Saturday, December 25, 2004

Classical Radio? In the Bay Area?

If you're reading this blog from outside the San Francisco Bay Area, you might not know how desperate the classical radio situation is here.

Despite a significant audience for classical music and the existence of institutions such as the S. F. Symphony, S. F. Opera, Philharmonia Baroque, Santa Rosa Symphony, Oakland East Bay Symphony, Berkeley Symphony, and dozens of smaller performing groups, there is one and only full-time classical music station, KDFC.

A decade ago, even five years ago, KDFC was a much different station from what it is now. It used to carry the Metropoolitan Opera broadcasts, but stopped because the Met does not allow time-shifting of the broadcasts, and KDFC felt that its core audience didn't want a multi-hour interruption of the usual programming. It used to have a marvelous show, Saturday Night at the Opera, that would play a complete recorded opera or focus on a particular singer or subject. Paul Thomason, whom you may have read in Opera News, was the regular host; I remember shows about basses, great Rossini recordings, a two-hour special devoted to great Mozart recordings, a special tribute to Leontyne Price on her 70th birthday.

KDFC used to play a much more varied repertory than now. I remember listenening to 20 minutes of selections from a particular CD of 17th century Spanish music; I owned the CD within 24 hours of hearing it.

It's hard to imagine that happening today. Over the last few years, KDFC has become a station dedicated to gimmicks and to providing a pleasant, homogenous, soothing experience to its listeners. Never mind that classical music is often provocative, exciting, disturbing, passionate. Turn on KDFC, and what you're most likely to hear is 18th, 19, or 20th century orchestral music, often doled out one movement at a time. (They must have frequent commercial breaks, you see.) If it's 20th century music, it will be tonal. You will hear Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughn Williams more often than, say, Schoenberg or Stravinsky or Britten. If it's 18th century, it's more likely to be Telemann than J. S. Bach, and more likely to be Vivaldi than either. There is no opera or Lieder and virtually no vocal music. (Right now, during their Christmas music marathon, you can hear some vocal music! And also most Sunday mornings for an hour at 9 a.m. or so.) A recent survey of its listeners by KDFC itself showed that one-third of its listeners wanted "no vocal music," so they were undecided about how to treat it. Apparently they missed the fact that this means 2/3 of their listeners want to hear the human voice on their local classical music station. I can't remember the last time I heard a string quartet, though there's plenty of crossover - I heard an announcer saying the other week that "...classical works composed by rock musicians are becoming more common," just before he played something very bad by someone I'd never heard of.

About the only exception to the general dumbing-down comes during the weekly San Francisco Symphony broadcasts. It's almost the only time you might hear nontonal 20th century music and music by living composers. They sometimes run ads for these and the station with SFS music director Michael Tilson Thomas - I cringe when I heard them, for he surely knows how limited the repertory played by KDFC is, and how little they do to promote serious listening to classical music.

It's a sad situation. There is some classical programming on KCSM and KUSF (for example, "Classics Without Walls," by Mark Theodoropoulos). KPFA has a couple of classical shows. KMZT had a full schedule of classical music until recently and now has none. KQED has no music, period, and its classical recordings collection was destroyed some 20 years ago.

I doubt that anything can be done about KDFC. I've sent complaints on and off and been told that they play what their audience likes. (That's a sad, sad thought.) I know they got a barrage of complaints when they dropped the Met broadcasts.

I joined their mailing list just so I could participate in surveys and tilt the opinions they collect the tiniest bit toward more interesting and varied music. (You should see their "favorite composer" survey! I don't really have one, but I took pleasure in writing in Wagner anyway.)

But, really, if you want good classical music on the radio, your best bet is those stations that stream to the Internet. There are dozens of these, from KUSC to WFMET to WQXR to many, many stations in Europe. A great collection, with details about the software required, can be found at Operacast. Yes, the focus is on stations that play opera, but....stations that play opera usually play lots of other classical music. So, play a visit to Operacast, and you can escape from KDFC's awful programming and the crumbs strewn by other Bay Area stations.

Eating My Words

Some time ago, toward the end of an article about attending the San Francisco Symphony, I suggested that maybe the audience looked very serious because the musicians looked very serious, and maybe the musicians could look cheerier.

