latter's music, to my great embarrassment).  The students who prepared for Amory brought concerto movements by (in the order of the program) Béla Bartók, Alfred Schnittke, and William Walton.

All three of these presentations were technically demanding.  However, because they were all executed skillfully, Amory could focus on more subtle aspects of execution, some of which involved the nature of the sound itself (which, as I recently observed, could be as critical to appreciating Johann Sebastian Bach as any more recent composer), while others fell into the vaguer nature of what I have called the "rhetoric" of performance.  It was in Amory's ability to communicate about such subtleties in ways that we in the audience, along with the students, could comprehend that the magic of the evening revealed itself.

Needless to say, Bartók, Schnittke, and Walton are radically different composers, united by little more than Robert Mann's precept that a composer is best understood in terms of the music to which he has been exposed;  so Amory had to draw upon different communicative strategies for each student.  Much of his approach to Bartók involved setting a historical context, suggesting that the extended solo passage that begins the concerto (which was actually completed by Tibor Serly after Bartók's death in 1945) was informed by the solo viola line at the opening of the sixth string quartet from 1941.  Amory could thus work with the student on getting just the right expressiveness of sound through what amounted to analogous (or, perhaps, "model-based") reasoning.

The context for Walton was a more general one, having to do with the generally pastoral invocations of the English countryside, so familiar to Walton through contemporaries such as Ralph Vaughan Williams.  (Walton's viola concerto was completed in 1929;  we can probably assume that he was familiar with the "Pastoral Symphony" that Vaughan Williams had completed in 1921.)  At the same time Amory chose to focus on the underlying wit of the final movement of Walton's concerto (which is what the student chose to prepare), invoking images of not only the landscape but also the bumpkins one might encounter on a walking tour of that landscape.  These images helped to "loosen up" what was probably an overly disciplined performance by a student who had probably been too buried in the notes of the music to appreciate this context.

Most awesome, however, was the student performance of the first two movements of the Schnittke concerto.  About a year ago I wrote a blog post about Schnittke entitled "Awakening from the Nightmare of History," in which I tried to examine his music through the lens of his struggle with the "Soviet approved" authority of music history.  That post attracted a comment referring to his "German/Russian dichotomy."  There is definitely a sense of German influence on a Soviet-educated composer in the viola concerto;  but one of the points I tried to make in my post was that Schnittke drew upon ridicule as his primary weapon against "the historical burdens of both the Soviet system and the Western obsession with Schoenberg's legacy."  In his first violin sonata, composed in 1963, this surfaced in a twelve-tone take on "La Cucaracha."  By the time of the viola concerto in 1985, he was less concerned with serialism and directed his acerbic wit to an out-of-context cadence in Ludwig van Beethoven's violin concerto.  (Schnittke had composed what may best be described as "kick-ass" cadenzas for the Beethoven concerto, which Gidon Kremer recorded in 1980;  so we know his preoccupation with Beethoven preceded his work on the viola concerto.)

Amory did not try to hide his comparative unfamiliarity with this composition.  Instead, he could turn his attention to the extent to which Schnittke's "attitude" could impose almost unrealistic challenges on the soloist.  Some of those challenges, particularly the conflict between the soloist and a "roaring" orchestra, could not be addressed because the violist had only a piano accompaniment.  However, Amory dealt with other problems, such as getting the most penetrating sound out of the highest-register passages, most effectively.  He also asked the student the most important question, "Do you really like this piece?"  The student's affirmative answer was entirely convincing.  Amory knew it before the student even answered, and the rest of us recognized it.  I, for one, hope that this student will have the opportunity to perform this work with full orchestra in a setting that I shall be able to attend.  It is now about ten years since Schnittke died, and this particular work definitely needs more exposure.  For that matter the entire Master Class was a reminder (even if not always a gentle one) that all viola compositions need more exposure!

March 10, 2009: From the drawing-room to the concert hall

I have now accumulated enough listening experience, through both concerts and recordings, that it is no surprise when I realize that I am familiar with all the compositions on a concert program.  However, while attending the Faculty Artist Series concert last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I encountered for the first time a program all of whose works I had played (in my own modest efforts).  Pianist Paul Hersh had assembled an evening consisting entirely of four-hand piano music by Franz Schubert.  Not only had I taken at least a crack at each of the works he had prepared;  but Hersh began the program with the very first piece of four-hand Schubert I had ever attempted, thanks to the encouragement of a graduate student in the Music Department at the University of Pennsylvania while I was teaching computer science there.

