Saturday, September 26, 2015

April 23, 2009: Concerts on a tight budget in cyberspace

When I write about music on my blog, I tend to be emphatic about the fact that audio capture technology is still not adequate enough for any recording to be as effective a listening experience as a "live" performance;  and I recently reinforced this position here in writing about the San Francisco Symphony performance of Maurice Ravel's orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition suite.  Nevertheless, I cannot deny that concert tickets tend to be expensive;  and these are times when we need to worry about spending our money wisely.  Therefore, whatever my misgivings about the technology may be, I feel it is worth examining some of the options available to those of you reading this on a computer interested in having a "concert experience" in cyberspace.

Many of you have probably already discovered that there is quite a lot of material available through YouTube.  These are, for the most part, amateur recordings;  and they tend to capture performances on a small scale, such as recitals.  They thus tend to work best for recordings of encore material at the end of a concert.  However, if one of the objectives of concert listening is to broaden our individual attention spans, the brief clips of YouTube do not provide the best experience.  Indeed, while the YouTube Symphony Orchestra captured their entire Carnegie Hall performance, the videos were uploaded  in two large chunks, the first of which was almost an hour and the second almost an hour-and-a-half.  Trying to view these videos turned out to be a very frustrating experience, probably because the servers were not up to delivering an uninterrupted feed for such extended durations.  I have to confess that I gave up when I realized that I could not get past the third movement of Brahms' fourth symphony (the first work on the Carnegie Hall program) without those interruptions.  Fortunately, there are other sites where one can find better feeds;  and some of them are as free as YouTube!

One of the more interesting sites I have discovered is a Streaming Video Web page for the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.  This School has a reputation for providing some of the best education in music performance in a setting of an excellent overall university curriculum.  The current catalog of available performances is relatively limited, but it covers both ballet and opera as well as orchestral performance.  The video capture is not always the best, as when I found it hard to see very much when the camera was pointed in at the dimly-lit orchestra pit for the overture of Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor;  and not all of the opera performances seem to have subtitles.  However, the sound is excellent;  and I have yet to run into the problem of interrupting pauses.  In the latter case this may be due to the fact that the servers are not experiencing very much demand, so I may be running a risk in spreading the word about this site!  (More likely, however, is that the managers of this Web site can take advantage of the expertise of the Indiana University Computer Science Department.)

For the best virtual experience of a symphony orchestra concert, however, I have yet to find anything better than the Digital Concert Hall created for the Berliner Philharmoniker.  This is the perfect combination of a first-rate ensemble, imaginatively stimulating programs, and the sort of camera work that assists the ear in the listening process.  The major down-side is that it is not free.  On the other hand the "admission" is charged to the computer, rather than the people sitting around the screen;  so this definitely qualifies as an option for a tight budget if the cost (which is about 10 Euros for a full concert) is shared.  Concerts can be viewed through either a "live" stream or from an archive of past performances.  Given the difference in time zones, most folks on the West Coast will probably prefer viewing from the archives.  (I decided to spring for a season pass, which cost a little less than 100 Euros and gives me full access to all live streams and everything in the archive.)

The Metropolitan Opera has now picked up on this model with their Met Player option, which apparently supports both conventional video and high-definition signals.  It also supports a much larger archive;  and I do not think it supports a live stream (which might take business away from the HD broadcasts to movie theaters).  Again, this is not free;  but the price is in the same league as the Berliner Philharmoniker.  A year's subscription costs $149.99;  but you can also subscribe for a month for $14.99.  A single opera rents for $3.99, unless you want HD, which is $4.99.  The one caveat I offer here is that I have not yet tested this option, because I only just learned about it (from SF Opera Examiner Cindy Warner).

My guess is that there will be more virtual concert-going sites appearing on the Internet, some of which will be free.  I have not tried to be exhaustive with this summary.  Anyone who has discovered a favorite site that I omitted is free to spread the word through a Comment!

April 22, 2009: A vocal recital of maturing texts

Given the focus of my preview piece, I cannot conceal my disappointment that physical indisposition prevented mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená, accompanied by Karel Košárek, from concluding her San Francisco Performances recital at Herbst Theatre with the seven "early songs" of Alban Berg.  However, the rest of the program remained intact;  and the chronological ordering of the composers turned out to offer a fascinating perspective on a growth of "maturity" in the texts those composers selected.  Kožená also has a diverse operatic repertoire, through which she brought a keen sense of dramatic interpretation of those texts to her performance;  but, since this was a recital, she realized that interpretation through facial and bodily gestures that were minimal but effective.  Through her understanding of those texts, I found myself thinking about them from new points of view, making this recital more than just an experience of the music itself.