Well, if you're following Drew McManus's blog Adaptistration, you'll understand why the musicians might not look very cheery. Read, especially, The Money Drug. Read the NY Times article from several years ago about the ergonomic viola and the risks orchestra musicians run. Lousy working conditions, lack of job satisfaction, feeling that they have no control over their professional lives, repetitive stress injuries - I expect I wouldn't be be very happy either. My experience of performing is strictly as a student and amateur: for the love of it and getting an enormous amount of satisfaction out of what I do.

It's not hard to read between the lines and figure out things symphonies and other performing organizations could do to improve working conditions and improve musicians' job satisfaction. Managers, what are you waiting for?

Monday, December 13, 2004

London Bach had a father.

'Oh well,' said Jack: and then, 'Did you ever meet Bach?'

'Which Bach?'

'London Bach.'

'Not I.'

'I did. He wrote some pieces for my uncle Fisher, and his young man
copied them out fair. But they were lost years and years ago, so last time
I was in town I went to see whether I could find the originals: the young
man has set up on his own, having inherited his master's music-library. We
searched through the papers -- such a disorder you would hardly credit,
and I had always supposed publishers were as neat as bees -- we searched
for hours, and no uncle's pieces did we find. But the whole point is this:
Bach had a father.'

'Heavens, Jack, what things you tell me. Yet upon recollection I seem
to have known other men in much the same case.'

'And this father, this old Bach, you understand me, had written piles
and piles of musical scores in the pantry.'

'A whimsical place to compose in, perhaps; but then birds sing in trees,
do they not? Why not antediluvian Germans in a pantry?'

'I mean the piles were kept in the pantry. Mice and blackbeetles and
cook-maids had played Old Harry with some cantatas and a vast great
Passion according to St. Mark, in High Dutch; but lower down all was well,
and I brought away several pieces, 'cello for you, fiddle for me, and some
for both together. It is strange stuff, fugues and suites of the last age,
crabbed and knotted sometimes and not at all in the modern taste, but I do
assure you, Stephen, there is meat in it. I have tried this partita in C a
good many times, and the argument goes so deep, so close and deep, that I
scarcely follow it yet, let alone make it sing. How I should love to hear
it played really well -- to hear Viotti dashing away.'

Stephen studied the 'cello suite in his hand, booming and humming sotto
'Tweedly-tweedly, tweedly tweedly, deedly deedly pom pom pom.
Oh, this would call for the delicate hand of the world,' he said. 'Otherwise
it would sound like boors dancing. Oh, the double-stopping...and how to
bow it?'

Patrick O'Brian, The Ionian Mission

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Best Advice I Ever Got

An article by Daniel J. Wakin in today's New York Times Arts & Leisure section follows up on Juilliard's class of 1994 and what they're doing today.

Of 44 instrumentalists who graduated that year, Wakin and the contributing reporters were able to trace 36. (The article didn't track pianists or singers.) Of those 36, about a dozen have dropped out of professional musical performance altogether. Eleven have full-time orchestral jobs and the remaining teach or free-lance or have full-time careers as soloists.

It's an excellent article, with much insight about the combination of talent, hard work, connections, business abilities, and just plain luck it takes to become a professional musician. And it reminded me that I feel pretty lucky that I didn't try to make it as a pro.

I am grateful beyond belief to Beverly Radin, my flute teacher in high school and a couple of summers in my college years. When I was in my senior year of high school and getting ready to apply to colleges, I seriously considered applying to conservatories. Beverly, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, advised me to apply only to liberal-arts colleges. She felt that a conservatory degree wasn't necessary for a career in music, and she felt strongly that it was important to get a well-rounded education. Yes, she had some regrets about having gone to conservatory. She was encouraging about my abilities and musicianship, so I don't think her suggestion came out of a belief that I wouldn't make it as a flutist.

This really did turn out to be the best advice I ever got. My life would be pretty different if I'd gone to a conservatory, and it's hard to imagine that it would have been any better than it is now. By the time I left Brandeis, I'd realized that the solo flute repertory didn't interest me enough that I wanted to play it for the rest of my life, and I'd realized I was never going to be dedicated enough to practicing to be able to compete with the flutists coming out of music schools. But I'd gotten a great general education, and I wound up going to graduate school in musicology for a couple of years. Before I became a technical writer, I worked at a series of uninteresting jobs to support my jujitsu habit. (Technical writing still supports the jujitsu habit, just in somewhat better style than being an insurance underwriter.) I am just grateful that I got that general education and didn't spend several years in the conservatory hothouse aiming for the wrong career.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

More Than A Couple of Corrections

The SFCV blogatorial got a few things wrong in addition to the unfortunate omission of Robert Gable.

