Wednesday, July 6, 2016

July 30, 2009 : Summer Music West 2009: the first chamber music recital

As Doris Fukawa, Ensemble Programs Director for Summer Music West 2009, observed in introducing this afternoon's program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the performance of chamber music is a major challenge for the young. Her comparison of chamber music to basketball was appropriate: Every individual counts, but counts not only for individual actions but also for how those actions mesh appropriately with the actions of others. At the risk of sounding too clinical, this means that proper performance has much to do with child development. Soloists can begin to emerge as they acquire the skills for the technical mastery of their respective instruments, but the development of the listening skills required for chamber music takes place along a cognitive path that is quite separate from that of the physical capacity for technical development. That latter development can be enhanced through both exposure to others playing chamber music and efforts to play it oneself, but the nature of listening is so poorly understood that few educators have the gifts to cultivate it in others. Those of us who accept the theories of Piaget do not even know whether or not there are "stepping stones" along the path to acquiring listening skills, subgoals that must be achieved as prerequisite to the final objective.

I write all this as preface to the obvious recognition that there was considerable variation of skill in this afternoon's recital. To some extent that variation was instrument-related. The wind players, in general, seemed more capable of managing the "dual awareness" of both the music they were playing and what their fellow performers were doing. The string players, on the other hand, seemed to be at an earlier stage of getting their fingers around the notes; and their awareness tended to be the weakest. In between we had the pianists, some of whom never really connected while others "got it" with truly compelling performances. It thus seems appropriate to focus on the positive surprises, rather than the weaker cases that may ultimately be resolved as child development runs its course.

Most impressive was probably a performance of the first movement of the G minor piano quartet by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (K. 478). The students' attentiveness to both the music and each other was all the more outstanding in light of the fact that the viola part was taken by a violin student (playing a violin). Even with this acoustic shortcoming, each part in the quartet spoke with its own characteristic voice, even if the piano tended to reflect Mozart's own inclination to show off at the keyboard.

The pianist took on even more virtuosic demands at the end of the program with a shift to the two-piano repertoire. In this case the music was the set of variations that Witold Lutoslawski composed on the same theme that Sergei Rachmaninoff had used for his Paganini rhapsody. Lutoslawski composed these variations in 1941 to play with his friend and fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik while they were trying to survive during the Second World War by performing in Warsaw cafés. Needless to say, café audiences tended to be more interested in entertainment than in musical sophistication; so it is reasonable to assume that Lutoslawski wrote the music to twit Rachmaninoff, whose rhapsody had already achieved warhorse status. His Warsaw audiences probably consumed his low humor (with or without the high virtuosity) with gusto. Thus, if the summer students were to be criticized at all, it would be for approach this music too seriously; but this can be forgiven, since getting through Lutoslawski's welter of notes at all is a pretty serious challenge! Whether or not they appreciated the composer's sense of humor, they knew enough to bring the program to its conclusion with an impressive display of fireworks.

July 31, 2009: Summer Music West 2009: the second chamber music recital

As was the case with yesterday's recital, there was considerable variation across this afternoon's extensive program of offerings. Once again, however, there were positive surprises, the most impressive of which was a truly stimulating reading of the first movement of Franz Schubert's C Major string quintet D. 956, scored for two cellos rather than two violas. This is another gem from Schubert's final year, which, as I have previously written, was "a time when he was as adventurous in composition as he was prolific." The added weight on the cello side is just the beginning of the adventure, as is the two-measure crescendo from piano to forte that opens the movement that the students performed. This was decidedly a case in which all five students were intimately connected to both Schubert's score and each other. Admittedly, I may have some bias, having come to this recital after having endured some rather lackluster readings of Schubert in cyberspace; but, since this is a piece I know very well, I feel I can have some objectivity in saying that this was a reading well worth the wait of most of the afternoon.

There was also a somewhat more evident sense of wit in this second recital, particularly in a wind quintet performance of Malcolm Arnold's setting of three sea shanties. Arnold begins with a truly inebriated paraphrase of "The Drunken Sailor" and from there goes madly off in all directions (as James Thurber once said). Wind players cannot get away with smiling while playing; so the fact that they "got" the humor of Arnold's approach had more to do with the fearless renditions of his most raucous gestures, particularly coming from the horn, which gets out of line with all sorts of Whitman-like yawps. If yesterday's effort to make fun of Rachmaninoff may have been lost in the performers' seriousness, Arnold's particular approach to humor could not be suppressed.

