Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Style Warriors

It's a source of both frustration and amusement that there are still lots of people around determined to fight the musical style wars of forty or fifty years ago. It's not much of a surprise that you run into such people on Twitter, but it's surprising when I find music-world pros still trying to fight this fight. We saw a prominent example a couple of years ago in San Francisco, when, for reasons that are beyond me, both David Gockley and Nicola Luisotti complained very publicly about that awful dissonant music. I dunno, maybe it was cover for the attempt to persuade us that Marco Tutino's La Ciociara was a really good opera that deserved a place in the repertory. Then there was a program note at SFS; why didn't I ever mail that letter I wrote?

But when I see someone posting the following on Twitter, well, I need a more complete response than "No. Full explanation too long to tweet":

Here's a more complete explanation, which I plan to haul out at every opportunity.

First of all, the tweet assumes that there is no audience for the music of Schoenberg, his students Berg and Webern, and subsequent composers who wrote using atonal or serial techniques. This is simply false. The audience for such music is smaller than the audience for Beethoven, Tchaikowsky, and Puccini, but so? So's the audience for the music of Guillaume de Machaut.

Second, no, it wasn't a dead end. No particular compositional technique can lead to a musical dead end. There's a large repertory of extremely varied music that's atonal or uses serial techniques. There are composers, not all of them old, who are working in such styles and their descendants today.

Third, there are implicit assumptions in this tweet that all Western art music post-Schoenberg was written in an atonal style or using serial technique, and that this state continued until the present day. No, no, no, no, no. NO. Let me name a bunch of composers who were contemporaries of Schoenberg's or younger than he was who (mostly) did not write in the alleged dead-end styles. Why, I'm going to take the list down to the present, even.

Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, Bax, Bridge, R. Strauss, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Martinu, Kaprálová, I. Fine, Shapero, Bartok, Kodaly, Orff, Schmidt, Zemlinsky, Schreker, Messiaen, Barber, Villa-Lobos, Korngold, Ives, Puccini, Ravel, de Falla, Ruggles, Nancarrow, Cage, Sibelius, Nielsen, Bloch, Leifs, Sallinen, Grainger, Varese, Ibert, Ravel, Honegger, Milhaud, Sorabji, Moore, Ornstein, Piston, Hanson, Hindemith, Thomson, Thompson, Gershwin, Haas, Poulenc, Durufle, Walton, Hartmann, Rautavaara, Pärt, Talma, Saariaho, Salonen, Lindberg, Holmboe, Aaho, Menotti, Hovhaness, Takemitsu, Hermann, Lutoslawski, A. Panufnik, Gal, Diamond, Glass, Reich, Dutilleux, Ginastera, JL Adams, JC Adams, Harrison, Cowell, Partch, Bernstein, Weinberg, Arnold, Simpson, J. Anderson, Higdon, Adamo, Corigliano, Harbison, Feldman, Hyla, Hoiby, Kurtag, Ligeti, Thorvaldsdottir, Davies, Kancheli, Gubaidulina, Susa, Young, Riley, Silver, Lieberson, Del Tredici, Wilson, Bolcom, Rzewski, Crumb, Benjamin, Zwillich, A.R. Thomas, M.T. Thomas, Chin, Adès, Shaw, Wolf...and on and on and on. Yeah, I snuck a few older 20th c. composers in there.

And while you're at it, take a look at who gets played. I've heard almost no Schoenberg and Webern in the concert hall, rather more Berg, at least at orchestra concerts and, of course, at the opera.

So, tell me again about the dead end Schoenberg led Western art music into, because it's amazing how many good and great composers found and continue to find ways through or around this alleged dead end.

Domingo at Bayreuth?

So it's been reported that next year, Plácido Domingo will conduct Die Walküre at the Bayreuth Wagner Festival, the holy of holies for Wagner devotees.

All I can say is, why? Are they having that much trouble selling tickets to the famously (not necessarily correctly) hard-to-get-into Festival? Has anyone from the Festival heard him conduct?

He is a terrible conductor! I mean, he is minimally competent; knows how to keep time, knows how to cue an entry, knows the operas (I presume). However, if you listen to the musical line and details, well...he is a terrible judge of tempo and structure. I watched a good chunk of his Operalia contest one year, with him conducting, and it was just embarrassing. He got to be front and center and get as much attention as those young singers, while they had to deal with a celebrity conductor with, at best, mediocre skills. I felt very, very sorry for them; they deserved to be working with excellent conductors, not a tenor who picked up conducting to extend his career as far as possible.

