Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I'm Thrilled, Thrilled, I Tell You.

The Met sends me a begging letter the week that they're going to lock out the unionized employees:



No donations this week, thank you. And conductor Ron Spigelman has a few words to say about the Met's leadership.



Monday, July 28, 2014

Ten Questions for the New Esterházy Quartet

Anthony Martin of the New Esterházy Quartet (Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violins; Anthony Martin, viola; William Skeen, cello) was kind enough to talk to me about the quartet's recent and upcoming projects and performances. It's especially timely because they're playing three different programs this week at Berkeley's Hillside Club, all well worth seeing. Concert details are at the end of this post.


1. What makes the NEQ different from other string quartets?

We play on period instruments, with the gut strings characteristic of all string instruments until a hundred years ago, and the lighter bows characteristic of the late 18th century. For our Amadè-Athon we're playing from facsimiles of the 1st edition, not as a gimmick, but to bring us closer to Mozart's time and his intentions. When we have uncertainty about the notation we consult a facsimile of his autograph score. The differences are enlightening! But the main difference I suppose is an Early Music sensibility coupled with Modern ability. We are unabashedly acoustic musicians, not trying to overwhelm with volume, but rather to discover the nuance and rhetoric that the music demands and the instruments enable.


2. How did the quartet come into existence?

We set out to give the first performances in America on period instruments of all of Haydn's Quartets. We spent a year planning and rehearsing, then played all 68 quartets in 18 concerts over a three-year span.


3. The NEQ spent several years playing all and recording many of the Haydn quartets. What's your current big musical project?

While we didn't record all of the Haydn, we have released 4 CDs of Haydn Quartets derived from our live performances. The current big project is the Amadè-Athon, all six of the Quartets that Mozart dedicated to Hadyn, in three concerts this Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday at the Berkeley Hillside Club. It's not generally appreciated that the Mozart Quartets are large-scale, substantial works. Too often a Mozart Quartet is the opener of a concert that then proceeds to Beethoven, Brahms, or Bartók, thus reducing Mozart, shorn of his notated repeats, to the role of an appetizer rather than that of the main course he deserves to be.


4. What other projects have you planned and performed?

Each of our seasons has been a project. We try to play a Haydn Quartet on every concert, the exceptions being the current Amadè-Athon and an all-Boccherini Quintet concert with cellist Elisabeth Le Guin a few years ago. Then we try to show Haydn's continuing influence on his contemporaries and successors. We will continue a series called Haydn and His Pupils, which features Beethoven as well as lesser known students, such as the Swede Paul Struck this coming season and the Pole Franciszek Lessel a few years ago. We also played six programs with quartets that were dedicated to Haydn during his lifetime, featuring of course Mozart, but also Peter Hänsel, Ignaz Pleyel, Hyacinthe Jadin, and others not as well-known but well worth hearing.


5. Who are some of the quartet's favorite collaborators?

Our main collaborator, our Muse, is Joseph Haydn himself. But in the flesh-and-blood realm we have enjoyed working with cellist Elisabeth Le Guin, oboist Marc Schachman, pianist Eric Zivian, violist Ben Simon, and composer Paul Brantley. We should also credit various colleagues and librarians who have helped us locate some rather rare musical materials.


6. Have you considered performing some of the less-well-known classical and early romantic composers? Cherubini, Hummel, Dussek, Sor, Auber, Moscheles, for example?

Certainly! At the request of one of our Palo Alto fans we played Cherubini's 2nd Quartet, and we have played some of Hummel's music, to pick from your list. We have recently recorded the Quatuor Hongrois of the 19th century composer Imre Székely, and we have ventured so far into Romanticism as to emerge out the other side, with Schönberg's Quartet in D from 1899 and Bartók's First Quartet from 1908. 


7. Tell us how the Hillside Club came to be the quartet's East Bay home.

Bruce Koball contacted us about playing a concert there. The ambiance and the audience were so congenial that we have happily agreed to become their Resident Quartet and play our next season there on five Friday evenings through the year. The Amadè-Athon is a kind of mini-summer festival to brighten up the neighborhood, and our lives!