A "moblog" is a mobile blog, not a group (mob) Weblog. A bad back-formation on my part, brought to my attention by The Standing Room.

The owner of The Fredösphere is Fred Himebaugh, not Himbaugh. Apologies, and I did mean something good by "sui generis."

Added on 10 December:

ACD points out that he "hopes Greenberg will resist musical pressures and continue to write in a tonal style," not 19th century style.

An Omission, An Apology

The Blogatorial was supposed to include Robert Gable's American music blog, aworks, where he's recently talked about Nancarrow, Cowell, Ziporyn, Ruggles, Glass and Barber.

I've asked SFCV to update the article with a line or two about aworks, and I'm so sorry about the omission.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Fellow Bløggers!

A plug for you all in San Francisco Classical Voice:

The Season Will Be Blogged

That URL will change next week from the generic SFCV home page to something more permanent.

An update on December 28:

The link above no longer works; I've posted the Blogatorial on my personal Web site. I'll update this if SFCV assigns a permanent link to the Blogatorial.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Opera Annals On Line

In what's sure to be a great boon to researchers, the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera are moving their annals on line.

San Francisco already has its Performance Archive up and running. It's a work in progress, announced as a beta version. You can search by opera name, cast member, date, composer, and just about any other term you can think of. The results come back fast, and with lots of clickable links for digging deeper. Still to come in the database are photos, records of the San Francisco Opera Center, Western Opera Theater, and the Merola and Adler programs. For now, give it a good workout, and send any comments to

The Met database isn't on line yet, but archivist Robert Tuggle has written about it in a series of informative postings to opera-l, the big opera mailing list. He's been working on this project for more than three years, and the results will be available to the public at the Met's Web site very soon - some time in December, he hopes.

To find his postings, go to the opera-l link above and click Search the archive. Type Tuggle in the box labeled The author's address is or contains. Type October 2004 in the box labeled Since. Click Submit.

And then keep an eye on the Met Web site.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Bruce Hungerford

The first classical piano recital I attended, age about 14 or 15, was by the Australian pianist Bruce Hungerford. It was held in a very small auditorium or the living room of a very large house. I attended with my father; I vaguely remember feeling as though we were very, very close to the piano.

All I remember about the makeup of the program is that it consistent entirely of several Beethoven piano sonatas. I played the flute and had had six months of piano lessons at that point, so I didn't know the music at all. I remember feeling awed by the complexity of the music and the intensity with which Hungerford played it.

And that was the last I heard of him, until earlier this year when I picked up a Hungerford CD at Berkshire Record Outlet (Vanguard Classics 08 6142 71) containing the "Waldstein," "Moonlight," and "Pathetique" sonatas.

Imagine my surprise, when I put this on for the first time (and second, and third) and discovered that I really did not like the playing very much. Technically, he's certainly able play the music: the notes are all there, cleanly played and at high speeds; he has good control of the pedal; he can play softly. But the playing is rigid to the point of being metronomic and he doesn't seem to me to have any special musical insights. Everything is correct; nothing is interesting. Every time I've tried to listen through, I take it off and put on a pianist I like better.

In Beethoven, and in no particular order, that would include Schnabel, Annie Fischer, Pollini, Heidsieck, Kovacevich, Richter, Gilels. I like dramatic, high-tension playing, and consequently Kovacevich gets the most air time.

So, tell me: should I look for other, more musicially impressive or representative Hungerford recordings? If so, what are they?

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Differences of Opinion

parterre box's La Cieca and A.C. Douglas are miles apart on the subject of Jonathan Miller's retirement from directing opera. The source of their comments is an interview in the Guardian. It's a very entertaining article, and yet...

It's not so much fun to see an obviously intelligent person in such a bitter state and tossing off so many hilarious, yet weirdly indefensible, squibs. First, there's the little matter of Miller's off-the-cuff remark that only about 30 or 40 operas are worth "spending one's time on." In context, that appears to mean directing. I wonder if he also means worth performing or hearing.