For example, whatever musical challenges face the soloist who wishes to perform Henry Purcell, inevitably that soloist must contend with the "eccentricities" of John Dryden's way with words.  Consider the text of the innocuously titled (and frequently performed) song "Music for a while:"
Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile:
Wond'ring how your pains were eas'd
And disdaining to be pleas'd
Till Alecto free the dead
From their eternal bands,
Till the snakes drop from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.
Since the program listed this as "A Selection of Love Songs," those last four lines seem a bit kinky, if not downright loopy.  At the very least we should wonder just where this text appeared in the 1692 production of Dryden's Oedipus, for which the song was composed.  However, the incongruity between the beginning and ending of the text is then accompanied by Purcell's decision to set the word "drop" several (some would say too many) times, as if to portray those snakes dropping off one-by-one.  If a composition of music is a "temporal journey," then this risks coming off as a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Kožená recognized the challenge of this text and treated it with poise.  As the snakes began to drop, she offered just a hint of a wistful smile, as if to say, "Yes, these words are a bit much;  but isn't the music heavenly?"  Of course she was right.  The music was heavenly;  and the "love" of these "love songs" was clearly in the music, rather than the words.

We then progressed from the 1692 of Purcell and Dryden to Robert Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben song cycle from 1840 (Opus 42), set to texts by Adelbert von Chamisso.  Were it not for Schumann, Chamisso would probably be remembered more as a botanist than as a poet;  but, to the extent that these poems offer a relatively straightforward account of a young woman's experience of love and marriage (Schumann's accompaniment even includes a brief wedding march), they indicate an emergence of a vérité grounded in the psychology of the human heart, in sharp contrast to Dryden's classical allusions.  Chamisso was thus as much a "naturalist of the soul" as he was of the plant world, which made him a perfect source for Schumann's efforts towards the connotation of human emotions in his music.  Here Kožená could be dramatic without being apologetic, but again her minimalist approach was sufficient to invoke Schumann's emotionality without overplaying it.

With the Berg cut from the program, the evening concluded with a set of five songs by Henri Duparc.  As the notes in the program book indicated, Duparc preferred the texts of the French Parnassians, a brief school of thought that intervened between Romanticism (as represented by the German Chamisso) and modernist Symbolism.  These are, again, psychological texts;  but the psychology is always connoted through the skilled use of tropes, rather than denoted through the sort of direct descriptions Chamisso would invoke.  Duparc's musical language thus matches the "rhetoric of connotation" of these poems;  and the resulting emotions are all the more intense for being more subdued than they had been in Schumann's treatments.  Once again, however, Kožená kept her minimalist poise, letting Duparc's music "do all the talking," so to speak.

Was she as "physically indisposed" as we had been told at the beginning of the evening?  Yes, there were some rough spots in her sound;  and the Berg songs make heavy demands on the lower register, where she tended to be weakest.  However, as the old cliché goes, we each have to play with the cards that have been dealt to us.  Kožená played her hand with the skill of a performer determined that none of the music on the program be short-changed.

April 21, 2009: Voices from the Holocaust

Today is "'Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah'— literally the 'Day of (remembrance of) the Holocaust and the Heroism'" (as described on the Holocaust Memorial Day Web page of the Jewish Virtual Library);  and the Laurel Ensemble arranged their Noontime Concerts™ recital today at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco to honor the occasion.  For this event they were joined by soprano Roselyn Barak, who is the Cantor for Congregation Emanu-El in this city.  Remembering the Holocaust is a delicate matter, particularly for those who are not Jewish;  and an event of this nature needs to be examined in terms of its respect and authenticity.

Barak (whose last name is that of one of the heroes of the Book of Judges) joined the Laurel for a performance of the suite Shema, based on texts by Primo Levi and composed by Simon Sargon in 1988.  In spite of his Assyrian name, Sargon is an Indian-born Jewish composer, currently Professor of Composition at Southern Methodist University, as representative of our Melting Pot as you can get.  Levi was a Jewish-Italian chemist and author, who survived the Holocaust but eventually committed suicide on April 11, 1987.  Thus, to a great extent, this day served to remember not only the Holocaust itself but also the anniversary of its delayed victimization of Levi.  One would be hard pressed to find a gesture of greater authenticity for such a somber day.  The only problem is that the texts were in Italian and neither those texts nor their translations were provided with the program.  Barak read a translation of the first song ("Shema"), which was sufficiently intense to leave me curious about the remaining four songs.  The title comes from Verse 4 of Chapter 6 of Deuteronomy;  and I would not dispute the Wikipedia claim that  it "is considered the most important prayer in Judaism."  Levi's reference to the text of the prayer is both oblique and ironic, to which Sargon responded with only a minimal suggestion of the melody line to which the prayer is usually sung.

Ernest Bloch was born in Geneva in 1885 and settled in the United States in 1916, so he never had to contend directly with the Holocaust.  Nevertheless, he was influenced strongly by both the liturgical and folk music of the Jewish tradition;  and, as I observed about a month ago, his "Schelomo" is one of the most effective interpretations of a Hebrew text, particularly when we recognize that the text is neither sung nor recited!  At this concert he was represented by individual movements from two of his suites.  Krisanthy Desby performed the "Prayer" movement from the 1925 From Jewish Life suite for cello and piano (accompanied by Lori Lack);  and violinist Christina Mok performed the "Nigun" movement from Baal Shem (again accompanied by Lack).  "Prayer" is Bloch's own interpretation of Jewish liturgical music, while the Nigun itself is a particular form of Chassidic melody whose roots are both liturgical and folk.  (The Baal Shem Tov is regarded as the progenitor of Chassidism.)  Thus, Bloch is also a voice of authenticity, if not about the horrors of the Holocaust than about key elements of Jewish culture that were almost lost in that catastrophe.