8. Where else do you play during the year?

In addition to Fridays at the Hillside Club, our season concerts are Saturday afternoons in the beautiful St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco, and Sunday afternoons in All Saints' Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. We also will play out of town for Pittsburgh's Renaissance & Baroque Society in January, and we will present the pre-concert lectures, on Chamber Music at the Prussian Court, for Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra's October concerts.


9. In addition to Haydn, which great musical figures of the past would the members of the quartet most like to talk with and play music with?

Well, Beethoven is problematic, and not merely because of his hearing disorder. He seems to have been disorderly in many respects, or lack of respects. Mozart as a personality might be beyond our reach. I think we would all be interested in hanging out with Schubert or Mendelssohn, phenomenal and (alas!) forever young.


10. Whose works that the quartet hasn't yet performed are you most hoping to play in the future?

We look forward to playing more Beethoven and Schubert, direct heirs of Haydn. We've played only the last quartet of Schubert, starting at the top, but there are other masterpieces by him awaiting us. We have yet to play any Mendelssohn, a serious gap in our repertoire. We have the idea to recreate programs of famous quartets of the 19th century, so surely they will lead us to some interesting composers and pieces.

You can see the New Esterházy Quartet at Berkeley's Hillside Club this week:

Info: 510-845-1350
Wednesday 30 July 2014 at 8:00pm
Friday 1 August 2014 at 8:00pm
Sunday 3 August 2014 at 4:00pm

The Berkeley Hillside Club
2286 Cedar Street
Berkeley 94709

Admission: $20 general; $15 students & seniors; $10 Hillside Club members 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Carlo Bergonzi



The great Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi has died, age 90. You can make a case that he was the greatest of postwar Italian tenors, for the elegance of his line, the beautiful sound, and the scrupulous musicianship. He wasn't the loudest (probably Del Monaco) or the flashiest (Corelli, I guess), but he was a great Verdian and superb in Puccini and bel canto.

He hardly sang in SF, appearing only in an otherwise undistinguished Forza in 1969, in a better-cast Ballo in 1985 (with Neblett and Cossotto), and in a 1986 recital. He sang more than 300 performances at the Met, which was admittedly about 2500 miles closer to home than SFO. He had a very great career worldwide.

I only heard him live once, from an unusual vantage point: I was in the unidiomatic college-student chorus that participated in a concert performance of Il Corsaro at Town Hall in 1982. He was 58 but the sound remained very beautiful.

Parterre Box has a tribute to him posted.

RIP, Carlo Bergonzi.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

London Photos

Because I am a crazy person, I took between 900 and 1,000 photos during my two weeks in London. They're now (mostly) posted at Flickr, arranged into albums by expedition or subject. The albums range from a dozen or so photos up to 166 (sorry!).  There's an album of 39 photos I like best, but I should add a bunch to that one.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Peter Gelb Wants to Lose His Job

In letters to the company’s unionized workers, Mr. Gelb, who is seeking to cut pay and benefits, wrote that “if we are not able to reach agreements by July 31 that would enable the Met to operate on an economically sound basis, please plan for the likelihood of a work stoppage beginning Aug. 1.” He added, “I sincerely hope to avoid such an unfortunate event.” 
Mr. Gelb said in an interview, “If we haven’t reached agreements, the Met really has no option in my opinion but to impose a lockout.”
C'mon: this tactic worked out so well in Minnesota. Apparently Gelb and the Met's board aren't aware of the enmity stirred up against the board and management by the 16-month musician lockout, or of the eventual resignation of the executive director and a good chunk of the board. And it's not as though those events are a secret.