On the face of it, that's a crazy remark. Thirty operas gets you through Mozart's half-dozen most-performed operas, half of Verdi, and most of Puccini. Add Wagner's mature operas and there you are at forty. Throw in commonly-performed bel canto works, and you're well over 50. We haven't even thought about Britten, Berg, Janacek. Add Handel, Rameau, Monteverdi, and Purcell, and....well, you see what I mean.

I'd like to see Miller list those 30 to 40 operas and then defend himself; I expect the list would say more about him and his tastes than it does about most of the operas he excludes. Maybe he doesn't like Handel, for example - so he wouldn't have been very interested in Semele and Alcina, which got brilliant, and very different, productions at SFO in the last few years, or Jephtha, which Philharmonia Baroque performed memorably a season or so ago, and which could be staged as easily as Semele. (Yes, indeed, the Alcina production per se was incomprehensible. But the singing was fabulous and the ensemble on stage was a marvel; I'll never forget Alice Coote's longing backward glance at Catherine Nagelstad at the very end of the opera.)

Then again, he names La forza del destino as an opera that makes no sense (and wouldn't be worth bothering with), but he's obviously proud of his Met Pelleas et Melisande. Perhaps he can explain to me some time what happens in Pelleas, an opera I certainly consider worth performing, but not because it makes a lot of sense. And I'll give him a hint: Forza is about...wait for it....fate, not about logic or sense. It's about what's predestined and unavoidable. It has lots of great music, but it's not a fashionable opera these days. Directors would rather stage Don Carlo, it seems, and deal with its psychological and political thickets rather than the illogic of Forza.

Let's go on to Miller's complaint about directing Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met, where he had a disagreement with Joe Volpe about which arias Cecilia Bartoli, singing Susannah, would perform. I'm not going to defend Volpe's alleged response. Miller doesn't say much - in this interview, at least - about why he didn't want the alternate arias, other than that they are "concert" arias.

That's not even the case. According to Anthony Tommasini, writing in the NY Times on November 9, 1998, Mozart wrote "Un moto di gioia" and "Al desio" as alternates for a Susannah who had less comic talent than Nancy Storace, who created the role. At the time of the Met performances, in 1998, there was quite a bit of controversy over Bartoli's insistence on singing them in some of the performances. There was controversy over Bartoli's interpretation of the role, in general - Tommasini, quoting other critics, described it as "comically over the top, attention-grabbing and at times hysterical." Just how much of that poorly-received stage demeanor was Miller responsible for, anyway?

The alternate arias, it must be said, aren't as good as those they replaced, "Venite inginocchiatevi" and "Deh vieni, non tardar." But they might have been better suited to Bartoli and her particular skills. It's hard to imagine her floating "Deh vieni," which really does want a silvery soprano sound. In the end, I was certainly happy to have the rare opportunity to hear the alternates - who knows when they'll next be performed in context?

It's interesting that Miller never says a word about James Levine, who conducted the production and must have been involved in making the decision about the arias. I rather suspect that ultimately what it came down to was that Cecilia Bartoli sells more tickets than Jonathan Miller. Is it possible that that's what's behind his general bitterness? That singers get more attention and sell more tickets - and hence are in more demand - than he?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Declaration of Equipment

My friend Mitch thinks anyone who says anything publicly about recordings should state what listening equipment they have.

My own is 12-year-old consumer-grade stuff: amplifier, turntable, and cassette deck from Onkyo, CD changer from Sony, speakers from Kef. Not Kef's audiophile line, though - they're the K-160s. My headphones, used at work, are Sennheisers.

Sometime soon, I'll be swapping the CD changer for an SACD player, as that format promises much better sound quality than CDs. And eventually I plan to upgrade everything else, but not in the near future.

As it heppens, when I discuss recordings, I'm usually not going to say much about the recording quality. Not only do I not have a top-notch system, there is too much variability in everyone else's equipment for what I say about sound to be very meaningful. And it's not normally my biggest concern, either. I care more about the musical quality of a performance than I do about the sound, except to the extent that the sound is so bad that it interferes with my ability to hear the rest of the performance. I'll notice when the sound seems great or the sound seems awful, but not necessarily the in-between variations. This is probably a flaw of some kind on my part, but you might as well know what I'm likely to hear and what I'm not.