Indeed, the only question of authenticity arose with Mok's performance of the "Theme" from John Williams' score for the film Schlindler's List.  While I have great respect for the way in which Steven Spielberg made this film, I tend to view Williams primarily as a skilled technician, always ready to provide an "acoustic context" for any screenplay, regardless of whether or not that screenplay has (or even wants to have) any "ring of truth."  To be honest, while I can still remember many of the images from this film, I had entirely forgotten the soundtrack until today's recital!  I suspect that the mood of the day could have been better honored had Mok and Desby joined with Lack to perform the final movement of Dmitri Shostakovich's Opus 67 trio;  but that single movement would have brought the risk of totally overwhelming the work of both Bloch and Sargon, even if Shostakovich was not himself Jewish.  Probably more music from either of the two Bloch suites would have been more appropriate.

April 19, 2009: Mozart redeemed

My concern about having to wait until the end of this month before having a chance to hear Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart get "his proper due" was eased this afternoon at Davies Symphony Hall, thanks to the Chamber Music Series organized by the San Francisco Symphony.  The K. 285 flute quartet, composed in 1777, was given a stimulating and coherent reading by Robin McKee (flute), John Chisholm (violin), Wayne Roden (viola) and David Goldblatt (cello) to begin this afternoon's concert.  There was no sign of any of last night's problems of strained interactions among unbalanced voices.  Instead, one got to enjoy a conversation among four equals, spiced with the reminder that, when it came to playing chamber music, the viola was Mozart's instrument of choice.

Equally loving attention was given to the music of Antonín Dvorák and Zoltán Kodály.  Following the Mozart, violinist Chen Zhao and cellist Amos Yang offered an energetic reading of Kodály's Opus 7 duo.  Even with my modest understanding of Hungarian culture, I could appreciate why Béla Bartók once declared Kodály "the composer whose works are the most perfect embodiment of the Hungarian spirit."  There is a soulfulness to his music that goes beyond his ear for melody to the very timbrous qualities he elicits from his instruments, and those qualities are particularly evident when only two instruments are engaged in the performance.

Dvorák concluded the program with his Opus 51 string quartet in E-flat major, performed by violinists Melissa Kleinbart and Suzanne Leon, violist Nanci Severance, and cellist Michael Grebanier.  This is Dvorák the Bohemian nationalist, rather than Dvorák the observant visitor to America;  and this quartet provides one of many opportunities to hear his "bipolar" approach to the dumka form, which sandwiches exuberance between outer sections of soul-searching poignancy.  As in the case with Mozart, Dvorák's chamber music always involves a rich interplay of voices, whose details emerged in shining clarity in this particular performance.

The Dvorák quartet was preceded by what may best be called a "jazz interlude."  Trumpeter Mark Inouye teamed with a rhythm section of Scott Pingel on bass, Jeff Massanari on guitar, and Raymond Froehlich on drums to perform his own composition, "Tribute to Beeky," inspired by a small creature burrowing in the beach sand near Galveston, Texas.  This was clearly a lightweight piece of work beside composers like Mozart, Dvorák, and  Kodály;  and I fear that it did not make for very good company.  As I tried to make clear when I chose to write about Ahmad Jamal, I take my jazz very seriously;  and I hope the message I conveyed in writing about him was that he took his music (regardless of genre) very seriously.  "Tribute to Beeky" did not strike me as jazz to be taken seriously.  Even if Inouye played it with a relatively clean and well-articulated sound, there was just too much of what my counterpoint teacher used to call "noodling," wandering around a flurry of notes with little sense of direction.  There also seemed to be a need to play something on the same durational scale as the other works on the program, while just about everything that needed to be said had been said in about half as much time.  Change can be refreshing, but not when it overstays its welcome!  If this is a sign of what one can expect from the new Davies After Hours series, then, where the trumpet is involved, I think I shall stick to my recordings of Clifford Brown!

April 19, 2009: The making of a masterpiece

This week's San Francisco Symphony concert at Davies Symphony Hall had to endure a series of changes.  Illness prevent Oliver Knussen from conducting an innovative program that included his own compositions, a work by Julian Anderson, and Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition in the seldom-heard orchestration by Leopold Stokowski.  Alasdair Neale agreed to step in to replace Knussen;  but the compositions of Knussen and Anderson for the first half of the program were replaced by three works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart:  the overture to his Marriage of Figaro opera (K. 492), the K. 165 Exsultate, jubilate (sung by Lisa Saffer, scheduled to perform Knussen's songs), and the K. 504 D major "Prague" symphony.  In the second half the Stokowski orchestration of Pictures was replaced by the more familiar version by Maurice Ravel.  Unfortunately, Neale also succumbed to illness;  and the replacement program was conducted by Donato Cabrera.