Here's Alan Gordon of AGMA, who has not always been sensible in his own pronouncements:
“He has no intention of actually reaching an agreement by Aug. 1 unless it’s his agreement,” Mr. Gordon said of Mr. Gelb. He also said: “Once he locks out employees, his relationship with the performers at the Met is over. They will never respect him again. He’ll be the captain of a ship where the crew is just waiting for a chance to mutiny.”
For once, he is right on.

Peter Gelb, you have a choice: it's called play and talk. I suggest that you keep talking.

Wagner Here and There

The 103rd Bayreuth Festival opens this week. Even if you're not going, you can hear plenty of Wagner:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Trip to Texas?

If only these two productions, 195 miles apart in space, weren't also months apart in time:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fantasy Opera Update

Three years ago, I wrote a series of postings detailing the operas I would stage if I had all the money in the world. It was, of course, a list of operas I'd like to see. Here's an update on which of those works I've managed to see.

  • Ades, The Tempest. Seen on HD broadcast, heard some excerpts live at SFS (never reviewed the program). I continue to like this opera a lot. People like to pound on the libretto, which I think is quite a bit better than they do. If not for supertitles, would it be so disliked?
  • Birtwistle (The Minotaur, or any opera). I saw Gawain and Yan Tan Tethera in London and would like to see them both again. Gawain is deeply serious and surprisingly philosophical; YTT is the obvious entry-level Birtwistle opera. It is serious but also very charming. I mean, how many operas have a chorus of sheep?
  • Britten (anything except Billy Budd). I've seen the magnificent Peter Grimes at SFS and two productions of Turn of the Screw, while managing to miss two productions of The Rape of Lucretia.
  • Janacek, From the House of the Dead. Seen on DVD in the great Chereau production, conducted by Boulez. A great, great piece.
  • Strauss, Frau ohne Schatten. Seen at the Met and reviewed here.
  • Verdi, Falstaff. Seen again last year at SFO in a not-very-lovable Olivier Tambosi. I need to write this up.
  • Boito, Mefistofele. Seen last year at SFO; I need to write it up.
  • Dallapiccola, Il Prigioniero. Seen in concert in London, not yet reviewed.
  • Barber, Vanessa. Seen at West Edge; reviewed here.
  • Glass, Einstein on the Beach. Seen on tour and sensationally great; reviewed here for SFCV.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

More on Birtwistle's Birthday



Tributes and commentary elsewhere:

Happy Birthday to Sir Harrison Birtwistle

The great British composer turns 80 today! Celebrate by listening to the May performance of Gawain that I attended, which will be broadcast at 18:30 London time. I think that is....right now, more or less.

Here's Earth Dances if you don't have 3 hours for Gawain:

Tokyo Symphony on Maazel

Press release from the Tokyo Symphony, more personal and touching than much of what I have seen:

Tokyo Symphony mourns passing of Maestro Lorin Maazel

The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra deeply mourns the passing of Maestro Lorin Maazel.

Maestro Maazel first conducted the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in November 7, 1963, which was his debut in Japan. Forty-eight years later, he led the Tokyo Symphony in performances of Beethoven’s 1st symphony and Mahler’s 1stSymphony in a special concert commemorating the TSO’s 65th anniversary. This concert took place after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March, 2011, which severely damaged our home concert hall, so his appearance gave us great encouragement. TSO musicians still describe that concert performed under his baton as an unforgettable experience.

We were especially shocked by the sudden news of his passing because we had been discussing with him his return toconduct the TSO in the 2015 season.
We remember Maestro Maazel expressing his love of Japanese culture including Kabuki and Noh and Japanese cuisine. He enjoyed drinking Japanese green tea during rehearsals and backstage.

