Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Volti Open Rehearsal, Wednesday, October 7

Volti, the Bay Area's superb new music chorus, is having an open rehearsal tomorrow in San Francisco. They'll be reading through a new work by Tonia Ko, who is their Choral Arts Laboratory (CAL) composer for the 2015-16 season.

Here are the details:

Volti: Open Rehearsal with 2015-16 CAL Composer Tonia Ko

DATE & TIME: October 7, 20157-9pm


1187 Franklin St
San Francisco, CA 94109

Monday, October 05, 2015

Post-Weekend Miscellany

Sweden has issued a series of arts-related bank notes, and the individuals pictured include Ingmar Bergman, Greta Garbo, Astrid Lindgren, and Birgit Nilsson. Can't the US have pretty currency illustrated with people other than politicians??.....Ethan Iverson interviews tenor Mark Padmore...After consideration, I'm convinced that Alex Ross is right about Andris Nelsons, the BSO, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus...also see Alex's post on the performing arts in America....Patrick Vaz lists "Fun stuff [he] may or may not get to" for October (I also might or might not get to that stuff)...San Francisco Symphony has appointed Matthew Spivey, currently Vice President and General Manager of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), to the position of Director of Artistic Planning. The press release says this about the job:
As Director of Artistic Planning for the San Francisco Symphony, Spivey will work closely with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas in setting the Orchestra’s artistic direction and act as a member of the executive management team. He will oversee programming for the Orchestra’s 31-week subscription season, recording projects, commissioning programs, tours, festivals, and provide artistic direction for the SF Symphony’s 200+ concerts and presentations each season. The San Francisco Symphony serves one of the largest concert-going and music education audiences in the U.S.   
That means that he's the guy to complain to when we get a season that looks like this.

Festival Opera, stepping out of its usual habitat in Contra Costa County, will visit Oakland with an interesting double bill next month: Gustav Holst's Savitri and Jack Perla's River of Light. They'll be performed November 14-15, 2015, at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center Arts, 388 9th Street, Oakland, CA. Both chamber operas will be sung  in English. For more information, visit Yes, I'll be thinking about the fact that they're staging a pair of operas, composed by white men, about India.

Saturday, October 03, 2015


I opened the season brochure for Symphony Silicon Valley and found a program called Prokofiev & Sinfonietta, but the composer of the Sinfonietta was listed as...well, see the scan:

Janácfi? What? 

The description sure sounds like the great Janacek Sinfonietta: blazing brass, indeed. The piece calls for 4 horns, 9 trumpets in C, 3 trumpets in F, 2 bass trumpets, 4 trombones, 2 euphoniums, and a tuba.

Aaaaaand the web site has it right: Janáček. Looks like the graphic designer didn't know a hacek from whatever the heck is over the c in the brochure - but how many people did this little goof get past to make it into print?

That said, I'm putting this concert on my calendar. Whatever the Martinù is, I'll enjoy it; I'll enjoy the Prokofiev, and hey, you don't get to hear the Sinfonietta very often owing to the cost of hiring all the extra brass.

Friday, October 02, 2015

October is Hell Month

Groan. I can't go to four concerts every week.

SFS dates are the first day of a 3-4 concert run.
All month: SFO, Lucia di Lammermoor, Magic Flute.
Mariinsky is more than one date. I left Twyla Tharp off.

10/3 - Mariinsky
10/4 - Andras Schiff
10/4 -   Phil Baroque: Scarlatti discovery (other dates as well)

10/11 - SFS Chamber Music: Arensky, Martinu, Paulus
10/12 - Pavel Haas Quartet
10/12 - Bloch Lecture I, UCB: Saariaho, etc.
10/14 - Berkeley Symphony, Ravel, Berlioz, Saariaho

10/15 - SFS/Susanna Malkki, Christian Tetzlaff: Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich
10/16 - UCB: Regents’ Lecturer Anssi Karttunen in Composers Colloquium
10/18 - Anonymous 4
10/18 - Cal Bach: Zelenka Mass
10/18 - Paul Jacobs & Christine Brewer, recital
10/21 - Bloch Lecture II, UCB:  “Making Music, Sharing Music:“ Kaija Saariaho in conversation with conductor Susanna Mälkki, cellist Anssi Karttunen,

10/22 - SFS/Malkki, Trpceski: Chopin, Sibelius, Tiensuu

10/23 - eco ensemble, UCB: Saariaho composer portrait
10/24 - SFCMP, SFJCC: lots more Saariaho
10/25 - Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Marin County
10/26 - Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
10/28 - Noon concert at UCB: More Saariaho

10/30 - Ades/Cheng concert
10/30 - UCB Symphony: Saariaho, Sibelius, Debussy
10/31 - UCB Symphony: Saariaho, Sibelius, Debussy


In My Book, This was the Wrong Choice.