Mussorgsky's suite is so well known in its Ravel orchestration that it is interesting to contemplate how this came to be.  Michael Steinberg's notes for the program book provided the background:
In 1922 the French composer Maurice Ravel told the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky about this set of fascinating piano pieces.  Koussevitzky, his enthusiasm fired, asked Ravel to orchestrate them.  It was through this orchestration, and through Koussevitzky's frequent and brilliant performances, that Pictures at an Exhibition became an indispensable repertory item.
As they say, it's all about the promotion.

Still, we should not sell Ravel's promotional effort short.  Steinberg calls his orchestration "a model of what we would ask for in technical brilliance, imaginative insight, and concern for the original composer;"  but it is far more than that.  It is such a sophisticated exploration of the power and diversity of orchestral color that recording technology has yet to do justice to its subtleties.  Anyone who thinks (s)he knows this music on the basis of one or more recordings is inevitably surprised (pleasantly, I hope) at how much more there is to hear in the concert hall.  When we then recall how other composers, such as Sergei Prokofiev, could complain about Koussevitzky's competence as a conductor, we may also wish to credit Ravel with fitting the task to the man, rather than pursuing the orchestration as a challenge in its own right.

Cabrera has a resume of contemporary music performances that extends far beyond anything Koussevitzky would have dared to conduct, but he was also operating in a severely limited time frame.  He clearly benefited from Ravel's respect for the "working musician;"  but he also gave more than due respect to all of the skills Ravel summoned for his task.  For all the difficulties leading up to the performance, this work still emerged as one of the best examples of the season of why there is still no substitute for the concert hall when it comes to listening to such music.

Unfortunately, Mozart's share of the program did not fare quite so well.  While Cabrera conducted the necessary reduced string section, there were still problems of balance, both among the strings and with the other voices.  This was particularly evident in Exsultate, jubilate, where if felt as if there was no connection between Saffer and the orchestra.  Last year K. 504 was conducted by Herbert Blomstedt;  and I was particularly struck by his use of "Mannheim dynamics," through which a gradual crescendo could carry more rhetorical impact than the usual piano-forte contrast.  With only a few exceptions Cabrera pretty much stuck to the conventional piano-forte "opposition," which struck me as a less stimulating interpretation.  Sadly, this was the second time in as many weeks that I felt Mozart was not getting his proper due;  but there are good signs that this trend will change as we move into May!

April 18, 2009: Jonathan Biss in concert and conversation

Yesterday evening pianist Jonathan Biss gave his own preview of the recital he will be playing this evening in Herbst Theatre.  The event (in the "Concert with Conversation" series organized by San Francisco Performances) took place in the modest setting of the Community Music Center at 544 Capp Street in the Mission District.  The selections from the recital that Biss performed here were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 457 sonata in C minor, five pieces from György Kurtág's  Játékok (Hungarian for "games"), and the Opus 59 mazurkas of Frédéric Chopin, followed by his Opus 27, Number 2 nocturne in D-flat major.  The spirit of the event was set by the humorously self-deprecating (because Biss probably wrote it himself) "Meet the Artist" handout, which made for a refreshing change from the usual list of impressive performances and awards.  (This statement joked about Biss first being influenced by music as a fetus;  one wonders if his parents had also been reading aloud from Woody Allen's New Yorker essays at that time.)

Since I shall be at Davies Symphony Hall this evening, I was very eager to attend this event.  For one thing I have been consistently impressed with Biss, both when he performed the Mozart K. 482 E-flat major piano concerto last year with Herbert Blomstedt conducting the San Francisco Symphony and in his San Francisco Performances solo recital the preceding season.  Equally important, however, is that I have been fascinated with Kurtág ever since I was exposed to him when San Francisco Performances presented Marino Formenti's "San Francisco Piano Trips" recitals in April of 2007.  Games seem to be a major preoccupation for Kurtág, as in the ludic nature of the "12 Mikroludien Für Streichquartett" that constitute his "Hommage À Mihàly András," performed this past fall in the first of the Chamber Music Masters concerts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  Another preoccupation, which was the focus of the first of Formenti's "piano trips," is with the full scope of Western music history.  Yet, with such broad interests, Kurtág is a master of what I recently called the "architecture of brevity."  Thus, Biss compared the (currently) seven-volume collection of Játékok with the miniaturist Mikrokosmos collection of Béla Bartók;  and, as I previously observed, the very word "Mikroludien" is most likely an invented word that provides a "mash up" of Mikrokosmos, the plural of the German for "prelude" that we find in the scores of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the Latin ludus for "game."

Needless to say, such music cannot be performed without a strong sense of wit.  Biss displayed that wit first in introducing the music to the audience and then in performing it.  For those of us who tend to overdose on piano recitals, Kurtág's playfulness was most obvious in "The girl with flaxen hair in a rage" (title translated from the Hungarian), which might invoke a rather inadequate music student wanting to play Claude Debussy in the worst way (as Abraham Lincoln put it in describing his dancing with Mary Todd).  Someone once said that comedy is about being fearless enough to take a pie in the face, and Biss approached this particular composition with that kind of fearlessness.