When I was at Bayreuth two years ago, I heard a significant range of conductors, from the puzzling Kirill Petrenko to the excellent Alain Altinoglu and Axel Kober to the incandescent genius of Christian Thielemann. You would think that Bayreuth has its choice of good to great conductors, so you have to wonder WTF is going on here.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Mailing List Segmentation

Major mailing list management programs, such as Constant Contact and MailChip, offer users a list segmentation function. You use this to divide your list members into sub-lists. For example, I might want to send a particular email exclusively to women who've taken one of my self-defense classes, or to those who've taken my safe rolling & falling class.

Large organizations don't always take advantage of this to the extent possible. I get a lot of email from San Francisco Symphony, and some of it - weekly reminders about which concert will be on this week - I don't necessarily need to see. I checked with them recently, and they do have plans to segment their list more than it's currently segmented.

This morning, I've got email from San Francisco Opera encouraging me to subscribe to the summer, 2018 production of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Evidently, they're also a little behind at mailing list segmentation: I applied for Ring tickets in January, and I already have the confirmation of where I'm sitting.

It's admittedly more difficult for an organization with thousands of addresses on its mailing list to segment that list than it is for me: I have around 125 people on my list. Still, it's possible to run a script comparing existing Ring ticket purchasers with the full SFO mailing list. Tessitura might even have such a function built in, for all I know. Heck, it's possible to do this by dumping the information into a spreadsheet, and it can't even be that difficult to write a little macro to create a non-Ring mailing list to get this stuff.

I note that I'm not particularly bothered by the extra email suggesting I subscribe. Some sections, for some of the cycles, are selling out fast, I've heard from people who bought tickets this week. So anyone who is thinking of going really should get going on their tickets, before the Ringheads snap them all up.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Steve Jobs, the Man, and Steve Jobs, the Opera

There's been some discussion about The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the opera, on Twitter over the last couple of days, and about larger issues raised by the work. I was involved in the Twitter exchanges, and so were a bunch of folks I know.

I have to start this blog post with what would be disclaimers in a paid review, but they're not really that in a blog post. First, I work for one of Apple's competitors, Google. Second, I do not in any way speak for Google. Third, I've been a technical writer for 21 years, and anybody who works in high tech has opinions about both Apple and Steve. When I was looking around for a paid review of this piece, I gave some thought to whether these were disqualifying, without exactly reaching any conclusions. Let's just say, for now, that I'm semi-well-informed about Jobs and Apple. I have not seen the competing films about him that came out a while back, one of which was partially filmed at the War Memorial Opera House. I have not read Walter Isaacson's giant biography, which was written with at least some cooperation from Jobs.

I have heard several of Mason Bates's pieces live, going back to "Rusty Air in Carolina" at Cabrillo more than ten years ago. He's a good composer, although I find it odd that with all the publicity about ELECTRONICA in his music, usually you can barely hear the electronic contributions in the wash of his orchestration. I do not have quite as high an opinion of him as some critics do, and I scratched my head over the Beethoven & Bates pairing at San Francisco Symphony a few years ago.

So, about Jobs. He was not the greatest innovator of all time. Many or most of Apple's major technologies were invented elsewhere. Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse. Xerox PARC invented the graphical user interface. Sony invented the portable music player. Blackberry and Palm invented the smartphone, although I own that you could see the smartphone as an extension of the Newton, Apple's early, failed attempt at a PDA. I also note that Andy Rubin founded Android in 2003, four years before Apple released the iPhone.

Jobs was a brilliant marketer and a genius at recognizing and promoting great design, at least after a certain point. Those early Macs were pretty damn ugly, and the GUI was primitive compared to what you see now on just about any personal computer. By always charging premium prices and never licensing their operating system, Apple missed a chance in the 80s to make major inroads into corporate American, instead remaining the expensive boutique computer. But over time, Jobs began to demand, and get, extraordinary design for Apple products. Even the original iPod is rather a miracle of compact design, and the whole lineup of them got prettier and prettier. The current Mac laptops all look and feel great, and so does the iMac I'm writing this on.

One result of this is an extremely loyal fan base, people who will line up for the latest phone or computer coming out of Cupertino. I don't, personally, understand the near-cult around Apple products, but then, I am a value buyer who doesn't want to pay top dollar for products such as cars or computers. That's why I'm driving a 2000 Accord, the fanciest car I've ever wanted. Hey, it will probably run for another five years! That's why I kept my last Windows computer, a Dell, going for nine years. I did replace it with an iMac, but that was for two reasons: by then, I'd switched to a Mac at work, and OS X looked and felt more like Windows XP than then-current versions of Windows did.