James Levine has dropped out of conducting the Met Lulu in favor of Tannhaueser.  Draw the obvious conclusions about his energy reserves. I'd certainly rather hear him in Lulu.

From the Met:

James Levine Will Focus His Energies on Tannhäuser This Fall;
New Production of Lulu Will Now Be Conducted By Lothar Koenigs

New York, NY (October 2, 2015) – Faced with the demands of rehearsing and performing two large-scale operas simultaneously this fall, Met Music Director James Levine has decided to lighten his workload by removing the new production of Berg’s Lulu from his schedule so that he may focus his energies completely on Wagner’s epic drama Tannhäuser. Levine has long been identified with Tannhäuser at the Met, having conducted 62 performances of the opera with the company since 1977. Lothar Koenigs, who made his Met debut in 2008 conducting Mozart’s Don Giovanni, will now lead the first 5 performances of Berg’s Lulu, a work he recently conducted at Welsh National Opera. The conductor of the final three performances will be announced at a later date.
“Conducting evening performances of Tannhäuser while rehearsing Lulu in the daytime would be an ambitious undertaking for any maestro, let alone for someone who only recently returned to full-time conducting,” said Met General Manager Peter Gelb. “I’m pleased that Jim will now be able to concentrate his energy onTannhäuser and that Lulu will be in the capable hands of Mr. Koenigs.”
Tannhäuser opens October 8 and plays seven performances through October 31, which will be a worldwide transmission as part of the Met’s Live in HD series. The cast features Johan Botha in the title role, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth, Michelle DeYoung as Venus, Peter Mattei as Wolfram, and Günther Groissböck as the Landgraf.
The new production of Lulu, directed by William Kentridge, opens November 5 and plays eight performances through December 3, including a worldwide Live in HD transmission on November 21. The cast features Marlis Petersen in the title role, Susan Graham as Countess Geschwitz, Daniel Brenna in his Met debut as Alwa, Paul Groves as Painter and African Prince, Johan Reuter as Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper, and Franz Grundheber as Schigolch.

UPDATE: Perhaps you found yourself wondering who Lothar Koenigs is, since the Met only bothers to mention his Met Don Giovanni performances and Wozzeck at the Welsh National Opera. The press release should have mentioned that Mr. Koenigs is the Music Director of the Welsh National Opera.

Met Cast Changes

Too late for Stephen Costello's withdrawal from last night's Anna Bolena, but here's an upcoming cast change for Tosca:
Roberto Aronica will sing Cavaradossi in the first five performances of Puccini’s Tosca at the Met this season—October 16, 21, 24 matinee, 29, and November 2—replacing Massimo Giordano, who is ill. As originally scheduled, Aronica will also sing the role on November 25, 28 matinee, and December 1 
Aronica adds a role to his Met repertory this season with his first company performances of Cavaradossi, a role he has recently sung with Greek National Opera, Opera di Genova, and Deutsche Oper Berlin. His other recent performances include the title role in Verdi’s Otello and Alvaro in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at Teatro Regio di Parma; Radamès in Verdi’s Aida with Opera Australia; and Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Arena di Verona. The Italian tenor made his Met debut in 1998 as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata. His other roles with the company have included the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. This season’s performances of Tosca are conducted by Plácido Domingo and Joseph Colaneri and alsofeature Oksana Dyka, Angela Gheorghiu, Maria Guleghina, and Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title role; Marcello Giordani as Cavaradossi; Roberto Frontali, Željko Lučić, James Morris, and Marco Vratogna as Scarpia; and John Del Carlo as the Sacristan. For more information, including casting by date, please click here.
Debating which particular combination of these singers I might want to see; also...surprised to see Guleghina's name in there, for some reason.

London Friday Photo

Peterborough Court, Fleet Street
May, 2014

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Saariaho Month

Kaija Saariaho is in residence at UC Berkeley this semester, and there will be quite a few performances and discussions of her music. Here's a press release from UCB, plus an addition by me, as they omitted the October 14 Berkeley Symphony program.


Monday, Oct. 12, 8-9:3 pm. Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley Campus
Bloch Lecture 1, “Secret Gardens and Public Persona:“ Kaija Saariaho in conversation with
UC Berkeley’s Matias Tarnopolsky, Mary Ann Smart, and Edmund Campion

Wednesday, October 14, 8 p.m. Berkeley Symphony, Zellerbach Auditorium, UC Berkeley Campus, including Sarriaho's Magica Lanterna

Friday, October 16, 3-5pm, 125 Morrison Hall, Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley Campus
Regents’ Lecturer Anssi Karttunen in Composers Colloquium

Wednesday, October 21, 8-9:30 pm, Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley Campus
Bloch Lecture 2, “Making Music, Sharing Music:“ Kaija Saariaho in conversation with conductor
Susanna Mälkki, cellist Anssi Karttunen, UC Berkeley’s David Milnes and Matias Tarnopolsky

Friday, October 23, 8-10pm, Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley Campus, Tickets:
Cal Performances/ECO Ensemble, David Milnes, director
Kaija Saariaho Portrait Concert with guest soloist, cellist and Regents’ Lecturer Anssi Karttunen,
soprano Lauren Snouffer, and baritone Nikolas Nackley.
Program to include: /Sept Papillons/ for solo cello, /The Tempest Songbook/ for ensemble with soprano and baritone, /Notes on Light/, for cello and chamber orchestra.