It was also interesting to see him offer Kurtág immediately after the Mozart C minor sonata.  A week ago I was writing that every Mozart composition in a minor key "is a gem in its own right," while grousing that last week's performance of the K. 491 C minor piano concerto at the San Francisco Symphony never really got into the "minor spirit" of the work.  Biss had no trouble at all capturing that "minor spirit."  Introducing the work to the audience, he stressed that "turbulence and tension" (my words, not his) that I found missing last week as critical factors that would surface again in the piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven.  He also pointed out one motivic fragment that may well have served as a trigger for  The second movement of Beethoven's Opus 13 ("Pathétique") sonata (also in C minor).

Biss is not afraid to experiment with new ways of listening.  Thus, he chose to play the three Chopin mazurkas almost as if they were a single continuous composition, rather than just three works collected under a single opus number.  He observed that, because these works are relatively late, he was drawn to their introspective nature.  Thus, it was as if he decided to treat the collection as a single meditation, which, for this particular set, worked quite well (without detracting from the power of the D-flat major nocturne to stand on its own).

The "conversation" part of the evening was a brief question-and-answer session following the music.  Biss was as comfortable with this as he had been with providing introductory remarks.  Many people in the audience were eager to question him on a variety of matters, and he was always ready with a friendly and informative response.  This was the first "Concert with Conversation" event I have attended.  If they all come off as well as this one, then San Francisco Performances has come up with a great way to combine education and community outreach;  and I shall make it a point to cover similar events next season.

April 14, 2009: A rich viola for lunch

Once again I have been granted the opportunity to luxuriate in the rich "voice of the viola," this time through the good graces of today's Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco.  The soloist was Paul Ehrlich, accompanied at the piano by Roxanne Michaelian;  and the program covered, in chronological order, music from 1770 to 1919, representing the composers William Flackton, Robert Schumann, and Paul Hindemith.  Flackton was represented by the G major sonata from his Opus 2 collection of viola sonatas.  In their Grove Music Online entry for Flackton, Watkins Shaw and Robert Ford say the following about this collection:
In the preface to his op.2 sonatas (which were ‘inspected’ before publication by C.F. Abel) he stressed the claims of that neglected instrument and the need to increase its meagre repertory of solo music. Composing in a style already well outdated by the time of publication in 1770, he did so not only with ample competence but with considerable individuality and expressive power.
Ehrlich gave little thought to the "outdated" nature of the composition, performing it in a style appropriate to the period it reflected and revealing it with the care and delight reserved for a previously undiscovered gem.

Schumann was represented by his four-movement Märchenbilder, composed in 1851 about five years before his death.  Like his earlier C major fantasia for solo piano, this work may be viewed as an example of what I have called "poetry without the poet" (in the same sense as Felix Mendelssohn's "songs without words").  As often the case, such "musical poetry" is all in the rhythm;  and Ehrlich's rhythms were an excellent match to Schumann's intentions.

In 1918 and 1919 Hindemith wrote a collection of five sonatas for instruments in the string family for his Opus 11.  The fourth of these is for viola and piano.  The work is in three movements but is basically through-composed.  On first listening I am afraid I could not detect the onset of the theme which served as the basis for the variations in the second movement.  The overall effect was one of an extended fantasia, reinforced by the onset of a fugue for what I took to be the finale movement, which may well have been a reflection of Franz Schubert's four-hand piano fantasia.  If Ehrlich's performance did not leave me with a good sense of Hindemith's overall structure, it still left me curious to hear the work again.  In many ways Hindemith was a "musician's musician;"  but, since the viola was his preferred instrument, his writing for viola offers much to the "listener-in-the-street."  One only needs to give it adequate time to work up an acquaintance!

April 14, 2009: Unfamiliar trumpet performances

Last night's Faculty Recital by trumpeter Scott Macomber of San Francisco State University was a tour of unfamiliar gems, where the one familiar work on the program was offered in an unconventional setting.  For me the high point of the evening was the performance of the 1955 sonata for trumpet and piano by Peter Maxwell Davies.  The last chance I had to hear Maxwell Davies in performance was about ten years ago, while I was on a business trip in Manhattan.  A decade later it was nice to know that I could extend my acquaintance with his music through a trolley ride across San Francisco, rather than a jet across the country.

Maxwell Davies has a particular knack for delivering traditional forms through a contemporary grammar and rhetoric.  He views his ten Strathclyde Concertos (composed for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra between 1987 and 1996) as being a "family" of concertos similar to the six Brandenburg concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach.  However, as a student of Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Earl Kim at Princeton University, he could approach Bach's structures without embracing their tonal framework.  The trumpet sonata, however, predates his trip to Princeton and dates from his student years at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he was one of the founders of New Music Manchester.  It is a relatively brief work in which one can already hear his search for a rhetorical approach to delivering thematic material that moves beyond the usual tonal conventions.  Much of the audience consisted of students who had to attend and write about recitals as part of a course requirement.  I doubt that many of them appreciated this as the work of a composer just beginning to find his voice;  but, for those of us who seek out every opportunity to hear Maxwell Davies, it was a refreshingly informative experience.

