Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Andris Nelsons, Further to Previous

The BSO released an update from Andris Nelsons on the matter of sexual harassment in the classical music world.  It's unfortunately a jpg or something; I can't find the text on the BSO web site's press section, but I will transcribe it below.

You can pretty much tell which sentence come directly from Legal and/or Public Relations:
During a recent interview with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on WGH's Boston Public Radio I did not express myself as clearly as I would have liked when asked about the issue of sexual harassment in the classical music world. In my own experience working in the classical music industry for many years, I myself have not seen overt examples of sexual misconduct in my day-to-day work life. That being said, this kind of offensive behavior, unfortunately, takes places in all fields, including, of course, the classical music industry. All of us in the field must remain constantly vigilant and fight against all types of inappropriate and hurtful behavior, and continue the essential work of creating a fair and safe work environment for all classical musicians. Though involvement in music and the arts can't cure all the ills of society, I do believe that the inspiration they provide has the potential to help us reflect at times on the better angels of our natures. Or more simply put by Beethoven -- the genius composer of the Ode to Joy symphony, considered the universal anthem of brotherly/sisterly love -- "Music can change the world."

I have to say, this is pretty awful. Fake Beethoven quote; "I've never seen it myself", which is so often a way to cast doubt on those who have, and which is most easily said by powerful men whom nobody IS going to harass, and nobody will harass another in front of; unwarranted belief in the inherent goodness of a musical style; citation of a work that has a wide variety of associations; "I didn't express myself as clearly as I would have liked." No, you didn't; it's pretty clear that you believed what you originally said and had to be talked down.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Andris Nelsons Puts His Foot in His Mouth, Bigtime

Headline in the Boston Globe:

Nelsons made this ridiculous claim last week, on Boston's public radio station. He missed the stories about Dale Clevenger, former principal horn of the CSO; he must have missed the much more recent stories about harassment at Berklee College of Music in Boston (not primarily a classical music school, but still). And apparently he wasn't paying attention during the part of the his training as a new manager at the BSO that covered sexual harassment law. (If that wasn't covered, it should have been.)

By now, the BSO legal department has probably got him in their office explaining that just by making that statement, he created an environment in the orchestra where anyone being sexually harassed might be afraid to come forward, since their music director has said that it's just not a problem in classical music. And perhaps Kristine Opalais has had a word or two with him as well.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Girls of the Golden West: Go See It!

If you read this blog, you know that next week San Francisco Opera will present the premiere run of performances of Girls of the Golden West, by John Adams, libretto by Peter Sellars, directed by Peter Sellars.

I have not seen it, I have heard only the short orchestra bit "Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance," I have seen the same public photos everyone else has, but I'm telling you, get a ticket and see this. It's not often that a great composer like Adams writes an opera, and lots of composers - I'm looking at you, Ludwig van - don't have the theatrical flair you need to write successful operas. So Adams is sitting in a particular sweet spot in musical history, along with, say, Mozart, Berg, Britten, Shostakovich, and a few others I could name who excelled in orchestra music, chamber music, and operas.

So get a ticket. I haven't read the libretto yet, haven't seen the staging, haven't heard a note of the music. There's likely to be some terrific music, even if, at the end of the night, you are scratching your head about one or another aspect of the opera.

Here are a couple of previews, by Georgia Rowe and Michael Cooper:

Friday Photo

Sunny assists me in studying for the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West
October, 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Anxiety Dreams

Historically, I don't have a lot of nightmares or anxiety dreams, and the ones I have tend to be of the crumbling-teeth variety. The other day, though....

I woke up from a dream in which I had somehow been appointed to conduct the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West. And it was two weeks until the date, and nobody had provided me with the score.

I have basic conducting skills, it's true, but they are very basic and  they have deteriorated since grad school, when I was an assistant conductor of one of the choruses at Stony Brook and led sectional rehearsals of the Missa Solemnis. I led a rehearsal of a very tiny chorus doing comparatively uncomplicated music earlier this year, with no personal rehearsal of the pieces we worked on, and I could wing it fairly well. But there is no way I could conduct a John Adams opera without lengthy study. NO WAY, you hear me?