Saturday, October 24, 7:30pm, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Tickets:
San Francisco Contemporary Music Players Concert perform works for solo instruments and
video by both Kaija Saariaho and Jean-Baptiste Barrière, including /Six Japanese Gardens/ & /Time Dust./

Sunday, October 25, 8pm, Mill Valley and Monday, 10/26, 8pm, Tickets:
Left Coast Ensemble Chamber Music set including /Miroirs/ and /Sept Papillons/.

Wednesday, October 28, 12-1pm, Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley Campus, Free and open to the public
Free Noon Concert featuring Saariaho’s music with live video works of prize-winning Parisian
composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière; “/Chréode; Violance/, featuring guest soloists Camilla Hoitenga;
/Ekstasis/, for soprano, electronics & video on two texts by Simone Weil & Louise Michel featuring
soprano, Raphaële Kennedy.

Friday, Oct. 30 and Saturday, Oct. 31, 8pm, Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley Campus
University Symphony Orchestra Concert, David Milnes, conductor
Jean Sibelius, Symphony No. 4
Kaija Saariaho, /Leino Songs/ (2007), featuring soprano Ann Moss
Claude Debussy, /Jeux/
Tickets: $16/12/5, 510.642.9988

Friday, November 6, 3-5pm, Department of Music, 125 Morrison Hall, UC Berkeley Campus
Bloch Lecture 5, “Continuing Thoughts on Music:” Kaija Saariaho in conversation with Jennifer Koh
and UC Berkeley’s Matias Tarnopolsky
Free and open to the public

Wednesday, October 28, 8-9:30 p.m., Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley Campus, Free
Bloch Lecture 3, Intuition, Collaboration, Discovery: Kaija Saariaho in conversation with, flutist,
Camilla Hoitenga and UC Berkeley’s Matias Tarnopolsky

Friday, October 30, 3-5pm, 125 Morrison Hall, Elkus Room, UC Berkeley campus, Free
Bloch Lecture 4, “From the Avant-Garde through IRCAM, to the Present Moment:” Kaija Saariaho in conversation with composer Jean-Baptiste Barrière and UC Berkeley’s Adrian Freed, Edmund
Campion, and Deirdre Loughridge,

Friday, November 6, 3-5pm, Department of Music, 125 Morrison Hall, UC Berkeley Campus
Bloch Lecture 5, “Continuing Thoughts on Music:” Kaija Saariaho in conversation with Jennifer Koh
and UC Berkeley’s Matias Tarnopolsky

Free and open to the public

California Impact of Gotham Chamber Opera Collapse

Press release received a little while ago:


Gotham Chamber Opera is ceasing operations and will be closing. The Board of Directors of Gotham Chamber Opera voted today to shut down the organization. 

"We regret to announce that Gotham Chamber Opera will cease operations," said Beatrice Broadwater, president of the Board of Directors of Gotham Chamber Opera. "In early summer, the company's new executive director, Edward Barnes, uncovered a significant deficit that was not previously disclosed to the board.  We do not have, nor do we anticipate having, sufficient donations and pledges that would enable continued operations of the company." 

"I am proud to have founded Gotham Chamber Opera," said artistic director Neal Goren. "The company's fifteen year lifespan has been an extraordinary run, and we have been fortunate to be a part of New York City's cultural landscape. We are grateful to all of our generous donors, collaborators and attendees, and thank them for their support."
The company's future productions have been cancelled, and the board is meeting to determine the steps to wrap-up the organization's affairs.
And here is the money graf from Michael Cooper's NY Times article; emphasis mine:
Company officials declined to say exactly how large the deficit was, but described it as being in the “mid six figures.” Gotham’s annual budget was under $2 million, according to its most recent tax filings, which the company said it would have to amend to reflect its true finances. Mr. Barnes — who took over as executive director from David Bennett, who left to become general director of the San Diego Opera — said that it was unclear whether “Charlie Parker’s Yardbird,” which it planned to put on in May as a production with the Apollo Theater and Opera Philadelphia, could be performed without its participation.
And further down in the article:
Mr. Bennett, the former executive director, denied that he had kept the board in the dark about Gotham’s debts. “Some of the internal controls could have been better, but they weren’t undisclosed,” he said, noting that he had produced opera with a shoestring staff. “We sat on the razor’s edge for years, but we created some amazing things.” 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rant, Followed by Public Service Announcement

I can feel a rant coming on about terrible music world web sites, having just been horrified by the redesigned Met and NY Phil web sites. The Met redesign....I mean, what I can say? My tweet says it all: It went from being homely but functional to being pretty but useless.