Schubert's four-hand repertoire was probably never intended for a concert setting.  As the entry for "Germany" (by Denis Arnold and Alan Jefferson) in The Oxford Companion to Music explains, it was directed more towards the increasing role of music in middle-class life in the early nineteenth century:
After the Treaty of Vienna in 1815 much of northern Italy came under Austrian rule, but instead of the former 300 German states there were now only about 30, with Prussia in the ascendancy. Many of the nobles were subjects of others and a new middle class came into being, reinforced by wealthy industrialists and merchants. The tastes of this middle-class society are sometimes called Biedermeier, denoting a worthy, even cosy art rather than the revolutionary extravagances of the Romantics. The comfortably-off bourgeoisie bought pianos for their drawing-rooms and required music which lay within their technical means, such as the short genre pieces called Moments musicaux, bagatelles, or Albumblätter, examples of which can be found among the late music of Beethoven and, especially, of Schubert. The song with piano accompaniment was equally popular, the verse often reflecting middle-class life, as in Schumann's Frauenliebe und -Leben and Dichterliebe cycles. The concept of the Schubertiad, an informal meeting of friends to sing, play, and listen, is the essence of this bourgeois art.
These days middle-class society is more inclined to buy concert tickets than to participate in one of these meetings;  so the Schubertiad has migrated from the drawing-room to the concert stage.  Nevertheless, in the Schubertiad tradition, Hersh used the occasion to summon three of his own friends (Yoshikazu Nagai from the Piano Faculty, Teresa Yu, a Conservatory alumna who now runs her own music school, and current student Hye Yeong Min) to share with him the "domestic intimacy" of the four works on his program:
  1. The two "Marches Caractéristiques," D. 968
  2. The F minor fantasia, D. 940
  3. The "Lebensstürme" allegro in A minor, D. 947
  4. The C major ("Grand Duo") sonata, D. 812
All of these works are products from the end of Schubert's short life, and the middle two were composed in his final year.

I have played the fantasia on more occasions than any other four-hand work and with more people than I can probably enumerate.  It will always involve biting off more than I can chew, but I keep coming back to it.  With all that experience, I never fail to discover new things in it whenever I hear it properly performed;  and last night was no exception.  This work comes from a time when, having already demonstrated how much intensity he could pack into the brevity of a song or short piano composition, Schubert was experimenting with far more extensive time scales, wrestling with the problem of laying out a "temporal journey" suitable to the duration of the performance.  The fantasia is relatively short (on the scale of fifteen minutes);  but its "journey" alludes to the Baroque tradition of the French overture (rather in the same spirit as the opening of Ludwig van Beethoven's Opus 13 "Pathétique" sonata, as András Schiff demonstrated in his recent performance), the Classical tradition of the ternary form dance, an aria reminiscent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Nozze di Figaro, and finally a fugue that takes the ground that Beethoven broke with this ostensibly archaic genre and breaks it even further.  This is an extensive journey rendered, as Hersh put it, with "heavenly length."  His performance with Yu coaxed the attention of the ear with the first plaintive gestures of the aria and held that attention rapt until the journey ended with the final sigh of that same aria.  Schubert may not have intended this for a concert setting, but Hersh and Yu made it clear that it deserves its place there.

By contrast the "Grand Duo" is on an extended temporal scale and was the only work after the intermission.  Over the course of its four movements, the ear is less coaxed and more commanded by the ongoing uncertainty of what to expect.  Music theorists, who try to interpret the "journey" as a path through tonal centers, are driven crazy by Schubert's turn-on-a-dime leaps into distant harmonies;  and the abruptness of his tonal migrations is matched only by his radical shifts in dynamics.  Only the overall structural frameworks of the movements seem to conform to expectations, and for Schubert everything else was up for grabs.  Hersh and Min negotiated this roller-coaster ride of sharp differences with an agility that would have made Schubert proud (and, on the basis of the historical record, was probably beyond his own capabilities at the keyboard).  Once again, the case was made that this was music for the concert hall, where it was far more likely to receive the attention it deserved than it could have summoned in any drawing-room!

March 9, 2009: The Ravel-Gershwin connection

At the beginning of this month, the London Telegraph ran a review by David Fanning, whose first two paragraphs caught my attention:
At their meeting in 1928, George Gershwin famously asked Ravel for composition lessons. Having ascertained the fees his prospective pupil was able to command, the Frenchman observed that it was he who ought to be taking the lessons. Which in a sense he then did, since the Concerto in G and to a lesser extent the Concerto for Left Hand both borrow extensively from Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F.

That point has surely never been more clearly made than in this final concert in Manchester's Piano 2009 Festival, consisting of those four very works. And the fact that the two soloists were of such contrasting temperaments served only to make the juxtaposition more fascinating.
These two paragraphs returned to my mind on Saturday night, while I was listening to Martha Argerich play Maurice Ravel's 1931 G major piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, because, for the first time the influences of both "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924) and the Gershwin "full" concerto (1925) were crystal clear.  I suspect that this insight was due as much to Michael Tilson Thomas' conducting, since he has a real feel for just about every aspect of the "Gershwin sound," as to the "touch" that Argerich brought to her solo work.  This is not to say that he neglected the "Ravel sound," since Ravel could invoke orchestral colors far beyond those of Gershwin's imagination.  "Rhapsody in Blue," after all, was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, best known for his Grand Canyon Suite (1931).  However, there is a clear homage to Gershwin's jazzy rhetoric in the G major concerto, which reveals that, when it came to some of Gershwin's best riffs, Ravel was an extremely acute listener!

For reasons I discussed (at great length) on my blog, this work felt a bit out of place on a program that juxtaposed it with the music of Giovanni Gabrieli, György Ligeti, and Franz Liszt;  but both Argerich and Thomas demonstrated that this concerto can stand on its own in any company!