Realistically speaking, if Grant Gershon is not, for some reason, able to conduct, the most likely substitute is JCA himself. There can't be many people who know the score well enough to step in and conduct GGW.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reading Russell Platt? If Not, You Should Be.

The New Yorker is lucky enough t have two first-class classical music writers on board. I'm sure you know Alex Ross's work, and his books, and I hope you're also reading writer, editor, and composer Russell Platt, whose short articles appear on line, but not in the printed New Yorker. If not, you can start here, and I'm sure you will like what you read.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Compare & Contrast 33: Gardiner in NY

John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir spent six months touring with the three surviving Monteverdi operas. They hit New York the other day; Justin Davidson and Anthony Tommasini were there, and wrote the following sharply different reviews; Alex Ross is less enthused than Tommasini, but still very complimentary to the performers, with none of Justin's snark and a lot of penetrating commentary about Monteverdi's greatness:
Long ago, A.C. Douglas was incredulous that I'd rank L'incoronazione di Poppea with Le Nozze di Figaro, but after seeing four productions, I'll stick with that assessment. It is among the very greatest of operas.

Updated on Saturday, Nov. 11, to add Alex Ross's review and my closing comment, then bumped to the top of the blog again.

Friday, November 10, 2017

WMOHAW Syndrome

That would be: War Memorial Opera House Acoustical Weirdness Syndrome. Everybody seems to suffer from it from time to time.

For example, here's a bit from my account of the Elektra prima, back in September of this year:

Okay, so my reservations are largely nonmusical. But I made a mistake: I swapped my Dress Circle seat for Orchestra M, nearly dead center, which is the perfect location for hearing the orchestra, but voices tend to be more recessed there than when you're up above them. And, goddamn it, the voice most affected by this was Christine Goerke's, presumably because of its placement, dark color, and the tessitura of the title role, which lies more in the low and middle ranges.
The other singers came over well, and I am kicking myself for relocating to the orchestra rather than Grand Tier....or staying in my subscription seat. So I feel that I can't make a fully-informed comment on her performance, and, well, this is a frustration. I've heard her live multiple times and I know perfectly well that she's got a very large and well-projected voice, and I also know about the vagaries of the acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House.
No reviewer complained of problems hearing Goerke. It was, no doubt, my seat.

Here's Joshua Kosman, who was sitting for Manon in the reviewer section in audience left, probably around row H-N:
That sense was not always easy to come by in the face of an on-again, off-again role debut by soprano Ellie Dehn as Manon, a performance that alternated almost minute by minute between splendid, pointedly vulnerable vocalism and recessive vagueness. Also not helpful were the visually barren, dramatically off-point production of director Vincent Boussard and set designer Vincent Lemaire, and the brusquely athletic musical direction of conductor Patrick Fournillier.
[paragraph praising Fabiano]
Dehn, meanwhile — a singer who has done excellent work here in not-quite-starring roles — flickered on and off unpredictably. Through much of Act 1 she sang so inaudibly that one might have thought she was “marking,” husbanding her vocal resources as singers do during rehearsals. 
For Manon, I was in my usual subscription seat, which is more or less dead center in the Dress Circle. I'm under the overhang, but just a bit. I heard every note Dehn sang. She was always perfectly audible, at every dynamic level.

Then there was Les Troyens. Both Greg Freed and I had issues hearing Anna Caterina Antonacci in the first performance, but up to a point, she came over perfectly well - Steven Winn, sitting three rows ahead of me, found her quite audible.

The fact is, the War Memorial Opera House has some dead spots, some live spots, some places with echoes. If you are too close to one of the walls in the orchestra section, yes, you hear the orchestra, especially, bouncing off the walls. I never comment on the balances in the works I review, because I know I'm not getting the best possible sound from the reviewer section.