Homely but function is always preferable, because selling tickets is more important than looking good. Always make it easy for people to give you money, as my web site basics page says.

And also: I must report that the Met's IT staff (or whoever does the web design; could be an outside design company) neglected to check how it looks and works on mobile phones. I know this because I tried the site on my phone and it just didn't work. I didn't get a mobile-adapted site, and if they think they have "responsive design," which adapts automatically to your device, they are just wrong. I saw a lot of code instead of the web site, and, well, that is not want you want your customers to see. Removing the ? from the end of the initial URL did help, but after that? Completely useless. I could not find the fucking calendar!

Note: I am a user of the most popular mobile operating system in the world. There are about a billion Android phones out there. It's better if Android users can view your web site correctly! I mean, it can't be possible that they checked this, but only on iOS? No.

And also: board members, staff, and critics should be required to use the web site to buy tickets at least annually so that they experience exactly the same pain that audience members, aka your customers, experience. I am looking at you and you and you and you and you, big-city reviewers, who can call the press department and bypass this crap. You are advocates for the audience, and calling out terrible orchestra and opera web sites is one concrete and important way to advocate for the audience.

I am not looking at myself because I buy most of my own tickets, so I do go through the pain. And then I complain about it here and everywhere else I can, sometimes in letters to musical organizations.

And also: the Tessitura web site lists the NYPhil as a customer. Man, they have the ugliest Tessitura display I have ever seen. Pony up for something better and more functional, guys. What you have looks like Brown Paper Tickets, a ticketing provider used by many smaller organizations (that is, the ones who can't afford Tessitura). It works just fine, but using a Tessitura display of that type is...really very strange for the country's oldest symphony orchestra.

Oh, gosh, I went ahead and ranted.

So, public service announcement. If you hate the search function on an organization's web site, use Google instead. There is search help, believe it or not. You have to search for it, because somehow Google is allergic to context-senstive help, that is, having a link to that help center on the search page. That would make sense, right? And I should know.

Anyway, here's the syntax for using Google to search a specific web site:

site:web_site_URL "your_search_term"

For example, if you want to find the sole performance Maurizio Pollini is giving at the NY Philharmonic, type this into the Google search box and hit return: "maurizio pollini"

If you want to see Semyon Bychkov's concerts, use this: Bychkov

For the BSO's Elektra programs at Carnegie: Elektra

Or substitute Goerke or Nelsons or "Boston Symphony" for that last term.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Demon Barber Media Roundup

Let's see what everyone else thought. I will include amusing headlines playing off the plot.
  • Joshua Kosman, Chron. "S.F. Opera delivers a 'Sweeney Todd' that's a cut above." Note the less-amusing URL when you click through.
  • Greg Freed, Parterre Box. "Leave It to Cleaver."
  • Steven Winn, SFCV. "SF Opera Attends to Sweeney Todd with a Vengeance."
  • Opera Tattle, overwhelmed by the firehose of words, reports that meat pies were served in the press room. Did anyone on the SFO staff lose a cat recently?
  • SF Mike, SF Civic Center
  • Lisa Hirsch, here.
Joshua's review reminds me that I thought the first act sagged at the beginning, then picked up in whatever the last number or two were ("A Little Priest," most likely.)

Attend the Tale

Baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." 
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Before I get to talking about what I saw and heard last Friday in the War Memorial Opera House, I need to review some history.
  • December, 2012. At the season announcement for 2013-14, David Gockley announces Show Boat and, as far as I can tell from my report of the press conference, tells us the show will not be amplified ("I believe we were also promised that it would not be amplified ("not dependent on mikes stuck down their throats")).
  • June, 2014. Show Boat opens. All of the dialog is amplified and some of the singers are amplified when they sing, those with the smaller - non-operatic - voices. Everybody sounds amplified because of "ambient microphones" in use; there is a nasty halo around the voices of Patricia Racette and Morris Robinson, for example, because of the ambient microphones. I wrote:

    Considering that part of the reason for doing a show like this in an opera house is that Broadway houses don't use full orchestras and don't use singers who can, you know, sing, maybe SFO should only be hiring singers with operatic voices when it does musicals.
  • January, 2014. Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, one of the greatest shows ever, is announced. No press conference; we get press releases instead, so we can't ask on the spot whether there will be amplification or not. Seeing that the cast is all opera singers (Gerald Finley, Stephanie Blythe, Heidi Stober, etc.). I make a bad assumption and don't send a question in email.
  • September 12, 2015. Sweeney Todd opens and everybody is equipped with body mikes, soloists and chorus alike. And it does basically no good at all.
I haven't asked SF Opera why everyone in the production is amplified, because the results are more important, at this point, than the reasoning. It might be something like "we need the dialog amplified and we can't switch the mikes on and off depending on the stage action because the audience would have to adjust its listening so often."

