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.


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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.