We express our sincere condolences to his family and express our gratitude for what he bequeathed us and the musical world. [please click for pdf file]



July 15, 2014
Tokyo Symphony Orchestra

Monday, July 14, 2014

Found in a Maazel Obit

From Allan Kozinn's Times obit:
In 1989, he was on a short list of candidates to succeed Herbert von Karajan at the Berlin Philharmonic. When Claudio Abbado was chosen instead, Mr. Maazel insisted that he never had any intention of leaving his Pittsburgh orchestra, and canceled his Berlin dates — not, he said, in a fit of pique, but so that Mr. Abbado would have more time to whip the orchestra into shape.
Riiiiiight.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lorin Maazel

The eminent conductor Lorin Maazel died earlier today, age 84. I never heard him conduct in person, missing my chance when his Castleton Opera visited Cal Performances a few years ago and another when he subbed last year during the VPO's visit, so I have little personal testimony to give on him. I can say that I never made it to the end of his Tosca recording; while the casting of Nilsson, Corelli, and DFD may have sounded like a good idea at the time, it doesn't work out very well. Maazel's conducting is fine, though not in a class with De Sabata or the very different HvK.

Maazel came from a well-off family and got an early start, with music lessons of various kinds commencing at age 5, and he first stepped in front of an orchestra at 8. Every discussion of his work mentions his great technical skill and also his sometimes-eccentric interpretations.

For more, read these obits and other commentaries:
Found in Anne Midgette's obit for Maazel; exclamation points mine:
Several times in the later stages of his career, Mr. Maazel announced that he was eschewing any further music directorships to devote himself more to composing, only to have his resolution overturned by an offer he couldn’t refuse. The clearest instance of this was when the New York Philharmonic — having ditched the 73-year-old Kurt Masur because they wanted a younger conductor — came calling for Mr. Maazel, who was 71. When Mr. Maazel’s father — by then 98 and a committed New Yorker — heard that his son was taking over the Philharmonic, he said: “Now that’s a job.” (Lincoln Maazel died in 2009, at 106.) [!!]
I read the NYPO's statement on Facebook (!) but cannot find it on their web site. (NYPO: consider putting a link to your Newsroom page on the NYPO home page.)

It's apparent from the Post-Gazette obit that Maazel did a tremendous job of rebuilding the PSO.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Foxman and Ideas

Today's NY Times has an eloquent letter from Abraham Foxman arguing that Mein Kampf, by Adolph Hitler, should be published in Germany. I agree with him on this.

However, he's the same guy who thinks you shouldn't get to see The Death of Klinghoffer. It's pretty clear from his HuffPost piece of June 20 that he and his allies pressured the Met to cancel Klinghoffer entirely.

Hipsters in Oakland

I worked in downtown Oakland, on Franklin St. near 19th, from mid-1990 through mid-1996. At the time, the best coffee in the neighborhood came from Cafe Pasqua on 20th and Aromas on Franklin. Pasqua eventually disappeared into the maw of Starbucks. Aromas is still there. In the 90s, the best you could do foodwise was Pho 84, on 17th. They're still there and still great; back then, I probably ate there once a week. Sure, there was Da Vinci's, still there and still offering cheese tortallini in Alfredo sauce for $9.95, and mediocre Chinese food. For a couple of years, there was a decent, not great, Indian buffet.

I wandered around the area a bit last night with my dog and my, how things are changing.

I found three fancy coffee shops in the blocks bounded by 17th, 19th, Franklin, and Harrison; two fancy bars (one in a space previously occupied by a run-down sandwich shop called Belly Roll Ben's), a whole-animal restaurant, a shop selling vintage clothes and music on vinyl, a nutrition and fitness consultancy, and a raw-food store called RAWR. Hawker Fare and Umami Burger are both a couple of blocks the other side of 19th.

These changes fall under the rubric of good/bad. Yes, it's nice to see downtown Oakland coming back. In the 90s, Emporium Capwell was on the downswing, the Fox Theater was crumbling, there was little housing and nowhere to shop or eat downtown, a number of buildings had been damaged in the '89 earthquake but never repaired or demolished, and the place was deserted after work. Now there are good places to eat, from Umami to Flora; vintage buildings have either been restored or replaced by new office towers (Pandora is in one of these); the parking lots on Telegraph across from the old Capwell building have been replaced by condos and rental apartments.