April 4, 2009: Notes without sounds

The program that pianist Natalya Lundtvedt selected to initiate the August is Piano Month! series of Noontime Concerts™ recitals at Old St. Mary's Cathedral had the potential to demonstrate the wide diversity of sounds that have been invoked in piano composition. This was achieved not only through a diversity of composers, including Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin, and Claude Debussy but also in the diversity of approaches by a single composer, such as Schubert and Chopin. Johann Sebastian Bach added to the mix, not because the piano was his instrument, but because pianists both past (such as Ferruccio Busoni) and present (such as Richard Goode and, here in San Francisco, Frank French) have placed such emphasis on exploring sonorities consistent with his musical syntax. Even the least familiar composer, Akhmed Jevdet Gadzhiev, took a sound-based approach with his invocation on Oriental exotica. Unfortunately, while Lundtvedt brought a high level of technical command to each of these composers, she displayed little awareness of the extent to which the life of the music was in its sounds, rather than its notes.

This was particularly evident in her decision to perform two successive impromptus from Schubert's Opus 90 (D. 899), the second in E-flat Major and the third in G-flat Major. These two relatively short works speak in decidedly different voices. The E-flat Major is a perpetuum mobile with a rapid figure in triplet eighth notes weaving its way in and out of the "horizontal" voices through which its harmonic support is expressed. In contrast the G-flat Major is almost a "song without words," with a soprano voice above arpeggiated harmonies in a contrapuntal relationship with a bass-line continuo. One could almost say that Schubert was experimenting in the "orchestration" of these two solo piano compositions; and that sense of orchestration is even evident in the transcription of the E-flat Major impromptu made by Johannes Brahms as a study for the left hand playing alone. Sadly, for Lundtvedt these compositions sounded like little more than technical challenges to be mastered; and, while her mastery was both evident and admirable, it did little to contribute to these works (or any of the others on the program) being the sort of exciting listening experiences that they deserved to be.

Monday, July 4, 2016

August 2, 2009: Bach at the Proms

There are a variety of advantages to having a "virtual Proms" experience through the BBC iPlayer Web site. For most of us, the cost of travel probably ranks the highest, in addition to which there is not only the price of tickets but also whether or not they are even available (not to mention the amount of time spent waiting in line to find out that they are not available). Finally, there is the luxury of being able to pick and choose both the concerts you wish to attend (perhaps based on a review you have already read) and when you actually wish to have your concert experience.

Having already enjoyed Bernard Haitink's performance with the London Symphony Orchestra at Proms 5, my personal pendulum swung a considerable distance into the past for Proms 17. This was a "late evening" Proms concert of a comparatively shorter duration due to its beginning at 10:15 PM local time. I learned about it through the high praise it received from Richard Faiman in his Financial Times review, but I probably would have been curious without having read the review. The program consisted of four motets by Johann Sebastian Bach, such by the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner with instrumentalists from his English Baroque Soloists providing the continuo. The reason I probably would have been drawn to this concert regardless of any reviews is that one of the first CDs I purchased was the 1982 Erato recording of these motets with Gardiner conducting an earlier generation of these ensembles. It would be fair to say that I learned these motets from the two CDs in that set, and they remain treasured among all of my other Bach recordings.

The four motets Gardiner selected were "Komm, Jesu, Komm!" (BWV 229), "Fürchte, dich nicht" (BWV 228), "Jesu, meine Freude" (BWV 227), and "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (BWV 225). The BBC broadcast benefitted from Gardiner's observations about these compositions. This began with the announcer leading him on by asking if he felt that the motets were inferior to the cantatas, to which Gardiner replied with a polite but emphatic negative. These are, indeed, impressive settings of sacred texts and may have enjoyed the advantage of not being churned out on a weekly basis, the way the cantatas were.