The Maxwell Davies sonata was preceded by the 1952 sonatine for trumpet and piano by Jean Françaix.  Like the Maxwell Davies sonata, it is structured around traditional forms, turning to the Baroque, rather than the classical sonata.  The three movements are a prelude, sarabande, and gigue (with a brief cadenza preceding the gigue).  However, these forms are honored in little more than name;  and Françaix approached them with a playful Gallic spirit that we would never expect to encounter in Bach.  Françaix is far from one of the most profound voices of twentieth century music, but there is a confectionary quality to his light touch.  Like any confection, his work has a place in our musical diet, as long as it is not consumed to excess.  Most performers feel they are too serious to perform his music, which is too bad for both the performers and their audiences.

After the intermission Macomber offered performances of two vocal works.  The first was a setting of the poem "The Song Unsung" by Rabindranath Tagore composed by Macomber's accompanist, Stephen Damonte (completed in 1999).  The second was Gustav Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen cycle of four songs.  In both cases the program provided the texts.  Obviously one could not follow the words precisely, but it helped to know what the texts were conveying while listening to the music.  Damonte's Tagore setting was performed on cornet, accompanied by both piano and viola, leading me to wonder if he had chosen Johannes Brahms' two Opus 91 songs for alto, viola, and piano as a model.  As Brahms had subtly applied a folk touch to these songs, Damonte offered only a slight hint of orientalism;  but I am not sure that the cornet provided the right instrumental color for that hint.  Similarly, it took a bit of adjusting to try to hear the character of Mahler's rejected lover in the voice of Macomber's trumpet.  Only in the third song, "Ich hab' ein glühend Messer," where the knife glows in fiery fanfare passages, did the trumpet really capture the spirit of the text.

The evening ended with the Opus 18 sonata for cornet and piano by Thorvald Hansen.  This work was very much in the spirit of nineteenth century composition, reminiscent of the rhetoric of Robert Schumann.  My ear still lacks the experience to appreciate the difference between a trumpet and a cornet, so I cannot really grasp why Hansen made this specific choice.  However, it was an upbeat way to end the evening;  and Macomber was certainly true to that spirit.

April 11, 2009: Bringing a French touch to the San Francisco Symphony

Stéphane Denève made his first appearance conducting the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall last night.  (This program was first performed at the Flint Center in Sunnyvale on Thursday night.)  Born in France and educated at the Paris Conservatoire (where he graduated with a unanimous First Prize), he is currently Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  He has extensive conducting experience in both Europe and the United States involving a wide repertoire of both opera and concert music;  but last night it was clear that a sure command of French music, particularly from the early twentieth century, was one of his fortes.  The second half of the program consisted of the 1908 suite that Gabriel Fauré prepared based on incidental music he had composed for a London production of Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande, followed by Ibéria, a three-movement suite which is the second of Claude Debussy's 1909 Images pour orchestre.

Both of these suites, almost superposed in time, explore rich palettes of orchestral color, for which Denève brought a sure sense of balance and pace.  However, he also brought an equally sure sense of contrast, which was absolutely vital both within each composition and in this particular side-by-side setting.  This was no mere "musical tour of all things French" but an opportunity to appreciate the differences between two close contemporaries.  As a point of departure for those differences, one might consider what was happening in painting at that time.  From that point of view, Fauré would appear as an impressionist in contrast with a more fauvist Debussy.  The Pelléas drama is highly enigmatic, relying more on suggestion than assertion;  and Fauré's music basically sets contexts for the suggestions.  Fortunately, each of the four pieces in the suite is sufficiently well-structured to be appreciated without extensive knowledge of the drama's narrative, although, where material was shared across the pieces, Denève conveyed a good sense of viewing the past from the present.

Ibéria, on the other hand, consists of three "Spanish scenes" that take us from a busy day on the streets through a quite "perfumed" night that dawns on the festive morning of a holiday.  Much of the Spanish color is grounded in a large percussion section (in contrast to Fauré, who restricted his percussion to the timpani);  but the driving energy of the music comes from the interplay of solo voices (including strings, as well as winds and brass) against the ensemble.  The final movement may take place in the morning, but the festivities are already breaking down into unrestrained revelry.  Debussy brought a sure command of melodic and rhythmic fragmentation to capture this gradually emerging chaos.

The program began with the first San Francisco performance of "blue cathedral," composed by Jennifer Higdon in 1999 in memory of the recent death of her younger brother.  With its own characteristic approach to managing the resources of a large and diverse orchestra (and percussion section), this relatively short piece was in good company with the orchestral rhetoric of both Fauré and Debussy.  However, what I found most striking was Higdon's ability to bring focus to individual sounds, rather than the broader "flow" of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic progressions.  In contrast to other "memorial" works, this is a composition that almost strives to make time stand still, suspending time from its flow the same way that memory does.  Denève seemed to "get" this compositional strategy and conducted the subtle interplay of Higdon's momentary impressions in such a way that this new work was as accommodating to the audience as were the more familiar French "standards" of the second half of the program.