But people who've lived in Oakland for decades are being driven out by the increasingly impossible cost of housing and by gentrification; not nearly enough new housing is under development; there aren't enough jobs, still. Oakland is still a high-crime city. Gentrification is making improvements top down, but there just is not enough help for poorer citizens, the schools don't get nearly enough money (and take look at the blatantly racist and classist school districts: some straight across the wealthy, mostly-white hills, all others include the flatlands), the city is very, very poorly managed.

So, life in Oakland: a mixed bag.

Monday, July 07, 2014

What I Am Reading For Fun

I quote:
To be a longa the first note of the phrase (case 1) must be the pitch of the modal final. The second note of a multi-note syllable (case 2) is only a long if it is not preceded or followed by another one of the five exceptions. A single plicated note (case 3) is a longa when the note plicated is itself written as a longa. If it is separately written it has the value of an imperfect longa, but if it is ligated it could be a perfect longa or even a four-unit longa. (The actual value would depend on neume shape and notational context.) Also, a pair of plicated, ligated notes with the written value of two breves could have the value of breve-longa if they are followed or preceded by a longa.
From p. 65 of The Sound of Medieval Song, by Timothy J. McGee.

Believe it or not, this is a book that I've wanted to read for the last five years. (Thanks to Prof. Jesse Rodin for describing it to me back in 2009.) Don't ask me to translate the above; I sort of understand what's going on - sort of - but I would have to review a lot of terminology (and draw diagrams) to explain it to someone who is not familiar with early music notation.

I can also report the odd circumstance that I have met Prof. McGee, long ago, and will be dropping him a note to say hi.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Dawn Fatale on the Met

I ought to have linked to Dawn Fatale's Parterre Box series on the Met when it was published earlier this year, but here they are now.




Good News from San Francisco Opera

I already knew that the Wilsey Center, which will be constructed in the Veterans Building on Van Ness, adjacent to the Opera House, will house an archive. What I did not know, but learned from the Show Boat program, is that there is a project underway to catalog the archival holdings of the company. It is a big project, because there are significant gaps in the materials that have been located; for example, it's just not possible that no one took production photos in 19555 and 1956.

They're looking for volunteers, and if you're interested in joining the 13 current volunteers, or you have materials to donate, send email with details to archive@sfopera.com.

And if you've read the article in the program, for the record, Lotte Lehmann never sang a complete Isolde here or anywhere else, though she did record a tender and lovely version of Isolde's transfiguration. Her SFO roles were Cio-Cio-San, Tosca, Sieglinde, and the Marschallin. 

Oy, Google

Usually I'm a fan of Google Doodles, but today's....well, every current or ex-flutist in the US who watches the whole video is cringing. The kid's hands are improperly placed on the piccolo and the cuts to "Stars & Stripes Forever" are unfortunate. Yeah, time and attention limits, but.....

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Small Point in a Good Interview

Today's Chron has an interview with Ailyn Pérez and Stephen Costello and the travails of being an operatic couple. There's an error in the description of their joint appearance at San Francisco Opera in La Traviata:
One of Verdi's most memorable works, "La Traviata" is one of opera's most popular romantic tragedies. Pérez and Costello are playing the star roles of Violetta Valéry and Alfredo Germont - a courtesan and a nobleman who engage in a fiery love affair that is quashed by Alfredo's family. Violetta dies of consumption, and Alfredo's heart is shattered.
In the context of the interview, calling Alfredo a nobleman isn't a big deal, but it is for understanding the opera itself. 

If Alfredo were a nobleman, there would be no consequences to the affair. His father might have a quiet talk with him, reminding him to keep Violetta at least somewhat out of sight and suggesting he not spend every penny he has on her. And we'd have no opera, if that were the case.

But the Germont family is bourgeois and upright. Alfredo's public involvement with Violetta is causing a scandal back home, and interfering with the marriage prospects of Alfredo's sister. That puts the family in a serious situation; the sister has no chance of marital happiness and the entire family's social acceptability will be affected if the affair continues.