Most impressive is probably BWV 227, which was also the longest work on the program. It is one of those works that can be admired as much for its overall architecture as for the sensitivity Bach brought to setting its text. The program notes describe that architecture as follows:
‘Jesu, meine Freude’ is the most extended of Bach’s motets. The backbone of the text is provided by six verses of a hymn (1659) of the same name by Johann Franck – Bach twice incorporated verses from this hymn in his cantatas, BWV 81 and 133. Alternating with the hymn verses and their associated melody are five verses from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Chapter 8). Bach’s vocal textures range from three- to five-part writing and are organised in what one Bach writer, drawing upon a Blakean epithet has described as ‘fearful symmetry’.

In his interview with the announcer, Gardiner described that "fearful symmetry" as an isosceles triangle; and this above diagram is taken from the Erato notes to illustrate this point:
The one disadvantage of experiencing this performance only through audio is that, as both the announcer and Gardiner observed, that sense of symmetry was also realized through the physical disposition of the performers. Had there been greater stereo separation, one could have been more aware of this; but such separation would have been an artifact that would have distorted the ways in which Bach integrated his voices. The only solution would have come from visual cues; and it would be nice if Gardiner were to consider making a video document of the complete set of Bach motets, which could then be released in DVD form. Nevertheless, there is still much to enjoy in listening to the recording of this Proms evening; and it provides an excellent opportunity to build up one's experiences of listening to Bach being performed by an expert in that music.

Monday, December 28, 2015

December 30, 2009: Donald Runnicles meets Brahms in Berlin

When I wrote last month that Donald Runnicles would be visiting Berlin in December to conduct a performance of Johannes Brahms' German Requiem that included the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, soprano Genia Kühmeier, and bass-baritone Gerald Finley, I suggested that San Francisco audiences, particularly those of the San Francisco Opera, would be likely to find this concert interesting through the medium of the Digital Concert Hall.  Opera fans know that Runnicles spent many seasons equally comfortable with the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner, and Giacomo Puccini;  but Brahms' composition for both chorus and solo voice is in a class significantly removed from the world of opera.  Thus, while Runnicles is well credentialed in the concert hall, as well as the opera house, we in San Francisco have had few opportunities to appreciate those credentials.  Furthermore, having established, with the recent visit of the Berliner Philharmoniker to San Francisco, that their director, Sir Simon Rattle, is equally at home on both sides of the Wagner-Brahms opposition, I was personally curious as to how the conductor for our new San Francisco Ring would approach the other side of that opposition.

Having now seen his performance through the Digital Concert Hall archives, I am happy to report that Runnicles' command of Brahms is as secure as his command of Wagner.  This included managing the challenge of what was apparently a last-minute replacement of Helena Juntunen for Genia Kühmeier;  but there were no overt signs of this having been a substitution.  For one thing Brahms kept the vocal solos to a relative minimum, two for the bass-baritone and only one for the soprano.  The overall architecture of the composition is dominated by the interplay between chorus and orchestra, most of which involves an intense subtlety on both sides.  In the entirety of this ninety-minute work, there are really only two key elements of climax.

The first comes in two stages in a setting from Corinthians for the second movement.  The first is a stark rendering of the brevity of mortality, followed by a declaration of the power of the word of the Lord.  This requires a gradual building of energy that cannot be expended entirely on the first climax (which, to make matters more challenging, is repeated).  The second climax must shock the listener with the same sort of jolt originally intended by Paul.  This is probably as close to an operatic moment as Brahms gets in his entire repertoire, and Runnicles delivered it with all of the dramatic impact that it demanded.

The second climax comes in the penultimate movement with the same text of the Last Judgment that George Frideric Handel selected for the third part of his Messiah.  Given Brahms' interest in Handel, this could not have been a coincidence;  and, since this is a "German" requiem, it seems appropriate for Brahms to have turned to Handel to lead the way towards an alternative for the "Dies Irae" portion of the Requiem Mass.  However, while Handel focused his attention on the sound of the Last Trumpet, Brahms played down the brass work in preference for the overall agitation of the Judgment itself.  This is, again, highly dramatic material that flourished under Runnicles' direction.