Generally, the sound and balances are best from the center and above the floor, though the Orchestra section can be fabulous; the orchestra itself almost always sounds splendid from orchestra center, around row M to R. But Joshua's review of Manon and mine of Elektra certainly show the vagaries of the house.

Friday Photo

Yuppie beverages as far as the eye can see at Woodland Market near my office.
San Francisco, September, 2017
Kombucha in bottles to nitro cold brew in cans, via ginger-tumeric almond milk.
Nicely bottled, all very expensive. 
Compare with 79 cents for a half-pint of old-fashioned chocolate milk.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Post-Script: Manon and Don Carlo

Earlier today, the latest "Backstage with Matthew" email from San Francisco Opera dropped into my in-box. If you're not familiar with these, you should be: they are behind-the-scenes glimpses of life at an opera house, written by Matthew Shilvock, general director of SFO. (And, yes, I've heard him speak and seen enough of his tweets and chatted with him enough to be quite sure that he writes them himself....or it's someone who is extraordinarily good at channeling another person's style.)

Anyway, this edition, which will eventually appear on the company's blog, is all about the wig department, which raises a question: why on earth is Michael Fabiano going wigless these days?  This seems pretty darned ahistorical for the settings of both Manon and Don Carlo:

Michael Fabiano as Des Grieux in Manon
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo; Marius Kwiecien as the Marquis of Posa
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

With those deep-set eyes of his, it just makes no sense; what he needs is a wig and make-up that brings out his eyes and gives his face and head more definition.

Manon, San Francisco Opera

Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

There was a long period of time - probably around ten years - when I thought I didn't like Massenet. Then I heard Esclarmonde, his almost-Wagnerian magic opera, and also Werther, and thought that maybe the problem was that I didn't like Manon, the first Massenet opera I'd seen.

More recently, I listened to Pierre Monteux's Manon recording, with a Francophone cast except for Victoria de los Angeles, and realized that what I didn't like was the deadly conducting of Julius Rudel in SF Opera's 1998 revival of the opera. I checked Joshua Kosman's review recently, and it confirms my recollection (even at the time, I knew it wasn't good).

Saturday night, at the opening of SFO's new Manon, I mentioned Rudel to a couple of friends with long memories, and they both rolled their eyes and agreed with me. Too bad: Manon should have been a great part for Ruth Ann Swenson, and that night, it wasn't.

But times have changed, and a few changes of general director down the road, we've got a new Manon. David Gockley commissioned this production, which is a co-production with the Lithuanian National Opera and the Israel Opera and directed by Vincent Boussard. It is an improvement over 1998 in nearly every way, swapping a period production for a slightly racy cross-period design and costumes. (Cross-period to the point of dressing Reneé Rapier in a purple pants suit, no shirt, and matching purple bra.) The production was designed by Vincent Lemaire and lit, very beautifully, by Gary Marder. More about all of this later.

Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Best of all, the production has two terrific singers in the leads, and properly bubbling, frothy conducting from Patrick Fournillier, heard here previously in Cyrano de Bergerac and Tales of Hoffman. The orchestra sounded fabulous throughout, and Fournillier certainly knows the style needed to put over Manon in any believable way. (The plot, it is full of holes and character behavior that is not exactly strongly motivated. Tell us again why you've gotten religion and become an abbé after Manon apparently dumps you? and tell us why she didn't tell you about the planned kidnapping?)

Both Ellie Dehn, as Manon, and Michael Fabiano, as the Chevalier Des Grieux, were making their debuts in those roles, and neither disappointed. Dehn sounded absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful tone, spin, projection, truly impressive dynamic control, and pretty good French. She was also dramatically convincing as the pleasuring-loving Manon, just out to have a good time until her last-act demise.

Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

I'm a Fabiano fan, but initially I was a bit concerned. At his Act I entrance, his voice sounded darker and thicker than in his last local appearance, as Don Carlo in the June, 2016, production of the eponymous opera. It opened up during the first part of the opera, and by the end I wasn't worried at all, although I will note that for some soft high notes, he used what sounded like a slightly croony voix-mixte. His sound and his French are really too Italian for this particular opera; the vowels were open and coming from the back of his head when they should have been forward and pointed. The sound itself was beautiful, and big. Dramatically, he seems more comfortable on stage than he used to - and he was much better directed than in Don Carlo, where he and Ana María Martínez were left adrift on the stage. He was certainly the picture of youthful ardor, and, eventually, tortured denial.

James Creswell (Comte Des Grieux)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The smaller roles, and there are many, were mostly very well cast. James Creswell was a magnificent Comte Des Grieux, singing with plush tone and the very picture of chilly hauteur. I wanted to introduce him to Giorgio Germont; they'd make such a cute pair of nasty fathers, using essentially the same arguments to create chaos in their sons' lives. Creswell was in both Tales of Hoffmann and Mary Magdalene, but didn't make this kind of impression. More, please; such a beautiful voice.

Robert Brubaker was amusing as Guillot de Morfontaine (and his French is superb). I was not thrilled by David Pershall as Lescaut; next to Creswell and the other male singers, he sounded vocally unfocussed, though his acting was fine. 

See what "cross-period" means?
Hotel Transylvania scene

Robert Brubaker as Guillot de Morfontaine, dancer Rachel Little, Renée Rapier as Rosette, Monica Dewey as Pousette, and Laura Krumm as Javotte
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The staging was something to see, making good use of a wall-like unit set that was used for a variety of entrances, including floating Manon in after she wanders around on its parapet. The stage was covered with a mirrored surface, which was a feature of several Mansouri-era productions. Somehow, this worked much better than those (Don Carlo, La Favorite, and others), because of the prevailing brightly colored costumes and saturated lighting. The combination of the mirrored floor and bright lighting sometimes bounced so much light into the house as the raise the light level in the audience significantly; I found myself wondering whether the lights in the chandelier were on.

The wall, topped by Parisian landmarks; 
Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux) and Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The staging worked, for the most part, though it certainly had a few oddities, including Manon's descent from the wall:

Wall, plus Ellie Dehn (Manon); Cours-la-Reine scene
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Later in the scene, a cone of webbing descends from the flies and surrounds Manon, who runs out of it to go find Des Grieux at St. Sulpice. I have no idea what this was about. The floating balloons and packages are cute, though.

Wall, plus Ellie Dehn (Manon), plus cage o' webbing; Cours-la-Reine scene
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

See the color changes in that scene? Really, this was all very beautiful look at, and extremely effective. You hardly notice that there are hardly any props on stage. Here's Michael Fabiano in the St. Sulpice scene; note the steely gray of the wall:

Wall, plus Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Not visible in any of the press photos: suspended Jesus looming over the stage at the top of the wall, with a completely black backdrop. That was a striking touch!

Here the lovers are reunited later in the scene:

Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux) and Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Mercifully, the press photos don't include the most ridiculous stage business I've seen in a while, falling into Department of Unintended Hilarity: the point where Fabiano rips open his cassock to show his great passion for Manon. The entire audience burst into laughter, which, I gotta say, really did break the mood. I have predicted that this will disappear before the end of the run.

The press photos also don't include the bit shortly after the photo above where Dehn and Fabiano re-enact the end of Act I of Die Walküre by rolling around on the floor together, which I suppose falls under Department of Sacrilege rather than Department of Inappropriate Sibling Love.

Ellie Dehn (Manon); Hotel Transylvania
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

You can't quite tell from the photo above, but between the cut of her dress and the way her hair is piled on top of her head, I'm absolutely certain that Dehn's look in this scene invoked a famous portrait of a notorious woman. She looked fabulous in the dress, too.

The final scene was beautifully staged, with the stage almost completely darkened and Dehn and Fabiano lit primarily from the side, focussing your attention tightly on them. There's a press photo of that scene, but you can't see much of the stage, alas.

All in all, I'd call this a very successful outing; it's good enough that I'm thinking of going back for more.