Well, the amplification sounds awful. The chorus is smallish for this show and the amplification makes them sound shallow and the sopranos shrill. They are not either shallow-voiced or shrill. The amplification is distracting, and because microphone technique is somewhat different from full-out vocal technique - or so said Sid Chen years ago when he started singing in Meredith Monk's vocal ensemble - there's a sense that the singers are holding back.

The dialog and song lyrics are very tough to make out, for these reasons:
  • Sondheim's lyrics are incredibly clever and difficult to parse, and there are a lot of words packed in. You don't often catch him writing long melismas; oh, okay, in "Johanna" and probably some of the other songs. But my brain was consistently behind the singers.
  • British accents. Inconsistent British accents, from singer to singer. Brian Mulligan's accent doesn't sound that much like Stephanie Blythe's, and hers is perhaps the broadest and most consistent in the show.
  • The theater is just too damn big for musical theater. (It's too damn big for opera.)
  • The amplification is not done well. It is much too obvious.
  • Terrible balances between the stage and pit. Especially at the beginning of the show last week, the orchestra was too loud.
A big, big sigh from me. I love this show, for its macabre plot, its wonderful songs, and its endlessly inventive lyrics. I have no doubt that the cast is doing its absolute best under the circumstances, but I wish SFO would just turn off the microphones. Maybe the show wouldn't sound better, but maybe it would. At least these great singers could sing out without fear.

All of that said, the production is decent-looking and effective and reasonably well directed. I can't say too much about the acting except at the highest level, because I was in the Dress Circle without my binoculars, a clear case of user stupidity on my part, because even if you have great eyes, you just can't see that much facial detail from that close to the back wall of the theater.

The singing was all very good, as you might expect with Brian Mulligan (Sweeney Todd), Stephanie Blythe (Mrs. Lovett), Heidi Stober (Johanna), Elizabeth Futral (Beggar Woman), Elliot Madore (Anthony), and Wayne Tigges (Judge Turpin). I like Stober more every time I hear her; ditto Mulligan (and I'll be happy to hear him unamplified in Lucia and the Poe double bill). Blythe has great comic talent and of course a hell of a voice, which she does not get to put on display in this show. (And no, I could not understand every word and thank Lotfi for the Supertitles.)

Madore is a newcomer to the company and I was a bit surprised to hear a baritone in this role; I thought it was written for tenor, but a perusal of the show requirements at the licensing company includes vocal ranges rather than voice types.

To wrap this up, a friend asked me whether it was worth seeing the show, and I could not give her an enthusiastic yes. I offered these options:

  • Pay a lot of money for a seat in the orchestra, first 15 rows, dead center.
  • Pay a lot less money for a seat in the balcony, on an OperaVision night.
  • Rent the video with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn.
Next time SFO performs a musical, I'll ask about amplification before I buy my tickets.

Milhaud's Médée at Mills

The worst-publicized event of the week is a performance at Mills College, Oakland of a rarity, Darius Milhaud's Médée, from 1938. Milhaud taught at Mills for many years and the college continues to perform his music.

Here's the cast and other information; anything that Nicole Paiement is involved is likely to be excellent.

Composer: Darius Milhaud
Libretto: Madeleine Milhaud
Conductor: Nicole Paiement
Director/Concept/Lighting Designer: Brian Staufenbiel
Master Electrian: Kevin Landesman
Choral Conductor: Lucik Aprahamian
Project Director/Stage Manager: Laura Anderson
Associate Stage Manager: Saskia Lee 

Créuse: Maya Kherani, soprano
Médée: Marnie Breckenridge, soprano
La Nourice: Mariya Kaganskaya, mezzo soprano
Créon: Eugene Brancoveanu, bass
Jason: Jonathan Smucker, tenor

Friday, September 25, 2015
8 p.m.
Littlefield Concert Hall, Mills College
Tickets: FREE

The performance web page has a link for making reservations, which are highly recommended.

Saariaho at Berkeley Symphony

Berkeley Symphony opens its season on Wednesday (not the usual Thursday!), October 14, 2015, with a luscious program:
  • Berlioz, Les Nuit d'été, for those of you still longing to see Les Troyens again; Simone Osborne is the soloist.
  • Saariaho, Lanterna Magica. She has fans around here, despite the impression you might get from some Bay Area reviewers. 
  • Ravel, Bolero
Lanterna Magica was done at the Proms in 2012 and a video is posted on YouTube. Here it is, complete with a brief interview with Saariaho.

October 14 happens to be Saariaho's birthday, so perhaps you should be prepared to sing a song recently declared to be in the public domain.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

SFO Cast Change AND Opera Medal Announcement

It's two, two, two posts in one!