It's out of sympathy for the sister that Violetta agrees to leave Alfredo, while concealing the real reason. That's why we find the scene in Act III, where he throws the money at her, so wrenching. We know the sacrifice she is making, and why, and we know that she still loves him. It's why we love her.

Update: The interview now correctly identifies Alfredo's social status.

Peter Gelb and the Metropolitan Opera Contract Talks

Months ago, I'd opined that Peter Gelb would not destroy the Met with a lockout. The contract negotiations have now been in full swing for months, and you could say that I am no longer sure of this. The public war of words has gotten to the point where it's a little tough to tell the rhetoric from the reality.

Both sides are guilty. Alan Gordon of AGMA started with the inflammatory public statements back in February. He has continued with them ever since, to the point that his union members might consider taking him aside and suggesting he back off.

The Metropolitan Opera's musicians, whose union is the AFM, hired a publicity firm, Geto & de Milly, that has been sending me sundry press releases and reports. Here's a link to their report on "Peter Gelb Mismanagement," which they delivered to the Met Board of Directors.

On the other side, Peter Gelb has made his share of stupid remarks to the press. Here's a paragraph from a New Yorker article by Alex Ross (make sure you read the whole eloquent thing):
Especially disheartening is the fatalistic tone that Gelb has struck in discussing the Met’s biggest crisis, “Klinghoffer” notwithstanding: the ongoing negotiations with the sixteen unions that represent the Met’s great beehive of performers and workers. Gelb has said that expenses have become ruinous and that employees must accept cuts. The unions have responded by blaming Gelb for rising expenses and diminishing receipts. The underlying financial situation is difficult for an outsider to assess, and Gelb may have valid points to make. But he loses credibility when he blames wider cultural trends for the Met’s particular problems: “There aren’t enough new audience members replacing the older ones who are dying off. It’s no secret that the frequency of operagoing in the U.S. is decreasing.” Such actuarial language is unworthy of the leader of one of the world’s largest arts institutions. Incidentally, Gelb has revealed that seventy-five per cent of the Live in HD audience is sixty-five or older. “Those are people who are so old that they can’t go the Met, to the theatre, anymore,” he has said. This, apparently, is the same audience that would have become bloodthirsty after a viewing of “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
I'm going to be a little less polite that Alex is in the above: Insulting your audience members is a really, really bad thing to do. The HD broadcasts are known to be a profit center for the Met, so it is especially bad to insult them. Also, you know, with 1,500 theaters showing Live in HD, most of the audience members live too far away to attend the Met on a regular basis.

As Alex recounts, this isn't the first of Gelb's PR blunders. He's still defending the Lepage Ring. He tried to ban Opera News reviewers from reviewing the Met.

The Met has a communications department, and I'm willing to bet that the folks there are competent, and that they'd be happy to help keep Peter Gelb's foot out of his mouth. I have to conclude that he is either not consulting them or not listening to them.

At a time when tense contract negotiations are going on, he really ought to consult them and listen to them. (And Alan Gordon should get some help too, before the chorus smothers him under their costumes o keep him from making things worse.)

Lastly, there are a couple of things that I hope everyone will keep in mind as the contract negotiations continue:

  • The Met's annual budget has gone up by approximately 50% since Peter Gelb took over from Joe Volpe.
  • Somebody signed those contracts that Peter Gelb now says are killing the Met.
  • That person's name is Peter Gelb.
He should be taking some responsibility for the current situation, in other words.

I said a while back that the Met board couldn't really replace Gelb, given that people who can run a gigantic arts organization aren't exactly thick on the ground. Present circumstances suggests that the Met might, in fact, be better off without him.

And I had a thought the other day: David Gockley retires from San Francisco Opera in two more seasons. He has done a sterling job of controlling costs, working well with the unions, planning for the future, increasing the company's endowment, and hauling in big contributions. If anyone can get the Met under control for the long term, he's the one.