Four Cranks with Opinions

My other blog, a moblog with friends: Four Cranks with Opinions. Various reviews and commentary will go there. At the moment, all of the content has come from Mitch Kaufman, but keep an eye out for more.

Sunday, November 21, 2004


I've been fiddling with the appearance of the blog a bit - I added a Recent Postings section - and there is more to come. Not so happy with how the sidebar looks; definitely need to re-style Recent Postings; wrestling with the template.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Signs of Being a Music Theory Geek

Emailed to me by a friend, and to be found all over the net. Read it via this URL and try not to die laughing:

Are You a Music Theory Geek?

Edited on December 4, 2004, to remove apparently incorrect attribution.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Rest of the World versus Nimbus

The Standing Room has some advice on choosing Lawrence Tibbett transfers, but he doesn't give a lot of detail about why:

As for the Tibbetts, if you ever find yourself in the unlikely position of having to choose between the RCA Victor Vocal Series album and the Nimbus Prima Voce "Tibbett in Opera", go with the RCA. There's about 85% overlap -- not just repertoire, actually the same recordings -- and the RCA remastering (produced by John Pfeiffer) is just better.

It's probably not that unlikely a position to be in (and there are also good Tibbett transfers on Delos). Nimbus's transfers are easy to find and they're usually inexpensive. I remember seeing them a decade ago for $12 when other historic-singer CDs were going for $15, or even $18, for Romophone.

But The Standing Room is right: avoid those Nimbus CDs like the plague. Their transfer technique is bizarre, to start with. They hang a microphone in a room, then play the 78 on a gramophone fitted with a giant horn. (Everyone else uses modern equipment, the more the merrier, because well-regulated modern styluses do less damage to the old recordings than period equipment.) The resulting transfer is awash in reverberation. At least it's not artificial, but the singers' voices are dulled and obscured by the sheer quantity of reverb.

I must here confess that when I started collecting, I thought the Nimbus transfers were great. That was because the reverb does successfully mute the surface noise found on a majority of old recordings - and it's true that, say, a Pathé hill-and-dale 78 is pretty darned noisy. Nimbus also has decent documentation, nicely-produced booklets, and an imaginative touch in choosing tracks for a compilation. But eventually I started hearing better transfers, and eventually I learned to listen past and through whatever surface noise other transfers don't conceal. Eventually I bought the noisiest records of them all, the Mapleson cylinders, and after that nothing seemed too noisy. Over time, I've replaced most or all of my Nimbus transfers.

If you're thinking of buying historical recordings, you have plenty of choices. There are good transfers of vocal and instrumental music on Naxos, Romophone, Marston, Pearl, and a number of other labels. Read and other forums where knowledgable people post, and see what they think of specific transfers - engineers vary in their ability and style, and it won't take too long for you to find out who is good. But leave those Nimbus transfers at the store.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Maestro's Birthday Party - What's on the Menu?

Donald Runnicles, music director of the San Francisco Opera, turns 50 and celebrates tonight with a gala all-Wagner concert. The artist list includes Christine Brewer, Willard, White, and three of the leads in the current production of The Flying Dutchman - Juha Uusitalo, Christopher Ventris, and the marvelous Nina Stemme. It's not difficult to hallucinate what they might be singing. Some Tristan from Brewer; maybe Isolde's Narrative and Curse, maybe her Transfiguration. White is a natural for the "Leb'wohl" from Die Walkuere or "O du mein holder Abendstern" from Tannhäuser. For Stemme and Uusitalo, the Act II Dutchman/Senta duet.

But there are two unexpected singers on the roster - Carol Vaness and the great Frederica von Stade. What on earth are they singing? Vaness sings dramatic parts but ought not; perhaps it's Elsa or Eva for her. As for Flicka, there's not a lot of work in Wagner for a lyric mezzo, even a high lyric mezzo. Maybe Magadalena in the Meistersinger quintet? Or the Wesendonck Lieder??

Friday, November 12, 2004

Damned in Advance

A. C. Douglas, relying on Norman Lebrecht, is already wringing his hands about the appointment of Peter Gelb as the next General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera.