Patrick Summers will be heading back to Houston a bit early; he will conduct tonight's Sweeney Todd, then return to Houston for an "urgent professional obligation." The two remaining performances in the run will be conducted by James Lowe.

But before Summers gets on the plane, he'll receive the San Francisco Opera Medal, honoring his 25 years of service to the company, during which he has conducted a wide variety of repertory with distinction. Congratulations, Patrick!

And congratulations to the member of the communications staff who included this gem in the press release:
Currently thrilling San Francisco Opera audiences with razor-sharp performances of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Yes, I did chortle over that.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Personnel Changes, San Francisco Symphony

A press release from SFS contains information about personnel changes this season:
  • Eugene Izotov joins the orchestra as principal oboe.
  • Chris Gaudi continues as acting associate oboe, as a one-year substitute.
  • Dan Carlson has received tenure as principal second violin. 
  • Paul Brancato continues as acting associate principal second violin. Members of the section will rotate as acting assistant principal. 
  • Sarah Knutson continues as a one-year substitute member of the second violin section.
  •  SFS principal bass Scott Pingel is on a partial leave of absence this season to teach at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 
  • Associate principal bass Larry Epstein retired at the end of the 2014-15 season, after 41 years with the Orchestra. 
  • Jeremy Kurtz-Harris, principal bass of the San Diego Symphony, will fill the position of acting associate principal bass, as a one year substitute.
  • Mark Grisez continues as acting associate principal trumpet, as a one-year substitute.
  • Tim Owner continues as acting associate principal trombone, as a one-year substitute.
  • Michael Israelievitch will fill the position of acting principal timpani, as a one-year substitute. (I loved Israelievitch when he filled in for a couple of concerts in the 2012-13 season, including David Robertson's Carter/Gershwin/Ravel program.)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Learn to Protect Yourself! Take a Women's Self-Defense Class!

UPDATED: New dates & class times!

Ever worried about being attacked? Learn effective self-protection in this 12-hour class, taught by Lisa Hirsch, a black belt jujitsu instructor who has decades of teaching experience.

You'll learn:
  • Alertness, awareness, and avoidance
  • Basic kicks and strikes
  • Escapes from common attacks
  • Home, street, and car safety
  • And much more!
This class is suitable for all women age 16 and above; techniques easily adaptable for your particular needs and abilities. We are LGBTQ-welcoming.

Four Saturdays, October 10 & 31;  November 14 & 21, 2015
12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Class fee is $110 if you register and pay before October 1; $125 after that. This class is open to all regardless of ability to pay.

Class location:
Mind Body Dojo
7512 Fairmount Ave.
El Cerrito, CA

Located just up Fairmount from El Cerrito Plaza BART, El Cerrito Plaza, San Pablo Ave., across the street from FatApple's Restaurant. The nearest freeway exits are Central Ave, from both 580 and 80

Sign up by sending email to or calling (510) 842-6243.

Who's Next?

Major cast changes at SF Opera so far:
  • Thomas Hampson withdraws from Luisa Miller after deciding that the role of Miller isn't for him.
  • Gerald Finley withdraws from Sweeney Todd on account of impending childbirth
  • Diana Damrau withdraws from Lucia di Lammermoor on account of exhaustion
  • Phillipe Sly withdrew from The Magic Flute on account of family needs
  • Nadine Sierra, stepping into Lucia for Damrau, withdraws from several performances of The Magic Flute (Okay, good on her for jumping in.)
This makes contemplate the cast of Die Meistersinger, which is full of singers new to their roles, including Brandon Jovanovich (Walther), Greer Grimsley (Hans Sachs), Rachel Willis-Sorensen (Eva), Sasha Cooke (Magdalena), and Alek Shrader (David). Uh, that is most of the leads.

Friday, September 18, 2015


Damrau out, Sierra in:
San Francisco Opera today announced cast changes for the Company’s new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, presented October 8–28, 2015, and for Mozart’s The Magic Flute, presented October 20–November 20, at the War Memorial Opera House. German soprano Diana Damrau has withdrawn from the Lucia production, in order to remain on vocal rest for the next six weeks. American soprano Nadine Sierra—who performed Lucia last spring at the Zurich Opera House to critical acclaim and, more recently, as the Countess in San Francisco Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro—will now sing the title role for all seven performances.
"I am deeply sorry for all of those who had looked forward to my performances in San Francisco and I ask for your understanding,” said Damrau in a written statement. “After 15 years of performing with little or no time for substantial rest and recuperation, along with the demands that come with a beautiful, young family, my body has reached the point when it is now ‘insisting’ that I pause for a short time. … The issue is in no way vocal, but one of exhaustion that the doctors tell me ten weeks of rest will without question fix.” Damrau is currently taking her rest here in San Francisco with her family and husband, French bass-baritone Nicolas Testé who will be making his San Francisco Opera debut in the role of Raimondo.
Sierra’s appearance in Lucia affects casting in the Company’s revival production of The Magic Flute; she was initially to have sung the role of Pamina. Soprano Sarah Shafer, recently seen as Rosetta in the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s opera Two Women, will now take on the first four performances (October 20, 25, 27 and 29) and Sierra will sing the remaining six performances as originally scheduled (November 4, 8, 12, 14, 17 and 20).
Wishing Ms. Damrau a swift recovery from the exhaustion!


