Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The World of Grażyna Bacewicz

The third annual Bard Music West festival took place at the Noe Valley Ministry a couple of weekends ago, focusing on Grażyna Bacewicz, a great 20th century composer (1909-1969) whose music most people outside of Poland have never heard. The two co-founders of Bard Music West, pianist Allegra Chapman above and cellist Laura Gaynon, stumbled across Bacewicz while on a trip to Poland a couple of years ago, and decided to present a festival dedicated to the underplayed composer, feeling she was the equal of her more famous contemporaries.

They were right and all of Bacewicz's music that I heard over two days at the festival was great, and so were the performances, including, left to right, violinists Mélanie Clapiès and YuEun Kim, cellist Laura Gaynon, and violist Jessica Chang, playing the composer's String Quartet #1 (1938). Bacewicz's style of composition early in her career was "neoclassical," a label she disputed, and it sounded more like a Bartok or Shostakovich string quartet than anything by Stravinsky, for instance.

Bacewicz grew up in a musical family and was both a piano and violin virtuoso besides a precocious composer. After studying at the Warsaw Conservatory under the wonderful Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, she went to Paris and studied with Nadia Boulanger. Nadia was a Monteverdi fan and conducted a famous 1937 recording of his 9 Madrigals. So the festival offered three of those nine madrigals in a performance by EQV: left to right mezzo-soprano Colby Smith, countertenor Sam Faustine, bass PJ Dennis, tenor Tim Silva and soprano Yuhi Alzawa Combatti.

This was followed by Jeffrey LaDeur playing solo piano music by contemporary influencers: Boulanger, Szymanowski, Paderewski, and Debussy, followed by clarinetest Bill Kalinkos playing Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (1918) by Stravinsky.

The festival's opening concert ended with the masterpiece of the evening, Bacewicz's 1952 Piano Quintet #1 with violinists YuEun Kim Mélanie Clapiès, pianist Allegra Chapman, cellist Laura Gaynon, and violist Jessica Chang.

The Saturday afternoon concert featured a world premiere, a tradition at Bard Music West. Called Remains: Trio for Strings, it was written by French violinist and composer Mélanie Clapiès above. Unfortunately, she gave an introduction in heavily accented English that was almost as long as the programmatic work about war and mourning itself.

The intro sort of ruined the piece for a few of my friends, but I liked the music a lot, particularly the use of simple vocalising by the string players along with rhythmic stomping for advancing armies. Pictured are Mélanie Clapiès, violin, Laura Gaynon, cello, and Jessica Chang, viola

The incomparable new music soprano, Sara LeMesh, arrived for a grab-bag of Polish art songs, including a jazzy pop song by Lutoslawski of all people (I'm not expecting anybody, 1959), two vocalises from 1949 Andrzej Panufnik's 1949 Hommage a Chopin and his 1944 patriotic Children of Warsaw, and Bacewicz's amusing I have a headache, 1955.

Finally, the festival turned its full focus on Grażyna's music, starting with pianist Allegra Chapman and violinist Luosha Fang playing the Partita for Violin and Piano (1955). After intermission, Chapman returned and played the stuffing out of Bacewicz's 1953 Piano Sonata #2. Even though composing and playing/teaching the violin, the composer herself performed the premiere and she must have been a truly superb pianist because this piece sounded fiendish at times.

The Tesla Quartet (Michelle Lie and Ross Snyder, violins, Edwin Kaplan, viola and Serafim Smigelskly, cello) finished the concert with another masterpiece, Bacewicz's 1951 String Quartet #4, in a tight, thrilling performance.

There was a third festival concert that evening which I did not attend because concentrated listening to new music for hours at a time is exhausting. I salute those who made it through all three concerts, to the excellent performers, and to Chapman and Gaynon for introducing a new-to-most composer. It would be wonderful hearing more Bacewicz at the SF Symphony and elsewhere, because there are plenty of her symphonies and concertos and ballets that would all reward hearing at a live performance.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Revival Meeting

Thursday evening in Civic Center, we walked home from the Main Library past an illuminated Bill Graham Auditorium...

...and a blue-and-gold City Hall...

...which hosted a small crew of people on its plaza who looked like extras from The Walking Dead...

...some of them twirling in ecstasy before a small stage where a Christian revival was taking place.

Participants came by to let us know about the gospel, which reminded me of teenage hitchhiking days. When older men would pose questions that were a little too personal, I always wondered whether they were going to ask if I wanted a blow job or if I had heard of a man named Jesus Christ. Both solicitations usually had the same tone and energy.

The next day, to shield our front windows from the unseasonable heat of the sun, we put up some sarongs in the window which transformed the living room into a churchlike atmosphere, and we prayed for all those trapped in the California fires.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Japanese American Fusion with Left Coast Chamber Ensemble

Earlier this month, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble opened their season with a concert that included commissions for two Japanese composers working in the United States. One of those pieces was Wind Whisperer for flute, viola, and harp by Karen Tanaka. The other work was Sharaku Unframed, a "micro-opera" by Hiroya Miura. (Pictured above from left to right are Left Coast Artistic Director Anna Pressley, composers Karen Tanaka and Hiroya Miura, and UC Berkeley Japanese history scholar Mary Elizabeth Berry.)