This is more than a bit hasty, for a couple of reasons. To start with, there's ACD's anticipation of "another triumph for pop culture values and their insidious and pernicious infestation of all domains of high culture." A little reading in opera history reveals that it hasn't always been considered high culture. It remained a popular art form in Italy well into this century, and that's certainly what it was in the 19th c. (and not only in Italy). Doing research in the personal music collection of a British singer active from the teens through the 40s of the last century, I found quite a lot of sheet music whose covers were advertisements for the publisher. Ricordi's sheet music advertised hundreds of arrangements of excerpts from popular operas such as La Boheme, for all sorts of instrumental combinations. "Che gelida manina" for two mandolins, anyone? Ricordi was able to do this because that sheet music sold, and not necessarily to the guardians of high culture. It sold to people who wanted to play Puccini at home with their friends. (Of course, for all I know, ACD and Lebrecht don't consider Puccini to be high culture - but I bet Wagner's publishers did the same thing.)

And secondly - perhaps we can wait to see what happens with Peter Gelb before we don ashes and sackcloth. He'll have a year of tutelage under Joe Volpe, which will surely include fundraising, dealing with unions and artists and donors, and what to do with the enormous administrative machinery of the Met. Gelb will have James Levine and he'll be answerable to a Board of Directors. Then again, there's the sheer inertia of an institution like the Met. Productions are planned out and singers put under contract years in advance. Whatever radically popular and popularizing notions Lebrecht and ACD fear, they're not going to come about any time soon. So take a deep breath and relax. You may be pleasantly surprised by what Gelb does; if not, there's plenty of time to let him have it. Believe me, if we have Kathleen Battle singing Aida, if everyone is suddenly amplified, if we find a rock band in the pit, I'll be happy to join you. Until then, though, give it a rest and give the guy a chance.


Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Dr. Atomic

Just about eleven months from now, San Francisco Opera will present the world premiere of Dr. Atomic, John Adams's opera about Robert Oppenheimer. There is an informative Web site devoted to the project. It contains documentary film footage about Oppenheimer and the bomb, photographs, press releases, links to articles elsewhere about the opera, timelines, interviews with various people involved with the production (and Oppenheimer's life), and even a few excerpts from the work-in-progress. It's a handsome site, though, really, there are too many places to click and navigation can be confusing.

I'm so looking forward to this. And what about a rumor that snuck out indicating that the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson would be in the cast?

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Blog Title

A prize - nothing fancy - to anyone able to name the source of the blog title without using Google!

Saturday, November 06, 2004

At the Symphony

At a San Francisco Symphony concert a few weeks ago, I got to thinking about audiences, musicians, and composers. (Read the review of that concert here.)

Let's start with composers and audiences. This concert featured the SFS premiere of John Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music, a heroically-scaled, exciting, and deeply moving work. Adams lives in Berkeley, and so he was on hand for the concert. He spoke about himself and the piece, and the Symphony played musical examples.

This is a great way to set up the audience to listen carefully to the music, and it's especially useful and important when it's new music. Not that Adams is especially difficult, but every audience contains people who are resistant to new or 20th century music. At the SFS, music director Michael Tilson Thomas introduces music from the podium fairly often. He's articulate and charming and knows how to sell music to an audience.

But there was a missed opportunity at the Adams concert - a chance to get feedback from the audience. This could be done in so many different ways. There must be a room at Davies where audience members could meet with the composer, conductor, and some of the orchestra musicians during the intermission or after the concert. Speight Jenkins, general manager of the Seattle Opera, is available for questions and discussion after almost every one of their performances.

The programs might contain feedback forms on which the audience could ask questions - the composer, conductor, or an orchestra member could answer these at the end of the concert. I can just imagine some of the questions: "Principal Flutist, how did you learn that opening solo and how do you stay in tune with the first oboe?" "Mr. Conductor, how the heck do you keep track of where you are?" "Mr. Composer, do you use the music-editing program Sibelius?" "Mr. Composer, why does your music hurt my ears?" "Ms. Violinist, how come you scowled all the way through? Don't you like that piece?" (I'll come back to that last question in a bit.)

Greg Sandow and the Pittsburgh Symphony have started what sounds like a great program to get the audience to talk back. Believe it or not, I was thinking about this subject before Greg's post appeared. So perhaps this subject is in the air just now.

Then again, there was the audience itself. Some of its members didn't know how to behave. I heard quiet chatter here and there right up to - and even past - the first downbeat of the first two movements of the Adams. This happens all the time at the opera, where I once heard talk well into the overture to Eugene Onegin. It's as if people think they're in their livings rooms watching a DVD. They can't distinguish between a formal and informal occasion any more. I've come to believe that the "Please turn off all cell phones, pagers, and watch alarms" announcements at the symphony and opera need to include "and please do not talk once the lights go down and the conductor comes out."