By being in rows 1, 4, 6, and 12 in Bayreuth, that is, and then in the orchestra for Luisa Miller. I'll tell you, Row R in the War Memorial Opera House feels really far away compared to where I was sitting in Germany, and my dress circle seats might as well be on Market St.

I'm not going to routinely spend $250-$350 for seats, so I think it will be back to the balcony for me next season, perhaps on OperaVision nights, because then you can (sort of) see.

And yeah, the combination of distance, British accent, and intermittent, mediocre amplification meant that I understood about half of what Stephanie Blythe was singing; sometimes more, sometimes less. You bet I was glad for the supertitles.

Damrau Out of SFO Lucia?

San Francisco Classical Voice has a story saying that it looks as though Nadine Sierra may be taking over Diana Damrau's run of performances in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. Damn, I say, if this is true. Damrau's a great singer and I was looking forward to seeing her.

London Friday Photo

Royal Courts of Justice
May, 2014

Thursday, September 17, 2015

I Call Bullshit on Stephanie Blythe.

Update: It has come to my attention that Sweeney Todd is amplified. One friend hated it so much he walked out. I wonder whether Blythe mentioned this to her interviewer, and what effect that knowledge might have had on the interview.

Janos Gereben interviewed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, one of the stars of SF Opera's Sweeney Todd, and along the way she had a few things to say about supertitles.
It's a hot-button issue with me. I do not believe in them, full stop. I believe with all my heart that what Supertitles have done is to train audiences not to listen. 
They don't listen the same way - they hear it but they don't listen. I am not here to ruffle feathers about Supertitles, but I am an artist first, I serve the music, the audience, and what I see is that Supertitles have not only changed the way audiences listen, but changed the way singers prepare. It has made it a completely different experience. 
Last night, for example [at the dress rehearsal, attended by school audiences], there were several times in the dialog [which is included in the titles] when a had a word slip and I put in something else, I got the gist of the line, and my first thought was, Oh crap, that's not what they are getting in the titles! It shouldn't be that way. 
I work overtime in everything I do to be sure, especially in my own language, so that everyone understands me, so they don't have to look. Imagine, put yourself in the body of a singer, who is looking into an audience, and all you see is this: chins up.
Where to start? Well, with the idea that somehow audiences that don't have supertitles are better listeners. Blythe might try going to a bunch of symphony concerts, and see what she thinks of audiences there. She could ask them some questions about why they are there and how they listen to music. She might be surprised; lots of them are there for companionship or to hear the pretty tunes. They are not listening in the analytical and attentive way she might imagine they are.

I am curious about just how far she can see into the house when she's performing. I'm pretty certain she can't see me in the Dress Circle. And when I'm in the orchestra, my chin is up partly so that I can see the stage!

As she says, she's there to serve the audience. Audiences are better served by knowing what's happening on stage, and in more detail than might be obvious from the staging. I just saw seven operas in German, a language I don't understand very well, without supertitles. Fortunately, I've read the librettos, multiple times, and I've seen each of the operas multiple times with supertitles, but even then, I do not know what's happening or being said on a line-by-line basis, because I just can't carry around seven 900 to 1200 line translations in my head.

Maybe she can. If that's the case, I want to hear how she does it.

And, you know, there's an obvious solution to what she sees as a problem. She could be advocating for opera in English. That's right, English-language operas, and opera in translation. This will get her laughed out of every opera house in the English-speaking world that isn't the Coliseum, London.*

Oh, wait: Sweeney Todd is in English. Well, maybe she should try to talk David Gockley into turning the supertitles off. Surely her diction is good enough to be understood 150 feet away in the far reaches of the opera house, right? And under the orchestra overhang?

Well, let's look at a past review of a Blythe recital, written by me. She performed a song cycle on a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center program, in a small venue, Herbst Theater, which seats maybe 900. Here is what I had to say:
The texts weren’t printed in the program, at Blythe’s request, on the grounds that she would like to see the audience’s faces when she sings to them, and because she feels her diction is good enough that the texts aren’t necessary. This would have been easier for me to swallow if Blythe herself hadn’t had the score and texts in front of her for the duration. As an audience member I found this distracting. Moreover, while her diction was, indeed, largely superb, I had to wait until the distribution of the text during intermission to find out what, exactly, had happened to the horses at the climax of “The Mountain.” (Spoiler: No equines died in the making of the song cycle.)
I'd like to remind Stephanie Blythe that she can talk about serving the audience all she wants, but what she is proposing - the elimination of supertitles - and what she does in her performances - deny audiences the printed text - are profoundly anti-audience. I'd also like to remind her that we are paying her fees. And lastly, I'd like to suggest that she spend some time attending opera performances in a language she doesn't understand, perhaps Russian or Hungarian, and then get back to me about how terrible supertitles are.