This focus on climaxes should not detract from his overall conception of the performance, however.  In this composition Brahms uncovered subtleties in the alternation of the homophonic with the contrapuntal, selections for instrumentation, and even the underlying sense of a rhythmic pulse that constitutes the very first impression of the music.  That pulse is almost a measure of time in a setting in which time has lost its meaning, the time when consciousness of time has been lost, so to speak.  Brahms cut back on the number of climaxes to facilitate our listening to those subtleties, and Runnicles clearly understood the facilitation Brahms had in mind.  This opportunity to appreciate the talents of a familiar conductor in a repertoire unfamiliar to his audiences here makes a strong case for the value that cyberspace can bring to the serious listener.

December 25, 2009: Reinterpreting opera as film: the latest effort

There are two ways to approach the rendering of opera in the medium of film or video.  One is to "capture" an actual performance, preferably with camera work that will present the opera being performed in the best possible light.  This has been the basic strategy behind the Live in HD series of productions by the Metropolitan Opera.  The results have been variable;  but, when they have been positive, they have been more than impressively so.  The other approach is to rethink the entire conception of the opera, recognizing that the grammar of film differs from the grammar of the stage in significantly different ways.  The film director who understood this the best was one who was equally at home with both grammars, Franco Zeffirelli.  When he reconceived Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata as a film in 1982, he not only left a memorable legacy of some of the best Metropolitan Opera performers of that period but also left all future film directors with a tough act to follow.

This week the PBS series Great Performances presented director Robert Dornhelm's effort to follow that act with a cinematic conception of Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème;  and, as if the Great Performances producers feared that we did not know what we were going to get, they presented the result under the title La Bohème:  The Movie.  It has also been released as a DVD by Kultur;  and, while the package cover (pictured above) simply gives the name of the opera, the page refers to it as La Boheme: The Film (apparently neglecting the grave accent on the "e").  Now, to be fair, this document has the value of an opportunity to hear Rolando Villazón in full voice before he was obliged to cancel most of his engagements for health reasons;  but, if that is the major motivation, then he deserved better treatment than what he received from Dornhelm.  The same can be said of all the other musicians involved in this project, particularly conductor Bertrand de Billy, whose name flies by before you realize why it was there and appears to be entirely absent from the DVD cover, which identifies only Villazón and Anna Netrebko.

The real problem, however, goes beyond giving credit where credit is due.  Presumably, as is usually the case, all film was shot after the entire opera had been recorded, with all performers lip-synching to their recorded voices.  Unfortunately, this is one of those cases in which the studio amplification balance work tends to undermine both the drama and its visualization.  We are given the impression that Villazón is always singing full-out.  This has a variety of problems.  Most important is that he has a physical disposition that shows the strain of such a forceful voice, and Dornhelm's camera is never kind to appearance of that disposition.  However, from a dramatic point of view, all that force undermines the climax of the opera.  Rodolfo's primal scream of grief upon discovering that Mimi has now died is just another instance of Villazón in full voice, perhaps even weaker than any preceding instances.

Since so much of the action of this opera takes place on Christmas Eve, by all rights this DVD could have made an excellent Christmas gift.  It may still do for those (many?) who are enthusiastic fans of Netrebko and Villazón (particularly while waiting for his performance schedule to get back in full gear).  However, while Zeffirelli's Traviata could not only satisfy opera fans but also make a case to everyone else about what excited those fans, Dornhelm's conception is unlikely to hook any potential newcomers into going to a performance of La Bohème;  and, given how we used to rely on PBS in the "good old days" to inspire curiosity in the performing arts, this latest Great Performances product is a great disappointment.

December 24, 2009: Richard Goode returns to San Francisco Performances

On Friday, January 22, at 8 PM, Richard Goode will return to Herbst Theatre to present a piano recital under the auspices of San Francisco Performances.  For me there will be a strong sense of anniversary to this occasion, both public and personal.  Since this will be Goode's fifteenth appearance with San Francisco Performances, one could not think of a better selection for their 30th Anniversary Season;  but my first reaction to the announcement of this event was the discovery that he would be performing music that I had encountered the very first time I heard him give a recital.  This was a performance at Alice Tully Hall that concluded with Robert Schumann's Opus 16 Kreisleriana cycle;  and this same work will conclude the program he has prepared for his visit to San Francisco.