I spent some time looking around at the audience during the Adams. It's a dynamic piece; there are places in it where I can imagine getting up and dancing, if only there were a dance floor handy. I respond physically to that kind of music and sometimes move in time to it. I smile a lot when I'm enjoying a piece. I know the look on my face changes constantly in relation to what I'm hearing.

Everyone I could see in the audience looked serious, very, very serious. I'm not sure if they were simply reacting very differently to the Adams than I was, or if they were concentrating hard to take in a new work or if they just think they should not be displaying pleasure or other emotions openly while listening to "serious" music. I don't understand this - music is a sensual pleasure, from the sheer beauty of much of what we hear to the emotions it triggers in us to how we react to the sheer physical force of a giant orchestra.

But maybe they were taking their cues from the orchestra. From where I sat, it looked as though conductor Alan Gilbert was having a great time. He danced all over the podium and swayed constantly with the beat. Of the orchestra members I could see, only principal violinist Geraldine Walther and associate principal cellist Peter Wyrick, who played first chair in the Adams, looked as if they were having fun. Everyone else looked just like the audience - very serious and very, very focussed on counting and playing a complex new piece. (Walther and Wyrick always look as if they're enjoying themselves!)

I have to wonder if this contributes to the hard sell of classical music to a new audience. Rock, jazz, and pop musicians get to move; they get to dance. No one thinks it's odd if a jazz pianist sings along with her playing, but Glenn Gould's moaning or Toscanini's singing along on his opera recordings are considered by many to be bad form or even mildly embarrassing. But I can't imagine that anyone goes into playing music of any kind for a living unless they love the music and act of playing. I wish more of them would show that love publicly. After all, there I am having a good time at the symphony. Musicians get to have fun too.

Sunday, October 31, 2004


I blame opera-l.

I've been a member since 1996, though I've been reading very selectively via the opera-l archive since about 1998. I just haven't got the bandwidth to read 80 postings per day, especially since opera-l's signal-to-noise ratio has deteriorated badly since I joined.

Sometime in September or October, 2004, browsing opera-l, I found the URL to an interview with Alex Ross of The New Yorker. The review mentioned his blog, The Rest is Noise, and my heart sank. I'd been carefully avoiding the blogsphere, which looked like a huge potential time sink. I could be practicing to take my sandan exam, or working on the Eva Turner biography, after all. But I followed the URL, which led to a few more URLs, and an interesting correspondence with Greg Sandow, and, well, here I am.


This blog is a place for me to write about classical music issues that don't fit so well in the other forums in which I participate.

I've been a member of the Well since 1990 and I co-host the classical music conference there. The Well is members-only and you have to pay to belong ($5/month for Web-only access, $15/month for telnet/ssh access). The Well is also mostly conversational; think pieces don't always fit in with the flow of discussions there.

I've participated for even longer in a paper forum called an amateur press association, or apa. Apas originated in science fiction fandom. The apa I'm in focusses on relationships of all kinds, so classical music is off topic. Most of the other participants also aren't especially interested in the kinds of musical issues that interest me.

I wanted someplace more public than either the Well or the apa. So: a blog.


By academic training, I'm a musician, with an undergraduate degree in music from Brandeis. I spent two years in the graduate program in musicology at Stony Brook. My academic interests at that time were primarily in early music and what I think of as musical detective- and archeological work. I wasn't very happy at Stony Brook, and when I left, I moved to California, for love and jujitsu.

I'm still doing jujitsu. I'm a second-degree black belt (nidan) in the
American Judo & Jujitsu Federation. I teach at Laurel Jujitsu.

About a decade ago, I started collecting opera recordings seriously. I blame Eva Turner (and I'm writing a book about her). One thing led to another - a dozen recordings of Tristan und Isolde, a subscription to San Francisco Opera, trips to Seattle for the Ring. I don't only collect opera, though. That's just where I started.

I write reviews for San Francisco Classical Voice, which does its best to fill some of the gaps in classical music journalism in the Bay Area.

By day, I'm a technical writer, at Documentum, which is part of the EMC Software Group. (Well, that USED to be true. I work elsewhere now.