The afternoon before the performance at the SF Conservatory of Music, there was a "preview" in Samsung Hall at the Asian Art Museum. This was partly because Tanaka was asked to write a piece in response to the current Noguchi/Hasegawa exhibition at the museum, which is good and worth seeing. At the preview there was a conversation about Japan and the West influencing each other, dominated by Berry's assertions on how there is no such thing as a "pure" culture. "Most of the things that people around the world think of as quintessentially Japanese actually originated elsewhere, which they made their own," if I may paraphrase. Then there was a performance of excerpts from the forthcoming concert, including the world premiere of Tanaka's Wind Whisperer. The only problem was that the acoustics in the high-ceilinged Samsung Hall at the museum are terrible for everything, whether it be music or lectures or movies.

The short, delicate trio sounded much better at the SF Conservatory and even managed to upstage the more substantial Sonata for flute, viola and harp by Debussy, both performed by flautist Stacey Pelinka, violist Kurt Rohde and harpist Jennifer Ellis.

In between the two works was Dan Fukijara's Neo for the the shamisen, performed by Hidejiro Honjoh, one of the world's greatest virtuosos on the three-stringed, long-necked Japanese version of a lute. After intermission, he also played and sang two traditional songs, and then performed his own composition, Nihon chanchaka shiki meguri (Quick Tour of Japanese Seasons).

Hiroya Miura gave an explanation of Sharaku Unframed, which was taken from a short play by an American poet, Arthur Davison Ficke, set in a New York modern art gallery in 1940 where ukiyo-e prints by the late 18th century artist Sharaku were being shown, a historical reality.

Sharaku was the pseudonym for a late 18th century artist who created 160 prints, mostly of Kabuki actors, over the course of 18 months, and then was never heard from again. Theories about his real identity are all over the map, but it's been speculated that he was a Noh Theater actor who was fascinated by the more vulgar style of Kabuki in contrast to the very reserved style of Noh.

All the characters are ghosts, and the simple staging and costuming by Liliya Lifanova was very effective. It helped that one of the gallerists, Madame Vignier, was sung by the reliably wonderful soprano Nikki Einfeld...

...and the equally talented baritone Daniel Cilli as the art connoisseur Mr. Mansfield.

The coup de théâtre was the arrival of a silent Noh actor representing Sharaku with Hidejiro Hanjoh singing and playing the shamisen. The music shifted from a modern Western style to a more traditional Japanese sound, and the ghostly meeting of Japanese artists and Western art connoisseurs felt spooky and perfect.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Free Divas

It was too crowded and too hot and too far on Muni to go to Sunday's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival a couple of weeks ago, so we walked across the street to the Veterans Building for SF Music Day. Dozens of musicians were performing from noon to eight in four different venues in the beautiful old building, and we caught violinist Kate Stenberg and pianist Sarah Cahill in Herbst Theater playing Debussy and Lou Harrison. Cahill is playing more Harrison next month, his Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, with Gamelan Sari Raras on Friday, November 8th at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. It looks fascinating.

We went home to watch Judy Collins live-streamed from Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, and then returned to The Green Room for pianist Allegra Chapman and soprano Sara LeMesh presenting underperformed modern songs, with composers ranging from George Crumb to Grazyna Bacewicz to Henry Cowell.

The Green Room has terrible acoustics, but but somehow the two performers had the packed place mesmerized, and you could hear a pin drop. LeMesh is an intensely dramatic singer who gets her effects musically rather than with histrionics while Chapman is a lively, almost superhumanly gifted pianist who makes complex music sound clear.

The blessed, silent concentration of the audience was too good to last, and a young mother with a noisy four-year-old and infant sat down next to us halfway, so we exited. No matter. The same two performers will be appearing this weekend at Bard Music West, a three-concert festival at the Noe Valley Ministry this weekend. They will be joined by a whole host of performers from around the world celebrating the 20th century Polish, female violinist and composer Grazyna Bacewicz. Check it out by clicking here.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Chesa Boudin for San Francisco DA

An ardent young political volunteer was canvassing the lightly attended Castro Street Fair last Sunday advocating Chessa Boudin for San Francisco District Attorney in next month's election. George Gascon, the widely disrespected current DA, announced last year that he would not run for re-election, and for the first time in a century there was a district attorney election in San Francisco without an elected or appointed incumbent in the race. That was true until last weekend.