Those unfamiliar with the significance of the name of this eight-movement composition need look no further than its Wikipedia entry:
The work is intended to represent the fictional character Johannes Kreisler from the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Like Kreisler, each piece has 2 very different sections, resembling the imaginary musician's manic-depression, and perhaps recalling Florestan and Eusebius, the two imaginary characters created by Schumann himself, who said that they represented his impulsive and dreamy sides, respectively. Johannes Kreisler appeared in three books by E. T. A. Hoffman, most notably in Kreisleriana (1813).
Composed in 1838, the work was dedicated to Frédéric Chopin.  Not only is it one of Schumann's most sophisticated compositions;  but also it captures the spirit of Hoffmann's literary imagination far more perceptively than the music we usually associate with him, either Jacques Offenbach's operatic setting of his tales or the usual narrative line for Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet.  The last time I had to write about this music was another San Francisco Performances event, a recital by Jonathan Biss.  On that occasion I used my blog to provide a basic sense of the spirit behind both Hoffmann and his literary creation:
I first encountered Kreisler in my college days. A mathematics professor I knew had pointed me in the direction of Hoffmann's Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr nebst Fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. This purported to be an autobiography of a cat (Murr), who was kept by Kreisler. Unable to find blank sheets of paper, Murr decided to write this autobiography on the opposite side of pages that Kreisler had used to document his own life. The resulting text is an oscillation of disconnected fragments as the "editor" (Hoffmann) reproduces both sides of each sheet of paper in the order in which he found them. Those fragments were enough to convince me that Kreisler was one scary character, so it did not surprise me that one of Hoffmann's working titles for his Kreisler material was Lucid Intervals of an Insane Musician.
The successful execution of Schumann's fantasies on Hoffmann's creation thus requires just the right combination of confidence and guts to situate the listener on that brink between lucidity and insanity without ever providing even a breath of security.  The young Goode I heard about a quarter-century ago had both the confidence and the guts;  but the overall narrative arc of the music eluded me, leaving me more with a sense of each nightmarish tree than of the entire forest.  Thus, I am looking forward with great curiosity to how Goode's approach to this music (and my own listening skills) will have matured with experience.

This recital may also provide further opportunity to consider the impact of Johann Sebastian Bach on Schumann's compositions.  Most likely Hoffmann never studied Bach's music as scrupulously as Schumann did;  but, in the literary world, he had Kreisler perform the Goldberg Variations at tea parties, presumably to rather uncomprehending ears.  Goode's ears are far more comprehending, and thus they serve us well in our own efforts to grasp the Bach listening experience.  This is particularly true in his approach to negotiating the complexities of Bach's counterpoint by invoking the metaphor of a social conversation of "statements" and "responses" embellished by some of the social cues (like nodding in agreement) through which understanding arises.  Thus, his selection of two prelude-fugue couplings from the second book of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (BWV 883 in F-sharp minor and BWV 884 in G major), should provide excellent preparation for how we, as listeners, approach intricate details and the overall structure of Kreisleriana.

Schumann's studies also included the keyboard music of Joseph Haydn, and it is likely that he came to know Haydn's sonatas before his first exposure to Bach.  One might even speculate that Haydn's coupling of often highly unorthodox invention with a mastery of formal structure may have provided an initial stimulus for the dialectical relationship between Schumann's Florestan and Eusebius.  Thus, Goode's decision to include three Haydn sonatas  (Hoboken XVI/21 in C major, Hoboken XVI/20 in C minor, and Hoboken XVI/40 in G major) on his program may provide us with as much preparation for Kreisleriana as his Bach selections will.  In addition, Goode will be giving a free pre-concert talk on Haydn at 7 PM, one hour before his recital begins.  I would not presume to speculate whether Goode will explore any "Schumann connection" in this talk, since any one of these three sonatas provides more than ample material for discussion on its own!

Tickets for the concert itself will be $49 and $32.  Further information may be obtained from San Francisco Performances at 415-392-2545.  Tickets may also be purchased through the Web page for this event.