Sorry, I know that this probably sounds like a huge insult to a lot of Apple users invested in telling me how the Mac is soooo much more intuitive than Windows. As someone who used both for several years, all I can says is, no, it is not. And I can ask, when did YOU last use a Windows machine? The two OSs have been functionally equivalent for a very long time. It takes a few days to learn keystroke differences, and some time to get used to working with the bells and whistles, but the fact is that I've never used all the bells and whistles on either a Windows machine or a Mac.

Let's say a bit about Steve Jobs, the man. From all reports, he was something of an asshole! The stories are legion! His treatment of his oldest daughter and her mother; his treatment of many Apple employees; the ways that Apple's extremely secretive internal culture reflected his personality and drive. There are plenty of articles about this and of course the bio.

So the thought of an opera about Steve Jobs automatically makes me a look a little side-eyed at the idea. The cast list didn't help: there are two women in it, his wife Laurene Powell Jobs and Chrisann Brennan, his daughter Lisa's mother. There's also Kobun Chino Otogawa, the Zen monk who married Laurene and Steve Jobs.

It is very hard to look at this cast list and not wonder, or worry, if we're going to get an opera about an asshole saved by the love of a good woman and the counsel of a good (Asian) religious figure. (For the Asian religious figure, let's just that my worry is that the opera might be getting into "magic Negro" territory, which would be bad.) We have seen this story before, or some version of it, in an awful lot of media: films, novels, plays, and I think a few operas too. In this case, it would be a rich, white-presenting asshole being saved by the love, etc. Contra Matthew Shilvock's statement - and yes, I know that as general director of SF Opera he has to say this stuff - this sure doesn't look like an opera for or about everybody. It looks like an opera for Apple / Jobs fans.

I have not, of course, seen the libretto. I don't know whether, or how it will address the influence of Jobs's personality on Apple or his poor treatment of many people in his life and at Apple. I am not a big fan of redemption stories, if that's what this turns out to be.

But my concerns here go way beyond "telling composers what operas to write," because Steve Jobs isn't a fictional character invented for this opera (although, I admit, Richard Nixon in you-know-what is at least partly a fictional character invented for the opera). His actions and life had real impact on the world and the people around him, from family members to employees of Apple. It's reasonable to be concerned or wonder about how the opera is going to address all this stuff.

And I think it's okay to make the general statement that it would really good, and good for opera, if composers created more operas about women who aren't either victims or saviors, more operas with people of color in general, broader concerns; if there were more operas written by women and people of color. If you need only one example of why, compare and contrast the treatment of rape in Marco Tutino's La Ciociara and in Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater.

See also:

Friday, July 14, 2017

Want to be on the War Memorial Stage?

SF Opera is holding supernumerary auditions. They are on a Monday night when I am already committed or I'd consider auditioning for Elektra. Guess I will have to see it from the audience side.

Here's the supernumerary rehearsal & performance schedule for the fall.


No experience required – for information or to reserve an audition slot, email: supers@sfopera.com

SAN FRANCISCO (July 14, 2017) — Have you ever dreamed of being on the War Memorial Opera House stage? San Francisco Opera is looking for adult supernumeraries (extras) to appear in the Company’s upcoming Fall 2017 Season. An open audition will be held on Monday, July 31 beginning at 6 p.m. at the War Memorial Opera House. No previous experience is required and there is no fee to audition.

Supernumeraries, also known as supers, act as extras (in costume and make-up) on the stage in non-speaking, non-singing roles. Supers have the unparalleled opportunity to work alongside some of the most acclaimed artists in the world, and help bring San Francisco Opera’s dazzling, large-scale productions to life on the stage of the historic War Memorial Opera House. Supers are volunteers, however an honorarium is provided to those cast in productions. 

Supers will have the opportunity to rehearse and perform in one or more of San Francisco Opera’s fall season operas, including a visceral production of Richard Strauss’Elektra, Jules Massenet’s enchanting Manon, the highly anticipated world premiere of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West, and two repertory favorites, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot and Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.

WHAT:  Open audition for adults to appear as supernumeraries (extras) in San Francisco Opera’s 2017 Fall Season. Supers can be any age (adults only), shape or size. No previous experience required. These roles are non-speaking, non-singing and volunteer/unpaid (an honorarium is provided to those cast in a production).