Gascon made an announcement last month that he was retiring from his job three months early, which allowed for Mayor London Breed to appoint candidate Suzy Loftus to the position. This kind of maneuver has been standard operating procedure in the corruptly provincial world of San Francisco politics for decades, but this was a particularly blatant, egregious example of gaming the electoral system, and it may possibly backfire. For more details and commentary on the situation, click here for the SF Examiner's Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez and David Talbot in the SF Chronicle. Remember, there are three other candidates running other than Loftus, and we have ranked choice voting in San Francisco, so vote for whoever you want in whatever order, but be sure that Loftus is neither Choice #1, #2 or #3.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Computer Meltdown Sabbatical

Ever since being a teacher's assistant at the San Francisco State Multimedia Studies Program in the early 1990s, I have been a stickler for keeping liquids away from computers. Last night, however, the contents of an unsipped martini went flying across my laptop, and the fault was mine. So Civic Center is taking a little sabbatical until I get around to buying a new computer. Sorry, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, your Japanese themed concert was wonderful last weekend and there are some nice photos, but they are probably unsalvageable. Will be back soon, I hope.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Fin de siècle at New Century Chamber Orchestra

The New Century Chamber Orchestra opened their new season last week with a program devoted to music from the turn of the 19th century to the 20th century featuring a young piano soloist who wasn't even born until the 21st Century.

Music Director Daniel Hope gave graceful introductions to all the short pieces in the first half of the program, which ranged from Elgar (Introduction and Allegro, Chanson de Matin) to an early Schoenberg Notturno for Strings and Harp, with a slow movement from a violin concerto by the Norwegian Christian Sinding seguing into Massenet's Meditation from the opera Thais. As usual, Hope was an impassioned, accomplished soloist fronting his newly energized string ensemble.

The Greek violinist Simon Papanas was appearing as "Guest Concertmaster" and besides leading the chamber orchestra, he played a violin transcription of the vocal line of Richard Strauss's famous song, Morgen. Though the accumulation of relentlessly pretty pieces during the first half of the concert started to feel like a collection of perfumed bon-bons, it was certainly fun.

The second half of the concert was devoted to one work, but gosh, what a piece it turned out to be. Like most of the audience, I had never heard Ernest Chausson's 1891 Concert for Violin, Piano and String Quartet, a four-movement, 40-minute-plus chamber work that was astonishingly good. The string quartet parts were expanded for the entire chamber orchestra, which worked better in some movements by giving the music symphonic heft and not as well when maximum clarity for the violin and piano was required, but it didn't matter because the "concert" was so consistently varied and given such a passionate performance. Adding to the excitement was the West Coast debut of the 16-year-old piano wunderkind Maxim Lando from New York. Daniel Hope pointed out that the piano part was one of the most challenging in the entire chamber music repertoire, and he was right, but Lando seemed to have absolutely no difficulties with its intricacies.

Best of all, Maxim looked like he was having a hell of a lot of fun, and his youthful energy seemed to spread through the entire ensemble. In addition, his shy, sly looks for synchronizing cues at Hope and the other instrumentalists while hunched over the piano were adorable. I'm not a big fan of youngsters onstage at professional, adult musical events, but Lando felt like an exception, and his musical virtuosity felt special for any age.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Weird-Ass Stravinsky at the SF Symphony

Please excuse the click-bait title but was having a difficult time coming up with a better adjective. Instead of the usual Firebird or Rite of Spring, Michael Tilson Thomas and the SF Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed a trio of off-kilter, concentrated late Stravinsky compositions last week, and it was wonderful. The evening started with 1955's Canticum sacrum where Stravinsky played with Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositional style in a strange, jagged prayer with a huge chorus and a tiny orchestra bereft of violins and cellos. The baritone and tenor soloists were local oratorio favorites Tyler Duncan and Nicholas Phan, respectively, and they made the thorny vocal lines sound gorgeous. The chorus was an occasional, thrilling presence, but Tilson Thomas took the pace too slow, making it sound dirge-like. The work is more startlingly interesting when taken at a quicker, more disjointed pace.

The 1930 Symphony of Psalms, another piece for huge mixed chorus and a larger orchestra (but still no violins or violas), was given a virtually perfect performance, and the unearthly beauty of the final Alleluia movement sent most of the audience floating out of the auditorium. It may be my favorite Stravinsky composition, especially after hearing this.

After intermission, there was a non-Stravinsky amuse bouche, Haydn's Cello Concerto #2 with the young Oliver Herbert, who used to play with the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra, as soloist. Herbert had a sweet, flawless tone but is not yet at that interpretive place where music takes flight beyond the notes. The orchestral accompaniment was lively in the long first movement, but the performance started to drag in the final two, and made one wish for more Stravinsky.

Which we got, the 1945 Symphony in Three Movements, a 20-minute blast through a World War Two New Yorkscape that had enough ideas for a piece three times that long. The first movement had a few moments that amusingly presaged Philip Glass, while the second movement Andante played with a fractured tune that sounded like a similar refrain in Stravinsky's 1951 full-length opera, The Rake's Progress. The final movement is a rambunctious barn-burner, perfect for a composer conducting its premieres with various orchestras around the world, including the SF Symphony in 1946. The evening was one of MTT's better programs, and made me realize how much we'll miss him.