The one weakness of the program was the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's K. 491 C minor piano concerto with soloist Piotr Anderszewski (also making his debut with the San Francisco Symphony).  Mozart compositions in a minor key are rare, and each one is a gem in its own right.  However, even the best precious stone ends up only as good as its setting in a piece of jewelry;  and the sensitivity that Denève brought to Fauré and Debussy (not to mention Higdon) simply did not serve the turbulence and tensions found at the heart of this particular concerto.  This was most evident in smoothed-over string phrases that would have been better served by sharper articulation.  Similarly Anderszewski tended towards sensitive delicacy when the aggressiveness of the more "radical" (as Joseph Kerman put it) Mozart was in order.  This more forceful streak only emerged when Anderszewski played his own cadenzas, leading me to wonder if he had been deliberately playing down the Mozart in order to play up his home-made bursts of virtuosity, particularly at the end of the first movement.  For all the insights that Denève brought to his "French touch," this short-changing of Mozart was still a great disappointment.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

April 6, 2009: The Beethoven cycle concludes

Last night at Davies Symphony Hall András Schiff concluded his two-year eight-concert cycle of the complete piano sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven with the last three sonatas in the set.  The opus numbers of these works are consecutive (109, 110, 111).  They were composed between 1820 and 1822, placing them in the final decade of Beethoven's life.  In his notes for the program book, Michael Steinberg called these three works a triptych;  but I wonder if Beethoven thought of them this way.  Had they been conceived as a unit, I would have thought that they would have shared a common dedication (if not opus number, like the three sonatas collected respectively under Opus 2 and Opus 10).  However, Opus 110 lacks any dedication, while Opus 109 is dedicated to Maximiliane Brentano (whom, as I had previously mentioned, Beethoven had taught composition eight years earlier as a nine-year-old girl), while Opus 111 is dedicated to the Archduke Rudolph, also one of Beethoven's composition students, to whom the Opus 73 "Emperor" piano concerto was dedicated (and the "Archduke" of the Opus 97 piano trio).  Thus, these sonatas are less a triptych than they are three experiments in departing from the conventions of the piano sonata, sharing certain attributes but each strikingly unique in its own way.

None of these sonatas follows the usual three-movement or four-movement structure associated with the form;  and any presence of the "sonata form" movement is relatively subtlety concealed.  Both Opus 109 and Opus 111 concluded with elaborate variations on an extended theme, pushing the sense of a prolonged duration even further than it had been pushed in the third movement of the "Archduke" trio.  The conclusion of Opus 110 goes back to the fugal process of Opus 106, but with a much tighter structure, a recitative "interruption," and a wild roller-coaster ride beginning with an inversion of the theme and pulling out just about every contrapuntal device while going out in a blaze of glory.

The uniqueness of the three sonatas has less to do with their virtuoso demands, however, and more to do with their introspective nature.  Most of the high energy is concentrated in the final movement of Opus 110 and the opening movement of Opus 111.  For the most part, however, the mood is reflective and thus well served by the theme-and-variations movements.  Opus 109 breaks the ground, so to speak, exploring the potential of mining variations from an extended theme.  Opus 111 then works the ground that has been broken, weaving fabrics as rich in counterpoint as those of the Opus 106 and Opus 110 fugues but now in the service of variation.  Most important, however, is that, after all the explorations, both sets of variations return to the quiet and meditative theme upon which each has been based.  These three sonatas show Beethoven the "reflective practitioner" in the best light, each giving its own voice to the uniqueness and profundity of the composer's reflections.

By taking a disciplined approach to the music as Beethoven wrote it, Schiff made sure that Beethoven's "voice" behind these three sonatas was the center of attention.  Each of these sonatas can be turned into its own "advertisement" for the pianist's virtuosity (which is not to say that Beethoven avoided exploring his own virtuosity).  Schiff's performance made it clear that he wanted us to come to hear Beethoven, rather than Schiff.  When it was a matter of a particular "message" depending on a subtle detail, he made sure that the detail did not get lost in the wash of other notes.  When it was a matter of the "overall experience," he paced that experience to facilitate taking it in as a whole.  It is hard to imagine Beethoven being better served than he was last night, whatever ups and downs the other concerts in the cycle may have displayed.

The final touch, in a way, was Schiff's decision to pass on any encore.  He wanted Opus 111 to be the last word of the evening.  While he had made many innovative encore decisions for the preceding seven recitals, last night he left the "sense of an ending" (as Frank Kermode put it) in Beethoven's hands.