WHEN:  Monday, July 31, 2017 beginning at 6:00 p.m.

WHERE:  War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA, 94102

Interested parties should contact supers@sfopera.com to receive more information and reserve a spot for this exciting opportunity!

La Circe, from Ars Minerva

San Francisco-based opera company Ars Minerva continues its series of 17th c. Venetian operas with a production of Ziani's La Circe in September. Here are the details:

“La Circe” is inspired by the adventures of Circe, the goddess and magician of Greek mythology made famous in Homer’s Odyssey and in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. After Ulysses escapes Circe’s clutches, the outraged enchantress remains on her island with a number of unlucky captives who fall victim to her resentment and manipulations. Dreadful potions, transformations, dancing Graces, Furies and other colorful agents of evil – alongside carnival-esque comic scenes – bring drama featuring laments, rage arias and drinking tunes.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles, the opera will be semi-staged by Céline Ricci and presented on September 8 and 9 at the ODC Theater in San Francisco. It will feature eight singers, an acrobat and an orchestra led by Derek Tam.

Circe - Céline Ricci
Andromaca - Kindra Scharich
Scilla - Aurélie Veruni
Egle - Jasmine Johnson
Glauco - Kyle Stegall
Pirro - Billy Sauerland
Gligorio - Jonathan Smucker
Custode / Tissandro / Creonte - Igor Vieira
Acrobat - Katherine Hutchinson

Conductor / Harpsichord - Derek Tam
Cello - Gretchen Claassen
Theorbo - Adam Cockerham
Violin - Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo
Violin - Nathalie Carducci
Viola - Addi Liu

Production Team
Director - Céline Ricci
Light Designer - Michael Davis
Projections Design - Patricia Nardi
English Translation – Joe McClinton

The ODC Theater
3153 17th Street, San Francisco, California
When: 7:30 p.m. September 8 and 7:30 p.m. September 9
Tickets: $86, $56 or $25 for students

Hunter at Opera Theater Unlimited

Opera Theater Unlimited is the small opera company that put on a thrilling production of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea last year. That production used street clothes, a few chairs, and maybe three additional props, with an orchestra of five. The beautiful singing, terrific playing, and alert direction gave this minimalist production huge impact in the tiny, 80-seat Exit Theater.

This year, the company is presenting a new opera, Hunter, by Joseph M. Colombo to a libretto by Caitlin Mullin. I'm not sure whether I'll be able to get there, but you might be able!

Performances are July 14, 15, 21, and 22, all at 8 p.m. at the EXIT Theater, 156 Eddy St., SF. This is pretty close to Powell St. BART, so you need not try to find parking downtown. Tickets are $15, $25, or $35.

San Francisco Friday Photo

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
October, 2016

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

More of the Same: SFS in 2017-18

[I obviously started this back in March and never finished it. Here goes.]

San Francisco Symphony's 2017-18 season announcement came out today, and what can one say beyond headtable?

As I predicted, there's lots of Lenny.

It's white men all the way down, most of them dead, with the exception of one (1) work by Kaija Saariaho (Lanterna Magica), which just happens to be on the one (1) program conducted by a woman, Susanna Mälkki, and one (1) work by a composer with a Chinese name, which just happens to be on the program of the China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra.

There are some living white guys in the new music category: Penderecki, Poznanski (coming with the Israel Philharmonic/Mehta), Salonen (on PH-C's program), Meyer (with St. Martin in the Fields), Wuorinen (that's a surprise, really), Norman (on Valcuha's program), Connesson (on Dèneve's program), and Dean (on Robertson's program). The thing is, these new works are all curtain-raisers, which you can tell because they're mostly the first work on programs with two big pieces.

Also, living male film music composers including Williams and Elfman.

There are plenty of concerts I'd like to see, such as Urbanski's program with the wonderful Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra, MTT's with Bartok 2nd piano concerto (Denk) and the Symphonie fantastique, not the mention Boris Godunov in concert and the two Ives symphonies. There's some Sibelius, too, and I almost never mind hearing his music. (Although - why not Nielsen?) And some Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

When I started this post in March, the LA Phil had just announced its genuinely astounding season, and SFS seemed just plain dreary and more of the same. With a little distance, it's much better than I'd thought; I was genuinely surprised at how many concerts I checked off as must-see or nice-to-see. Still, we are in the shadow of the orchestra to the south.