* Personally, I would be fine with more opera in good English translations. Not Jeremy Sams, not David Gockley, but translations by Andrew Porter.

Changes: Marin Alsop Stepping Down From Cabrillo Festival

From the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music:
SANTA CRUZ, CA - September 17, 2015 - Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music announced today that Maestra Marin Alsop will step down from her role as Music Director and Conductor in August 2016, following her 25th anniversary season. The Cabrillo Festival's 54th season runs August 5-13, 2016 in Santa Cruz, CA.
America's longest running festival dedicated to new music for orchestra, the Cabrillo Festival is a preeminent force in new music, both nationally and internationally. Celebrated as a "summer mecca for musicians and a premier musical destination for audiences," (San Jose Mercury News) the Festival attracts some of the world's top contemporary composers whose compositions are shared with an award-winning orchestra and an enthusiastic audience.
Long-time Executive Director Ellen Primack and the Cabrillo Festival Board of Directors have initiated a strategic process to identify new artistic leadership. 
"It is with great sadness and after much contemplation that I make this decision but I believe this is the right time for me and for the Festival," said Alsop. "I look forward to the 2016 season when we'll celebrate all that we have accomplished together. This Festival has always been about the new and is championed by audiences and musicians who embrace a sense of discovery and risk and so I am confident and excited about what the future holds for this extraordinary institution."
I think this is good; the programming there was better this year than for the last few, but it has seemed stuck in a particular rut and this may shake it loose. 

Quote of the Day

Tweets musicologist Will Robin:
There are no great female composers because "great" is a gendered word that imbecile misogynists ascribe exclusively to male artists.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Some Advice for the Met

Yes, you certainly could raise a boatload of money in one fell swoop by selling the naming rights for the building; I've seen estimates up to $150 million. Unless you've got someone willing to name it after, say, Caruso or Flagstad or Mahler or Toscanini, it will leave a bad taste in everyone's mouths, just the way Koch Theater and Geffen Hall leave bad tastes.

David Gockley has managed to greatly increase the San Francisco Opera endowment and obtain donations of up to $40 million without selling the name of the War Memorial Opera House. He'll have some free time in less than a year, but I bet he can tell you how he does it over the phone. And he can probably help out with labor relations as well. That's been going nicely at the opera house since he arrived.

Also, Met? Keep in mind how well it all worked out for you with Alberto Vilar. What you might want to consider is staging operas that people want to see. A season as top-heavy as yours is on Puccini and Donizetti isn't going to get me in the door.

Auditions: San Francisco Symphony

Looking at the auditions page at San Francisco Symphony's web site is always a good thing to do at the beginning of a new season. Here are the auditions taking place in the near future:
  • Associate principal bass
  • Associate principal trombone
  • Associate principal trumpet
  • Principal timpani
The resume dates for these auditions are long past; auditions start this month and next.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Season Opener and Media Round-Up

My review of San Francisco Opera's Luisa Miller is posted at SFCV. As you can see, I just could not get very enthused about it, between uncharacteristically blah conducting from Nicola Luisotti, poor direction, a production that would be better if you just removed a few elements, (the horse! the riding crops! if a riding crop appears on stage in Act I, it must beat someone bloody by Act III) and mixed singing.

Luisotti is known to be variable from performance to performance, so that's the element most likely to perk up the proceedings in future performances. But it's too late to rescue the direction and make something more dramatic out of the production.

And let's face it: it's not a very good opera. Two years later, Verdi would be writing a masterpiece nearly every time he set pen to paper, and even the misses (the first Boccanegra, the debatable Vepres Sicilienne) would be a lot more interesting than Luisa.

Looking over the Verdi works list, I sort of blame Cammarano, mostly because the works around that time with librettos by Piave are so much better. "Sort of" because I haven't read the chapter in Budden about Luisa so I don't know what else might have affected the circumstances under which Verdi wrote the opera.

But the question still comes up: Why not perform Ernani instead? It calls for similar performing forces and has a much more interesting score. (Of the plot, I say little, because it sucks in its unbelievability.) It needs a blood and thunder approach to work, same as Luisa, and the only time I've seen it live was in an overly-polite production at ENO.

Well, I think the answer to my question is simple: SF Opera owns a Luisa production, but not an Ernani production. The company has performed it in 1968, 1969 (LA), and 1984 only.  The Ernani production must be long gone and might have been borrowed anyway.
More to come.