April 5, 2009: Half a century of jazz experience

Recently I wrote about how, where the making of music is concerned, influence can be a two-way street.  The example I posed to make my point concerned the relationship between Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Haydn, but I have also written about a similar relationship between George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel.  Much of twentieth-century music actually benefitted from this "two-way street" relationship between what was called "classical music" and what was called "jazz."  John Coltrane used to practice his saxophone by trying to play along with recordings of recent classical compositions;  and there is good reason to believe that his study of the opening passage of Béla Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra" seeded his own musical ideas that would later flower into "Giant Steps."  In the other direction I have used my blog to cultivate personal fantasies about how composers other than Ravel responded to exposure to jazz.  Thus, I have imagined Igor Stravinsky sitting in the Hot Club de France in Paris listening to Stéphane Grappelli, gnashing his teeth in envy because he could never figure out how to write music that sounded that way.  In the real world, on the other hand, Karlheinz Stockhausen played jazz piano in clubs as a way to pay for his education between 1944 and 1947.  He may later have tried to bury this particular "anxiety of influence" under his own personal theories of composition;  but it is hard to listen to the recordings of Licht (his cycle of seven operas, one for each day of the week) without thinking of jazz performers like Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, and Jimmy Knepper.

This raises the interesting question of whether or not the "moment" style of composition, for which Stockhausen is best known, was a product of how Stockhausen listened to (or, for that matter, made his own) jazz.  However, at a time when the "serious" composers of the fifties were marveling at Stockhausen's experiments and innovations, the jazz world was developing its own take on the "moment" style.  Ornette Coleman was one of the first to move in this direction;  and last night at Herbst Theatre I discovered that Ahmad Jamal has now cultivated his own voice within the "moment" style.  In both cases I have SFJAZZ to thank for providing opportunities to hear these jazz masters.

In my student days Jamal was known almost exclusively for "Poinciana" and what the SFJAZZ program book described as its "light, dancing sound."  Fifty years on Jamal is still playing "Poinciana," but in a far more deconstructed way.  By assuming that we all remember "how it used to go," he can now extract individual "moments" from the tune, putting each one under a microscope, so to speak, and examining it from a variety of different angles before moving on to another "moment."  Hearing Jamal do this with a familiar tune helps us to hear this same moment-based approach to his more recent work, in which we are less familiar with what his sources are.  It will probably help me go back to listening to Stockhausen, even when his sources may have been based on abstract inventions rather than past music-making experiences.

Jamal was accompanied by a three-piece rhythm section.  James Johnson's drum set was supplemented by a more diverse (and relatively Latin) percussion section played by Manolo Badrena.  James Cammack played bass.  However, there were not the usual breaks for extended rhythm solos that we tend to associate with a jazz performance.  Jamal's emphasis was on the ensemble as a whole and on an integrated composition, rather than a song on which everyone gets an improvisatory take.  To some extent this, too, represents more of an influence from chamber music than from the tradition of jazz combos.  Thus, while the program book emphasized Jamal's influence on Jacky Terrasson, Benny Green, and Eric Reed;  it is the way in which Jamal himself continues to be influenced by music practices coming at him from all directions that most confirms his NEA Jazz Master status.  Through Jamal we learn to listen to more than jazz;  we learn to listen to the broader scope of how music is being made today.

April 3, 2009: Let Offenbach's sun shine in

The buzz on Broadway may be all about the revival of Hair, but the San Francisco Conservatory Opera Theatre has brought the Spirit of the Sixties to life in their staging of Jacques Offenbach's operetta Orpheus in the Underworld.  Offenbach seems to have taken delight in reducing the time-honored classics of Greek mythology to all-too-human (and therefore usually ludicrous) situations (as in La belle Hélène).  However, he used the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to take just as much liberties with music history as with Ancient Greece.  Thanks to Claudio Monteverdi, this myth tends to be associated with the birth of "opera as we know it;"  but Offenbach's primary target is the sober dramatism of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, which just happened to be one of the major features of the current season at the Metropolitan Opera.  Considering some of the reviews that the Met production received, Gluck may have gotten more respect out of Offenbach's spoofing than he got from Mark Morris' staging for the Met;  but, as I observed in my preview of this production, San Francisco Conservatory Opera Theatre decided to take Offenbach's spoofing to the next level by transplanting the world of Greek mythology in the fertile soil (literally in Act I) of Sixties San Francisco.

My personal experience has taught me that operetta works best when you remain faithful to the basic story line and leave everything else up for grabs.  Offenbach's librettists, Hector-Jonathan Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy baked a delicious cake lampooning the solemnity of the Greek myths;  and director Richard Harrell restricted his attention to the icing, while leaving the cake itself intact.  That icing included an English translation by Buck Ross with a good ear for casting outrageous jokes in clever rhymes.  (It should be observed, however, that Ross was content only to suggest the obvious off-color rhyme for "Venus;"  Cole Porter came out and actually wrote it into a (too) seldom-performed "Parody version" he wrote for the refrain of "You're the Top!")  Then we have the plot line itself, which reduces both Orpheus and Eurydice to almost negligible significance while dwelling on the high jinks of the Olympic Pantheon.  Jupiter in particular came off as if he was channeling the Lemur King Julien from Madagascar, with a little bit of Ricky Ricardo thrown in for good measure.  In such a setting both flower children and stoners were perfectly at home;  and everything came together in that final "Infernal Galop" ("Can-can") scene, which I shall take over the ritualistic monotony of "Let the Sun Shine In" any day!  As I wrote in my preview, there are only a few performances remaining between now and Sunday afternoon at the Cowell Theater;  but this bit of operatic adventurism is definitely a "must see!"